Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:

Let’s suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI?

Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.

This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it’s a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don’t have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it’s an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn’t to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people’s capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market — incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say — is the important thing, so we’d always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it’s on more or less “even” terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn’t we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there’s some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn’t want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn’t want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There’s a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what’s most likely to make this surgery successful and not what’s most likely to make him money. (And we don’t think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide — so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they’re focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you’re left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you’ve given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn’t work. If the nightwatchman won’t do what’s right because it is right, you can’t have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn’t give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn’t give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn’t form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together — they have the PTA, to begin with — than the same number of voucher recipients are.

In a World of Bullshit, This Is Some Egregious Bullshit

Via Scott McLemee and Corey Robin, I learn that Lawrence & Wishart, the publishers of the collected works of Marx and Engels, have issued takedown notice to the Marxist Internet Archive to remove all the material that L & W have copyright on.  Which apparently they’re going to do — on May Day, appropriately enough.

As Scott points out, its not clear that this assertion of its property rights is going to earn L & W any money:

Somehow it has not occurred to Lawrence & Wishart that, by enlarging the pool of people aware of and reading the Collected Works, the archive is actually expanding the audience (and potential market) for L & W’s books, including the somewhat pricey MECW volumes themselves, available only in hardback at $25-50 per volume. … If Lawrence & Wishart still considers itself a socialist institution, its treatment of the Archive is uncomradely at best, and arguably much worse; while if the press is now purely a capitalist enterprise, its behavior is merely stupid.

The probability that copyright infringements can increase the income of copyright-holders has been mentioned on this blog before. If you take five minutes to think about who the market is for the collected work of Marx and Engels, it’ll be clear that that the existence of the Marxist Internet Archive is probably not cutting into it.

But beyond the pure stupidity of this, there’s the ideological stupidity.

I’m on an email list about teaching. The issue was raised recently, the list is a space for people to talk about what they do in the classroom, what works, what doesn’t, to vent about what pisses them off. It won’t work if stuff gets shared outside the list. Which, I totally agree! But what struck me, the request not to disseminate things people say on the list elsewhere, it wasn’t phrased in terms of privacy or professional courtesy, it was about respecting people’s intellectual property. That is how ideology happens.

L & W have put up response to being called out on this. We are, they say

not a capitalist organisation engaged in profit-seeking or capital accumulation, but a direct legatee of the Communist/Eurocommunist tradition in the UK, having been at one time the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Today it survives on a shoestring, while continuing to develop and support new critical political work by publishing a wide range of books and journals. It makes no profits other than those required to pay a small wage to its very small and overworked staff, investing the vast majority of its returns in radical publishing projects…

In other words, it’s ok for us to use the power of the state to prevent people from reading Marx because we are Good Communists and we are going to do something awesome with whatever rents we can squeeze out of our copyrights. Raskolnikov had nothing on these guys.

Besides, they say, it’s so unfaaaaaair to ask them not to steal every penny they can get their fingers on. If you were real radicals, you’d respect the sacred rights of Property.

In asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, the Marxist Internet Archives and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide.

I guess there’s some dramatic irony in seeing Marx’s publishers engaged in this kind of primitive accumulation. But seriously, this is some egregious bullshit.

Cases like this bring out the black-is-white language of IP piracy. Here we have a group of people engaged in ongoing economic activity — an ongoing sharing of knowledge — and then an outsider arrives and tells them to stop what they’re doing on threat of violence, unless they pay up. Wouldn’t the pirates in this case be that outsiders? Wouldn’t the pirates be the ones using the threat of violence to disrupt an ongoing sharing of  in order to appropriate a little booty? — which, as Scott points out, may not even be enough to defray the costs of their pillaging expedition.


Shared Sacrifice on 116th Street

According to the local student paper, my current employer is having a disagreement with some of its workers (pictured above). I was not at this rally, unfortunately. At least Suresh was, so the Slackwire community was represented.

So what’s it about? Well, to borrow a line from Omar, the workers think they should keep the pensions and health benefits they get for doing their jobs, and the university thinks otherwise. Hardly the first time, right? But while employers everywhere can cut benefits, few can manage this kind of rancid liberalism:

Columbia’s proposed cuts are supposedly in the name of worker equality—the University cites similar “sacrifices” made by the non-unionized administrative and professional departments. … Apparently, the union must also “fairly” take these unilateral cuts imposed upon the unprotected members of the Columbia labor community.

Who but a university administrator could explain with a straight face that they are only slashing the benefits of their clerical staff because of a high-minded concern for fairness and equity? Truly, it would take a President Robbins:

About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the president of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs, and lo! the two were one.

The affected employees are members of UAW 2110. I used to run into 2110 President Maida Rosenstein now and then when I worked at the Working Families Party. And from everything I’ve seen of her and that union… well, if Columbia insists in inflicting a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values on these workers, I think it may have a fight on its hands.

Don’t Let Nobody Walk All Over You

Here’s a heartening story from the old neighborhood:

An 82-year-old great-grandmother cried tears of joy Friday as nearly 200 neighbors rallied in her support on the day she was to be evicted. Mary Lee Ward was granted a reprieve when the owner of the Brooklyn house where she lives agreed to continue meeting with her lawyers next week. “You have to stick with it when you know your right,” Ward told the cheering crowd. “Don’t let nobody walk all over you.” 

Ward, who fell victim in 1995 to a predatory subprime mortgage lender that went under in 2007, has been battling to stay in the Tompkins Avenue home for more than a decade. A city marshal was supposed to boot Ward from the one-family frame house Friday, but didn’t show as her lawyers sat down with an assemblywoman and the home’s owner. … “I hope they realize that they can never really win,” Ward said. “I will not compromise.”

Why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? There are millions of families with homes in foreclosure, and millions more heading that way. Being forcibly evicted from your home has got to be one of the most wrenching experiences there is. And yet as long as you’re in the house, you have some real power. And the moral and emotional claims of someone like Ward to her home are clear, regardless of who holds the title. Someone just has to organize it. Here, I think, is where we are really suffering from the loss of ACORN — these situations are tailor-made for them.

Still, there is some good work going on. I was at a meeting recently of No One Leaves, a bank tenant organization in Springfield, MA. Modeled on Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana, this is a project to mobilize people whose homes have been foreclosed but are still living in them. Homeowners who still have title have a lot to lose and are understandably anxious to meet whatever conditions the lender or servicer sets. But once the foreclosure has happened, the homeowner, paradoxically, is in a stronger negotiating position; if they’re going to have to leave anyway, they have nothing to lose by dragging the process out, while for the bank, delay and bad publicity can be costly. So the idea is to help people in this situation organize to put pressure — both in court and through protest or civil disobedience — on the banks to agree to let them stay on as tenants more or less permanently, at a market rent. In the longer run, this will discourage foreclosures too.

It’s a great campaign, exactly what we need more of.

But there’s another important thing about No One Leaves: They’re angry. The focus isn’t just on the legal rights of people facing foreclosure, or their real chance to stay in their homes if they organize and stick together, it’s on fighting the banks. There’s a very clear sense that this is not just a problem to be solved, but that the banks are the enemy. I was especially struck by one middle-aged guy who’d lost the home he’d lived in for some 20 years to foreclosure. “At this point, I don’t even care if I get to stay,” he said. “Look, I know I’m probably going to have to leave eventually. I just want to make this as slow, and expensive, and painful, for Bank of America as I can.” Everyone in the room cheered.

Liberals hate this sort of thing. But it seems to be central to successful organizing. Back when I was at the Working Families Party, one of the things the professional organizers always talked about was the importance of polarizing — getting people to articulate who was responsible for their problems, who’s the other side. It was a central step in any house visit, any meeting. And from what I could tell, it worked. I mean, it’s foolish of someone like Mary Lee Ward to say, “I will not compromise,” isn’t it? Objectively, compromise is how most problems get solved. But if she didn’t have a clear sense of being on the side of right against wrong, how would she have the energy to keep up what, objectively, was very likely to be a losing fight, or convince her neighbors to join her? Somebody or other said there are always three questions in politics. You have to know what is to be done — the favorite topic of intellectuals. But that’s not enough. You also have to know which side you are on, but that’s not enough either. Before you devote your time and energy to a political cause, you have to know who is to blame.

A while back I had a conversation with a friend who’s worked for the labor movement for many years, one campaign after another. If you know anyone like that, or have been part of an organizing drive yourself, you know that in the period before a union representation vote, an American workplace is a little totalitarian state. (Well, even more than usual.) Spies reporting on private conversations, mandatory mass meetings, veiled and open threats, punishment on the mere suspicion of holding the wrong views, no due process. And yet people do still vote for unions and support unionization campaigns, even when being fired would be a a personal catastrophe. Why, I asked my friend. I mean, union jobs do have better pay, benefits, job security —  but are they that much better, that people think they’re worth the risk? “Oh, it’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about the one chance to say Fuck You to your boss.”

Hardt and Negri have a line somewhere in Empire about how, until we can overcome our fear of death, it will be “carried like a weapon against the hope of liberation.” When I first read the book, I thought that was pretty strange. But now I think there’s something important there. Self interest, even enlightened, only takes you so far, because when you’re weak, your self-interest is very often going to be in accomodation to power. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hardt and Negri, that we have to lose our fear of death to be free moral agents. But it is true that we can’t organize collectively to assert our rights in our homes and our jobs as long as we’re dominated individually by our fear of losing them. Some other motivation — dignity,  pride, anger or even hatred — is needed to say, instead, that nobody is going to walk all over you.

Is Liberalism Done Yet?

I don’t have much to add to Mike Konczal’s respectful but thorough rebuttal of the idea that the passage of health care reform marks the end of the liberal project; Yglesias is so clearly wrong, for so many reasons. Most immediately, the health care bill as passed will leave 8 percent of the population uninsured, so even if universal health insurance is the finish line, we haven’t crossed it yet. More generally, there are clear areas where expansion of public provision and regulation is almost inevitable, whenever the political climate turns favorable. Most obvious is childraising (and caring labor more generally), where our current system of uncompensated household labor is being steadily eroded by the acid of the market, even while the demands on it increase. In a few years, universal childcare will be seen by liberals as essential to a civilized society, just as universal health coverage is now.

More broadly, I’m reminded of Stephen Resnick’s story of his fellow MIT grad student Stephen Hymer going in to Robert Paul Samuelson’s office (this would be the early ‘60s) and asking him if there was anything important in Marxism that you couldn’t talk about using conventional economics. Samuelson’s answer: “Class struggle.”

Liberals and radicals do disagree over ultimate ends – more stuff, more equitably distributed, for them; the full and free development of human capacities, for us. But the more salient disagreement, at least in the current conjuncture, is over means. Liberals believe that the political process is ultimately a form of rational debate, in which the objectively best ideas win out and are then executed by a neutral administrative mechanism. Political engagement means situating yourself within shouting distance of the seat of power, and then making the case that your preferred policy is in the best interests of everyone. Who you are doesn’t matter, just the merits of your views. Carl Schmitt, interestingly enough, gives one of the clearest statements of this conception of politics:

All specifically parliamentary arrangements and norms receive their meaning first through discussion and openness. This is especially true of the fundamental principle that the representative is independent of his constituents and party… The characteristic of all representative constitutions … is that laws arise out of a conflict of opinions, not out of a struggle of interests. … Conduct that is not concerned with discovering what is rationally correct, but with calculating particular interests and the chances of winning and with carrying these through according to one’s own interests is … not discussion in the specific sense.

Schmitt, the anti-liberal, saw better than liberals that this mode of politics is specific to the particular institutional context of parliamentarianism. A context that remains very important, of course, outside of the formal political domain as well as within it. [1] But it’s not universal, and in particular it can’t be the last word in a society that is divided by fundamentally conflicting interests.

Radicals, by contrast, see the conflict of interests as fundamental. Or rather, we see it as inescapable in politics as long as it exists in economic life and society generally. From this point of view, arguments are won in parliament only thanks to the rioters, literal or figurative, in the streets outside. And liberalism as a concrete political project is a compromise between opposing interests, one that’s always open to renegotiation when the balance of forces changes. So unlike in science (liberalism’s implicit ideal), progress is always reversible, so no political struggle is ever definitely finished. Any given compromise is only sustainable to the extent that there are social forces striving for a horizon beyond it.

[1] For example, I’m current serving on a university hiring committee, and the norm that discussions must be conducted only in terms of differing opinions, never opposing interests, is very strongly felt.

Does fiscal policy need to be paid for in advance?

Let’s be clear: Paul Krugman is a national treasure. On fiscal policy – and politics generally – he has been saying exactly what should be said, clearly and forcefully, and just as important, from a platform that people can’t ignore. No one of remotely his stature has been as clear or consistent a critic of the Administration from the left. That said, his economics can be … problematic. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m interested in trade, or if, ironically but perhaps more likely, it’s because it’s where he made most of his own contributions, but it’s on international economics that Krugman seems most committed to orthodoxy, and correspondingly out of tune with reality. Case in point: This blog post, where he notes, correctly, that the most consistent expansionary response to the crisis has been in Asia, and then goes on to endorse the suggestion of David Pilling (in the Financial Times) that today’s Asian stimulus is the reward for fiscal rectitude in previous years:

Deficit spending is what you should do only when the economy is depressed and interest rates are at or near the zero lower bound. When times are good, you should be paying debt down. Pilling: “The scale of Asia’s stimulus may have matched, even surpassed, the west. But the context has been entirely different. Asian governments had plumped-up their fiscal cushions after the 1997 crisis, building a formidable pool of reserves. … when the crunch came, they had the wherewithal to spend.”

I’m sorry, but this is just wrong. First of all, let’s look at stimulus spending and earlier fiscal stances in various Asian countries:

Country Fiscal stimulus 2008 Average fiscal surplus, 1998-2007 Average fiscal surplus, 2003-2007
Malaysia 0.9 -1.72 -1.72
India 1.5 -5.50 -2.93
Indonesia 2.7 10.04 10.04
Australia 4.4 -3.00 -1.65
Philippines 4.5 -0.69 -0.69
Korea, Rep. of 5.4 0.98 1.20
New Zealand 5.9 -2.10 -2.23
Thailand 7.7 -4.80


Singapore 8 -1.34 -1.93
China 13.5 2.70 4.69
Japan 14.6 -0.80 -0.95

See that striking correlation between prior surpluses and stimulus spending? Yeah, me neither. It’s true that some countries, like China and Korea, show prior surpluses and big stimulus. But others that are pursuing expansionary policy have had fiscal deficits for years, like Japan (as Krugman should know as well as anyone.) Empirically, the Krugman-Pilling argument that in Asia, fiscal surpluses paved the way for fiscal stimulus just does not hold up.
No, what’s allowed Asian countries to respond aggressively to the crisis is not their (mostly nonexistent) fiscal surpluses, but their current account surpluses. Unlike in past crises (or lots of countries in the current crisis, especially on the periphery of Europe) they are not dependent on private capital inflows, so they are under no pressure to undertake contractionary policy to maintain external balance. The case of Korea is exemplary. True, it was running a fiscal surplus prior to the crisis — but it was also running a fiscal surplus in the mid-1990s prior to the Asian Crisis, to which it responded with brutal austerity. The difference was that the current account was in deficit then, and in surplus this time. The fiscal position was irrelevant.(Incidentally, Pilling literally does not seem to realize there is a difference between a current account surplus and a fiscal surplus. That’s why he’s able to write something like “Asian governments had plumped-up their fiscal cushions after the 1997 crisis, building a formidable pool of reserves,” without realizing it’s a non sequitur.)What about the larger argument, that good Keynesian governments should engage in the precautionary accumulation of financial assets in good times to finance demand-boosting spending in bad times? Krugman himself admits that the Bush deficits are not a binding constraint on fiscal policy today, which is rather a blow to his argument. More broadly, it’s far from clear that there is any meaningful sense in which the existing level of public debt affects the space for fiscal policy. The argument for prudential saving might apply to the government of a premodern or underdeveloped country, which rests on a narrow fiscal base; but if substantial excess capacity exists in an industrialized country the government always can mobilize it. (Matt Yglesias gets this, even if Krugman does not.) As for the traditional Keynesian argument for federal surpluses in boom times, it has nothing to do with precautionary accumulation of financial assets, and everything to do with preventing aggregate demand from running ahead of aggregate supply.In the end, I suspect this idea of paid-in-advance Keynesianism says less about his intellectual weaknesses than about his institutional commitments. As a certified big-name economist, you have to make some concessions to orthodoxy if you don’t want to see your intellectual capital devalued. And what orthodoxy demands now — above all from those who want more expansionary policy — is gestures of somber concern with future deficits. (If not austerity today, at least austerity tomorrow.) With a few honorable exceptions, even left-leaning economists seem happy to comply.

The atrophy of the liberal imagination, a continuing series

My buddy Mark Engler wrote an interesting piece for the Dissent blog on why the left should oppose the Kagan nomination. Interesting, but not convincing, at least not to me. It’s not that I like her, altho I’ve been more or less convinced by people who know the academic-law world from the inside that her publication record is perfectly adequate. On substantive political issues there’s not much to say for her, and that’s on Obama, not the “process”.

What I don’t see, tho, are what are the principled demands being made here. “Liberal justice” is almost an empty signifier; I suspect that beyond the important, but fairly narrow, areas of civil liberties and executive power, most of us on the labor or socialist left will find a wide range of legal issues on which our views and Glenn Greenwald’s sharply diverge. Just as importantly, what is the public debate that this is clarifying or polarizing? Will this fight help develop a left opposition in Congress? Does it mobilize people? Could we win? Looks like no on all counts, to me.

Being on the left can’t just mean bitching about everything, it’s got to mean staking out clear, principled positions, organizing people around them, and having concrete victories to show for it. Opposing Kagan does not seem to meet this test.

Anyway — the reason for this post, or at least its title — I was going to say all this in a comment to Mark’s Dissent post. But it turns out the Dissent blog has no comments section. Yes, Dissent does not allow comments. Doesn’t that say it all?