Monday, April 21, 2014

Piketty: Some personal, political reflections

I have just finished Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Harvard UP), and it is magnificent. The Book We Need Now. Much thoughtful ink has been spilled on the technical and historical aspects of the book. What's most striking to me is the respectful hearing it is getting even on the right, which acknowledges (one might even say surrenders to) the central thrust of the arguments it makes about the shape and sources of galloping inequality and the dire social and thus political implications thereof.

While I have little to offer technically on the subject, I thought it might be interesting to try to situate the book historiographically, via some personal reflections of my experience reading the book.

Piketty is precisely my age, and has apparently been on precisely the same political trajectory. That trajectory is defined by two formative aspects of our youth: on the one hand, we're both children of post-68 leftist intellectuals, who passed to us in equal measure a respect for the values of socialist humanism and a distrust for the institutions of political power; on the other hand, the central political experiences of our childhoods were the belligerent revanchism of Reagan/Thatcher, the corrupt cynicism of Mitterand/Gonzalez, and the feckless foolishness of Gorbachev—capstoned by the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the very year we reached our majority.

Along with the impression left by post-Tienanmen China's capacity to generate (highly inegalitarian) wealth, this collapse produced two crucial psycho-political instincts in people of our specific age and political upbringing. First, it generated a deep disbelief in the utopian nostrums of so-called actually existing socialisms, which we were just old enough to have believed was a "permanent alternative" to liberal capitalism, but just young enough never to have personally committed to, despite our upbringings. (This is a very microgenerational experience: for those even four or five years younger or older than us, at least one of these does not apply.) Second, it led us to appreciate the economic importance of price mechanisms, innovation and competitiveness, without generating any love for capitalism as a system or any respect for the self-regard of the rich, who people with our background regard less as exemplars of meritocracy than as avaricious parasites. For us, TINA is the Big Lie of our times: just because socialism failed as a political project was no reason to believe the story (that the Right in our countries told about the lesson of this failure) that capitalism was humane, and not still an ecologically rapacious form of social vampirism.

What I find beautiful about Piketty's book is that it crystallizes and speaks to and for this worldview — that is, to the sensibility of a "red diaper" GenXer. It is a book written by someone who watched the socialist-utopian eidolon of his elders implode, without ever buying into the liberal-utopian promises made (or the sense of political limits imposed) by the successor regime(s). 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Techno-rationality or bust

The New York Times had a fascinating profile of Paul Kingsnorth, whose "Uncivilization" project looks squarely in the face of the failures of the environmental movement to stop to wholesale ecological ransacking of the planet, and decides to throw in the towel and adopt a stance of resignation, and instead of fighting the inevitable, to focus on preparing "to live through it with dignity and honor."

Now, this is a position that on one level I find quite congenial. As I've remarked manymany times, climate change is not a "problem" (which implies there are "solutions"), nor even a "wicked problem," but rather is a "dilemma." And dilemmas require existential readjustments rather than a frantic search for solutions.

The long-term future is of a tremendously crowded, drastically climate-altered planet that has been strip-mined of all the easily accessible resources, and pock-mocked with toxic dumps. A focus on creating a social world that sustains human and political decency in the face of that reality strikes me as at least as noble a calling as describing oneself as an environmentalist while trying to invent better batteries for coal-powered technorati-mobiles.

Where I get off the bus is with the Uncivilization team's the counter-Enlightenment discourse, which as always tends to operate in some nether space between tedious and sinister:
The myth of progress is to us what the myth of god-given warrior prowess was to the Romans, or the myth of eternal salvation was to the conquistadors: without it, our efforts cannot be sustained. Onto the root stock of Western Christianity, the Enlightenment at its most optimistic grafted a vision of an Earthly paradise, towards which human effort guided by calculative reason could take us. Following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion. 
Recent history, however, has given this mechanism something of a battering. The past century too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on Earth. Even within the prosperous and liberal societies of the West progress has, in many ways, failed to deliver the goods. Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours, with less security, and less chance of leaving behind the social back- ground into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe that the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents, but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt. Their physical health is better, their mental health more fragile. Nobody knows what is coming. Nobody wants to look.
It’s not that any of this is empirically wrong, mind you; it’s just that the only morally non-monstrous approach is forward, not backward. At this point, with seven billion technorationality-dependent people on the planet, to reject technorationality is implicitly to accept or perhaps even to embrace a terrible triaging of humanity as the only possible future. We must continue to invest in the search for better technologies, if only to slow down the arrival of the inevitable. I'm with George Monbiot and Naomi Klein's critique of Kingsnorth's suggestion that we should "step back":
Monbiot responded that “stepping back” from direct political action was equivalent to a near-criminal disavowal of one’s moral duty. “How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy?” he asked. “How many would survive without modern industrial civilization? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision, several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.” Naomi Klein also sees a troubling abdication in Kingsnorth’s work. “I like Paul, but he’s said rather explicitly that he’s giving up,” she told me. “We have to be honest about what we can do. We have to keep the possibility of failure in our minds. But we don’t have to accept failure. There are degrees to how bad this thing can get. Literally, there are degrees.”
In the end, we need to do both: we need to both prepare ourselves existentially for a world of less, and to work without surcease to slow that coming of less. Above all, we need to fight against those who use the claim that the world of less is not coming as a way to justify their own seizure and arrogation of more and more for their own private selves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reading list: American Political Economy in the 20th century

A reading list.

First semester: From the classics to the Depression
  1. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)
  2. David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817)
  3. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
  4. Henry George, Progress and Poverty (1879)
  5. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
  6. Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (1921)
  7. Max Weber, Economy and Society (1922)
  8. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936)
  9. Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (1937)
  10. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)
  11. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)
  12. Peter Drucker, Concept of the Corporation (1945)
  13. Frederick Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1945)
Second semester: Capitalism Now, Capitalism Tomorrow... Capitalism Forever?
  1. Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (1951)
  2. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958)
  3. Walt Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth (1961)
  4. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
  5. Mancur Olsen, The Logic of Collective Action (1965)
  6. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (1974)
  7. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)
  8. James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976)
  9. Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1977)
  10. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989)
  11. Elinor Olstrom, Governing the Commons (1990)
  12. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (1998)
  13. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century (2014)
Suggestions of obvious misses?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The policy-advising hegemony of economics

Since I find Storify a rather mystifying app, I'm going to take a series of tweets I made yesterday and turn them into a brief blogpost instead. The motivation for this was some reading I've been doing lately about the origins of academic advising to policy-making and how economics came to assume the preeminent role in policymaking in the 20th century United States.

Among his many world-historical sins, Woodrow Wilson was the first US president to formally assemble a team of academic advisors. Known as "The Inquiry," this group of men (and I believe it was all men) advised the President in preparation for the peace settlement that would follow World War I, particularly with respect to how the territorial boundaries ought to be redrawn. Based out of the New York Public Library, the Inquiry included many of the nation's top geographers (Isaiah Bowman), journalists (Walter Lippmann, Walter Wyle), lawyers (Louis Brandeis, David Hunter Miller), historians (James Truslow Adams [coiner of the term "American Dream], James Shotwell, Paul Monroe, Frank Golder - of course, not Charles Beard).

From our current historical conjuncture, what's most striking about the Inquiry, however, is the category of scholars who were almost completely absent from the Inquiry, namely economists. The only one of note was Simon Patten, whose voice on the Inquiry was relatively faint and whose role remained peripheral. Such marginalization of economists from a major policy intervention would be unthinkable in today's policy climate, in which economists wield unchallenged hegemony. It also reflects President Wilson's ideological reading of the moral purpose of World War I, namely to make national self-determination possible. Assessing the geographic contours of "a nation" required understanding the history (or, more accurately, the mythicized memories) of the peoples in question, and how this history could be legally mapped onto particular territories: a set of questions that evidently "belonged" to the disciplines of history, geography, and law. Whether these entities were economically viable or sensible was sidelined—by implication, something for the nations themselves to address, once their historically appropriate boundaries had been established. (That sense of priorities in itself would be unlikely today.) Indeed, Patten's marginalization within the Inquiry stemmed from his proposal that the new Europe be divided up not according to the principle of national self-determination, but in terms of natural economic units—a grubbily material suggestion ill-suited to Wilson's messianic quest to remake Europe.

After World War I, the core members of the Inquiry would go on to found the Council of Foreign Relations (you can read a celebratory in-house history of that transition here). CFR's particular profile in the wonkish world today continues to reflect these origins: based in New York, it is one of the few think tanks that remains unbeholden to economics as a discipline, offering space in particular for social scientists and journalists to expound in non-technical language (for an idealized audience of engaged businessmen) on the appropriate bases of long-range strategy for American foreign policy.

What's perhaps even more surprising is that economists remained marginal to academic policy-advising even as late as the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt assembled his "Brain Trust," which he modeled after the previous Democratic President's "Inquiry." Unlike the Inquiry, which was addressing a challenge for which economics might plausibly seem a secondary matter, the urgent task facing the Brain Trust in 1933 was the crisis of the Great Depression, now well into its fourth devastating year. And yet even in this circumstance, in which the policy question at hand appeared to be of an essentially economic nature, the community of expertise that FDR called together was dominated by lawyers and historians, more than economists. (The original brain trust consisted of three Columbia law professors, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolph Berle; and of the extended group of about 20 people, only 3 were economists.)

In fact, the rise to policy hegemony of economics would take place during World War II. Peter Galison has argued that economists ascended to the top position above all because of their decisive planning and assessment roles the strategic bombing survey, which culminated in the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Though as one reply to the tweet noted, economists were also central to the War Production board, supplanting the predominance of that businessmen had taken in that task during the previous war.) Although academics from every discipline supported the War effort, the economists, along with the physicists, managed to get (or take) the lion's share of the political credit. What the physicists got in return for their effort was tens of billions of dollars worth of funding for the next 70 years, and what the economists got in return was a permanent seat at the policy-making table, institutionalized in 1946 with the establishment of the Counsel of Economic Advisors. As Angus Burgin has observed, "For better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made by economistic technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives."

By contrast, historians' voice in policy-advising has been reduced to a somewhat hush-hush once-a-year dinner with the President. As to whether the economists' rise to policy-advising hegemony has been good for our governance, well, your mileage may vary...

Key readings on "The Inquiry":

  • Laurence Gelfand, The Inquiry: American Preparations for Peace, 1917-1919
  • Wesley Reisser, The Black Book: Woodrow Wilson's Secret Plan for Peace
  • Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, ch. 5.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

1000 points of light for liberals

I just read Habits of the Heart for the first time since it came out, and whoa is it a period piece, sure to be at the center of reading lists about the 1980s. A quintessential examination of the mental space of middle class white America, in the late Cold War years, the book is a curiously normative document framed as a piece of positive sociology. Its immense popularity no doubt stemmed from this balancing act, as well as the great learning wrapped up within Bellah's mellifluous if curiously relaxed and at times repetitive prose.

Despite the nuances, at the end of the day, the argument is quite simple: that the narcissistic pursuit of material abundance (what Bellah in an earlier phase of his career had celebrated as "modernization") has revealed itself to Americans as quite empty (the book refuses the Marxist language of "alienation" though it could well be rewritten in that frame), and the choice over how to move forward is between what they refer to as the "therapeutic model," on the one hand, and a return to communitarian integration, focused around family and religion.

 Certainly the critique of therapeutalism is sound. Basically, therapy is designed to make people accept the purely individualistic premises of American social life that are the primary target of HotH: "The problem with therapy is not that intimacy is tyrannically taking over too much of public life. It is that too much of the purely contractual structure of the economic and bureaucratic world is becoming an ideological model for personal life.... The prevalence of contractual intimacy and procedural cooperation, carried over from the boardroom to bedroom and back again, is what threatens to obscure the ideals of both personal virtue and public good." (127) "While the emphasis on connectedness and community would seem to be an advance over 'noncaring self-actualization,' one must ask whether the relentless emphasis on self-interest does not raise doubts as to whether there has really been a shift." (135).

These quotes shows why HotH typifies one of the main directions that people could go as the invested technocratic hopes for what is here referred to as "the Administered society" fade away, especially if they refused to embrace what was not yet being called neoliberalism (e.g. the contractual structure of the economic as an ideological model for personal life) -- e.g. communitarianism, of which it is the great representative. Turning away from technocratic managerialism, the book also offers a deep critique of the enduring American cult of individualism, both in its "utilitarian" form (the rush to get ahead and/or keep up) and in its "expressive" form (the desire to "find oneself" by define one's own private ethics and system of belief). So what should Americans do once the give up on these materialistic and personalized conception of fulfillment? At every page, the book reinforces the notion that the proper cure to what ails the American soul (here called "heart") is to return to republican political values and the communal integration, especially those offered by tolerant religious sects. Enlightenment universalism was a noble fiction, the book suggests, one that we are too sophisticated to believe in any longer. The book closes with a methodological call for sociology to reassert itself as "public philosophy," that is, as the profession of norms: the assertion of belief and moral advocacy, presumably in the cause of the norms the book has drummed into the reader for 300 pages.

In other words, to be slightly anachronistic (and a little mean), HofH is "1000 points of light" for liberals. The text is highly symptomatic of that worldview for all the things it doesn't do, and for all the things it doesn't acknowledge not doing. It barely acknowledges that it is not about all of America, but specifically about white middle class, suburban America. It remains completely uninterested in any broader transnational context for the struggles it talks about. Its critique of contemporary economic life focuses more on what corporate practices does to the interior lives of workers, rather than on social injustices perpetrated or reinforced by these structures. It shamelessly blends fact and value, claiming that all Americans yearn for the solutions that they pose, whether or not they quite realize it (again, while they studiously avoid Marxist jargon, the shadow of "false consciousness" shrouds much of the argument). There is no acknowledgement of the darker aspects of American history, not just in the vicious inter-communal hatreds (these are treated as having faded, making the same sorts of assumptions about historical directionality that Bellah made in his modernization-advocating days), but also in the intra-communal repressiveness which is essential to the integrating function that communities serve. Bellah implicitly assumes that there is a basic compatibility between community and individual, that is, that communal endeavor is the best way to achieve individual fulfillment, rather than the abnegation of the same. To which one can only say, that really depends on what your community makes of your individual desires.

Finally, there is a curious note about the anxiety of influence: while Bellah returns obsessively to Tocqueville as the touchstone for the communitarianism he calls for, the book barely acknowledges (except via brief, largely dismissive footnotes) other sociological investigators who have plowed the same terrain with striking different results, notably the Lynds, David Riesman, and Christopher Lasch.