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The Privatization of Risk - Elf M. Sternberg
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The Privatization of Risk
Thomas Edsall's NY Times opinion piece, Why Don't the Poor Rise Up?, is a great thinkpiece on the way "individuation," the way we have all been atomized, step by step, into being "individuals," discouraged from recognizing our collective destiny or responsibility, has led to the psychopaths taking charge. But it has other thoughs as well, including this quote from Jacob Hacker's book

The Great Risk Shift: "Up until the 1950s, American society and government combined a faith in economic opportunity with a commitment to economic security. Today that message is starkly different: You are on your own."

Hacker and Ulrich Beck together make the claim that the successes of the modern welfare state, by assigning individual claims to its benefits as well as individual contributions to its well-being, has sown its own destruction. Pointing to individual egregious abuses, the anti-collectivist crowd has successfully clawed their way into a transnational economic structure that allows them to assign risk away.

"Risk" has always been something that the capitalists talk about. The economic opportunity of 1950s capitalism (which most people agree was pretty damned good capitalism, at least for the dominant socioeconomic group, namely white dudes) came with a safety net. But that net no longer exists. Instead, profits are socialized and risks are privatized. This creates risk asymmetry, where some groups take risks and other groups suffer the "unforseen side effects." The most trenchant example is of course the bailout of the banks, where millions of retirees suffered the "unforseen side effects" of the quasi-legal corruption of Wall Street (now completely legalized by our failure to prosecute anyone), but the most commonplace examples of corporations going bankrupt to leave behind toxic waste dumps has been ongoing for decades.

Edsall doesn't mention it, but his article stands in opposition to David Frum's infamous Dead Right (1995) in which Frum's opening sentence reads "Since it’s formation in the early 1950’s, the intellectual movement known as American conservatism has stood for two overarching principles: anticommunism abroad and radical reduction in the size, cost, and bossiness of the federal government at home." Note that Frum's agenda is pure individualization. But Frum goes on to ice the cake:
The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.
So not only is that whole, vicious "You're on your own" not unwanted, it's actually a desired feature. Capitalism isn't a glorious promise of economic opportunity, it's a mechanism for keeping the hoi polloi in their place, cowed and compliant.

Here we are, twenty years after Frum's book, and the general trend is exactly as Frum (and David Brooks, and Ross Douthat, and the New York Times) wanted it.

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