Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Zero Left

Frank Pasquale

Andrew Sullivan displays his Oxford debating talents in today's post "Does The Blogosphere Permit Left Wing Ideas?" He approvingly quotes Will Wilkinson's diktat that "socialists" have never "made compelling arguments about policy." But he maintains a patina of objectivity by coyly wondering, "If we're missing worthy far-left blogospheric voices, who are they?" "Neglected hard-leftist" is a dubious honorific, given the radioactive status of the merely liberal. As Paul Horwitz observes, the "influence of leftist rhetoric" is "vanishingly small in American politics."

Perhaps we could paraphrase Grover Norquist and conclude that the left is small enough to be dragged out and drowned in the bathtub. If so, what does American political discourse lose? Quite a bit, especially when you look at big issues like health care and finance.

Financial Reform Options from A to B

The scholars associated with the Roosevelt Institute are must-reads on the economic crisis. Apart from Mike Konczal, I rarely see them, or allies like James K. Galbraith, Dean Baker, or Michael Hudson, discussed on major blogs. Even more neglected is Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism. She consistently provides a macro and micro level perspective on all aspects of the crisis, ranging from blistering critiques of banker pay to technical discussion of Basel rules to superb coverage of the unfolding foreclosure scandal. And she has incisive commentary on what passes for "liberal" today.*

"The left" has also contributed deep and unappreciated analyses of structural dynamics behind the current crisis. Week after week, Sam Pizzigati has provocative insights about inequality. Sullivan might be a little less defensive on behalf of "the successful" if he were familiar with Pizzigati's pageant of twinned excess and deprivation. Every time I hear a boilerplate plug for "free trade," I want to break out Ian Fletcher's "Dubious Assumptions of the Theory of Comparative Advantage" (which can also be found at the blog of the Real World Economics Review (RWER)). The RWER, like Eurozine and VoxEU, is also far more cosmopolitan than the usual sources of "economic wisdom" in the US.

All this makes a huge difference in terms of how the press frames financial reform. "The left" is far more likely to look behind the usual assumptions that the financial sector creates great value, and therefore must be unconstrained. "The left" can understand one of the central claims of Suzanne McGee's "Chasing Goldman Sachs:" that the "money grid" is an awful lot like the electric grid, and just as we'd be fools to let utilities dictate the nature of everything that uses electricity, we should be asking far more questions about how financial institutions now allocate capital. Two of the best recent critiques of the Fed have come from Timothy Canova and Matt Stoller. Unfortunately, they'd probably be considered "too left" to be discussed by the great and the good at the WaPo, the NYT, and blog networks counting on advertising from the likes of Goldman and fees from Davos-ish conferences.**

Health Reform: The Mysterious Death of the Public Option

I wrote a lot about the health reform debate, and made several cases for the public option at the time. Given the popularity and success of Medicare, it's very hard to see a public option as a "left" policy. But the blogosphere's near-complete stonewalling of Steffie Woolhandler and other advocates of single-payer made the public option look much more extreme than it was. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with comparative health policy could see that there were many good precedents for a strong public option. But bloggers fixated on what would satisfy the "Gang of Six," even long after it became obvious that Senators Enzi and Grassley had no interest in compromise. I described the dynamics back in August, 2009. Let me boil it down to this: should bloggers spend more time thinking about what branding might win over Dittoheads, or try to explain the ideas of the authors of this article (which have frequently been discussed here)?

The Global Left

The A-list blogosphere's near shutting out of ideas like single payer, or industrial policy, has hurt American discourse. But we really lose out when we fail to consider the voices of the international left. As economies integrate, the frightening trends apparent in poorer countries come closer to our shores.

A thriving international left calls attention to grotesque inequalities in the global economic order. Raj Patel has discussed the perils of food inflation, and it's a hot topic internationally. But, as Yves Smith notes, "Memories of food riots in developing economies in 2008 have largely vanished from the consciousness of most Americans." It's just too leftist to point out that we are starving people to feed cars.

Beyond the blogosphere, Thomas Pogge's yeoman efforts to get large publications to pay more attention to the plight of the global poor have frequently been ignored. The near-disappearance of the poorest from news (and most blogs), except in cases of spectacular disasters, is tragic. Consider the staggeringly small amounts of redistribution needed to make a vast difference in the lives of the poorest:

The bottom half of humankind has seen its share of global private wealth shrink to 1.1 percent and its share of global household income to 3 percent, while the corresponding shares of the top tenth of humankind have risen to 85.1 and 71.1 percent, respectively. . . . [H]ad the design of global institutional arrangements involved a little more concern for poverty avoidance, the share of the poorest half in global household income might well have sunk to no lower than 5 percent–high enough to avoid life-threatening poverty.

But such arguments aren't allowed into polite company, perhaps because they would dispel the myth that foreign aid adequately makes up for the billions of dollars of illicit financial flows enabled by the tax havens of the developed world.

Left Behind

As the religious right found itself increasingly marginalized in US culture, it turned to fiction to get its message across. The left now appears to be in the same position, making what inroads it can in the world of entertainment. You can't read Gary Shteyngart's Supersad True Love Story without thinking of the book as the mirror image of George Orwell's 1984. Orwell extrapolated the natural consequences of totalitarianism triumphant, and Shteyngart foresees the logical endpoint of neoliberalism in America. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake tells us about the type of world being created by the men of Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic.

Unencumbered by a political program, fiction writers can plausibly deny being leftists. In today's America, that makes them the left's best allies. A better country--and a better blogosphere--would more seriously consider the ideas of the "leftists" mentioned above.

*The neglect of Smith is not surprising, since women's voices are very underrepresented in the blogosphere. The Feminist Law Profs blog is a good corrective.

**Admittedly, both Sullivan and Fallows followed the Orszag-to-Citigroup story, and criticize the financial sector occasionally. But I don't see anyone at the Atlantic willing to grapple with the ideas Stoller and Canova discuss.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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