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Socialism, Neoliberalism, and Competence

Alon Levy has an interesting post about ideology, technocrats, and public works. He suggests that competent socialism is impossible, because any extensive program of public works will of necessity end up being more interested in competence than ideology, and therefore will invariable slide into neoliberal technocracy.

This is based partially on what he see as an actively anti-competence spirit in the American left. After giving a reasonably fair definition of neoliberalism, Levy concludes:
The populist left today defines itself in diametric opposition to some subset of the above points, and this requires defining itself against the notion that competence in governing is important. This is unmistakable in Jacobin, the most important magazine of the American far left today...see [Jacobin editor Bhaskar] Sunkara in this extended rant, calling Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias less than human. Klein is "a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet." Per Sunkara, political success comes not from understanding policy but from emotional appeal, as in the Reagan Revolution, which, he concludes, "wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution."
I don't think this is a remotely accurate reading of what Sunkara is saying. Though he is having some fun at Klein and Yglesias's expense (calling them robots and such), in no way is he saying an understanding of technical details is actually bad; instead he is saying that an understanding of technical details cannot substitute for politics. The problem with liberal technocrats is that they tend to assume you can get past ideological differences with better data, which can lead to extraordinary errors of interpretation. That's how Klein got snookered by Paul Ryan, a lying poor-starving snake who can do a passable impersonation of a Serious Policy Guy.

Indeed, one odd thing about the "wonk"-branded crowd, including Klein and Yglesias, is that virtually none of them have any really serious expertise in anything. There are not many such people who can actually decode the complicated math in cutting-edge economic models, or conduct custom analyses of government survey microdata, or understand the fine details of climate models, and so on. Instead what they do is half pay attention to the abstracts of published research, the policy books that come out (and get promoted properly), the opinions of actual experts, and provide an intelligent layman's translation.

Now, of course I am not a true expert in anything either. But Vox is not remotely what it would be if it were staffed by a bunch of practicing academics. For one, people actually read it, but for another, it is notorious for rather amateurish errors.

This complicates Levy's assertion that the center-left is the place for detailed policy expertise these days. Rather what they have is a technocratic ideology — a belief that detailed policy expertise and lots of empirical study is the best way to make decisions rather than the actual expertise itself.

But as I said above this is impossible. Virtually every policy question is deeply entangled with unavoidable normative questions. Hence technocratic ideology, like any ideology, has a basic moral framework. Right now that framework is heavily neoliberal, as seen by the goofy-ass market mechanisms built into Obamacare (which incidentally don't work that well, but that's another post).

But my suspicion is that what technocratic ideology really is, deep down, is just a belief that whatever the hegemonic moral ideology happens to be is by definition correct. You take whatever the most powerful people think, and just build that into the background of every technical analysis.

Again, details definitely do matter, and Levy is right to say that the left doesn't have a really deep bench of credentialed experts. But that is a case of being out of power for a very long time. If, say, Bernie Sanders were headed to election as president, whatever left-wing experts there are out in the woodwork (and in a country this big, there are surely quite a few such people) would be getting ready to head to Washington. Other elite left-liberals who hadn't totally alienated themselves from the Sanders wing of the party would be patching things up and adjusting their politics to suit the new party reality.

After a presidency or two of that sort of government, the technocrats would be saying that universal social insurance is clearly the way to go when it comes to service provision. And I think they'd be more right than they are today.


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  2. This definitely opens them up to buying snake oil from establishment mainstream economics, since only looking at the abstract often obscures the emptiness of much of mainstream micro and most of mainstream macro.

  3. This is excellent. The Klein and Yglesias types always remind me of the proverbial carpenter who only has a hammer, and so has convinced himself all the world's problems are nails. How do we deal with the fact that an increasingly globalized economy makes some ways of life (mobile) easier than others (rooted)? How do we adjudicate the irreconcilable interests of one group versus another? Easy, we just convince ourselves that the only things that matter are the things we can measure, and a liberal globalized economy raises net income across the globe, and, presto, easy answer!

    On your last point, I was thinking the other day about how Sanders and third party candidacies are so readily dismissed as unserious, and it made me think about how we have the role of professionals in our politics totally backwards. Of course government and politics requires expertise and professionals, but we have a system where the professionals and careerists have organized themselves into two camps and have told the people "we're over here, these are your two choices, pick." But, as you suggest, if the people were to stand firm and say "no, we're over here, you have to come join us" no doubt there would be professionals to answer that call.

  4. One thing I believe this misses, is that you can play the technocratic game that Klein and Yglesias play, and use it to get to better outcomes for people within the framework. But it is extremely hard to play the leftist game *and win.* Its a lot more satisfying to make people's lives incrementally better with policy advocacy, and you know, win sometimes, rather than toil in the trenches for decades. Arguably, conservatives did this, and now control a couple of branches of government, *but they still can't implement their key policy proposals.* They can keep some of the more distasteful (to them) proposals from taking root, but they can't get rid of all the poverty programs, they can't privatize social security, they haven't really shrunk government, they didn't stop the CFPB from beginning to rein in at least some of the financial shenanigans afterwards, they couldn't stop expanded Medicaid altogether, etc.

  5. This is an excellent post, and I want to make it clear that when I talk of experts, I don't really mean Ezra & Matt. I think Ezra himself is an expert on essentially one issue (health policy) and Matt is a popularizer of what expert center-left economists think about macroeconomics, but between that and knowing everything there's a chasm. At least they don't go outright and say they know everything, unlike Nate Silver.

    The difference is that Vox et al seem to treat expert consensus as normative in ways the far left doesn't; they don't necessarily get what the consensus is, but they try. In the constellation of Jacobin, n+1, Salon, etc., you'll find people who tried to argue Piketty wasn't radical enough because he derived his theory from conventional economics rather than from a Marxist theory of exploitation. (There is a US vs. Europe divide here, I think - European left-populists pay a lot more attention to Piketty than their American counterparts.) Nor is there much attention paid to Branko Milanovic; why the hell is his work on inequality getting more play on Financial Times than on Jacobin et al?

    The temporary Ryan-curiosity was stupid, yes. On the other hand, I'd rather deal with someone who thought Ryan was a serious policymaker for a year or two than with a movement that thinks Chavez and Maduro are great leaders and makes excuses for them.

    As for the deep bench and governing experience issue... the flip side is that left-populist parties don't seem interested in building a bench, except maybe Podemos. Syriza engages in the same clientism as the corrupt parties it sought to sweep away, and makes little effort to stem tax evasion. In Northern Europe, while green parties joined the social democrats as coalition partners in exchange for concessions on environmental policy, communist and left-populist parties have done nothing of the sort; in Germany, this was a contentious issue for the Greens in the 1980s, but they chose governance over protest politics. In the UK, Tony Benn was a technocrat, but Corbyn knows very little about policy, and is indifferent to it even on issues where Labour is trusted more, e.g. the rail renationalization example in my post. Sanders is harder to analyze, since he was running to pull Clinton to the left rather than to win, but his economic plan had serious errors.

    1. These are some interesting examples. I think Syriza is something of an odd duck, because they were unable to wriggle out of eurozone austerity. Tax collection is important, but their signature failure of competence was not trying the Varoufakis plan to seize the Bank of Greece and reassert control over economic policy. I think if they had managed that, and gotten full employment again they might have been able to reach a higher plane of governance. But perhaps not.

      I can't speak to Corbyn and competence, but I think Sanders is more competent than liberals like Krugman give him credit for. He sometimes bungles the details of things, but generally he's got the broad strokes right. The economic analysis of his program -- conducted by some outside guy unconnected to the campaign, mind -- did have some errors, but at least his overall program in the ballpark of what's necessary to bring the US welfare state up to a European level. On the other hand, liberals often make a converse error of competence -- having a fully worked-out proposal that is based on bad premises, eg Clinton and deficit neutrality.

      Ultimately there's only one way to know for sure. Syriza has been a flop but at some point there will be another chance or two at governance somewhere, at which point hopefully the logic of efficient government will take effect.

    2. Tax collection would have been even more important if they'd tried the Varoufakis plan and lost all access to credit markets. (Of course, by early 2015 Greece was running a primary surplus, so it could have defaulted... but the Oxi chaos ended that, and the Varoufakis plan would have done the same.)

      Have you read Stathis Kalyvas's articles about Greek politics? Here he explains how Greek politics isn't really about workers vs. bosses, leading to small policy differences between parties but large differences in temperament and clientism. When Syriza got into power, the politicians had to make appointments that in better-run countries are done professionally, like who gets to run the public TV channel. As an outsider force, it could have acted like the US sewer socialists and started to build a professional civil service (which, again, is the sort of thing eurocrats love to help with). Instead, it turned into the new Pasok, corruption and all.

      Sanders I read as someone who could get basic ideas right ("the US needs to raise taxes to build a welfare state") and can't be bothered to get any of the details, hence the error-ridden economic analysis. That's not how one runs sewers, or any other kind of public works, or a universal health care system.

      With universal health care specifically, the US needs to make politically painful choices. It can raise taxes substantially and get a system that's not much cheaper than it is today, or it can make an effort to reduce costs to normal-world level. Said effort isn't just Medicare negotiations, but also not paying for treatments that don't work ("death panels"), and increasing the supply of doctors to reduce doctors' average salaries (Dean Baker gets into that, and I think that among the left-populist economists he's the only one who Krugman and DeLong respect). If the system is single-payer - which e.g. France's isn't - then there needs to be a mechanism to prevent hospitals from splurging and billing the government, the way defense contractors and US universities do; this is also required for debt-free college.

      None of this can be expected of a single politician. That's not the point. Good political movements carry with them a bench of people who can implement policy, and the populist left just doesn't. In the US, Sanders wasn't really running to win and the primary was always intended to be a Clinton coronation, so the people who want to implement stuff endorsed Clinton early. In Northern Europe, left-populist parties haven't really been interested in joining red-green coalitions; in Germany, Die Linke has communist baggage, but in Scandinavia, these parties do not, and yet the Swedish Left Party and such have never really tried to be junior partners in social democratic-led coalitions the way the greens have. So the would-be technocrats on the left join social-democratic and green parties instead.

    3. Oh, by the way, I forgot something: for one example of a progressive party that did make a successful transition from protest party to governing party, look at the SNP. It won, and managed to win reelection, which protest parties usually don't (Syriza is down in the polls, and extreme right parties tend to only win once in each municipality). But it's also not especially left-wing; it's very much a center-left big tent.


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