Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jubilee is the most conservative economic policy ever proposed.

The Biblical idea of the Jubilee has gained some traction out of the economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street.  I think the concept is a good example of the power of framing and how our priors can overwhelm other considerations regarding our observations and conclusions.

The Jubilee is usually presented as a leveling of the field - as an undoing of the accumulation of economic inequality.  But the policy, explicitly, is the ultimate statement of conservative force.  Jubilee, implemented, means that, whatever the distribution of property was 50 years ago, it will be that way for all time.
"This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families."—Leviticus 25:10
How in the world did this idea become a Progressive idea?  I think that it is because Progressivism is a conservative political paradigm.  I propose a framework for thinking of political ideology:

Low Respect for Individuals
High Respect for Individuals
Low Respect for Institutions
Liberal (US)
High Respect for Institutions

* (an explanation of my language, below.)
Conservatism starts with a healthy Burkean respect for institutions.  This communal respect for institutions, however, naturally lends itself to an ugly bias against outsiders and against groups that are marginalized by existing institutions.  So, the dark side of conservatism is the tendency to judge uncomfortable issues and people from within a comfortable paradigm.  Conservatism becomes vulgar when it leads people to judge others confidently, based on their finite store of narratives, and to impose maltreatment on them through political force.

Progressives tend to work from an oppressor/oppressed point of view.  They tend to view people as members of groups, with varying levels of power and victimhood.  And institutions are important sources of these power imbalances.  These are good motives for a point of view.  They are certainly important ingredients in the development of society and its various injustices.  But, in its vulgar form, it takes on the poor tendencies of conservatism, but without the respect for institutions.  Given the tendency for Progressives to be associated, along with liberals, with the left wing in the US, this leads to ironies like the Progressive rhetorical support for grossly conservative ideas like jubilee.

(Since this post is about jubilee, I am concentrating on Progressives.  But, of course, all ideologies have their vulgar forms.  For liberals, the archetype might be some of the excesses of hippies, and for libertarians it might be some of the excesses of objectivists.)

How does the jubilee become a Progressive idea?  Because of the mistake of taking one's existing basket of narratives and assuming that this set of narratives is the global set of narratives.  In fact, this tendency may frequently be what separates conservative from libertarian and progressive from liberal.

Rhetoric in support of jubilee tends to describe debt in terms of desperation - the accumulation of assets by the wealthy from the poor.  The images drawn are of bankrupt farmers and working class consumers.  These narratives cover an exceedingly small portion of the full range of debt arrangements.  But, jubilee rhetoric seems to treat these narratives as the full set.  This strikes me as a classic conservative type of error.  (edit: In this case, the error is quite extreme, because even our personal experiences tend to be an overwhelming counterargument.  We have intense memories of the $5,000 in credit card debt we ran up when we lost a job and didn't know how we would pull things back together.  But, our anxiety isn't so intense about when we did get a great job, and bought a new house with the help of a $250,000 mortgage.  Debt is overwhelmingly associated with aspiration and success.)

In fact, clearly, the distribution of assets and the use of debt, on net, reflect a much more complex mixture of outcomes, with a bias toward economic mobility and equality over time.  If you doubt this, imagine if jubilee had begun to be implemented at any time in the past.  How far back would we need to go to get to a jubilee that would reset ownership that excludes some minorities, or women?  Not very far.  The universality of property rights is definitionally capitalist, and proceeding from these legal advances, previously marginalized groups of people have accumulated assets through market participation.

Even the idea of the jubilee itself betrays this error.  In the ancient context where it was first described, property was largely limited to land, and was essentially static.  Jubilee meant returning to your family's land.  Our society bathes in the continual expansion of abundance, such that if jubilee were ever more than a rhetorical cudgel, the concept would be obviously incoherent.  What would happen to Google stock?  How would the previous owners of Pan American Airlines or Eastman-Kodak return to their previous ownership status?  Modern wealth is lost to legacy owners and created by innovators and traders in ways that were simply not imaginable to the originators of the idea of jubilee.

The US has a very generous bankruptcy policy.  And, a strong history of the development and distribution of new assets outside legacy capital.  Even now, amid the obsession of inequality, we are in the midst of one of the most revolutionary redistributions of ownership from legacy capital to entrepreneurs in the history of the planet.  In fact, the common story of the college buddies (or college drop-outs) developing software or hardware and suddenly becoming billionaires is a large factor in measured trends of inequality.  Even some of the poster children of legacy capital - like the family of Sam Walton - are the custodians of wealth that has been created within the last 50 years.  Modern free society has outdone the jubilee.  It's not even close.  The jubilee taken literally would mean that the small sharecropper who worked and invested his way into a significant landholding would have to give it all back after 50 years.  This is simply a narrative that progressive jubilee rhetoricians deny through omission.  But it is the overwhelming narrative of our age.  It is so overwhelming that this narrative describes a favorite mascot of legacy wealth - the Walton family.  If we had a 50 year jubilee, they would have to give all but a handful of their stores to the owners of the old A&Ps and Ben Franklin five & dimes.

Going down the list of the American Forbes 400, the vast majority have made their fortunes in the form of assets that didn't exist 50 years ago.  If we redistributed assets to families according to the distribution of wealth of 50 years ago, the assets of the Forbes 400 would overwhelmingly be redistributed to families who were wealthier than today's Forbes 400 fifty years ago.  It would be a regressive redistribution.

Denial of the existence of economic mobility has actually led to rhetorical support for the abolition of economic mobility.  Despite this irony, so far the jubilee idea has led to what are probably positive social activities, like Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee.  These programs appear to be helping households escape consumer debt.

A conservative movement needs the state to impose its favored order, so the progressive movement seems to focus its anti-institutional ire at commercial and religious institutions.  This leads to further oddities, such as the rhetoric of Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee, which are strongly anti-market, even while their actual activities tend to revolve around medical and educational debts.

Most of these debts will have been incurred to or through public and non-profit organizations and programs (many hospitals and insurers, public universities, federal student loan programs, etc.).  You would think that the fact that these debt problems overwhelmingly occur in the sectors that are far from our best examples of private laissez-faire markets might undercut the narrative.  But framing is so powerful that narratives can remain selective even in the face of impassioned personal experience.

Where our personal experience dominates, the desire that most of us have to do good allows action to trump rhetoric, so programs such as these probably leave the world a better place.  Where personal experience doesn't dominate, such as the imposition of factional values through national political activities, the ironies of our rhetorical errors are more free to undermine reason and civility.  So, while these groups engage in activities, like charitably and legally forgiving debt, that generally respect both institutions and individuals, their rhetoric and political activities tend to respect neither.

* I probably should have chosen less loaded language here.  What I'm getting at is the willingness to make political impositions.  So, a Conservative viewpoint usually entails accepting existing institutions and making impositions on individuals to conform to the demands of those institutions.  Libertarians and Liberals have a reticence against making impositions on individuals.  Libertarians tend to think in terms of removing changes to our legacy institutions that increased impositions.  Liberals tend to think in terms of the impositions that were imbedded in our legacy institutions, and so they tend to support changes that remove those impositions.  Progressivism starts from that Liberal goal of perfecting our institutions by changing them and pushes it into the realm of trying to perfect individuals by creating new impositions.  A Liberal sentiment would be to eliminate Jim Crow laws.  A Progressive sentiment would be to pass laws that prevent individuals from acting on racist beliefs.  In terms of living under their regimes, I think the Progressive/Conservative pair of ideologies is very similar in practice and the Liberal/Libertarian pair is similar.  The differences mostly come from arbitrary policy differences.  But, we tend to pair them the other way (Left=Progressive/Liberal, Right=Conservative/Libertarian) because the day-to-day battles involve fighting over changes in our institutions, and so the factions seem to divide between those who think institutional changes should be hard and those who think they should be easy, which I refer to here as "Respect for Institutions".


  1. Who cares if we misunderstand what Jubilee was really about? That just means we call it something else. Liberals - er, sorry, "Progressives" are campaigning for "debt forgiveness", not "Jubilee", per se. And I can't imagine a world where a Progressive politician came into power to enact this idea - and then permit the wealthy or companies to benefit from it. Clearly it would be a means-tested middle- and lower-class social program.

    1. One dilemma here is the disconnect between near and far thinking, as Robin Hanson would describe it - the difference between ideals and implementation. I don't think the implementation would be as clear as you are imagining. And, for those under the power of your imagined Progressive politician, the fact that even the idealized premise is a bit sloppy and confused wouldn't be a source of confidence in the expected outcome.

  2. what do you mean by 'libertarian'. Do you mean right-wing followers of Rothbard and the like? Because those people have absolutely no respect for individuals. The only thing they respect is (their version of) private property.

    1. You're right. A less loaded description would be better. What I'm trying to get at is the willingness to impose our will on institutions or individuals, as opposed to believing that those institutions or individuals exist as they are for reasons beyond our understanding. Clearly there are institutions and individuals who do objectively need to change, so language that had a more balanced implication among the four quadrants would be useful. I'm open to ideas.

      I think one could also argue that the difference between liberal and libertarian in this framework is not clear, in practice, since libertarians frequently push for radical changes in institutions, such as with various extreme decriminalization positions. But, I think, generally liberals are pushing to fix problems that existed in the foundational institutions (racism, sexism, etc.) while libertarians perceive their proposed changes to recapture previous institutional positions (reversing prohibitions and regulatory over-reach).