Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Economic Left: Irrational Bigots?

[See here for context re: this blog entry's headline title.]

It's no secret that left-liberals fancy themselves more intellectual, more informed, more enlightened, etc. than the population at large. Just look at the makeup of university faculties, after all. The people who spend the most time thinking about things just have this inevitable tendency to lean "left." (The illustrious thinker, Robert Nozick, thinks through why this is, and comes up with a fine explanation: there are plenty of thinkers out there who are also doers, namely, business-creators. You'd be hard-pressed to find Marxists teaching at business schools or running Fortune 500 companies. That requires a kind of smarts and skill-set that Marxists and the rest of their left-wing academic ilk either don't possess or don't much approve of. [I take an example like George Soros to be roughly like a Glenn Greenwaldian "voice of conscience" with extreme financial smarts. An example like Warren Buffett, I don't think would really reflect the left-ward bent in the academic humanities. You'd have to look to the economics departments to get a much closer match.] Of course, to be fair, it does cut both ways; I don't much admire, say, Wall Street philistines who are conspicuously out of touch with the more plausible grievances of the "Occupy" movement, or - put more generally - those who've allowed their own circumstances to bias them and blind them to certain realities.)

I just bracketed-parenthetically mentioned the economics departments. There, you don't see much of a left-ward bent at all; it's a very pragmatic - which is to say, quite centrist - profession. Several Nobel Laureates come from the "right." Many economists are out in the business world. There's this old adage, "those who can't do, teach." According to that adage, the ones who don't go out into the business world, can't do. Teaching is a kind of doing, though, and the adage over-generalizes anyway; it's intended to be partly humorous. But there is a ring of truth to it as well, because it applies to at least some academics - and if employment out in "the real world" is any indication of this, the hard sciences have the greatest number of "doers," the social sciences presumably less so (with economics among the social sciences boldly standing out as the least left-wing), and the humanities presumably even less so. I don't know the percentages, but it just intuitively rings true and Nozick's explanation makes plenty of sense.

This is all preface to the following observation: left-wing teachings when it comes to economic matters tend to be toxic. There's quite a lot of it that not even "mainstream liberals" in the economics profession would endorse. But certain memes get out there among left-wing thinkers and the connection between these memes and (a responsible reading of) the facts is tenuous. Now, take your typical liberal college student, place him or her in a large online social gathering to partake in meme-spreading, and what do you get? The politics site. (I count this site as among my daily reads among several others, including the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.) This site is particularly a breeding-ground for "Occupy"-movement memes. The thing with the "Occupy" movement is there are some worthwhile or semi-worthwhile memes all mixed-up with some really toxic ones. I'd like to focus on a very toxic meme in particular, one based on shady numbers, having to do with wealth and income inequality.

The very Marx-inspired narrative feeding this toxic meme is one of continuous impoverishment and immiseration of "the working classes" and, seemingly, of ever-widening inequality, absent the democratically-controlled state stepping in to correct the problem. "Democracy before capitalism" is the basic political ethic going on here. Democracy, properly practiced, will work in the best interests of the People, while capitalism tends to devolve into plutocracy.

We've been bitten once already by Marx's prediction of the collapse of capitalism. (How many times do we need to be bitten before we figure out the real problem here?) Needing some theoretical modifications and looking for some semblance of intellectual leadership, the left these days has latched onto (most prominently) Noam Chomsky. While Chomsky is brilliant and authoritative on many things, and serves as a voice of conscience in the face of American wrong-doings and double-standards, that doesn't mean he's got his economic narrative correct. But he's a darling of the left in any event, and his pronouncements are treated accordingly. Taking his lead, the Economic Left - and its representative end-result on the politics reddit - filters and interprets economic data to fit its narrative-worldview.

Now, to throw a wrench into that whole inequality/immiseration narrative.

(I mean, shouldn't they have known better? Shouldn't they have seen this coming? Shouldn't they have been more objective and fact-oriented?)

Here it is:

(Clickable link in the image. To play the academic-credentialism game: the article is written by Maxim Pinkovskiy, Department of Economics, MIT, and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, Professor of Economics, Columbia University.)

The really "weird" (read: "counter-intuitive," with special emphasis on the scare qoutes) part about this is that world-scale inequality has fallen as globalization has expanded, and this fall has accelerated after 1990, i.e., after the fall of Communism and after NAFTA and GATT.

Now, why aren't international data on inequality in wealth and income ever cited by the Occupy crowd and their academic enablers? Is it because they're unaware of it? Is it because they've ignored it? Do they consider it irrelevant? Do they consider the data flawed? What might account for the Economic Left's failure to address the most comprehensive and global data set available?

The favorite data of the Economic Left concern wealth and inequality here in the United States, which by all indications is increasing. There seems at least to be an awareness that globalization has something to do with it: many lower-skilled and manufacturing jobs have gone oversees. There's also the effects of illegal immigration taking American jerbs, though that's more of a right-wing meme. While the rich Americans retain residence here, their capital goes more and more abroad, they get the returns from that while the middle-class and poor do not, hence the widening income and wealth gap among Americans.

Left out of the intra-American discussions about the growing wealth and income gap is the effect of globalization on global wealth and income inequalities. It's probably of little consolation to Americans that their now-outsourced jobs improve the quality of lives of foreign workers, but it is nonetheless a fact that needs to be taken into account if we're to build a narrative, correct? If the narrative is "widening inequality in wealth and income," then you'd need to have the data to back that up, right? Some philosopher-level amount of intellectual curiosity should lead people to seek out and consider global data and not just data about Americans, yes?

From the way Chomsky and the reddit-hive-mind tell it, the multinational corporations, seeking Profit over People, ship the jobs oversees where people are exploitatively paid 15 cents an hour, pretty much a deadweight loss for all concerned except for the Evil Corporations/Stockholders. From the way they tell it, you'd expect inequality and immiseration on the world scale to be exacerbated by these turns of events. I mean, isn't that what capitalism without democratic intervention, is all about? That is, after all, the very narrative they push about the American historical experience prior to the New Deal. (Presumably, so the narrative goes, it's what's supposed to happen in any industrially-developing nation.) I strongly suspect we've already been bitten there, too.

The reality of the matter is that while many Americans have it tough and things might well get even worse in the future for them, a global-scale perspective will shed light on the reality of the matter: there are some billions of people around the world who are dirt poor, by American standards, willing to work for improved wages but still dirt cheap, by American standards. If enlightened cosmopolitanism and altruism are supposed to be our motives, we should be welcoming these developments. There seems to be something quite toxic here at work, though: a rejection of economic reality, a rejection driven by fear, envy, prejudice, what have you. Much the same as what happens on the Right when it comes to the Right's pet anti-reality issues.

That being said, there is something to the "Occupy" narrative that all pro-reality people should acknowledge: our government is bought by moneyed interests, and is corrupted accordingly. The People have a large part in letting this happen by electing unenlightened and cynical representatives. So, e.g., while budgetary reality says that deficit reduction will require (in part) raising taxes on the only people who have the money these days, the political reality is the insanity that this isn't even on the table at present (due to the Republicans, who have their own anti-reality narratives on fiscal matters. I.e., supply-side tax cuts make a lot more fiscal and economic sense when marginal tax rates are 70% than when they're in the 30s; and the deceptive "only 50 percent of the people pay taxes" meme should have been dead long ago).

A pox on both of their houses.

[ADDENDUM: A case in point of shady numbers, even applied to the "global" scale. ("On Monday the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a massive 400-page report surveying the state of inequality around the world. The report, United We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising reaffirms that inequality is now rising not just in the United States, but globally." Bold emphasis mine.) The study in this case involves the 34 OECD member countries - which doesn't include China or India (which make up more than a third of the world population) much less more than a hundred other nations. How exactly is that "global"?]