Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sometimes I'm Uncomfortable With The Rhetoric Of The Progressive Left

I guess I consider myself a member of the "progressive left." I'm in favor of taxation and regulation, and I think there is too much income inequality. I think most western societies are racist and discriminatory, I think climate change is going to doom us all and I think that my god, yes, we should be doing something about it

But lately some of the rhetoric of the progressive left has been weirding me out and making me feel uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples.

1. Calling people "stupid" for objecting to free-trade policies.

During all the heated discussions over Brexit, and sometimes in US politics as well, objections to opening up trade are sometimes treated by the progressive left as if they are simply ignorant. Underlying this idea seems to be the thought that since trade leads to overall economic growth, people worried about their own well-being ought to be for it.

For example, some "Remain" proponents were really dismissive of Brexiters who raised issues about economic well-being as one of their concerns. Even now, one often sees in commentary the idea that economic concerns helped the "Leave" vote only because of the lies told by Cameron, Johnson and Co.

But it's not stupid or ignorant to object to free trade when that trade is hurting and not benefitting you personally. It's possible to have overall economic growth and also have that growth benefit some people while hurting others. It's certainly not hard to believe that some tradespeople were hurt by the open EU: if a plumber or carpenter from a poorer EU country will charge half of what you would normally charge to do some bit of work, then yeah -- you're definitely being harmed by being in the trade zone of the EU.

It's funny, because I'd always thought of this tactic as characteristic of the other side. It's usually fiscal conservatives who run the "too stupid to understand economics" line -- as when P. J. O'Rourke referred to the Occupy protestors as "drum bangers who had failed Econ 101." I'm embarrassed to have this condescension associated with my otherwise allies.

None of this is to deny, of course, that the Leave campaign was also associated with certain hateful and racist sentiments. You can object to that without bringing in the economic-trade-stupidity business.

2. Treating cosmopolitanism as a moral requirement.

This one is a bit more complicated. In one sense, the ideal of different people all living happily side by side is not only an ethical ideal, but probably the only possible future of the actual world. So in that sense yes, we're all going to have to learn to accept and respect differences. Personally I love living in a city like Toronto where everyone is here living together. It's the best.

But I don't think it's somehow ignorant or backward to value your community, or to want to live with people with whom you share values, and culture, and language, and food tastes, and all those other things that make up the texture of life.

In fact, I thought one of the good ideas of the academic left over the past few decades was an acknowledgment that communities matter -- that we're not separated individual agents calculating preferences but rather embedded social beings linked through communities and culture. You can't just uproot a person from their surroundings and expect them to be OK. But a certain kind of insistence on cosmopolitanism seems me to deny this -- as if being attached to your own way of life is somehow a problem.

It's complicated, but I feel like part of the problem is a failure to grapple with the fact that a diverse and heterogeneous society is, itself, a certain kind of community with a certain texture. As I've said, it's a kind of community I love and thrive in. And I don't want it to change too much: I would be much  less happy in a different kind of world. But I think acknowledging that means acknowledging that others, too, might be much less happy in a different kind of world. They have their community, and they don't want it to change too much either.

I was reminded of all this when I read this piece in the Guardian a few days ago. A physicist, reflecting on philosophy, describes its importance for science, then goes on to explain that one reason Brexit won the day is that its opponents failed to address the deeper philosophical issues at stake and talked only about numbers and consequences. I don't know if that's true, but I was struck by the end passages, where the author talks about the importance of "universalism" and how the wise man is at home everywhere.

When I read that, I thought to myself that I, at least, do not feel at home everywhere. As a woman, I would not feel at home in any society that enforces strict or traditional gender roles -- and I don't even really feel at home in a country like France, now that they've gone off the deep end with their anti-modest-clothing crusade. It made me feel like "feeling at home everywhere" is less about being an enlightened universalist and more about privilege -- the ultimate sign of privilege being that you can, in fact, make yourself at home no matter where you are.

Again, none of this is to deny that the forces against cosmopolitanism are sometimes allied with racism and bigotry and discrimination. But the impulse toward protecting a way of life doesn't have to be a bad one, and even if you don't share or agree with it, it's possible to treat it with respect.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

See You All Next Week

Due to a health problem in the family, I'm unable to post again this week. (I think everyone is going to be OK - thanks!). I'll be back on the 26th. Thank you for your patience!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

British Trade Secretary Unwittingly Expresses The Idea That We're All In This Together

Whenever you bring up prosperity and inequality these days, you almost always hear something about "incentives." If there's too much equality, the thinking goes, people won't be motivated to work as hard, and overall economic growth will suffer. People aren't going to work just out of a sense of obligation or whatever -- you have to structure it so that they need more money and more money is the reward.

Crucial to this picture is the idea that you have to appeal to self-interest, and that what that means in practical terms is money-as-motivator.

Because I think of this as so much a part of a certain kind of orthodoxy, I was very surprised to find the British Trade Secretary recently appealing to the opposite logic. People have to work harder out of duty, he said -- not thinking of what they want for themselves, but thinking instead of what they owe to others. What's even more surprising to me is that he wasn't talking about poor people and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and all that yada yada. He was actually talking about rich people -- about the power-players of British industry.

The Secretary, a "Euroskeptic," was chastising these power players for being unwilling to engage in the wheeling and dealing he thought necessary to give post-Brexit Britain prosperity and a strategic advantage.

Calling the British "fat and lazy," he said that business leaders had an obligation to work harder and longer:

"We’ve got to change the culture in our country," he said. "People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty -- companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon."

So: rich people are relaxing and hanging out, instead of working to earn more money, and the Secretary is telling them to suck it up and put their nose to the grindstone because it's their moral obligation.

Let me unpack the surprising things in this series of remarks. First, there's an acknowledgement that money isn't the only thing in life. As we've written about before, this directly contradicts the working assumption of many policy-makers and managers. For example, doctors trying to negotiate for more time just kept being asked what financial compensation they wanted. When they tried to explain -- no, it's not about money -- the response was basically, "Don't be ridiculous. It's always about money."

The Secretary's remarks are interesting because they explicitly acknowledge that it's rational and self-interested to act in ways that earn you less -- because you want to be doing other things. As indeed all of us do.

The second surprising thing is that there's an appeal to the concept of "duty" or obligation. Usually when you're talking about prosperity and economics, bringing up ethics and morals is verboten. In the economic model, people are self-interested -- there are no duties and obligations, there are just preferences you might have for doing one thing rather than another.

Now, suddenly, duties are back in the picture! Wow. This is potentially a big deal. Because if we can have duties and obligations to contribute to overall prosperity, even when we don't feel like it, then surely we can have a whole host of other obligations? Like making sure no one is going hungry or without medical care in one of the richest countries on the planet? Where will it all end?

Actually, the whole "duties of prosperity" thing brings up another thing we've covered previously -- about how economic thinking is weird when it comes to motivations. Because when we use economics, we're supposed to imagine ourselves as self-interested from the individual point of view. But we're also supposed to choose policies that maximize wealth or well-being overall -- choosing for general prosperity. The two are obviously different: what makes me wealthy or well may not be what makes everyone else wealthy or well. The chastised business leaders exemplify this perfectly: what makes them better off is golf. What makes the country more prosperous is something else entirely.

I guess one question all of this raises in my mind is something like this: if rich people want to golf more and poor people need more money, why can't we just move some money around? I mean, who needs British prosperity? Evidently not the business leaders. They're doing fine. They'd rather be kicking back with a pint.

The people who really need British prosperity are the poorer people. So here's a crazy idea: maybe instead of forcing rich people to work more when they'd really rather not, maybe we could just give the poorer people some of the extra money lying around in the richer people's bank accounts. Doesn't this seem like a simpler solution?

Don't the Secretary's remarks have a tone of "we're all in this together?" And if we're all in this together, why not go all the way?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Due To Forces Beyond Our Control ...

... there is no new post today. You might enjoy these photographs though. I took them in Buffalo, New York, downtown. There is no sign to indicate anything about what they are or even what the context is.

See y'all here next week!