The closed circle


Part of the nice thing about the rise of new left media like Jacobin is that there are spaces for left-wing economics, rather than just the cultural and political analysis that lefties have always had forums for. The problem, though, is that a forum is only as good as a conversation that it can engender, and mainstream economic writers by and large have absolutely no intention of entering into such a conversation. Indeed: their default rhetorical stance is that they don’t need to engage with left-wing economics, out of a conviction that left-wing economics are so inherently and superficially wrong that such engagement is unnecessary.

The conversation above, such as it is, references Peter Frase’s recent post in Jacobin, as well as David Graeber on bullshit jobs. It’s kind of remarkable that the people discussing the piece haven’t read it, as it’s quite brief. But not reading it plays both into the culture of mainstream economics and into the critique that Jacobin has made of economists in the past. In many ways, our economic discussions have never left the Cold War/New Left fusion, the days when it suddenly became very popular for generally liberalish people to make great efforts to distance themselves from anything vaguely anticapitalist. You can have crazy right-wing opinions, and they may end up rebutted, but the people I’m talking about will at least bother to make the rebuttal. People make the anti-gold standard argument, for example. They feel compelled to actually engage. Whereas, here, several mainstream economic types wax on about the demerits of a piece they admit not having read. And I spared you worse; you can put the link to that piece into Twitter and find several people dismissing it with some sort of “LOL.” (When I complain about Twitter, its defenders always claim that this behavior doesn’t happen, but I digress.) Incidentally, both Frase and Graeber are on Twitter, and could have been invited into discussion, but weren’t.

What we have then is an entirely off-balance conversation. When people wonder why, for example, there was so little criticism of our banking industry prior to its implosion in 2007 and 2008, the answer seems obvious: because the natural constituency for making those kinds of critiques has been systematically excluded from the Cult of the Serious by the gatekeepers of our economic discussion. The assumption is always that one need not rebut left-wing economic claims, because left-wing economic claims are assumed to be superficially ridiculous. Even setting aside the wisdom and fairness of that assumption, you’d think people would bother to locate it in a historical context. It arose from a period in the late 1970s when left-wing economics were perceived as exhausted. But the world now is not that world; whatever our problems are, no one can credibly claim that they arise from a surfeit of labor power. The problem with mainstream liberal media is that its basic spirit is still in the tradition of people like Michael Kinsley, and people like Kinsley have done essentially nothing to evolve into an era desperately in need of genuinely left-wing discourse.

Take Josh Barro. I don’t know who Barro’s publicist is, but he’s not paying that person enough money; Barro enjoys an absurdly positive reputation as a reformist conservative truth teller. Good for him. (It helps, I’m sure, that Barro plays to elite media’s biases, with his economic conservatism married to liberal cultural superiority and personal libertarianism, spiced with references to whatever trendy cultural bullshit is cool right now, delivered in the idiom of bored contempt that seems to be the only attitude Barro is capable of expressing.) For a lefty like me, though, there’s essentially no way to tell if Barro is as bright as people say, because of his absolute conviction that he has no obligation to engage with any left-wing economics at all. Follow him on Twitter, and you’ll find that he responds to essentially any left-wing (as opposed to liberal or neoliberal) arguments through dismissal and derision. So for me, Barro’s potential as a writer is essentially irrelevant. His refusal to engage in certain directions renders him stunningly rhetorically weak, whatever his potential might be.

He’s not alone. There’s variation, of course. But the reality is that there’s overwhelming pressure, on the market liberal dudebro types who are so prevalent in our media, to dismiss left-wing arguments out of hand. The “LOLs” and “can you believe this?”s spring up so often because they are socially rewarded. The way you demonstrate your seriousness, in these circles, is by assuming that side of economics away. There’s variation. I find Matt Yglesias wildly inconsistent in this regard, sometimes engaging, sometimes snarking. Dylan Matthews of WonkBlog started out this way as a youngster but has begun engaging more, I find. Brad Delong is consistently, depressingly glib. And there are some people who have earned entry. The brilliant Mike Konczal, for example, has gotten left-wing into the circle with a relentless work ethic and a wonk’s mode of expression. Doug Henwood has the history and consistency on his side. But in general, if you’re a young lefty guy, you will find this very hostile territory indeed.

Now, for a guy like me, none of this is a problem. Back in my argumentative days, I had as little desire for their blessing as they have for mine, and I (apparently) have a neurological condition that has addicted me to truly brutal arguments. But in an America that needs the perspectives that only the truly left-wing can bring to bear, this is an enormous missed opportunity. It’s a genuine shame to see people at Jacobin weighing in on these issues and being summarily dismissed, rather than responded to, even if that response is quite critical. And it plays right into the argument that Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs are making: that economics becomes a way to avoid moral arguments.

As I used to say when I was getting my hands dirty: it would be the easiest thing in the world for me and other lefties to stay in our enclaves, to remain in academic and activists circles, and to never engage. But what a failure, what a waste.

Update: Adam Ozimek emails:

I sincerely enjoy reading left neoliberals arguing with true leftists. Other neoliberals are also fun to watch do this, but it’s just much more productive of an argument when it’s two liberals. I think there should be more of this.

Sometimes I get the sense that older neoliberals are tired of that argument, and it happened constantly before we were born. Paul Krugman used to be the master of arguing with leftists from the neoliberal perspective, but it is explicitly part of his strategy to not argue with you and focus on disagreements with republicans. I believe he has said of his writing in the 90s that he and leftists were arguing over NAFTA while Sauron was gathering his forces in Mordor.


  1. I’m a lefty, and you’re talking about something that literally no one is paying attention to.
    Most lefties would react to this article with a comment along the lines of “who the f*** is Jacobin?”

    1. That comment, in this context, is nonsensical: here is a Twitter conversation in which several people purport to discuss a piece they admit to never having read. It’s irrelevant if you find Jacobin prominent. They discussed the piece while refusing to even reading.

  2. I read Graeber’s piece when it came out and tweeted it approvingly. I didn’t read the Tabarrok…at some point I don’t have time to follow all the back-and-forth battles to their conclusion…

    1. The piece by Peter Frase in question was, at least, a fair and serious argument. In the limited sense, I’d think you could understand why I find people dismissing it openly without having read it to be unfortunate. The broader point is whether you should consider how you’ve become part of a subculture that is so comfortable with reflexive dismissal of anything outside of your limited assumptions.

      1. I don’t think asking whether there is anything worth reading in it and believing when someone else summarizes is “reflexive dismissal”.

      2. Though I do basically agree with your point Freddie (aside from the personal criticisms). I think neoliberals, economists, and people in the middle in general, should spend more time arguing with the farther out wings of their ideological side more often.

  3. Let’s talk Guaranteed Income.

    There is a bunch of lefty wistfully “leisure society” or “ext stage proggressive plan stuff.

    And then there is MY FRIGGING PLAN that has rortybomb’s support. Note he’s your lefty example…

    It’ll also get you Kimball and Sumner and host of other THINKERS – interfluidity to carlos muchos to peg.

    Freddie, you don’t have to like me, or care whether my heart is in the right place…

    The THINKERS, not Noah, not Bruenig (from the left left), not Matty or Barro or Joe (from the left right)… no I mean the guys who don’t play the your bro game, but the guys who are very sure of their own footing, or less concerned with their reputation….

    The THINKERS give plenty of nod to GI / CYB.

    Note the reason:

    My plan increase consumption for the poor 30% more than any non- politically feasible GI or BI plan.

    No matter what the amount of GI – adding in CYB buys the poor another 30% of consumption.

    It’s not hard to understand why…. read the plan. The point it, the logic is solid, and THINKERS quickly see it, and your bro fakers don’t have the confidence to trust their own minds.

    I agree with you Freddie, some of these guys don’t listen to your arguments, but let’s be frank, you don’t want to play the GI / CYB game either, but you can’t say out loud why.

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