Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Social Challenge

When conservatives want to do something about the cost of entitlements, social democrats say, as President Obama said at his 2011 State of the Union speech, "let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens."

When conservatives react against a universal government program of health delivery, they say that "no one should go without health care." Or if it's a program to deliver health care to children, "no child should be without health care." On education, the cry is No Child Left Behind. Even President George W. Bush got behind that slogan.

When people make deliver these challenges, they mean that there ought to be a program. There ought to be a nation government program of health insurance paid for with tax dollars and administered by the federal government. Or child health care. Or education. As if that is the only way to deliver social goods.

The conservative challenge is to change the argument. Nobody doubts the need for social goods. The question is whether the administrative centralism is the right, or indeed the just way to do it.

A century ago, many advanced social thinkers were confident that these social goods could and should be provided by administrative centralism, tax-funded government programs negotiated in the political sector through comprehensive legislation and administered by a department of the central government.

A century later, this vision seems hopelessly naive. In the first place, the negotiation of social goods in the political sector is extremely divisive, and descends into a brawl over dividing the spoils of political victory. In the second place, governments have demonstrated that, on average, they deliver these services very badly. In the United States, the government pension programs have all grossly overpromised pensions to current and future beneficiaries. The government health care programs have distorted the health care delivery system and greatly increased costs because of the "third party" payment problem. The education system has been captured by the producers, and one political party has been completely neutered by the power of the teacher unions. The government welfare system has succeeded in wrecking the low-income family.

So if President Obama warns against harming the most vulnerable citizens, he would have a point--if he were directing his concern against the cruelty and the injustice of the present administrative welfare state. It has notoriously spawned social pathologies, divided the nation, and wasted valuable resources. Governments in the United States spend about one trillion dollars a year on government pensions, one trillion dollars a year on government health care, one trillion dollars a year on government education, half a trillion dollars a year on government welfare, and it does it badly.

Conservatives have an alternative to this cruel, corrupt, unjust, wasteful, and deluded system. The conservative argument is that the universal delivery of social goods through government like old age pensions, health care, education, and welfare is a bad idea and there are other, better ways to realize the promise of universal health care and universal education. The answer is to take these social goods out of the grip of the state and hand them back to society.

There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state. Society, on the view of political philosopher Michael Novak can be thought of as three separate and coequal sectors. There is the political sector, which specializes in activities that need force; it says, you must. There is the economic sector, which specializes in activities that need cooperation and exchange; it says, we can. There is the moral/cultural sector, which specializes in moral questions; it says, I should.

Conservatives ask: why do our liberal friends insist, against all the evidence, that social goods can only be delivered according to the principle of force?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blue Social Model: That's All There Is?

Our liberal friends live and work and write as though the "developed" model for western countries, the bureaucratic social welfare state and the bureaucratic corporate model were the final end point of social development. Thus: "developed."

But Walter Russell Mead argues that they must be kidding us.

The "blue social model" had its good points, but putting working people onto unionized bureaucratic life-employment tracks and putting white-collar people into corporate bureaucratic life-employment tracks pretty obviously can't go on much longer.

Ironically, many social critics on the left were appalled by the bureaucratic system.

Social critics spent decades, rightly in my view, denouncing our school system from Pre-K through Ph.D. Mediocre, conformity inducing, alienating, time wasting: the school system trains kids to sit still, follow directions, and move with the herd.

And what we have seen over the last generation, the years after the "developed" moment in 1970, is that the economy is much more fluid and entrepreneurial than the "blue social model" assumed. We've seen remarkable changes, technological and social, in the last generation.

As the economy becomes more fluid, more entrepreneurial, it is clear that raising one generation after another of aspiring time-serving bureaucrats is not very effective.

We have a stuff-rich society where even the "poor" have a lot of material comfort. But now it's time to think beyond material to meaning.

The blue social model, for all its merits, separates production and consumption in ways that are ultimately dehumanizing and demeaning for large chunks of the population. The true value of human life does not come from consumption, even lots of consumption. It comes from producing goods and services of value through the integration of technique with a vision of social and personal meaning. Being fully human is about doing good work that means something.

Our liberal friends have been very good at designed meaning for themselves. They are all in favor of extended education, of creative arts, of meaningful activism, of saving the planet. But all these paths of meaning seem to be accompanied by notices that say "conservatives need not apply." That is, after all, the meaning of assaulting conservatives about their hateful and violent rhetoric. It is to say that conservatives have nothing to contribute to social meaning.

But our liberal friends are heading for disaster. The next social model must include everyone in the conversation, and that means a moral/cultural model that includes not just liberal discourse but moderate and conservative discourse as well.

By denying ordinary Americans the right to contribute to the cultural conversation, liberals are denying them the right to live lives of meaning.

When liberals deny the right to a life of meaning, there is only one thing to say. Liberal cultural hegemony is unjust, and it will not stand.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Spirit Level Week: The Bourbon Left

It was famously said of the French Bourbon kings as they returned to France after the fall of Napoleon that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It's tempting to say the same thing of our liberal friends.

Back to start: Equality Without Context

What did President Obama and the Reid/Pelosi Congress think they were doing? And what do Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger think they are doing, offering up the same-old same-old after a century of the centralized administrative welfare state?

The answer is that, in the absence of formal religious belief, our liberal friends collapse their moral and cultural beliefs into their politics. What began as a moral movement 150 years ago determined to do something about the horrible sufferings of the poor in the big industrial cities of Britain and the USA has developed into a broad established church. Slowly, over the years, the concern has changed.
Originally it was helping the poor, men and women that you could see suffering on the other side of the tracks in your home town. Then it became a more amorphous war on poverty--notice the abstract noun.

But now "poor" and "poverty" doesn't cut it. Not when "Overweight among the poor seems to be strongly associated with income inequality." You mean that the poorer someone is, the fatter?

Now the broad church of the educated ruling class wants to talk about "inequality." But the agenda is the same, and even the characters are the same, including the Rowntree trusts, that helped set up the agenda for the welfare state over a century ago.

When disaster strikes, it strikes harder in cities that lack a culture of trust. Thus, after Hurricane Katrina, Wilkinson and Pickett tell us, Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) warned looters that National Guard troops were locked and loaded. But 160 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville noted the "equality of conditions" in America; people trusted each other. And so it turns out, according to Wilkinson and Pickett, that opinion polls find that "most people can be trusted" in more equal societies. And that goes for the US. New Orleans is the most unequal city and has very little trust. North Dakota is equal and has high trust.

All things being equal, everyone wants a less unequal society. But the question is: how? The answer running through The Spirit Level is more of the same, more liberal top-down centralizing, social-science based programs. If you read through The Spirit Level there is no attempt at discussion about the effectiveness of the usual liberal nostrums. Anything that liberals like is good.

The one thing that Wilkinson and Pickett do not discuss is the possibility that it is welfare state policies that create inequality.

Back in the mid 19th century women like George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell were writing novels about life at the edge of poverty. The stock villain was the young man of good family who didn't have to make his way in the world, who had an income or an allowance from his parents, and couldn't think of anything better to do than run up debts and get working-class girls knocked up. In Middlemarch the great sub-plot grinding away off-stage from the lovely Dorothea and the awful Casaubon is the moral drama of Fred Vincy, wastrel son of the mayor and manufacturer Mr. Vincy. But Fred cannot get the sensible, practical Mary Garth to marry him until he gets his life together and gets a job. What a concept.

Of course, in the lives of the educated ruling class, this sort of culture is taken for granted. Nobody respects someone without a career. Today nobody respects a woman without a career.

But liberals keep insisting that these rules don't apply to the lower orders. We've got to treat the excluded and the deprived like 19th century cads, bailing them out of their messes, paying their debts, and excusing their debaucheries. They're depraved on account they're deprived, Officer Krupke.

The lesson of the mid-century moralists was that people needed to live in a moral community in which they really depended and relied upon the good conduct and the good will of their neighbors. Why won't our liberal friends extend the same respect to their political clients instead of treating them like moral imbeciles?

No they won't, because after a century of the welfare state they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spirit Level Week: What About Equality?

The hot new liberal book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argues that, since the more equal developed countries demonstrate lower health and social problems, we should implement more egalitarian initiatives, such as higher taxes on the rich and employee-owned companies. But can this politically compelled egalitarianism work in practice?

Back to start: Equality Without Context

Let us look at the question from a Marxian perspective. Marx maintained that laws and culture are a "superstructure" built upon the base of underlying "productive forces." Here is what he wrote:

[M]en inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.
It is notable that hunter-gatherer society was usually extremely egalitarian. Men combined immediately against anyone who tried to become a powerful leader. Boasting, e.g., about hunting prowess, was verboten and food-sharing was widespread. In Marxian terms, we can say that the nature of hunter-gatherer life called for a strict egalitarianism.

But the agricultural revolution seems to have changed all that. It ran on different productive forces, and the superstructure was different. From our perspective, agricultural society was remarkably oppressive and hierarchical. It was a status society, in which the status of the people and the social hierarchy was fixed and inherited. A warrior landed class ruled over all. We can see that the peculiar nature of agricultural life required this exploitative superstructure, for the agricultural peasant is extremely vulnerable to plunder and piracy. He must store enough food to survive from one harvest to the next and save enough seed corn to grow the new crop as well. The peasant desperately needs defense from raiders, and the price in subjection and servitude was very high.

It seems clear that the industrial revolution changed the productive forces significantly. The productive forces that got us from $3/day two centuries ago to $100/day today require, according to Deirdre McCloskey in her Bourgeois Cycle, a bourgeoisie dignified and free. Bourgeois trading and bourgeois innovation are astonishingly productive, creating a free lunch of wealth in which all can participate. The social superstructure is egalitarian, in that anyone can trade and innovate, but it is also hierarchical, allowing successful upstarts to become very wealthy, lording it over their fellows with trophy wives and executive jets before they get religion and give all their money away in philanthropy.

Wilkinson and Pickett see an end to the economic growth and innovation of the bourgeois era. On the one hand, people in the developed countries no longer find improvement in their quality of life from income increases, and the search for material wealth increases anxiety rather than wellbeing. On the other hand, we need to transition to a sustainable lifestyle to deal with the "problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth."

You can see what is going on here. Wilkinson and Pickett are proposing a return to a hunter-gatherer social system, where competition and innovation is self-consciously directed at combining "acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy".

Never mind whether this vision is desirable. Is it possible? If modern society is governed in order to return it to the steady state of the hunter-gatherer era, can we survive and thrive? On Marx's view of the productive forces, we are bound to wonder. And, to apply the Precautionary Principle, we would have to suggest that the burden of proof is on the egalitarians to prove that their egalitarian future will actually work.

One thing to keep in mind: the egalitarian countries admired by Wilkinson and Pickett are often
countries with a very low total fertility rate. Germany reports 1.36 children per woman and Japan reports 1.26 children per woman. However Sweden is up at 1.80. Maybe the problem will be solved when the egalitarian countries cease to exist.

Next: The Bourbon Left

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spirit Level Week: Who's To Blame?

In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett determine that people in developed countries with high inequality (i.e. the US and UK) suffer more health and social problems that people in low inequality countries (i.e. Sweden, Japan).

Back to start: Equality Without Context

For Wilkinson and Pickett, the solution is government programs to mitigate inequality, such as higher taxation of the rich and/or promotion of employee-owned companies.

We hope we have shown that there is a better society to be won: a more equal society in which people are less divided by status and hierarchy; a society in which we regain a sense of community, in which we overcome the threat of global warming, in which we own and control our work democratically as part of a community of colleagues, and share in the benefits of a growing non-monetized sector of the economy.
In other words the solution to our problems is the enactment of the current center-left agenda, a world congenial for university professors to live in.

Yesterday, we looked at the absent historical context in Wilkinson's and Pickett's analysis. Now let's look at the absent political context.

Wilkinson and Pickett note that inequality has risen in the United States and the United Kingdom recently, especially in the 1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the ministry of Margaret Thatcher. In both nations, inequality increased by about 40 percent. The question is: was that good or bad? Was it inevitable, after the Great Inflation of the 1970s, or could it have been avoided? They also show that in the United States social mobility, expressed as a percentage of sons' income explained by fathers' incomes, as gone down since 1980. Is that due to fathers giving their sons a leg up at the family firm? Or is it the result of lousy government education in the inner cities, and the demolition of the low-income family by welfare?

The fact is that it is very difficult to obtain clear answers to these questions, good people disagree profoundly about them. Moreover, it is very difficult to change any government program once it has been started up.

So when a couple of university professors talk easily about reducing status and hierarchy, regaining a sense of community, overcoming the threat of global warming, and turning work into a community of colleagues, we have to ask a question. What gives us any confidence that political action can ameliorate these problems? Let's take them one by one:

  • Status and hierarchy. If you start more government programs you are going to increase status and hierarchy. Today we have a definite hierarchy in the west. The educated ruling class is at the top of the hierarchy and uses its political and cultural power to shame and blame anyone that dares to challenge it. So more of the same will reduce status anxiety and oppressive hierarchy?
  • Sense of community. More politics will restore community? It is precisely the government takeover of many social and moral tasks that has torn the gut out of "community." Ordinary people are denied local cultural and social power by a centralized bureaucratic state. Reduce the power of the state and you will get more of a sense of community.
  • Global Warming. Whatever may or may not happen with global warming, the scientific consensus is that reducing our carbon footprint is going to do very little to reduce carbon dioxide. The left's program of big government to the rescue is likely to be an economic disaster.
  • Community of Colleagues. Yes, it sounds very nice, but this is the central error of the left, that everyone wants to get out in the evening for a nice political meeting. Some people want to be involved in management; some don't. It is certainly true that employee ownership exposes employees to significant risk, because it ties their entire prosperity to the success of their employer. Some people think that people shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket. And anyway, it is unlikely that center-left professors have a clue what will work in the economic sector. Even the people that are most successful in business haven't got a clue. And, of course, if economists knew what would work they would all be billionaires.
  • Non-monetized Economy. I'll tell you what you'd get in a non-monetized economy. Status and hierarchy; who you know, not what you know. The miracle of the money economy is that it is no respecter of persons. A product is a product; a service is a service. Remove money from the equation and you get people-to-people. Status not contract.
The big question in the years ahead is what to do about the monster state we have created over the last century. How are we going to reform it? How can we reform it? Wilkinson and Pickett do not address the question of government reform. Well, they wouldn't. They are professors from government universities tied into the educated ruling class. Why would they imagine that you can improve on a good thing? They don't even think about it. They just know that more power for the educated ruling class is a good thing.

Next: What About Equality?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Spirit Level Week: Equality Without Context

I first became aware of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by British university professors Richard Wilkinson and Kat Pickett over the weekend. I followed a link from RealClearPolitics to The New York Times: "Eliminating Inequality is Good for the Soul" was the link. Actually, the article by Nicholas Kristof was titled "Equality, A True Soul Food." Writes Kristof:

So why is inequality so harmful? “The Spirit Level” suggests that inequality undermines social trust and community life, corroding societies as a whole. It also suggests that humans, as social beings, become stressed when they find themselves at the bottom of a hierarchy.

So I picked up a copy of the book. It argues, from lots of research and government data on developed countries, that health and social problems are higher in more unequal societies, right across the income spectrum. Getting specific, these problems are higher in the US and the UK, where inequality is high, than in Germany, Sweden, and Japan, where inequality is lower.

Let's accept the book's argument, that people do better in an equal society, and think about what it means.

The big problem is that Wilkinson and Pickett provide no context. They present data that shows inequality; they talk about hierarchy, about exclusion, and about deprivation as though humans are blank slates on which social and political structures write their story.

OK, let's provide some context. The US is more unequal that Germany and Sweden. Why might that be?

The US is notable in that, ever since the 1830s, it has been receiving millions of immigrants, people who, in most cases, have come straight off the farm. This was true for the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, and then, after World War II, the blacks coming off rural poverty in the South, and latterly Hispanics coming off the farm in Mexico. These are people thrown into a world for which they are ill adapted. They are not migrating from one farm to another. They are moving off the farm and parachuting into the industrial city. They are going to have to struggle and adapt to make it in the urban industrial world of the city. You think that's easy?

In the UK there has been, since World War II, a significant influx of immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia, and this has swelled recently, by design, during the recent Labour government.

It is notable that, in the more-equal countries, in Scandanavia and Japan, there has been little immigration, until very recently. Here's a story about how Japan discourages immigration (and low-wage competition) from the Philippines.

Our lefty friends have, over the last two hundred years, been repeatedly scandalized by the messy facts of reality. First they were appalled by the chaos of the industrial revolution. Well, just how would this unprecedented change in human society from agriculture to industry occur without wrenching difficulties? In the early years of the industrial revolution, the migration was at least within the countries industrializing. But soon, with the advent of steam navigation, the great migration became trans-Atlantic. Now of course the Chinese people are migrating at a rate of 15 million a year into the burgeoning cities. The idea that a compassionate political elite could manage this migration, the greatest migration in human history and the greatest increase in human population in history, without severe problems is laughable. Of course, when an actual left-wing activist was in charge of China's adaption to the modern world, the result was that tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in the Great Leap Forward. Same thing in Russia, where about ten million people starved in the 1930s. At no time in the industrial development of the UK and the US was there famine. In fact the record for the US and UK is that, in the wake of the industrial revolution, increase in well-being was consistent and extraordinary with notable blips, in the 1840s and the 1880s and the 1930s when government screwed up the economy. In the US and UK, there was a notable increase in inequality in the 1980s. Perhaps that had something to do with the economic recovery after the Great Inflation of the 1970s. You remember the Great Inflation. It was caused by an excess of Keynesian economics and was inspired by the notion that politicians and economic experts could fine tune the economy, avoiding unemployment with just a little bit of inflation.

The lesson from the last two hundred years is that, when change happens, the result is that the early adopters do very well, but the great mass of people struggle to catch up. There's a word to describe how that appears in national income statistics. Inequality.

But if you remove the context from your analysis, you aren't going to know much about what your numbers mean. And Wilkinson and Pickett don't seem to have a clue.

Next: Who's to Blame?