Dec 29, 2016

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included. But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that.

So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms.

The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no social project that cannot be corrupted by human frailty and viciousness. Many people looked to Karl Marx as a sort of pope whose words might save them from disaster. Doesn't work like that. But on the other hand, one cannot dismiss socialism merely because some people calling themselves such were or are monsters. That's human beings for you and it applies to any political ideology.

So that said, my vision of socialism is fairly loose and freewheeling. I've read quite a bit of Marx and gotten a lot of out him, but I think it's a great error to treat anyone as a prophet. I like Polanyi's definition of socialism, but precisely because it is broad and not a highly detailed program:
Karl Polanyi
Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. 
For me, that is the animating instinct of socialism: conscious decisions and policies to adjust the institutions of society so that they serve the common interest, broadly defined as a rough and ready egalitarianism. (One can slot in some Rawls or Sen as a more sophisticated moral justification for this, but Jesus Christ might serve equally well.) Those least well-off get the greatest moral priority, and inequality is acceptable only insofar as it necessary to generate a sufficiently large economic product so that everyone can have a decent standard of living and pursue what they have reason to value.

By this view, capitalism is problematic because it only distributes income to the factors of labor and capital. Its engine is the coercion of labor from people who don't own anything, because they would otherwise starve. In its early days capitalism was insanely brutal about this, shredding the social fabric with its voracious demand for work. It is better today — though still terrible for many people, especially in the US — but insofar as it is has improved, the reason is precisely the basic instinct of socialism, which produced the welfare state.

The weak and vulnerable poor, which in a capitalist system means those who own nothing but find it impossible to work, must be protected. Capitalist institutions are only useful insofar as they serve broad human needs — they are not ends in themselves.

The polar opposite of socialism, then, is classical liberalism (or libertarianism today) — which says that capitalist institutions are ends in themselves. This view holds that property rights should be sacrosanct, and all social relations should operate through capitalist market mechanisms. Not many people are full libertarians these days, but the ideology was and is extraordinarily influential — just witness the titanic effort that went into badly simulating a market in the Obamacare exchanges.

Polanyni notes a deep irony — capitalism was developed along highly utopian, planned lines, to which elites clung so hard during the Great Depression that the entire thing almost came apart. A large part of the initial socialist impulse was a fundamentally conservative, then: a desire to preserve existing society as capitalism ripped up the social contract. But mature socialism — an approximation of which can be seen in the Nordic countries today — is more forward-looking than this. The damage of capitalism has already been done, and there is basically no going back. The key is to harness the machinery and technology built up under capitalism to create a better society that works for everyone, without exception.

Dec 10, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy and the Culture Argument against Welfare

During Thanksgiving, a relative happened to have JD Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy lying around, and so I picked it up out of curiosity. As other reviewers have said, the politics in it are pretty terrible. However it was better than I was expecting it to be. Mainly, it's a book about growing up in a fucked-up family, and Vance ends up emphasizing how his surroundings more or less controlled what kind of a person he ended up being. He made it out of Kentucky and Ohio and ended up graduating from Yale Law school, but unlike most conservatives, he doesn't paint that as some Randian heroic act of self-bootstrapping. Over and over he notes how lucky he was to have people to help him sort out his problems. "I am one lucky son of a bitch," he concludes.

The few areas of explicit conservatism — whining about white welfare queens, or dumbass libertarian notions about being coerced into paying taxes — fit very poorly with the overall thrust of the book. (Don't read National Review, folks.) With only a few alterations it could have pretty ordinary liberal politics.

But like Jonathan Chait, he does conclude that hillbilly culture is in part responsible for why poor whites are doing so poorly these days. If downscale white people are to become healthier, "we hillbillies must wake the hell up," he writes. It's not an argument I accept, but it does have some surface plausibility. Poverty leaves scars; poor people often make maddeningly terrible decisions (though they often make more sense than it may appear from the outside).

But let's suppose that Vance is right, and culture is dragging the hillbilly population down. The problem with this and his conservative politics is that Vance does not even try to show that conservative policy — making welfare benefits hinge on work, or cutting them altogether — will help hillbillies sort out their culture problem. The theory behind conservative social policy is that by taking away benefits from people who have been lulled into the hammock of dependency, as Paul Ryan calls it, or building in some work requirements and time limits as happened with welfare reform, will give people the kick in the ass they need to buckle down and get to work.

But the whole point of Vance's culture argument is that hillbillies are often impervious to economic incentives. One example he leans on is a time when an owner at a tile factory where Vance worked bent over backwards to provide a good-paying job to an unemployed young man and his pregnant girlfriend. The woman was soon fired for absenteeism, and the man didn't last much longer. And fair enough, that is pretty dumb. But if actually having a good job isn't enough to make someone work hard enough to keep it, then it seems rather unlikely that further deepening the abyss and desperation of unemployment (already very bad in this country) isn't going to do it either.

And on the other hand Vance dedicates a long and rather good section of his book to how the terrific stress of growing up in poverty and an unstable family gives his people a condition akin to PTSD — emotional distance, a hair-trigger temper, and a constant readiness to fight. It might be that completely axing all unemployment insurance and other welfare would have made the above-mentioned person so desperate that he would have shaped up, but it seems just as likely that the additional stress would simply worsen his psychological problems and make him even more unlikely to stick with a job. (And in point of fact, all that welfare reform achieved was an increase in extreme poverty of 150 percent.)

It seems to me that if you really believed this culture argument, you'd start by putting an economic floor under everyone, without exception — health insurance for all, retirement for all, some level of income for all, and so on. (Universal programs would also remove much of the welfare stigma, which has its own horribly damaging psychological effects.) An uninsured relative getting a very expensive illness can tear a family apart, easily. Conversely, knowing that no matter what happens, absolute destitution can be avoided is a great relief.

With some basic stability achieved, then social critics like Vance — together with social workers, job trainers, and other such people — would have a lot more purchase on the people he's ostensibly trying to help. It seems like the only people really paying attention to him right now are rich coastal elites looking for an Appalachia Translator.

Dec 6, 2016

Matt Christman on the Chaos of Capitalism

On the latest Chapo Trap House Matt Christman discusses (starting about 1:03:00) the job-seeking advice contained in Megan McArdle's 2014 book The Up Side of Down.

She makes "two incredibly banal points...Advice for job-seekers 1: keep applying! Don't give up, keep it up, keep applying, even though it's discouraging...The other one that is duh and also vile is: Oh, and have you considered moving? The Kevin Williamson shit...

"Nothing highlights libertarianism's cold-blooded disconnection from any notion of human interaction or society better than their penchant for saying that people should just move around to the jobs and create these atomized pinball-humans moving from shantytown to shantytown looking for employment, and just sundering all communal bonds along the way. Nothing makes me more sympathetic to the trad caths than reading this fucking garbage..."

McArdle suggests that people could be helped to move to North Dakota where unemployment is low: "There are two hilarious things about that. One is now, in the last couple years, because of the falling oil prices, all those jobs in North Dakota have dried up pretty quickly. So joke's on you if you fucking piled in the minivan and spent your last 50 bucks to get to North Dakota to show up and find out all those jobs are gone.

"And the other is that even when that boom was happening, those oil towns in North Dakota were basically dystopian nightmare hells, like Philip K. Dick mining colonies. The kind of thing that no one on Earth would want to live in, the kind of place where community is basically impossible to form. So like Kevin Williamson, her recipe is basically 'have you considered turning the world into a sci-fi dystopia?'"