Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

Fiscal austerity gets the most attention, but there’s another type of neoliberal austerity that is arguably just as important: possibility austerity. Every policy “debate” is backed into a corner by artificial constraints, where certain obvious solutions are ruled out in advance. For instance, once the idea of Medicare for all or some other single-payer solution is deemed “off the table,” our only options become continuing the status quo or something like Obamacare. Under those constraints, I obviously choose Obamacare — but why were those even the options to begin with?

It’s not just in domestic policy. Perhaps the crassest example of this paint-yourself-into-a-corner logic is the “debate” about drone strikes. Whenever someone criticizes Obama’s flying robot murder program, it’s all but inevitable that a sensible liberal centrist will come along and point out that it’s preferable to sending in ground troops. And maybe it is! The idea certainly has an initial plausibility when we reflect on the trainwreck of Iraq. But again, why are drone strikes and ground troops the only options? There’s one particularly tantalizing option that you never hear much about: simply not killing those people at all. They’re thousands upon thousands of miles away. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that any of them have terror cells based in the US. So just leave them alone. That option leads to no civilian deaths and reduces the deficit.

For my money, the most elaborate version of this logic is education reform. Here we start with the premise that urban public education is impossible. Funding cannot be increased, even though many urban areas are gentrifying at an astounding rate and hence there should be more property tax money available than ever before — but Tax-Increment Funding districts make sure that money never materializes. So basically things are just going to get worse and worse.

That’s the baseline. Within that set of constraints, you know a lot of children will inevitably be left behind, and so you figure out a way to make sure that the good old talented tenth has a way to escape (and join the mainstream power structure). You also might try a few hail-Mary passes, like setting aside public money to gamble that talented edupreneurs can devise some magical new mode of education, or cutting teacher salaries to make sure that everyone who goes into the field is motivated sheerly by love — hence presumably increasing your odds of an inspiring educator and an “O Captain My Captain” moment (although you shouldn’t stand on the desks because the maintenance budget was cut a while back).

In this context, the most heroic political gesture of the last decade came during Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Republicans admittedly aren’t as good at coming up with convincing constraints, and so the ruse was much more immediately transparent: either we switch to a private retirement system or else Social Security will go bankrupt and everyone will die. Nancy Pelosi rejected the privatization plan, and when pressed for an alternative, she said: “My alternative is nothing.” In a world of fake crises and forced choices, perhaps doing nothing is the most subversive gesture possible.

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