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Five Minutes with Melinda Cooper (Part 2)

In the second part of Melinda Cooper's interview about her new book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, she discusses America's present moment. Revist part one here.

It’s interesting to note in your work the many instances of American policy makers working across party lines to achieve legislation in a way that is impossible to imagine in the US at the present momentMoynihan and Nixon in the 1970s, Clinton and Gingrich in the 1990sbut do you think their work in some ways led to the gridlock and complete polarization we see today?

I think the idea of “polarization” assumes that there are two poles. Really what you have is a center right (mostly represented by Democrats and a few pragmatic Republicans) and a far right that seems intent on jamming the parliamentary machine and sabotaging the whole process by which government decisions might be taken or funded. This is happening everywhere. And it tends to lead to the kind of far right authoritarianism of a Donald Trump, as executive power is the only way to unjam the machinery.

The bipartisan alliances that were possible in the past can be understood if you think in terms of political tendencies rather than partisan allegiances of left or right or Democrats and Republicans. The Moynihan and Nixon alliance represents a hybrid of Catholic conservative social democracy (Moynihan) and Republican pragmatist social democracy (Nixon). This is the high point of the New Deal ethos, which was quite literally a hybrid of social conservatism and social democracy. The Clinton and Gingrich alliance represents a hybrid of religious conservatism (Gingrich) and communitarian conservatism (Clinton) on the one hand and neoliberalism (both Gingrich and Clinton) on the other. The overt concern is to balance budgets and cut welfare spending by mobilizing private family responsibility in the form of child support. This is neoliberal. At the same time there is a concern to infuse welfare with a new moralizing purpose by funding abstinence and marriage promotion programs. This is a conservative move. So between the 1960s and 1990s we have moved from conservative social democracy to conservative neoliberalism.

As welfare reform over the second half the 20th century put the burden back on families, you note a parallel development in student loans with Clinton closely following Reagan as reducing loans became a way of balancing the budgethow did this become detrimental to problems we are experiencing today such as extreme inequality?

Extreme inequality would have occurred anyway. It was created by the shift in monetary policy brought about by the Volcker shock, after which central banks did everything in their power to suppress wage growth and redistributive social spending while simultaneously pushing up asset prices. This is why wages have stagnated and the value of financial assets has skyrocketed since the early 1980s. And this in turn is why wage and wealth inequality have increased. This shift in monetary policy was aided and abetted by the regressive tax reforms first introduced by Reagan which greatly lowered the tax burden on financial asset growth (capital gains) and inheritance.

So the extreme inequality was there anyway. Along with federal and state cuts to spending on education, what this meant was that parents were becoming increasingly responsible for paying for the education of their children. Again, a return to private family responsibility is the hallmark of neoliberal social policy. What is perhaps distinct about this era (as opposed to say Gilded Age capitalism which was informed by similar ideas) is the fact that the expansion of private credit markets has in some sense alleviated the full brunt of these reforms. You may come from a poor family but you can still go to college if you take out loans. The overt operation of class difference is obscured by the proliferation of consumer credit markets. Hence the question of debt becomes central to the extreme inequality we are experiencing today. Inequality takes the form of different levels of debt servitude, as movements such as Strike Debt have explained so well. What I think they fail to take into account however is how the dynamics of debt intersect with those of family responsibility, how for example what is called “personal” or “household” debt is very often intergenerational, familial debt.

What was the role of AIDS epidemic in leading to advocacy for same sex marriage? Do you think marriage equality would not have been such a priority if not for the shifts in welfare policy in the mid 1990s?

Well some of the Chicago school neoliberals were early advocates of same sex marriage because they thought that marriage was an answer to the promiscuity – and hence social costs – associated with the gay community and AIDS epidemic. People like Richard Posner, Thomas Philipson and Gary Becker saw marriage and family as the ideal substitute for state-subsidized health care, a way of internalizing costs that would otherwise be borne by the taxpayer, so same sex marriage to them was an obvious solution. These arguments were quite rare in LGBT community itself in the 1980s, but became commonplace by the 1990s when LGBT activism begins to focus on marriage and family formation in a way it hadn’t in the past. In fact, one of the most common arguments in favour of same sex marriage is the essentially neoliberal idea that the legal obligations of marriage will save the state a lot of money in terms of looking after unattached sick, elderly or poor people. You see this in the jurisprudence around same-sex marriage and in arguments made by LGBT legal scholars and economists.

Essentially as I have argued in the book, the argument in favour of same-sex marriage rests of the poor law principle of family responsibility for welfare. This is really part of the zeitgeist as Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996 is all about generalizing the poor law tradition as the guiding principle of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now renamed TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). In fact there is a very strong parallel between welfare reform in this period and the rise of a campaign in favour of same-sex marriage.

Can you tell us about your background? As a social scientist based in Sydney, with your graduate work completed in Paris, what inspired you to study US policy during this time period? 

I was born in Australia and went to France when I was 21, I stayed there for most of my 20s, then came back to Australia for a few years, before working in England, then returning. I have somehow developed a fascination for American politics during that time but never managed to live there except for brief periods. I am fascinated by American political history of the late 20th century in particular because so much of the policy changes wrought there have had a worldwide impact. The US remains distant enough and exotic enough for me to work on without getting too emotionally involved. Having said that, I originally thought the book would not focus specifically on the US, it would look at policy developments in the US, Australia and England. However, it became clear that the theoretical questions I was asking could only be answered in a very historical contextual way. The book would have collapsed beneath its weight if I maintained the comparative perspective. At the same time, I was teaching a lot of the same textual material in Australia with a view to Australian policy developments, such as the way Milton Friedman’s work on human capital shaped the Australian student loan system. So I have a lot of Australian material I want to mine. At the moment I am working on a piece on neoliberal criminal justice and budgetary politics in Australia, looking at the way fines have been used to plug local government budget deficits and have increasingly criminalized indigenous people – similar but different to Ferguson.

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