Saturday, November 07, 2009

Principled Capitalist Unemployment

John Cole:
President Obama is scheduled today to put his signature to HR 3548, the unemployment extension bill that’s been struggling to make its way out of Congress for over a month. Thousands of unemployed Americans will applaud this move by Congress and the White House. Despite the protracted process of getting the bill through the Senate after an initial version was passed in the House, this is much-needed legislation that will help unemployed Americans whose benefits have or will run out in all 50 states.

Also included in this bill is an extension of the homebuyer tax credit to April 2010. The bill totals $24 billion in economic stimulus through these programs.

More here:

The House voted 403-12 today to approve Senate amendments to H.R. 3548, the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009, and sent the measure to President Obama for his signature. The bill extends unemployment insurance benefits but also includes a provision added in the Senate that will expand businesses' ability to “carry back” net operating losses suffered during the current recession in order to claim a refund from taxes paid in previous years.

You see- you aren’t allowed to just pass a bill extending unemployment benefits at the cost of $2.4 billion dollars, because that would be socialism. It takes another $21.6 billion to grease the palms of the people who own the “moderates” and the “fiscal conservatives,” and once you get the cost up to $24 billion, you have achieved “capitalism.”

I'll grant that there are reasons for what is viewed as "standing on principle" against socialism. While I generally disagree with these reasons as being overly simplistic, there is a point to looking at the historical failures of socialism and suspecting the worst when any policy moves in the general direction of state assistance. But the same point goes for neoliberalism, and we know that unregulated capitalism can quickly lead to social and economic disaster for the large majority of a society. Unquestioning, ignorant, and mindless mantras about the miracles of capitalism and the evils of socialism serve no one except those who benefit from the public being unquestioning, ignorant, and mindless.

This is often what passes for standing on principle (let's call it the principle of standing-on-principle). And principles often work like black boxes. That is, in such cases, the justification and meaning of principles are taken as self-evident and thought to require no questioning. They are simply inherited from authority, and their use is thus a form of moral illiteracy.

But a "principled stand" is also one that moves away from reflection on the consequences of what that standing-on-principle entails. Those consequences may be benign and even more broadly beneficial. But they can also be profoundly harmful. One pretty good and widely-agreed principle is that we ought not to harm others - except in cases like self-defense. Actions based on standing on one principle or set of principles that result in harm to others and thus also to that important no-harm principle are not only morally incoherent actions but also immoral in concrete practice. But then, you didn't see this because standing-on-principle views consequences of that action as irrelevant.

I'm not suggesting that we ought to be exclusively consequentialist. In its strict form, that also leads to deeply incoherent positions and actions. Principles and consequences are both important elements of any action or policy. But the principle of standing-on-principle is dependent on ignorance and the method of authority (unless, maybe, you're an actual Kantian, which I'd venture to bet most "socialism" fear-mongerers are not).

The result is that when you depend on unquestioning allegiance to unexamined principle, and you receive interpretations of that principle from certain authority figures, and those authorities have their own interests in mind (say, making millions of dollars as a sensationalist media rabble-rouser whose income is positively correlated with an increase in public fear or, say, paying off political supporters), and they can sustain those interests even more insidiously by promoting the principle of standing-on-principle, and that the principle of standing-on-principle makes its agents feel like they're the most moral beings on earth for holding that principle,... then you have a recipe for a growing number of people who believe that their own violent rhetoric turned into action, their own harm to others, can only be based in the deepest of moral values and the name of the public good.


Andy said...

Maybe I missed something but I don't recall anyone of consequence claiming that unemployment benefits are socialism. I don't see any evidence the housing tax credit is some kind of bone to moderates necessary to get them to support the bill. Were any moderates actually against the measure?

MT said...

I'll agree with you in principle.