The Agenda

Continuing the Conversation with Jeremy Kessler

Jeremy Kessler responds to my post. I think we might be using different definitions of “vanguard.” He uses the term “vanguardism,” something the activists in Liberty Square explicitly reject. I was using the term “vanguard” as it is used in common parlance, i.e., the advance guard. 

Jeremy offers a number of thoughts that are worth perusing, if only to get a sense of how our interlocutors think about a wide range of policy questions:

To be sure, not all Americans are equally oppressed by the system of chronic personal insecurity that our political and financial institutions have established. Students with lower debt burdens are better off than students with higher debt burdens, public employees in strong unions are better off than private employees in weak unions who are better off than non-unionized labor who are better off than undocumented workers; whites are better off than blacks; the old are better off than the young.

I would dispute some of these characterizations. It is certainly true that students with lower debt levels will tend to be better off than those with higher debt levels, but a debt burden reflects one’s ability to pay. So when we think through the question of relative debt burdens, we must also ask questions of the institutions, for-profit and nonprofit, that seek to maximize revenue, size, and influence by drawing in students, many of them vulnerable, with unrealistic promises of an education that will contribute to future earning potential and a larger sense of fulfillment. 

Drawing on Chen and Chevalier, we know that large numbers of physicians choose to pursue medical training despite the fact that the high up-front investment is not likely to be paid off, primarily for those who experience long interruptions in workforce participation over the lifecourse. So why would these people nevertheless take on higher debt burdens? One hypothesis is that some of them want to “consume” some level of prestige. Why do others choose to pursue, for example, MFAs that are not guarantees of remunerative employment? In some cases these reflects a hunger for knowledge and a desire to hone one’s craft, regardless of whether or not this represents a rock-solid investment in the financial future. Realizing one’s personal projects and ambitions with (self-perceived) integrity — which could mean taking on a higher debt burden rather than, say, relying on resources provided by others — matters to at least some people. 

One could believe this and nevertheless also believe that student loan debt should be discharged in bankruptcy like all other kinds of debt, etc. My central belief regarding the future of the educational system is that we must drive down the cost of a quality education. This view is in some respects symmetrical with the view that student debt levels are too high, etc. Yet crucially it starts from a different premise: that what matters is the underlying cost and quality of education, and that shifting the risks associated with educational experiences that leave students with little in the way of marketable skills and that have a high opportunity cost to taxpayers and away from students isn’t actually a solution. As far as the notional student seeking knowledge and (perhaps) marketable skills is concerned, it presumably shouldn’t matter if a less costly education is the product of structural reform or it is the product of more generous subsidies. But it does matter to the educational providers who want to extract rents. 

And are public employees with strong unions necessarily better off than private employees in weak unions, etc.? I’d suggest that this is not true. There are many workers who prefer the flexibility of a workplace that is not governed by union work rules. Teachers in parochial schools, for example, often see themselves as choosing more autonomy in exchange for less compensation. Moreover, different people prefer to receive compensation in different ways. The public sector includes large numbers of people who are willing to accept relatively low cash compensation in exchange for relatively generous deferred compensation, granted only after several years in the profession. This is not as attractive a deal for people who prefer the idea of shifting work functions and sectors over a long period of time.

I realize that this will strike many of you as obvious — of course some people prefer flexibility and autonomy and the prospect of shifting employers from time to time. This reflects the subjective experience of many of our readers, including many who’ve once worked in union shops. One of my family members earns a relatively low wage, having left a union job over two decades ago. She did so in full recognition of the fact that her wages would be somewhat lower, yet she wanted the freedom and autonomy to do her work as well as she could. There are of course workers who see the union as their defense. Many of these workers are those who prize leisure, which is of course a very valuable thing — at least in my own right-wing imaginary. But workers who don’t prize leisure more than the ability to do a certain kind of work well might choose a different kind of workplace.

In a sense, we’re dealing with the issues raised by Richard Robb’s “economics of becoming” thesis. Are we animals that primarily seek as much material gratification as we can get? Or are our lives governed by a vision of the kind of people, the kind of workers, we want to become? If it’s the latter, it is hardly surprising that different kinds of workers are going to sort into different kinds of environments, to the extent that is legally permissible.

I will say, however, that undocumented workers face challenges that their documented counterparts do not. Indeed, we’ve discussed the work of Douglas Massey on the impact of certain immigration enforcement measures on the low-end labor market at length in this space. 

On race, I think it is safe to say that the impact of enslavement and segregation lingers. Where we might disagree is over the sources of enduring disadvantage. Is it structural racism embedded in capitalism, or does it reflect historical deprivation that has in turn caused an enduring pattern of family disruption, a pattern that Orlando Patterson has argued is characteristic of Black Atlantic diaspora communities? These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive, but of course we might disagree regarding emphasis. 

With regard to the old being better off than the young: is this consistent with a learning-curve or learning-by-doing story? Does it reflect the fact that workers leaving the workforce have a somewhat higher level of educational attainment than those entering the workforce, which in turn reflects the changing demographic composition of the workforce? Wage-scarring is a familiar feature of any economic downturn, and it tends to impact those just entering the workforce most. Moreover, so called “LIFO” rules aren’t helpful in this regard. I am hard-pressed to imagine an economy in which the old (and experienced) don’t enjoy certain advantages over the young (and inexperienced), which is one reason why I’ve explicitly advocated changing the tax treatment of younger workers. 

But for all of these groups, the vampiric rhetoric of austerity recently embraced by both the Republican Congress and the Obama White House was a wake-up call. A system that had already placed tens of millions of lives in a perpetual state of limbo announced that it would resolve their insecurity by destroying them. In doing so, that system acknowledged what its own political, financial, and media leaders had been admitting for some months—that it had become institutionally incapable of responding to economic crisis. The Occupation— in its zeal for new organizational forms, rejection of vanguardism, and appeal to the widest variety of American citizens, the moral majority of the nation —is an obvious response to the obvious political, economic, and moral bankruptcy of the current regime. 

Is it reasonable to characterize the “system” in question as a purposive agent? 

There is a stern discourse, popular today with both the honest right and the dishonest center, that sees the Occupation’s critique of the prevailing system as nothing more than whining. But true maturity lies in the recognition of mutual suffering and the decision to overcome it through collective action. Herein lies the method of the Enlightenment, the best legacy of the West, which both the right and the center purport to represent. The right and the center understand that there is something dangerous about suffering, and call it shameful in order to suppress it. By being honest about the shared suffering we are currently experiencing, the Occupation increasingly will make available left-wing policy options to those who successfully ride the ups and downs of political fashion.

It could be that I’m not part of the honest right, but I’ve never liked the whining accusation. It doesn’t sit well with me. Yet I do think that there is something to be said for the “lack of context” accusation. I think it’s important to think through the structure of compensation, the role of medical and educational providers in exacerbating cost growth, why public institutions in amenity-rich environments can more effectively extract rents from taxpayers, etc. That is, I think it is important to think through the inner workings of the system rather than just characterize it as morally outrageous and propose policy steps that don’t actually speak to its underlying flaws.  

What might those policies be? The usual suspects: redistribution, regulation, cancellation of debts, potential nationalization. Now, Reihan may simply see all of these left-wing policies as the poisoned fruits of union and university self-interestedness (or, more generally, as economically ruinous). But that is a much larger debate, one that has little to do with the Occupation itself.

I support many of these ideas. For example, I’d like to see redistribution from some public workers to the beneficiaries of public services. I’d like to see better regulation of the financial system. The cancellation of student debt should be available as part of the bankruptcy process, and there might be room for some kind of “own-to-rent” proposal as proposed by Baker and Samwick. I’d want to know more about “nationalization.” If we’re referring to the temporary nationalization of a major financial institution to discharge it of toxic assets, it might be an appropriate emergency measure. If we’re referring to the nationalization of the means of production, I’d say it’s a mistake. 

Jeremy makes a few references to credentialed professionals:

Yes, the Occupation will change as more traditional actors associate themselves with it. Yes, it will get more complicated, less pure. But if the Occupation persists, it will alter the national conversation by creating precisely what Reihan calls “a new kind of polarization,” based upon an increasing consciousness of shared suffering. This consciousness could provide the foundations of inter-class solidarity, revealing the overlapping interests of, say, older unskilled workers and younger, relatively low-paid tech workers (members of Reihan’s “credentialed professionals”). 

The centrally important fact about “credentialed professionals” isn’t about their income — high for some, not so high for others — but rather that they’re protected by a legal privilege. Morris Kleiner of the University of Minnesota has surveyed the scholarly work on occupational licensing, a closely related issue:

The issue of the government regulation of occupations involves the role of government in reconciling the special interests of the practitioners with those of society.  The strictest form of occupational regulation is occupational licensing which is extensive and growing.  In 2008, nearly 30 percent of the workforce was required to hold a license up from around 10 percent in 1970.  There are potential job loss implications in the growth of occupational licensing for the labor market and the economy.  An alternative form of regulation, the certification of occupations, which does not impose a “closed shop” on entry and mobility, may be a policy to avoid the job loss implications of occupational licensing.

I would argue that the spread of occupational licensing threatens the interests of consumers, particularly the poorest consumers. Yet those who benefit from the system — a broad and diverse group — are prepared to defend it. 

This is why the right agenda centers on attacking bastions of privilege, like patents, copyright laws, occupational licensing, strict educational requirements, and attacking the outsized power of incumbent providers of educational, health, and financial services. Some of this agenda is embraced by some of the participants in the Occupation, particularly as it relates to the free culture movement. At the same time, however, members of the Occupation are keenly interested in defending many of the incumbent providers, which is, in my view, a mistake. 

Finally, Jeremy thinks I was being obnoxious:

As for college-educated elites, there is no doubt that we can be annoying and do exert an undue influence on our national political culture. Indeed, I would go further and say that the inability of the Democratic Party to identify and promote leaders who do not hail from elite backgrounds is a serious political and moral problem. That said, Reihan’s teasing discussion of NYU and New School students reads more like conservative boilerplate than careful sociological analysis. I would also wager that Reihan has no data to back up his implication that most of the residents of the Park are, in fact, NYU and New School students. Finally, even if many in the Park are students of one kind or another, this fact should not embarrass the Occupation. In relatively affluent countries, students historically have been the bearers of political and economic change because they have the time to organize themselves and protest injustice. One of the most distasteful aspects of the right-wing imaginary—whether “libertarian” or “conservative”—is its contempt for the relative leisure that allows the young to be politically active. 

I actually don’t think that most residents of the Park are NYU and New School students. I was in fact being playful and obnoxious, which I hope is uncharacteristic of me. I don’t actually hold relative leisure against students. Rather, I hold attention-blindness against them, and the larger constituency that supports them in this instance. That is, paying attention to one set of injustices will lead us to ignore another set of injustices. This is certainly true of many on the right. My argument is that the costs imposed by medical and educational and financial providers are unacceptably high, and that social democratic strategies, to use an overly broad term, are likely to raise them rather than lower them. 

Relatedly, I think the protests could last for months, a la the Tel Aviv protests.