Notes on Economic Justice and the American Dream

Prepared Remarks for the Roosevelt Alumni Panel discussion of Economic Justice session at the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, Roosevelt University, 12th September 2017. (See video of the whole panel here.)

It is said that the essence of the American Dream is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. Leaders on both sides of our partisan political divide have endorsed this view. It is simple, straightforward, and yet utterly ambiguous. In more than a decade working in restaurants I knew many who certainly worked very hard, and at least appeared to play by the rules – and yet seemed left behind by the economy. Many Americans find themselves stuck, year after year, on the margin between prosperity and poverty.

On the one hand, you might say the American Dream is economic justice. On the other, economic justice seems to be little more than a dream in the United States. The recent work on income inequality by the MIT trained economist Thomas Piketty, indeed, appears to confirm the view that, once upon a time, economic growth benefitted a broad majority of those living in industrialized countries. Income growth occurred across a broad spectrum of society, a trend that has reversed in more recent history, as gains in nation income have gone increasingly to the top. For some, the three decades following the Second World War brought unprecedented prosperity. For others, the developments of those years possessed a nightmarish quality, as economic growth disturbed traditional social structures. Near the end of that period the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls published his landmark work, A Theory of Justice, an ideological apotheosis of sorts. In the years since, it is the response to Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism, which has come to dominate the discourse on justice, economic and otherwise.

Libertarian thought emphasizes the priority of the individual and individual rights over society. In the libertarian formulation, economic justice is considered a subjective matter. The institutions of private property, contract law, and free enterprise are considered sacrosanct – the role of government is merely to facilitate institutions of free market enterprise, which is proclaimed the greatest benefactor of society at large.

Of course, there have been many responses to the libertarian challenge, but I wish to focus here on the work of economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Together they have advanced what they have called “the capability approach” to social justice. The starting point of the approach emerges from Sen’s critique of Rawls. Sen contrasts the transcendental framework of Rawlsian justice with the comparative approach taken by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He points out two fundamental weaknesses in the Rawlsian conception – the impossibility of working out a functional model of social justice applicable in a world of more than one social frame (let alone the vast diversity confronting any theorist of justice); and that the Rawlsian focus on human rights and the priority of liberty, part of the core of the liberal tradition in which Rawls operates, leads to the prioritization of negative rights and prohibitions on activities rather than prescriptions for the mitigation of existing injustices. In the interest of moving towards a more just world, Sen suggest various categories of human capability which we might use to consider and compare existing social and economic conditions. Nussbaum further develops Sen’s idea of human capability, providing a tentative list including: Life; Bodily Health; Bodily Integrity; Senses, Imagination, and Thought; Emotions; Practical Reason; Affiliation; Other Species; Play; and Control Over One’s Environment.

In her account of the capability approach, Nussbaum notes that Sen, while having clearly advanced the capability approach through his role in authoring and advocating for the United Nations’ Human Development Report, among many other works, has not explicitly endorsed it as a methodology for advancing social or economic justice. Responding to this tension in the capability approach, Nussbaum writes that “social justice has always been a profoundly normative concept, and its role is typically critical.”

For me, this is a satisfying response to the aggressive individualism of libertarian thought. The United States’ founding document is the Constitution, which establishes a Federal representative democracy to furnish the supreme law of the land, and of the American people. Any ideal conception of justice, economic or otherwise, cannot be characterized as American without being faithful to the language of our Constitution. Libertarianism, in its emphasis on individual rights, tends to minimize the role of democratic rule. The capability approach, in my view, rectifies this bias by placing justice in its proper role as the critical faculty within the democratic process.

The Ramones as Justice

“The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.” – “The Whitest Music Ever” by James Parker, The Atlantic Sept. 2017

I want to write a little bit about the article I quote above, and I want to start at the very end of the piece. The final two sentences are quoted above. I want to point out that this is the standard history of punk: once upon a time, rock n roll was stale and boring; all the bands played noodley garbage and then the Ramones released their debut album in 1976 and changed everything.  I’m not really interested in whether or not this story is true – it’s a narrative I’ve heard before and can recognize as common to a particular cultural subset with which I am familiar.

The article from which I am quoting is technically a book review. Political reporter Dave Weigel recently published a book about Prog Rock, apparently because he likes it. And the author of the piece does not share Weigel’s enthusiasm. My suspicion is that the author indentifies with the punk ethos and therefore subscribes to a narrative where Prog represents an elitist rock n’ roll establishment to rebel against. It seems equally likely that the editor recognized in the article something for people to get worked up about as only people do about articles posted on Facebook. Some people will defend Prog rock as important cultural subgenre, and other’s will celebrate the author’s scorn for it. What attracted me to the piece was the line – used as a pull quote – about the Ramones, because I like the Ramones. The other thing I liked about the article is that it pointed out how Prog rock really went out of style at the end of the 1970s when record sales began to deline (11% in the US, and 20% in the UK in 1979) and labels stopped funding extravagent tours for the Prog groups. It’s an interesting statistic.

The thing about talking about music in the US is that it often revolves bands who make records, the success of which are based primarily on the sales of those records. The Ramones, for example, are unusually famous for the amount of records they sold. The Beatles are famous because they sold a lot of records. They did lots of other things too, but the most important thing was selling millions of records. Fleetwood Mac is a famous rock n roll band. Why? Because their album Rumors sold forty million copies. Peter Gabriel made all kinds of great Prog rock with Genesis in the 1970s, but nobody cares, because in the 1980s Phil Collins would sell way more records fronting the band than old Pete ever did.

Alright, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But the point is that what ultimately is at stake in the world of recording artists is record sales – and therefore it’s never really about the product. It’s about the consumer. Who’s buying all those records? Mostly young white people, especially in the 1970s. If you want to sell big time quantities of records, you’ve got to appeal to those young white people. Hence, most sucessful bands were also white. Not necessarily because they were better, but because that’s what most consumers wanted. Prog rock bands and fans alike are overwhelmingly white, although so are punk’s.

There’s a whole universe of music beyond Prog rock. Beyond rock. You could spend your whole life listening to beautiful music and never hear rock once, and you wouldn’t be any the worse for it. What matters about music is what brings an audience together to experience it.


Work in Progress

It’s not to say that I haven’t been writing, you see, just not publishing much on the blog lately, but summer has been a kind of vacation. I want to try and write about something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s more like an anti-idea having to do with things that sometimes aren’t said but can be spoken of. Here’s an example: there are people for whom the New Deal legislation promoted by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s is a great disaster, to be repealed at all costs. What they want is not-the New Deal. Here’s a different example: one child takes another’s toy; the child who’s toy was taken will likely desire not so much to have his toy replaced, but rather to see the other child not-have the toy, for the toy to be taken from the taker, so that they too will know how it feels to have something taken by force, thus restoring equality between the two. It’s a kind of justice-as-equilibrium thinking – I hit you, you hit me, and we’re even. I rob you of some amount, you rob me of a similar amount, we’re even. Equality restored. The New Deal and the War brought the US into a new and different era, and changed society. There are parts of society that would like to return to the way it was, for whatever reason.

Populism is sometimes a kind of not-the establishment, or can be perceived that way. What do Trump voters want? Not-Obama. They want Obama in reverse. I often think of conservatives as fundamentally against whatever historical development happens to offend them, although conservatism is richer and more complex than that. Libertarians, I find, seem to be driven by a desire for not-the Government, and especially not-the Federal government. Sometimes there’ll be some nonsense about  markets, but mostly it’s important to get government out of as much of the private economy as is possible, or maybe practicable.

The idea of the not-thing or not-idea is a bad photocopy of a confused summary of the book The Rhetoric of Reaction by Albert Hirschman. In that book it is postulated that there are three basic reactionary theses: perversity, jeopardy, and futility. Perversity argues that whatever it is against will produce the opposite of what it is supposed to. “Government welfare programs create poverty.” Jeopardy argues for or against a course of action by emphasizing the risks to some previously obtained advantage or asset. “If we don’t legalize gambling, how will we pay for public services?” Futility argues that some particular historical episode had no effect, because whatever happened would have happened anyways. For example, one might argue that racism in America would have disappeared without the help of the Civil Rights movement. Reactionary rhetoric is a kind of thinking, and Hirschman generalizes it in a way that makes it possible to notice in a huge number of places, or at least that’s how it was for me. Hirschman is a delightful writer – his The Passions and the Interests is great.

Welp, that’s all for now.

Graduate School

Well I am, at least for the moment, back on the grad school train. Which is to say I’m working out a plan to apply to PhD programs in economics for fall 2018. I’ve had a longstanding ambivalence about grad school, but I do have a book coming out this month, and my co-author urged me strongly to take advantage of the moment and apply to schools. My father has long advocated for me to try for a PhD as well, and so I’ve begun the process. I have to take the GRE sometime this fall, and figure out where I want to apply and so on. Already I feel doubtful.

There are two major reasons why I won’t go to a PhD program. The first is that I have not taken real analysis (whatever that is). My math is not strong – it’s, you know, halfway decent, but Markov chains and Euler functions are quite beyond me. In any event, I’d have to find a way to do another couple years of math classes (with what time? with what money?) to get myself through real analysis, but since I’m trying to do this now, it’s not a possibility. The irony, of course, is that you don’t even really need real analysis to do good economics, it’s just a filter that economics programs use to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The second reason is because my partner is a committed farmer. Going to graduate school means being separated from my family. Which is why the only way I can go at all is if the program is just right. If they give me money to go and the program means I can get a better paying job when I’m done.

The flipside of this is, of course, doing a PhD is very compelling for me. I enjoy research and writing, and being back at school would mean more of both of those things. And, more generally, it would mean being around a university again. Although ultimately what I really want is to be on the other side of that salary and benefits package divide. It feels just out of reach for me.

So, basically, I’m going to apply to graduate school, but I’m assuming I won’t get in, or at least won’t get the kind of opportunity I’d need to rationalize leaving my current situation. But once that’s done, I’ll be able to put this whole thing to bed.

A sign of things to come?

I figure Christmas this year will look a lot like Christmas last year. And next year, for that matter. The first Christmas that feeldifferent, that’s the Christmas you remember. The question I want to ask is: how many Christmases after passing the bill currently being debated in the Senate – the Better Health Care Act? – until the United States starts feeling different?

I’ve read a couple of analyses on the legislation – my impression is that it changes Obamacare some, cuts Medicaid alot, and cuts taxes. A lot. Mostly for wealthy people. It’s an outrageous, unpopular bill, and it’s probably going to pass and become law.

The United States will see increased income and wealth inequality, or at least I think that’s the most likely scenario. But more importantly, I think the next four years will see the Federal government diminished considerably. The Republicans in Congress have spoken of wanting to put together a major tax reform, and who can say how terrible that will be.

It occurs to me that there are two sides to the political pressure on the Federal government – there’s the desire for the states and individuals for greater independence manifesting in the form of austerity/pro-business policy on the one hand but there’s also, I think, globalized capitalism as well. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other states have produced a wealthy elite in the last couple of decades, and the US is becoming more like them.

And maybe capitalism can subvert patriarchal nation-states and that’s not such a bad idea, or maybe it just replaces the patriarchy. That’s no progress at all.

In any event, I worry that reality is going become unglued for people in the future: the world will change faster than they can deal with, and they’ll get stuck and slowly lose their minds. The health care bill will ultimately take health care away from millions of people. I suppose eventually charity will take the place of some of the social services provided by government.

But here’s what I’m waiting for: some summer it’s going to get really hot in Texas, and it will get ugly, because there won’t be adequate social services. There will be a hospital, maybe, in the country, overwhelmed by cases of heatstroke and dehydration, to set off a riot when supplies run out. Maybe it will happen and it won’t make the news – maybe it will be kept out. Who knows?




Turtle Soup

Nassim Taleb tells this story about a bunch of fisherman who catch some turtles one day. They try to eat the turtles, but the turtles taste bad, so instead they offer the meat to the god Mercury, who happens to be passing by at just that moment. Mercury, an immortal being with supernatural powers, perceives the deception, and dispenses justice. As punishment for offering Mercury bad food, the fishermen are then forced to eat the turtles themselves. And thus the principle of equality of uncertainty is established.

First of all, I want to point to most unrealistic part of this story: the presence of an immortal being with supernatural powers. I feel it is common knowledge that such beings do not exist, and that, likewise, principles are not enforced by them. And justice enforced by coercive power is no justice besides.

Taleb’s primary lesson deriving from the story of the fishermen and the turtles is to beware of salesmen. My gut level response to that is “have you been outdoors lately?” Everyday life is saturated with commecials and advertisements. The drumbeat of salesmanship is ubiquitous, steady, and relentless for most people. It is woven into the fabric of social interaction. Televised sporting events are – both on-screen and live – orgies of salesmanship. Social media commodifies the advertising subject itself – Facebook users are the product – advertisers are the consumers.

Taleb discusses his career as a trader at a “white shoe firm” – the partners at the firm would never sell each other crap – all the crap they would sell to faceless outsiders – well, actually the salesmen sell all the crap to faceless outsiders, and are well compensated for it – the salient point here is that what Taleb finds laudable about the traders at his firm is their ability to off-load inferior product onto outsiders.

If Taleb had an ethical motto it might be “Capitalism is for the capitalists” – or, it’s people screwing each other all the way down. If possible, be the person at the top. In general, try to be as close to the top as possible. Most people live in a fog of lies, platitudes, and fear but it’s easier to just assume they’re stupid and therefore deserve to get screwed. The odd thing is that I imagine that Taleb’s audience fantisizes themselves being part of elite in the know – “most people are suckers, but not us. I think they’re just as confused as anybody. I’ve only read parts of Skin in the Game – not any of his better known work – but Taleb comes across to me as breathtakingly cynical.




Economic Justice

Justice is fidelity to language – the most precise virtue and the one most resistant to arrest.
Justice is not coercive or violent – it is non-violent – and yet often delivered by violence, clothed in violence, called into being by violence.
Justice is sacred because it must be believed before it can be seen in the world.
Justice is believing others in the way you want to be believed by others.

What then is economic justice?