Tuesday, April 27, 2010

the big picture from the Left

Matt Yglesias gives his thought on what the coarse-grain, long view agenda for the Left should be in this post.
As anyone who reads me regularly knows, I am not good at coming up with the sort of ideas that can excite enthusiastic commitment among a large number of people. But I think the analysis with regard to capitalism is mistaken. It turns out that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to capitalism. After all, if you look at how life in the developed countries has changed from 1930 to 2010 what you see is that people spend more and more time in school, more and more time retired, and more and more time on vacation. In other words, people are step-by-step liberating themselves not from market capitalism as a means of obtaining consumer goods but from wage slavery in the worker-capitalist relationship.
First, one of the reasons I keep reading Yglesias as my preferred progressive thinker is that he doesn't "come up with the sort of ideas that can excite enthusiastic commitment." He's wonkily incremental, something I find appealing because status quo welfare state capitalism is really fairly successful. I appreciate that he wants to persuade liberals that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to hated capitalism, implying the heavy lifting of the progressive agenda is already done.
And you can see that the basic architecture of this trend is fiercely and passionately contested. When I was in Finland, where they have quite a mild right-wing, the thing that the conservative politician I spoke to seemed really upset about was the idea that Finnish kids are spending too much time in university. Too many students in college! Too many of them getting master’s degrees! Sometimes people would even take time off from their studies to travel! Here in the United States a huge swathe of the pundit class seems to deem it outrageous that the Social Security retirement age hasn’t increased as rapidly as average life expectancy. Don’t people know that they were put on this planet to work! How dare we, as a society, take some of our increased productivity in the form of an increased measure of liberation from our employers rather than more material possessions? The public, sensibly, doesn’t see it that way. When life expectancy grows faster than the retirement age, humanity is making progress.
Yes! Humanity is making progress, and it's perfectly fine, even great that many people are spending less time working. But how did it become society's decision how individuals would take their increased productivity? The concern about the Social Security retirement age does not come from some puritanical notion that people are born to toil until they die. The concern is that ever lengthening spans of publicly funded retirement make for an ever increasing burden for newer generations who don't really have a choice in the matter. Yglesias writes (with all his talk of 'wage slavery' and the 'bonds of commercial work') as if a higher Social Security retirement age would mean people would be forced to keep working until that age. Much of the non-commercial work and leisure he rightly celebrates throughout the post is due to capitalism and economic growth, and would have occurred at various levels of welfare state spending.
So that’s the agenda I have to offer. For rich countries—productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries—capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two—a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies. And for all of us, an overhaul of energy systems so the world doesn’t boil and we all get to keep enjoying our prosperity.
My favorite paragraph. I think generous and humane migration policies are going to become important between rich countries as well as between the rich and poor as more rich countries make bad 'social' decisions. Think of California's net negative migration flux.

As a side note, this "liberation from our employers" and "wage slavery" and "bonds of commercial work" talk is annoying. I imagine this is just another instance of his penchant for needlessly using language that will irritate readers who don't already fully agree with him. Implying that activities within the marketplace are coercive doesn't do him any favors in making the case for market liberalism that he seems to want to make.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, lets be clear that the Left only got to this new middle ground of welfare-state-capitalism (or "social democracy" as its called in Europe) because its 20th century experiments in state socialism and state communism were colossal failures. Humanity has not even begun to hold the Left responsible for the many atrocities committed in the name of those projects.

    In the 21st century we will be confronted with the financial sustainability of this new model of welfare-state-capitalism. Because, unfortunately, the development of this model in the West has been accompanied by unsustainable levels of debt (e.g. Greece, California, Britain, Portugal, and so on). If the Left's new model is going to survive this century it will have to find a solution to the ongoing wave of financial [debt] crises.