Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 21, 2015.
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Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism.

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Marginalized Economists: Revisiting Robert Heilbroner

Originally published on the US Intellectual History blog on May 25th, 2014.
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While historians have begun to take interest in the history of economic thought, the tendency to research the most influential figures, the “historical winners”, has persisted as the predominant scholarly trend. But there are merits to studying the dissenters, too. Following not only how the economics profession took the turn it did but also looking at those who tried to advocate for an alternative vision, can help to clarify the seeming intellectual hegemony of our economic times.

Robert Heilbroner, arguably the most prominent dissenting American economist of the late twentieth century, followed his changing discipline with despair. So great was his anxiety over the powerful trends capturing the minds of his colleagues, championed by individuals like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Gregory Mankiw, that he dedicated himself to addressing what he felt were economics’ existential threats. Yet despite his efforts, with over twenty books to his name, Robert Heilbroner never gained recognition and mainstream respect. Even in 2014, there remains little work written about him. [1]

Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in 1919, Robert Heilbroner was no stranger to privilege. Yet when his father died when he was just five years old, and his family’s chauffeur then became his surrogate father, Heilbroner developed a nascent sense of class-consciousness. Heilbroner “sensed the indignity of [his driver’s] position as a family intimate yet a subordinate.”[2] Later in life Heilbroner would say that he felt the experience “explains something about my…personality and hence about my work. I’ve found myself pulled between conservative standards on the one hand, and a strong feeling for the underdog on the other.”[3]

Heilbroner went on to Harvard in 1936, and became interested in economic thought after readingThe Theory of the Leisure Class during his sophomore year. He called the experience “an awakening” and went on to graduate with majors in history, government and economics. [4] (Fortuitously: read Andy Peal’s recent post on Veblen’s “iconoclasm”.) Throughout his life one could spot the Veblenian influence in Heilbroner’s work; it was his central conviction that the “search for the order and meaning of social history lies at the heart of economics.”[5]

Heilbroner worked during an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In the late 1940s and 50s, while other European countries were suffering from the harsh ramifications of the war, American economics grew rapidly. Not only was America’s economy growing strong, but employment opportunities for economists were also expanding ever since the passage of the New Deal. Moreover, when many war veterans went off to college on the GI Bill of 1944, many of them chose to study the social sciences, creating a new demand for economics professors. Thus, economics departments grew to a size that American universities had never before seen.

Additionally, partly due to the influence of wartime planning, statistical study and empirical work became increasingly interwoven. After 1945, economics grounded itself more firmly within the confines of quantitative methods, including algebraic procedures, theoretical models, and economic statistics. When Paul Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947, he constructed a persuasive framework that would guide the economic discipline towards a field defined much more through the development of testable propositions. The influence of John Maynard Keynes also helped to establish mechanisms that could be analyzed formally, setting the stage for the transition to math. [6] Economists like Milton Friedman also followed up on all this in the early 1950s, pushing for a “positivist” economic movement that would be “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.”[7]

As economics drifted in a more mathematical direction, the former stronghold of the institutionalist camp began to falter. Universities espousing the new mathematical approach like MIT, the University of Chicago and Berkeley rose to prominence, while former bastions of institutionalism, like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declined dramatically in relevance and influence. [8]

Robert Heilbroner’s most famous book, The Worldly Philosophers, provides insight into what he thought about these new professional trends. Published in 1953, the book which traces the lives of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others, became one of the most widely-read texts ever written on the history of economic thought. Although Heilbroner self-described politically as a democratic socialist, he reserved immense admiration for economists like Smith and Schumpeter. In fact, realistically, he hoped to see a return to economic conversations rooted in the spirit of thinkers like Smith. That would demand, for example, that to really theorize on markets and businesses, as Smith does in The Wealth of Nations, one must also delve into topics like justice, virtue and conscience, as Smith does in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [9] In a 1999 New York Times interview, just six years before his death, Heilbroner said, ”The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system—the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical… modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much.” [10]

To be sure, Robert Heilbroner did not oppose the entry of mathematics into economics. He felt a quantitative approach could augment the thick, social and philosophical analysis already (or at least formerly) employed. And he recognized that math is simply the only tool economists have available to answer certain questions. Heilbroner differed from his colleagues not over whether math was useful, but over what math was capable of explaining. Where colleagues like Friedman pushed a positivist agenda to avoid “normative” answers to some of society’s toughest questions, Heilbroner tried to show that all decisions carry inherently normative judgments. And when individuals like Greg Mankiw asserted that economists were capable of tackling economics with the same objectivity as that of a natural scientist, Heilbroner pushed back.

“What does it mean to be “objective” about such things as inherited wealth or immissterating poverty? Does it mean that those arrangements reflect some properties of society that must be accepted, just as the scientist accepts the arrangements studied through a telescope or under a microscope? Or does it mean that if we were scrupulously aware of our own private endorsements or rejections of society’s arrangements we could, by applying an appropriate discount, arrive at a truly neutral view? In that case, could one use the word “scientific” to describe our findings, even though the object of study was not a product of nature but of society? The answer is that we cannot.”

Heilbroner also strove for economic conversations that ended the “precipitous decrease” in the presence of the word capitalism. Without referring to the economic system by name, Heilbroner argued, we encourage individuals to forget what the system is for and in whose interests it is working. He looked to Joseph Stiglitz, who penned a 997-paged economic textbook, and found in it a grand total of zero references to the word “capitalism.” These types of absences reinforced Heilbroner’s angst that society was losing sight of a fundamental descriptor necessary to conceptualize modern economics. [11]

If these were Heilbroner’s only academic critiques, perhaps he would not have been so marginalized. But Heilbroner went further in his attempts to push social analysis into economics, suggesting that, “indeed the challenge may in fact require that economics come to recognize itself as a discipline that follows in the wake of sociology and politics rather than proudly leading the way for them.” This suggestion of inverting the disciplinary hierarchies highlighted an epistemological modesty not shared by many other economists in the field. [12]

While Robert Heilbroner never lived to see economics revert to a broader, more social analytical framework, his work nevertheless may have had some tangential influence over areas outside of economics. Cornell sociologist Richard Swedberg observed that “one of the most important developments” for the social sciences in the past few decades “has been the race to fill the void created by mainstream economics’ failure to do research on economic institutions.” For example, a new academic field began to take form in the 1980s—that of economic sociology. In 1985, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published an article entitled, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, laying an intellectual base for the new field. Granovetter’s goal, echoing Heilbroner’s rhetoric, was to push economics from its knee-jerk emphasis on rationality towards a greater focus on the ways in which social structure and social relations factor into economic systems and power hierarchies. As Granovetter said, “there is something very basically wrong with microeconomics, and that the new economic sociology should make this argument loud and clear especially in the absolutely core economic areas of market structure, production, pricing, distribution and consumption.” [13]

New programs within graduate history departments have also emerged, designed to focus more specifically on the relationship between historical events and economics. Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy was founded in 2008 and Harvard University’s Joint Center for History and Economics was founded in 2007.  And, just this past springthe New School launched a new center, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which seeks to blend “the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.”[14]

There is some evidence that suggests that even the economics profession might be changing. When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the spirit of the worldly philosophers, he advanced an argument for a global wealth tax not only based on his analysis of quantitative data, but also from his engagement with philosophy, history, and even 19th century literature. And the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded in 2009, is meant to support economic projects and research that challenge the traditional paradigms of rational models and markets.

More aspects of Robert Heilbroner’s work deserve revisiting. His attentiveness to history and his fundamental humility led to some very fascinating writings about the future, technology, business civilization and the capitalist order. His rich 40-year career leaves us much more in which to sift and question.

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[1] The best, albeit limited, secondary sources I could find included Loren J. Okroi’s Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent In an Age of Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988), Mathew Forstater’s “”In Memoriam: Robert L. Heilbroner The Continuing Relevance of The Worldly Philosophy” in Economic Issues 10.1 (March 2005) and Robert Pollin’s “Robert Heilbroner: Worldly Philosopher” in Challenge (May/June 1999).

[2] Pollin, “Heilbroner”, 34.
[3] Okroi, Heilbroner, 183.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers. (N.p.: F. Watts, 1966.) 16.
[6] Backhouse, Roger and Philippe Fontaine. History of the Social Sciences Since 1945. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 39, 40, 46, 52.
[7] Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics.(Chicago: UChicago Press, 1953) 4
[8] Backhouse, History of the Social Sciences, 42.
[9] Dieterle, David Anthony, Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (Greenwood, 2013) 131.
[10] Backhouse, Roger; Bateman, Bradley. “Worldly Philosophers Wanted.” New York Times.November 5, 2011.
[11] Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers. 314, 318, 315, 318.
[12] Heilbroner, Robert L., and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 126.
[13] Swedberg, Richard. “A New Economic Sociology: What Has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead?” Acta Sociologica.(1997), 161, 163, 164.
[14] Ott, Julia, and William Milberg. “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto.” Public Seminar RSS. Graduate Programs at NSSR, 17 Apr. 2014.

Light Touch

Published in the March/April/May issue of The Washington Monthly magazine.
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If you’ve flipped on Fox News in the last few years, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen a bunch of talking heads denouncing the federal government for taking away their light bulbs.

“The government is forcing me—taking my right to choose away from me,” protested business anchor Stuart Varney about the phasing out of traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient varieties. Economist Ben Stein dubbed the government’s action “raw, Bolshevik, Orwellian,” while political commentator Fred Barnes promised “to hoard hundreds of the old-fashioned light bulbs.” Other Fox voices complained about the “ugly” light quality of compact fluorescent bulbs, an alternative to incandescents, as well as their high cost and the fact that they contain mercury, a hazardous substance. “Your president is making me get rid of my incandescent light bulb,” grumbled security consultant and Fox contributor Bo Dietl. “I gotta use those toxic-waste light bulbs; if they fall you need a friggin’ hazmat suit to get at ’em!”

Spurring this agitation was the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (passed, by the way, with substantial GOP support and signed into law by George W. Bush). Among other things, the EISA established energy-efficiency light bulb standards that would go into effect in stages beginning in 2012. The regulations required that manufacturers produce light bulbs that are at least 25 percent more energy efficient than traditional incandescents, a standard that Thomas Edison’s 135-year-old technology simply could not meet. Retailers would still be able to sell the incandescent light bulbs they had in stock, but eventually most consumers would be left to sift through alternative options.

The conservative attacks caught on not just with Fox viewers but with millions of nonpartisan Americans. Why? Because the primary alternative consumers initially had, compact fluorescents, really were awful. The pigtail-shaped contraptions cost three to ten times more than an equivalent incandescent bulb, emit a weird harsh glow, and break easily, not only releasing their small amounts of toxic materials but also undercutting the lasts-longer-than-traditional-bulbs arithmetic behind claims that they were an economic benefit to consumers. Even many latte-sipping urbanites reacted in horror. “I would, in a way, pay anything to avoid fluorescent,” artist Laura Stein told the New York Times. “I can’t stand them—I’ve always hated them and I will not use them.”

Yet the frustration of shoppers and the whining on Fox News has died down considerably in recent months. The reason is a new kind of household bulb that started hitting store shelves en masse late last year. These are bulbs made up of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs—the ubiquitous little indicator lights you see on computers and other electronic devices. The new household LED bulbs are essentially comprised of hundreds of little LEDs of different colors that together emit a white light that is softer and more pleasant than that of compact fluorescents. They cost about the same as the latter, but their prices are falling fast. They last about twenty-five times longer than incandescents and three times longer than compact fluorescents—up to 25,000 hours of light per bulb. They don’t break easily or come with aggravating health concerns. Best of all, they are up to 80 percent more efficient than traditional incandescents, which means significantly cheaper energy bills for consumers.

The coming (and staying) of LED bulbs is a case study in how government policy, rightly done, can spur private-sector innovation. While small LEDs were being sold for use in electronics as far back as the early 1960s, the technology to deploy them in household light bulbs was still fairly far off when Congress passed the EISA in 2007. In 2009 the New York Times reported on LED bulbs that exceeded $100 a piece and suffered from “performance problems,” adding that they “may not displace incumbent technologies” anytime soon. But the new market for energy-efficient bulbs that was scheduled to open up in 2012—and even earlier in Europe, thanks to European Union regulations similar to the EISA—gave lighting manufacturers an enormous incentive to step up development. The EISA also contained another inducement: a $10 million cash prize to the company that could develop the best high-quality alternative to the 60-watt incandescent. Philips won the competition in 2011 for an LED product that amounted to an 83 percent energy savings. But the bulbs weren’t cheap: when they first hit the U.S. market, they cost $50 a piece.

Meanwhile, conservatives began to rally hard against the forthcoming light bulb standards. Redstate.com editor Erik Erickson launched the attack in late 2010 with an open letter to the GOP congressional leaders who were about to take control of the House: “If you do only one thing in your time in Washington, and frankly I hope you do only one thing given your propensity to expand government … it is this: SAVE THE LIGHT BULB.” In January 2011, Texas Republican Representative Joe Barton introduced the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, a bill designed to repeal the energy-efficiency light bulb standards. Michele Bachmann soon followed suit with her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. “Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the light bulb. If you want to buy Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention, you should be able to!” Bachmann told a group of supporters in 2011. “The government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy.”

When January 1, 2012, rolled around, lighting companies, thanks to the EISA, stopped making new 100-watt incandescents. With compact fluorescents the only real alternative on the market at the time, the mainstream press had a field day, highlighting miserable and indignant shoppers furious with the law and the federal government—a story that perfectly fit the Tea Party backlash narrative of the moment. Even Mitt Romney, despite having supported energy-efficient light bulbs as governor of Massachusetts, hopped onto the bandwagon. In front of a Chicago crowd in 2012, Romney declared, “And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that.”

On January 1, 2014, the new EISA-mandated standards for 40- and 60-watt bulbs—which comprise 80 percent of the residential lighting market—were to kick in. That too might have been a boon to conservatives, had prices for LEDs remained high. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Energy had predicted in 2011 that 60-watt LED bulbs wouldn’t fall to $10 until 2015. But to almost everyone’s surprise, the industry hit that target two years early. By the end of 2013, you could head into Home Depot or Walmart and purchase LED bulbs for under $10. Their cost plummeted more than 85 percent between 2008 and in 2012 alone, and experts anticipate that prices will continue to fall steadily as retailers compete to be the leading LED bulb provider.

This is good news for the environment. The Department of Energy predicts that the widespread use of LED bulbs could save annual energy output equivalent to that of forty-four large power plants by 2027.

It’s also good news for the economy. The LED lighting market is anticipated to expand by 45 percent per year through 2019. The regulations shook a moribund industry that had yielded few, if any, new technologies in more than 100 years to finally invest in R&D and compete for new innovative products with a higher margin. Indeed, even as Americans start swapping out their incandescent bulbs with $10 LEDs, a whole new line of higher-end LEDs is hitting the market. These have chips built in that connect them to the internet, enabling you to brighten or dim them, or even change their color and hue, with your smartphone.

The only people for whom all this is not good news are conservative ideologues, who have suddenly seen one of their handiest examples of overbearing government turn on them. Of course, there are endless examples of government spurring private-sector innovation. Think semiconductors, the Internet, and the GPS industry. LED bulbs are a case of government getting it exactly right: writing a law and regulations that didn’t favor specific companies or technologies but set standards for performance that the private sector had to meet, with a bit of federal money thrown in to accelerate the process. Still, the idea that regulation and innovation can and often do go hand in hand is one conservatives struggle to get their heads around.

The War on Bulbs is no longer as widespread on Fox, but there are still some dead-enders. In January of 2014, Tim Carney wrote in the Washington Examiner that the federal government is still going to try to push compact fluorescents down everyone’s throat and that LED bulbs will never be cheap enough for people to afford for their homes. (He failed to mention, of course, the staggering drops in LED pricing that have already taken place.) That same month, Republicans managed to cram into a $1.1 trillion spending bill a provision barring the Department of Energy from spending money to enforce the new light bulb standards, though with the LED market having already taken off this is likely to have little effect. And just to be safe, South Carolina Republican Representative Jeff Duncan introduced the Thomas Edison BULB Act, which would repeal the light bulb efficiency standards altogether—thereby positioning the GOP as Luddite defenders of nineteenth-century technology. Fortunately the bill, like the larger conservative war on light bulb standards, doesn’t have much juice behind it.