Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Martha T. McCluskey–

Basic legal ideas about taxation stand in the way of proposals for ambitious fiscal policies to address pervasive economic insecurity among both middle class and lower income households.

The conventional legal framework posits two primary functions for taxation. First, taxes raise revenue to finance government goods and services. Second, taxes redistribute resources, transferring money from some private interests to others based on ideas about distributional equity. Taxes also regulate private economic behavior, but this third function is generally treated as supplementary and subordinate, with economic ordering mainly directed by basic legal rules and the administrative state.

In orthodox law and economics, “optimal” tax policy achieves the two primary goals with the least “distortion” of private value-maximizing decisions in a presumed efficient and equitable market unsullied by taxes. This optimal tax theory aims to replicate a mythical market where money passively realizes and measures an underlying value fixed by barter-like exchanges of real goods, and services.

This seemingly benign conceptual frame implicitly locates economic productivity in a distinct and underlying private market sphere, with government taxing and spending cast as taking value from those who have created it. From this starting point, households can receive public support either as beneficiaries of forced public charity or as responsible consumers willing and able to pay an equivalent amount in taxes. If progressive taxing and spending programs are construed as involuntary, inherently inefficient, transfers of money from productive market winners to support less capable market losers, then that public support will tend to appear to generally inscribe rather than relieve conditions of precarity and powerlessness.

This conventional frame obscures how taxation creates money as a means for generating and distributing economic power and insecurity. Tax theory tends to ignore how law constructs and governs money, treating money as a neutral measure of social contribution.

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Worker Voice, Worker Power

This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.

Charles Du

anderson book coverEvery day, as in-house counsel for an activist, organizing union, I listen to workers’ stories of the indignities that come with being subject to the arbitrary power of their employers: being forced to work through breaks and lunch; facing sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and supervisors; being fired for an offense they did not commit. It is gratifying to see these lived experiences of working people, so often ignored, being highlighted by a political philosopher of Elizabeth Anderson’s stature. By denaturalizing and challenging arbitrary and unaccountable authority in the workplace, Private Government is a powerful argument for an expansive commitment to democracy in private spaces like the workplace, where blinkered definitions of what counts as “government” have come to serve as ideological justifications for abuse and domination. Her book also comes at just the right time, providing conceptual clarity in a moment of rising social democratic sentiment and actual potential for change. I’d like to provide some reflections on practical lessons that labor law practitioners and academics might draw from Anderson’s work.

After laying out the problem of private government at work, Anderson examines four different strategies for tackling the problem: (1) exit, (2) the rule of law, (3) substantive constitutional rights, and (4) voice. She dispenses with the first three before concluding that “there is no adequate substitute for recognizing workers’ voice in their government.” I agree, but I believe that the critical question is how to achieve greater worker voice in the face of recalcitrant employer opposition, a problem that requires further attention to legal norms, constitutional rights, and worker exit.

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The New Majority: Uniting the Old and New Working Class

Daria Roithmayr – 

This post picks up where Angela Harris and Noah Zatz left off in the conversation about race and class. The arguments in this post preview arguments I will be making in a new book, entitled “The New Majority.” It will surprise no one that I decided to write the book in November of 2016.

So here’s the central argument. To end inequality, and to defuse white working class backlash, progressives should work to unite both the old and new working class on issues that those two groups share—like the concentration of power at the top, economic precarity in the middle and bottom, access to health care, job growth, wages and quality, freedom from violence and addiction, and reducing exploitation. To name just a few.

If there is a silver lining to the 2016 election and the trail of destruction that has followed, it is this: in the midst of the chaos, progressives have begun a serious conversation about inequality, and about race and class. To be sure, the conversation doesn’t look all that illuminating at the moment. On one side, people like Mark Lilla and others on the economic left (or left of center, or okay, center) make totalizing claims that locate class as the centerpiece in the conversation about inequality. They argue that Democrats have failed to address the concerns of the white working class. They claim, for example, that the experience of plant closings in key districts, explains why many people in battle ground states voted for the GOP. Some in this group argue that progressives ought to jettison “identity politics” in favor of some more universalist principles of fairness or economic justice.

On the other side, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others on the cultural/material left make totalizing claims that race and racism are what stands in the way of true equality. This group argues that anti-black racism and anti-immigrant resentment drove last November’s results—after all, poor and working class voted disproportionately for Clinton, and voters who expressed fear of people of color were far more likely to have voted for Trump, even when they had voted for Obama or for Democrats in years past.

In addition to making totalizing claims, both sides appear to accept the common wisdom that long-standing racial divisions make a unified working class impossible. I want to challenge all of that. More specifically, I want to argue for the possibility of uniting the old and new working class around progressive commitments to things like shared prosperity and the end of precarity, access to health care, an end to violence and a lower cost of debt. This doesn’t mean that I side with the class folks—far from it. Or with race folks. It’s more accurate to say that I side with both. To unite the old and new working class, we must understand the way in which race and class interact, for a particular group of people at a particular historical moment in time. Continue reading