21 July 2009

Crisis & Change in Progressive Politics

Yesterday I received a notice of recently published essays in The Economist's Voice, which is an on-line journal of opinion pieces. Among the essays is a very interesting offering by John Roemer
a political economist at Yale. Roemer's essay is entitled "Changing the Social Ethos is the Key." You can find it here. Essentially, Roemer is arguing that political economic crisis, because it distributes risk more equally, can lead people to support more solidaristic political-economic policies (say, universal health care) because it is in their self interest to do so. He sees this - potentially - as the basis for an endogenous process by which more and more progressive policies might be adopted - even in the U.S.! His, in other words, is a vision of incremental, yet quite radical reform. Here is a chunk of the argument:
"Crises (wars and depressions) tend to induce greater social insurance. I believe one major reason is that a crisis tends to place all people in the same boat (or at least, it reduces the difference in the sizes of their boats), and if all people are in the same boat with respect to the risks they face, it is in each individual’s self-interest to pass universal insurance. (If everyone in a population of risk-averse citizens faces, for example, a 10% probability of unemployment, then the optimal tax policy for each is to pay 10% of his/her income into the insurance pool when employed, and to collect 90% of his/her salary when unemployed.) Conversely, if people face very different degrees of risk (that is, the probability of a bad event is much higher for me than for you) it becomes politically much more difficult to arrange an insurance plan which is simple, and which all will find in their self-interest. If a crisis changes risk exposures so that all people become more similar in that respect, then the political obstacles to designing universal insurance decrease. My argument is not that citizens immediately become more solidaristic because of a crisis— it is that with common risk exposures, it becomes the self-interest of all to implement universal insurance. The Depression in the U.S. placed a large number of citizens in the same boat; similarly, the Second World War significantly reduced wealth differences in Europe, thus making the former well-to-do much more similar to the former poor with regard to risk exposure, which facilitated the passage of social insurance.

I do not wish to imply that this is the only reason that crises induce social reform. Class struggle may also be magnified due to crises: for instance, those who fought and risked their lives as soldiers in World War II returned with a feeling of entitlement and became more demanding of redistribution and welfare-state benefits. This was certainly important in the post-war period in Europe. A more nuanced version of my thesis is that crises tend to homogenize the risk exposures of the working and middle classes, who then form a sufficient majority to pass social insurance, even should the capitalist class oppose it."*
An even more nuanced version of the argument might recognize that among capitalists there may well be disagreement and conflict over the attractiveness of say, government provided health care. Some sectors, say the insurance industry, might remain unalterably opposed while other employers might see public health provision as quite attractive - if, indeed, it meant that they would be able to off-load significant benefits provision onto the state, thereby becoming more competitive relative to firms located in countries where such costs already are born publicly. But it is a safe bet that talk of "class struggle" is very likely to insure that Roemer is not among the economists whose views Obama and company are soliciting.

At first reading it seemed to me that this view ran counter to views about the reliance of progressive politics on "crisis" or "calamity" that Roberto Unger advances in his work.* But on second thought it seems that Roemer and Unger are simply identifying different mechanisms in different domains. Roemer is thinking about the way political organizations (e.g. political parties) might find constituents who, first based primarily on self-interest, but increasingly on solidarisitc grounds, would support progressive policies.** Unger actually is more concerned with another imperative: "the effort to loosen the dependence of change upon calamity, and to design institutions and discourses that organize and facilitate their own revision. ... It should be possible to be changed without first being ruined. We must redesign our institutions and discourses accordingly." It seems to me that Roemer's vision is probably prerequisite to Unger's, even as Unger's is necessary to solidify the "stable state" for which Roemer hopes.

In the recent past the right in the U.S. has proven especially adept at mobilizing working and middle class voters on the basis of "fear" (Unger) and "insecurity" (Roemer). The point here is that progressives need to figure out how to turn those motivations to their own political advantage. Whether that is possible, of course, is a major question.
* Roberto Mangabeira Unger. 2005. What Should the Left Propose? Verso, pages 18-19, 37f, 61.

** The endogeneity continues: "crises homogenize risk exposures, creating a democratic demand for insurance (economics and politics), which then induces preference change in a socially-oriented direction (psychology) which then induces a demand for more insurance, and so on, until some new stable state is reached."

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Blogger Tom White said...

Part of the problem is that the political right often intentionally create a state of fear and insecurity in the general populace precisely in order to capitalize on those feelings for their own personal gain and continuing control. These are the actual aims of a right wing political agenda, and the language used by those of this political persuasion does little to hide this fact. The left/progressive political classes have as their aim the opposite, at least in terms of their stated ideals. As such, the political left are unable to properly utilize fear and insecurity in the population precisely because those actions go against the stated intentions of a progressive political economy. The left has traditionally used the insecurities caused by the personal gain of the one at the expense of the many as it's motivation for social programs such as unemployment benefit and universal healthcare, but this position is hard to maintain in a political climate dominated by division and the fear of the 'other' (whether this be immigrants, foreign governments bent on destruction, racial separation etc) and a capitalist economic structure geared entirely toward personal gain. Hence you have a move to the political center both in policy and deed that is the current trend for left wing politicians entering power - as evidenced by the Labour Government in the UK over the past decade. The party in government today is far removed from the party that helped introduce the welfare state in the mid 20th century and further still from the party's origins a hundred years ago. The Obama administration is a centrist government and the very fact that it is regarded as socialist and extremist by many in the U.S. says a lot about the political climate in the country as a whole. It would require a shift in the political, economic, cultural and philosophical climate to be able to implement progressive policies without first having to suffer calamity. The reality is incredibly complicated. For example, universal healthcare should be a given, but it's implementtaion is hampered by the levels and methods of taxation, the variations in lifestyle and attention to personal health, the income gap etc etc. In countries like the UK which have a form of universal healthcare there is debate - should smokers get treated for smoking related diseases at the expense of the taxpayer for example. (The answer to that one is of course 'yes' because cigarettes are taxed...or is it 'no' because they know the health risks and chose to smoke...or are they addicts with a problem...) So while the left struggles with such debates, the right can clearly state that if you pay for your own personal health insurance then you can take whatever health risks you want because you are paying for it. Neatly sidestepping any arguments of societal responsibility. Anyway, I digress.

My point is that fear and insecurity are mainstays are the states that the political right thrive upon, while the left aims to avoid them.

21 July, 2009 09:14  

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