Monday, October 15, 2012

Great Argument! Uh, Except For That One Thing...

The Self-Destruction of the 1% by Chrystia Freeland, NYT Magazine

Oh, she has the right thesis.  Categorizing states as more or less extractive is a logical framework, and it's almost obvious to say that those which are less so, countries which have more opportunities for wealth, are more egalitarian and will have more dynamic economies, whereas those in which only a small group is allowed to get paid, those will do worse. Freeland calls out America's plutocracy as (a) extant, thanks to the concentration of power that goes with the concentration of wealth (i.e., they get to advocate for their benefit much more effectively) and (b) not especially good for the rest of the country (our social mobility is worse than socialist Europe's), and it's good to see something like this break through into mainstream reading. About time, in fact.  But it's a very frustrating article, and it cops out on arguing some of the major points. I wonder if she knows Tom Friedman.

1. In the light of population pressures, land overuse, climate change, and approaching resource pressures, I don't think "growth" is the success metric that the human race needs going forward. And I am highly ambivalent about growth when it comes to the economy of scale vs. the barbarity of scale. (I dunno, maybe you've read my blog?)

Clearly what Freeland is trying to do is present an impartial argument--that cornering wealth goes against the ultimate self-interest of the wealthy--and okay, it's true, kinda sorta, when taking a generalized view of the wealthy.  For individual families, maybe their behavior is not so irrational as all that: even if a more egalitarian economy did create more expansion, the future wealthy might very well be other people.  I am sure that it's fun to believe that you perch at the top of the pyramid by virtue of your sheer awesomeness, but who really wants to put it to the test? 

It's a subjective argument that's trying to masquerade as an analytical one. (And isn't this always the case with economics?) But if you made a straight-up moral case for a better distribution of opportunity, then you're accused of being hopelessly naive or something.

2a. I can't speak to her history of Venice, but I'm given pause, remembering my Machiavelli, that there were no doubt corroborating factors that contributed to its decline among the other Italian city-states. They did fight each other pretty much constantly for a couple hundred years, and supported a variety of governmental models.  The publication of the Golden Book was certainly repulsive (a moral case!), but did the Serrata lead to the relative decline of Venice (instead of just being evil on its own merits)? Maybe, but I do recall that ascending Florence was explicitly run by a banking cartel.

2b. I can speak a little bit more to American history, and this article has a gigantic flaming you-must-be-shitting-me moment at the very core of its argument.

In the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. “We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”
For Jefferson, this equality was at the heart of American exceptionalism: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
Is she fucking serious? I mean, we understand that Mr. Jefferson was a man of his times, and we tend to excuse a great deal of his business life out of respect for the rational principles he argued in other spheres. But this is a bad time to go here.

It's true that the laboring class in 18th century Virginia were not paupers. They were in even worse shape. Jefferson, sadly, had a difficult time seeing them as part of "our" population.

2c. Freeland follows with "[t]that all changed with industrialization." Well, that and a bloody civil war.

By the time we get from the 1860s to Roosevelt's 1932, we not only had an industrial revolution, but also a new population, this one of immigrants, getting ground into the gears to serve it. FDR may have warned in 1932 against the robber barons (which Freeland says "America may have needed"), but like the world of the Medicis, I don't think there's a simple argument that they stoppered growth. The building of the railroads, for example, was not precisely competitive and entrepreneurial. I agree that epic inequality made the expansion rockier and nastier, and may have limited it eventually, with too much investment money trying to capitalize on not enough demand.

More to the point, between 1865 and 1932, the labor force was getting agitated about being so expendable. It fills up the literature of the day, and it led to revolutions worldwide. Ongoing labor unrest at a time when the costs of inequality were salient: that fire lit under FDR's ass went far toward getting the benefits and the opportunities spread around.

3. Also, it's not always good to entertain an opposing "reasonable" viewpoint just for the sake of doing so.
In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail). There is some truth in [that argument].
Old-fashioned work ethic and family values? Yeah, that must have been what kept the laboring class from getting ahead in Jefferson's time.

[Charles Murray is not a go-to person to cite as a thoughtful opponent.  He's the creep who wrote The Bell Curve, that faux-intellectual justification for racism, which should be enough to remove the obligation to entertain any of his demographic arguments ever.]


It's too bad, because Freeland comes, I think, to the right conclusion. Inequality is wrong, and the current economic and political climate is making it worse. But she takes a full libertoonian account of history to get to that point. Even with my comic-book level of understanding, I'm kind of embarrassed to read this stuff.


Inkberrow said...

"Inequality is wrong" is indeed a decidedly moral or ethical statement for this context. "Inutile" or "counterproductive" or "self-defeating" would seem to better describe your summary of Freeland's thesis. I suppose utilitarianism counts as a form of morality or ethics.

That said, I've no doubt Freeland herself feels just how you feel about inequality, but she also wants to marshall socio-biological imperatives to bolster (prove up?) her religious convictions as a credentialed progressive devotee of the Cult of the Lowest Common Denominator. That way she can prate about what the "ignorant" believe, not just the "greedy".

All in all, then, given the foregoing, I think you're a bit uncharitable to Charles Murray. "Faux"-intellectual or not, "The Bell Curve" was less a "justification for racism" than a wakeup-call for anti-racist liberals drunk on social science. Murray's methodology and findings were at least as persuasive as most "proofs" of systemic classism and racism.

David Marlow said...

Honing in on the alleged egalitarianism of America's western expansion. Exactly. It may be naive to assert it, but it's kind of, well, true. My broad brush stroke: all and any money made out west was scooped up in San Fran or NYC. The rest went to DC. E.g., your railroads, the land around them, mineral rights, the land around them, irrigation (damn engineers), the land around them, and whores.

Funny how those who cry foul on account of class warfare are the same guys who basically hire gunrunners to prosecute the warfare. Good thing they can call their own fouls.

This was a really great essay, Keif. Been throwing around similar concerns in my own head, but nowhere near the same level.

Keifus said...

Ink, I was right there with you until you got to "her religious convictions..."

In Jefferson's time, and especially in Virginia, and notably on TJ's estate, a significant portion of the laboring population was very decidedly not independent farmers, forging their own destiny. The American economy kept an underclass of workers well into the 20th century. Social mobility was a little slow to get realized in practice. Thomas Jefferson made compelling arguments rationality that he failed to apply to at least one group that was literally looking him in the eye. History looks at that quote, and utters a gigantic WTF.

Are we really free of such arrangements? Or do crackers like us just find it easy to overlook? I find it hard to reconcile, as one example, that we have a higher prison population than anyone, and that population is quite a bit darker than me. (Me, I started with expectations from my community as a "good kid" with an innocent face. Got out of some shit with a talking-to. I damn well know it.) It has a lot to do with how crime is defined, and who got to define it. It's bullshit. I guess you'd have to call that a theory. Or a hypothesis.

And if you argue the alternate one, that more black people are in jail because they're more likely to commit crimes, you gotta realize that's pretty much what racism is.

I'm not ready to all-out defend social science as science. I will say that I've read some arguments for classism that I thought were fairly convincing, whereas Murray's approach has some well-argued flaws.

I'm gonna have to leave it at that for now, though.

Keifus said...

er, "arguments for classism" meaning arguments that classism exists, not arguments in favor of it.

David, yeah. One thing that always gets me up the wall is people who fret about class warfare is that they won the game because the rules were in their favor. If we have rules (or accepted customs or whatever), then the shape of the rules is always going to have some effect on the shape of the outcome. And these motherfuckers have always been totally shameless about shaping the rules and trying to convince everyone it's fair. In a way, that's just human (as per my reply to Inkberrow; we all try and universalize our own experience), but with great success comes a great power to bullshit yourself. Ask Dunning and Kruger.

Keifus said...

(English, not so good today. Sorry. Trying to reply as I work.)

Inkberrow said...


My use of "religious convictions" was facetious. For secular progressives, social justice memes and tropes take on the attributes of sacred shibboleths and mantras for public-morality purposes.

Your summary of our history---and our limitations---is accurate as far as I'm qualified to judge. We're nonetheless the most socially mobile and equalitarian society in recorded history.

The crack-versus-cocaine institutional racism argument is a canard. Studies don't control properly for prior criminal history, for firearm possession, or other attendant circumstances.

Blacks indeed are overrepresented in prisons because they are indeed overrepresented in criminality. It's not racist to point out that circumstance, nor that in 2012 it's mainly self-inflicted wounds.

Corrupted, resentment-vending "civil rights" leaders and irresponsible entertainers inculcate in young blacks grudge-filled, entitlement attitudes, and self-centered materialistic attitudes, respectively.

A cynical, callow rejection of education, vocation and other conventional (read: "white") modes of self-improvement sadly constitutes a modern-day badge of black authenticity. Crime follows.

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