"Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond" - Marc Lamont Hill

On page 29 of Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, Marc Lamont Hill gets to the crux of the matter before the United States and black people as an insular group within it:

“[T]he death of Michael Brown is not merely a throwback to a wounded racial past but also a thoroughly modern event.  It is not only the repeat of an age-old racial divide but also a statement of a relatively new public chasm that has been growing for years.”

He offers a non-exclusive list of over 10 different social and political issues facing the nation and the Black race, including “a nearly religious reverence for marketized solutions to public problems” and “by the acceptance of massive global inequality” and “by the shrinking presence of the radical voices, values, and vision necessary to resist this dark neoliberal moment.”

I list these in particular because, at the Economic Justice Law Review, its only natural that I offer a perspective on Hill’s account of economic history and his prescriptions for our economic future.  While the book is obviously about the deaths of numerous black people at the hands of law enforcement, I believe Hill is at his strongest when he is asking us to gird our loins for the future’s battles over these and so many other socio-political-economic issues.

“Nobody” is extremely informative.  We know the headlines.  Hill gives us the details that we need to be confident in our speech (and emotions), as many of us try to convert the nonbelievers and doubters.  He cuts through to the most basic, least assailable reasons why the perpetrators were “wrong”—although perhaps to help explicate “post-intentional” racism, coined by Imani Perry, he does not accuse any officer of malicious or criminal intent, even when it seems appropriate, as in Sandra Bland’s case.

His historical references, both economic and legal, are on point and do well to animate the circumstances that are now facing Eric Garners and Freddy Grays all around the country.  Except, I beef with how he seems to link almost all of the problems throughout history to a neoliberal attitude, which ignores the difference between neoliberalism and neoconservatism and the central role adherents to the latter have played particularly over the last thirty years in shaping what our world has become today, at home and abroad.

“Nobody” sometimes reads as if racism and neoliberalism are indistinguishable, when it is more likely that socio-political-economic white supremacy can be instituted, maintained and/or exacerbated through any and every political theory operating at its worst—be it conservatism, liberalism or progressivism. Progressivism could bring us together as a nation or become a totalitarian social religion that requires higher castes to well treat the lower ones.  Conservatism could restore the moral compass of the country towards its own people and the rest of the world, or exclude and persecute all but the core believers and constituents.  Liberalism is the freedom to pursue and fulfill one’s personal happiness, including owning other people?  

Taking aim at a concept without reference to power is fraught with difficulty.  As a critical theorist, I must object a little. 

For example, Hill disparages zero tolerance policies for lacking discretion, but then criticizes Marilyn Mosby and other prosecutors’ for having awesome discretionary powers, before then circling back and claiming that the problem with zero tolerance programs is the discretion to target one group over another, until he approvingly cites the authors of the Broken Windows policing program insisting that discretion is the key to making it work.  With discretion, and unlike his treatment of neoliberalism, Hill is looking for some ideal in the middle, one that may be impossible to identify much less articulate.

Discretion is an application of power, though.  Black cops do not kill unarmed white suspects not because they are better cops, or because they are progressive and white cops are neoliberal.  It’s because they know what will happen to them and the rest of the black community if they do.  It’s not training.  It’s power.  The problem is not a concept or construct, like neoliberalism.  Instead, the problem is our lack of influence in social, economic and political relations. 

Hill and I may disagree on what even constitutes neoliberalism.  I am with him 100% when he derides “a nearly religious reverence for marketized solutions to public problems”.  I believe Joseph Stiglitz refers to this as Free Market Fundamentalism. Except he later takes aim at a much less onerous concept, “free market ideology”, which needn’t be religious or dogmatic, and can be as pragmatic as any other theory.  Efficiency burns as a trope deployed against civil rights activities.  However, avoiding waste is a virtue that can’t be denied.  There is no way that if Black people governed Derrick Bell’s mythical island of Afrolantica would we spurn the use of applied mathematics.  Place it in its appropriate context, yes.  Ignore it and deride it as immoral, useless and racist at its core, like some critics of neoclassical economics do? I can’t.

Noone, not even capitalists, think “hyper-competition”, whatever that may mean, is a good thing.  While I totally understand the backlash against economists who, according to William Darity Jr., seem as a class to be on the frontlines against changes in racial dynamics.  Economics as a concept does not belong to them, and we ought not hand it over.

First of all, every market is not a free market, and therefore every market solution is not a free market solution.  In my opinion, the easiest critique of free market fundamentalism is the absence of a free market in the first place, here or anywhere else around the world.  “DeMarquette” is not a new deity who will solve all of our problems.

A perfectly free market requires that everyone is a profit maximizer and perfectly rational, that they would and should sell their own children for sex with a stranger if the price is right.  It requires perfect completion, or the ability of everyone to compete in any market they so choose—which is obviously not true due to a myriad of factors almost all which can be corralled under the concept of “capital”.  A perfect market requires perfect information, more fantastical than the first two.  And a perfectly free market has no transaction costs, like taxes or crime, etc.  Get the picture?  It doesn’t exist.

Not only does free market ideology in its purest form conspire against free market fundamentalism, free market ideology can be “progressivized”.  Within free market ideology, we can, nay, we must, if fairness in all social relations is the goal, recognize and respond to those market imperfections that are asymmetrical with respect to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or any other group.  Competition is not only imperfect, it is asymmetrically imperfect in that slavery and Jim Crow redistributed billions of dollars of wealth from those who worked against nature to those who owned them (and the rest of society via taxation).  Information is imperfect, and asymmetrically so considering the ubiquity of Eurocentric education, the prison to school pipeline, technology divide, as well as media stereotyping.   Drug and crime zoning in black neighborhoods, environmental racism, racist law enforcement are all examples of asymmetrically distributed transaction costs. 

Conceiving of racism as asymmetrical market imperfections can either make neoliberalism more progressive, or make progressivism more liberal, whichever conception you prefer.

Do not let my political disagreement with Dr. Hill mask my enthusiasm for his book.  I will be using his and Kimberly Norwood’s Ferguson’s Fault Lines in a new essay contending that, even during the Obama Administration, states and localities have instituted more and more regressive and racially disparate taxes, which are contributing to just the type of contempt Dr. Hill describes.  Wage taxes, cigarette taxes, soda taxes, jock taxes.  The cost of government is increasingly being placed on poor black people, and that’s before we recognize that formal taxes on consumer products results in contraband and counterfeit goods, which lead to increasing confrontations between law enforcement and the citizenry, like the one that killed Eric Garner.  Informal and irregular taxes like those fines and citations in Ferguson and Baltimore and around the country are even more problematic than the formal tax increases.  Reading “Nobody” makes me even more confident in my own writings and theories.  In several ways, “Nobody” helps me explain that the free market does not really exist and America’s claim to meritocracy fails miserably to the extent transaction costs of society have been and are continuously heaped upon black folks in an asymmetric (read: racist) manner.

If the attraction to neoliberalism stems mainly from a belief in fair and honest competition, then neoliberals can allow progressive like Dr. Hill to attack them from the outside, or they can sturdy their houses from the inside by taking the “freeness” of the market more seriously. 

- Andre L. Smith, Economic Justice Law Review.

Ty Fellenberg