Monday, May 18, 2009

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post

Ezra Klein begins his new gig as a Washington Post blogger today. He has published an "Introduction" this morning. Now, if you'll notice the slogan next to his picture, he describes his blog as covering "Economic and Domestic Policy, Lots of It." And at the post he says:

Our topic will be the politics and policy of the economy. But that doesn't limit us to the latest unemployment numbers or the wreckage of a freshly collapsed bank. Those are economic outcomes. We'll be focusing at least as much on economic inputs. The forces that decide what tomorrow's economy will look like.
Okay. There's more (Klein says he'll blog on "Anything else that comes up"), but let's focus on "economic inputs" for a moment, since Klein is often feted at an expert on these things.

One of the historic "forces" shaping the economy is the American political culture. About a month ago Klein wrote a post at the American Prospect arguing against our culture of individualism: "
The Argument Over Inequality: The Myth of Individual Exceptionalism May Undermine Society On the Whole." Klein, unfortunately, pitches his analysis to the "going Galt" phenomenon, which provides a strawman set-up for his socialist advocacy:

The argument over inequality is, in general, an argument between two camps: One group -- call them the Galtists -- believes that the top percentile is making so much money because they are immensely skilled and tremendously productive. Bill Gates might have an obscene amount of money, they argue, but he gave the world Microsoft Vista (sorry, bad example). We live in a world in which great achievements ensure great rewards, and so much as possible, we don't want to muck with that feedback structure.

The Galtists tend to end up in long arguments with their opposites: the Rawlsian liberals who believe life is luck, and so too with the bulk of achievement. Impressive as a corporate titan may appear, his success is truly testament to a thousand variables far outside his control. Good genes and attentive parents and a smart peer group and a legacy admission to Yale and perfect timing and much else. We live in a world, in other words, where great luck ensures great rewards, and it is the job of public policy to smooth out the jagged edges of fate.
I wouldn't quibble with this so much had not Klein directed his fire at the level of culture rather than a debate between Randians and leftist economists. But no, Klein questions the entire historical understanding of America as an unforgiving frontier society in which personal strength and boot-strapping perseverence meant the difference between success or starvation.

There's no doubt that governmental institutions affect the success of Americans today. But success is not all publically driven. I had loving parents who stressed education, and who modeled hard work and personal initiative. I had the public schools and universities too, the latter made affordable through financial aid. But my own success was more than public support and a little "luck." Indeed, my family faced hardships so many times in life, without public assistance, I tend to think of the best social institutions as those bolstering the individual ethos of personal responsibility embedded in our culture. Hence, I tend to think that the family-level aspects of my own career belie Klein's repudiation of individualism.

The American political culture of individualism precedes Ayn Rand, of course, which is why Klein's analysis is so flawed. I teach this every semester. Individualism is a core concept in introductory American government. For example, here's Thomas Patterson in his text,
The American Democracy:

Individualism is a commitment to personal initiative, self-sufficiency, and material accumulation. It is related to the idea of liberty, which makes the individual the founation of society, and is buttressed by the idea of equality, which holds that everyone should be given a fair chance to succeed. Individualism stems from the belief that people who are free to pursue their own path and not unfairly burdened can attain their fullest potential. Individualism has roots in the country's origins as a wilderness society. The early Americans developed a pride in their "rugged individualism," and from this governance grew with the idea that people ought to try to make it on their own.
You can see why Klein conflates extreme wealth and inequality with the "myth of individual exceptionalism." For Klein, the fact of growing income inquality in society necessarily invalidates the concept of personal initiative and self-sufficiency. Klien, in other words, argues the sytem is rigged, and we need redistributive policies to set level the playing field. As he notes at the American Prospect post:

The story of history ... is often told through the achievements of individuals. And to some degree, there is value in that. Society is a collection of individuals. If there were no rewards for innovation, we might find spontaneous invention giving way to its opposite. But we are far from that world. Instead, we have set up a system that lavishly rewards individuals and impoverishes society.
So keep all of this mind when you read Ezra Klein at the Washington Post.

Klein's a socialist and atheist. He's been known to attack people with outrageous charges of anti-Semitism. He was recently in the news as the ringleader of JournoList.

For what it's worth, I have it on good faith from
TigerHawk that Klein's a good guy.

But see
James Joyner's earlier take on Klein's move to the Post. See also Memeorandum.

12 comments:

shoprat said...

I don't understand why success can't be seen as a mixture of the two. Clearly nothing would ever be accomplished without individual initiative and work, but luck -- both good and bad -- definitely factors in as well. That's why I do believe in state supported education (education -- not indoctrination, deconstuction and self-esteem courses) as far as the student will assert themselves, as that's really all the state can do to reduce the luck factor.

Donald Douglas said...

Good point, Shoprat! We need both to some extent, although I education is too bureaucratized and liberals totally discount individual initiative ...

Dennis said...

There is an old saying that states,"Luck is where preparation meets opportunity." Far too much of what has and is "Preparation" for one's progress in life is called "Luck" by those who, in most cases, are unwilling to commit the time or effort to succeed.
I have meet very few people who are successful who got lucky. They spent the time reading, working, et al to achieve that which is important to them.
I would posit that in almost all cases where you hear someone saying that another person was lucky that the person is trying to denigrate the person who actually put in the requisite hard work.
I quite frankly do not believe that luck plays a real part in anyone's life. While others were partying and wasting their time many of us were working to become the best we could be. People by their actions or failure to act create much of their own destiny. People have a lot more control over things than they usually utilize.

R. Stanton Scott said...

I'm left wondering where in his post Klein "questions the entire historical understanding of America as an unforgiving frontier society in which personal strength and boot-strapping perseverence meant the difference between success or starvation." He does not make the claim you use Patterson to rebut.

I also do not read in Klein's post an argument that "the sytem is rigged, and we need redistributive policies to set level the playing field." Pointing out a social fact is not the same as recommending a particular policy to change that fact, and Klein makes no general or specific proposals here.

Klein simply points out that more than one exceptional individual made sense of the social and scientific forces that created windows for innovation by experts, and uses this fact to make a claim about the importance of society and collective effort in individual success.

In fact, after describing the debate and presenting one take on it, the only claim he makes here is that some of the credit for advancement should accrue to collective efforts behind the innovators--that is the rest of society. He makes no suggestions about whether or how to emphasize or strengthen collective efforts, and he does not advocate redistribution to deemphasize the differences between individuals, at least not here.

Klein is not attacking individual exceptionalism here--he is only pointing out that "the world needs ditch diggers, too." I think you mischaracterized his post.

Donald Douglas said...

Thanks Dennis!

Donald Douglas said...

Actually, not, R.S. Scott:

"The Argument Over Inequality: The Myth of Individual Exceptionalism May Undermine Society On the Whole."

Perhaps you should be taking Klein to task for the title of his post, which I address perfectly here ...

Maybe they didn't teach logical inference when you were in school ... another reason why you're no longer a professor, no?

nycweboy said...

I've been a regular Ezra follower for years, and have communicated with him on occasion. I don't think he'd argue that his politics are decidedly lefty - he worked for he American Prospect, it's not like he's hiding his views. The idea, though, of him throwing around "charges of anti-semitism", especially based on one post, are ludicrous. Ezra's refusal, really, to fit into conventional expectations in debates about Israel is one of his better assets. The more pointed critique, really, is that he's not especially well versed on finance or banking issues and his approach to economics is muddled, often, at best. Until he breaks out of serving too much as an Obama apologist, I don't expect much from his WaPo gig... but he is a good guy, and I expect, along the way, he'll learn some things.

Heir to the Throne said...

Looks like Ezra Klein continues his intellectually honesty. all countries, incidentally, with higher life expectancies than our own)Does he take into account the shorter life expectancies of the US’ larger black and Hispanic communities?

Or is it like progressive favorite US infant mortality rate statistic that just ignores it.

R. Stanton Scott said...

So, the only basis for your critique is the headline?

From "The Argument Over Inequality: The Myth of Individual Exceptionalism May Undermine Society On the Whole" you got "Klein questions the entire historical understanding of America as an unforgiving frontier society in which personal strength and boot-strapping perseverence meant the difference between success or starvation?"

Yet I'm the one who doesn't get "logical inference?"

I stopped being a professor because I found a better gig. Pays more. You've never actually been one, if this is the level of argument you produce.

Man, I wish I could take one of your classes. I'd make you look stupid every time you opened your mouth. I bet every semester you have an undergrad who does exactly that.

Avery said...

damn those atheists!!

Jim Burrows said...

I think that many are missing the actual thrust of Klein's American Prospect article. After pointing out that the issue is, "in general, an argument between two camps", Klein goes on to say:

  "Into this debate step Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, whose recently published book Unjust Deserts proposes a new way of looking at great wealth. It is not the primary product of luck, they say, nor is it the child of skill. Rather, it is society that allows individuals to achieve great things and earn such magnificent rewards."

This is essentially what shoprat has suggested, a third way, a mixture of the two, of luck and skill, and more importantly, the social matrix that supports the individuals.

Suggesting that society plays a role isn't the same as rejecting the whole American historical understanding of the world. It is merely observing that as the old saw about how when it's "steam engine time", several people will all put together the bits of knowledge and technology that have been around for centuries an all invent the steam engine at the same time.

Even the rugged individualist Daniel Boone worked for and employed others, built roads and founded communities like Boonesborough. Yes, he relied on personal strength and bootstraps, but he relied on others such as Henderson and the Transylvania Company. And he supported others. The same goes for all the individualists upon who out "traditional understanding" is based.

Klein, Alperovitz and Daly are doing nothing more than recognizing that interdependence that along with our independence is key to the history and principles that make America exceptional.

In this, they are doing little more than recognizing the cycle of dependence, independence and interdependence that is at the heart of human development. We are all born as dependent babies, rebel as we discover our adolescent independence, and then finally achieve the societal interpendence of adulthood, assuming we live so long and actually grow up.

Tomas said...

I like lectures from privileged golden spoon people who tell ghetto dwellers often raised by single parent homes, about lack of "individual initiative being the reason for their weakness in academia.

ummmmm Yeaaaahh.

Clearly, some of us don't have a basic understanding of sociology theory.