Doing the wolf's work in shepherd's dress
January 4, 2019 6:32 AM   Subscribe

'Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.' '[...] Anderson explains in Private Government (2017)[...]: "Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government."'
posted by TinyChicken (25 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot here. I'd like to take more time to think and write about it, but for now, my corporate masters are calling.
posted by asperity at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have seen the pictures for this article on The New Yorker's website and continually given it a pass. Great job choosing a pull quote that grabs my attention more than the magazine's PR department could.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:26 AM on January 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm only like four paragraphs in and already mentally shouting "OH MY GOD YES".
posted by tobascodagama at 8:33 AM on January 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm looking forward to engaging with this more but I initially gave up after the article spent so much time on her physical appearance and demeanor. I don't want to wade through paragraphs about what she'd be like at a potluck or whether or not she wears makeup in order to learn about her ideas.
posted by treepour at 8:34 AM on January 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

"Until then, Anderson had not thought seriously about race; she assumed that reasonable people treated it as undefining."

How do you become a scholar of inequality, and you only start taking race into consideration while apartment hunting for your new job as a university professor???
posted by adso at 9:11 AM on January 4, 2019 [15 favorites]

I found this article unreadable, as well. However! I found Elizabeth Anderson's homepage which contains links directly to her work and a whole mess of other reviews.
posted by ragtag at 9:28 AM on January 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

I enjoyed the article and the personal asides. This one made me crack up:

Having a kid who was a communist anarchist? That was nothing for Liz,” Jacobi said. “Having a kid who was lesbian? That took Liz about two seconds to live with. Transgender? That took about five seconds. A kid who didn’t want to go to college? Heresy.”

“I was in tears,” Anderson said. “I’m, like, ‘Art school? You’re an anarchist, and ninety-nine per cent of people there go into commercial art. Really?’ ”

A very interesting profile and a lot to think about.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:56 AM on January 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

Oh! Previously on Metafilter!
posted by ragtag at 9:57 AM on January 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Other ideas that were presented as cornerstones of economics, such as rational-choice theory, didn’t match the range of human behaviors that she was seeing in the wild.

This is, I think, something that illustrates a bigger problem with how economics is taught. I'm not economist but in pursuing my degree in finance I took a lot more econ classes than the average person. In intro to micro econ my teacher drilled into me that most of what he teaches gets presented in pretty straight-forward, relatively intuitive ways but the real world is messy. For example, the basic concept of perfect competition seems pretty easy and provides contrast to the other ways to define markets (monopoly, oligarchy, etc.). But it's a plutonic ideal that simply does not exist in the real world. Commodities often come as close as anything can come but no one has perfect information, the product sold by different suppliers are not identical (there are loads of different types of flour, for example) and there are a bunch of other confounding variables. Some suppliers value price stability, some might place value on the location of their supplier, others might have a need for the very freshest produce.

When you take a physics class and do experiments about the laws of motion, its self-evident that you're never going to encounter an item where you know the exact mass and force applied and it sure as hell won't be sliding on a friction-less surface in a vacuum. We know that we're learning about a simplified model of reality to help us better understand that one small piece of it so that we can apply that knowledge the more complex junk we actually encounter.

But for some reason most people who learn anything about economics just know that whatever product your teacher used in the supply/demand experiment arrived a price equilibrium all on it's own and therefore regulations are bad.

My main take-away from most of my econ classes was that totally unfettered capitalism is great if every product in every market meets the definition of a perfectly competitive market. Exactly zero do and the farther away from the plutonic ideal any given market is from a perfectly competitive one the more fettered you're going to need your capitalism to be.

Likewise with the example of the couple deciding not to take a corporate buyout for their restaurant. In one of my finance classes we built a cost-benefit model for some fictionalized project proposal. We came up with a number that represented the value of all the variables we could consider. The teacher made it clear that the number does not and cannot account for everything. The board will care about your number but there are tons of variables that you can't put a number too and those things will influence the decision too. She told us that she herself had presented models like this to clients that seemed to make a clear case based on the math that the project was a good idea but there were things her model couldn't account for so the client ultimately decided not to move forward. So the idea that people might refuse a deal that seemed like a huge win for them on paper but there are other factors difficult to pin a value to that lead them to turn it down is not at all new to me.
posted by VTX at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2019 [16 favorites]

"Anderson’s solution was 'integration,' a concept that, especially in progressive circles, had been uncool since the late sixties. Integration, by her lights, meant mixing on the basis of equality. It was not assimilation. It required adjustments from all groups."

By this definition, we've never really had integration, and there's not going to be a way of making this happen without some people giving up their positions as the ones setting the standards, concerns, and boundaries of multiple institutions. And there we hit a conservative split again. Because a conservative will say that the institutions (work, politics, justice system, etc) are fine as they are, and it's up to others to adapt to them. Acceptance of structural flaws that suppress others isn't something they want to see if they largely benefit from those structures. Though I do think her attempts to critique and contextualize the "classical liberal" philosophers is helpful. That may hold some sway with conservatives.

I also kind of liked how in typical libertarian fashion, she wasn't convinced sexism and racism existed until each one affected her personal choices. Was that subtle shade I detected?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

"Anderson offers a different corrective path. She thinks it’s fine for some people to earn more than others. If you’re a brilliant potter, and people want to pay you more than the next guy for your pottery, great! (If you’re just O.K. but want to work extra industriously for the difference, that’s fair, too.) The problem isn’t that talent and income are distributed in unequal parcels."

Um, the author of this knows "socialism" doesn't mean "everyone literally earns the exact same amount of money," right?

"By letting the lucky class go on reaping the market’s chancy rewards while asking others to concede inferior status in order to receive a drip-drip-drip of redistributive aid, these egalitarians were actually entrenching people’s status as superior or subordinate. Generations of bleeding-heart theorists had been doing the wolf’s work in shepherds’ dress."

Ooookay. Maybe I need to just read the book, because it seems to me that this is exactly why Communism explicitly calls for an end to free-market capitalism and a classless society.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 11:28 AM on January 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

a plutonic ideal

posted by thelonius at 1:38 PM on January 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

I wasn't totally sure if that was a typo, a deliberate joke, or a real economic term I wasn't familiar with. Whichever it is, I like it.
posted by asperity at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Totally a typo but let's pretend it's because my subconscious is more clever than I am.
posted by VTX at 2:04 PM on January 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government

Noam Chomsky was the first thinker I encountered who pointed out that centralized economic planning, top-down control and harsh consequences for expressions of personal freedom all feature at least as prominently within every corporate feifdom as they ever did under any nominally Communist government regime.

Statistically, people who put themselves in charge of large amounts of stuff just gravitate toward behaving like complete arseholes. Exceptions are rare and rather wonderful.
posted by flabdablet at 5:13 PM on January 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

New Yorker:
As a rule, it’s easy to complain about inequality, hard to settle on the type of equality we want.
I thought Frank Wilhoit made a pretty fair fist of it.
posted by flabdablet at 5:27 PM on January 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

I hope her work is more empirically accurate than the supposed observation of the very first paragraph that failing companies skip payroll in order to pay vendors ... when of course not only is the opposite the case in practice (vendors will be patient for months, workers quit within days of going unpaid) but actually entrenched in bankruptcy practice and law (companies in bankruptcy typically seek and are allowed to pay all wages ahead of vendors, and in any event are compelled to pay the first $12,850 of unpaid wages ahead of vendors).

A later direct quote, calling the industrial revolution a disaster for egalitarianism, is a very strange thing too. It forever overturned the primacy of inherited land wealth as the primary constituting force of elite status. It set in motion a phenomenal increase in productivity and cheapening of goods (in percentage of average wage terms) that distributed basic economic security (shelter, warmth and food) far wider than had ever been imaginable.
posted by MattD at 9:56 PM on January 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

MattD, I think it's safe to say that workers and vendors alike have many experiences of getting screwed over. But wage theft is a huge problem (previously), your reference for bankruptcy practice is jurisdiction-specific and not universal, and while $12,850 might cover wages owed to employees of a mom and pop operation, it is pennies for a corporation of any appreciable size. Like Toys 'R' Us, for example (from the link: "The nation's bankruptcy laws ... give priority to repaying creditors of the bankrupt companies.")

As for the Industrial Revolution: as the article discusses, some of its architects had, like Adam Smith, noble intentions in diminishing the power of certain previous structural hierarchies. But the social and legal transformation that is referred to along with the industrial transformation in the term Industrial Revolution also included the British Enclosure Acts and similarly anti-egalitarian changes that promoted concentration of wealth (albeit in sometimes different hands than the previous feudal system). With respect, you seem to have missed the point of the article in describing a different basis for defining or understanding freedom and egalitarianism and their relationship. Admittedly, I think the article does a poor job describing it, and if it were not adjacent to ideas I've seen and thought about in other (related) contexts, I too might have missed the point. Fortunately our fellow mefites have provided some more in-depth links above, which I know I will be following up on as time allows.
posted by eviemath at 7:19 AM on January 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

More specifically, Anderson's work seems to be at least implicitly using ideas of relational autonomy (noting that the use of "relational" here seems to be related to but a bit different from its use in "relational egalitarianism"?), which is something that has been on my "I want to read up on that" list for a while (as in, I just kind of know that these ideas exist, so for all I know, Anderson is in fact one of the main theorists and my basic Google searches just haven't encountered her yet, or possibly there are irreconcilable differences between the two sets of ideas and I don't know enough about either one yet to know that). There's an interesting connection to feminist conceptions of anarchism and theoretical foundations for anarcho-communusts, as well. Though Anderson doesn't seem to want to go there, at least based on the description in this article, which I suspect is likely simplifying quite a lot as well as framing a story that made sense to the article author.
posted by eviemath at 7:41 AM on January 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

At any rate, the argument that classical Liberalism structurally supports the neoliberal project, just with a friendlier face, is pretty common on the Left.
posted by eviemath at 7:43 AM on January 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Eviemath it's empirically untrue that businesses in financial straits tend to pay their vendors ahead of their employees. In fact, the opposite is true and that goes especially for larger companies.

Toys R Us is a very good example of that - it was mostly current on its wages when it filed for bankruptcy, sought and received the right to pay the last pay period's pre-bankruptcy wages in full and on current schedule when there was no statutory duty to do the same, stayed current on wages after the bankruptcy, and (extraordinarily) ended up paying severance at the expense of its lenders ... while at the same time most of its pre-bankruptcy vendors are getting between zero and 25 cents on the dollar, and a good chunk of its post-bankruptcy vendors are also getting about 25 cents on the dollar.

The $12,850 wage preference is per worker for up to six months of work, and given that workers tend to quit very quickly if they aren't paid, tends to cover all wage arrears of non-executive employees (including WARN Act pay in many cases) except where's there's a total wipe-out and the vendors get zilch. Wage preference is probably one of the least jurisdictionally-limited insolvency principles around -- it's present in all US states and possessions by way of the Bankruptcy Code, and has plentiful analogs in most US state involvency regimes and most (and maybe all) sophisticated non-US insolvency regimes.
posted by MattD at 8:52 AM on January 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

She sounds fascinating and I'd love to hear more about her ideas, ideally coming from someone who doesn't feel the need to expound at length about what her laugh sounds like, how she carries herself, and what she wears. The writing style and tone of this article was super annoying and I gritted my teeth through to the end because the little smidgens of actual philosophy sprinkled through were so tantalizing--obviously plenty of room to debate, but interesting questions.

So thank you for the links, ragtag. Will go digging.
posted by Cozybee at 11:00 AM on January 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

MattD, what jurisdiction are you referring to?(*,**) I personally know workers who are still fighting for actual back wages after their employer declared bankruptcy, and others who lost court cases and never received back wages, because bankruptcy court paid other creditors first(***). But that's neither here nor there, since the part of the article you referenced was not about companies failing to pay employees their full compensation package due when the company goes bankrupt; it was about companies bouncing employee paycheques as regular operational procedure.

So we're talking about labor law and available remedies for employees for stolen wages, versus I guess contract law of some sort governing the vendor-buyer relationship and related remedies or common practice. In any case, not bankruptcy law.

As the fpp article states, Anderson empirically saw many more bounced employee paycheques than bounced vendor cheques among the companies that banked where she was working. While not a general study, that is an empirical result that Anderson observed. As in, it doesn't matter whether it sounds likely to you or not, it happened.

You're right that it doesn't necessarily extend to telling us the general, average ratio of bounced paycheques to bounced cheques to vendors (in Massachusetts at the time, in the US, in North America or other countries with comparable legal systems and business cultures, over different time periods, etc. - we'd need to set some parameters to ask about more general extensions of what Anderson observed).

In general results, however, your assertion that workers (say, across the US, in the past five or ten years) will likely quit within days of not being paid is disproven by the prevalence of wage theft, as described in the "previously" link I provided. Perhaps you are thinking of a class of workers with more bargaining power, but many service industry and other low-wage workers have few options and are quite vulnerable to exploitation by employers - and this is a well-documented, empirical result.

(* Specifically, which backruptcy / labor laws are you referring to? Are they US federal laws? They certainly don't seem to be Canadian labor laws. If state laws, do they apply in Massachusetts, where Anderson worked when she observed the bounced cheque phenomenon? How long have the laws been in effect, and were they the same or stronger during the relevant time period? Do average, non-unionized employees who don't have access to on call legal advice have an effective way to both know their rights and participate in the bankruptcy proceedings?)

(** In the Toys 'R' Us case, the main issue was severance pay; and in many other bankruptcy cases, what's at stake for workers is retirement funds. These are part of their compensation - just deferred pay - so if workers don't get those, they are not getting paid. Toys 'R' Us ended up creating a fund for severance pay from other money from the venture capital firms that had bought it, after much public outcry. Workers were not initially going to get severance packages, as the article I linked described. That's not bounced paycheques though, of course.)

(*** I may be in a different jurisdiction than you are thinking of. The particulars of bankruptcy law vary.)
posted by eviemath at 9:21 PM on January 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

"I enjoyed the article and the personal asides. This one made me crack up:"

This one is baffling to me. I went to "art school" but it was still a goddamn college.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:17 AM on January 7, 2019

I have personally experienced having my paycheck bounce. Bad. I don't work there anymore.
posted by elizilla at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

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