“True progressivism”? No, not even close… October 17, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy.
It’s fascinating to read the Economist article on ‘True Progressivism’, both for what is said – which is really – though it doesn’t go into quite enough detail – dressed-up neo-liberalism given a cosmetic patina of egalitarian rhetoric, and what is not – the areas that it cannot or will not address.
Modern politics needs to undergo a similar reinvention—to come up with ways of mitigating inequality without hurting economic growth. That dilemma is already at the centre of political debate, but it mostly produces heat, not light. Thus, on America’s campaign trail, the left attacks Mitt Romney as a robber baron and the right derides Barack Obama as a class warrior. In some European countries politicians have simply given in to the mob: witness François Hollande’s proposed 75% income-tax rate. In much of the emerging world leaders would rather sweep the issue of inequality under the carpet: witness China’s nervous embarrassment about the excesses of Ferrari-driving princelings, or IAt the core, there is a failure of ideas.
There surely is when marginal tax rates of 75 % are considered with horror by the Economist, when for – by way of example – the United States in much of the post-War period rates approaching 90 per cent were the norm and these dipped to 70 per cent in the early 1960s where they remained until 1980. Somehow, even in competition with the USSR the US remained an economic behemoth during that period.
And it is fascinating to consider that for all the hand waving about inequality no actual means is expressed by which extravagantly high incomes can be reined in. Indeed reading through it beyond the hand-waving one begins to see the same old same old in relation to the proscriptions advised.
The key paragraph, and noted in comments, is the following:
Only a fraction of the European Union’s economy is a genuine single market. School reform and introducing choice is crucial: no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have. Getting rid of distortions, such as labour laws in Europe or the remnants of China’s hukou system of household registration, would also make a huge difference.
Although the Economist talks about more funding for education, ‘particularly pre-schoolers’, it is notable how it wants to effectively dismantle the structures that exist between youth and old age (or older given that it champions later retirement). Ironically, or not, given the tenor of the article, it is the sort of action which directly impacts upon those who have least autonomy in their working environments, although it filters through to everyone else however much they may believe themselves insulated against it by dint of being ‘professionals’ or ‘middle class’ or whatever.
The stuff about teacher’s unions is fast becoming a trope and not just on the right, but also on the US centre and centre left. Not a word, of course, about how economic inequalities drive distortions in education, nope, it’s teachers unions (notable a few weeks ago was a Slate Enquirer about whether teachers unions were good or bad for student achievement). Now I’m not starry eyed about teachers, having had probably more than my fair share of exposure to them through my direct family and beyond it, and I’ve often expressed my disdain at the actions of some teachers union activity in the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s where they appeared to my mind to operate almost from the position of a labour elite. But, on the other hand I’ve also direct experience of teachers who day in day out have gone out to work in contexts where their work has an enormous impact on the ground and in environments where the word ‘challenging’ is an absurd understatement and that’s above and beyond the general grind of the job which can be considerable.
But beyond that is the stuff about ‘choice’, which in part was addressed here. Steve Richards did a fairly comprehensive demolition job, by proxy, on the concept in relation to health services… what can it mean when resources are restricted? How, other than in the most shallow and pointless way can it ever be implemented? And of course the reality is that for those with the functional ability to exercise it it is almost overwhelmingly exercised in but a single direction utilising financial resources.
In a post-scarcity society it is entirely possible that health or educational structures might be created where ‘choice’ had some meaning, but in our societies it is an absurdity, cloak for class and other demographic stratifications which – due to intrinsics aspects of the human condition, most obviously the fact we live but one life and one has to try to get it right first time – render it near meaningless.
Social mobility stalls because of stratifications in health, education and employment. There’s no getting around that. For the Economist to pretend that somehow this is a byproduct of these approaches is laughable. It’s no byproduct, it’s a feature and self-consciously so. But it isn’t something that is beyond any effort to alter it. And nor should it be regarded in an unthinking way either. It requires analysis as to what sort of mobility and in what way. No point in trying to address it today only to see it result in further stratification tomorrow.
But to all this the Economist is blind. It goes on:
But the biggest target for reform is the welfare states of the rich world. Given their ageing societies, governments cannot hope to spend less on the elderly, but they can reduce the pace of increase—for instance, by raising retirement ages more dramatically and means-testing the goodies on offer.
That’s the biggest target for reform? In societies where the economic has been confused with the societal good the answer is to get people to work longer? Though of course it won’t be the ‘wealth-creators’ who will be doing so, those who the Economist is careful to argue they shouldn’t have their wealth touched through income taxes, and can somehow entirely straight-faced argue that this is a prescription of ‘fairness and progress’.
But the Economist piece is useful in so far as it traces out the contours of the dispensation that some on the right now seek to impose.
I quoted Jon Cruddas on |Monday, but I’ll quote him again because I think his points made in relation to the Tory ‘new right’ are apposite in relation to this article too:
For these authors – all members of the party’s right-leaning Free Enterprise Group – it is a binary world, where everything is forward or back, progress or decline, sink or swim, good or bad. They do not appear to see the world as a complex place. The choice is between regulation and dynamism: their ideal worker is one prepared to work long hours, commute long distances and expect no employment protection and low pay. Their solution to the problem of childcare is unregulated, “informal and cheap childminders”. We need dramatic cuts in public expenditure, they argue, to be matched by equivalent tax cuts. The demonisation of the welfare recipient continues apace; a broad dystopian worldview dominates the future. The bottom line for these Tory radicals is that the notion of community, society or indeed country is always trumped by textbook economic liberalism.
That’s the Economist’s brave new world. They’re welcome to it, but for the rest of us…