Monday, January 31, 2011

strange game

"I'm lucky to have been in the last cohort of American children to grow up with the living fear of total nuclear annihilation."-Will Wilkinson

There's a lot to say about the larger issue in Wilkinson's post; we are all living in a time of partial internationalisms, which produce rhetorical and theoretical outcomes that are always schizophrenic and often tragic. (There's a class of politico out there that thinks the only way to show respect for the needs of Indonesian mill workers is to demonstrate total callousness towards unemployed Detroit factory workers, and that's cosmopolitanism!) But that's an issue for another day.

No, for this particular quote, I just want to say-- these children may not grow up in living fear of total nuclear annihilation, but they still grow up under the danger of total nuclear annihilation. There are still enough active nuclear weapons in the world to render much of it an apocalyptic wasteland. I'm glad that scenario feels farther off then it did when I was a child, but please. As long as the impediment to such a scenario is human discretion and human virtue, our ticket is close to being punched.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

the great stagnation, part 2

Just one quick observation from the second chapter.

Tyler Cowen's second chapter involves demonstrating slowing productivity across several sectors of the American economy. It also describes some of the epistemological issues regarding the measurement of productivity in regards to medicine, education, and government.

Dr. Cowen makes a fairly convincing case for the lack of gains in productivity in the education sector. But I have a quibble with the discussion: the words "special education" don't appear in the section. It is essential to understand, when we consider education today, that we are educating an entire class of students who for decades were ineligible for public school entirely, or, if they were allowed in, were kept in virtual holding pens where they received no genuine education at all. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 meant a monumental change in education.

The commitment by this country to educate everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from developmental and cognitive disabilities, is a commitment that I think we all can agree is necessary and honorable. But it is not cheap. There are almost 7 million students in the United States who are in special education In the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent year for which I can find statistics, special education in this country cost almost $80 billion dollars.  (It's also worth saying that, despite what many people assume, special education students are not all exempt from standardized testing. Only a small minority of students are checklisted out.) If we're looking for losses in productivity for dollars, the introduction of a new population that is uniquely difficult and exceptionally expensive to educate certainly seems like a major piece of the puzzle.

In the higher education picture, I have said that a similar dynamic is operating, as broad swaths of the population who historically would have been denied entrance into college (and often have unique educational disadvantages) gain entry, and the system struggles to adapt. (I am not equating the challenges facing special education students with those facing students traditionally denied college education.) But that's an issue for a different time.

Sadly, I'm afraid these kinds of dynamics are ignored by the conservative media, as they detract from the conservative media's incessant attacks on education and educators. I'm not accusing Dr. Cowen of that, of course. But consideration of special education is a glaring omission and I hope he addresses it at some time.

the great stagnation, part one

Having read the first chapter of Tyler Cowen's new ebook, I'm struck by how it seems so far to be a useful corrective to a kind of capitalist triumphalism that is popular online. I don't know if Dr. Cowen would see things that way. But certainly the first chapter is in part an endorsement of a certain sobriety in analysis of American capitalism at its present moment.

I won't rehash my skepticism about the current order here. What is important to me is that even if you are a committed or enthusiastic capitalist, you can come to see the danger in an overly triumphant perspective on our economy. What happens is that some are so dedicated to the idea of an ever-rising tide of economic growth that lifts all boats that they fail to see the very real material hardship and suffering under which many still labor. To the true believer, the urge to believe that the utopia lies right before us is very powerful. This might sound like an accusation of callousness, but in fact it's not. Indeed, it's often profoundly decent and truly liberal people who are in a rush to declare victory; they want poverty and need to be overcome to such a degree that they are bent on seeing such a thing before it occurs. But this can lead to a distorted worldview that ignores real suffering, and perception influences policy.

So I'm glad someone with the libertarian and pro-capitalist bona fides that Dr. Cowen has is urging probity when considering the next stage of our capitalist enterprise. Some online write about capitalism with a zeal that approaches religiosity; you don't have to have my convictions to think that this is an error.

I've been tinkering with a unified theory of Internet optimism (and in particular how optimism in certain topics is enforced) but I've never really gotten it quite right. It's nice, though, to see Dr. Cowen also express some modest skepticism in the progress that the Internet represents. This is something that I've been arguing for some time. The problem with arguing that the utility of new goods is underrepresented in considerations of progress is that so many of our new goods are reserved for the realm of entertainment, and that so many of them are restricted to the relatively affluent. It's great that a Playstation 3 is so much more advanced than an Atari 2800, but that benefit is of limited use in ameliorating material suffering, and generally reserved for those who can afford a $1000 HDTV and a $400 video game system.

In a definitional statement, Cowen expresses this with "Recent and current innovation is more geared to private goods than to public goods." What a valuable and concise sentiment.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

nota bene

I've gotten a handful of emails today about some strange comments appearing at a couple of blogs, under the name "Freddie." It's unclear to me why the emailers are assuming that someone is attempting to pretend to be me, rather than this simply being a different person named Freddie. However, just to clear things up, I mostly post comments under my full name now, just to avoid this kind of confusion. There are some negative consequences to being open about my real name in blog discussion, but I think accountability is important. I regularly comment at Matt Yglesias's blog, Alyssa Rosenberg's blog and at the American Scene. I occasionally comment at Will Wilkinson's blog, Julian Sanchez's blog, and at my old digs at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. I very rarely comment anywhere else, aside from if a post of mine is specifically referenced.

Also, just to react to these specific emails, I am most certainly not a 9/11 Truther, as I find those theories absurd. When in doubt about whether I'm engaging on a blog other than those I listed, I suppose just drop me an email, or ask whoever you're talking to in comments. And if you want to know my position on something, far better to look here. Thanks.

notes on a coming project

I'm working on a series of posts dedicated specifically to the Atlantic's reportage and commentary on American higher education. This will involve critiquing various writers from across their website. (Preview: in total, the work I'm considering represents a frankly extraordinary record of dishonesty, inaccuracy, and bias.) I'm interested in doing this in large part because I've come to think that there are some obvious ways that blogging  can evolve for the better, and this series will reflect, I hope, those changes I'd like to see. But the kind of media analysis I want to do takes time, discretion, and real research, precisely the resources that the Atlantic seems unwilling to invest in their discussion of the university, so it will be awhile in coming.

However, I do just want to highlight this passage from Tyler Cowen's new minibook, The Great Stagnation, which I am making my way through now and which I will have a lot to say about later:

In contrast to earlier in the twentieth century, who today is the marginal student thrown into the college environment? It is someone who cannot write a clear English sentence, perhaps cannot read well, and cannot perform all the functions of basic arithmetic. About one third of the college students today will drop out, a marked rise since the 1960s, when the figure was only one in five. At the two hundred schools with the worst graduation rates, only 26 percent of the students will finish. The typical individual in these schools-- much less the marginal individual-- is someone who struggled in high school and never was properly prepared. It also may be the student who, whatever his or her underlying talent level may be, comes from a broken and possibly tragic home environment and simply is not ready to take advantage of college.

Educating many of these students is possible, it is desirable, and we should do more of it, but it is not like grabbing low-hanging fruit. It's a long, tough slog with difficult obstacles along the way and highly uncertain returns.

These are the conditions under which the modern university operates: it is tasked with educating a class of student that it was never traditionally intended to teach, and then relentlessly criticized for not educating them perfectly, cheaply, and quickly. This is a conversation that must be had with great care, and I intend to undertake it thoughtfully and slowly, but it is hard to be patient when confronted with a publication that constantly criticizes with nothing resembling a dedication to fairness or accuracy. To read a given publication engage in reckless criticism day in and day out is annoying; to see such things come from a publication with such a long history, distinguished pedigree, and considerable collection of resources is scandalous. I think an accounting is in order, and I intend to pursue one.

Monday, January 24, 2011

for the love of Christ, Ferris Bueller is not a delusion in Cameron's mind

Via Sully, I see that "Ferris Bueller is a figment of Cameron Frye's imagination" thing is taking off, despite the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever.

It's telling that the write up on has to point out that Sloane is, indeed, a figment of Cameron's imagination too. She has to be, of course; I mean, there she is, talking with Ferris, interacting with him, making out with him! So Sloane isn't real. Of course, if Ferris isn't real, can Ferris's family be real? Probably not, right? So what's the half of the movie that is devoted to his parents and sister about? All of that screen time, the imaginations of Cameron? Does Cameron really sit around his house, imagining Ferris breaking the fourth wall to describe how he fakes being sick to his imaginary mother? That's some serious goddamn psychosis.

Who is the secretary and Principal Rooney talking to on the phone when they are talking to Mrs. Bueller? I'm presuming that Mooney and his secretary are real. Somebody is running that high school. So what's going on? Are these conversations that Rooney is having with Cameron's absentee parents? When the secretary is upbraiding Jeannie, who is she talking to? Who gets arrested for making a phony emergency call to the cops from the imaginary Buellers' imaginary house? (Did Rooney get bitten by an imaginary dog? By Cameron's dog? Would the Frye's really have a dog?)

Does Cameron go to lunch by himself? How does he get into the fancy restaurant without a reservation? Does he pretend to be Abe Froman? If he's pulling the Abe Froman trick, then who is on the other end of the phone call that, in fact, makes the trick possible? When they leave the restaurant, who are they hiding from, if not from Ferris's father? (Are the businessmen sharing a cab with him imaginary too?) Is it Cameron's father? Who the hell is Edward Rooney chasing throughout the Chicago suburbs? Who is drugged up Charlie Sheen hitting on? Whose name is Ben Stein calling out? Is it Cameron Frye's? That would mean that a student is telling him that it was Cameron who supposedly passed out at 31 Flavors last night, right? If so, then why would Ben Stein move on to calling out Frye immediately after that? Or is that interaction, too, all in Cameron's mind? Is there a Ben Stein economics teacher character? Is there a high school?

None of this makes any sense. For it to make a semblance of sense, you've got to imagine that fully ninety-some-odd percent of what appears onscreen is just one of Cameron's many-layered delusions, several of which involve completely quotidian, boring logistics like an imaginary girl having her imaginary boyfriend fake the death of an imaginary (including to the imaginary characters, mind) grandmother. So okay, let's roll with that. My question is why you would bother with the movie at all. If the large majority of interactions involve illusory characters, and we necessarily have to imagine that the presumably real characters are having imaginary interactions with imaginary characters, and we're left with a narrative where almost nothing survives that is real... what the hell is the point?

Some of these theories can indeed be fun, but there's got to be some semblance of internal logic or consistency. Otherwise, the "theory" is as imaginary as, well, this theoretical Cameron Frye's internal world.


germane old post

As the subject is in the news, please consider this post of mine from 2008 about the way in which ingestable opiates can work as an analogy for the drug war in general.

Update: From the comments:

I am a internal medicine resident in my second year. I read this post on Yglesias' blog and I think that it is somewhat factually flawed. While the opiate/acetaminophen combination pills you cite (percoset and vicodin, are the two most popular) are unconscionably stupid, I think it is for other reasons. I really do think initial reasoning of pharma/docs was not "poison the addicts." There is a fashion I don't understand that stresses "synergy" in various medications (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) and the thought in this particular case was probably to reduce the quantity of opiates used, most likely due to fear of side effects. While arguments about intents are somewhat difficult to make, I just don't think you are correct in the assertion that acetaminophen was added as a "poison." You don't ever see the industry/public health/DEA making arguments about the "poison" in Percoset, for example. For good reason! Lots of people without addiction (or with addiction) take these medications every day without any problems. Acetaminophen is really are only toxic when one gets to 7-10g (and probably higher than that), so as a "poison" it simply is not very effective. If you do the math, it is something like 20 or more percoset (depending on the formulation) in one ingestion. For an opiate naive person, the respiratory depression would get you before the liver failure. There are lots of "pharmie" addicts who populate clinics who are just fine; percoset/vicodin are readily available on the street (shocking!). As a poison, it simply isn't especially effective as a deterrent. Furthermore, toxicity of liver failure simply doesn't manifest acutely and it would be difficult to relate cognitively to the addiction. Most patients and addicts I have met have no idea acetaminophen is in the compound. Therein lies the problem. Patients who are in pain take both acetaminophen and these preparations together and, voila, you have the number one cause of acute liver failure. Booze, of course, is the king gorilla of chronic liver failure. I actually counsel addicts (when no one is watching) to switch to oxycodone, as there are less end organ toxicities. While I agree with the general thrust that the state regulation of opiates is incredibly counterproductive and misguided, in this specific case it is more incompetence than conspiracy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

a limited defense of graduate education

I have described the difficult economic and practical realities of pursuing graduate education in the past. (See here.) Now I'd like to offer a limited defense of going to grad school, particularly in this economy.

The first thing to talk about is the ideal of informed choice. To put this argument simply, anyone who chooses to engage in graduate education with a goal of working at a university actually has a vastly better set of employment information than many other occupations. Professional academic organizations keep detailed records of the number of PhDs graduated and the number of job openings. That means that you can understand the odds with numerical precision, at least in the openings/candidates sense. While I have sympathy  for graduate students who fail to fully appreciate the meaning of this kind of research, I have limited sympathy for those who fail to appropriately research the job prospects and the assumed near future of the university. Being a graduate student means, usually, that you are saying "I intend to be a researcher for the rest of my life." If you can't dedicate yourself to fully exploring the numbers, the facts, and the opinions about the academic job market, perhaps it's better to consider your temperament.

What's more, many simplistic takes on graduate education assume an average student. And, of course, there are exceptional students and mediocre students and so on. Of course, self-knowledge about such things is difficult, but it's important to reckon with the fact that some students certainly can and should proceed with some degree of confidence. Additionally, there are as many trends and fashions and dynamics within the academic job market as there are within in any other field, and occasionally, such things can be exploited if a young academic is a mixture of savvy and lucky.

Certainly, though, such things don't change the essential situation. What does change the equation is this: many PhD students are funded with GAs or fellowships that provide tuition reimbursement and a modest stipend. Under these conditions-- and I think people absolutely shouldn't enter a doctoral program without funding-- the calculation changes considerably.

With funding, the arguments against going through a PhD program become rather toothless. It's true that graduate students make scandalously little money for their teaching, but of course PhD funding includes a tuition waiver. And while lord knows how difficult it can be to survive on less than $20,000 a year (in the privileged American sense of "survive"), one of the nice elements of university life is how much is subsidized for students. Killer library access, a rich suite of computer and technical resources at even poorly funded universities, access to all kinds of guidance and expertise, cheap tickets to college sporting events and concerts, lots of subsidized day trips and reduced price tickets for museums and galleries, a genuine community with multiple outlets for social engagement, free condoms by the bushel.... For someone who is willing to live without a plasma TV or a new car, and who doesn't have the pressure of raising children, it can be a stimulating life on little pay.

No, if a graduate student is funded, the argument hinges on the idea of opportunity cost. The graduate student, in this argument, is not merely laboring for little pay, but is losing out on the pay that he or she would be earning at a job. There's many things to say about this, but the simplest is that opportunity cost suggests, well, opportunity. That is, the arguments about opportunity cost often seem to assume a world where you can go and get that uninspiring but reliable, reasonably well-paying office job. Instead, we're operating in a country with something like 12% true joblessness and an absolutely brutally competitive market for those jobs.

It's worth asking: how many Americans, faced with a growing sense of hopelessness after prolonged unemployment, would take the funded PhD deal even if they were certain they wouldn't be employed in a TT job after? In other words, how many Americans would take 4 or 5 years of teaching class, attending class, and generally living the grad student life, all for the paltry wages of a grad student? It's a sad statement about the current economic situation that I think a fair number would.

It's also the case that there are actually more outs than people tend to imagine. It's true that many PhD candidates see anything else than a tenure-track job at a research university as failure. But a long-term contract at a community or junior college, in the broader perspective, can often be rewarding, particularly if your first interest is in teaching rather than in research. Even adjuncting full time is not some horrid life. Obviously, long-term contracts are better, and it helps to have a spouse with medical benefits (but let's see what ACA has up its sleeve in the long run). But the idea that adjuncting four classes is a terrible life, particularly in the context of this economy, doesn't scan to me. (It's true that, as I understand it, long-term adjunct or community college work can hurt a CV for applying to TT jobs, and this seems to me to be one of many ways college administrators and department chairs can walk the talk and make life better for those struggling postdocs.)

Finally, there is the simple fact that education is not exclusively an investment, and that thinking of it as such is perverse. (The tendency to think of absolutely all aspects of human behavior in terms of making an investment or cashing in on one is part of the legacy of some very serious people, and thanks, dudes.) To look at graduate education only as a matter of earning potential and without considering the value of the, you know, stuff you learn and experience is like buying a chair and trying to quantify its value without taking into account the value of sitting in it. For many graduate students, the years in grad school are among the very best of their lives. There are some people who merely want to appear to be scholars, but most are truly obsessed with their idiosyncratic academic issues. To get the opportunity to do little but pursue those interests, teach, and think is a rare privilege.

Does any of this change the basic math? No. Reform is badly needed. Academic departments need to take on less graduate students, particularly unfunded ones. (Some schools that can afford it admit no one to their doctoral programs who won't be funded.) Professors and administrators need to be far more assertive to students that they feel shouldn't pursue a doctorate. This should include refusing to provide letters of recommendation to such students. Fewer grad students will necessarily raise the price of instruction, and it's fair to ask how to facilitate that when the price of college is already rising. This is a whole other discussion, but I would start with walking back the crazy expansion of the ranks of college administrators, which would come along with a perhaps sad but very necessary reduction in the number of extracurricular and athletic activities on college campuses. (Slowing mission creep, in other words.) Additionally, I would counsel a move away from the frankly absurd physical expansion that has occurred at many college campuses, which is part and parcel with the "Club Med plus classes" perspective on collegiate education.

What I am asking for, in the short term, is perhaps just a little more regard for a beleaguered and largely defenseless class of people. I often can't decide what is worse in the endless round of videos and animations and essays describing these tough realities, the openly mocking and hateful, or the crocodile tears of those who merely resent the impertinence of those who want to live the life of the mind. There are plenty who talk about this situation out of deep principle and real concern, of course, but many do not. Academics are my people, and whatever mockery you'd like to come up with, I love them.

Ultimately, though, I doubt that arguments, or qualifications of arguments, like this one will penetrate. This is in part because of the persistent and rampant anti-intellectualism that pervades American life. There is something about the implied judgment of educating yourself that really brings it out of people in our country. (I have friends who are graduate students in other countries, and they always ask me, "why do Americans hate higher education?" They particularly can't understand it because American higher education is the envy of the world.)

But that's not the only thing going on here. Going to law school, long the definition of practicality and the sober pursuit of capitalistic success, has become in a few short years a numerically bad bet, and the boo birds have descended with a frenzy on law students. The absolute glee with which others mock their condition is, frankly, shocking and ugly. Yet it's a perfectly common way of acting these days. I loved this little post from Conor Friedersdorf. Conor recognizes the stale mean-spiritedness that seems to be the order of the day when talking about anyone else's professional or academic choices. What I would ask those who mock anyone for facing an uncertain job market, in this economy-- who are you? And what are you doing that's so great? I don't think that there's every been a time for a person of character to mock wannabe lawyers, scholars, artists, actors, musicians, or any other. But if there ever was, it wouldn't be now, when the idea of full employment seems to be collapsing around us.

Here's what I think: I think everyone is scared. I'm not yet quite 30 years old. I look around at my peers and I see a generation that is rapidly losing any faith in the American social contract. I know many, many people who have been looking for work literally for years, and found nothing. Not nothing as in "nothing that offers the package of salary and benefits they want" but nothing full-time, period. This is an entirely common situation. And I'm sorry to say that, rather than coming together, people are allowing their fear and anxiety to be delivered outward, preempting examination of their own difficult situations by mocking those who are attempting to gain employment in fields where it is very difficult to do so.

If I could do one thing to change the American people, it would be to revive the spirit of solidarity. Solidarity is, I think, essential to the democratic process, but ours has been systematically degraded by the commercial ethic of hyper-individuation. Everyone is a rugged individualist, which is another way of saying that everyone is alone. Solidarity is humane, generative, and liberal, but it doesn't have much place in modern American. There's no money in it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Just briefly-- I've gotten very many thoughtful and engaged emails, both critical and complimentary, in the last few days. I'm trying to make my way through them, and my intention is to respond to every one. Please be patient with me; the semester starts next week, and teaching, in particular, is weighing heavily on my mind and on my time. I appreciate the engagement more than I can say and I am so pleased to hear from so many of you. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

globalize-grow-give progressivism and its discontents

It's necessary now for me to lay out a bit of my beef with standard neoliberal policy preferences. (I acknowledge, as many have pointed out, that it's a squishy term.)

Many of those who are on the neoliberal left endorse what I call the globalize-grow-give school. Representing anyone else's views is always going to involve a bit of distortion, but with that caveat in mind, I think this is a fair representation of a standard view in online progressivism. First, you embrace the standard globalization model of reduced or eliminated tariff walls, large free trade agreements such as NAFTA or CAFTA, deregulation, and general trade liberalization. This encourages international trade and the exporting of jobs from highly-regulated, fairly well compensated, high worker standard of living places like the United States to the cheap labor, low regulation, low worker standard of living places like China or Indonesia. This spurs international economic growth in both the exporting and importing countries. Here at home, higher growth results in higher tax  revenues which can then be redistributed from those at the top of the income distribution (who have benefited from the globalized trade regime) to those at the bottom of the income distribution (who have been hurt by the globalized trade regime that undercuts their wages and exports their jobs). 

There's a lot to be said for this scheme, and a lot of criticisms can and have been made about each part. There is an important set of critiques, virtually unheard of on the mainstream blogosphere, about the coercion that happens in enforcing the globalized trade regime. There is a lot of evidence that third world countries are essentially forced into these trade agreements, in particular with the levers of the devoutly globo-friendly IMF and World Bank. There has been internal resistance from workers and indigenous peoples within the nations that are receiving the supposed benevolence of imported American factories, resistance that is often squashed quite  brutally by the regimes of those countries. (One of the sadder elements of this model is that globalizing trade means dealing with, and often empowering, foreign regimes that are democratic and humanitarian nightmares-- but this authoritarianism is often quite convenient for enforcing the trade regime in the first place.) There are a lot of places you can read about this sort of thing online, though not in the mainstream political conversation, generally.

There are often serious questions about the role of globalization in economic growth, although that free trade spurs growth is axiomatic in most political circles. In particular, some make the case that many of the strongest economic actors in the world, notably the Asian miracle economies of Japan and Korea but also most certainly the United States and Britain, grew through the protection of infant industries until those industries were capable of competing on the international stage, and only then was trade liberalized. This means that the dominant economies of the world are essentially asking third world economies to undertake trade policies that they themselves didn't when it was to their advantage not to. I lack the economic literacy to really prosecute such an argument, but I'd recommend Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans for a sophisticated and in-depth examination of this argument. (You can see a video with Chang here discussing some of these issues.)

One thing that is frustrating about arguing about neoliberal doctrine is that positive world conditions are always seen as consequences of trade liberalization, but negative conditions are always the consequence of corruptions of trade liberalization. I bring this up because the global economic crisis that has afflicted us for several years certainly seems like it should be, at the very least, a troubling statement about neoliberal economic policy. But I rarely see an admission that, for example, the exportation of jobs overseas is a contributing factor to 12% true joblessness.

However, in the interest of comity, let's examine globalize-grow-give in the context of ideal outcomes. So let's say we've gotten the globalized economy and seen the growth. What's my issue? There are certainly worse outcomes than that, but here's my perspective: the goal shouldn't be to provide for the material well-being of the worst off. The goal should be to empower the worst off to provide for their own material well-being, and I think the best way to do that is to defend the right to organize which should, if workers desire it, lead to more powerful and prevalent trade unions. I'm not, of course, opposed to a social safety net, and one has to be maintained in particular for the unemployed or underemployed. But social safety nets can't produce equality of self-empowerment. And the issue, ultimately, is one of power.

I think g/g/g progressives are too sanguine about their ability to provide for the third g, the establishment of social programs to defend the worst off. Look at the health care debate. Certainly, access to quality health care strikes me as a minimal requirement for the kind of social program regime that we're talking about. But as we've learned, many, many people don't believe that. Many instead see health care reform as the creeping onset of socialism, even when almost everyone acknowledges that the status quo was a massive clusterfuck. I can understand, theoretically, the idea that advantages of an empowered and valuable labor pool could be replaced by redistributive social programs. But the Tea Party and the general American political strife seem to disprove the idea that we could consistently provide those programs to those who need them.

Suppose we were able to pass the ideal set of social programs to ameliorate the downward pressure on labor from globalization. The question is, what about tomorrow? Look, again, at health care reform. We've passed an inadequate but genuinely positive set of reforms. But one of our two major political parties and seemingly the combined conservative and libertarian ideologies are dead set on repeal. This is the condition that g/g/g progressives ask workers and the lower classes to live under: their material well-being is always subject to the whims of the political process.

You might suggest that there is no alternative, but I would argue that this contradicts history. The history of the American labor movement (and the great gains it secured for workers in the first half of the 20th century) is a history not of securing the blessing of the American political machine but rather of workers taking control themselves. Strikes, sit-ins, and various other forms of direct action were not appeals to the political process but the wresting of actual control of the means of production. The regulatory regime Americans now enjoy (and most third world workers, sadly, do not) came only after most of those advances were first fought for by the labor movement. Workers can organize to secure their own interests, but not if their jobs are eliminated and the value of their labor is relentlessly pushed downwards by sending jobs to places where workers are, frankly, brutally exploited.

There's a valuable insight in the power of markets: people know far better what they need and want than other people can predict for them. I ask that this thinking be applied to the needs of workers. I have no doubt that the well-meaning and enthusiastic bloggers that support the globalize-grow-give model want only the best for workers, but wanting what's best for others and allowing them to provide for their own needs are two separate things. The g/g/g model is inherently paternalistic. 

Matt Yglesias writes
I bow to no one in my left-wing egalitarian convictions. I think taking tax revenue that could be handed to poor people and spending it on this instead is a waste. I think sales taxes on clothing are highly regressive. I know that the tariff system is not only complicated, but specifically engineered to tax luxury items at lower rates. And I agree with Karl Marx that the growth of factory job opportunities in formerly peasant societies is an enormous force for human progress.
I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily disagree with those points, but who find it somehow unseemly for progressives to point it out. After all, that’s the dread free market neoliberalism. There may be some things that the right-wingers are correct about, but it should be their job to do the heavy-lifting. The real left focuses its energy on highlighting the flaws with the market. But there’s something achingly naive about expecting the right to enact the sound free market ideas that would be beneficial to poor people. Since when does the right care about poor people? Since when does the right care about ideological consistency? If egalitarians want to advance egalitarian ends, then we need to advance egalitarian ends on all possible fronts, not try to divvy things up and expect Paul Ryan to reduce sneaker taxes for us.
But consider the assumption here: egalitarian means equity in material outcomes, not equity in power. I do want to advance egalitarian ends; egalitarianism starts with equality of power. If there's one change I'd like to see the left of the blogosphere take up, it would be a return to talking frankly about power imbalances, competing and balancing forces, and orientation towards winners and losers. It is undoubtedly true that politics and economics are not always zero sum, and I understand that part of building a better world is convincing those at the top that their interests can be served by helping those at the bottom. But too many well-meaning, liberal (in the best sense) bloggers have convinced themselves that all political or economic situations are non-zero sum, and that simply isn't true. Sometimes you have to choose sides, and when the time comes for side choosing, I know where I stand. 

Finally, please read Ryan Avent. The question of cosmopolitan viewpoints on social goods and the needs of the international poor vs. the needs of the domestic lower class is an extraordinarily powerful and necessary question. It deserves its own post, and I'll have to write one up. The crux is that choosing between what is best for American workers and what is best for the third world workers is a false dilemma, but it's a complex question that requires great care.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Confession time: while I stand by just about everything I wrote, I will cop to a certain amount of planned outrageousness in the post. You'll have to forgive me. If I'm right in my description of the situation as laid out in the post, it's necessary for me to be provocative. Asymmetrical warfare depends not on the power of the initiating actor but on the disproportionate nature of the response. I will further confess to having written most of the post weeks ago (inspired by a little teasing from Julian Sanchez, actually). I knew the middle of the holiday season was the worst time to post it. I knew MLK weekend was the best time to post it-- not because of symbolism but because of the news cycle and the rhythm of the blogosophere. It worked out.

I guess I can still bring it out of people.

I'm sorry some people thought I was just taking personal swipes at Yglesias and Klein; I didn't mean that. My point is and was that they and a few others are called the left-wing extreme on political blogs all the time, and they aren't really left-wing, and it muddles the debate. It makes it harder for them, too, and a real left-wing would help provide cover for them, as well as represent a voice I happen to like. A lot of people wrote to tell me what a good guy they both are, and I never meant to dispute that; I don't know either of them. Being good dudes is just far besides the point, and the preeminence of personal stuff is a big part of the problem.

By the way-- I never used the term "sellout," and I wouldn't, in large part because that's a distortion of my argument. It bothers me that the term seems to be getting thrown around in response to my piece.

So it's been gratifying to get this into the conversation; I can't tell you how important I think it is to have people like Jon Chait and Kevin Drum and so on weighing in on this. And I think it supports my reading of the landscape. Drum doesn't deny that he isn't a conventional leftist. Chait does the same. (Someone called Chait's post mean spirited, but I just find it direct and honest.) Yglesias takes a different tack in denying that he's left in degree, but I don't think his policy platform contradicts a lack of interest in supporting labor. For context, part of the reason I wanted to bring this up was because many of MY's commenters, not just me, have been asking him essentially these questions for months without any response. Ezra Klein weighed in within the comments section of the initial post, and Will Wilkinson had smart things to say as well.

I am sorry, though, for the Twitter ugliness. To put it succinctly, some conservatives were taking gratuitous swipes at the post on public Twitter feeds. I responded in an update to the post. Some people felt, for some odd reason, that this was out of bounds. But, look-- people were talking trash on public Twitter feeds. So I talked back. If you don't protect your tweets, they're public. Twitter is a public forum. It's not passing notes in biology class. I understand why people get bent out of shape about this, and it's why I fucking hate Twitter: it turns everybody cliquey. It's public, but gated through the following system, and it encourages a situation where people look to their in group to back them up in a kind of weird public/private fusion. And as I said, a bunch of conservatives dismissing my piece, often with vulgarity and nastiness, doesn't exactly go a long way to refuting my point. By all means, eviscerate what I say, but do so openly. Twitter creates a sense of false openness in a public forum while limiting accountability and creating an echo chamber.

But look, I am  fully capable of being a first class dicknose, and I am sorry for not being better than the tenor of those attacking me. Personally, I've always signed my real name to everything I write on the Internet, I try to email others and remain open to their emails, and I will frequently apologize or correct something, or at least report a grievance in my own space. Best I got for you.

One reason that it may have read as more angry is that I dearly wanted to avoid a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. While movement conservatism's long campaign to be branded an oppressed minority has been very good for them strategically, it has been very bad for them on substance. (I wrote about that in an essay I'm quite proud of.) I was hoping to avoid too much self-pitying, though I won't argue to hard that I did that perfectly.

Now then-- since the estimable Yves Smith and many others have called me out... Smith says, "As one of my correspondents noted, 'We don’t lack people willing to ask others to take a bullet for them.'"

True enough. So look, the thing is that I'm not built for the day-to-day blogging grind. I get overly emotionally involved and then I'm unfair to someone and then I'm a mass of guilt for days. For some reason I've been stuck in the "a blog is several times a day" deal but as people have pointed out, there's no reason for that. So I'll try and post here every once and awhile but with no expectation of real regularity, and if anybody cares to read, cool. And the first order of business will be on substance, not metablogging, and will concern my stance on neoliberalism and what I call the globalize-grow-give school of the American left wing.

Finally, I want to dispute a cruel rumor: I don't have a dog named Trotsky. His name is Miles.

He is a Maoist, though. It gets tense when we talk politics.

I know, I know. Preemptive dog blogging. The last refuge of a scoundrel.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

the blindspot (updated)

I'm sorry, but I feel compelled.

The last week has seen an endless discussion, within the political blogosphere, about the meaning of rhetoric, extremism, and what is acceptable discourse. I'm on break now, so I've been more attentive than usual. I find I can barely express what a profound failure, on balance, the conversation has been. Bloggers fail to have this conversation honestly because they are incapable of seeing or unwilling to admit that the political discourse, in our punditry, lacks a left-wing.

There are many myths within the political blogosphere, but none is so deeply troubling or so highly treasured by mainstream political bloggers than this: that the political blogosphere contains within it the whole range of respectable political opinion, and that once an issue has been thoroughly debated therein, it has had a full and fair hearing. The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.

That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention. Who, exactly, represents the left extreme in the establishment blogosphere? You'd likely hear names like Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald. But these examples are instructive. Is Hamsher a socialist? A revolutionary anti-capitalist? In any historical or international context-- in the context of a country that once had a robust socialist left, and in a world where there are straightforwardly socialist parties in almost every other democracy-- is Hamsher particularly left-wing? Not at all. It's only because her rhetoric is rather inflamed that she is seen as particularly far to the left. This is what makes this whole discourse/extremism conversation such a failure; there is a meticulous sorting of far right-wing rhetoric from far right-wing politics, but no similar sorting on the left. Hamsher says bad words and is mean in print, so she is a far leftist. That her politics are largely mainstream American liberalism that would have been considered moderate for much of the 20th century is immaterial.

Meanwhile, consider Tim Carney and Mark Levin. Levin has outsized, ugly rhetoric. Carney is, by all impressions, a remarkably sweet and friendly guy. But Carney, in an international and historical context, is a reactionary. Those who sort various forms of extremism differentiate Levin and Carney because Levin's extremism is marked in language, and Carney's extremism is marked in policy. The distinction matters to bloggy taste makers. Meanwhile, Hamsher's extremism in language is considered proof positive of extreme left-wing policy platform. No distinction matters; genuinely left-wing politics are forbidden and as such are a piece with angry vitriol.

Greenwald, meanwhile, might very well have actually left-wing domestic policy preferences. I honestly have no idea; Greenwald blogs almost exclusively about foreign policy and privacy issues. In other words, his voice is permitted into the range of the respectable (when it is permitted at all; ask Joe Klein if Greenwald belongs at the adult table) exactly to the degree that it tracks with libertarian ideology. Someone whose domestic policy might (but might not) represent a coherent left-wing policy platform has entrance into the broader conversation precisely because that domestic policy preference remains unspoken.

I hardly even need to explain the example of Markos Moulitsas. Moulitsas is a blogging pioneer and one with a large audience. But within the establishmentarian blogosphere, the professional blogosphere of magazines, think tanks, and the DC media establishment, he amounts to an exiled figure. See how many times supposedly leftist bloggers within this establishment approvingly quote Moulitsas, compared to those who approvingly quote, say, Will Wilkinson, Ross Douthat, or John Cole. Do some of these bloggers have legitimate beef with Kos? Sure. But the fact that his blog is a no-go zone for so many publications, while bad behavior from those of different ideological persuasions is permitted, ensures that the effects of this will be asymmetrical. I believe that people have to create positive change by changing their own behavior, but I also am aware that the nominal left capitulates to demands that they know the right absolutely will not capitulate to themselves. And so the right wins, again and again.

No, the nominal left of the blogosphere is almost exclusively neoliberal. Ask for a prominent left-wing blogger and people are likely to respond with the names of Matt Yglesias, Jon Chait, Kevin Drum.... Each of them, as I understand it, believe in the general paternalistic neoliberal policy platform, where labor rights are undercut everywhere for the creation of economic growth (that 21st century deity), and then, if things go to plan, wealth is redistributed from the top to those whose earnings and quality of life have been devastated by the attack on labor. That there are deep and cogent criticisms of the analytic, moral, and predictive elements of neoliberalism is an argument for another day. That those criticisms exist, and that they emanate from a genuine left-wing position, is a point I find perfectly banal but largely undiscussed in political blogs. And that's the problem. Whatever those bloggers are, they are not left-wing, and the fact that they are the best people can generally come up with is indicative of the great imbalance.

There are two axes of neoliberalism. The first, substantive neoliberalism, means fidelity to the economic policy platform of globalization in the elimination of tariff walls and other impediments to the "free market," incredible antipathy towards organized labor (and, effectively if not intentionally, towards workers in general), resistance to the regulatory apparatus that has protected workers for decades, and the general belief that the way to ameliorate the moral outrages of capitalism is to pursue more capitalism.

The second axis of neoliberalism, constitutional neoliberalism, is the reflexive antileftism within the ideology. This is the tendency of the neoliberal to assume the superior seriousness of the man to his right and the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the man to his left. This is the sneering, superior neoliberalism, the neoliberalism obsessed with status and authority, the neoliberalism that is utterly in thrall to the idea of Intellectually Seriousness and the notion that possessing it means falling all over yourself to dismiss the actual, historical, socialist left. This is Peter Beinart calling for culls in liberalism to ostracize and silence anyone who dares question American aggression. This is Mickey Kaus doing his elaborate dance, calling himself a Democrat and liberal while he mouths every anti-leftist screed possible, calling unions the cause of all of our problems while unions are a dessicated, impotent shell of what they once were. This is the Atlantic publishing a post full of faux-concern over the fate of the labor movement as if its leadership hadn't spent decades, secure in their upper-middle class comfort, attacking the ability of working people to provide for their own interests. This is Tom Friedman and Michael Kinsley and the whole crew of careerists at The New Republic, all of them possessed of the notion that their real enemies are not the people who create the conditions of poverty and inequity in the world but the ones most vocal and dedicated to fighting those conditions by attacking the root cause.

The two intermingle, of course. The neoliberal economic platform is enforced by the attitude that anyone embracing a left-wing critique of that platform is a Stalinist or a misbehaving adolescent. This is the critique of the Very Serious Person: there is a very narrow slice of opinion that is worthy of being considered reasonable or mature, and that anyone who argues outside of it should not be given a seat at the table of serious discussion. Genuinely left-wing opinion is not to be debated but to be dismissed out of hand. Those who argue for a robust series of labor protections, an unapologetic and proud left, a meaningful alternative to the capture of our economic apparatus by corporate power, or (god forbid) something resembling genuine socialism-- even to speak as if their arguments require rebuttal is too much. Far better to demonstrate true repudiation by assuming away the left-wing critic than to assume that his or her position is at least worthy of attention. In this sense, conservative bloggers and pundits are actually fairer than their neoliberal brethren. I've found that they'll actually debate with me, albeit while usually holding their noses. Many neoliberal bloggers maintain an unspoken but meticulously curated policy of not allowing left-wing criticism to enter their rhetorical space.

All of this sounds merely like an indictment, but I genuinely have a great deal of sympathy for those young rising politicos and bloggers who are constitutionally disposed to be left-wing. What they find, as they rise, is a blogging establishment that delivers the message again and again that to be professionally successful, they must march ever-rightward. That's where the money is, after all. For every Nation or FireDogLake, there is an Atlantic or Slate, buttressed by money from the ruling class whose interests are defended with gusto by the neoliberal order. I have followed more than a few eager young bloggers as they have been steadily pushed to the right by the institutional culture of Washington DC, where professional entitlement and social success come part and parcel with an acceptance that "this is a center-right nation" is God's will. I wish they wouldn't move in that direction, but I don't know what great choice many of them have; blogging is an aspirational culture, and there is an endless number of young strivers, emboldened by unexamined privilege and the kind of confidence that can only come from having money you didn't earn, ready to take the place of those who step out of line.

Those who are already firmly ensconced within the upper reaches of bloggy success have less excuse. Many of the young, upwardly-mobile bloggers out there take their cues from Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. I don't begrudge either of them their policy preferences, even while I disagree with them. But each represents, in his own, the corruption and capitulation that comes with prominence and success in this culture. I genuinely don't know what the hell happened to Matt Yglesias. I long called him my favorite blogger. I've never mistaken him for someone who shares my politics. But he was, once, part of the resurgence of pride in leftism. He was one of the voices, in the midst of the Bush-era darkness, making it plain that he was unapologetic about being a creature of the left. In the last year or so, that stand has completely disappeared. He is now one of the most vocal of the neoliberal scolds, forever ready to define the "neoliberal consensus" as the truth of man and to ignore left-wing criticism. Indeed, I'm not sure that you could even understand that he has critics from his left, judging by what he chooses to discuss on his blog. This is a particularly cruel way to erase the left-wing from the discourse: to pretend that it doesn't exist. Look over his archives even briefly and you'll find, time after time, that he asserts that everyone largely agrees with him. This is one example, but this has basically been his jam since Obama took office. When he posts about the sublime rationality of deregulation (which, we must take care to remember, always seems like a good idea to those whose workspace contains nothing more dangerous than a laptop), or when he says (I'm not joking) that American workers are overcompensated, I want to tell him that everyone most certainly does not agree with him.

I don't know what compelled this change. Perhaps the Center for American Progress has influenced him; that kind of run-of-the-mill centrist organization inevitably redounds to the benefit of the moneyed class that makes it possible. Or perhaps it comes from spending too much time in DC, where there is always another party with folks from Cato or Reason. I'm not saying people shouldn't socialize; I am saying that those on the nominal left should take notes from their friends across the aisle who are able to have drinks with someone without moderating their message.

Klein, meanwhile, means well. That is 90% of what people say about Klein; he is smart and means well and has those all-American good looks and dammit, if you can't respect him, you're a bastard or an ideologue. (Mickey Kaus is obsessed with bashing him, if that tells you anything.) I don't doubt that he's a good guy. I don't doubt that almost all of them are good people. I just find him so bloodless and conciliatory that I don't know what good can come of liberalism if it takes its cues from him. This was at its worst during the Journolist imbroglio; everyday, there would be more mean meanies being mean about Journolist members, and there would be more aggrieved sighing from Klein. At his best, he is probing and incisive. At his worst, he does his Saint Ezra routine, where being correct on policy is supposed to flow directly from his moral rectitude. I can't dismiss his preference for a genial globalized social order out of hand, much as I may want to, but I wish he understood that his lack of fire, combined with his considerable access and influence teaches young liberal pundits that there is more to be gained from being a caricature of a Very Reasonable Fellow than there is from sticking to principle.

I don't know what's to be done about all this. On a personal level, I like many of the people I'm critiquing very well. If good intentions were enough this world would be a different place. And I definitely don't enjoy constantly feeling compelled to fight with people with whom I would much rather agree. But I operate within the blogosphere as it is, not as I wish it would be, and unlike people from other ideological stripes I cannot rest in the knowledge that someone out there will forcefully articulate my position. I can expect just opposite, that a genuinely left-wing position-- one from the socialist left, the internationalist left, of the kind that can be found in force in almost every other democracy in the world-- will go unsaid. Worse, the fact that it goes unsaid will be taken by those within the blogosphere that no such position exists.

I was finally driven to write this post by the recent discussions, driven by Chris Beam's article, on libertarianism. I am someone who frequently develops great hope for a hypothetical libertarianism and is consistently disappointed by the actual libertarianism. I'm sorry to say that, if the reaction to Beam's piece is any indication, what libertarians have taken from their tempestuous love affair with movement conservatism is the political salience of constantly complaining about how oppressed you are. I ask, and I wonder, if libertarians ever stop to ponder what it's like to operate from an actually forbidden perspective. I take it that there isn't, actually, a great imbalance in the number of American libertarians (in any sense amenable to the Cato and Reason crowd) and the number of Americans who would consider themselves leftists, or very liberal, or the like. The ranks of American minarchism, after all, are quite small in number. Bush's compassionate conservatism, the inverse of the standard libertarian platform, was a real winner. But while libertarians are tiny in number they are mammoth in influence. This is the case because they've got money, money to fund enterprises like Cato or Reason or smaller outfits. I'm not saying that this is illegitimate. (There's something awfully poetic about libertarianism getting influence by buying it.) I'm just saying that there's no sense in which the lack of a leftist blogosphere is necessarily the product of small demographic representation.

If there was a different libertarianism.... I frequently imagine that an ideology with "liberty" right in the title might be a mad, teeming collection of every flavor of crazy and dreamer, a loose confederation rife with difference and disagreement. Difference so vast that it might, by god, lead some to find common ground with someone like, well, me.

Instead, we have only the libertarianism that exists. And that libertarianism is the America ideology least accepting of difference, most committed to policing orthodoxy. It is, on balance, a model of lockstep adherence to the standard libertarian cause. Who could be a better symbol of today's libertarianism than Matt Welch, the snarling head of Reason, a man notorious for keeping those under Reason's banner within the small grounds of the libertarian reservation? I have searched but found no libertarians particularly amenable to seeing the tension between an ideology dedicated to freedom and an institutional apparatus that enforces orthodoxy. I bring all this up because I have always thought that there is room for libertarians to at once disagree totally with left-wing policy but to support the idea that the left-wing should be given a seat at the table. The reality, I'm sorry to say, is the opposite. I find it so hard to take, when libertarians complain about how misunderstood and oppressed they are, because nobody redbaits like libertarians do. Nobody. Nobody is more eager to excise the dirty commies from the realm of acceptable opinion than your average libertarian, while the similarly berate the powers that be for confining them to the intellectual ghetto of their imagination.

So you can imagine why I might be compelled to pull my hair out by something like this Bloggingheads episode with Adam Serwer and Michael Moynihan, where, in a discussion about acceptable rhetoric, Moynihan laments the use of the term "eliminationist" in political dialogue. On the merits, I think he has a point, but perhaps Moynihan would find the term less in use if he wasn't someone who so enthusiastically participated in the behavior that people usually describe as eliminationist. I have a hard time imagining someone less hospitable to far left opinion than Moynihan. He constantly is declaring international thinkers, politicians, and authors communists, and assuming that this terminology alone is enough to dismiss them. Meanwhile, I like Serwer, but he is in many ways exactly the kind of establishmentarian liberal who is least able to rebut someone like Moynihan-- conciliatory rather than aggressive, more likely to look for compromise than to stand his ground. Perhaps that's maturity and strength. But I look around and see a liberal dialogue that is dangerously self-marginalizing because of its refusal to take commitment to ideals as a point of pride in the same way that conservatives and libertarians do. Again, I can't fault Serwer for being who he is, and he is justly successful. But I lament the fact that he operates in a context where there are so few left-wing warriors equivalent to Moynhian, which the right seems to produce in throngs.

I long ago had to come to terms with a political era and a political machine that is not my own and never likely to please me. I do wonder what a critique like this one might accomplish, were it to penetrate the greater bloggy consciousness. It would take someone with publicity and access to bring it into the conversation, and as I've said, very, very few of genuinely left-wing socialist policy preferences are ever allowed into the Club. Even if it got there-- even if, somehow, a critique like this one could puncture the carefully constructed bubble of blogospheric consciousness, the one which limits debate and sets the boundaries of "acceptable" discourse so narrowly-- I can predict a sad response. Many would set out to deny the possibility that political blogs contain anything less than the full panoply of human political opinion, and would do so with exactly the mechanism I'm describing here: the existence of a nominal left-wing that represents merely a slightly different flavor of neoliberal doctrine would provide cover for those not even nominally left-wing. The Matt Yglesiases, the Ezra Kleins, the Jon Chaits, the Kevin Drums-- they would likely support the neoliberal orthodoxy that has captured the debate by denying that any such dynamic could exist. That would give an out to the conservatives and libertarians to say "see, even the Liberal Ezra Klein says...." Every time there is agreement between, say, Yglesias, Ross Douthat, and Will Wilkinson, this is taken as a sign that of a lack of disagreement to their position, rather than as an indicator of the narrow confines of blogger opinion. Once again, the idea that there is some sort of genuine ideological disagreement within the space would paper over the fact that little such disagreement exists.

I'm not a proponent of any kind of a Fairness Doctrine. Yes, it's true; I think the blogosphere would be a truer, more productive, more interesting, more entertaining, more generative, more self-effacing, more American place, were it to permit an actual left-wing. But you couldn't force such a thing and I wouldn't want. People are always permitted to take their ball and go home. But once they do, it would be polite for them to stop pretending that this is the same as winning the game. The blogosphere will go on being what it is, but it could at least have the self-knowledge and the probity to admit its bias and its lack of balance. I often find myself wondering of Matt Yglesias-- when he talks about a world without serious disagreement with his policy preferences, is he talking about just the world of blogs and punditry, or the wider, wilder world of political thought? And is he talking about the way things sadly are, or the way he wishes it to be? The difference means everything.

I'm a lefty. I wish I could pretend that I have the intelligence and the perspective necessary to divide my beliefs from my appraisal of the situation, but I have neither. All I know is that I look out onto an America that seems to me to desperately require a left-wing. American workers have taken it on the chin for thirty years. They have been faced for years with stagnant wages, rising costs, and the hollowing out of the middle class. They are now confronted with that and a cratered job market, where desperate people compete to show how hard they will work in bad conditions for less compensation. Meanwhile, the neoliberal policy apparatus that brought us here refuses even to consider the possibility that it is culpable, so certain of its inherent righteousness and its place in the inevitable march of progress. And the blogosphere protects and parrots that certainty, weeding out left-wing detractors with ruthless efficiency, while around it orbits the gradual extinction of the American dream.


Medicine taking department:

Erik Kain, from my old digs at the League, responds with a post entitled "No True Leftist," suggesting the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. I take the criticism that, if you  draw the lines tightly enough, you're never likely to be happy about the representation of your ideas by others. That's true, but I think that there's a lot of space between my ideal theory and a generally more leftist, labor-supporting viewpoint on the blogosphere.

Erik writes
Indeed, so far as I can tell the greatest threat to Freddie’s ideas receiving no exposure by Very Serious People is Freddie deBoer himself. By removing himself from the debate he has contributed vastly to his own complaint. Because Freddie was getting his ideas out there and then he stopped. Maybe he was frustrated because his ideas weren’t spreading into the liberal blogosphere the way they were getting attention on many conservative and libertarian blogs. That’s fair – it certainly can be frustrating to feel as though you aren’t being taken seriously by the people who matter most. I guess I’d just suggest patience.
This, actually, is untrue. It's worth saying that I once had the opportunity, not too long ago, to blog for money-- not a lot of money-- for a fairly mainstream progressive enterprise. I turned it down for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my continuing fear that my blogging will come back to ruin my career in the academy, as it may even without professionalization. In fact, I stopped blogging because my personality is a poor fit with the prerequisites of being a good blogger. That's my fault, not blogging's fault, but there is it. And this is my larger point to Erik and to others: I reserve the right to want more from left-wing blogging and punditry than I am capable of providing myself.

In the comments of that post, Jason Kuznicki writes
I find Freddie’s characterization of Matt Welch quite unfair. When Ron Bailey changed his mind about global warming several years ago, he didn’t get fired. He’s still at Reason, still posting monthly climate updates, still shaming the denialists.
This is a fair criticism. I am talking about both things that you hear, the way you hear things, and specific complaints from more specific quarters. But while I do feel that Welch cultivates a certain image as the libertarian police, it's true that I likely shouldn't have trafficked in innuendo, and for that I do apologize. I'm quite sure Welch would tell me to stick my apology up my ass.

The Shatterer of Worlds (really!) writes

But he holds his most delicate yet withering fire for the Young Will Huntings of the lefty Blog world, Matt and Ezra. Freddie takes pains to say that he likes them both, I mean, REALLY LIKES them, but still…

This is a little disappointing-- I was actually really trying to avoid the kiss-and-slap thing, just because it reeks of dishonesty and because it can be part and parcel of the "let's just be friends" attitude where a lot of important differences go unsaid. But, yeah, it's true; I admire them both, as disingenuous as that likely now sounds.

In my own comments, (Clint) writes "Lastly, you may be ignored in the blogosphere but your viewpoint utterly rules the universities (which treat conservative dissenters with overt hostility and intimidation, both socially and institutionally)." As a life-long university brat and grad student, I think this is less true than people think. But, look, yes-- I find the academy far more hospitable to my beliefs than the world of politics. Similarly, I have a lot of lefty friends (many of whom think I'm a squish) who have their own rhetorical spaces and not-inconsiderable soft power. What depresses me is precisely that I could remain in that space, comfortably, for my whole life, and that those who don't like the left-wing could reside in the political blogosphere in the same way. In a sense, this is my point entirely: these ideas do exist, from a small but committed group, and I think that they could have real salience and positive effects for the blogging world. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

TGGP says "I found it odd that initially you complained that Hamsher & Greenwald (the latter is one of my favorite pundits) are considered extreme for their tone rather than policy. So you think we should sort pundits by their actual ideology rather than tone. Then for Ezra Klein you complain about his conciliatory tone." This is fair, and I don't have much in the way of a rebuttal.

Nyetter says, "This entire post can be reduced to 'I didn't get the memo that Communism failed.'" More graciously, (Clint) says " Please consider the role played by tens of millions of victims of state murder in Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, etc." Here, I am unapologetic: this is bullshit. One of the points on which I am most adamant is that we need to allow people to be more radically redistributive than the American mainstream without immediately accusing them of being communists. There's a discrepancy, I think, in what is allowed in terms of ideal theory here; people on the right, for example, while often teased for them, are allowed to speak their ideal minarchist theories without having to constantly distance themselves from Somalia and Mogadishu. I ask the same of Maoism, Stalinism, the Khmer Rouge, etc.

To be clear: anyone with radically redistributive policy preferences has to wrestle with the history of those things, which represent one of the most profound moral, intellectual, humanitarian, practical, and political failures of world history. What I object to is the idea that we have to constantly tell people that we have wrestled with them, forsake Stalin and communism, etc. That itself is a form of marginalization, constantly asking people to define themselves in relation to an extreme they never endorsed.

Update II: Michael Brendan Dougherty tweets:  "@ayjay shorter freddie: Tim Carney may be addressing day to day policy questions, but really I think he is as extreme as I am. Extremer even." Well, no. Dougherty is a guy who perpetually can't decide if he wants to be in the Cool Kid Squad or not, so I don't begrudge him the dig.

But this is a  part of the larger point. Certainly, people within the American Conservative, right-wing apostate crowd know better than anyone what I'm talking about. But you'll find that they lack any particular sense of solidarity with me or those like me. I think the reason is because they remain tempted by the edifice of the institutions of right-wing thinking that largely don't exist for the genuinely left-wing. And this is one of the quiet virtues of being a leftist on the Internet; I approach every situation assuming that most people despise my positions and don't take me seriously. There's strength, in that. Dougherty knows that, sometimes.

Update III: Hard to believe I left this one off. Will Wilkinson, in comments:

Ezra Klein is a man with a robust sense of the process by which institutional change actually occurs, and he's inserted himself into the heart of that process. It's a hell of a lot of work for so little payoff, but there's a very plausible argument that the little he is able to help achieve is far more than uncompromising radicals could hope to. Maybe that's an indictment of universe or maybe it just means Ezra, unlike uncompromising radicals, cares enough to actually get SOMETHING done for justice.
I must say, though-- Will is himself a man with some radical views, and I think, if pressed, he would admit that this vision of incrementalism is often used to dismiss those who genuinely believe that radical change is desperately needed. "Care" is a tough word. I think both Ezra Klein and the uncompromising radical care. But sometimes, caring can mean so little....

Update IV: Kevin Drum:

I plead guilty to some general neoliberal instincts, of course, but I plead guilty with (at least) one big exception: I am very decidedly not in favor of undercutting labor rights in order to stimulate economic growth, and I'm decidedly not in favor of relying solely on the tax code to redistribute wealth from the super rich to the rest of us. What's more, the older I get and the more obvious the devastating effects of the demise of the American labor movement become, the less neoliberal I get. The events of the past two years, in which the massed forces of capital came within a hair's breadth of destroying the world economy, and yet, phoenix-like, have come out richer and more powerful than before, ought to have convinced nearly everyone that business interests and the rich are now almost literally out of control. If they haven't, what would?
Some people have pointed out that I am making my case less clear by using, at times, left-wing and socialist interchangeably. This is certainly true, so to be clear, what I think is lacking is a dedicated pro-labor union presence online. I take it that such a presence would have it's own extremes, one of which would be genuinely socialist. Sorry for my lack of clarity there.

Update V: Finally-- there's a lot of conservatives mocking this post and saying it's not to be taken seriously on Twitter. Alex Massie, for example, pronounces it crap and says "Perhaps. I thought it was more like SDS 40 years on. And even less convincing." You see, this Very Serious conservative person doesn't know why he should take a silly socialist seriously. There's no argument, of course, but who would need such a thing?

Tim Carney-- who really is quite nice, I think-- goes the "who is this guy, anyway?" route. Just a dude. Just some dude.

Guys, as far as rebuttal of this piece's point... you're doing it wrong. Believe it or not, you are not the cosmos.

Update VI: Last one, for real this time. What's amazing, really, is how abjectly sensitive these people are. Again, I'm not kidding-- it really does cultivate a certain strength, I guess, to not have a cadre of connected people to complain to when you get smacked a little. I've been arguing on blogs for years, and I get smacked every day. Who cares? But I think Michael Brendan Dougherty is about to cry over this. Weeping to each other on Twitter is exactly the kind of cult of the savvy bullshit I'm criticizing.

They can all email me. I always respond, and usually will update in response. But they don't; they keep it to Twitter. You know, like real men do.