Category Archives: Economics

On Satire

Some comments on utilizing satire for social criticism (I think I’m qualified, having taken the genre to heart enough to write a 600-some page novel replete with it):

Listen to the wise words of absurdist-satirist presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, who was asked whether he wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fulfill his campaign promise to provide free ponies to everyone in America: “No, they’re free ponies.”

Satire of political economy is difficult when many genuinely think no further about economics than what they want, right now—and not at “what is not seen”* as Bastiat put it—but I think Vermin’s (feigned) assured refusal to get the question really nailed it. Vermin Supreme knows how to speak to, and for, (many or most) modern Americans.

Unfortunately, satire has no way to reach the people who don’t get it. It’s an unfortunate general weakness of social satire that the people who most need to get the joke are the people at whose expense the joke is made. Therefore it flies over their heads.

I remember much the same thing with the militarism of the movie Starship Troopers; those who found it just an enjoyable, thrilling action film romp (and those who didn’t, but also thought it had nothing much to say to them) are those immersed, naively, in a culture of normalized nationalist and imperialist propaganda.

Robocop had the same problem with becoming visible as satire to a generation raised on both absurdly violent films and cop-as-hero legends propagated by mass media. (Even recently, it’s unabashed in prolefeed like the CBS show Blue Bloods.) The mythology of police righteousness is only just now (I think?) becoming distinguishable, foreign and strange enough to be noticed—and potentially rejected—by a large number, instead of perfectly normal to the culture, and invisible as propaganda.

I love the genre of satire from an artistic standpoint and it can be very difficult to separate that affection from adequately, realistically measuring its effectiveness. I believe George Orwell, the writer of my favorite satire, had much the same problem. His favorite books included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and he felt drawn to expressing his own criticisms of automatic thinking (“the gramophone mind”**) collaborating with authoritarian impulses, in this form above others. It’s certainly entertaining to those who slyly get the joke, but remarkably impenetrable to those who do not.

Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm, rejected by the publisher, reflects some of his own ambivalence about satire. For there Orwell felt the need to render in explicit prose some of his intention, instead of letting the book speak for itself.

Personally, I know that I have benefitted from reading the implicit, humorous, artful criticism of satire all the more in the context of reading such trenchant, direct, and explicit statements and analyses, also.

Satirists generally forget that many of their audience lack education in the points necessary to understand the attack, and to fully benefit from the art of satire, much as abstract visual art speaks more (and more emotionally) to those who have some familiarity with its prerequisites. It’s no coincidence that the satirical novel evolved alongside the literary form of the essay.

PS. I’ve said so before, but I just want to append that an additional difficulty with satire is that inventing fictional exaggerations as means to mock reality becomes more and more challenging when extreme and absurd realities are already playing out. How do you skewer an intelligence chief who built himself an Enterprise bridge as a control center? How do you mock Trumpish narcissism?

* Examples of “what is not seen” (because these factors are invisible, or only appreciated on a delay, or on alternate possible timelines):
impositions upon other individuals and groups, opportunity costs of various relative priorities, financial costs and other unwanted and unforeseen outcomes like bureaucratic/state empowerment, loss of individual autonomy, decline or replacement of competitive services, and legal/regulatory burdens, and finally, alternate methodologies for actually obtaining desires besides demanding them by political dispensation, which may not actually work.

** “For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” — from Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm

The Ruling System of Moralistic Cliches

There are some political cliches that are—or have become—virtually meaningless except for emotional cant (e.g. “liberal”).

There are some that serve as shibboleths for a faction (e.g. “social justice”).

And there are some that signify immediately that a person has no idea how the real world works, at all—perhaps because they forgot their proper cynicism about the rent-seekers who swarm all over politics, or perhaps because they were always too ignorant about some relevant and necessary subject (political science, economics, law, journalism, diplomacy, strategy, technology, etc.).

A great many cliches manage all three failures of political language, like “shipping jobs overseas” or the supposed “invasion of our borders.”

This is how people, possibly well-meaning people, habitually think and supposedly communicate when they engage in politics. And yet many expect to solve human social problems this way, instead of adding to them. Which is precisely what happens; rather than alleviating inequality or liberating people (or whatever people imagine they’re doing), such invested, balkanized ignorance is deeply useful to those who seek power or to capitalize on a position of power.

At best, largely powerless people experience a vicarious, illusory and temporary sense of power from crowing or venting their spleen.

Disappointment with the outcome is really ridiculous—absurd even. It’s obvious enough, should one stop to think about it. Repeating the same mistake over and over is not a formula for success.

Just imagine, say, taking the same moralistic, hierarchical, jabbering group approach to something practical, like building a house,* baking a cake,* balancing an account,* curing a diseased patient,* starting a business,* or writing a book*—all far simpler than meeting the needs of human society—and you may begin to get the picture.

Politics defined as mass problem-solving is a deeply foolish endeavor.

* Yes, all references intentional.

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.

Why Some Political Issues Must Come First

Glenn Greenwald writes:

If you don’t really care about these issues — war, empire, the denial of due process, suffocating secrecy, ongoing killing of foreign civilians, oligarchical manipulation of the Fed and other government policies, militarized foreign policy and police practices, etc. —  then it’s easy to blithely dismiss the need to find some way [that Ron Paul provides] to challenge the bipartisan consensus on those issues.

One final point that should be made: I do not believe that the issues on which I principally focus are objectively The Most Important Ones. There are many issues of vital importance that I write about rarely or almost never: climate change, tax policy, abortion, even the issue which affects me most personally: gay equality. None of us can write about every issue meaningfully. The issues on which I focus are ones where I believe I can contribute expertise, or express views and points not being heard elsewhere. But there are many other issues of genuine importance, and I have no objection to those who, when forced to choose, prioritize those concerns over the ones about which I write most frequently. That is why I wrote — and meant — that “there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for progressives to oppose Ron Paul’s candidacy on the whole” and “it’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate [Obama] are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.”

As much as I admire this guru of civil liberties, I think he’s wrong here, in practical terms. Some issues must sensibly come first, if others are to be considered at all.

For example: I would be very surprised if—assuming that Paul is not elected and nothing is done about spending and debt—the national-and-international debt house of cards collapses, the dollar is massively devalued, people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, and the worst thing gay Americans have to worry about is whether the state will sanction their marriage.

At least, in the worst-hit, most desperate communities, gays will not only find themselves scrabbling along with everyone else, but potentially defending themselves along with other minorities (including dissidents like myself), who are so often demonized and blamed during difficult times.

Outsiders by nature or circumstance—all those of unusual and outspoken beliefs, lifestyles, and minority identities—will find ourselves on the fringe of whatever new ‘mainstream’ emerges in many communities, which will almost certainly be intolerant. Lynchings and other attacks will occur. It’s worth remembering that the major factor behind lynchings in the South wasn’t an aimless “racism” but resentment over postwar devastation, economic suffering, and occupation that rendered Southern white men powerless and poor and hungry for someone even less powerful to hurt.

Even worse, in such a scenario it becomes rather likely that scared, angry and desperate people will resort to supporting a system or competing systems of abject fascism —especially given the burgeoning police-state precedents which no major candidate but Ron Paul has opposed—and it will almost certainly not be a gay-friendly or minority-friendly fascism but a fundamentalist-friendly one.

Reproductive rights aren’t very often thought about either when governments are hounded by hungry people and desperate to control or placate them. Control will include intrusions into personal life far greater than the bogeyman of potentially having to argue a legal case about abortion at a state level (the specter raised against states’ rights); placation will include pandering to powerful fundamentalist Christian interests who are intolerant of abortion or even birth control.

It will be easier to rule by dividing, and set groups against each other than to solve severe economic problems.

It also makes little sense to debate the greater importance of a positive-rights social issue such as gay marriage over traditional negative-rights civil liberties when the entire principle of open debate is being challenged, along with the right to protest. The time for debates over other issues is once, first, the right to debate is itself secured against imminent threats.

At present, only one presidential candidate in the US race can credibly claim to be devoted to defending the right to speak out against the government, and that is Ron Paul. The freedom of political speech, most especially including the right to attack the powerful, comes first in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights for a reason. Whether you admire all of Paul’s policies and ideas—who can expect this from a politician?—or detest some of them, or whether you like him or hate him personally is all irrelevant compared to that. We can’t even have that conversation without the right to speak out and disagree together.

The remaining Republican field and the sitting president are all, more or less, for criminalizing free speech and setting precedents which will erode this right for the future. For example, effective reporting and dissent from Wikileaks led to open threats by the Obama administration and threats against Julian Assange by openly fascist candidates such as Newt Gingrich, who called him an “enemy combatant”; only Ron Paul defended Wikileaks and Bradley Manning. The Obama administration also believes the president has the right to detain and assassinate citizens on the basis of activities formerly protected under the First Amendment, and to the general agreement of the Republican field save Ron Paul.  Even public discourse on the internet is under attack. The entire social climate since 2001 has increasingly become intolerant of differing opinions, and only one major candidate opposes this direction entirely.

Once precedents are set, it will be irrelevant why the measures were first enacted—for IP or for “terrorism.” They will be used for anything and every case in which the government or connected corporations wish to suppress free speech and open debate, just as anti-terror surveillance measures and other extralegal procedures provided under the Patriot Act were primarily used against suspects in the drug war, not accused terrorists.

This is not a time when we have the luxury of having whatever political priorities we like. We are genuinely under threat of fascist control and economic collapse. First, we must secure a minimal right to dissent and free spaces for debate in public, in print, and online, and for that we—civil or fiscal libertarians, classical liberals or progressive liberals, anarchists, individualists or communitarians, independents, left/right/miscellaneous—must work together. Then we can all worry about debating what we really want.

And yes, a similar rationale of priorities trumping social issues for progressives would also indicate that anarchists, nonvoters, and all those who perhaps sensibly refuse to participate in politics normally would be well-advised to consider that their luxury of non-participation is not guaranteed. Those like myself who object to the system in which we find ourselves coerced would prefer not to sanction it with participation, because we do not agree with its very existence. And yet, it is patently absurd to suggest that a voluntarist or anarchist has no immediate interest at stake between a lone neo-Jeffersonian presidential candidate and a field of police-state fascists presiding over an economy drowning in debt.

Again: first, we must secure a minimal right to dissent, and opportunities to make alternate cases to people who will care about something besides fear-based survival and finding someone to blame.  Then we can argue the abolition of the state. We should also expect this to be far easier with sympathetic Jeffersonians or even semi-libertarians than with authoritarians.

Learning for yourself requires attention to disagreement, and suspension of judgment (epoché)

I wrote this tonight in response to someone equating the unmooring-from-reality of reptilian-conspiracist Icke-followers with sound money activists (End-the-Fed and Paul boosters), someone whose dismissal of the Austrian economists indicated he didn’t know a thing about them besides a number of falsehoods. But, I think it’s a point worth sharing more generally:

Certainly, it’s easier to think you have a clue about a subject when you only read a limited set of views, or people you already agree with, instead of some of the many others who disagree. It’s easier to presume they’re all clueless, crazy, weird, or poorly educated, instead, without actually finding out.

Reliable knowledge is obtained by admitting that disagreement is not indicative of stupidity. Learning is a process that occurs not when we absorb information like a sponge, but when we allow ourselves to consider other points of view by taking them seriously on a provisional basis, and attempt to sort out and reconcile contradictions and disconnects. Otherwise, everyone will continue to defend whatever points of view about a subject were first imparted to them, no matter how skewed, or incomplete.

Ludwig von Mises on Colonialism

Now that colonialism is supposedly over, it’s very interesting to see how much of this passage from 1927 still applies to occupied countries in the present:

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. The only question is how the elimination of this intolerable condition can be accomplished in the least harmful way possible.

The most simple and radical solution would be for the European governments to withdraw their officials, soldiers, and police from these areas and to leave the inhabitants to themselves. It is of no consequence whether this is done immediately or whether a freely held plebiscite of the natives is made to precede the surrender of the colonies. For there can scarcely be any doubt as to the outcome of a truly free election. European rule in the overseas colonies cannot count on the consent of its subjects.

The immediate consequence of this radical solution would be, if not outright anarchy, then at least continual conflicts in the areas evacuated by the Europeans. It may be safely taken for granted that up to now the natives have learned only evil ways from the Europeans, and not good ones. This is not the fault of the natives, but rather of their European conquerors, who have taught them nothing but evil. They have brought arms and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears evil fruit. In any case, they have no right to complain pharisaically about the low state of public morals among the natives. Nor would they be justified in maintaining that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that they still need at least several years of further education under the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being, left on their own. For this “education” itself is at least partly responsible for the terrible conditions that exist today in the colonies, even though its consequences will not make themselves fully apparent until after the eventual withdrawal of European troops and officials.

— Ludwig von Mises, in “Liberalism” [in the Classical Tradition] (1927). The passage continues on page 126:



Labor unions are monopolies, too, and other economic insights

I don’t write about economics very often any more, but I could not be more tired of reading the most hyperbolic nonsense about collective bargaining and Wisconsin. Some apparently believe that ending compulsory state recognition of a labor monopoly’s representation of workers is equivalent to what the Nazis did with labor unions, or some other off-the-wall analogy to fascism. Others might find this kind of comparison disturbing for other reasons, but I do because it is fact-free and if anything, backwards in its assertion of authoritarianism.

(The actual history of National Socialism and unions is at some variance with the claim of analogy but that’s another topic. Let’s stay off Hitler and talk about compulsion.)

Monopolies are products of compulsion, and mandated unions are exactly that, monopolies granted over labor. There are no alternatives to monopolies, by definition. They are forced options with no choice possible. Collective bargaining “rights” are not individual rights, they are restraints upon individual rights to be represented in labor agreements as one sees fit—i.e. to have a choice. Collective labor unions are no more deserving of rights than the fictive personhood of corporations, yet anti-corporate protestors are conditioned toward sympathy for the political mobilization of labor, though powerful union interests are no more “little-people” than corporations are.

In fact, unions shut out competition from other workers who do not wish to become members of their guild, and drive up costs to the consumers of their labor services—including the taxpayer for public employees—while they drive down impetus for quality. In other words, (forced) monopolies in labor have similar effects as (forced) monopolies in anything else. Historically, frequently-corrupt private-industry unions have declined and hamstrung those industries in which they have survived, while government-employee labor unions have benefited from additional legal status, and become powerful political tools for entitlement.

Competition is good for an economy, and good for service and costs, a fact that I expect becomes more clear to the public in my home city of Philadelphia when SEPTA’s union renegotiates its contract than at any other time. Currently, many of the same people who are so irked by this union’s ability to “hold the city hostage” (as hyperbole puts it) by striking have recently been enthralled by the Wisconsin protests, just as if this noble fight were that of Egyptians against Mubarak. I imagine that similarly, it has been more likely to occur to those who live in Wisconsin and incur public costs there that unless they are public employees, it is not in their interests at all for these unions to have an easy time extracting more from the public at large.

That the Republicans act against public-sector unions for political gain, and because unions are pushed to vote Democratic, is obvious enough. That Democrats are equally self-interested is just as obvious. The self-interest of state employees who have reason to believe they will no longer be able to extract such high pay and benefits in the future is also quite transparent. This is all irrelevant to the good of the public at large, and their economic welfare, however.

Proper economics does not follow special interests of select groups, nor does it explicate only the present state of affairs; economics must lay bare the impact of policies on all the various interests of people over the course of time.

In economic terms, a freer market in labor is a broad net gain, as is a less consolidated political lobby of beholden public employees who will always support greater public expenditure, and always be a reliable vote for establishment policies (except those that curtail their own gain).

This particularly becomes clear when observed in the long run, and the impact falls on more than simple costs to the taxpayer. Contracts which might be more flexible become albatrosses driving enormous costs in many cities due to the clout of public employees, in changing economic times, while the politicians who negotiated them may be long gone. In the long run, just as industries no longer seasoned by competition can be expected to fail in both efficiency and quality, so will public organizations employing union labor whose jobs are practically guaranteed fail to serve the public as energetically, at a higher cost of operation due to inefficiency. Government is already composed of monopolies; monopolies on the labor employed intensify the problem.