Posts Tagged ‘progressives’

Three and a half weeks ago, Bernie Sanders became the last challenger to drop out of the race, thus clearing the way for Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee on the November presidential ballot.

Since then, the novel coronavirus has engulfed the country (and, of course, the world), the U.S. economy has mostly come to a standstill, and tens of million American workers have joined the ranks of the unemployed, while “essential” workers are forced to commute to and labor in perilous conditions and jobless families have found it necessary to walk or take to their cars to wait in line by the thousands outside food banks.

Biden therefore has to find a way of presenting a progressive alternative to Trump by articulating some clear ideas, and perhaps eventually a detailed plan, to confront the most dramatic economic and social crises to face the United States since the first Great Depression.

Given the fact that Biden was the first choice of the conservative Democratic establishment, which breathed a sigh of relief when he and not Sanders (or, for that matter, Elizabeth Warren) became the presumptive nominee, he was quickly warned that he needed to pay attention to and incorporate ideas from progressive movements inside and outside the party.

Just hours after Sanders ended his campaign, seven groups made up of young left-wing activists—the Alliance for Youth Action, Justice Democrats, the March for Our Lives Action Fund, NextGen America, Student Action, the Sunrise Movement, and United We Dream Action—sent an open letter to Biden with a set of demands spanning policy and personnel to earn their support in the general election against Donald Trump.

Messaging around a “return to normalcy” does not and has not earned the support and trust of voters from our generation. For so many young people, going back to the way things were “before Trump” isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot in November. And now, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed not only the failure of Trump, but how decades of policymaking has failed to create a robust social safety net for the vast majority of Americans.

And then, a few weeks later, Bloomberg revealed that one of Biden’s economic advisers was none other than. . .Larry Summers.

As it turns out, Summers was the first name on the “Biden Do Not Reappoint” (or, alternatively, Do Not Resuscitate) list published last month by Robert Kuttner, who wrote that Summers in 2009 “not only lowballed the necessary economic stimulus and ended it prematurely, but he successfully fought for rescuing the biggest banks rather than taking them into temporary receivership.”

The response to Bloomberg’s scoop was quick and equally categorical. In a joint statement, two of the organizations that signed the open letter—Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement—announced they were launching a petition asking Biden to disavow Summers, whom the groups noted has a long history of advocating for harmful economic policies and a record of bigoted statements. And David Sirota, senior adviser and speechwriter on the Sanders campaign, tweeted that Biden “has chosen as his economic adviser the main Democratic proponent of the China PNTR deal and Wall Street deregulation. Apparently, Biden may really have meant it when he said ‘nothing will fundamentally change’.”

What is it about Summers that provokes such ire from progressive individuals and movements?

Perhaps the best place to begin is the piece that Michael Hirsh published in the National Journal back in 2013, when Barack Obama was considering Summers as the replacement for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke. Hirsh noted that while “on paper, Summers is a superb candidate to succeed Bernanke in a post that the brilliant 58-year-old Harvard professor has pined for since his earliest days in Washington, he was “a very risky choice for chairman.”*

Why? Hirsh presented two main reasons: First, Summers often used his power and intellectual arrogance “to bully opponents into silence, even when they have been proved right.” Second, he had committed “a lot of errors in the past 20 years”—from his moves to deregulate Wall Street in the administration of Bill Clinton to the too-tepid response to the Second Great Depression under Obama—and “yet in no instance has Summers ever been known to publicly acknowledge a mistake.”**

Hirsh’s article played an important role—in addition to opposition from four Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee—in forcing Summers to withdraw his name from consideration for the post.***

As regular readers know, I have had my own running battle with Summers and his economic views on this blog. For example, I challenged him on the idea that inequality is necessary consequence of entrepreneurship; that capitalism has no inherent flaws and the problems of unemployment, inequality, and so on “can be addressed with proper fiscal and monetary policies”; that Summers, unlike most academics, has been very well paid to play on behalf of those who have a big stake in what’s being debated inside and outside the academy; that his “belated, poorly thought-out, population-driven ‘discovery’ of the possibility of secular stagnation” received undeserved accolades from other mainstream economists; that the cure for secular stagnation does not reveal a flaw in capitalism but instead has an easy fix, an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending; and finally that workers’ compensation depends on productivity growth and therefore it’s not necessary—and perhaps even counter-productive—to shift attention from growth to solving the problem of inequality.

More recently, Summers joined fellow Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw in criticizing the kind of wealth taxes that were proposed by Sanders and Warren (as scored by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman)—because, among other things, wealthy people can avail themselves of many ways to avoid such taxes (thus reducing the projected revenues) and because closing loopholes would “involve placing limits on the ability to be charitable or to establish trusts for the benefits of grandchildren.”****

The fact is, Summers continues to represent, from his perch at Harvard, both the theoretical blinders and bullying stance of mainstream economics as well as the rush to return to “business as usual” within the Democratic Party.

If Biden wants to signal to wealthy donors and large corporations and banks that, if he somehow manages to defeat Trump in November, “nothing will fundamentally change,” then he really can’t do better than to stick with Summers.

 

*Back in 2013, my own choice, for what it’s worth, was Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Raskin.

**As I wrote in 2009, those characteristics (which Cornel West described as “a braininess that lacks wisdom and vision” and “a smartness that lacks a sensitivity to the poor and the marginal”) are a good description of most mainstream economists I have come across over the years.

***Kuttner, in a more recent piece, wrote that “After Summers personally complained to David Bradley, then the publisher of Atlantic Media, which owned National Journal, Hirsh was advised to seek other work—he ended up moving to Politico and then to Foreign Policy, though no errors were ever found in the Summers piece and no correction was ever issued.”

****If readers want to follow the debate, here is a link to the rejoinder by Saez and Zucman (pdf) and a follow-up response by Summers and his coauthor Natasha Sarin.

We’re back at it again: “the economy” has broken down and we’re all being enlisted into the effort to get it back up and working again. As soon as possible.

The Congressional Budget Office has announced that it expects the U.S. economy will contract sharply during the second quarter of 2020:

    • Gross domestic product is expected to decline by more than 7 percent during the second quarter. If that happened, the decline in the annualized growth rate reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis would be about four times larger and would exceed 28 percent. Those declines could be much larger, however.
    • The unemployment rate is expected to exceed 10 percent during the second quarter, in part reflecting the 3.3 million new unemployment insurance claims reported on March 26 and the 6.6 million new claims reported this morning. (The number of new claims was about 10 times larger this morning than it had been in any single week during the recession from 2007 to 2009.)

Just as in the aftermath of the spectacular crash of 2007-08, the supposedly shared goal is to do whatever is necessary to engineer a recovery so that the economy can start operating normally again.

That presumes, of course, that we were satisfied with the normal workings of the economy before, and that such a state of normality is what we all desire moving forward.

But before I attempt to address that issue, it’s important that we stop and think a bit more about what we mean when we refer to this thing called “the economy.” In a fascinating recent interview, Anat Shenker-Osorio [ht: ja], argues that the economy is often portrayed as an all-powerful, personified entity.*

Previously, we would hear politicians admonish that we can’t pass X policy because it will “hurt the economy” — as if it were a being to which we owe our efforts and loyalties. And now, all the more brazenly, Republicans tell us we must sacrifice ourselves or perhaps our elders to the economy.

Another oft-used metaphor for the economy is the human body.

Conservatives, aided and abetted by progressives who also unwittingly employ the metaphor, tend to talk about the economy as a body. You can hear this expressed in language like “it’s suffering” or “the economy is thriving.” We have a “recovery bill” to get the economy “off life support” and “restore it to health.” What this metaphor suggests is that in grave cases, we must “resuscitate the patient” (perhaps with a stimulus bill.)

It seems to me, there’s a third common metaphor for the economy: a machine. Often, especially in conservative political discourse and neoclassical economic theory, the economy-as-machine is said to be functioning on its own, in a technical manner, with all its parts combining to produce the best possible outcome.** Unless, of course, there’s some kind of monkey wrench thrown into the works, such as a government intervention or natural disaster. However, according to liberal politics and Keynesian economics, the economic machine by itself tends to break down and needs to be regulated and guided, through some kind of government policy or program, so that it gets back to working properly.

As Shenker-Osorio correctly observes, the metaphor of “the economy” that is shared by both sides of mainstream political and economic discourse puts progressives at a distinct disadvantage:

we see progressives attempt to make arguments about how social welfare programs will “grow the economy” in the hopes of sounding like the reasonable adults in the room. This tacitly reaffirms the toxic idea that our purpose ought to be to serve the economy — that the correct evaluation of policy is how it affects the GDP

Much the same argument is made in favor of other liberal or progressive programs: raising minimum wages, extending health insurance, anti-poverty programs, education and job training, and so on. All are justified as contributing to making the economic machine work better, more productively, by including everyone.

So, what’s the alternative? One possibility, which Shenker-Osorio offers, is to reject the existing metaphors and refuse to continue to debate “who loves the economy best” and, instead, force “the far more relevant discussion: What is best for people.”

I don’t disagree with Shenker-Osorio’s goal but I wonder if there might not be another way of proceeding, by teasing out the implications of thinking about the economy as a machine.

If we continue with the machine metaphor then, first, we can demonstrate that the existing machine, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, is simply not working. It is an unproductive machine. For example, the U.S. economy-as-machine hasn’t been able to protect people’s health, for example, by providing adequate personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors, ventilators for patients, and masks for everyone else. Even more, it has put many people’s health at additional risk, by forcing many workers to continue to labor in unsafe workplaces and to commute to those jobs using perilous public transportation. Finally, it has expelled tens of millions of American workers, through furloughs and layoffs, and thus deprived them of wages and health insurance precisely when they need them most.

Second, we can read the decisions of the Trump administration—both its months-long delay in responding to the pandemic and then its refusal to enact a nationwide shutdown when it finally did admit a health emergency—as precisely enacting the general logic of the economic machine: that nothing should get in the way of production, circulation, and finance. It fell then to individual states to decide whether and when to shutdown parts of the economic machine and to distinguish between “essential” and “nonessential” sectors.

Finally, we can interpret the repeated calls to reopen the economy—not only by Trump and his advisors, but also by a wide variety of others, from Lloyd Blankfein, the billionaire former CEO of Goldman Sachs, to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—as a rational but unconvincing gesture, based on no other reason than that the machine needs to keep operating. It expresses the rational irrationality of the existing economy-machine.

All of which leaves us where? It seems to me, their continued reference to the economy as a machine creates the possibility of our demanding, in the first place, that the machine should remain closed down—for health reasons. People’s health should not be put under any further stress as long as the pandemic continues to ravage individual lives and entire communities.

And in second place, it becomes possible to imagine and invent other assemblages of the existing economy-machine, and even other machines, instead of obeying the logic of the current way of organizing economic and social life in the United States. In fact, while many of the changes to people’s lives have been designed to keep the existing machine functioning (for example, by working at home), it is also possible that people are taking advantage of the opportunity to experiment with how they work and live and creating new spaces and activities in their lives.***

If the common refrain these days is that “nothing will be the same” after the pandemic, perhaps one of the outcomes is that the economy-machine will finally be seen as an empty signifier, unmoored from the reality of people’s lives and incapable of organizing their desires.****

Then, maybe, the existing economy-machine will stop functioning. Before it kills any more of us.

 

*As in the episode of South Park, “Margaritaville” (the third episode in the thirteenth season, broadcast in March 2009), which Shenker-Osorio discusses in her 2012 book, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy.

**There is also, of course, an ethics of the economy-as-machine. As I explained back in 2018,

According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

For Keynesian economists, the machine can be made to operate fairly, and therefore in an ethical manner, when the state can step in (e.g., via fiscal and monetary policy) to create full employment.

***I understand, some of those changes may be experienced as losses—of laboring alongside fellow workers, of certain leisure activities, and so on. But people are inventing all kinds of new ways, even at a physical distance, of provisioning, socializing, and much else.

****And, yes, for those who are interested, as I prepared to write this post, I did go back and reread some of the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, including AntiOedipusCapitalism and Schizophrenia.

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