Published September 23, 2020
Keywords: Employment and Labor Law, Labor Markets and Work Policy, Inequality, Law and Economics
Title: True Cost of a Pandemic: Bursting the Neoliberalist Bubble
Article by: Cecilia Meyer
The coronavirus pandemic is at forefront of everyone’s minds. Cecilia Meyer of the Baldy Center interviewed Matthew Dimick via Zoom to discuss his upcoming Baldy Center conference (scheduled for June 2021), the impact the pandemic has had on it, and his thoughts on the labor costs of the pandemic. Matthew Dimick is a Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo School of Law and he specializes in labor and employment law. He received a Baldy Center conference grant for the upcoming workshop, “Marx, Law, and the Administrative State,” scheduled for June 24-26, 2021.
Will you describe your academic background and your research?
I first went to law school not really knowing whether I wanted to be in practice or in teaching. I did law school and then I practiced for a year. I worked in the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C. and I really liked working there, I liked the people, I was enthusiastic about their mission - but about six months in, I realized that I liked studying and teaching the law more than practicing the law itself and that I wanted to get back into academia. So, after a year at SEIU I went back to graduate school and got a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, I was two years at Georgetown doing a post doc and then came here to Buffalo.
The future remains unknown because of the pandemic, but the conference is on the schedule for June. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it?
The central theme of the conference is about administrative law. Part of the reason we had the financial meltdown in 2008, was because there was a whole sector of financial transactions - for example, securitization and credit default swaps - that were entirely unregulated. The absence of regulation helped bring the whole economy down. There was also deregulation – they repealed the Glass-Steagall Act in the late 90s (1999-2000) and that itself fueled the financial bubble that led to the collapse. Even today with COVID-19, a lot of countries have felt unprepared in terms of public health regulations, and many people, not just scholars but a good part of the general public, think we’re still not ready for when the next pandemic comes around.
We’ve also seen skyrocketing income inequality. Some administrative law scholars have said this has to do with changes and weaknesses in regulation, and in particular the weakening of workers’ rights in labor and employment law. We’re in the middle of all of these unprecedented crises over the last decade or so and many scholars and activists think this has a lot to do with failures of administrative law. In this conference we’re really interested in that and why we are in this state. Why has there been this trend in the last two or three decades to deregulate and oppose any new kind of regulation, to just let free markets work without any restrictions? Many scholars and activists think that all of these crises come from that point of view. Which is to say, “let’s not regulate, let’s just let the markets work by themselves,” and critics are responding, “well look, we’ve let the market work by itself and look at all of these disasters that have come to pass.”
So the first part of the conference is about deregulation, neoliberalism, and their origins and consequences. The second part is about what we can do about it. Legal scholars and historians look to the New Deal as the birth of the administrative state, the birth of administrative law. There are some people - scholars, politicians, and activists - whose view is that the wrong people have been in power and if we get the right people back in power and in government, we can go back to the way things were or we can at least improve it.
This point of view presupposes that New Deal administrative state essentially provided all of the right answers to our contemporary problems, and it is just bad or corrupted politics that has led us astray. But there is a deeper question of whether there is an alternative both to markets and the administrative state. The third part of the conference is whether there is something beyond the administrative state as a way to regulate all of these problems. Those were the kinds of things that Karl Marx and some of his followers - especially the Frankfurt school, people like Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno - were thinking about a kind of society that would be different, freer and more democratic, that wouldn’t necessarily require a top-heavy administrative state.
The Covid-19 pandemic made unemployment issues more obvious and universal basic income (UBI) as a solution became increasingly popular thanks in part to Andrew Yang’s bid for the White House. Dimick’s article “Better than Basic Income? Liberty, Equality, and the Regulation of Working Time,” questions whether or not UBI is the best system for helping to lessen income inequality. (1)
In your article you compare the regulation of working hours and basic income – could you share more on that?
I compared basic income and working hours in that article. The idea behind basic income is for the government to give everyone an unconditional monthly stipend, a minimal amount to live on, no strings attached, no questions asked. One of the arguments in favor of basic income is that it would free people from the drudgery of work. The classic example being the starving artist – they love to make art and it makes them happy but they are not that successful and maybe no one has caught up with their vision so they cannot make a living from it. They have to work a job that they hate and they feel like they are throwing their life away because they have to spend this time working a job, but they really want to create art. The argument is that basic income would allow someone to live without working and live life the way they want. If the starving artist had a basic, guaranteed income, one sufficient to pay for rent and food, they could then spend their time making art instead of working in the retail job they hate.
I think that’s great. I agree that the labor market places constraints on people’s choices in a way that limits their freedom and autonomy. But the point I make in my article is that if having to work stops people from living the kind of life they want, then let’s transform work, starting with changing the number of hours people have to work to meet their needs. John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist from the 20th century, looked at the projections in productivity growth in the economy and thought by our day everyone would be working fifteen-hour weeks. Against that prediction, we have become overproducers, and instead of turning the productivity gains from technology into more leisure time, we instead just make more and more “stuff,” stuff we probably don’t need.
Reducing the work week and the working day would also give people more leisure time, allowing the starving artist more time for creative activity. But changing the workweek and transforming work more broadly has some advantages that basic income doesn’t have. For example, one of the negative side effects of basic income is that it fuels the consumption economy rather than challenging it, and this of course has an impact on the environment. If we just spent more time on leisure and less time producing and consuming, we can achieve all the things that basic income does but also give people more free time in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way.
Basic income also ignores the value of the social dimension of work and the way it helps us build relationships and shapes the way we interact with people outside of who we “choose” to interact with. At work, we often socialize with people that we would not voluntarily interact with outside of work—people from different races, religions, nationalities, or sexual orientations. These less voluntary interactions at work can challenge our stereotypes and break down invidious assumptions. So again, rather than giving people a crude “exit” from work, which is all that basic income does, let’s change the way we work – let’s make work better for everybody, and reduce the number of hours people have to work to meet their economic needs while preserving the positive, social dimensions of work.
The same idea comes up when we discuss the increase in unemployment recently and how people are collecting more in unemployment than they would in their full-time job – people think that’s wrong, but it also shows how hard it is for a lot of people to meet their needs even with a full-time job. So rather than getting angry at “lazy people,” let’s instead pay people more for the hours they work.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has truly highlighted the issues of neoliberalism and it will be fascinating to see where the conference discussion leads in a hopefully post-pandemic world.
(1) Dimick, Matthew A. 2017. Better than Basic Income? Liberty, Equality, and the Regulation of Working Time. Indiana Law Review 50:473-515.
Cecilia Meyer is from Rochester, NY and is currently in her third year of law school at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Before coming to law school, she earned her BA in Chemistry at the University at Buffalo. Ms. Meyer is also a Publications Editor for the Buffalo Law Review and student ambassador for the law school. Her legal interests include family law and general practice. In her free time Ms. Meyer enjoys reading and spending time with her family.
Matthew Dimick, PhD, JD, is Professor of Law in the University at Buffalo School of Law. Dimick earned his JD at Cornell Law School and his PhD in Sociology from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dimick’s research focuses on labor and unemployment law and income inequality. Dimick received a conference grant from the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy for his conference Marx, Law, and The Administrative State scheduled for June 2021. Learn more.