Matt Yglesias and the sinister language of neo-liberalism

Matt Yglesias is a blogger for whom I have much respect, and one I read regularly. Prior to his Slate days, he was one of the best widely read bloggers on the web in my opinion. He’s intelligent, doesn’t talk down to his audience, and often quite insightful.

One of the reasons I appreciate him is he’s one of the few economy bloggers who has covered the post-2008 conditions with a consistent concern for the lives of working class westerners. The human tragedy of economic collapse and austerity policies is not talked about enough, especially in the circles he blogs in, and Yglesias stands out in this regard.

This is what makes his attitude toward foreign workers in this slate post (for which he’s been taken to task by many and since issued a clarification) so frustrating.

Yglesias is a genuinely smart and often insightful blogger, but when critiquing his work it should always be mentioned that what launched his career was his since-admitted wrongness about the Iraq war. This should tell you that he’s an intelligent blogger who is also capable of some gigantic lapses in judgement, as is the case here.

Interestingly, his lapses in judgement mostly seem to have a common thread of gross indifference to human suffering in deference to some greater good, usually American-dominated global capitalism. He commits the same error many communists did and the “libertarians” do today; his faith in his system is more powerful than his love for his fellow human beings. Any suffering caused by the system must be accepted, because the system will eventually make everything better.

I don’t think this is all Yglesias’ fault. Talking about the intrinsic value of human lives isn’t a viable strategy for someone in his position who is trying to get ahead or even stay in his position. The media and the political world both are full of powerful incentives for those involved to compromise basic principles such as “innocent until proven guilty” or “all men are created equal”. And inside a power system such as the one in which Yglesias functions, you’re not going to get far without acknowledging the legitimacy of the system itself, or at least using the language that the system uses to legitimize itself.

As such, language in this debate works in an interesting, and sinister, way. People talk about the trade-off involved in weighing what they call ‘safe jobs’ or ‘minimizing accidents’ versus what we call ‘growth’ or ‘jobs’.

Terms like ‘safe jobs’ and ‘minimizing accidents’ are functioning as sort of weird reverse-euphemisms for what is more properly called human life. But when we talk about human lives we sound drippy and sentimental, and that doesn’t help anyone trying to claw their way to the top of the commentariat through their powers of nod-inducing wisdom combined with snarky nonchalance. So what is really a trade-off between the lives of some people vs the money of others gets described in absurd language like “implementing unnecessarily immiserating workplace safety standards at the cost of economic well-being”. By allowing the system to place a lower value on Bangladeshi lives than on American lives, we are actually doing the Bangladeshis a favor! We’re giving the freedom “to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum”.

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