The Real Adam Smith: Jesse Norman

A fine article from the UK Financial Times by Conservative MP Jesse Norman:

Capitalism In search of the real Adam Smith
How would the father of modern economics reform 21st-century capitalism?

Jesse Norman
Capitalism in flames, populism and nationalism on the march across Europe, a US president bent on demolishing free trade, a British shadow chancellor calling openly for the overthrow of capitalism itself . . . the 21st century is not going to script.

The market system from which global prosperity has emerged over two centuries is now under attack from all sides, its basic legitimacy assailed from the right by critics of unfair competition and crony capitalism, from the left by campaigners against inequality and “market fundamentalism”.

More than any other, the Scottish political economist and philosopher Adam Smith stands at the centre of this ideological battlefield, while around him clash competing views of economics, markets and societies.

For many on the right of politics, the author of The Wealth of Nations is a founding figure of the modern era: the greatest of all economists; an eloquent advocate of laissez-faire, free markets, the “invisible hand” and the liberty of the individual; and the staunch enemy of state intervention in a world released from the utopian delusions of communism.

For many on the left, Smith is something very different: the true source and origin of “market fundamentalism”, homo economicus and the efficient market hypothesis; the prime mover of a materialist ideology that is sweeping the world and corrupting real sources of human value; an apologist for wealth and inequality and human selfishness — and a misogynist to boot.

Which, then, is the real Adam Smith? In fact, both these views are hopeless caricatures. Smith was not an advocate of laissez-faire; the phrase “invisible hand” occurs just once in The Wealth of Nations; and he did not oppose all state interventions in markets. Indeed, he positively advocates a range of them, from specific forms of taxation to regulation of the banks.

He did not think selfishness was a virtue, and he was not a misogynist; far from originating the idea of “market fundamentalism”, he would have opposed it; and homo economicus and the efficient market hypothesis are later ideas that badly distort Smith’s own views. Industrial capitalism itself, as the combination of freely trading markets and autonomous corporations, is a 19th-century phenomenon, and only emerged two generations after his death.

The real Adam Smith is a vastly wiser and more subtle thinker. He forces us to discard the usual simplistic slogans and tired clichés. But more than this: he still has a vast amount to teach us, not merely about economics and markets and trade, but about the deepest issues of inequality, culture and human society facing us today. Far from attacking Smith, we must turn to him again. For we cannot understand, or address, the problems of the modern world without him.

One thing is clear: Smith is by far the most influential economist who has ever lived. Virtually every great economist of the past two centuries has invoked his name. Every major modern branch of economics, from the so-called neoclassical mainstream to the Austrian and Marxist schools and the more recent offshoots of institutional, developmental and behavioural economics, traces its roots back to Smith.

Meanwhile politicians, academics and pub bores around the world have found the authority of The Wealth of Nations and the simplicity of its core ideas an irresistible combination, and routinely draw on them to dignify and adorn their own beliefs or arguments, however dubious they may be.

The result has been to obscure Smith’s ideas, and to breed myths without number. For Smith is so intellectually fertile, so multi-faceted and so quotable that he offers constant temptations to over-interpretation or outright theft. Indeed, he can be read as anticipating an astonishing range of contemporary events.

One such is the rise of celebrity politics, from the interaction of modern technology with the human disposition to admire the rich and the powerful, and the human capacity for mutual sympathy, both ideas Smith discusses in his less well-known but no less brilliant first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Another is the logic or otherwise of Britain’s departure from the European Union. After all, during the war of independence, Smith argued in relation to the American colonies that Britain faced a clear choice: either to separate entirely from them, or to form an imperial union, in which case sovereignty, and in due course the seat of government itself, would end up slowly being transferred to America.

It is no small irony that Smith himself detested controversy. A man of gentle and retiring disposition, he led a life of academic uneventfulness. Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1723, he went to study first at the university of Glasgow, and then in 1740 at Balliol College, Oxford — which he much disliked. One can understand why, since Balliol at that time was High Church, Tory, factional, costly and Scotophobic; and Smith was Presbyterian, Whiggish, sociable, impecunious and a Scot. It was not a happy combination.

Smith left Oxford in 1746, and after a period at home returned to Glasgow as a professor. In 1764 he embarked on an extended tour of France as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch, before finally taking a position as a Commissioner of Customs for Scotland. Over 40 years he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and very little else.

As to his private views, we know very little. In politics he was broadly Whiggish in his belief in the virtues of constitutional monarchy, religious toleration and personal freedom. But he remained remarkably close-lipped about his own political views throughout his life. He was famously absent-minded, once being so engrossed in conversation that he fell into a tanner’s pit. He never married, and he had no children. As far as we know, there were no secret loves, no hidden vices, no undergraduate pranks, no adult peccadilloes: when it comes to juicy personal detail, Smith’s life is a featureless Sahara.

But if Smith’s life was uneventful, the times he lived in were not; indeed, they were tumultuous. The Union between England and Scotland forged in 1707 was, then as now, a bitterly contested affair. But it proved to be a foundation of modern Scottish nationhood, and it set in motion a transformation that made Scotland one of the tiger economies of the 19th century.

Union opened the way for Scotland to leave feudalism behind and become what Smith calls a “commercial society”, based not on personal subordination but on markets and trade. But that process was by no means preordained. After all, in their quest to reclaim power for the Stuart monarchy, which had been dispossessed in 1688, the Jacobites repeatedly rebelled. In their last and greatest revolt, under Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the Jacobites came within 120 miles of London and might have taken the city had they not been tricked by false English intelligence. If they had succeeded, then — who knows? — the entire political and religious settlement of Britain might have changed.

However, Scotland’s 18th-century transformation was not merely economic; it was cultural and intellectual as well, and it took the country from the edge to the centre of European thought. What is now known as the Scottish Enlightenment included a dazzling array of thinkers in philosophy, the natural sciences, law, history, and literature as well as political economy, social psychology and ethics — a generation comparable to Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Gibbon south of the border.

Smith once described the great philosopher-statesman Burke as “the only man, who, without communication, thought on economic subjects exactly as he did”. But Smith’s closest friend and deepest influence was David Hume, and he and Hume — by any measure one of the greatest philosophers of all time — were at the heart of this remarkable Scottish intellectual transformation. They were an unusual pair. Hume, the older man by 12 years, was worldly, open, witty, full of small talk, banter and piercing aperçus, a lover of whist, a gourmand and a flirt; Smith by contrast was reserved, private, considered and often rather austere in his public manner, although he could unwind in private.

Hume’s ironic wit and humour make him a biographer’s dream. After his History of England proved to be a tremendous critical and popular success, his publisher entreated him for another volume, only to receive the memorable rebuff: “I have four reasons for not writing: I am too old, too fat, too lazy and too rich.”

When at a last dinner before Hume’s death in 1776, Smith complained of the cruelty of the world in taking him from them, Hume said: “No, no. Here am I, who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies; except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.” There are many other such stories.

Hume’s thoroughgoing philosophical scepticism had earned him a notorious reputation as an atheist, so much so that he was turned down for academic positions at both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, to their everlasting later embarrassment. But after Hume’s death, Smith published a warm and loving encomium, which concluded: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” It was a handsome tribute — to his friend, and to the truth.

But it is for his ideas that Adam Smith will be remembered, and it is through his ideas and their impact that Smith lives and breathes today.

At the heart of his thought is a — perhaps the — great Enlightenment project. This is to set out what Hume had described as a “science of man”: to give a unified and general account, just as Newton had done with cosmology, of human life in all its major aspects, derived from a few basic propositions but reaching out to cover philosophy, religion, political economy, jurisprudence and the arts as well as the sciences, even language itself.

Crucially, this science of man was to be based on observation and experience, and not on natural law, divine inspiration or religious dogma.

Smith’s two great published works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, are at first glance very different. The first is about moral psychology, the second about political economy; the first was long ignored, the second is probably the most influential and widely quoted work of social science ever written; and neither is read today even by the vast majority of those who quote them.

But far from being at odds with each other, as some have thought, the two works can be brought together, alongside Smith’s unpublished writings, to provide a unified, incomplete but still astonishingly fertile and modern account of human behaviour.

For Smith, the crucial linking idea is that of the continuous exchange that occurs in all human interaction. This may be the exchange of goods and services in markets. But it can also be the exchange of meanings in language and in other forms of communication. And it can be the exchange of regard or esteem that in Smith’s view underlies the formation of moral and social norms in society.

Each of these ideas is of extraordinary importance in its own right, but together they reveal a very different picture to the caricatures.

First, we need to recognise that The Wealth of Nations is a work of genius not merely because it sets out many of the central intellectual tools of political economy — the division of labour, the idea of market equilibrium, the effects of incentives on behaviour, the benefits of free trade, Smith’s four maxims of taxation, to list just a few — but because Smith is the first person to put markets at the centre of economics itself. Smith is thus the hinge of our economic modernity, just as Burke, with his theory of political parties and representative government, is the hinge of our political modernity.

But, second, markets for Smith are very different to those of economists today. They are not the disembodied mathematical constructs of modern economics and policymaking, and his view of individuals is not that of a desiccated economic atomism. Rather — recalling his insights about language and ethics — markets are living institutions embedded in specific cultures and mediated by social norms and trust. They shape and are shaped by their participants, in a dynamic and evolving way. They often have common features, but they are as different from one another as individual humans are: markets for land and labour and capital, asset markets from product markets and all the innumerable rest of them.

Yes, markets typically generate economic value, and they are unmatched in their ability to allocate goods and services and encourage innovation and technological improvement. But, third, what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.

Fourth, markets constitute a socially constructed and evolving order that exists and must exist not by divine right but because it serves the public good. It follows from this that the modern doctrine of market failure, which derives from academic models assuming perfect competition, needs to be expanded and supplemented. The truth is that outside academic models there are few if any genuinely free markets, and the imagined benefits of perfect markets disappear once any imperfections are allowed. Instead, policymakers need to start by asking two much simpler questions: What is this specific market for? How is it actually working?

Fifth, for the same reason, both individual markets and the market order itself rely on the state. While political intervention can destroy market functioning, it can also enable it. But markets are not inviolable, and they derive their reason for being not from any supposed sanctity of capitalism itself, but from their place within modern commercial society. Ultimately, especially within democracies, it falls to the state to underwrite that legitimacy. And if the preservation of the freedoms, trust and order that make up modern commercial society requires the periodic reform of capitalism, then reform it we must.

This is a complex and nuanced message, as befits our ever more complex world. It is threatening enough to current orthodoxies that many on all sides, libertarian and socialist, will resist it. Properly understood, however, these Smithian ideas remain absolutely fundamental to any attempt to defend, reform or renew the market system. Whether it is the banks, the Big Four accounting firms, the electricity markets, executive pay or the increasing dominance of electronic platforms, 21st-century capitalism offers plenty of targets to a modern Smithian reformer of energy and intent.

But more than this: we live in a time when politics across Europe and the US is being hollowed out by populist ideologies of left and right. Yet the historic alternatives, of war over trade, of religious autocracy, authoritarian communism and nationalism over democracy, or indeed of empty economic materialism over the benefits of commercial society, are not to be contemplated. Smith shows us a way forward — a new narrative through which we can start to reconstruct the centre ground.

Jesse Norman is the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and the author of a biography of Edmund Burke. His book ‘Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters’ is published next month by Allen Lane


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A Long Term Political Strategy for the Democrats

I rabbit on about the Democrats needing to be strategic and no one knows what the hell I am talking about.

As Director Global Labor Strategy for Ford in 1998 I developed a strategy for the next 10 or so years to save Ford on the Labor front. I got moved off the job because it was so short term threatening to the then Labor Relations leadership, who couldn’t do strategy to save their lives and were dolts.

It had three sections: Long term modern operating goals, tools and opportunities.

The first was around what would really make for a competitive set of plants and product development processes to keep Ford in business during good times and bad times. The second was around interest based bargaining and full open book approach to the union: making them understand the economics of the business. The third was using to downturns, plants at risk and new model sourcing to use the tools to achieve the first.

That’s a strategy, joined up thinking, and the three ring binder that I left of the detail of this work, was used over the next ten years by the better Labor Relations folks to help save Ford before and after the 2008 Crash. The useless ones never even referred to it. Must have been Democrats. 

The Democrats need the same. Goals could include using the Fourteenth Amendment to smash gerrymandering and voter suppression; reversing the rise of inequality from a Gini of 35 to 45; regulating Wall Street not to make it a better casino but to make it serve the real economy; creating real value add jobs on a regionally better distributed basis; meeting working people’s interests as a class rather than as fragmented identity politics that the Right has played against us and so on. Tools would be interest based analysis and negotiation, and deep understanding of the demographics and mind set of the electorate. Opportunities would depend on when the Democrats control the Presidency and Congress and States and the tactical skill of those in key positions when this happens and their understanding of and contribution to the long term strategy that would evolve and learn from mistakes.

Oh yes and it would help world wide if Soros or someone funded the creation of new economic thinking to take back university economics departments from the free market loonies. Without that an economic strategy will be shallow and not sustainable.

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The Medium is the Message: Historical Impact of New Technologies

New media are usually haled as a major step in the spreading of enlightenment and knowledge. However:

In 1487 two Dominican Friars Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger published “Malleus Malificarum”, (Hammer of the Witches) the definitive treatise on why someone becomes a witch, how to identify them and what to do with them. Epileptic seizures were one of the sure signs of satanic possession. Malleus Malifarcum arrived just in time to take advantage of mass production of books through the newly invented printing press. Historian Jeffrey Russell: “The swift propagation of the witch hysteria was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin.” The book was widely read and went through more than 30 editions over the subsequent century. Estimates are that from 100,000 to a million women were persecuted, tortured and/or killed in the aftermath

In 1994 in Rwanda the slaughter by Hutus of between 800,000 and one million Tutsi and a 100,000 Hutus who tried to defend them or were associated with them, was triggered by and supported on the government controlled radio (the only source of information in a marginally literate country) that urged the Hutus on to the mass killing “to kill the Cockroaches!” and they did using machetes or burning buildings with people inside, dehumanizing Tutsi’s to enable the slaughter.

So I worry about social media…..

Robert Sapolsky’s fine book “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst” supplied these stories and has much else to throw light on such matters: the neuroscience of good and evil in effect.

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Twelve Rules for Life as an Alternative to Jordan Peterson’s

 Conservative Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson (1962-) is currently all the rage, especially, apparently among resentful young men. I don’t know any of the latter so I will take peoples’ word for it. His You Tube talks have gone viral to millions. And he has clearly struck a chord, though the Financial Times article on him put it well: the hunger for his insights, possibly says something negative about the quality of parenting his fans received. Much of what he says that is useful should not need saying. I guess my parenting was pretty good. 🙂

He has been accused of many violations of political correctness, and intelligent challenging orthodoxies is fine with me. But he is also a stalwart defender of hierarchy, pushes back against the Women’s Movement and somehow sees its drive for gender equality as leading to Pol Pot and mass killings, a link that eludes me. And he seems to see inequality of whatever level as something natural and not a problem. He should try some time in the favelas of Brazil.

I could have contested his views point counter point, or like too many on the left simply denounced  him. I could even select out some things I agree with him about. Like young men need to get their shit together, though we disagree strongly about what this means, I suspect. Instead, more positively and not being an armchair critic, I thought I should simply develop an alternative set of rules to contrast to or merely be different from his rules. My rules, like his rules he says, are based on decades of mentoring, in my case of the young and not so young in business up to executive level, in the US military, and in personal life and PhDs in process. I don’t really know the demographics of his mentees.

His rules and the link to the Wikipedia article on him (which I think reasonably balanced but I may be mistaken) are below my rules

Creative Conflict Wisdom’s Alternative Rules for Life

  1. Know yourself and get a realistic (not too high, not too low) evidence-based, reality tested sense of self and self-esteem, seeking input from others you trust. Avoid crazy makers who sap your self-esteem, or invoke your demons to play you.
  2. Trust, but verify. Through experience, in effect, give people you know credit ratings, as to whom to trust in what circumstances, but revise them in the light of further experience. They may grow up or regress. As for yourself: try to say what you do and do what you say.
  3. Try to figure out your life path and where you are on it: when lost ask the way or look for a map, but don’t inhale guru wisdom without question, as the lost are very vulnerable to this. Gurus always have their own agendas.
  4. Know your own boundaries and make sure others respect them and you respect theirs, but remember we are a social species and group dynamics are critically important. And in paying attention to this, be in touch with your own feelings and thus potentially with the feelings of others.
  5. Treat people with respect and as equal, recognizing cognitive differences among all people and responding to individuals not stereotypes. Recognize perhaps especially the current ascent of women as prejudices are reduced, and they move into the military in combat, and into new fields like technology where they are under-represented for mainly historical reasons. Don’t be threatened by this or deny it is going on for perfectly legitimate reasons. We are not exactly rich in talent and should seek it wherever it is.
  6. Realize that while hierarchies may be somewhat inevitable, their gradient, the abuse they allow, the incompetence on the part of authorities they hide, and indeed their positive contribution, vary enormously. None of this is inevitable: hierarchies are human creations, improvable, and challengeable and should be constantly challenged to keep them healthy and fit for purpose.
  7. Beware of ideologies that justify existing hierarchies and inequality; real talent based differences do not need justifying or ossifying, nor necessarily need disproportionate rewards. Be suspicious of those who claim any move towards reducing inequality or prejudice leads straight to the Gulag or Pol Pot. The best social structures are fluid and allow talent to rise and incompetents to be removed/improved.
  8. Become a good team player. Most work done in creating value in the modern economy, in science, in the military and other organizations is done in teams not by lone wolves, so learn to thrive in teams and to be invited to join them, so the teams can thrive. None of humanity’s current major complex problems are likely to be solved by lone effort or lone heroes, but you can do your bit.
  9. Follow the Golden Rule where possible: treat others as you would be treated, or even better as they would be treated. When in doubt about this, ask them. But defend or retaliate proportionately (not disproportionately) when attacked.
  10. If you wait to set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world, you will never achieve anything worthwhile. Experiment, improvise and learn from your mistakes with humility and curiosity.
  11. Listen and observe, and enquire and reflect, if you want to learn and especially if you want to learn from all of your mistakes which require noticing them too. Take responsibility rather than blaming others for your shortfalls. He/she not busy being born is busy dying (Bob Dylan).
  12.  If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him aka the Tao that can be told is not the true Tao (Lao Tse) . Don’t trust orthodoxies, sets of twelve or whatever number of rules for life that claim to have it nailed, including this one. Use them for insights, for challenging, and then to build your own that work for you, and kick away the ladder of someone else’s twelve rules. Everyone’s set of rules reflects to some extent their values and interests, not necessarily yours. This set reflects mine, but hopefully helps some if only to contest.

Jordan’s 12 Rules are below:  they are more succinct, but then he has a whole book “Twelve Rules for Life” to expand on them: mine just stand alone. I don’t actually object to any of these as such, except #6, which I think ludicrous: fine to say fix the log in your own eye before pointing out the mote in some else’s as St Matthew put it, but perfect order: give me a break. As for the rest, #3 and #5 seem a bit iffy, and I know some talented slouchers for #1 exception; but it’s more his elaboration of them, but that’s a whole other subject.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson Lecture (33522701146).png





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Nothing Can Happen Because of Israel?

Well I guess I post controversial views, happy for them to be contested. I think what Israel is doing in Gaza is appalling. But I add an economic historical perspective (as that was once my field of study) to the middle east.

Israel is even with the West Bank 10,500 square miles out of the total Middle East of 3.5 million square miles or 0.3%. Yet it has been used as the excuse for poor government and poor economic management by most of the regimes in the region at one time or another as a diversion for political discontent. None of these countries have actually emulated Israeli industry or agriculture, and all the countries are basket cases economically, either dependent on rentier oil extraction using foreign labor and techies, or dependent on hand outs from the oil rich countries to fight dumb wars. And Turkey on the edge of the region which has done something to build a modern industrial state is retreating down the fundy path.

This is not an excuse for Israel, but a suggestion that the people and governments, the elites of the middle east would do well to focus on building modern industrial states. To do this they need (based on the experience of Asian Tigers) to emancipate women and educate them, improve their education systems and divide up the land and income streams from oil in ways that encourage value add activity. Invest in solar power, factories, and improved agriculture.

The middle east has almost unlimited local capital to invest. It sits near Europe one of the richest markets in the world. It has the feedstock for chemical industries. And it has some real talent like the Palestinians who are spread across the world rather than building businesses in the West Bank or elsewhere. Look at Iran or Iraq or Egypt: where is there equivalent of the Asian Tiger plan to become real economies? And strong economies would be much better balance for dealing with Israel as equals rather than as militarized or fundy states.

Or am I mistaken and no progress is possible these last 70 years since Israel was founded and because Israel exists so nothing can happen? And Sunnis and Shias staging a War of Religion to rival Europe in the 17th century is no doubt also Israel’s fault?

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Society, Individual/Group Behavior and Private Property

I have recently been in some on-line debates on the above issue and thought the dialogue in one of them on the Real World Economics site worth posting:

Part of the Comment I was responding to:

While there may be phenomena which occur at the group level that exceed individual intentions and do not reduce to individual actions, such phenomena are not in themselves intentional, premeditated or rational.

My response:

Most individual actions are, research suggests, unconscious and not rational and even conscious ones in my experience are often perhaps mainly irrational: habitual, biased, self defeating, contrary to stated goals etc. Indeed much of individual behavior (I am in the conflict business) is indeed almost completely self defeating aka not linked to stated goal seeking. And my experience of organizations suggests that there are group intentional phenomena of enormous significance, that are unintelligible through the lens of atomistic individualism. Group think, organizational norms etc. Most people are not exactly existentialist freedom actors. They are members of herds with much social contagion. Indeed if they were not swarmy business and markets would find it hard to function. Semi-intelligent swarms is what I have seen.

There are psychological experiments on measuring a stick that show how malleable most of us are to group pressure. Which is not surprising given how much of our evolution was in hunter gatherer bands where cooperation was essential to survival and selfish behavior that you didn’t conceal, likely to get you killed or banished which was about the same. Inuit when asked if they had sociopaths apparently replied that they did but they tended to fall off the ice quite young.

And on the subject of private property some observations: 1) There was no private property before about 10,000 years ago: hunter gatherers have only a little: portable tools, weapons and minor food store owned by the band 2) For most of the last 10,000 years very few people had any private property: most lived in systems that were feudal, tribal, kingdoms, or anarchy with little private property and often no rule of law to make it stable if they had any 3) even today probably billions of people have no net private property: their debts > value of property 4) In most countries a fair % of property is state/collectively owned: Singapore I recall 80% of its land area is owned by the state and the figure is 28% in the US. Hard to imagine a society with only private property: I can’t recall one in history but open to correction.

So private property as a large scale phenomena is a century or so old. Probably too early to say how it is working out. I guess we will see how long our civilization lasts and whether private property and its externalities bring it down or help it thrive. Whether it morphs into something else or reverts to some previous state or whether it stays exactly the same: not many people having much of it. I lean morph into something else a little different, a little more constrained by societal needs or civilization collapses. But no crystal ball here. Just scenario based futuring I suppose a la Peter Schwartz.

And a footnote more widely addressed given this reply. I am also a little disappointed that in Real World Economics there is so little attention paid to economic history (I am an economic historian by training though I spent my career in business) and when there is, it is not much on the longue duree; but very recent times as the only thing of interest, though actually much of the economics profession attention span doesn’t seem even include 2008. It lives like good Zen Buddhists in the free market fundamentalist present: now and now and now. 🙂

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Beware What You Ask For: Peter Radford

Brilliant article in Real World Economics by Peter Radford on the current plutocratic mess:

This has been a long and miserable time. Deluged daily by strange and almost surrealistic gyrations in Washington I decided to sit to one side and simply watch. The spectacle of America rapidly decaying and apparently unable to prevent itself from gnawing away at its institutions is compelling. The regular attempts to undermine the credibility of everything meant to act as a bastion against tyranny is riveting. The subsequent indulgence in endless introspection about how dire our political collapse is equally absorbing.

Why add to the malaise by commenting?

It’s all out there.

A great nation turned against itself, locked in polarized paralysis it drifts buffeted by the incessant whimsy of its current leadership. That denigrates the word leadership, so I refer only to the titular head of state. He is a misogynist, a racist, a child, and an imbecile.

But he is president.

And the right wing side of our political class has gathered itself around him, disregarding his manifest faults and incompetence, in order to eke out a few long-held ideologically driven policy wins. I hope they reflect on the stain they will for ever carry, and that they are able to regard that stain as being worthwhile when set against those policy wins. 

The left wing of our politics has wandered off somewhere. Apart from one of two who try to carry forward the vision of a fair society based upon the elimination of class based privilege, the rest have disappeared into various forms of narrow minded grievance driven advocacy. They have no grand statement to make about America and its aspirations, they are content to stay small and hide behind one identity or another. This, by definition, is an exclusionary approach despite their protestations to the contrary. It is an orgy of blame-laying and recrimination that will, ultimately, simply splinter America even more than it already is.

There is no center of gravity, no central coalition, no recourse for compromise. There is them, there is us, and a chasm in between.

Yes, I am exaggerating, but this is the way it feels.

And, I think, this unraveling was inevitable.

It began decades ago under Reagan when he launched his campaign in the deep south to summon up the latent racist demons that still motivate white voters in those parts. Why did he do that? Cynical vote grabbing. Why would a Republican from California not announce his campaign in his home state? Why provoke by going to the epicenter of segregation and racism?

To win votes. To encourage the tide turned by Nixon with that same exercise to keep on rolling.

We live with the consequence today: the extraordinary homogeneity of the southern states aligned strongly with the Republicans acts as a bulwark against social progress. Indeed it encourages social regression.

Meanwhile the cities and the coasts tilt ever more towards the Democrats. Why? Because the steady social and demographic change taking place there is played to by the identity policies of grievance. Plus, and leftists everywhere need to confront this, globalization and automation have thrown off great benefits to the educated class that now dominates the policy thought of the left. It is little wonder that the Democrats lost ground in the old industrial states, they have no empathy for the decline of industry. They live in the thrall of the wonders of hi-tech. They have become oblivious to the hardships of technological change.

The entire nation appears unable to enter into conversation about how to deal with change. Especially technological change.

I am tired of being told that our workforce suffers from a “skills deficit” and that ever more education is the solution to the apparent bleakness of the substitution of ignorant labor by clever capital. How, pray tell, is a midlife worker with a family, home, and lifestyle to maintain to take time off for, or afford, his or her continuing education? Especially given that our centers of education are so resistant to technological change and productivity improvement that they are increasingly expensive. And, especially given that the dominant stream in policy making nowadays is adamantly opposed to state driven solutions to anything, let alone the provision of adult education.

Those who glibly ply education as the solution to the problem created by the technologists — they are generally technologists also — utterly miss the point. Education is massively time consuming and expensive. Who will pay for it in future, surely not taxpayers?

Which raises the tax reform bill.

It was totally unnecessary. The economy is chugging along well. We do not have an issue of wealth creation. We have an issue of wealth distribution. The answer from the right is to overheat the economy in the hope that some crumbs might fall to the working people integral in the creation of that wealth. The answer from the left is … well apart from the one or two carrying the old fashioned torch for workers, the answer is to indulge in grievance driven identity politics.

Gun control is another sure sign of the weakness of America. The pathetic response to each and every massacre is to offer “prayers”, which by all available empirical evidence are worth absolutely nothing, and then to capitulate to the insane zealotry of the National Rifle Association, whose paranoia is a classic example of extremism run amok. There is no reason to hope that America will solve its gun addiction. It will tinker with a few very peripheral laws and then claim victory. Until the next massacre, whereupon it will offer up copious prayers.

All this malaise, the decline, the polarization, and the ineptitude of the current administration compiles into a single story: the inability of the nation’s elite to identify and keep pace with the social ramifications of its own advocacy of change.

On one side the elite lauds change and the enormous efficiencies we reap from new technologies; on the other it resists building the state driven institutions to mitigate the social costs of that change. Its inability to conceive of and then execute a sensible health care policy is a classic example of this dereliction.

Despite all this I am emerging optimistic.

Our decline could be temporary and simply the result of the current regimes total incapacity.

But there are preconditions for renewal.

One is that the old policy center, the failed suite of ideas that led to the decline, must be replaced.

Second is that new leadership has to emerge on both sides of the political divide.The continued domination of the left by the aging cohort that came of age under Clinton and who thus are to blame for the demise of left wing politics is absurd. And on the right there is a crying need for someone who can advocate conservatism without falling immediately into some dystopian hatred of the state. None of the younger faces who were rolled over by Trump are worthy of future consideration, although I expect them all to be on parade in 2024.

Third is that the ironclad grip on policy of corporations and wealthy individuals must be broken. Until then we cannot have democratic policy making on behalf of most Americans.

This last is the most difficult to imagine coming into being. Contemporary America is a haven for plutocrats. They are over-represented in politics. They are coddled by the Supreme Court. They are pandered to by politicians. Why would they surrender their grip on power?

Perhaps, and this is probably me dreaming, they will realize that self interest requires them to relinquish some power.

Take, for example, the current pressure being heaped on big business to disassociate itself from the NRA. As companies play and ever increasing role in setting the shape and form of society, displacing along the way our moribund government institutions, and as they thus sieze political power, they become targets for democratic feedback. They expose their decisions to public scrutiny and resistance. They can no longer simply hand over large sums of money to buy off politicians. They can no longer simply encourage the debasement and corruption that such money produces. Now they are on the political front lines.

This is an irony of plutocracy and corporatism.

Instead of being background actors, big corporations are now recognized for what they are: policy makers. They cannot be voted out of power, so they are beyond the reach of democratic control. But their profits are vulnerable.  They can be made accountable through the bottom line.

Economists have long misundertood the duality implied by this. They have long argued that consumers are exquisitely rational in their economic actions, but are extraordinarily inept in their political actions — markets are efficient because of the former, governments are inefficient and self-dealing as a result of the latter. Economists thus imagine consumers and voters to be two separate and discrete groups. The one paragons of enlightened calculation, the other steeped in ignorance and backwardness. We all suffer, according to economists, from some peculiar split personality disorder.

Yet the willingness of voters-as-consumers to identify corporations as the center of policy and consequently the targets of democratic pressure belies the split personality argument. Consumers have realized their power. They can vote through consumption patterns. This recognition of the reality of our political center of gravity is a source of encouragement and optimism.

Big business through its corruption of politics, through its money support of politicians, and through its willingness to seize power to bend policy in its self interest, has been recognized for what it is by voters. It has become the de facto responsible party for the shape, tone, and success of society. The successful engulfing of society by the market puts market actors in the political hot seat. Thus the continual struggle between capitalism and democracy has moved out of the old and increasingly irrelevant political forum and back where it started: in the workplace and in the marketplace.

Corporate management was too clever by half. Now it must wonder what it asked for.

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