“The Left wants to give people the chance to do something with their lives, by giving them time and space away from the market.”

The Left wants to give people the chance to do something with their lives, by giving them time and space away from the market.

Corey Robin

Many people (perhaps you) may have a difficult time believing that but it’s true.  The goal is give people more control over the narrative of their lives.  Robin gives a specific example:  Why one might favor single-payer over Obamacare –

In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. . . . We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids — maybe it was Ezra Klein — tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking complicated. I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their twenties — whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it — could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!

“Focus on the Future.” Part IV

Excerpt from a July 2017 email I sent to the Democratic Town Committee (of which I am a co-chair) follows below.  It needs a concluding paragraph.  Suggestions welcome.

I believe more than ever that we Democrats need to tell the story of what kind of society we want and how we propose to achieve it. Narrative matters. Vision is more than a bulletized list of policy positions. Bulletized lists are okay as far as they go but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. There needs to be a story, one people believe they are or want to be a part of. Back in 2011 Drew Westen pointed out how Pres. Obama missed a huge opportunity at the start of his presidency to build a narrative. I think Westen was absolutely right and that failure to construct a narrative cost us badly. We need to learn from that and not to repeat the mistake. Towards that end I believe we need to create a Democratic Party Manifesto.

For those who haven’t read it, the UK Labour Party’s Manifesto is pretty good. It lays out policies and political positions from the standpoint of wanting to achieve a fair and just society. It follows from a moral vision not a technocratic one. To borrow a phrase from Dr. King, it follows from a vision of a positive peace, which is the presence of justice, rather than a negative peace, which is the absence of tension. While we found considerable electoral success with the latter approach in ’90s and ’00s it’s limitations as an electoral strategy and, more importantly, as the basis for organizing a society are now apparent.

Back to the specifics of a Democratic Party Manifesto – while I have a notion I have yet to start on specifics. I’ve collected a few essays which address areas where I think as a party we lack a coherent vision:

  1. Corey Robin, Socialism:  Converting Hysterical Misery Into Ordinary Unhappiness
  2. Gabriel Winant, The New Working Class
  3. James Kwak, The Importance of Fairness: A New Economic Vision for the Democratic Party
  4. Jack Meserve, Keep It Simple and Take Credit



Russ Roberts, “The Human Side of Trade”

This half-finished post from mid-2017 is a reaction to Russ Roberts’ commentary, The Human Side of Trade. Apologies for the listicle.

Roberts: “Suppose a scientist invents a pill that once you take it lets you live until 120 with no health issues whatsoever. Once you turn 120, you die a peaceful death on your birthday.”

Such a pill would fundamental change the nature of what it means to be human. Economics aside – and even if the economic impacts were all positive – the pill he describes strikes me as an awful invention.

Related reading: “Being Good Enough” by Bill McKibben – http://dark-mountain.net/blog/key-posts/dark-mountain-issue-8-techne-2/

I admit that I stopped reading Roberts’ piece after he introduced the magic pill scenario. But, trooper that I am I went back to it. Wow, it got even worse after where I left off. A few thoughts:

1. I have no more in common with Roberts than I do with people who believe that the Bible is literal truth. The man is not short on hubris.

2. A joke I heard 25+ years ago: President Gorbachev was visiting a farm one day and a peasant asked him a question, “Comrade Gorbachev, was Comrade Lenin an experimentalist or a theoretician?” Gorbachev pauses then replies to the effect of “Perhaps both.” The peasant responds definitively, “No. He was a theoretician. An experimentalist would have tested Communism on rats first.” Roberts is also a theoretician.

3. Reading pieces like Roberts’ gets me thinking that Christopher Lasch had it right.

4. Roberts writes: “In 1900 about 40% of the American work force was in agriculture. Now it’s about 2%… Having only 2% on the farm is a feature, not a bug. It’s a good thing. It’s a glorious thing.” That only 2% work in agriculture implies that 98% of the population have no concept of how to feed themselves if their lives depended upon it which, coincidentally, if there were a major disruption in the food chain it would. That does not strike me as a glorious thing.

5. One can have too much of a good thing. There is a tension between efficiency and resilience. Efficiency feels good and, so long as everything runs smoothly, it’s great. However be aware of the “The better your four-wheel drive the further you’ll be from civilization when you get stuck.” effect. If you ignore resilience in pursuit of efficiency then you set yourself up for a nasty failure.

6. Doctors, nurses, chemists, etc wouldn’t be put out of work immediately because people like myself would want nothing to do with that pill. We’d die off eventually but demand for people working in health-related professions wouldn’t immediately go to zero.

7. Is it important to deal with adversity in your life? Would the magic pill make us soft psychologically? If it did would it matter?

8. Take the pill and no health issues for 120 years but you’re dead on your 120th birthday? I suppose some people really like for their lives to be as deterministic as possible.

9. Roberts writes: “I once debated NAFTA on the south side of St Louis surrounded by autoworkers who were threatened by open trade with Mexico. A machinist, who happened to be the brother of the guy I was debating told me had already been out of work for years. “What are you going to do for me?” he asked. I didn’t tell him to find comfort from the fact that his children were going to lead better lives. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. So I asked him what he wanted. Did he want a check? He said “I want my job back.” He said he wanted his job back, but what I think he really wanted back was his pride and dignity.”

How do children of the long-term unemployed fare relative to those whose parents have steady work? I’m guessing that the stress of parents worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage or rent or buy food doesn’t have a positive effect on their kids. Just sayin’…

Maybe that machinist really did want his job back. The work may have been particularly satisfying to him. Maybe pride and dignity was it but don’t dismiss the particulars of the work itself.

10. I recommend Samuel Florman’s essay, Nice Work

11. Roberts writes: “Having only 2% on the farm [down from 40%] is a feature, not a bug. It’s a good thing. It’s a glorious thing. Because it allowed the creation of all the glorious things that would amaze the farmer brought into the present — the smart phones and the artificial knees and youtube videos, and cross-country travel and cars and the longer life expectancy and everything else we didn’t have in 1900 that makes life more pleasant and even more meaningful for the children and grandchildren of farmers in 1900.”

YouTube videos make life more meaningful?… Fine, I won’t argue that. Of that 38% who moved from farm to other occupations though, how many are involved with building artificial knees? More generally, what became of them? What fraction took manufacturing jobs, the kind that have been disappearing over the past few decades.

12. Also, with respect to migration from the farm and other demographic changes since 1900, I think of Robert Gordon’s paper from a few years back, Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds

13. Roberts writes: “Fracking  -  lower prices coming from innovation  –  is potentially more reliable than cheap imported energy that could go away. But that difference doesn’t change the point that the full benefits when prices fall from either change has a wider set of effects than just less expensive energy.”

Environmental impacts of continued reliance on carbon-based energy – you might want to look into those, Russ.