09/02/2011 03:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

Michael Lind on the Collapse of Left and Right

Michael Lind has an op-ed in the Financial Times graced with the apocalyptic headline: "The intellectual collapse of left and right." Lind, the policy director of the economic growth program at the New American Foundation and a well-known political pundit, is straightforward about what that means: "The two most plausible visions developed by the U.S. centre-left and centre-right -- the 'knowledge economy' and the 'ownership society' -- lie in tatters, leaving a void in America's discussion of its economic future."

Lind has a point -- but not necessarily the one he suggests. The "knowledge society," which he traces to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's "Third Way" arguments (the antecedents of which go considerably further back than those two -- to John Dewey and even Peter Drucker) that education was key to an increasingly globalized, flexible workforce, has been battered by a general despair over the failure of education to reach those grandiose goals and by the failure of the rewards of such a system to trickle down to the less privileged and less motivated. The "ownership society," beloved of George Bush, has been hammered by what Lind calls "the collapse of the bubble economy," which shredded an already fraying private safety net.

None of this comes as a great surprise, though Lind wields a very broad brush. He argues that the development of human capital has been an utter failure and that "America's professionals owe their relative affluence largely to their protection from off shoring or competition from immigrants." These professionals -- lawyers, doctors and professors -- are "largely untouched by productivity-enhancing technology," while in the expanding financial sector, "bonuses have gone to old-fashioned speculators who bet with leveraged money, knowing the state will socialize their losses."

Where do you start here? It's true, this odd trinity of professionals (accountants? engineers?) do have certain guild protections -- licensing rules, exams, tenure -- but it's not as if they're insulated from domestic or overseas competition or buffeted by pressures to change. Top law firms are increasingly global and increasingly sensitive to what Lind calls "productivity-enhancing technology." American medicine is increasingly competitive -- the influx of female and foreign doctors has changed the face of medicine -- and under intense pressure to cut costs. True, the professoriate retains tenure. But the universities themselves are increasingly aware of the opportunities and perils of operating globally. And since when were "professors" expected to play a major economic role? On the other side of the equation, Lind indulges in a crude cliché when he suggests that bonuses only go to "speculators."

True, trading has increased over the past few decades as a source of financial revenue, but he ignores how large and complex finance has become, the great proportion of which is not manned by anyone resembling a speculator -- unless you use that term as a jingoistic catch-all praise for anyone in finance. Moreover, Lind ignores the millions pumped out over the past few decades by the business schools, some of whom join the rarefied commercial class of global managers, but many more of whom must contend in some form or another with global competition. And that's not accounting for engineers and entrepreneurs.

All this is not to say Lind is exactly wrong either. He is partially right on two levels. Clearly, we have a job creation and fiscal problem, and our politics are polarized. But whether this is a fundamental "intellectual confusion," or the unfortunate backwash of a financial crisis, a demographic challenge (the baby boomers) and a transition to a multipolar world, is unclear. He is careful to argue that "the American people" have lost faith in these two "visions," and his evidence of their "collapse" is the kind found in slick magazines and television chat fests. In short, it's not about whether there is any value left in the rubble, but how the great herd of Americans feels about its worth. It's as if these ideas were stocks battered to lows by a panic.

Behind Lind's argument lurks the belief that Americans -- and perhaps Lind himself -- require, even demand, a single overarching vision to embrace, a kind of uber-scheme of economic organization that can inform all parts of our social and economic lives. It's all or nothing; simple (or simplistic), understandable, fungible, easy. But these two ideas cannot sustain that enormous burden; personally, I'm not convinced that any single "vision" can -- including democracy itself. But these two sets of ideas, completely reasonable at a local, decentralized, ad hoc and empirical level, grow more and more rickety as greater and greater demands are made upon them.

Is a better educational system going to save all of us? In the long run, it may help create a "better" society, whatever that means -- perhaps a more affluent one -- but it's hardly the only answer (and one result of making education a primary tool for global competitiveness is to threaten traditional notions of "education"). Will self-directed private retirement plans be sufficient to replace a state-run safety net? Undoubtedly not -- and for a dozen different reasons, most convincing of which is that the future remains as uncertain as ever. But a reasonably invested private plan can certainly help, particularly if it operates alongside a solvent Social Security scheme and a healthcare safety net. Diversification works not only in investing but in life.

Talk of visions and intellectual constructs (another way to say it is ideologies) eliminates the benefits of a complex and diversified social and economic infrastructure, which may provide avenues and havens for rich and poor, intellectual and workingman, the global operator and the local entrepreneur. But we seem intent politically on eliminating that complexity.

Like Wall Street over the past decade, we politically (and perhaps socially) have gone about creating intellectual monocultures, which may do one or two things surpassingly well, but which may prove exceedingly vulnerable, not only to their own weaknesses, but more dangerously, to their own strengths over the long run. This was the larger lesson of the fall of what Lind calls "the bubble economy." What has collapsed here is really the foundation of an ideologically-driven view of economic affairs. The political class just hasn't realized it yet, though I suspect much of the public has.

Read more: Michael Lind on the Collapse of Left and Right on The Deal Economy.