Friday, May 20, 2005

Goodbye to All That

Ahoy all,

Hope you missed me. Going back to teaching full-time last fall slowed me down--a lot. So did two collisions with right-wing morons, one on campus at Rutgers, another on-line via Blogspectrum. Mind you, I have no intellectual axe to grind against conservative thinking, and, as attentive readers will have noticed, I have defended Irving Kristol in this very space. But these guys truly amazed me. Their ignorance was so profound that I wanted to call them stupid. Instead, I just walked away. What is the point of trying to persuade people who have renounced reason? Who believe that taxes, social services, and public goods as such are a bad idea, or who believe that the way to improve education is to get the government out of it? Over my thirty years of teaching, many, maybe even most of my favorite students have been those who called themselves conservatives--largely because they had big ideas, strong opinions, high standards, and, especially down in North Carolina, by God they believed in the word.

Now most of those who call themselves conservatives, at least on campus, have relinquished any claim on the Enlightenment. They have big ideas and strong opinions and no standards, whether of intellectual veracity or human decency. Like Dick Cheney, the original American Bolshevik, they'll say anything and do anything in the name of their goals, even if they have to shred the Constitution. They have a higher law and a higher truth to guide them. May the Lord protect us from these arrogant and dangerous fools.

MEANWHILE, TUNE INTO, THE JOURNAL THAT HAS SUCCEEDED MY BLOG. More dialogical, maybe even more fun. Apply to be a contributing editor, or to advertise!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

One last try at Social Security

The NY Times and the ever reliable Paul Krugman have run good pieces on Social Security in the last week. (Why does The Note dismiss my man by calling him "one-note Paulie," especially in view of the monotony purveyed by that in-house organ?) Some fundamental questions remain.

These are, what are the purposes of privatization? I've heard only four, although all are framed by the "crisis" in funding of Social Security. The near term arguments are (1) we solve the funding problem by diversion of monies to private investment accounts; (2) "it's your money," so you should be able to do what you want with it. Diversion to private investment accounts is stupid because we can get the same results--higher returns on the money invested by the Trust Fund--without relinquishing the principle that animated the original New Deal move (we are our brother's keepers, also our sister's, our parents, and, in this case, our grandparents'). We do this by investing, say, 2% of everyone's contribution in riskier, higher-yielding assets than government bonds, but we do it through public (non-profit) auspices, not through Wall Street.

It's NOT your money, so get over it. Unless you want to live on an island you own, where you do all the "upkeep," stop pretending that taxes are by definition a bad idea. Do you want to live in a jungle? Try a tax-free state, where there are no social services, no public education. Christ, the so-called less-developed countries realized about 30 years ago that either they advertised their emergent infrastructure, a product of public policy, or they couldn't attract foreign investment. Is the US exempt from this developmental logic? Does Hobbes read as a contemporary columnist?

The other arguments in favor of privatization are more perverse. They go like this: (3) we will increase savings if we allow for private accounts rather than Social Security, and (4) we want to dismantle the New Deal as a relic of a static, state-centered past. The last argument is usually not made explicit except in the company of real men like Grover Norquist and Antonin Scalia, the guys who are willing to say, yes, we're smarter than the rest of you poor fucks, and we're going to engineer a world in which you won't have much to say about the future. But it is impending, it is implicit, in every argument against Social Security as a public project. Watch out. They're coming for you, and yes, they still beat off.

Ah, as for increasing savings. Why? If the "ownership society" Bush wants will increase savings rates, we'e all in for a real nightmare. The LAST thing we need is increased savings rates, no matter what the pathetic Peter G. Peterson keeps telling you. The best brace for economic growth in our part of the world is increasing consumption, NOT SAVING, as the figures and the forecasts keep telling us.

The key question then becomes, why don't we need more saving for more growth? Glad you asked.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Education the Issue?

Here is my second contribution to it out, lots of interesting weirdness there, including my own.

I want to quote the questions our CO, our esteemed and acrobatic convener of bloggedness, posed because I want to be clear about that we’re up to here:

(1) “What in school changes need to be made to our current educational system?” (2) “What is the case for or against charter schools? Are home schools just a way for parents to rubber stamp their children’s education? Are charter schools just a way for parents to practice intolerance in whom their children go to school with? Does either or both actually work?”

To answer these questions, we have to take at least one step back and ask two prior questions. What are the goals of education as such? In view of those goals, what is the best education we can provide to the most people?

And before answering, we should remind ourselves that the educational system as we know it, from kindergarten to college, appeared only about a century ago. Its appearance was yet another symptom--and attempted cure--of the failure of the family at the end of the 19th century. Education as we now know it supplies most of what families did in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly the content of what we still call morality and character. That is why our debates about the obligations and purposes of students and teachers—about public education--always sound like arguments about the functions of families. When we talk about schools, we’re talking about what we can and should do for our children. No wonder it sounds personal. Also political.

Failure is perhaps too strong a word. But right around the 1890s, the family stopped doing everything it was supposed to do, according to the expectations inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries. Let me quote Jessie Taft, whose 1915 dissertation was published by the University of Chicago Press as “The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness,” to illustrate the point:

“Its [the family’s] center of gravity has been shifted to the factory, the brewery, the bakery, the delicatessen shop, the school, the kindergarten, the department store, the municipal department of health and sanitation, the hospital, the library, the social centers and playgrounds, and dozens of similar institutions.”

There weren’t a whole lot of people who denied this basic fact back then. In fact the story of the family’s collapse became a popular genre, in fiction as well as in social science, ca. 1890-1930. But there were a lot of people, then as now, who want(ed) to reinstate the inherited expectations—that is, to treat the family as if it could, as if it can, serve all those purposes, personal and political, listed by Taft in her gravitational peroration.

That is why, once again, the personal is political. That is why we talk about something supposedly private, families, when we talk about something supposedly public--education.

So let’s get serious about it. What are the goals of education? And what’s the best education we can offer our children, and the world?

Historically speaking, the goals of education in this country are to (1) equip everyone with the skills necessary to appropriate the texts once decipherable only to the literate minority; (2) offer everyone the possibility of social mobility by virtue of their access to education [in the 19th century, this meant that “mechanics’ institutes” and apprenticeship programs gave way to public schools]; (3) teach everyone that the only thing we have in common as Americans is our ability to argue about what it means to be American. In our own time, we have also tried to give students “emotional intelligence” as well as test-taking skills. This has taken a lot of time and effort. But then we have the summers off.

If you agree with me on the GOALS of education, you cannot believe that the way to fix public schools is to introduce “market competition” in the form of charter schools. If you want to “privatize” education in view of these goals, you are demented. Because the only way to accomplish all three goals is through public education, top to bottom.

You want to send your kid to private school, OK. I did, too, when he was flunking out of the high-rent public school a mile away, and I paid the rent because I thought it would cure him. But don’t tell me that this alternative is anything more than a stopgap—except for the very wealthy, of course.

The best education we can offer our children, I’m afraid, is the education they, and the rest of the world, now get. That is why higher education in this country is still the most amazing bargain available, and why Europeans and Asians keep sending their kids here (the top ten from their standpoint includes Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford, and it excludes Yale, but we’re not engineers of computers or, for that matter, bridges).

But you will say, what about secondary education, what about what happens before everybody goes off to the college of their choice, more or less, and stumbles upon those brilliant bastards, those unassuming professors, who have been just standing around, waiting for them?

And I will say, take a look. At the before. I know three people who teach and observe closely at this level—in high schools—and they do things that are unimaginable to me. They spend the kind of time with students which comes with a sense of mission, or with a diagnosis of obsession.

OK, two of the three are my brother and my sister-in-law. The third is an old friend I don’t talk to anymore, but I’ve read his books (it’s true, I don’t like him, but his book entitled The Call to Teach is worth reading by anyone who has taught or who has considered a career in this strange field).

These people are teachers. You won’t find them in a private school because they believe in public education. They believe in diversity—hell, my sister-in-law teaches in the public high school from which I graduated, a place that, back then, was 99% white and all managerial except for those pesky working-class punks who beat the shit out of us, and is now about 35% Asian, still managerial but with a nice postmodern twist—and they believe in their students, and they believe in their capacity to shape the curriculum.

To make such beliefs effective, they have joined and led unions, and they’ve gone on strike, and they’ve lost jobs.

So I would insist that the best education available to American kids is the one made available by teachers who know that they should control the point of production—who have enough confidence, and courage, to say that the interests of teachers and students converge more often than not, to say that tests are necessary but not sufficient to the measurement of effort or achievement, to say, finally, that I am here to show these kids how to think, not what to think.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More, or Less, Social Security

OK, the moral problem, or question, of privatizing Social Security, seems pretty obvious: Do we really want everyone to be on their own in old age, proudly bearing their latest statements from the “private investment accounts” they started back in 2005? Or do we, the living and the working, want to make sure that the elderly are not indigent, ever, and demand, accordingly, to pay taxes in the present to accomplish this redistributive purpose?

The economics of the issue are murkier. The privatizers cry wolf (“Crisis!”) because they know that’s the only way to detach the majority of Americans from the ancient Christian and the modern socialist criterion of need—that is, from the idea that what we get in the form of income, goods, or love, or God’s forgiveness, is not what we deserve, it is what we need.

The approach of the privatizers is simple and sensible and dishonest: “The people won’t go for this unless we can convince them they have no choice. Unless we tell them apocalypse is impending, they don’t budge.” Sound familiar? Mushroom clouds are gathering, only this time it’s over the Social Security Trust Fund.

Like the neo-cons at DOD after 9/11, like the folks at Club for Growth, and like their allies who follow Grover Norquist in his mad quest to “starve the beast”—to kill the welfare state—these guys were just waiting around for the evidence, such as it is, that they need to validate conclusions they’ve already reached.

But let’s have a look at some of it. Briefly, believe me. The Financial Times of 12/16/04 is pretty interesting here [see also Talking Points Memo of last three days: I wish I could do the link thing]. “It is impossible to argue that the US cannot afford to fund the Social Security gap,” the editorial writers state, “but can afford permanent tax cuts and last year’s Medicare benefit—both of which cost more in present value terms.”

Just so. There is no “crisis,” according to these extremely pro-capitalist writers, because the system as it stands takes in more than it pays out, and will continue to accumulate surpluses until about 2020, when the Fund begins to pay out big time. Still, “it will be 2042 before it runs out, and even then the present level of contributions will cover more than 70 percent of obligations.” Hmm.

So there’s no funding crisis for Social Security until, oh, about 2050. Meanwhile, what’s the matter? Well, meanwhile, nothing. In the long run, however, you need either greater returns on the Trust Fund’s investments or smaller benefits for the retired recipients if you want to keep the system intact, legitimate, and credible.

What is to be done? Privatization is a moral and economic disaster. It announces that our collective responsibility for the generation that precedes us, for those who made our lives possible, is quaint. Turn this around and ask yourself, would you disown the next generation, whether it’s composed of your own kids or those of your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, or, for Chrissakes, your enemies? Of course not.

And don’t tell me that the market can solve this moral problem because those who have diligently accumulated will have the appropriate apartments and appointments in their dodderhood.

I’ve seen this shit. My grandmother, a crazy Irish immigrant, ran a nursing home that was her own home, and it was as scary, as Hobbesian, a place as I’ve ever been. And I’ve been on a bus with members of the Ku Klux Klan, and I’ve been in fights with bikers, and I’ve heard tenured professors tell me that revolution is the only answer to the problems we face. I was terrified every time.

But nothing is as scary as guiding and touching and smelling old people, sick people, the ones who can’t take care of themselves—at close range, when you have to figure out what to do next, whether to hold them, or get the bucket and hope for the best, or maybe feed them. Or just go to sleep, once you’re done.

Yes, it’s the feel and the smell of death. It’s comforting, and it’s bracing, and it’s necessary. In its absence, all those old people are mere abstractions. Say goodbye.

America's Biggest Problem?

Here is my first contribution to a new blog forum created by The Casual Observer. The deal is that us invited bloghounds write a little ditty about an issue posed by Mr. CO, an ecumenical and intelligent kind of guy. The question was, What is the biggest problem facing America?

The biggest problem facing America right now is work. Put it as two questions. How do we occupy ourselves, and why? What is the proper relation between your effort and your reward, between your work and your income?

It used to be that our occupations defined us. Once upon a time, work was the cauldron in which your character was forged. In some ways, it still is. Who hasn’t been asked “What do you do?” And then watched as expectations took shape on the face, in the eyes, of the stranger who asked the question?

A century ago, there was a similar sense of crisis, or at least frustration, in trying to define the meaning and significance of work. The Populists and the socialists claimed that the paper-pushing mental labor of bankers, lawyers, merchants, and intellectuals—all those prissy “middlemen”—was not productive. In fact they insisted that such labor was parasitic.

By this they meant that the incomes of the bankers, et al., were deducted from the sum of value created by others, by the productive labor of the “toiling millions.” Their assumption was that your consumption of goods was authorized by your production of goods. You weren’t supposed to get more than you contributed to the sum of value, to the stock of real, tangible goods.

Not a bad idea, mind you. It’s what animates some of the more strenuous versions of the labor theory of value—including that purveyed by Marx.

But with the rise of a corporate kind of capitalism, mental labor became central to every enterprise and every sphere of social life. Witness the emergence of higher education as we know it, ca. 1890-1920. Witness the little magazines, the young intellectuals, the government agencies employing sincere young men and the settlement houses employing sincere young women, all in the same moment.

This kind of mental labor looked suspicious from the standpoint of most Americans, not just Populists and socialists (although, if you do the math, these folks were probably the majority of voters in 1894 or 1896). Then as now, people wanted a transparent, tangible, reasonable relation between effort and reward—you were supposed to earn what you received as income.

But how to measure this relation? What exactly do intellectuals and other paper pushers do? Like bankers and lawyers, they clearly don’t produce anything tangible or measurable, or even enjoyable.

The crisis of a century ago was solved by admitting mental labor into the category of work as such, but it took a while. The question, then as now, was How should we think about the relation between effort and reward, between work and income? The question never went away, of course, and it has been answered in interesting ways by recent “reforms” of both welfare and Medicare, under both liberal and conservative presidents, as well as by Social Security and other redistributive programs.

But we are now at a real crossroads. There is no way that private investment can produce enough jobs to employ even the slowing growth of the labor force. Since 1919, we have seen economic growth (larger output of goods and increasing productivity), as a result of declining net private investment and of declining labor inputs to expanded goods production.

Since the 1930s, public policy has acknowledged this very basic fact by attempting to detach the receipt of income from the production of value through work—via the programs I already mentioned, but also by developing the notion of “human capital,” by treating education as the basic industry of the U.S., by trying to come to terms with what is clearly a “post-industrial society.”

But what now is to be done? None of us, left or right, wants to abolish a transparent, tangible, reasonable relation between effort and reward, between work and income. That’s why we tell our children to work hard in school, and why we laugh, or cringe, when someone says Jack Welch earned what he now gets from G.E.

What is to be done is, quite simply, to stop acting as if we can restore the moral universe of the 19th century. We have to understand that our rewards are not, and cannot be, the function of our measurable efforts. I’m not invoking luck here, people, I’m telling you that there’s not enough work to do. And the private sector, the “supply side,” can’t change that. Either we redefine work or we redefine income. How about both?

This is the biggest problem because it is at once an economic, a social, a political, and, most importantly, a moral problem.

P.S. Matthew: MM got this from me, not vice versa: see Pragmatism and Political Economy (1994), Part I

Monday, December 20, 2004

Social Security, Cont'd.

Farther down in the utopian distance of his 12/11 column in the NY Times, David (Twit-in-Chief) Brooks warns us of the larger and more insidious agenda signified by the camel’s nose of Social Security “reform”: “But the fact is that over the next decade—whether we are talking about pensions, health care or even schools—the central argument is not going to be over whether to apply market competition to these problems. It’s going to be over how to structure [market] competition to produce the most dynamic results.”

Don’t you love how the fact that “is,” isn’t yet here? Makes you admire Bill Clinton’s parse of this pesky verb.

Has it occurred to young David, who reminds us in closing that “this is not the age of big, static state institutions,” that no one is looking for “dynamic results” if the dynamism of the market means penury for the elderly?

If the dynamism of the market means that the diseased among us will have to buy the right not to die? If the dynamism of the market means that public education is starved by tax cuts and killed by the kind of “competition” (from pseudo-private schools) which excludes teachers and their unions from the conversation about curriculum?

No doubt about it, the market is dynamic. Does it follow that the old, the sick, and the young need to be sacrificed to the business cycle? “The market” is not a remote externality, David, some absconded God to be trusted even in his absence, to be retrieved in the name of progress. It’s just a device, a cultural convention subject to social purpose and political action in the name of the common good.

Let’s take a look at Social Security in both moral and economic terms. Our texts will be the competing editorials of The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times for Thursday, December 16, 2004. The WSJ spices its “reformist” remarks with snide references to the redistributional purposes of the original act (“FDR’s greatest contribution to the welfare state”): “The holding pen for this pay-as-you-go transfer was called, brilliantly if dishonestly, a ‘Trust Fund.’ . . .And like all income redistribution programs, Social Security presented politicians with lots of incentives for sweetening [e.g., the level of benefits and the number of people covered].”

The crisis, saith the WSJ, resides in the familiar “demographic” problem—not enough workers in relation to retirees, so the Trust Fund expires around mid-century, blah, blah. The editorial writers actually understate the forecasted shortfall of legal liabilities the Fund carries on their way to the real problem, which is (surprise!) public spending as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product. By 2030, they announce, the combination of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments will amount to 15% of GDP.

Oh, the horror, the humanity! As we speak, more than 30% of the labor force is employed either directly by government (federal, state, and local) or indirectly, as a result of government spending. Can someone explain to me why this is a moral problem, rather than a mere fact? Can someone explain to me how private investment could do better at creating jobs? There’s no evidence that it has, that it can, or that it will—on which, if you inclined to check, see my 1994 book, Part I, and the article by John Judis in The New Republic of late January 1997. So why don’t we just relax and realize that Clinton was right to ignore the distinction between private and public investment?

In moral terms, Social Security works because it makes us our brother’s and sister’s keepers. It is, in fact, a redistribution program, just like the WSJ says it is. People who are able and willing to work tithe themselves, as it were, so that their grandparents don’t end their lives in poverty. Don’t kid yourself. In the absence of Social Security benefits, more than half of the people in this country over age 65 would have incomes below the poverty level. That was true in 1994, at any rate. In view of lagging wages, low inflation rates, and declining real rates of return on government bonds, imagine the carnage if we fast forward twenty years.

Do we want to trust in the market, or do we want to trust in our capacity and our ability to provide for those whose working lives are done? This is the moral question that technical prattle about “reforming Social Security” lets us evade.

Even so, next time we lead with political economy, and our text is The Financial Times.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Election Blues, Part II

Briefly, now. Here's the thing. The election was fought on the "security issues" because BOTH candidates WANTED it fought there--Bush because he's the salamander in chief, Kerry because he thought he could avoid the "liberal" designation if he waged the campaign on foreign soil, that is, outside the jurisdiction of liberals, whose domestic policies are the analogue of the "nation-building" foreign policies favored by the Bush junta.

Didn't work, did it? You want to be a liberal and run for president, you got to show how and why your opponent's FOREIGN policy mutilates the liberal DOMESTIC agenda almost everyone--except the Club for Growth or the Federalist Society--wants enacted. That large crowd of Americans would include Newt and his contracters: a lot of undecideds there, my friend.

Kerry, instead, EMBRACED the Bush foreign policy, and so could never foreground the crucial domestic policy differences. The turning point in the campaign came when Lurch says, "Well, yeah, I'd have voted for war even if I had known there were no WMD in Iraq." Don't get me wrong, I canvassed in Allentown, PA, for this man on the weekend before the election.

But please. You try to make foreign policy, the "security issues," the central themes of the campaign because some twit has told you that you gotta trump Bush on this, and then you say, "What a good idea it was to invade Iraq!"

At that moment, the real undecided voters ask themselves, what's the point of voting for the other guy? The guy who's there is as dumb as a post and just as immoveable, or, more politely, resolute; the guy who's not in the big office is awful smart but agrees with the dumbass on the key issue. Why go for broke? Why go for the guy who confuses you on the issues he's chosen?

Remember, 30-40% of those who voted for Bush do NOT agree with him on the public policy issues. In this, I think, he is another Reagan, and to this extent I dissent from Steve Usselman's post.

But shit, there is such a thing as the blues: "blue devils," the etymology and Albert Murray tell us, those overwhelming feelings of disaster, defeat, disappointment, dismay, disbelief, discumbobulation, despair, disgust. . . We have to play through it, or dance to it, or both, make our way toward the other side however we can. Already it looks closer. See you there.

Social Security Writ Large, Unabridged, Part I

Everybody's talking about it, even me. See my Letter to the Editor in the last post. It really is on the agenda: back to 1933, before Wagner, Social Security, whew, the whole enchilada. So, all right, let’s get seriously, pornographically analytic about David Brooks and his various faiths.

The sidebar in his 12/11 column for the NY Times reads: “Trusting, not fearing, the markets.” Uh huh. I’m there with you, baby, but no one else is, except your erstwhile colleagues at The Weakly Standard. Oh, and maybe the editorial page guys at the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s the lead: “Before we get lost in the policy details, let’s be clear about what this Social Security reform debate is really about. It’s about the market. [You mean it’s not about that nice preposition, “about”?] People who instinctively trust the markets support the Bush reform ideas, and people who are suspicious [presumably of markets] oppose them.”

Well, OK, in faith-based politics, we do that “instinctively trust” thing. But now that you’re a columnist at the paper of record, shouldn’t you be thinking about—oops there’s that preposition again—these issues, rather than urging us to resuscitate one of the Gods that failed in the 1930s? Remember, it wasn’t communism that sank back then, it was the idea that markets could, in any meaningful sense, be self-regulating.

Once upon a time it was rational for people to believe in self-regulating markets, because anonymous laws of supply and demand did seem to make all producers (not all people) equally subject to the same laws. The “rule of law, not men,” was first enacted, first made observable, in this kind of market, and then it was transposed to the domain of politics.

As Charles Lindblom and Martin Sklar have shown (and here they follow the lead of Smith and Marx and Nietzsche, although the latter’s contribution to the debate has been, I think, overlooked), markets make for politics. And politics in the modern world is largely about—oops—how resources get allocated in and through markets.

But what happens when everyone knows that the once anonymous laws of supply and demand don’t work? When we know that such laws have been abrogated because markets are managed, dominated, or administered by large firms? When we know that the self-regulating market can’t enforce or even allow equality among all producers?

What happens, in short, with the rise of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1940? One way of reading the markets, then as now, is to see them as the result of conspiracy—of political manipulation, insider trading, etc., of the “malevolent and shadowy forces” Brooks cites. He’s right, the Populists, then as now, can’t get beyond this narrative.

But everybody else did get over the demise of a self-regulating market (except of course for the contemporary political scientists who call themselves the “new institutionalists”—check out my review of Richard Bensel’s book in JAH June 2002), mainly because they saw it as a promising development. Hereafter, they thought, maybe the market is not an impenetrable externality. Hereafter, they thought, maybe the market is not the cause of equality and the seat of freedom after all. Maybe we have to reinvent this cause, maybe we have to rethink the meaning of freedom.

Once upon a time, they thought, the market functioned as the cause of equality and the seat of freedom precisely because it was impervious to reason, purpose, and social goals—because it was an anonymous set of laws. Once upon a time, the market treated every one alike, because no one producer, no capitalist cabal, could violate those laws and rig the thing.

But now that it has become something else, they said--now that it has become the domain of administration, of choices--we need to think it through.

Remember, in the nostalgic narratives of von Hayek, Friedman, and, for that matter, the Populists, the market must appear as an untouchable mystery if liberty is to prevail. They thought it through, too, and decided that the choice was between statism and laissez-faire: there was no in-between. William Howard Taft agreed with them, and he, not Teddy Roosevelt, was the “trust-buster” par excellence. Pure competition or socialism, Taft insisted, so he aimed dozens of anti-trust suits, through his attorney general, at those big, bad corporations.

Unlike the Pops and his heir apparent, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t think we could exorcise the large corporations that appeared in the 1890s and after as a way of, yes, regulating the market. He did think that an extremely activist state would be necessary to contain their powers within acceptable limits—necessary, that is, to modulate class struggle, enforce social mobility, postpone revolution. If there is anyone in the contemporary firmament who sounds like TR, it’s Jesse Jackson or Teddy Kennedy.

That’s why it’s laughable when the benighted Brooks invokes not just TR but “his great hero Alexander Hamilton” as exemplars of those who would “use the power of the market to solve an otherwise intractable problem.” Neither of them would understand what young David is talking about, and not just because they lived in other centuries and he lives, clearly, on Mars.

The bottom line is this: after the 1890s, almost nobody, except of course the inscrutable William Graham Sumner, believed in self-regulating markets. The question for everyone who was not merely demented--and this category included most businessmen--was not whether but how to regulate markets in the name of social stability, social mobility, and democratic possibility. The question for everyone was, How can we turn a free society, which is by definition a market society that respects the rights of private property, into a just society, which is by definition a commonwealth that promotes the rights of all persons?

They had resurrected James Madison’s question of 1787: how can we reconcile “the two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property,” and not, at the same time, forfeit the principles of popular government?

Monday, December 13, 2004

In re: twit-in-chief

Here's my polite academic letter to the editor of the NYT, who can't very well apologize for the ignorance and mendacity of David Brooks. Following the polite letter is my longer meditation on the privatization issue, which gets more scatological and perhaps less sexual than my introduction to Bill Burr's post. The Cliff Notes version, for those of you who read USA Today, is, Brooks is full of shit and should be ashamed of himself. Cautionary note for self-proclaimed conservatives who believe in "free markets": there's no such thing in the good old USA, not since 1898, and it's a good thing, too. Free markets would leave you at the mercy of morons like Donald Trump, Dick Armey, and Phil Gramm. You would, I think, be better off with the majority of the Republican Senate of New York State, which last week overrode George Pataki's veto and raised the minimum wage to $7.15 (over two years).

To the editors:

Toward the end of his 12/11/04 column on reforming Social Security, David Brooks admits that he “may be a complete idiot.” Let me explore this possibility by noting three astonishing idiocies.
First, he reduces skepticism about the market to worries about the conspiracies that produced crony capitalism in the US. To be wary of privatization, however, you don’t have to believe that the “fat cats” are the real beneficiaries—you just need to know that Social Security addressed a crisis created by market forces, and that no one in his or her right mind, not even private-sector business executives, trusts market forces that are not modulated by public policy, social goals, and regulatory agencies.
Second, he invokes Theodore Roosevelt as a “champion of market forces.” TR was many things, but any biography of the man will tell you that he wanted an activist state to contain the market powers of the new industrial corporations.
Third, he uses ridiculous arithmetic. The productivity of American workers has grown exponentially since the 1930s. The ratio between employees and retirees has changed accordingly. Stating that there will be “only” two workers for every retiree in 2030 should bother us about as much as stating that there are “only” two farmers for every one hundred consumers in 2004.
The way to solve the so-called crisis of Social Security is not to unleash “the power of the market,” as Brooks proposes, but to limit benefits on the upper end of the income scale.