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  • Max Stearns

The AOC Wars

Rarely has a political figure, especially one so young, so new, and a woman, provoked such visceral division within our polity as Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez. The freshman congresswoman, who began as a political organizer for Bernie Sanders, and who unexpectedly unseated longstanding Congressman Joseph Crowley (D. N.Y.) in a Democratic primary, has emerged a phenom. Both in print media, and on my social media feed, one fact is strikingly clear: people either revere or revile her, variously criticizing her for novice misstatements, or defending her seeming gaffes as capturing essential truths or wisdoms that her too-fast-to-respond critics miscomprehend.

AOC has a truly magnetic quality. She dances. We watch. She tweets. We watch. She builds furniture. We watch. She lashes out at her critics. We watch. AOC’s politics are not my politics. I am not a socialist. She is. I am the sort of middle-aged man who many of her fans, including many other middle-aged men and women, think should quietly stand down, allowing the next generation to step up and take control. Thankfully, I’m not now, and never will, run for office. And my issue isn’t her age or gender; it’s her worldview.

Is it possible to like, even admire, AOC, but not like, or even admire, her politics? I believe so. AOC is far smarter than I initially gave her credit for. She is not merely quick witted in a street-smart sense, although she is that. She exhibits an admirable, almost seamless, capacity to combine her analytical chops with down-home empathy. Her speech clip about pride in bartending, folding clothes retail, serving food, or driving a bus exemplifies, and would ordinarily eviscerate—at least in a pre-Trump world—claims of sharp-left elitism in a way that should appeal to the traditional (white, male, middle-aged) Republican base. Foisting allegations of elitism on the hard right for criticizing her bartending background is not merely smart politics; it gets it exactly right. And AOC’s retort against the claimed unfairness that her 70% tax proposal for earnings over $10 million would rob Grandma of $7 of the $10 housecleaning pay--tweeting that Abuela gets to keep all $10 because, after all, it’s just $10 (marginal rates and all)--isn't just clever; it’s precisely correct.

Even so, my problem with AOC is that her politics is genuinely founded on a Marxian premise. When AOC pushes back on comparisons of her views to Venezuela, of course she's right. But that doesn’t imply that in calling herself a Democratic Socialist, the emphasis is Democratic. This is evident from her insistence that the minimum wage dramatically undervalues the financial contribution to firms of low skilled workers, whose genuine value-added she has assessed as upwards of $60 per hour. Based on this assumption, she has further claimed it is immoral for a society to have billionaires, when such workers earn as low as $7 per hour. The basis for this striking claim, as best I can discern, is an Economic Policy Institute study that divides net economic productivity by employee hourly earnings. AOC's wage-gap inference fails to appreciate the difference between marginal valuations of high versus low skilled labor, or the marginal rates of substitution between labor and other productive inputs that require capital investment.

The problem is not merely fuzzy math, although the math is fuzzy. Rather, the problem is failing to appreciate that socialism rests on an unresolvable internal conflict that simultaneously, and ironically, demands insisting that capitalists are excessively greedy yet somehow not greedy enough.

In my junior year of college, I took a class with the world renowned socialist, Mihailo Marković, a Serbian philosopher and author of From Affluence to Praxis (philosophy and social criticism) (1974), then visiting as a Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Marković was a kind and gregarious man, and he was generous to a fault in indulging this novice undergraduate who, if memory serves, politely, yet persistently challenged nearly his every assertion. One day, Professor Marković drew a graphic with a vertical axis representing dollar valuation and a horizontal axis representing time. The logic of his graphic mirrors that of AOC. One curve depicting worker productivity, rose at a steady rate over time, and the other, representing wages, rested notably below the wage curve and rose at a much lower rate than increased worker productivity, thereby demonstrating ongoing and growing exploitation of workers by employers and firms. I asked Professor Marković the same question I would ask AOC if given the chance: So, are you claiming that firms are too greedy or not greedy enough?

In the graphic presentation, with wages persistently below worker productivity, and with a gap that widens over time, competitor firms could sweep in, offering those underpaid employees higher wages, thereby earning more and more profit with newly hired productive employees. Failing to scoop up these underpaid workers means that such firms are leaving money on the table. If firms are greedy, they should bid up the wages, closing the growing wage gap and diminishing worker exploitation over time. Only a selfless firm would sacrifice such a profitable opportunity, benefiting competitor firms at its own expense.

I am not naïve. I recognize that there are many workers who are treated unfairly in the workplace, and I understand that such treatment tends to operate most unkindly against persons least able to seek out more favorable working conditions. This includes especially those who lack access to reliable transportation, who lack affordable child care, or who care for elderly or ill family members. Such constraints have a disproportionate impact on those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, including especially persons of color and women, who continue to bear the most of burden of child care and other family obligations. There is no doubt that people often find themselves locked into disadvantageous employment conditions for fortuitous reasons beyond their control, and the genuine benefits of competition are often limited in problematic ways, thereby undermining viable opportunities to seek out higher earnings. But if we misdiagnose the source of the problems we seek to address, any claimed remedies risk failing to resolve, or even threaten to exacerbate, those very problems.

My disagreement with AOC goes deeper than any specific policy proposal—the $15 minimum wage, the 70% marginal tax rate, and the Green New Deal. This lifelong Democrat shares many of AOC's concerns. But I cannot support a politician, no matter how appealing otherwise, whose worldview, and resulting policies, rest upon a flawed set of premises about how the economy actually works. Without a common understanding on that, there's little point in quibbling about specific policies.

When AOC was first elected, I saw several commentators observe that she was young and predict that over time, she would avoid some obvious misstatements as she became better informed. I found this simultaneously patronizing and misleading. The question has never been which books happen to sit on AOC’s table, even the newer one that I enjoyed watching her build. AOC is enormously smart, and she will be a quick study on those sorts of things. But as for her worldview, she is locked in. That is not going to change. AOC is firmly and sincerely wedded to her ideology. Frankly, that is a large part of what makes her rhetoric powerful and engaging. I will continue to enjoy listening to her. And I will continue to dislike her politics.

I welcome your comments.

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