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Economics and Mythology



My most recent post on History’s Greatest Monster Paul Theroux for Caring About American Workers has led to a lot of comments that say a great deal about both ideology of the New Gilded Age and about what I believe. I think it’s time to address a few. So let me refer directly to comments, if you don’t mind.

From yet_another_lawyer

So, when do we begin the social programs for the only moderately rich who live in NYC? They’re well aware that there’s local people who make even more than they do, as are the only somewhat well-off residents of Beverly Hills.

“There are people even more poor!” is frequently disingenuous, because it’s uttered by people who do nothing to combat global poverty. But if you do actually care about poverty, benefiting the already-globally-wealthy poor Americans at the expense of the actually poor is morally dubious. Is nationalism really what’s going on here? Never met an American who would support policies that benefit poor Canadians at the expense of poor Africans, but if you change it to Americans suddenly the equation changes.

(And I put my charity money where my mouth is. My charity dollars go almost exclusively to globally poor nations.)

Well that’s fine and good although your “charity” just makes you feel good about yourself as a rich white person. But the NYC comparison is completely irrelevant as if you make $100,000 in New York there are likely opportunities for you across the country while if you are actually homeless in New York, there are not. To me, this argument is indicative of someone who is not around American poverty and does not know poor people personally. This is policy created by rich people, central to the problems of modern America. Plus this, as well other comments made here, avoid the political aspect to this. Do you live in the United States? Yes, I assume. Do you want voters in this nation to care about what you care about and not support proto-fascists? Presumably. Then you might want to find these people jobs so they don’t revert to pure racial ideology. This gets back to the zero-sum game ideology of Lowrey, Matthews, etc., who revert to free market economics ideology without recognizing that the domestic issues they dislike are deeply connected to the lack of jobs for working people today who vote their resentments rather than their economic interests. Yet, their own ideological blinders, as constrictive as those of fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, do not allow them to see this.

Ransom Stoddard says:

It’s interesting how lefties have an anti-intellectual bias when it comes to economics, when usually they (correctly) mock conservatives for denying the validity of research that conflicts with their prior beliefs. “Basic economic facts” become “Econ 101 blather”, “distinguished economists” become “sell out corporate shills”, “The lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in a single generation” becomes “the creation of a small middle class”, etc. I wonder what the typical “globuhlization sux u neoliberal tool!!” commenter would make of learning that Paul Krugman got his start in public writing in the 90s informing hippies that sweatshops are good, free trade makes everyone better off, and so on.

I’m also curious as to why the Vox crowd’s use of data to explain why they’re correct “obsession with data” on the issue of trade is wrong and worthy of scorn, while using data to explain why high taxes don’t slow economic growth, why Keynesian fiscal stimulus is good, why minimum wage increases don’t reduce employment and so on is generally approved of. Imagine if a supply side hack said “Okay, so you’ve used ‘data’ to show that high income taxes don’t reduce growth. But do you even understand the social context of being an entrepreneur in a country that punishes you for success? I Just Know, without data, that your view is wrong.”

This is wrong on so many levels. First, there’s the idea that economics is some sort of field above ideology when it is so clearly not. Second, there’s the idea that all economists agree on the impacts of global trade, clearly incorrect. I read economists like Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum all the time who reject these ideas. There’s the idea here that “data is this objective thing” as opposed to serving ideological constructions. This is a place where economists could learn a lot from Science Studies and other disciplines who have shown just how much “data” has served pre-conceived ideological notions, but criticisms of that presentation get presented as idiot Luddites who dare question our true objectivity. Data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions and the sooner economists understand that they are not a science and that instead most, albeit not all, are lapdogs of capitalism, the better off we will all be. A data set is not wrong, but it can’t mean much without the context of the ideological presumptions of the people making it. I will also say that the entire idea that a field of pure pro-capitalist ideology like Economics deserves a Nobel Prize and that somehow gives the field some sort of credibility is utterly laughable, especially when looking at the utter hacks that have won the award for their support of crushing democracy and dooming the poor to greater poverty. And no, I don’t care at all that Krugman won the award, given that the award should not exist in the first place. Better off creating a Nobel Prize for film, for at least that field advances human dignity.

Sapient contends:

Eric certainly contends that protectionism is a path to autarky. That’s his main thing.

I’ll forgive the serial misspelling of my name to state that I have never once stated that traditional protectionism is the path of the future. And I challenge anyone to say otherwise.

In the end, as I argued in Out of Sight, we have a deeply unfair trade regime. We can make it more fair. Doing so means rejecting the idea that free market economics are anything more than an anti-social capitalist plot to concentrate wealth in the 1 percent. But it also means rejecting the idea that local poverty is irrelevant. The idea that the poor in Alabama or New Mexico are irrelevant is a politics as stupid as supporting Lawrence Lessig for president. Rejecting the need to find people in our own nation jobs as “nationalism,” as free market fundamentalists (again, a group that makes ISIS look rational) tend to do, is totally insane because it assumes that they themselves are stateless. That of course isn’t true. They live in a nation where the poor, or at least the white versions of them, can vote. They often vote for policies that said free market fundamentalists don’t like. And then these fundies don’t understand why. Well, maybe if they had jobs, they’d reconsider. This seems utterly self-evident, yet the arrogance of capitalists gets in the way of this obvious point.

Again, I don’t think traditional protectionism is a way we can move forward. But I do think that policy making from 30,000 feet based on free-market ideology is a total disaster. In fact, capitalist ideology is the last of the 20th century ideologies that led to the century’s mass deaths, as utterly evil in its pure form that is so popular in 2015 as fascism or communism. Instead, we have to find ways to improve the quality of lives of workers in the U.S. and overseas at the same time. I suggest several ways we can do that in Out of Sight and I urge skeptics to read it to get how we can move forward here. Because the arrogant idea of wealthy white Americans that they are moving justice forward through free-market capitalism while contemptuously avoiding the real-world context of these decisions in the United States leads to meaningful consequences of their ideological arrogance.

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