Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Defense of The Dark Knight Rises

Does the left have to ruin everything? 

Predictably enough, everyone on the left seems to hate The Dark Knight Rises. Never mind the fact that the film was written before OWS emerged: everyone has decided that it is totally about what a bunch of dumb thugs they are. And of course, it's not enough for the film to be an apology for income equality and capitalism: it has to be an apology for fascism and aristocracy! Add smart, strikingly-filmed blockbusters to the list of fun things that we aren't allowed. And people wonder why the left has been on the decline for decades. 

The problem with these reviews is not just that they are evidence of what a bunch of recalcitrant kill-joys the few remaining leftists are. It's that they demonstrate that being recalcitrant kill-joys is such an overriding imperative that they will overlook the basic facts of the series to achieve this end. The notion that the figures of the wealthy philanthropist and the superhero savior are held up as simple and uncomplicated models, deserving of our prostrate devotion, is silly. Bruce Wayne's parents literally die for their naive limousine liberalism, and the earlier films explicitly suggest the possibility that their position was ultimately a form of cowardice. The figure of Batman himself is also quite problematic throughout the series. He's continually confronted with the uncomfortable similarity between himself and the villains he fights. As the series progresses, it becomes less clear that he's pursuing justice rather than revenge or self-aggrandizement. And of course, the trilogy ends with Bruce Wayne recognizing the inherent deadlock of both his father's limousine liberalism and his own vigilantism, their fundamental inability to address the underlying class tensions that power the series.

It is certainly not impossible to conduct a reading that acknowledges these complexities. But the left seems to derive a perverse pleasure from ruining as many cool things as possible. Maybe they aren't wrong to see something of themselves, then, in Bane's reactionary thugs (who, by the way, are not really staging a revolution, but rather exploiting the pretext of revolutionary class strugge for their own fascistic purposes--exterminating the vermin, eliminating the decadent rot of urban decay, etc.)

Can't we be leftists without being insufferable naysayers? Although that increasingly seems to be a distinction without a difference, there are indeed other ways of proceeding. Consider this alternative reading, which also takes into account the original depression-WWII origins of the story arc, which the entire trilogy explicitly harkens back to: the elder Wayne is the sort of FDR-like figure, seeking to put a bandaid on capitalism to address its inner contradictions, and succeeding somewhat. But his very liberalism is what makes him ultimately unable to destroy the far greater cancerous mutation of capitalism that is fascism (League of Shadows, who explicitly seek to use capitalism as the means to achieve their destruction in the first film). By contrast, it is the illiberal ways of the son (a sort of cult of personality-Stalinist figure), who because he was allied with the enemy (Wayne's initial alliance with LOS--by extension the Nazis, the Ribbentrop pact, etc.) knows how to use the very brutal tactics against them that they will deploy ("any means necessary," as Liam Neeson's character puts it in Batman Begins). 

Like the Soviet Union, Wayne is not of course interested in profits. However--and this is one of the most crucial facts in giving the lie to the reading of Batman as the aloof aristocrat--he is interested in production, transforming Wayne Enterprises into a sort of command economy designed to build the arsenal necessary to defeat the fascistic enemy. This is the reason why Batman/The Soviet Union are both properly tragic figures: it's because they were so perfectly positioned to do the dirty work of defeating fascism, thus saving capitalism from itself, that the Soviet economy would also end up structured in the very way that ultimately destroyed it. For all their power and might, it was something as simple as Wayne's inability to lead a normal life, and the Soviet economy's inability to produce basic consumer goods, that made them unstable figures that had to come to an end. And in a sense then, Batman/The Soviet Union also ironically becomes the ultimate bandaid: by doing Gotham's/democratic capitalism's dirty work, they prevented the very revolutionary upheaval that would have been necessary to truly confront the fascist threat. The collapse of these figures, then, isn't the end of the struggle. It's an acknowledgment that it's back in our hands, that some superhero figure won't be doing the hard work of class struggle for us anymore. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

David Koch donates hundreds of millions to hospitals, public television, and universities: what a selfish prick!

Libertarian blogger Matt Zwolinski queries on Facebook: "watching "The Illusion of Time" on Nova, and see that David Koch is a sponsor. Quick, NY Times - what's his self-interested angle here? Does he want to go back in time so he can exploit the environment even more thoroughly?"

It's important to remember one thing when confronted with large charitable donations by the ultra-wealthy. The rich are different from you and me--money is worth far, far less to them.

Koch is worth $25 billion dollars. 100 million dollars is approximately .4% of his wealth. The average American's net worth is about 37 k.  .4% of that amount is $148. And even still, the latter figure still greatly exagerates how much 100 million dollars is worth to David Koch. Because of the declining marginal utility of money, 100 mil. is actually worth far, far less to Koch than $148 is to the average person. Indeed, donating even billions of dollars would diminish Koch's consumption by approximately zero dollars, and hence hurts him very, very little. An equivalent sum for the average individual is quite literally pocket change.

This indicates that Koch's motives for donating to prominent organizations are also far less generous than they appear to be. Or at the very least, they are no more generous than when the average person offers change to a hobo. Many of the objects of the Koch's largess are already wealthy icons of NY high society, and many other donations are related to research into cancer, which David Koch suffered from while many of those same donations were made. Would you spend a few bucks in order to have a huge gala dinner thrown in your honor, while earning the accolades of your fellow New Yorkers and gaining you a great deal of social capital and perhaps saving your own life? Of course you would!

Many of the institutions the Kochs give to are already quite wealthy and do not particularly need the massive donations that they offer them. If the Kochs really wanted to make a huge difference, and to do so anonymously, they could just send out checks randomly to people in poor areas of the world. Of course, such anonymous giving would not earn them the type of praise and access to high society that gifts to already wealthy organizations on the East Coast do, so it's no surprise that they don't engage in it and that they make sure that there are plenty of witnesses when they do so. The Kochs like to claim that we can dismantle the welfare state thanks to kind hearted mega billionaries like themselves. If the purpose of the welfare state were to allow rich guys to easily gain cheap accolades and to engage in narcissitic self-promotion, this would certainly be true.

Karl Marx, neoliberal hacker

There are, I would argue, two core insights to Marxism: one, a specialized and narrow insight now of primarily historical purview and importance; another, a generalized principle extrapolated from this original context.

The first is that Marx not only is the original and perhaps best representative of what might be termed, in the strictest sense, neoliberalism--meaning simply a new follower of classical liberalism--but that he first demonstrated its subversive core. Marx's distrust of capital stems directly from Smith himself. Smith argued that while the political interests of the laboring and landowning classes were consistent with the wider interests of society--the landowners want to see social and economic progress to increase the value of their land, whereas the workers want to see the same to increase the value of their labor--the interests of capital is not consistent with the general interests of society. As he puts it, the political demands of capital "comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it." While Smith believed that both the laboring and landed interests are equally a universal class, who bring about the general interest in pursuing their own interests, it is only the landed class that is politically capable of effecting policies that lead to these outcomes. But what happens when, in the middle nineteenth-century, it's quite obvious that the landed interest is fastly losing its political clout?

At this point, the truly "neoliberal" conclusion was that the only hope for the broader liberation and prosperity of society was working class consciousness--the elevation of the working class into a politically active agent capable of bringing about the political interventions required for promoting its interests and therefore the general interests. Notice that there is very little in this conclusion that is out of step with Smith--Marx's insight is new in the sense that it is adapted to a situation in which the landed interest has lost its political clout, but it is also classically liberal in the sense that it adopts Smith's basic idea that labor, not capital, constitutes the only remaining universal class in such a situation. The policies that have become entrenched parts of the social contract between labor and capital as a result--child labor laws, the minimum wage, progressive taxation, etc.--are so crucial to our current understanding of the status quo that they don't even register as Marxist. These are important primarily for historical reasons, for understanding the radical origins of things that now seem almost mundane.

The other important insight is that the basic problem that the laboring class solves is generalizable as one of private appropriation--it may take a variety of different forms, but there are always going to be classes whose personal interests are inconsistent with the broader freedom, prosperity, and welfare. The solution to this problem, however, isn't some abstraction. It doesn't necessarily require some elaborate academic plan to counteract--the mere actions, supported by the class consciousness of, a countervailing class whose interests do coincide with the broader prosperity is enough to change the balance of power. Any change that promotes these interest, even if it may seem insignificant, can have a larger effect than it may initially seem. Indeed, regardless of whether the action is big and politically noticeable, or very subtle, a barely perceptible hacking of the market's standard functioning that will bring about a much bigger effect, doesn't matter--both will achieve exactly the same thing. If anything, the radicalism of neoliberalism is an offshoot of this basic Marxist idea of a revolutionary form of class interest, except in reverse--what we call "neoliberalism" simply works on behalf of narrow interests like traditional capital whose interests are harmful to the broader social good.

The particular classes that occupy these spots may change, but the general dynamic is ongoing--in the current moment, nominal aspects of the working class--management--occupy a status that often places it in a position enabling private appropriation at a level far beyond what capital broadly construed is capable of anymore. It's even conceivable that elements of capital in a limited sense--that aspect that belongs to the workers in the form of pension funds, the Social Security Trust Fund, etc.--could occupy a radical position over and against elements of nominal labor (i.e. management). The operative concept behind Marxism is private appropriation, not so much labor v. capital in the strictest and most traditional sense.

What this all indicates is that a lot of the knee-jerk Marxist responses that have long been conditioned may no longer be helpful for advancing the continuing cause of Marxism. Labor, of course, is still the universal class over and against capital, but the very notion of labor now has taken on significant aspects of capital--simply being born in the right place now constitutes a significant hidden capital source, to the point that many immigrants will pay thousands of dollars to obtain illegal entry into the US, and the notion of selling visas is gaining significant "neoliberal" (in the current sense) interest. The whole knee-jerk opposition to offshoring is, to a significant extent, about maintaining the value of this hidden capital.

It's also worth noting what Marxism is not about--it does not need to be a total explanation for all the ills of economic life. Perhaps the overwhelming interest for Marxists at the current moment should be in restoring full employment, raising wages for workers, and restoring education and health care as universal rights. But even if there is broad based support for heavy taxation to fund these things, there's always the question of how to implement such a tax. There's always a day after, and such questions will be its focus.

The medium is the message: reverse engineering the health care marketplace

Economists have long accepted that the market for medical care behaves nothing like most other markets. Dixit Kenneth Arrow, Nobel laureate economist.

Even without reading Arrow's seminal paper, however, it is easy to use common sense to arrive at a somewhat similar conclusion. Just consider the incentives for the average doctor. One way to approach a private practice would be to demand payment up front. But this may alienate customers. If instead I see everyone, and bill a rather large sum after the fact, I could end up with much more money--many people will pay the full amount, some will pay a bit less, and those who cannot pay at all will generally not return. In this fashion I can more effectively screen out the deadbeats without alienating my full-pay clients. I can be a successful provider while also being an ethical practitioner.

While this system may make sense in terms of provider self-interest and the expectations of customers, it hides prices, encouraging overuse and removing competition that lower prices. Some people may blame insurance for this, but even in areas like dental care, where insurance is a much smaller factor, the same sort of price opacity reigns. There are a few health care providers like chiropractors who may occasionally advertise prices, but this price competition is still the exception rather than the rule. I use a chiropractor chain who advertises prices, and although I am generally happy with their services, it feels a lot less like a professional service and much more like I'm receiving a widget. All of which is to say that, to a certain extent, the medium is the message: the way in which we perceive costs or fail to perceive costs is an integral part of the qualitative experience of the service. Hidden prices with retroactive discriminatory pricing produces a much different type of care than up front payment with price transparency.

Both models will always exist to some extent or another. The job of the state, I think, is to more clearly demarcate the boundary between widget and non-widget like services and to increase transparency in those areas where up front cost communication is impractical. Price transparency is only really possible in a situation in which there is some level of standardization in some form or another. This is easy to achieve with widget-like services, but not impossible in other areas either. It is and has always been the job of the state, through either direct control as in cases like roads and the post office, or by regulating prices as in the case of public utilities or the airline industry of yore, or by setting up a medium of exchange that allows for standardized prices, to make such standardization possible.

Some combination of all three techniques is likely necessary in health care. Legislation encouraging price transparency, setting prices in areas where it is impractical for this to occur (or perhaps setting a price chart and then allowing for providers to set a multiplier factor for some level of price competition), and directly running aspects like health insurance to bring about standardization, will all help to transform a system that is currently quite free--providers can set whatever prices they want and negotiate freely with insurance and patients--into one that is only marginally less free but far more efficient. Health care is a good example of how a free market system may not always produce a well-functioning or efficient market. But there are many ways to define freedom, and it would not be hard to invent a new understanding of the term that would still allow for a good deal of individual agency while producing a much more effective outcome.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Depressions as ... well, depression.

Calling periods of falling or stagnant economic output "depressions" is, of course, a metaphor. But there's also something pretty apt about it. Depressed people often find themselves stuck in vicious cycles of destructive behaviors, continuing to engage in actions they know to be harmful and to exacerbate their condition while refusing to take simple steps that may yield improvements. So it is with economic depressions. The mechanism behind them is simple. Smith, Marx, and many before them already understood the simple idea that these are periods in which there is a buyers market, not for one specific good, but for all goods. People hoard money, and the scarcity of buyers depresses activity. It's simple and straightforward.

Perhaps the persistence of these periods is some sign of a failure to understand this mechanism. But it seems to me that this tends to underestimate the attraction of this vicious cycle. As with anyone who has ever eaten another cupcake when you knew you were already disgustingly full, or who has taken another drink when you were already quite drunk and facing a nasty hangover, there's a certain perverse delight in continuing these periods, especially if they portend symbolic suffering rather than some immediate and serious harm. For someone already feeling down, a nasty hangover is just what is necessary to allow them to wallow in pity and lament all of the other problems that they cannot change. In similar fashion, periods of depression allow those who are not seriously harmed by unemployment to feel a certain generalized discontent, and to thus feel all the more intensely negative about other things.

If you are already in a mood to feel bad--if you are of the mindset that wants to harp on all the minute things that seem wrong in your life, or if you are a malcontent pundit who wants to gain more attention for his or her particular hobbyhorse issue--then depressions are actually quite attractive. So it is with individual depression if you are a pharmaceutical company, or mass depressions if you are an employer of low wage labor. It would be downright surprising if such actors avoided acting in their self-interest and prolonging such periods. With corporate profits at an all time high, there's simply little real motivation for the business community to get excited about an end to mass unemployment. For everyone else, well, there's always a certain perverse delight in wallowing in one's own misery .

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Libertarianism: a cry for hindrance

Like Chris Rock, I find people who brag about doing things that most people already do irritating. So it is with libertarians and their continual droning about how much they love freedom. Whether it's addressing each other with turgid phrases like "fan of liberty" or presumptuously titling their websites using eye-rollingly obnoxious names like "Online Library of Liberty," libertarians never tire of announcing their discovery that freedom is, indeed, good as if it were revealed wisdom.

Now, if you're like me, you tend to assume that, until you hear otherwise, most people you meet like freedom--and probably ice cream and cute kitties as well no doubt. When people tell you that they like this stuff, they are not really relaying any useful information for the most part--indeed, it would only be noteworthy if someone told you they did not like this stuff. So why do this? What's the ulterior motive? In the case of some high profile libertarians like the notorious Koch brothers, the motivation is obviously cynical and unprincipled--they own a large oil company and, of course, find pollution legislation to infringe on their oil companies' freedom to pollute. 

Of course, not all libertarians have such shamelessly crass reasons for clinging to this philosophy. And there are a wide variety of version of libertarianism, from the libertarian socialism of Noam Chomsky, to the property-centric vision of thinkers like Robert Nozick. What all of these strands of libertarianism share is a near fetishistic focus on the state--or analogously abstract and distant organizations like large private corporations--as the ultimate root of all limitations on freedom. 

The state is, among other things, an attractive foil to those who have a very abstract, diffuse, and ultimately symbolic view of oppression. It is not a coincidence that libertarianism tends to skew young, white, male, and rich--precisely the individuals least likely to experience any concrete limitations on their freedom and for whom freedom is thus most likely to be an abstract, academic concept. The state has many of the same features as the problems of the awkward teenage boy--both are vague, diffused, and nebulous notions whose representatives are numerous to the point of omnipresence. Freedom, then, is a good name for a solution to a problem that does not exist, the state a good name for the cause of a problem that has no cause. As with the lamentions of actual adolescents about their various imagined hindrances, the protestations of the eternally adolescent may not so much represent a genuine cry for freedom, but a cry for that which the adolescent truly needs: adult supervision. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

BHL v. BRG: Value, vision, and the curious case of the missing asshole tax.

It's strange that the BHL crowd didn't revert to form and suggest a gentler, more hands-off taxation alternative in the debate with BRG. Instead of outright regulation, why not impose a small surtax on companies that use drug testing, search worker's lockers or computers, or impose other restrictions on workplace freedom? When Bloomberg proposed banning sodas, many BHL/liberaltarian/neoliberal types made a counteroffer of a soda tax--where's the asshole tax?

The obvious answer is that BHL doesn't seem very interested in finding an efficient way to tax/regulate jerk bosses, even though they claim some interest in advancing worker interests generally. Indeed, they see what BRG considers to be jerk-store worthy behavior as ultimately socially beneficial profit-seeking. The rationale isn't normal libertarian coldness, they claim, but rather a legitimate doubt whether this enterprise has much value for workers. They question whether workplace restriction constitutes coercion, seeing it instead as a function of the desire to decrease costs and run profitable businesses.

Part of the disagreement is that both sides seem to imagine that workers have a similar hierarchy of values to the ones they have adopted--that workers would, for example, much rather have workplace freedom, even if it comes at the cost of a dollar or two an hour, or that they would much rather maximize utility in such a way that abstract values like workplace freedom play a relatively small part in how workers value their time, and as such are already reflected in market prices for labor. Of course, on one level it is simply an empirical question as to how workers value certain impositions on their freedom in the workplace. But such value does not exist in a vacuum--it is a product of particular systems constituted by a variety of different social, legal, and cultural norms. In some countries, there's not much advantage to living in the city and working for wages compared with being a yeoman farmer in the country, whereas in others there is an enormous difference. Regulations on the urban workplace may keep a society stuck in an agricultural mode by encouraging the latter relative to the former. Or it may bring about changes that, by raising the status of such employment, encourages a new business model, one more conducive to urban development. Such things vary, and a great deal depends on creating smart regulation.

For this reason, the notion that restrictions on bathroom breaks, searches, etc. will reduce workers wages to a significant degree is almost certainly overblown. It may have some temporary distorting effects, but it will also have an effect on culture, law, and social norms in such a way to bring about changes in how people assign value to these indignities. Even if it doesn't, there's certainly more ways to ensure that workers don't steal, abuse bathroom breaks, or come to work under the influence of any drugs that may harm their performance than curtailing workplace freedom. We could look at the problem from the point of view of "why prohibit employees from taking higher paying jobs working for shitty companies who impose crappy rules?" The other way to look at it is why allow a business model in which nice employers have to compete with jerk employers on a level playing field. In the short term, regulation or taxation restricting/disincentivizing the high-wage, high-jerkiness model may lower worker pay, but it will also encourage other solutions to the problems that jerkiness supposedly combats. Neither BRG nor BHL are talking about making workplace theft legal, so it is highly likely that employers, knowing that other employers cannot use the jerk business model anymore, will still seek to prevent worker thefts, on the job intoxication, etc., and pass on some of these gains to their workers. Since they could still arguably do this through carrots rather than sticks--simply being nice and placing trust in workers might be enough, really--there's no reason to think that they wouldn't at least try. As Hobbes noted, all market systems are a product of not simply the scarcity of goods, but also of socio-legal restraints. One easy way to address scarcity is to kill other people and take their stuff. There's no reason for the strong to favor non-killing methods of addressing scarcity until we restrict their economic model and discourage it in favor of a mutually beneficial counterpart. Similarly, there's no reason for inherently jerky bosses to choose the nice guy path until we impose restraints that bias markets in favor of the desired outcome.

What this indicates is that it is probably just best to first focus on what kind of a society with what values we want to have and then worry secondarily about how to make it possible. In some cases, using taxes rather than outright prohibitions might make sense. In others, regulation is preferable to taxes--an a-hole tax may be a case in which regulation is simpler and gentler than taxation, but it certainly wouldn't be that much more difficult.  The Soviet Union decided that it wanted to be a statist, industrialized, command economy, and then it found ways to make this possible. Many of them were highly illiberal and repressive, but illiberal and repressive techniques were also very much in line with the vision they had in mind. Certainly a much more flexible economy like that of the US could implement much more moderate impositions on the power of employers with little effect on efficiency. And certainly BHL types could come up with a way to implement it through a tax. If indeed this isn't even a problem, no one would pay the tax. That they are opposing the idea itself largely on efficiency grounds, rather than finding efficient ways to implement the principles, is telling.