“Those Who Receive Good Livings Are Those Who Are Lucky

Some of the resistance by white working-class citizens to Obamacare, even by those who most in need of it, like Kentuckians, was directed at the Medicaid portion of the law. The reasoning: We deserve healthcare, but they don’t. 

That rejection, if you looked not far below the surface, was sometimes steeped in racist stereotyping. If you exist within seeing people of color as living in “ghettos” as our President-Elect does, it would be easy to make such a mistake, even if the Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers scream otherwise. Post-election, many of these same Trump supporters who worried about “freeloaders” are realizing they may lose not only the ACA but perhaps also the safety net of Medicare. The fingers they pointed at others now point back at them.

Part of the problem is that no one really deserves much of anything. I mean, we all do in a bigger sense, of course, but not so much as individuals living in a capitalistic society in the Digital Age. How do we reconcile our economic system with one that may become highly automated? In such a new normal, workers would be less necessary than ever.

Technology has amped up the culture in myriad ways and entire industries can now rise and fall within a stingy time frame. There was never a more profitable period in the history of recorded music than during the brief, wonderful life of Compact Discs, but the whole format was essentially worthless after just two decades. Twenty years may seem a long shelf life for industries (and the communities and regions built on them) in the near future. All that coming and going will likely leave many of us neither here nor there. It’s not an attractive scenario unless you fancy a future as an Okie with an smartphone. 

recent post by economist Brad DeLong drops truth bombs about our economic system and suggests non-UBI prescriptions for devastated Rust Belt areas. An excerpt:

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work,” and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.•