Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jun/1213

Roberto Unger: A Wartime Economy Without a War

"Ouch."

With that simple yet evocative Facebook status update, I was led this week on a journey into my intellectual past.

The link attached to the painful interjection led to a video by Roberto Mangabeira Unger. It is a provocative video titled "Beyond Obama." It calls for progressives to work for the defeat of Presidential Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Some will welcome this and others will decry it. Today, I want to understand where Unger's call comes from.

Unger is one of those renaissance men who continually pop up in the most unexpected and extraordinary places. He has been, for many years, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. While there he taught anHarvard wrote widely on law, politics, and philosophy. His book Knowledge and Politics called to me and inspired me to dream of the possibility of a better world. Unger was also the intellectual godfather of the school of critical legal studies. When I was studying law and philosophy with Austin Sarat in the 1980s, Unger was one of my intellectual heroes.

The premise of critical legal studies is that law and legal concepts like rights or constitutions are neither natural nor scientific, but expressly political. Unger sought a political-legal approach that permits the "loosening of the fixed order of society." If legal rights were once seen as objective and neutral, Unger sought to employ law as a tool to transform society. What is needed, he writes, is a "deviationist doctrine" that employs law to "disrupt established institutions and forms of social practice that have achieved the insulation and have encouraged the retrenchment of social hierarchy and division that the entire constitution wants to avoid."

In other words, rights and laws must be mobilized to upset outmoded institutions; what makes Unger different is that he is not an anarchist or opposed to law and government. On the contrary, he imagines his program a "superliberalism."

Tied to his legal work, Unger's general philosophy speaks the language of the imagination. Life, Unger affirms, is always fleeting, and yet is "always something higher than it was before." His work sought to "establish a new system of thought that sweeps away the difficulties" of the present. Against theoretical critiques that muster partial assaults on liberal ideas, Unger demands that we comprehend and replace the entirety of liberalism as a psychological, economic, and political system.  He thinks big and paints in broad strokes.

As ambitious as Unger is, he never loses himself in abstract theory. Thus it was not a surprise when he took leave from Harvard and became a minister of strategic affairs in Brazil. Serving under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Unger was styled a "minister of ideas." He described his role as transforming  “imagination into the possible.”

Unger is now back at Harvard Law School, but he is still engaged with politics. His mystique and renown are so great on the left in the U.S. that the fact that he had taught Barack Obama when the future was a Harvard Law student, lent imaginative left-wing credibility to the pragmatic Illinois Senator.

It thus came as a shock—to some—when a video by Unger flashed around the Internet last week, in which Unger calmly and yet mercilessly criticized President Obama. For the future of the United States, Unger argues, President Obama must be defeated. He says this starkly:

President Obama must be defeated in the coming election. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.

And he continues raising the stakes:

Unless [President Obama] is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

Most on the left will ignore Unger's warning. That would be a mistake.

Unger argues that President Obama and the left (and also the right) have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the current financial and political crisis. The left and the president see the crisis as a typical recession; their doctrinaire answer is Keynsianism, stimulus to get us over the hump and return the economy to health. But the truth is very different. Here is Unger's analysis:

The country stopped producing at competitive prices enough goods and services that the rest of the world wants.  It then tried to escape the consequences of this failure by living as if the failure had not occurred. It put a fake credit democracy in place of the property owning democracy that it turned into an ever more distant ideal. The government bribed, placated, and finally abandoned the people, instead of equipping them.

Governments at all levels in the United States and also in Europe and Japan have basically told their citizens that everything will be alright. They kept borrowing and spending to support an unsustainable standard of living without ever insisting that the money be used to make goods and services that other people actually would buy. The result is that we have an economic system that simply cannot continue without government stimulus in the form of debt.  And that cannot continue indefinitely.

In three lectures on Keynsianism, Unger argues that both right and left economists have adopted a vulgar Keynsianism, which holds that,

A crisis brought on by too much confidence, too much credit, and too much spending requires for a fix more confidence, more credit, and more spending.

In his critique of Keynsianism, Unger sounds a bit like Hunter Lewis who gave the keynote lecture to the Arendt Center's 2009 Conference on The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. In his talk, which will soon be published in September in the forthcoming volume of the same name, Lewis argued:

The policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have come directly out of Keynes’s playbook. Consequently they have that paradoxical, stand common sense on its head, flavor. For example, we are told that: The Crash of '08 was caused by too much debt. We will therefore solve it by adding more debt.

But where Lewis argues for a certain austerity, Unger's critique of Keynsianism leads in a different direction. What is needed is not mere stimulus, he argues, but massive institutional experiments in the widening of educational and economic opportunity.

The basic insight is simple. It is a mistake to think that Keynsian stimulus got us out of the Great Depression. Stimulus failed throughout the 1930s. What got us out of the Great Depression in the 1940s was a bold, broad-based, and massive deployment of resources in the association of governments with private producers to fight WWII.

The question Unger forces us to ask today is: How can we have a wartime economy without a war?

President Obama has not asked such a question. Instead, he has simplified his economic program into a vulgar Keynsian support for stimulus. In Unger's words, President Obama has done the following:

He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.

He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of health care.

He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.

He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.

He has reduced justice to charity.

His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.

He has evoked politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.

Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

This is a damning critique. While Unger admits that there will be costs and consequences for progressive from a Republican presidency, he calculates that those costs are worth the risk if they might lead to a truly innovative and bold rethinking of politics.

Outside the progressive and conservative calculus, what is important in Unger's message is his analysis of the cowardly approaches of both parties today as well as his call for a bold and new way forward. What Unger wants is to "broaden the gateways of access to the vanguards of innovative knowledge-based production." He argues that we must "disseminate advanced experimental productive practices among the small and medium sized business that form the backbone of the real economy." Above all, we must seek not just stimulus, but renewal.

In other words, what Unger is calling for is a President with vision and character to lead us to a new place. The way out of our crisis is neither stimulus nor austerity, but a war economy without a war, an economy driven by the collective pursuit of commonly agreed upon ideas and actions. Against the false debate between austerity and stimulus, what is needed is courage and risk, the willingness to aim high, and most importantly the preparedness to suffer and struggle in the collective effort to bring a new economy and a new nation into being.

Artist: Jacek Yerka

Such an effort to re-imagine and rebuild the nation requires a leader or leaders. It will not happen on its own through the consensus politics of Occupy Wall Street. Nor will it come from the cowardly austerity of the Tea Party or from the stand-pat conventionalism of liberal Keynsianism.

One wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system where candidates utter consultant-tested platitudes designed to offend no one. The question is: How can our overly cautious and hyper-critical age encourage the kind of bold action that Arendt saw was necessary in politics?

The Arendt Center's Fall 2012 Conference is titled "Does the  President Matter?" The title does not ask the conventional question: does it matter if a Republican or a Democrat is elected? Of course it matters, in some ways, and not in others.

Rather, the conference title is meant to provoke the Arendtian question: What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?

Hannah Arendt believed that freedom requires courage. Political leaders, she argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose. Active leadership is unpredictable; since a leader inserts a new idea into the world, no one can predict or control how that idea will change the world. Leadership is therefore as risky as it is rare. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

Leadership can of course be dangerous, but politics is, for Arendt, always a risky and uncertain endeavor. The great virtue of Robert Unger's recent call to turn away from President Obama's conventional politics is that he asks and challenges us to conceive and actualize a politics that is bold rather than cowardly. Given our current predicaments, that may be our only hope.

As the heat oppresses our bodies on this summer weekend, free your soul and spend 8 minutes watching Robert Mangabeira Unger's essay: Beyond Obama.  His video is your weekend "read."

-RB

17May/120

Is College Worth It?

Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.

Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the "cliques and factions" as well as the overwhelming "gentility" of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.

We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.

First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn't read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.'s  are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.

Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.

Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don't care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time.  This cannot be the best use of most young people's time.

Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt).  The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300.  For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.

The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.

he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.

Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.

Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.

Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.

Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.

Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D's who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.

Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction.  Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.

We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes.  But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.

-RB

15Feb/121

For the Welfare of All

A reader responds to my post on The Great Cultural Divide and reminds me that perhaps Charles Murray's most interesting suggestion in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) or what used to be called a "negative income tax." The post, by a reader named Murfmensch, reads:

Murray also calls for a Basic Income Guarantee to replace all other government provisions. I think his particular proposal would harm the wrong people. He thinks provisions for “widows and orphans” have wrought harms that I don’t see.  However, I think a Basic Income Guarantee, funded by a tax on pollution and/or income past twice the median, would increase the number of people conducting civic, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political work. Alaska has a small BIG and it seems to help out in this way.

 One point Murray made at a conference was interesting. With a BIG, not only would people receive money they need, others would [not] know you are receiving money.

While I don’t know what amount would “do the trick” I think a BIG would offer a corrective to problems that Hannah Arendt diagnoses as stemming from a “job-holder” society.

The Basic Income Guarantee is basically a refashioning of the proposal for a negative income tax (NIT), which is commonly thought to have originated with economist Milton Friedman, who advocated it in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. I have long been an advocate of a negative income tax, for many of the reasons Murfmensch mentions.

A negative income tax, as Friedman wrote in 1968 in Newsweek,

is to use the mechanism by which we now collect tax revenue from people with incomes above some minimum level to provide financial assistance to people with incomes below that level.

The point is to replace the overlapping and bureaucratic welfare programs in society (welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.) with a simple cash payment to every citizen.

Let's imagine that every person would receive—to take just one number often used—$8,000/year. Whatever the number, it is one we determine is necessary to live with some dignity in contemporary society.  If you make $0 in a year, you receive $8,000 from the IRS—in essence a negative income tax. If you make $5,000, you'd receive $3,000. Anyone making more than $8,000 pays no taxes on that first $8,000 and begins paying the "positive" income tax on all extra income that supports those who make nothing. A family of four with no income would receive $32,000/year. With your base income you can do whatever you want. You can freeload or work, your choice. You can be an artist or a father. These are your choices.

The advantage of the negative income tax is that it offers a guaranteed minimal cash payment to every person and yet does away with the dehumanizing and costly apparatus of the welfare state. We could still offer Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. But all other bureaucracies go. Everyone, rich and poor, fills out the same tax forms. Those who choose not to work (let's stop calling them poor) simply get a check. They don't have to use food stamps or live in a shelter or apply for welfare. They can share apartments or group houses with others. There is no long-term unemployment insurance. They can simply use their money to live as they will.

Obviously some people will benefit pretty well doing nothing. Some will game the system and freeload. But the real advantage is that for those who don't care about making lots of money, for those who choose professions with inconsistent and often low remuneration, and even for those who simply prefer raising a family or doing community service to working, there is another option. You can basically choose to drop out of the jobholders society and the rat race with the security that you will have enough money to survive. Sure, you won't be buying fancy clothes or driving a big car. You won't be able to send your kids to fancy schools. But you can take years off work to take care of a dying relative or choose to be an artist, craftsperson, or thinker and know that in those years when you don't make enough to live on you will have a guaranteed income every year that you need it.

What the negative income tax or the Basic Income Guarantee does is make it possible to choose to opt out of the economy without stigma or danger to one's health and ability to live.

Political thinkers and economists on the left and right have embraced these proposals since Friedman originated them. There have been two major sticking points.

On the right, the fear of freeloaders and thus the desire to prevent people from choosing not to work—which is something I think is one of the great advantages of the program. There is a real debate about whether the negative income tax will increase laziness or free people to do what they love. It is probably some of both.

On the left, the fear is what happens when someone spends their money unwisely and then has nothing left. Once we get rid of welfare and food stamps to replace them with the negative income tax, there is always the danger that people will end up starving out in the cold. This too is a real risk and no doubt it will happen. There is of course charity, but that may not be enough for some people. And what about parents who waste their children's guaranteed income?

Questions remain about the negative income tax and there are details to be decided. But the benefits of negative income tax are worth these risks on both right and left. It seems that this is an Arendtian idea whose time has come.

Read an interview with Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax Here.

Read and essay in the NY Times about the Negative Income Tax Here.

-RB