David “Robin Hood” Brooks

by Eric on May 4, 2015

Ronald Reagan in “A Time for Choosing,” the Gipper’s speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964:

Welfare spending [is] 10 times greater than in the dark depths of the Depression. We’re spending 45 billion dollars on welfare. Now do a little arithmetic, and you’ll find that if we divided the 45 billion dollars up equally among those 9 million poor families, we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year. And this added to their present income should eliminate poverty.

David Brooks in the New York Times, regarding the case of Freddie Gray in 2015:

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Annie Lowery points out why Brooks’s argument is numerically bogus: just as conservatives don’t count millions of government employees as employed in 1930s, Brooks doesn’t count federal money as money in the 2010s:

Brooks is claiming that federal spending on anti-poverty programs is not lifting families out of poverty… when the government specifically does not include the value of those very programs in its poverty calculations.… A fuller accounting shows that food stamps alone lift 4 million people above the poverty line. The earned-income tax credit lifts nearly 6 million above it. Which is to say that “not bringing down the official poverty rate” is not a good yardstick by which to judge these programs.

But I would like to take David Brooks up on his suggestion: with the absolute same degree of sincerity as 1964-era Reagan, he’s supporting a straight-up transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. It is a radical solution to poverty, this long-standing Republican proposal, but perhaps one that we should consider.



Anarcissie 05.04.15 at 2:56 pm

The negative income tax, I guess. It has been around for awhile. The fact that Welfare money is run through a complex bureaucratic mill probably does somewhat vitiate its effects. But on the other hand it keeps numerous bureaucrats, social workers, and others employed, some of whom may do something constructive sometimes maybe.


Rich Puchalsky 05.04.15 at 3:45 pm

The main reason this is numerically bogus isn’t because the government doesn’t include these programs in poverty line calculations — the main reason is because a whole lot of the money spent under these programs doesn’t go to people in poverty.

If we took the definition of “antipoverty spending” used by Reagan, Brooks etc. and divided it up evenly among poor people, then we’d sure spend a lot more on poor people and less on middle class and upper class people — so, yes, doing it this way would really help poor people more. Then the next thing that would happen would be that antipoverty spending would be cancelled, because the only reason that the U.S. public tolerates these programs is because they provide significant social insurance for middle and upper class people.


someguy88 05.04.15 at 4:19 pm

If Quiggin can make that claim


Why can’t Reagan and Brooks?

The EITC and Food Stamps are not middle class social insurance programs and yet they exist and work. (Work as in they provide benefits. Brooks’ main point regarding the importance of cultural norms should universally be regarded as correct, and doing so, does not mean, you have to support or not support this or that public policy. )


Bloix 05.04.15 at 4:21 pm

#2 – this isn’t quite right, and it may not be right at all.

The programs at issue are all means-tested. Sop if you’re middle or upper class, this money isn’t going to you.

It’s true that Medicaid provides social insurance for middle class people, in the sense that if you run out of money and need long term care when you’re old, Medicaid will step in and your children don’t have to bankrupt themselves, but at that point you really are poor, and Medicaid does a thorough check to make sure you are poor (eg no recent transfers of assets to relatives).

So there isn’t any spending on people with substantial assets included in these figures.

The problem is that the different programs have different eligibility requirements that don’t necessarily correspond to the federal poverty line. Some of this money is going to the “near poor” who are not included in the numerator of the fraction, thus inflating the per person amount. The question is, how much, and how does that distort the conclusion?

I did a little googling to try to figure out whether there’s a significant apples-and-oranges problem but it’s not a simple question and I don’t have time for it now. Maybe someone else knows the answer.


cs 05.04.15 at 4:52 pm

Bloix – It sounds to me like you are actually agreeing with Rich at #2, just stating it differently.

If you are looking for numbers, there are some here (found via Lawyers Guns and Money, who posted on the same David Brooks piece):

The real problem with counting Medicad spending is not how much goes to people below the poverty line, the problem is that if you gave all that money to poor people in the form of cash, then you would have to spend some other money to cover health care costs.


john in california 05.04.15 at 5:22 pm

Does anyone actually think a republican administration or congress would set up such a transfer, some kind of requirement that, say, 90% of poverty monies be given to the poor as a direct transfer? ? When dumbshit states are now micromanaging the kind of food that food stamp recipients can buy? David ‘fucking’ Brooks has an agenda, everybody knows he has an agenda – government vis-a-vis the ‘poor’ is always wrong. This line makes his masters happy and it makes his masters’ slaves happy. Everything that needs to be said, even can be said about David ‘fucking’ Brooks has been been said better than anybody else could say it by drifty lol these many years. See


Bloix 05.04.15 at 5:30 pm

#5 – cs-
I’m disagreeing with Rich, and I’m not sure whether I’m disagreeing a lot or a little bit. I can’t find the data easily and I don’t have time to look right now.

I read the CEPR article. The problems with it:
(1) the Medicaid data it links to is from 2015, post-ACA, so it’s impossible to tell what the cut-off percentages were in 2009, which is when the figure Brooks is using was calculated. And then you’d have to weight them by state, requiring another set of hard-to-find data.

(2) It doesn’t link to anything for its assertions about the EITC and SNAP have above-poverty line cut-offs. Maybe that’s obvious to people who work with these programs, but it wasn’t obvious to me, and I don’t know how it affects the conclusion. How many people over the poverty line? How much money per person? How does it affect the per-person average?

Having an eligibility threshold even a small amount above the poverty line would presumably increase the amount paid by a significant amount, which would distort Brooks’ conclusion. But “would presumably increase” is not the same as “does increase.” If we’re going to call someone a liar we should be sure we’re right about that.

BTW, the “should you count Medicaid in the first place” question is a different issue – important, but not the one I’m trying to figure out.


Bloix 05.04.15 at 5:52 pm

PS – the guy who apparently originated the $14,000 per person figure – Ron Haskins of Brookings, although he calculated a number closer to $13,000 – acknowledged the possibility that the figure is overstated due to the differences in eligibility cut-offs.

“[S]ome of the money in programs that provide cash or in-kind benefits directly to households goes to individuals and families that are not below the poverty level.”


But by how much? That still seems to be uncalculated. At least, I can’t find it.


Watson Ladd 05.04.15 at 5:55 pm

EITC was invented by Milton Friedman. Ultimately Bill Clinton, noted Republican, ended welfare as we know it, adding in work requirements and replaced it with TANF.


Rich Puchalsky 05.04.15 at 6:05 pm

I’m not going to go through the math in this comment thread, but the high-dollar programs tend to have significant tails up into the middle class. Take EITC for an example. Here’s an eligibility chart. Here’s the Federal poverty level. A married couple with one child has FPL $20K, but you still get an EITC of up to $1,000 if your married household with one child makes up to $37.5K.

And the time element is really pretty significant. It’s easy to say that Medicaid only covers elderly who are really poor. But it’s very, very common for middle class families to reach a point where medical expenses for an elderly parent would bankrupt them if they weren’t covered by Medicaid, even though the family is not poor and only the elderly person is poor (i.e. their savings have been used up).


Bruce Wilder 05.04.15 at 6:44 pm

David Brooks’s schtick depends on a “shared-goals, faulty means” critique, in which the Left is supposed to own these programs, and attempt to debunk Brooks with details that no one can wade thru. Meanwhile Brooks has delivered guilt-free expression of resentment to his complacent and narcissistic readership, none of whom are going to pay any attention to Annie Lowery, whose numbers are irrelevant to how upper middle-class people feel about their own circumstances, the imagined poverty of strangers or their government.

My feeling is that David Brooks’s idiocies are almost always the seventh or eighth hit over the net, in a partisan volley with morons of the corrupt center-left. The game isn’t about making Brooks look bad, by making him miss his shot; it’s to keep the volley going, even though that involves greater and greater silliness.

First of all, it isn’t sensible for sincere people to defend most social welfare programs. These are crap programs, administered cruelly and indifferently, with very mixed results. The Right has pressed all kinds of poison-pills on these programs over the years, and the Centre-Left has gone along. It can be really hard to tell, objectively, whether the EITC is aiding the working poor, or their exploitive low-wage employers. Is Medicaid “means-testing” just a mechanism to strip the middle-class of their assets?

As Rich Puchalsky said, the political support that sustains “anti-poverty” and social welfare spending shapes the programs in ways that benefit much better off people. And, not incidentally, radically reduce the effectiveness of these programs in actually addressing the dire problems of people in poverty. And, no, the problems of many people in poverty are not going to be addressed without the mediation of an army of social workers.

Anti-poverty and social welfare program design can be problematic, but these could be technical problems assigned to experts. The political problem perennially in the partisan realm is legitimating the efforts of the government and handling resentments. If, like Annie Lowery, you are mumbling about statistics, you have lost those arguments. (And, to David Brooks! oh, yuck.)


Bruce Wilder 05.04.15 at 6:48 pm

WL: EITC was invented by Milton Friedman.

What other clue than Friedman’s brandname does any sentient being need, that this is the scorpion asking the frog from a ride across the river?


LFC 05.04.15 at 7:57 pm

B.W. @11
These are crap programs, administered cruelly and indifferently, with very mixed results

I became acquainted some years ago with a person with no fixed address and no regular income (who did not finish high school and is close to functionally illiterate). To make what could be a long story short, I helped him apply for food stamps, for which he was obviously eligible and which he received. He then managed without my help to get a Medicaid card. I have no doubt that, while his circumstances are still not esp. good, he’s better off with food stamps and Medicaid than without them. This is anecdotal evidence, obviously, but I wouldn’t be too quick to describe these as “crap programs, administered cruelly and indifferently.” (Perhaps this person would be better off if the govt just mailed him a check every month (assuming it reached him), but that’s another question.)


Trader Joe 05.04.15 at 8:10 pm

@13 LFC
You raise a good point that a lot of people who qualify for different types of aid are inherently hard to reach regardless of what form the aid comes. Some combination of not having a fixed adress, not having a bank (for obvious reasons), not being terribly literate and innurred to the fact that quite a lot of the system is out to fleece them in some way or another makes the prospect of handing over a $14,000 check (or whatever one might agree is the right amount) something that might be easier said than done.

This isn’t always the case to be sure, and is by no means a justification for not trying, but its why these programs have so a certain amount of bureaucracy…open arms requirements become ripe for fraud, restrictive requirements look to be ‘administered cruelly and indifferently.’ Whichever way it balances it, the program is then open to criticism regardless of the good it ultimately does.


mpowell 05.04.15 at 8:37 pm

BW @ 11: So your argument is that means-testing anti-poverty programs in a democratic polity is a hopeless endeavor? I don’t know how you get ‘experts’ designing these things outside of a political concept. Maybe that’s your point and you don’t think there should be any means-testing at all.


MPAVictoria 05.04.15 at 9:16 pm

Every single person commenting should read this right now:


“David Brooks has a misinformed piece on poverty in the New York Times. Blame for some of the mistakes falls on Brooks. Blame for others falls squarely on Brookings’ Ron Haskins for promoting distorted interpretations of poverty data for decades.”

From the invaluable Matt Bruenig.


Bloix 05.04.15 at 10:15 pm

Thanks very much, MPAVictoria, for the link. You have to burrow down from there to get the full explanation, to

and then to

None of these articles, good as they are, address the narrow point that I was arguing about with Rich Puchalsky and cs – did Haskins use a different parameter in his numerator and denominator when calculating dollars per poor person?

Since the top of this thread, I’ve come to the conclusion that Haskins admits that he did, see #8 – which he may well have been a disingenuous attempt to inoculate himself from the charge of cheating, even when others use his numbers without bothering with his “caveats” – but I have no idea how big the effect is. It might be big, see Rich #10, but we don’t know.

Which is not to say that all the other criticisms aren’t relevant, as they clearly are.


Joshua Holmes 05.04.15 at 10:58 pm

Brooks’ critics are right about the poverty rate statistic, but most are missing his broader point. He buried his lede, but here it is:

***It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy.***

Brooks doesn’t want anti-poverty spending to leave people in grinding poverty, albeit with benefits, but to make the poor into a self-sustaining lower middle class. Matt Bruenig understood what Brooks was actually hoping for and explained why it won’t happen. To wit, most of the poor aren’t able to work.


LFC 05.04.15 at 11:00 pm

@14 Trader Joe
Brief clarification: for (understandable, I suppose) reasons, the person in question did have to provide an address on forms when applying for food stamps etc.; he gave a relative’s address which he uses for such purposes and where mail can (circuitously) reach him, but it’s not where he stays/lives (which, as mentioned, isn’t one fixed place).


Rich Puchalsky 05.04.15 at 11:25 pm

Joshua Holmes: “To wit, most of the poor aren’t able to work.”

Geez, it couldn’t be racism, could it? Not in the 21st century.

To vary my comments about the mistaken emphasis of the left on workers, I’ll go on a bit about the center and right. Unless we have some kind of ecological crash, in which case no one knows what will happen, there never will be a stable system in which everyone works ever again. We have overproduction, and fixing it by producing even more only makes that ecological crash more likely. So the center-right is in a desperate struggle to keep people working even when they manifestly don’t need to work, because without work as a source of personal value and social stability, the entire center-right world system falls apart.

I’m inclined to think that that’s the real reason for increasing income and wealth inequality. It’s not that the people at the top even can use more wealth to take even more control over society: they already have it. It’s that they need to keep on sucking up more of it in order to leave the people at the bottom desperate, because if it were ever redistributed, you couldn’t keep on with this nonsense about how the poor need to become a self-sustaining middle class by working harder.


Oxbird 05.04.15 at 11:44 pm

Krugman’s column in today’s Times is in effect a refutation of Brooks. Another item you might want to look at is Dean Baker’s reaction at http: Even if one stipulates Brook’s good intentions, his fixation on culture breakdown rather than economic factors and government policies, and his apparent inability to get the economics right, systematically confuses rather than elucidates the problem of poverty in the US.


Bruce Wilder 05.04.15 at 11:48 pm

mpowell @ 15

I don’t think there should be means-testing at all. (I favor public provision of social insurance for a variety of purposes, including retirement, disability and medical care. If it were up to me, we’d have public provision of auto liability insurance.)

My argument is that it is stupid to argue as if statistics can refute resentment.


Anarcissie 05.05.15 at 12:23 am

Poverty is not a problem. If you have a class-based, competitive, dynamic political-economic system with many positive-feedback loops, obviously some will win and others will lose: unto him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Poverty is, therefore, a desired outcome (unless you’re a communist). The argument among liberals is how the poor shall be regulated, not how their poverty shall cease to exist. Soft cop or hard cop? That’s the question. They don’t want the universe to collapse.


gianni 05.05.15 at 12:24 am

Ron Haskins is a hack, not a legitimate researcher. This sort of sleight-of-hand pervades his work, such that anything based on that work – especially his statistics – should be held under great scrutiny before being repeated.

As for David Brooks, well, isn’t the whole culture and anarchy thing getting old by now?


gianni 05.05.15 at 12:31 am

Anarcissie – many liberals hold on to the utopian notion that with a good welfare state, and maybe some ancilliary policies like child care, you can have capitalism with minimal to no class stratification.


engels 05.05.15 at 12:59 am

‘many liberals hold… you can have capitalism with… no class stratification’

In Britain in 90s we were told we already had it!


Anarcissie 05.05.15 at 1:30 am

gianni 05.05.15 at 12:31 am @ 25 —
How can you have capitalism without a class system? You have to have at least two classes, a capitalist class which privately owns and controls the means of production, and a working class, whose labor power the capitalist class exploits. You can pretend not to have a class system, where the capi go around being just folks — I’ve been in companies that went in for that form of theater — but when push comes to shove you find out that things are actually very much otherwise.


Rich Puchalsky 05.05.15 at 1:45 am

“You have to have at least two classes, a capitalist class which privately owns and controls the means of production, and a working class, whose labor power the capitalist class exploits.”

I think that’s kind of antiquated. Look at the Corey Robin post on Baltimore then vs Baltimore now: those in power used to use their power to force people to work, now they force people not to work. It’s fundamentally not labor power being exploited any more, and labor power is not the base on which society depends. Society is just as happy to have people doing make-work that doesn’t really produce anything: exploitation is much more about simply keeping people in the social relationship of worker to boss than it is about actually extracting labor.


Anarcissie 05.05.15 at 3:00 am

A few questions occur to me, then. By what means does the ruling class stay in power, if it no longer commands the means of production? What are the 120 million full-time and 20 million or so part-time allegedly employed people actually doing? These are not rhetorical questions.


Rich Puchalsky 05.05.15 at 3:13 am

I doubt whether ruling classes ever generally stayed in power because they commanded means of production, but in any case our current ruling class commands the means of distribution (i.e. the financial system), and the means of violence.

A fraction of those employed people are actually producing needed goods and services. A lot of them are satisfying elite appetites for luxury services and taking the place of slaves, servants etc. And a lot of them are occupying make-work positions that serve to give them social status rewards over those unemployed, and thus cement the system together: they’ll defend their jobs against those below them, the unemployed will struggle to join them or become “valid” targets for police repression etc.


Joshua Holmes 05.05.15 at 3:57 am

***Joshua Holmes: “To wit, most of the poor aren’t able to work.”

Geez, it couldn’t be racism, could it? Not in the 21st century.***

From Brooks? Maybe. Let me try a little charity, though. He doesn’t know any actual poor people, and his circle is full of entrepreneurs, executives, bankers, high-falutin’ lawyers, Senators, and so on. These folks all work damn hard. In fact, in modern America, the elite are far less likely to be lazy inbred scions of wealth and much more likely to be “always on” pathologically-obsessive workaholics. He sees the hard work, sees the success, and can’t figure out why the poor don’t just work harder. He’d deliver the same lecture to Appalachian whites and urban blacks.


Daniel N. 05.06.15 at 9:23 am

Welfare spending [is] 10 times greater than in the dark depths of the Depression. We’re spending 45 billion dollars on welfare.

Did he mean “even after adjusting for inflation”?


casmilus 05.06.15 at 11:20 am

“What are the 120 million full-time and 20 million or so part-time allegedly employed people actually doing?”

They’re on Facebook.


ajay 05.06.15 at 1:09 pm

How can you have capitalism without a class system? You have to have at least two classes, a capitalist class which privately owns and controls the means of production, and a working class, whose labor power the capitalist class exploits.

They could be the same people. For example, you work for your living until the age of 65 (making you a member of the working class) and then you retire and live off the income stream from your pension fund’s holdings of stocks and bonds (making you a member of the capitalist class).


Rich Puchalsky 05.06.15 at 1:38 pm

“then you retire and live off the income stream from your pension fund’s holdings of stocks and bonds”

For some reason that I don’t understand, living off investments in stocks and bonds in retirement doesn’t make you either a capitalist or a rentier. I’ve never figured out whether this is just an example of “bad words are only bad when we mean them to be bad” or whether there’s really some innate difference. (Of course, I do think there’s a difference between someone with wealth and power and someone living off a modest retirement income.)


Trader Joe 05.06.15 at 2:04 pm

@33 and 34
The better way to think of “living off one’s pension” in the context of this discussion is that the money available to you in retirement is unpaid wages resulting from your working class life. Cynically, such person was made deliberately poorer throughout their working life in-exchange for ‘being taken care of’ in their retirement. Its a promise that tends to guarantee consistently having less than your labor should have merited in exchange for security and peace of mind, which of course is a trade many are happy to make.

The beauty from the rentier standpoint is of course, if the business succeeds its a promise that can be afforded (up to a point) and if the business fails or circumstances change the promise can be modified or broken entirely – its a promise with all upside for the capitalist and all downside for the worker. I’d assert that the hypothetical pensioner described @33 remains quite distinctly ‘working class’ regardless of the specifc nature of how his income gets paid.


reason 05.06.15 at 2:09 pm

Why don’t we just give everybody some money and increase tax rates – you know you call it a citizens basic income or something (national dividend perhaps)- and then save all the administrative costs, and avoid unwittingly creating poverty traps. Or is that what David Brooks is suggesting but just forgetting that we don’t automatically KNOW who qualifies for his proposed handout.


Layman 05.06.15 at 2:18 pm

“These folks all work damn hard.”

As an actual executive, I ‘worked’ long days & weeks, but ‘work’ often meant ‘flying in business class to Paris’ or ‘sitting all day in a conference room talking, while catered meals came and went’. Which is to say, almost not work at all. Conversely, as an infantry soldier, I never worked harder, or for less money. I once calculated that my then-current rate of pay per actual hours worked was 11 cents – in 1984.

By and large, successful people don’t work harder. They may be smarter, or luckier, or more determined, or less honest. If they wanted the joy of hard work, they’d be digging ditches.


reason 05.06.15 at 2:28 pm

Layman @37
“By and large, successful people don’t work harder. They may be smarter, or luckier, or more determined, or less honest. If they wanted the joy of hard work, they’d be digging ditches.”

Surely you missed the most important one, “more ruthless”.


Rich Puchalsky 05.06.15 at 2:39 pm

“if the business succeeds its a promise that can be afforded (up to a point) and if the business fails or circumstances change the promise can be modified or broken entirely”

There are many pension funds invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds, and are not tied to the success or failure of any one business. Certainly the U.S. system likes to make abusive, broken-promise systems whenever possible, but not all of them are like that.

At any rate, I’m trying to question the basic analytical distinctions that people make, and that Anarcissie’s #27 is an example of. This is difficult because whenever I do this people here assure me that really no one believes in any of this and that we all believe in pretty much the same thing. But I don’t think that any of the structures of power in the contemporary U.S. really map onto the capitalist / prole distinction in any useful way, not unless you go through many layers of “you know what I really mean when I say those words”.


Ogden Wernstrom 05.06.15 at 9:45 pm


This is anecdotal evidence, obviously, but I wouldn’t be too quick to describe these as “crap programs, administered cruelly and indifferently.”

…may have missed this, from BW@11:

And, no, the problems of many people in poverty are not going to be addressed without the mediation of an army of social workers.

You were the social worker in your anecdote. Many of the people who need the social benefits lack the literacy/knowledge/courage/access/whatever to apply & qualify on their own. That’s where I see the cruelty is most apparent. (The less obvious might be that means testing is functionally equivalent to ultra-high marginal tax rates; means testing is an incentive that helps keep people in poverty – though the tax curmudgeons will say it is the programs themselves…and will call for stricter means testing.)

On a different note, but a point of interest if anyone is implying that there might be some superiority in cash benefits: While reading US CBO reports that attempt to estimate income including value of the benefits of social programs, I noted their estimate that 24% the bottom quintile’s aggregate income is in the form of medical benefits. That is, nearly one-quarter of everything they receive is medical coverage. (Since income statistics were 1979 through 2010, I think that estimate was from before The Heritage Foundation’s plan for universal healthcare coverage became effective in the US, but my memory can err.)

On a different different note…

What are the 120 million full-time and 20 million or so part-time allegedly employed people actually doing?

I can’t speak for 139,999,999, but at least one is trying to make reading Crooked Timber look productive.


A.B Prosper 05.07.15 at 2:30 am

Mass immigration into the United States and Green cards is part of the the 500 LB Neo-Liberal Gorilla we don’t talk about. We’ve added 50 million wholly unnecessary residents and who knows how many workers strictly to arbitrage wages down.

If companies could not get cheap labor in the door, wages would higher and companies would have to make efforts to train where there weren’t employees and it would help all of us,

What we needed twenty years ago was the economic policy espoused Pat Buchanan, what we go? Well a big mess all in the name of free trade.


Val 05.07.15 at 4:01 am

I haven’t read all the comments thoroughly, but as far as I can see n0-0ne has linked to this yet, which seems mystifying


a must read, I’d say


Bruce Wilder 05.07.15 at 6:39 pm

RP @ 39: . . . I don’t think that any of the structures of power in the contemporary U.S. really map onto the capitalist / prole distinction in any useful way . . .

I was going to write a concurring comment, but, as is my wont, the draft grew too long and wooly to be useful and I ditched it. (Yes, even I think some of my comments are too long. The thing is, I like wooly . . . — my wooly, other people’s, not so much.)

It is remarkable, really, the extent to which the available structures of thought, left and center, seem designed to prevent thinking clearly about the particulars of our present context. Mainstream, neoclassical economics may be even worse than 19th century Marx.

You can adopt the vocabulary of an elaborate economics, and it freights in a lot of meaning, but it is like trying to speak ancient Greek to the internet generation — all the key terms are loaded with complex connotations derived from a context that is irrelevant. About our lived context, we are apparently struck dumb. (“But, hey, you know, that’s cool.”)

I thought you did OK, with your observations. The actual political economy is complex, and without some kind of supporting analytic superstructure, the risk of gross oversimplification complements the risk of being sucked into the vortex of someone’s half-understood, half-translated Greek.

I am more ambivalent than you are about the economic value of hierarchy — two cheers for bureaucracy and all that. It is pervasive — half of the U.S. labor force works in organizations with more than 100 employees and only something like 8% are self-employed (though that latter number is not a very hard statistic). Bureaucracy has its own logic, quite distinct and apart from Capital, and it is historically novel. The modern multinational industrial corporation was just being birthed when Marx died. Piketty and Saez have documented how financial managers and the executive class have shouldered in to stand alongside traditional capitalist rentiers among the 1%. The distribution of income has been heavily skewed over the last couple of decades to the tippy top by what appears to be a wave of disinvestment: CEOs (aided by the 21st century overseer class of professional middle managers) and vulture capitalists taking apart the public and private structures for fun and profit. By its own logic, it is not a stable or “equilibrium” process — at some point, the structure collapses or is exhausted as a quarry. But, even if the present economy, like every phase of the industrial revolution before it, is “transitional”, it is still remarkable the extent to which the economy today is about harvesting soylent green.

For a left politics, a naive observer might wonder why it is apparently so difficult to organize a reform movement out of simply opposing the most egregious instances of predation. A partial answer is that such a large part of the professional and creative classes that could supply leadership for reform are being employed in the work of dismantling and displacement.

Did you see the John Oliver video essay on cheap fashion? CEOs become billionaires leading 1st world retail bureaucracies sweatshopping remote third world places to produce ultra-cheap, high fashion clothes that celebrities gush over on teevee.

Another useful essay I saw this last week was Lambert Strether’s May 5 essay on the Naked Capitalism blog, Note for an Elite Playbook: The Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone. I thought it was one of the best takes on the 21st century meaning of “rentier”.


Anarcissie 05.11.15 at 12:40 am

So we don’t really have capitalism any more. OK. What do we have?

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