Posts tagged ‘Karl Marx’

The Conservatism of Progressives

Despite having a lot of respect for the intellect and the insane eclecticism of its author Tyler Cowen, I have never read the Complacent Class.  The title really did not intrigue me, and frankly from that title probably had the wrong vision of what the book was about.  That is, until I read George Will's recent review, in which he said in part:

In 1800, McCloskey says, the world’s economy was where Bangladesh’s economy now is, with no expectation of change. Today, most of the jobs that existed just a century ago are gone. And we are delighted that this protracted disruption occurred. Now, however, the Great Enrichment is being superseded by the Great Flinch, a recoil against the frictions and uncertainties — the permanent revolution — of economic dynamism. If this continues, the consequences, from increased distributional conflicts to decreased social mobility, are going to be unpleasant.

Although America is said to be — and many Americans are — seething about economic grievances, Tyler Cowen thinks a bigger problem is complacency. In his latest book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Cowen, professor of almost everything (economics, law, literature) at George Mason University and co-author of the Marginal Revolution blog, argues that the complacent class, although a minority, is skillful at entrenching itself in ways detrimental to the majority....

For complacent Americans, a less dynamic, growth-oriented nation seems less like an alarming prospect than a soothing promise of restfulness. In a great testimonial to capitalism’s power, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” Complacent, because comfortable, Americans have had enough of that.

Hmm, I suppose I should read it.  I don't want to judge the premise of the book from a few lines of a 3rd party review, but the themes here are strikingly similar to something I wrote 13 years ago (!) on this blog in a post titled "Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism".  I still agree with much, though not all, of what I wrote there so I will pare it down a bit:

Most "progressives" (meaning those on the left to far left who prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

OK, most of you are looking at this askance - aren't progressives always trying to overthrow the government or something?  Aren't they out starting riots at G7 talks?  The answer is yes, sure, but what motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a deep-seated conservatism.

Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social issues, I call progressives my allies.  On social issues, progressives, like I do, generally support an individual's right to make decisions for themselves, as long as those decisions don't harm others.

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making.  Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don't trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.  Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds.  ... [this would also make a good example:  Progressives oppose school choice because they don't think the poor capable of making good education decisions]

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or...
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful -- as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Don't believe that this is what they would answer?  Well, first, this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys, and it always comes out this way.  Second, just look at any policy issue today.  Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

Capitalism Finally Dismantling Indian Feudalism

This is a great story:

Karl Marx was wrong about many things but right about one thing: the revolutionary way capitalism attacks and destroys feudalism. As I explain in a new study,  in India, the rise of capitalism since the economic reforms of 1991 has also attacked and eroded casteism, a social hierarchy that placed four castes on top with a fifth caste—dalits—like dirt beneath the feet of others. Dalits, once called untouchables, were traditionally denied any livelihood save virtual serfdom to landowners and the filthiest, most disease-ridden tasks, such as cleaning toilets and handling dead humans and animals. Remarkably, the opening up of the Indian economy has enabled dalits to break out of their traditional low occupations and start businesses. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) now boasts over 3,000 millionaire members. This revolution is still in its early stages, but is now unstoppable.

Two-Income "Trap", aka the Government Trap

Todd Zywicki has a nice post on the The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke by Professor Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. 

In his writings on the tactics for engineering the communist state, Karl Marx talked a lot about the need to "proletarianize the middle class."  This has been a very popular tactic among leftish writers and politicians today, attempting to convince the middle class that they never had it so bad.

I won't repeat Zywicki's whole post, but the books author's argument revolve around examples which purport to show that as families go from one to two earners, their costs (health care, child care, cars, mortgage, etc.) go up by more than the additional income, making them poorer on a discretionary spending basis.

Zywicki first points out the same thing I immediately thought of when I read a summary of the book:

It is not clear what to make of all of this, except that it is hard to
see how this confirms the central hypothesis of "The Two-Income Trap"
that "necessary" expenses such as mortgage, car payments, and health
insurance are the primary draing on the modern family's budget. And
again, this unrealistically assumes that all increased spending on
houses and cars is exogenously determined, ignoring the possibility
that an increase in income leads to an endogenous decision by some
households to increase their expenditures on items such as houses and

While the assumption seems crazy, it makes sense in the context of leftish ideology, which holds that the middle class have only limited free will and tend to have their decision making corrupted by advertising and other corporate pressures.

But Zywicki goes further, and actually digs into the author's numbers.  He finds that the authors are surprisingly coy about addressing changes in taxation in their numbers.   Zywicki then uses the authors' own numbers, this time with taxes factored in using the authors' own assumptions, and gets these two charts:


As Zywicki summarizes:

As can readily be seen, expenses for health insurance, mortgage, and automobile, have actually declined
as a percentage of the household budget. Child care is a new expense.
But even this new expenditure is about a quarter less than the increase
in taxes. Moreover, unlike new taxes and the child care expenses
incurred to pay them, increases in the cost of housing and automobiles
are offset by increases in the value of real and personal property as
household assets that are acquired in exchange.

Overall, the typical family in the 2000s pays substantially
more in taxes than in their mortgage, automobile expenses, and health
insurance costs combined.
And the growth in the tax obligation
between the two periods is substantially greater the growth in
mortgage, automobile expenses, and health insurance costs combined. And
note, this is using the data taken directly from Warren and Tiyagi's

Proletarianizing the Middle Class

I have been reading and studying Karl Marx in the last week as a part of a European History course I am taking that focuses on the 19th century.  In the context of Marx, it was interesting reading the NY Times recent article on income inequality (the newspaper is not comfortable unless it has visited this topic at least once every week or so).  You might think that I would latch onto this quote from the Times (HT: TJIC)

The top 0.1 percent of earners"¦ now brings in 11 percent of the
nation's total income, triple the share that they did just a generation

And indeed, I have written on the implied zero-sum fallacy any number of times, including just yesterday.  Implied in this one sentence from the Times is what I call the "bubbling spring" theory of wealth, where wealth and income just sort of magically appear, like a spring out of the ground, and the rich are all those piggy people up front taking more than their fair share of the water.  Of course this is ludicrous, because it implies that if the wealthy made less money, then the poor would make more.  In fact, the reality is that if the wealthy made less money, then the nation's total income would be lower.

But this is not what caught my attention.  What was new to me in my recent study of Marx was his writing on the tactics of socialist revolution.  Specifically, he spent a lot of time talking about the need to "proletarianize the middle class."  He knew that to have a successful socialist revolution, the middle class had to be made to feel marginalized and put upon by the system.  If he had lived long enough, he would have said that socialist revolution failed to occur in countries like Britain because the middle class became too large and too successful.

In this context, then, I found this quote from the Times most interesting:

There is now a big push in both Washington and state capitals to come
up with policies that can alleviate middle-class anxiety.

The author himself editorializes:

There is now a big push in both Washington and state capitals to come
up with policies that can alleviate middle-class anxiety. That's all
for the good. In fact, it is overdue.

What middle class anxiety?  The middle class is doing better than ever, except that there has been a concentrated media campaign by the Times and others, abetted by various politicians on the left, to try to make the middle class feel anxious and marginalized.  To the author's credit, he observes that while "Layoffs seem to happen more frequently than they once did," the actual evidence for increased volatility is really not there:

Only later do you come to the surprising part: there is the same
amount of variability now that there was in the 1980s and 1990s. In
journalism, this is known as burying the lead.

"Intuitively, you would think volatility is increasing," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who along with Senator Jim Webb
of Virginia requested that the study be done. "But it isn't, which I
guess shows that the American economy has always been very flexible."

What the author does not explain is, if the increase in volatility is not real, then why do so many people believe it to be true?  The answer, of course, is that his employer, among others, have been pushing a PR campaign for years to convince the middle class that their lot sucks.  Why?  Well, read your Marx.