Why I’m a Neoliberal

TL;DR: vote for me in the Neoliberal Shill Bracket

Update 2022–03–19: I narrowly beat Josh Barro in the first round and now face the YIMBY Neoliberal chapter.

Update 2022–03–20: Congratulations to YIMBY Neoliberal for their victory. Thanks to those who supported me, here’s to next year!

If you log on to Twitter today, you might see a lot of polls looking like this:

There are 32 polls of this form, each run by the Neoliberal Twitter account (@ne0liberal) in the first round of its annual Neoliberal Shill Bracket. It’s the fifth time they’ve done this, and my first time as a contender.

I’ll be honest, I’m kind of stoked to be a part of this. I’ve followed the Neoliberal account and community for years, and admire their combination of memes and liberal wonkery that’s engaged young people around the world in productive politics.

I’m also a big fan of Josh Barro, but I want to beat him. So I’m writing why I adhere to the Neoliberal ideology, and what I’ve done to promote it. I’m shilling for the shill bracket.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism has often been invoked as a pejorative for a selfish, warmongering movement — basically anything anyone dislikes about the world. The Neoliberal Project sought to redefine it around its liberal roots. Last year, Neoliberal Project founder Colin Mortimer wrote “What Neoliberals Believe” describing this in detail, though I think the most succinct description comes from this 2019 infographic.

Many of you probably agree with at least some of these tenets. I strongly believe in each. Here’s why, focusing on a few that I’ve been most involved in.

Deregulating barriers to housing and employment

Perhaps no policy concept is as canonically neoliberal as YIMBYism, the idea that housing should be legal to build, especially dense infill housing near jobs and transit. Overregulated land use prevents freedom of movement, hinders economic growth, and harms the environment.

YIMBYism aligns with both neoliberal values and neoliberal theories of change. Because so many jurisdictions ban apartments, from cities to counties to states, and because there are so many ways in which they prevent the development of housing, change requires both deep policy knowledge and grassroots advocacy. (Memes certainly don’t hurt either.)

I first joined YIMBY when living in San Francisco in 2016, and attracted by this mix of huge policy stakes and the chance to make a concrete impact, my advocacy has only grown since. In 2018, my advocacy accelerated when I spent nights and weekends campaigning for YIMBY pioneer Sonja Trauss’s San Francisco Supervisor campaign, and later that year I helped form the YIMBY Neoliberal organization. In 2019, I moved to Oxnard, California and created Ventura County YIMBY, which now has over 1,500 followers. YIMBY and Neoliberal are a match made in a heavenly apartment building, and I encourage you to join both.

A tax on carbon

If you want to reduce carbon pollution, make it more expensive. This idea sounds straightforward, maybe even boringly straightforward, but it’s incredibly powerful. Carbon pricing isn’t just effective, it’s the key ingredient for cutting carbon emissions.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s what the IPCC said about it in its latest report:

Pricing of greenhouse gases, including carbon, is a crucial tool in any cost-effective climate change mitigation strategy, as it provides a mechanism for linking climate action to economic development.

Studies from around the world find that carbon pricing works. Simulations find that even a modest carbon tax would cut emissions twice as much as all other Build Back Better programs combined. Economists love carbon taxes so much, they came together in the profession’s largest signed statement in history to support a version of it that returns the revenue as a dividend.

All we need is the political will to enact it. That’s not because it’s unpopular: on the contrary, of the 18 polls I’ve collated since 2015, a carbon tax polls at an average of +33 net favorability. All developed countries except the US and Australia price carbon, as do a dozen US states; it is tractable. We just haven’t priced carbon because the organized efforts to make it happen haven’t yet translated that support into political action.

Since 2018, I’ve been trying to change that. That’s when I joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a grassroots organization that advocates national carbon fee-and-dividend policy. Throughout last year, I led my local chapter, and in January, I moved into a new volunteer role as a California state coordinator. I’ve also researched carbon dividends professionally, finding that they would cut poverty substantially, especially in low-carbon states like California. We’re making progress, and I’ve never been more hopeful that we can join the rest of the developed world in cutting emissions and air pollution with an efficient, inclusive carbon tax.

Despite my optimism, high gas prices clearly impede progress toward carbon pricing (even though carbon taxes still cut emissions effectively when exempting gasoline). If anything, expensive gas risks us moving backward on climate goals, with Democrats and Republicans in state and federal offices now calling for cutting the gas tax. That’s why, when California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a gas tax holiday in January, I brought together 15 environmental organizations in a campaign to “Save the Gas Tax”.

Earlier today, a group of California lawmakers proposed a flat per-taxpayer rebate instead — essentially a gas fee-and-dividend against the counterfactual of a gas tax holiday. Simply giving people money was exactly the policy improvement our signatories and neoliberals alike hoped for.

A robust social safety net

I spent most of my career as a data scientist in the tech sector (yes, classic neoliberal). I was inspired by my colleagues and their ambition to improve the world, and I’m proud to have played a part in developing some world-changing products used by billions of people. I’m a strong believer in technology and economic growth, but they can’t fix everything.

Economic growth can’t guarantee minimum living standards for nonworkers (like children) who don’t get higher wages from tight job markets. It can’t allow food stamp recipients to spend their benefits on rent if that’s what they need more. It can’t encourage people to increase their earnings if doing so would leave them thousands of dollars worse off.

A robust, well designed social safety net can fix these problems. Many countries around the world guarantee a minimum income for children through a child allowance, and the Neoliberal Project has fought hard for the US to follow suit with an expanded Child Tax Credit. They’ve also advocated cash assistance over in kind benefits and brought attention to welfare cliffs.

The logical endgame is a universal basic income, which guarantees a minimum income without any perverse incentives. The Neoliberal account isn’t yet sold on UBI, but I predict that within a couple years they will be. At the risk of sounding self-important, I think the work of my colleagues and me will contribute to that shift.

After years of working as a data scientist and ideating on how to improve safety net policy, I went back to graduate school for economics and started applying my quant chops to analyzing policy reforms. I started the UBI Center, a think tank that conducts quantitative analysis of universal basic income policies, and in October I co-founded PolicyEngine, a tech nonprofit that helps people understand and change tax and benefit policy by calculating the impacts of customizable reforms.

Since launching PolicyEngine UK, we’ve used it to demonstrate the impact of various UBI schemes, from small payments funded by income tax reform or a land value tax, to the Green Party’s comprehensive reform. Each of these reports reveals that a tax-funded UBI can improve social welfare and streamline the tax and benefit system.

Means-testing is simply a worse version of taxation: one that creates administrative bloat, extreme marginal tax rates for the poor, and poverty from exclusion errors. Identifying a UBI plan that improves upon the current system without relying on magical fiscal policy is possible, but it requires jointly analyzing taxes and benefits through both the household- and society-level lenses. No product yet supports that kind of analysis in the US, but PolicyEngine US will.

I, Neoliberal

I consider myself an extreme liberal. Across many policy areas, I seek the most effective solution and put my eggs in that basket. When it comes to public policy, I think second best solutions can often be far behind, because they don’t just do less good, but they also crowd out finite political capital from the best solutions.

To end poverty, give people money — a lot of it, to everyone. To make housing affordable, legalize affordable housing — not the government-managed lottery-distributed kind, the apartments people can choose to live in with money. To curb pollution, make it expensive — extremely expensive.

Whatever your take on the term “neoliberal”, these are the proven solutions to some of our most important problems. These neoliberal policies are effective in isolation and transformative in combination. I am a neoliberal, and maybe you are too.

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Max Ghenis

Max Ghenis

Co-founder & CEO of PolicyEngine. Founder & president of the UBI Center. Economist. Alum of UC Berkeley, Google, and MIT. YIMBY. CCLer. Effective altruist.