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BPR Interviews: The Neoliberal Project

The Neoliberal Project is a nonprofit organization seeking to create a new understanding of neoliberalism for our current political moment. The Project believes in both the power of markets to create wealth and the need for a social safety net to redistribute that wealth fairly. They are especially known for their active twitter account (@ne0liberal), which holds a yearly Neoliberal Shill Brackets to chose the “neoliberal shill” of the year. In 2018, Noah Smith, a contributor at Bloomburg and writer of the blog Noahpinion was chosen. In 2019, Matt Yglesias of Vox Media was chosen. More of The Neoliberal Project’s initiatives including a podcast, meetups, and their new publication, Exponents, can be found on their website.

Nick: Everyone seems to hate neoliberals. Why do you want me to be one?

@ne0liberal: Well, I think there’s two things going on right there. One is that people really hate the pejorative meaning of neoliberalism. The common usage of the term really refers to this big tent between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. If you go to Europe, the term refers, almost exclusively, to being a libertarian. And, I think people hate the wrong thing. What we’re trying to do is to take neoliberalism and move it away from these figureheads of the late 20th century and create something that is more distinct and more forward looking than what people perceive neoliberalism to be. But, people still do hate what we’re we’re talking about. People do hate our conception of neoliberalism. I think that it’s because we’re not idealists. We are pragmatic. We’re not going to get up there and lean into the tendencies of populism. So, of course, they’re going to hate us because we’re almost a direct repudiation of everything they’re saying. So, if everyone hates neoliberalism, I think I mean we’re doing something well.

Nick: So, given that your conception of neoliberalism seems somewhat different than the older usage, do you have a theory about how the label “neoliberal” got such a bad name? And, why people are so hostile to it?

@ne0liberal: I think people’s conception of neoliberalism, in academia for example, came to be that neoliberalism means everything that is bad. Everything the government does that is bad is neoliberalism and everything that it does good is whatever other label they want to associate with that. There are academics out there who maybe use the label more carefully like Quinn Slobodian, who has a pretty good definition of it, even though he’s very much using the term in the negative way. But, I think academics writ large use this term in a catch all sense such that everything culturally and politically bad is neoliberalism. So it gets a bad rap because something that’s bad, of course, will lead people to have a bad idea of it. We’re trying to say is: Neoliberalism actually exists. It’s a cohesive view. If you want to think it’s bad on the actual values, on the actual merits, then that’s a fair opinion. But, not everything that is bad is neoliberalism. I do think that the critics make serious points in some regards if they’re talking about the Reagan/Thatcher/Clinton/Blair style of neoliberalism. Retrospectively, we can look back and realize that there were some mistakes in that regard: Was the level of austerity that was implemented by them appropriate? Some people look back and say, “Okay that was more ideologically driven than evidence based.”  While their intentions might be good, what we’re realizing now is that it might not have been the greatest decision. Even when you look back on Bill Clinton, who people call a neoliberal — and I think he was overall a good president, especially when it comes to stuff like free trade immigration — His criminal justice reforms were pretty terrible. I also think he was too aggressive when it came to welfare reform. Our conception of neoliberalism is more moderate. We should be able to acknowledge these mistakes and consider how policy can be made better in the future.

Nick: When was the first time you called yourself neoliberal?

@ne0liberal: February 2017.

Nick: Was that after Sam Bowman’s piece or was it in tandem with it?

@ne0liberal: I think a lot of things are happening at the same time. So, no, the group of us that got together and founded the neoliberal subreddit, were not doing it based on Sam Bowman’s piece, but I think that we were reacting to the same things: 2016 happened, and the election of Trump caused this entire moderate-center status quo to explode. I think Sam and the group of us who founded the subreddit had the same thought: “OK we need to pick up the pieces. We need to create a new identity, a new coalition for moderates on the center left and center right.” What are we going to call it? What are these values going to be?  We kind of stumbled upon the same thing. Myself and Sam disagree with a lot of things, I think. As I said, the conception of neoliberalism in Europe is very different to the conception of neoliberalism we promote in the US. So, we have pretty stark differences between each other but I think we’re all basically working off the same model.

Nick: Just to clarify, you think that Sam Bowman’s version of neoliberalism in England is more libertarian than your version here in the US?

@ne0liberal: Yeah, I would say so.

Nick: And, you mentioned the subreddit, did that come before the Twitter, @ne0liberal?

@ne0liberal: The Reddit came before Twitter. So the Reddit was started in February 2017 and then the Twitter was created in May 2017.

Nick: What motivated you to start the Twitter? Were you were you surprised how fast the initial Neoliberal Shill Contest blew up?

@ne0liberal: Yeah. One hundred percent. I mean, we created the Twitter initially just to repost stuff off the subreddit and then quickly realized that, one, no one cared about that stuff and, two, that there was a lot of potential in kind of diversifying what we were doing. We kind of figured out this model where we post half memes and repost content we find elsewhere, but then also post our own punditry, for lack of a better word. And, it was a really good model: People see us because they’re exposed to the content we’re putting out there and then, if they follow us, they’re exposed to our takes on current events and various other things in the media. I think it’s a pretty good pipeline to get people involved in the Project and the identity. The Neoliberal Shill bracket is the first thing that really blew us into the forefront but that didn’t happen until March 2018. So, it was almost a year into the Twitter.

Nick: Where did the idea for that come from?

@ne0liberal: It was a complete accident how it happened. So myself and Connor, one of the other people who posts on the Twitter account, we were talking and Connor’s message to me was, “Hey, what do you think about doing a bracket for March?” What Connor meant was, “Why don’t we have the people in our Neoliberal Slack channel do a March Madness bracket?” I interpreted him to mean, “Why don’t we put our followers against each other in a bracket style competition?” And, it wasn’t until I had made the bracket and started posting that Connor told me, “This was not what I meant at all.”

Nick: What the most contentious issues are among the people who currently self-identify as neoliberals?

@ne0liberal: I’m not sure. Almost all of us agree on trade. Almost all of us agree on immigration. Almost all of us agree on criminal justice reform. I think you start getting into differences when it comes to issues like welfare and healthcare. I think healthcare is one in which almost every single healthcare view falls within the neoliberal camp in some way. I think there is a neoliberal argument for Medicare for all and I think there is a neoliberal argument for no government in healthcare whatsoever. It’s not our job as the Neoliberal Project to pronounce a “right” or final answer on it. Healthy debate is good. And, we truly don’t have a view on what is correct. I think it’s a good example of something very contentious within our camp. Education is another one where people disagree strongly: What should we do when it comes to higher education reform in the United States? People disagree on things like charter schools too. There’s also things that we don’t talk about very often like social issues including gun policy and abortion. If we did talk about them, I imagine there would be a lot of contention.

Nick: I understand there’s been some debate on whether there’s a neoliberal foreign policy, which is ironically something around which many discussions of the so-called neoliberalism of the 1980s or 1990s are centered. But, it seems like something about which the current cohort of neoliberals are relatively agnostic on foreign policy. Would that be correct?

@ne0liberal: Yes, I mean, I think Charlie Richards, when he wrote the piece for Exponents  about neoliberal foreign policy, got it mostly right. His argument was that you’ve got to do a cost/benefit analysis on whether to do a certain intervention or not. I think there are good arguments for and against certain interventions and certain foreign policy ideologies. So I don’t think neoliberals can pick one thing and say “Look this is good and this is bad.” We just have a conception of what it should be. I would say that neoliberals would usually agree that stuff like foreign aid is good. They don’t really need to have a strong foreign policy when it comes to things like military. Because, our utopia, our vision, is that global cooperation and trade can make those issues less and less relevant. So, I would say we have a foreign policy, but we come with an economic angle instead of a purely foreign policy angle, if that makes sense.

Nick: So there’s been a lot of debate, both by neoliberals and by people who hate neoliberals, about who the most neoliberal presidential candidate is. Do you have an opinion on this?

@ne0liberal: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think there is one. I’ve always said that it’s hard. I think that “most neoliberal” is a good way to put it because people ask “Who are the neoliberal candidates,” when really it’s more of a spectrum. But, I wouldn’t even say there is one who is the most neoliberal. I think it might be Biden but I think there are reasonable reservations about Biden. I think Buttigieg and Beto and Klobuchar all make a good case to be neolberal candidates, but I think that they fail in a number of regards to be the most neoliberal. You’ll have people argue that Warren is a neoliberal but I will disagree with them. That is a healthy argument within our camp.

Nick: The first winner of the Neoliberal Shill bracket supports Warren, if I recall correctly?

@ne0liberal: Noah [Smith] does support Warren. I think he’s cooled a little bit on her after her terrible, terrible trade policy rollout, but he is fully a Warren supporter.

Nick: Do you see President Barack Obama as a neoliberal?

@ne0liberal: Yes, I do.

Nick: There seems to be a connection between the YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) movement, which is fighting for more building in major cities, and the neoliberal movement. What’s the nature of this connection? How important are urban issues to the neoliberal agenda?

@ne0liberal: I think it’s increasingly becoming a priority, which reflects our demographics as a movement. A lot of people who are are self-identified neoliberals are young people living in cities. So, these are issues that affect them. But, I think it really fits perfectly with us, as it’s clear that we have a housing stock problem causing a housing affordability crisis in our major cities. The “solutions” that the Left are proposing, like rent control and public housing, have proven track records of not working. We have shown time and time again that if you just build more housing more people can live in the city and rents go down. It’s just such an obvious issue and it also fits our priors, as the obstacles are not creating a new government program. It’s deregulating local zoning laws. So I would say it’s  almost shaped to be the perfect neoliberal issue. So I think that it makes sense we’ve latched onto it.

Nick: Yes, in fact, “taco trucks on every corner” seems to have become a neoliberal call to arms. Would you mind telling us the story behind that?

@ne0liberal: The story is, during the 2016 election, the president of Latinos for Trump went on TV to talk about immigration, I think, and someone said something about more immigrants and the Latinos for Trump president’s response was essentially: “Well if you let in more immigrants, there will be taco trucks on every corner.” As if that were a bad thing! But, that sounds awesome! Obviously it’s not a serious policy priority for us, but I do think that it reflects on our values of immigration and commercial deregulation. Do food trucks need to be so heavily regulated? No. So “taco trucks on every corner” reflects our values in a joke.

Nick: You recently received a grant for the Neoliberal Project. What do you plan to do with the grant?

@ne0liberal: Continue to invest in our operation. We currently have a number of initiatives: We have our podcast; we have our meetups; we have Exponents; we have our stickers. There are other things that we have in the pipeline that I can’t announce yet. The grant will help us continue all of these initiatives in a more professional and efficient manner.

Nick: Finally, I’ve heard neoliberals claim that “Neoliberalism always wins.” Should neoliberals be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of American politics?

@ne0liberal: I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic per se in the short term, but I think neoliberals should be prepared for not too much short-term success. I mean, it looks like the winner in 2020 is either going to be Trump or Warren, but, as we have seen throughout the history of America, these things come in cycles. Once people realize what the Populist Right and the Populist Left really look like in practice, I think they’ll look for an alternative. We want to be there when people start looking.