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Trumpian Motion

The press has taken to bemoaning the speed of the news cycle, as in this Washington Post story. Harpers Magazine sends a weekly email listing some of the previous week’s craziness before it falls down the memory hole. The constant uproar in our media environment over every little thing reminds me of Brownian Motion. This is from the Wikipedia entry:

Brownian motion … is the random motion of particles suspended in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) resulting from their collision with the fast-moving molecules in the fluid. Fn. omitted.

Think of a grain of pollen in a drop of water on a microscope slide. When you look through the lenses, you can see it move around randomly as the molecules of water bang into it; at least that’s what Einstein said. If there is an external force, the particle moves gradually in accordance with that force. Imagine that the particle is iron and that there is a magnet near one end of the drop of water.

The analogy I see is that we swim in a pool of media water, being bounced around randomly by whatever we click on or see in our news feed, crashing from one stupid to another outrage. The water particles aren’t organized either. Each one acts under forces it can’t completely understand, and often with no purpose other than to slam into us pollens. Then there are the people aggresssively trying to influence us. Think of them as the magnets. The forces are all unseen and to the pollen undetectable. The clamor is deafening. Thought is inconceivable. Understanding is impossible.

That’s part of the reason I’ve been reading and writing here about old books by French and German writers. They were trained in a different time, under different scholarly imperatives. Unlike so many of us, they weren’t trained to get a job; their training was specifically directed at creating at least a few people to study society as objectively as possible. They were all raised in intellectual traditions, including Marxism, but they proved capable of seeing the problems of their own training as clearly as any other problem, and of advancing human understanding. And since Arendt and the members of the Frankfurt School were directly affected by the rise of totalitarianism, they too faced horrifying societal conditions. Foucault and Bourdieu came later but were raised in a similar tradition, in which the intellectual life was valued, and the effort to understand society and history were valued.

I personally feel battered by the media environment. I don’t watch cable news or tv news at all, but even the Twitter is so confounding that some days it’s hard to concentrate on my reading. So, I’m going to write a short series trying to use the ideas I’ve picked up from my reading to provide a sort of grounding, a context, a historical analogy, a comparison to the times observed by some smart people. I’ve tried to do a bit of this in my posts on these old books, so this isn’t new, it’s just a bit more direct. I will start with Hannah Arendt, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3 on Totalitarianism.

We are told that the Republicans are a movement, and we know they are ideologically driven. The ideology is neoliberalism. The most important principle of neoliberalism is that markets know best, and if let alone that Invisible Hand will drive the human race to perfection. Any interference in the workings of the market will only make things worse. The market is the most marvelous information processor imaginable. No human or group of humans can hope to match its deliberations. Therefore, no human interference with the workings of the markets is permissible, including especially concerted action through government. The market will always work for the best interests of all of us.

Arendt doesn’t think much of ideologies.

Ideologies [are] -isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurence by deducing it from a single premise….

… The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same “law” as the logical exposition of its “idea.” Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process—the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future—because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas. P. 468-9.

Ideologies work by the process of logic, the deductive working out of the idea behind the ideology. The ideologies Arendt is discussing, the Marxist idea of the progress of history, and the Nazi idea of racial purity, both have an inherent motion, from the past to the present and on into the future, all driven by a deductive logic. The same is true of neoliberalism. The state of the market at one point in time and the actions taken at that moment create the next state of the market, and on and on like a clock stepping forward.

In Arendt’s description of the rise of totalitarianism, the primary tool of the leaders is terror, a gradually increasing level of fear of armed force, first under the guise of law, and then without any pretense of legal justification. The analogy in the case of neoliberalism is also fear, not of armed force, but of immigrants, or of losing jobs, or that lack of cash will mean death from the money-centric health care system or outright starvation, or of a loss of status that might lead to those terrifying outcomes.

That kind of fear doesn’t work on everyone, but it works on enough people to set a swarm in motion. Suddenly a large group of people are moving almost in lockstep. The racket, the noise, the movement, all draw the attention of the media, and of everyone else through their ceaseless yammering. and the weak-minded hangers-on join in. The goal of the leaders, the Republicans, is to get that mindless crowd in motion. It is the movement itself that they seek, because once in motion, the masses can be led wherever the leaders want them to go. The constant injection of new and more terrifying fears increases the movement; faster and faster, until the very notion of thought disappears in a whirlwind of brainless and frightening activity.

Even if you don’t want to pay attention, the threatening noise and action are everywhere. They’re driving people nuts. That’s what the Republicans want.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

Symbolic Violence In Neoliberalism

This post describes the term symbolic violence as used by Pierre Bourdieu as “… the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms.“ This means that some people have the ability to impose their own preferred ideology on the rest of us. We can think of ideology as a discourse or as a structure like myth or religion. This all seems abstract, so I’ll try to put it in terms of our own society by looking at the rise to dominance of neoliberalism.

By the 1960s working people as a group had achieved a measure of power in the economy. Most white men could find decent jobs with benefits and live a decent middle class life, and some women and people of color could too. And the arc of justice seemed to be bending towards the latter two groups.

But it all ebbed away, as neoliberalism rose to dominance. In Bourdieu’s terms, neoliberalism is a symbolic structure. Like myth or religion, it offers a way to comprehend society, the way the way the economy works, and one’s place in society. It is a denied structure, in that most of the people who are guided by it do not even admit it exists, or that there is any other way to understand society. Because it is a denied structure, both the dominant and the dominated accept its premises and its results without question.

Symbolic systems do not spring into existence. They are the result of a great deal of work by people Bourdieu calls cultural producers. This group includes artists, writers, teachers, and journalists, according to David Swartz in in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, p. 94. It also includes experts in various fields, such as economists and lawyers. The first neoliberal producers organized the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, led by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose terror of socialism and Keynesianism was the driving force. Over the next years, money flowed to the Society and more importantly to its members to fund research and publicity for “free-market” ideas and to the institutions at which they worked. Members used their fund-raising prowess to expand the groups of scholars working out the implications of their free-market ideas and making them more palatable.

In Bouridieu’s terms, these efforts constitute symbolic work, work done to elaborate a symbolic structure. These specialists accumulate economic capital in the form of wages and salaries, and income from books and speeches and otherwise. In Bourdieu’s terms that constitutes an interest. But it is not the only interest driving them.

Bourdieu says besides economic capital people struggle for social and cultural capital in their fields of work. For the economists, that comes in the form of recognition in the field, maybe the John Bates Clark medal, or a good slot at a meeting of the American Economic Association, or publication in a respected journal, or an interesting short-term position at the Fed. This conflict takes place in the field of economics, which has its own informal rules about how the work is to be done and the definition of acceptable areas of discussion and research.

In order to engage in that struggle, young economists must learn the rules of struggle, and learn the specific practices and skills considered necessary to participate. That includes college-level math and statistics, techniques of data-gathering and analysis, and a good understanding of the personalities in their training environment. Over time, aspiring economists develop a personal habitus that helps them succeed. This habitus interacts with the various obstacles and structures in the economic field, and that produces the actions they take, such as the specific research projects and the papers they write and the donors they suck up to. In this way, young economists accumulate the cultural and social capital they need to thrive in their field. Then they can use that capital to accumulate economic capital.

As economics became math-oriented and more controlled by theories of human nature as pleasure-optmizing and pain-avoiding calculating machines, more young economists became inculcated with its practices, and their evolving habitus enabled them to win struggles for cultural and social capital in the economic field. They took over as the initial generation died out. Neoliberal economists became the dominant group. Most politicians followed their lead. Hard-core neoliberal economists sound like Paul Ryan; while many others followed softer lines like “market-based solutions”. The relatively few economists who totally rejected neoliberalism were ignored in the profession and among politicians. And this is central to symbolic violence: the ability to control the bounds of acceptable discussion. Swartz, p. 89.

Rich people, then, did not create the neoliberal structure, a form of symbolic capital. That was the work done by a group Bourdieu calls cultural producers, which includes the economists, other teachers, journalists and PR people, writers, politicians, and journalists. The rich supported those people and encouraged the institutions in which they work through donations, their institutional positions, and in other ways. The rich benefit from their support because the neoliberal symbolic structure rewards them directly and indirectly.

But the best part is that both the cultural producers and the beneficiaries have deniability. Neither group has to take any responsibility for their actions; neither can be held accountable for the damage done by their theories. For example, the economists say they are just following the logic of their field and pursuing knowledge. Journalists say they are repeating what everybody knows. The rich say they are just following the course laid out by the intellectuals and geniuses at great universities and think tanks.

This article in Jacobin is a field study of neoliberal teaching. The anonymous writer joined a job club in Austin for unemployed middle-aged tech workers.

Each week, guest speakers shower the jobless not just with interview advice, but with a fully formed ideology that radically individualizes and normalizes their experience. Every Friday, speakers help douse what could be a tinderbox of collective resistance with a rhetorical fire extinguisher.

But what good is individual resistance? These people need decent jobs, and they can’t find them. Hostility and resentment aren’t going to help them. They are stuck in the neoliberal structure and have no way out, at least in the short term. The system demands acceptance as the price of a life.

Bourdieu uses the term “symbolic violence”, but this is actual psychic violence. It calls for a radical change in the nature of the person, changes that make one less of an agent in one’s life and more of a tool for others. Only the dominant have true agency in the neoliberal structure.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4C Conclusion

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.
Part 4B.

It’s fairly easy to criticize neoliberalism from the inside, just based on its incoherence and its failure to deliver good outcomes to most of us. The Barkai Paper discussed in parts 3A and 3A, and the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers make it obvious that the benefits of neoliberalism flow to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, whose wages are largely stagnant and have been for decades, and whose share of overall wealth has fallen.

Neoliberalism can also be criticized from the outside as a form of capitalism, and that seems to me to be more revealing. The constricted logic of capitalism leads directly to domination by the few in business and society generally. The logic that pushes towards dominance is the result of the nature of reason as it has evolved since the Enlightenment. I’ve discussed similar descriptions of the drive to domination in Polanyi, Arendt and to a lesser extent Veblen; click name above to visit my author page. My recent discussions of these points based on my first readings in Critical Theory can be found here, here, and here.

The members of the Frankfurt School were trained in classical German thought, including Hegel, Kant, and Marx. Initially they accepted Marx’ theory of an inherent contradiction in capitalism: that the rich would accumulate all the money and impoverish the workers, who would rise up and lead the revolution. That didn’t happen. Instead, the drive to domination was restrained by legislation. The majority’s insistence on restraints was so strong that the Supreme Court, that playground of the elites, was forced to allow the legislation to stand. But the scholars of the Frankfurt School knew that the drive to domination didn’t disappear. Today it’s just as strong as it was in the late 19th Century.

The natural logic of capitalism is gigantism. Marx said that in unrestrained capital, smaller businesses will be swallowed up by larger businesses, and he was right, as we see today. Organizations with massive capital wield enormous power, and can easily take over control of a society. We see the beginnings of all this today. There is a long tradition in the US of distrust of large piles of money and the people who control them, a sentiment that drove the progressive movement of the late 19th Century. That doesn’t disappear accidentally. It requires an external force to change it. I wouldn’t say it has disappeared today, but far too many of us have lost that natural distrust.

Somehow many people think billionaires as just like the rest of us. They aren’t, and the vulgar braggart in the White House is a perfect exemplar. But far too many of us are willing to accept rule by the rich. One of the central influences that led to this sorry situation is the Law and Economics movement, with its single-minded focus on economic efficiency. Economic efficiency: who could object that? Of course we should be efficient.

Once courts decided that the most important part of justice is insuring economic efficiency, they began to eat away at the laws and theories that enabled the majority to control the rich and powerful. Ideals like the importance of fairness, or social equality, or recognizing and correcting power imbalances through legislation, withered and vanished. Gradually we lost the ability to govern by majority rule. Our Supreme Court feels no compunction in overruling the will of the majority on health care, on voting rights, even on actual elections.

That is the result of the same kind of logic that drives capitalism, the logic of economic efficiency applied to every area of life. A somewhat simple idea that might be useful in limited settings becomes the overall mindset, the formula for decision-making that jumps from the tiny number of cases in which it might be a useful to the absurd idea that it works in every area of law.

It would be interesting to see a history of the erosion of the Securities Laws beginning under Reagan and his hit-man SEC Chair John Shad, followed by mildly limiting legislation, which the courts expanded to cut way back on the ability of the regulator to regulate, and the investor to sue. The Supreme Court bought into Posner’s principle, and then expanded it beyond recognition.

Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, said that the profit motive has always been a form of the power motive. It just gets dressed up in fancy reductive logic by the likes of Posner and Bork for public consumption. Regardless of their motives, they are no different from Frank Luntz, who uses the tools of rhetoric to hide the ugly transformations sought by the rich.

All these changes start small, and require something that seems like a justification, but eventually, it’s just the whim of the elites. That’s how Trump acts, and that’s how the more effective members of his cabinet and his other appointees act. Rex Tillerson is destroying our capacity to engage in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt is destroying our ability to protect ourselves from climate change and pollution. Jeff Sessions is wrecking the Justice Department. All this was foreshadowed by the destruction of the SEC under Shad.

When government is dismantled, how does a society work? The rich take over and run things according to their fancies.

That’s the logic of capitalism. Control the capitalists or they controls you.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4B

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.

In Part 4A, I laid out the neoliberal theory of the person, and the beginning of an appraisal of the effect of that theory on elites. In this post I add to that appraisal, and take up the impact of this theory on the rest of us. In the next post I will offer a possible explanatory context, but not a solution.

The neoliberal theory of the person is the basis of the economics most of the elites learn as undergrads, and in business schools. Lawyers are taught neoliberal principles in anti-trust classes and in the jurisprudential aspects of other courses, through the impact of the law and economics movement. When elites get jobs in business or law or government, they are surrounded by others who are deeply enmeshed in neoliberalism, even if they can’t name it. They believe that the market, whatever that is, is a wonderful, if occasionally erratic, judge of worth. They earn what they make because the market rewards the productive, and everyone finds their level in that system of rewards, based on their personal merit and their productivity. As they rise in pay and prestige, that opinion is cemented. It’s like Calvinism, with the market substituted for the Almighty. And if the market rewards the productive and dumps on the “non-productive”, then that is right and just.

The farther elites get from the productive work of businesses, the more they come to regard employees as cogs in a machine, not fully human, merely factors of production. The ease with which they fire people is the result of their belief that elites are productive and the rest tools. Lawyers and politicians may see their employees as humans, if weak versions, but the rest of the working world vanishes, except when needed. In brief, the elites operationalize Karl Polanyi’s concept of labor as a fictitious commodity.

And how does this work out for the lesser people? They are forced to live and work in the neoliberal world. They learn to repeat its tropes. For a beautiful piece of research on this, see Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, 2015, by Jennifer M. Silva, The people Silva interviewed describe themselves in the terms in the Mirowski quote in Part 4A, as bundles of skill sets, who must take risks and invest in themselves to get ahead; when it doesn’t work, they think it’s their fault, they blame themselves, and they struggle to find some other way forward.

I saw this many times in my 25 years of bankruptcy practice. People who file Chapter 7 always blamed themselves, and never could understand how their failures resulted from the cruel form of capitalism we enjoy in the US. Here’s a composite case. A young couple with two low-level jobs in a county near Nashville decide that the husband will go back to school so he can get a better job. The wife gets pregnant, suffers a bad miscarriage and can’t go on working. They don’t have insurance, and the bills pile up. He drops out to get a job to support them and tries to pay down the debt. She gets well enough to work, and then he loses his job. They can’t pay the medical and student debt. They get money from family, but it doesn’t work. They file Chapter 7, but they can’t discharge the student debt and they feel obligated to pay back their families. And when we talk to them, they blame themselves in words and phrases exactly like those Silva reports in her book.

In Part 4A, I describe two of the prevalent ideas that neoliberalism has given us, Bork’s antitrust revisionism and Posner’s Law and Economics. For the elites, the first was a boon. It was easy to explain how the markets would protect consumers after a merger. Corporations became larger and larger. Regulators allowed almost every merger, and the elites became more and more powerful, with more and more assets under their control. Combine the new wealth and power with their belief that they are superior, as shown by the rewards heaped on them by the all-knowing market, and suddenly elites are exerting even greater control over the government and using it to enrich themselves as managers and shareholders. According to Mirowski, this is a desired outcome of neoliberalism. See, e.g. point 10.

The Law and Economics movement supports this view. Courts following Posner look at economic efficiency above any other interest, and interpret the laws narrowly so as not to interfere with the sacred market. The consistent rulings in their favor support elites in thinking they are wonderful.

After the Great Crash, brought on by elites at gigantic banks, hedge funds, big law firms and other cheats and liars, not a single member of the elites went to jail, and they all got paid, and they all got to keep their ill-gotten gains. Many of the political elites defended their Wall Street friends. Pundits and academics and think-tankers sprang to the defense of Wall Street. Both of these groups pretended that it was everybody’s fault, or the fault of those evil subprime borrowers or nobody’s fault because it was all perfectly legal and the deals were between equally sophisticated and brilliant people, but it surely wasn’t the fault of the well-known people who organized and sold RMBSs and other deals. The prosecutors said they couldn’t indict any individual because responsibility was spread out among lots of people, or it was too hard to get a conviction, or because something something. When elites are not held accountable, it reinforces their sense of how wonderful they are.

But the effect of these two two neoliberal theories on the rest of us is bad. As I note in Part 4A, based on this paper by Simcha Barkai, increasing concentration is perhaps the most important cause of the wage-productivity gap. Wage stagnation as profits increased has left workers struggling to get ahead, to the point that less than half of US households can pay an unexpected $500 bill without borrowing or selling something.

In the same way, the law and economics movement has hurt workers. For example, Banks and other large corporations put arbitration clauses in all their contracts, and clauses that bar class actions, and courts routinely uphold these clauses, because it’s so efficient. That means that when you get cheated in one of Wells Fargo’s schemes, you have to arbitrate, and class actions are barred.

So far, the legacy political parties and the elites have been able to deflect the anger that is slowly building up in our society as frustration turns into pain. It’s dawning on all of us that the way we treat our people is disgusting, whether it’s cops killing unarmed Black people, sexual predators attacking women, unfair pay for people of color, massive corruption, lawsuits with utterly unjust results; the list is endless.

My prediction of the slow death of neoliberalism is based on my profound hope that people are realizing that neoliberalism is a nightmarish theory, the spell will be broken, and people will demand to be treated like human beings with natural rights that must be the central focus of social organization.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4A The Nature of the Person

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects below.

In this post, I take up the nature of the person in neoliberal theory and neoliberal society. I begin by describing the nature of the person in theory, and then apply it to elites. In a separate post I will discuss the nature of the average person in neoliberal theory and society. Then I will try to put this in a general context, based on my initial readings on Critical Theory.

The nature of the person in a neoliberal society is simple: a utility-maximizing computing machine, only interested in satisfying wants and needs in a world of scarce resources, where survival depends on the ability to grab stuff ahead of other people. Somewhat more elegantly, Philip Mirowski explains it this way

Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person. Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

Mirowski could be describing corporations: they are in fact the Platonic Ideal of this version of human nature. They have only one goal: to succeed in the market, whatever that is, by grabbing everything they can, money, power, resources, everything. We should all aspire to be like corporations.

In the neoliberal universe, the market, whatever that is, is the perfect computer. It balances all desires with money and spits out the perfect answer. The market can do no wrong. It disciplines everyone to its demands. There is no need for external government oriented regulation. Any regulation will simply make everything worse. In fact, there is no need for or room for democratic control of any kind. The market also selects our leaders, as Thorstein Veblen observed over a century ago.

We’ve been living under this intellectual regime for half a century now, and we can see its impact all around us. On the corporate side let’s look at two of the main theoretical innovations, Robert Bork’s antitrust revisions and Richard Posner’s Law and Economics movement.

As far back as 1960, Bork was fretting that socialism would be enforced on the US through antitrust law. In his seminal 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, he claimed that the purpose of the Sherman Act, the crucial antitrust law, was to protect consumer welfare, and that the existing law protected inefficient firms and thus drove up consumer prices. That view was adopted by the Supreme Court in 1979. Supposedly it would protect consumers better than prior law focused on the dangers of concentrated money and power.

A recent paper by Simcha Barkai shows how that worked out. Barkai is now a professor at the London School of Economics. His paper, Declining Labor and Capital Shares, is here. The first two sections and the conclusion lay out the thesis in English, not econspeak. The labor share is declining. The cost of capital is low and little additional capital has not been added to the existing depreciating stock, so the capital share is low. Profits are up in an amount sufficient to cover both drops. The profit share has risen because of increased concentration, which occurred because of the adoption of Bork’s opinion. See Part 3A, Observations.

Across specifications, the profit share (equal to the ratio of profits to gross value added) has increased by more than 12 percentage points. To offer a sense of magnitude, the value of this increase in profits amounts to over $1.1 trillion in 2014, or $14 thousand for each of the approximately 81 million employees of the non-financial corporate sector. P. 3.

Profits go to the owners of firms, who distribute the money as they see fit. Profits are not distributed to the 99%; they go to shareholders and top management. This is terrible for consumers, whose wages have stagnated while profits soar. Bork was totally wrong, and wrong in ways that hurt people and society.

The second neoliberal innovation is the Law and Economics Movement, driven by Richard Posner, recently retired from the Seventh Circuit. This is from a 1987 speech he gave at the American Economic Association, behind pay-wall but available through your local library. According to Posner, these are the basic premises of Law and Economics:

1) People act as rational maximizers of their satisfactions in making such nonmarket decisions as whether to marry or divorce, commit or refrain from committing crimes, make an arrest, litigate or settle a lawsuit, drive a car carefully or carelessly, pollute (a nonmarket activity because pollution is not traded in the market), refuse to associate with people of a different race, fix a mandatory retirement age for employees.

2) Rules of law operate to impose prices on (sometimes subsidize) these nonmarket activities, thereby altering the amount or character of the activity.

A third premise, discussed at greater length later, guides some research in the economics of nonmarket law:

3) Common law, (i.e., judge-made) rules are often best explained as efforts, whether or not conscious, to bring about either Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks efficient outcomes. P. 5

You can find my discussion of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency here, with a link to a discussion of Pareto Efficiency. Posner is quite serious about this.

/

This is from [Posner’s] 1985 article in the Columbia Law Review, An Economic Theory of the Criminal Law:

My analysis can be summarized in the following propositions:
1. The major function of criminal law in a capitalist society is to prevent people from bypassing the system of voluntary, compensated exchange-the “market,” explicit or implicit-in situations where, because transaction costs are low, the market is a more efficient method of allocating resources than forced exchange. Market bypassing in such situations is inefficient — in the sense in which economists equate efficiency with wealth maximization — no matter how much utility it may confer on the offender. … (P. 1195, footnote omitted)

Posner carefully explains how this works with rape. I’m sure Weinstein, O’Reilly and all of the sexual predators heartily endorse his conclusions. It’s just sick to think in terms of the utility these predators gain balanced against the “disutility” to the people they attack. In Kaldor-Hicks terms, the predator can make everything right with a few bucks and/or a part in a movie, and Posner would be fine with that.

This analysis is explicitly inhuman: it takes no account of human dignity, or bodily autonomy and personhood of people under assault. The disutility caused by rich predators? What kind of person thinks like that?

To be precise, that is the exact mindset that neoliberalism calls out. That focus on economic efficiency defined in the most dehumanizing terms possible is at the core of the education of the elites and it perfectly explains their behavior in their institutional roles. All of them are sure they are perfection of humanity because they were selected by the perfect market. And it is therefore right and just that they should be in charge of everything. Screw democracy; as Posner put it in a 2007 opinion, the value of voting to the individual is elusive.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 1

This is the first of a short series on my long-term project on neoliberalism. The questions I started with were 1. How did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse; 2. Was there an alternative; and 3. How can we move to some other form of discourse.

I started with the premise that the neoliberal project has two prongs, a theory of the person in society and an an economic theory.

The person in society is as a rational actor whose only important role is to get a job producing stuff which provides money to buy stuff based solely on a rational calculation of utility. The work part doesn’t apply to people with money. They just rationally concentrate on getting more money. People with no money and no job are subject to discipline by the carceral state. It doesn’t matter why they don’t have jobs. No work, no money, no freedom.

The economic theory is based on neoclassical economics, with its roots in 19th Century morality and the idea that everything can be stated mathematically. The morality is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, with a strong dose of Calvinism evidenced by the phrase “the lash of hunger”.

My project and my premise are based on reading books which broadly fall into three categories: theory (Foucault, the Frankfurt School, Kuhn, Mirowski), history (Arendt, Veblen, Polanyi), and economics, (Mankiw’s text, Samuelson and Nordhaus’ text, Jevons, Piketty). The plan was that by placing neoliberalism in a broader context, I could get some idea of how it took hold and what were plausible alternatives.

This post discusses theoretical issues. Neoliberalism is a positivist theory.

Positivism is the view that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method (techniques for investigating phenomena based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning). The doctrine was developed in the mid-19th Century by the French sociologist and philospher Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857).

The scientific method is a good way to understand physical phenomena. The key step is eliminating all aspects of the object of study that cannot be measured and accounted for. If you want to know the charge of an electron for some reason, there’s an old experiment for that. In this experiment, that includes measuring the viscosity of air, but it also includes several assumptions that may or may not be accurate; one is that the droplets of oil are spherical.

In the double slit experiment you fire photons at two slits and get interference bands. Some of the photons hit on one of those bands, and others hit others. We don’t know exactly the route that they take between the photon gun and the target, and we can’t predict which band the particle will hit. There is only statistical prediction. So, there are limits to what we can know in the positivist sense. That’s true of math too for other reasons; see Godel’s Theorems.

One difficulty with positivism is what constitutes a proof in non-physical sciences. Obviously we can’t separate things analogously to the way we isolate photons. And we don’t have a way to repeat experiments and we can’t be sure we understand all the relevant considerations or their magnitude at any point in time, and anyway, people change, societies change and context is controlling.

Besides positivism, neoliberalism is centered on utilitarianism. We can see this in the writings of the inventor of marginal utility, William Stanley Jevons, as I note here. We also see it in Pareto Efficiency. These ideas, and positivism generally, are very useful in rationalizing the production of goods and services.

According to the Frankfurt School the theory that positivism provides the only authentic truth is central to the Enlightenment. Ideas and theories that cannot be proved according to the requirements of positivism cannot be taken seriously. The drive to extreme positivism leads us to ignore concepts like love, social cooperation, justice, morals and all intellectual concepts because they cannot be measured and are inconsistent over time and across societies. As an example, Keynes says that “animal spirits” lead development and stock markets. How do we measure animal spirits? Positivism tells us to find a formula to replace those concepts. Eventually it leads us to focus all our energy and attention on production for profit because that is tangible.

Critical theory rejects another underlying assumption of positivism, the absolute separation of subject and object. In order to study something, it must be segregated from other things. When one person studies another, the investigator must treat the other person as an object. If the object changes, we have to assume that the changes are measurable and predictable. In the same way, when the ruler deals with the subject, the kings treat citizens as objects, and employers treat employees as objects.

To put this in our time, Facebook algorithms treat users as objects and the company sets out to draw a picture of the not-exactly-human user so as to exploit it for profit. Facebook also allows others to use its tools to exploit for profit or for other purposes.

Every society has a system for deciding what goods and services it will produce and a system for dividing up the goods and services it produces. These systems cannot be addressed easily in a positivist framework because there is no way to predict outcomes with any certainty, and because we don’t have a scientific way to assess the quality of the current system, let alone a new arrangement. For that reason, the Frankfurt School claims that positivism reinforces the status quo, and cements it for the benefit of the current group of elites.

The effect of this extreme positivism is to reduce or eliminate imagination by focusing people’s attention on the immediate present. The emphasis on work means that people have less time and energy to think about societal issues.

This all seems terribly arid. Or boring, your choice. But it describes our putrid politics. Lambert Strether analyzed the Sanders/Klobuchar vs. Graham/Cassidy debate at Naked Capitalism; I highly recommend it. Here’s Amy Klobuchar, fn omitted:

KLOBUCHAR: [Y]ou can have things available to you like treatment, right, but if it’s too expensive, is it really available to you? And if you see a Ferrari in a car lot, well, it’s available to you, but you can’t really buy it. And that is the problem if the prices skyrocket.

So it’s doing something immediately to stabilize these prices, but then in the long term making sure we can make health care more affordable. Bernie has one idea; I have some others. And we can talk about them later.

As Lambert Strether shows, Sanders can talk about both now, while Klobuchar can’t, and it’s because she can’t imagine that kind of change as a real possibility. She can’t formulate a radically different vision of society. And that’s the problem facing the whole Democratic Party and especially its last presidential candidate.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

The Outdated Math and Physics Behind Economics

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, Katrine Marçal traces the roots of mainstream economics and particularly neoliberalism. One of the strands she discusses is the the connection between economics and Newtonian physics. Newton believed that the universe was made up of fundamental particles. To understand complex physical things, you have to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces until you hit the unit of everything, the Lego blocks from which the universe is constructed: the atom and the photon (Newton thought the photon was a particle). From there you can work towards an understanding of the cosmos.

Particles are governed by forces. For Newton, the important force was gravity. The ultimate particle and the ultimate force can be used to explain a lot of the physical phenomena which we can observe with simple tools. Newton’s theory is deterministic: the future is predictable because particles only move in accordance with rigid laws.

In economics, the atom is the individual. The force that sets those atoms into motion is self-interest.

I’ve made passing reference to this before, but Marçal’s book brings it to the forefront. Most of the time when we hear about the history of economics after Smith, we hear about the math stuff, frequently starting with the idea of marginal utility generated by William Stanley Jevons around 1870. Jevons was a mathematician, who set out to create equations for the calculus of pleasure and pain as described by Jeremy Bentham. The subsequent history of economics can be read as a long math exercise using mostly calculus, and linear algebra (matrices) for modeling.

The thing is, math was just being formalized in the 1800s. Riemann completed the formalization of the calculus in 1854 (here’s an interesting history.) Other areas of math were being developed and formalized at that time, and development continues today, with, for example, fractal math. So maybe a good question is why economists stick with 19th Century math. Can’t they find something new that might work better than the obviously lousy models they use today that were incapable of predicting the Great Crash? I mean, how could anyone think it makes sense to model human beings as a large number of identical particles that only interact in monetary transactions and are otherwise unaffected by each other; and all of which are subject only the force of self-interest?

But just as math has advanced, so has physics. One of the changes is that physicists aren’t searching for ultimate particles any more; in fact as we currently understand things, we aren’t even sure the things studied are in some particular place. Physicists now study the relationships between various kinds of forces. They describe elementary particles by the forces through which they interact which in turn are defined in math terms, and terms that are a lot further from calculus than calculus is from addition. The relationships are mediated through the Schrödinger equation; It describes our observation small numbers of what we think today are elementary particles, but it is too hard to solve it for any large group of particles.

But in economics, nothing is complicated. It’s just individuals motivated by self-interest. And that’s a remarkably stupid thing. Has nothing changed in the last 150 years? Is linear algebra, which we learned in my junior year in high school, all these guys have learned from math and physics?

To put this another way, if economists were just cranking up their discipline today, with no theory of our current form of economy, they certainly would not use 19th C. math and physics as models. Would they use 18th C. markets in England and Scotland as their model? Of course not.

Fortunately I’m here to help. I’m happy to let economists continue the work of defining and collecting economic statistics, but it’s time to look for a more plausible theory. And as a starting place, I’ll put up a couple of posts with ideas for a new theory for the 21st C. No need to thank me. Which they won’t.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is the title of a 2012 (2016 in the US) book by Katrine Marçal, a Swedish journalist. The title question is based on a famous bit from Adam Smith’ The Wealth of Nations*:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

But the butcher, the brewer and the baker did not cook for Smith. That job went to his mother, Margaret Douglas, later joined by his cousin, Jane Dauglas. These women took care of Smith’s household until they died. Smith never mentions their labor.

Marçal explores the impact of Smith’s omission on the study of economics. One thread is the feminist story: much of the crucial work of care is provided through benevolence, not for money, and so it not considered part of the economy or part of the field studied by economists. Marçal points out that when an economist marries his housekeeper, the GDP goes down.

Smith’s omission makes ti possible to make “markets” the center of the study of economics. Eventually theorists dreamed up the silly story of Homo Economicus with his rational calculation of individual advantage as the essential human characteristic. We identify that rationality as masculine as opposed to feminine in the context of male-centered history and culture. In feminist terms, homo economicus is ungendered and dominant; women are the other in every way.

Instead of this stunted theory, Marçal shows that the economy isn’t just about the production of things for the market. A huge part of the work of any society is care for one another. We care for children, for the aged, the sick, the abandoned, the orphan and the widow, those injured in war and those injured in mind. We care for our planet, our air, our parks and our public spaces, our cities, our lakes and rivers. Much of that care has nothing to do with markets. We do it solely out of benevolence, in direct contradiction to Smith.

If economists are ignoring the importance of care in the functioning of an economy, what are they doing? They tell us that they study the allocation of scarce resources. This is from the introductory textbook Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus, 18th Ed. 2005:

Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources to produce valuable commodities and distribute them among different people. Id. at 4.

Scarcity and efficiency are the important elements of this definition. Care for the vulnerable must not involve a scarce resource under this definition, probably because everyone blithely assumes that women will do it for free, and there are plenty of women. Importantly, care isn’t controlled by the demands of efficiency. If the baby cries, what does it even mean to talk about efficiency? We do whatever it takes and for as long as it takes. So taking care of each other is excluded from the study of economics from the outset under Samuelson’s definition.

In his textbook Introduction to Macroeconomics, 6th Ed. 2012, N. Gregory Mankiw quotes the 19th C. British economist Alfred Marshall: “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.”. Id. at viii. I’d guess Marshall meant “Malekind”. Mankiw adds that The word economics springs from a Greek word meaning household, and he talks about how households have to make decisions about who goes to work and who cooks, and who gets the extra dessert. Then he drops the idea that cooking dinner is part of the economy. Apparently when Mankiw talks about the ordinary business of life, he means “male business”, not changing poopy diapers or making dinner. It’s funny when you see it from the perspective Marçal demonstrates.

Of course Marçal is right to say that economics ignores a huge chunk of the work necessary to maintain us in the ordinary business of our lives. That doesn’t make it useless, to be sure. Marçal points out the utility of the data and statistics gathered by economists. But it does mean that the models economists are creating are likely to be useless because they purposefully ignore a crucial element of ordinary life. And it means that economics isn’t a plausible basis for thinking about human nature.

The book is informed by feminist theory, but it isn’t theoretical. It is an application of feminist theory to economics. Marçal uses uses words like “gendered”; and she writes:

It’s only woman who has a gender. Man is human. Only one sex exists. The other is a variable, a reflection, complementary. P. 159.

Then she gives concrete examples that make the meanings perfectly clear for people like me who don’t know anything about feminist theory. The result is that I began to leann a little about the theory, and it was much easier than trying to learn it on my own from primary sources**.

Marçal devotes several chapters to eviscerating the economists dream person, Homo Economicus, the ungendered center of their universe, the Man we all must become. These chapters expose the shallow thinking that neoliberal economists like Gary Becker bring to the discussion of human nature. She makes neoliberalism look childish and silly. I particularly liked the discussion of the hidden emotional vulnerabilities of neoliberal Man. We have to coddle Mr. Market, and steady him when he gets the jitters, which happens all the time, and which, of course, requires tons of money.

Marçal writes clear, direct and engaging prose. Like every good book this one clarified several inchoate ideas that have been floating around in my head, and it gave me several new ideas I hope to take up in future posts. I am grateful to my excellent daughter who gave me this book.

==========
* Here it is in context. I leave for my skeptical readers the pleasure of picking at the holes in this passage.

// In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.//

**Another good book for this purpose is Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

An Economics For The Left

What would an economics for the left look like? It seems to me that it requires two things. First, it needs an economic theory derived from a close observation of the way the US economy actually behaves, and which creates a framework in which society can choose its goals and implement them effectively and as efficiently as possible. Second, it requires a leftist program, one clearly differentiable from the program of the conservatives and neoliberals which has so miserably failed millions of us, and one that people can understand and can see how it would make for a better world.

Theory

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the productive sector was dominated by a small group of capitalists who were primarily industrialists and financiers. Their control was secured by both federal and state governments in the name of protecting property rights and preventing Socialism. The interests of the rest of the people were for the most part ignored by the government. On the rare occasions when some piece of protective legislation was passed the courts struck it down. When a strike threatened the profits of the capitalists, the courts were quick to legitimate the use of force by governments. Eventually there was a small but effective Socialist Party. The capitalists responded by conflating Socialism with Anarchism and Communism, leading to the Palmer Raids, the jailing of the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, and other actions to crush all opposition to the dominant capitalist ideology.

Socialism came back in a milder form during the Depression, leading to the New Deal under FDR. Many of the major changes were made possible by fear of the Communists, particularly their support of the rights of African-Americans. That fear became stronger during WWII, and the Democrats purged Socialists from their party, starting with Henry Wallace, and the labor unions purged every last Communist and Socialist after the War. That left economics to a temporarily chastened breed of capitalists. By the 1950s there was no effective left opposition to capitalism. What C. Wright Mills called the Capitalist Celebration took over all economic discourse, and with no opposition, it was easy for a new breed of capitalists to push for the Gilded Age form of capitalism which we now call Neoliberalism.

The economic theory underlying this ideology had its roots in the 19th Century. William Stanley Jevons, one of the inventors of the theory of marginal utility and one of the first people to use the mathematical method in economics, wrote in The Theory of Political Economy, § 1.29 (1871).

I wish to say a few words, in this place, upon the relation of Economics to Moral Science. The theory which follows is entirely based on a calculus of pleasure and pain; and the object of Economics is to maximise happiness by purchasing pleasure, as it were, at the lowest cost of pain.

At the very core of neoclassical economics there is a moral judgment about humans and their behavior. Mainstream economics retains that core, and adds a number of other moral judgments. We are selfish utility maximizing creatures, we are purely rational creatures, able to make complex calculations about our utility on the fly. We are rewarded by the market for our skills, so that failure is our own fault, and success is due to our excellence. Economists use terms like moral hazard, and those preaching austerity claim that recessions and depressions are the result of our moral failures and we must be punished for those failures. Citizens acting through government neither can nor should do anything to make things better. Only the free market can save us.

A sensible leftist economic theory would not be grounded in an archaic philosophical theory about the nature of humanity or the nature of individual humans. It should to the maximum extent possible be non-judgmental about humans, and it should be as impervious as possible to the addition of moral overtones. We should look for a descriptive theory based on close observation of the way things work. Modern Money Theory is certainly a model for this kind of theory. Here’s how L. Randall Wray describes it in Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems, §7.10:

On one level, the MMT approach is descriptive: it explains how a sovereign currency works. When we talk about government spending by keystrokes and argue that the issuer of a sovereign currency cannot run out of them, that is descriptive. When we say that sovereign governments do not borrow their own currency, that is descriptive. Our classification of bond sales as part of monetary policy, to help the central bank hit its interest rate target, is also descriptive. And finally, when we argue that a floating exchange rate provides the most domestic policy space, that is also descriptive.

Functional finance then provides a framework for prescriptive policy.

Any respectable economic theory should lend itself to either side as a plausible framework for solving society’s problems. Here’s what Wray says about that:

However, I also believe that most of the tenets of MMT can be adopted by anyone. It does not bother me if some simply want to use the descriptive part of MMT without agreeing with the policy prescriptions. The description provides a framework for policymaking. But there is room for disagreement over what government should do. Once we understand that affordability is not an issue for a sovereign currency-issuing government, then questions about what government should do become paramount. And we can disagree on those. (Emphasis in original.)

Program

It’s easy to identify a left program for the economy. We simply pick up where Franklin Delano Roosevelt left us, with his Second Bill of Rights. This is from his State of the Union Address, January 11, 1944.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

If it was good enough for FDR, and an inspiration for Bernie Sanders, it’s good enough for me.

It’s time to start thinking about an overarching program for the left, one that enables us to respond to the lives people are living right now. The economy is just one of the issues important to the left, but it sets the framework of permitted solutions to the many other problems we have. In future posts, I plan to take up these issues in more detail.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.