A Semi-Fictitious Dialogue on a Better Elevator Pitch for “Slouching Towards Utopia'“…, &
BRIEFLY NOTED: For 2022-05-21 Sa
FIRST: A Semi-Fictitious Dialogue on a Better Elevator Pitch for “Slouching Towards Utopia'“…
Sokrates: Getting back to you. It would be really helpful for you, in selling your Slouching Towards Utopia <https://bit.ly/3pP3Krk> book, to have a few simple Terry Gross-level paragraphs that are provocative, and that at their end turn to the news of the day. You have to fight your tendency to complicate the already complicated. Repeat your elevator pitch over and over...
BD: “Ever since the invention of agriculture, humanity has faced the problems of production, distribution, and utilization. Production was an overwhelming problem with for a very long time simply because of Thomas Robert Malthus. Women had social power only if they had surviving sons...”
Platon: No Malthus...
BD: “If people 150 years ago could have seen our vast volume of production now, they would say; ‘You must be living in a utopia, having solved the problem of production’. For the problems of distribution and utilization are second-order and easy...”
Kephalos: Try: “Humanity’s biggest problem was making enough. Now we know how to make enough...”
BD: “Before 1870, humanity simply could not make enough, so if you were going to have enough you had to find a way to take from others some of the less-than-enough that they had. Today, however, of the three problems of production, distribution, and utilization...”
Platon: No “utilization”.
BD: “Today, after the Long 20th Century we humans can make enough, but the problems of distribution...”
Sokrates: You need a better word than “distribution”...
BD: Am I allowed to say “sharing” or is that too left-wing?
Thrasymakhos: Too left-wing. “Getting people what they need...”
BD: “Making, sharing, and living...”
Sokrates: “The problems of making people productive, getting them their fair share, and then using their wealth to live well...”
BD: Too long already...
Phryne: Maybe the right metaphor is the old one of the economic pie...
BD: “First the people could not make a big enough pie. Then the people could not slice the pie. Then the people could not eat the pie. Someone who has a lot of wealth but is spending all of their time with their eyeballs glued to Facebook being sold fake diabetes cures and crypto grfiter-assets because they are terrified that Black people are going to come and paint slogans on their front lawn”—I am sorry. I can't help myself. I'm on the point of total rage and psychological collapse. This is not the world I, forty years ago, expected I would live in...
Sokrates: You are close. Baking, slicing, and tasting. What is “tasting”? What's the core problem in terms of tasting? What what is it that people are are failing to do or at least they need, that the system is not allowing?
BD: Well, it's to live well, and most of living well is to be happy, healthy and expecting your children will live a better life than you. You know. Hektor's prayer in The Iliad: “May the Trojans say that my son is a better man than his father.”
Platon: No Hektor...
BD: “Health, safety, security, and happiness...”
Thrasymakhos: “The problem of slicing the slices...”
BD: “And if we solved the problem of slicing, we would then have the problem of actually tasting the pie as you eat it—that you not only have this slice of big pie but it is making you healthy, safe, secure, and happy…”
Sokrates Something like that. That is the first. The second is: What happened? Why are we having so much trouble? And then: What do we do about it?
BD: Am I allowed to double-down on post-WWII social democracy? Keynesian full employment, plus low-interest rates to diminish the social power of wealth; Pigovian taxes and bounties for anti-pollution and positive industrial policy, and so forth; and Beveridgean public provision and redistribution?
Platon: No “Beveridge”!
BD: No “Beveridge, Pigou, and Keynes as the Holy Trinity of social democracy”?
Platon: No. Does not pass that Terry Gross test.
BD: How about I simply lift the standard line about “growing together after World War Two”? “The generation after World War Two as close as we got. But somehow, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that system failed its sustainability tests. It failed both because it was misrepresented by bad actors who claimed falsely they had better solutions, and because it was, in some sense, not satisfying”—all you have to do is find one welfare queen in Chicago, and after that AFDC is not a worthy program that supports mothers doing a hard job but rather a gift to moochers...
Dionysios: Yes. There is the underlying racism. And purposelessness from a modern economy that does not structure the meaning of people's lives. All of that created opportunities for cynical political exploitation...
BD: So there needs to be an elevator pitch that Terry Gross and her listeners will understand. And the listener is riding in their car, distracted, wondering if their Tesla Autopilot is about to kill them, needs to understand it too...
Sokrates: Yes. I’m interested in William Beveridge. But who else is?
BD: I could have a nice talk for 10 minutes with Annie Lowrey about William Beveridge, and how UBI is, in many ways, the fulfillment of Beveridge’s hopes—giving people not specific benefits, but instead generalized social power, which is money. The problems that social democracy faced in the 1970s are repeated by UBI as people say, again: this will give the money to people who don't deserve it. There are always people for whom “social justice” means: those people should have no social power at all; they should have to beg in the streets; they should often be hungry, and definitely be emaciated.
Sokrates: Annie Lowrey wrote a whole book about UBI. She loves UBI. Nobody else will understand, or be interested in UBI or in William Beveridge.
& what I have come up with:
Before 1870 humanity had thought the big problem was that limited technology and natural resources relative to population kept there from being enough. We simply could not bake a large-enough pie. Half of the big story of the twentieth century is of overcoming that constraint—the pie can now be baked—but, somehow, that did not bring us to utopia. Slicing and tasting the pie proved much harder problems than earlier ages had thought: today, having enough remains out-of-reach for most of humanity; and those of us with enough have a hard time properly tasting it. Look around: many (most?) of us do not look healthy, safe, secure, or happy.
Friedrich von Hayek saw clearly that the market economy, when coupled with industrial research labs, modern corporations, and globalization, was the key to unlocking the cage keeping humanity desperately poor. He thus preached the gospel: “the market giveth, the market taketh away: blessed be the name of the market.” But, as Karl Polanyi saw, humans needed more rights than just property rights. The market’s treating those whom society saw as equals unequally, or those whom it saw as unequals equally, brought social explosion after explosion, blocking the road to utopia.
Not “blessed be the name of the market” but “the market was made for man, not man for the market” was required But how? During the post-WWII North-Atlantic shotgun marriage of Friedrich von Hayek to Karl Polanyi blessed by John Maynard Keynes—what we called “social democracy”—was humanity able to even slouch towards utopia. But that marriage failed its own sustainability test: it ran into the buzzsaw of the neoliberal challenge in the 1980s. And the neoliberal order has been stubbornly and persistently resistant to erosion in spite of its own many, many failed promises.
Slicing and tasting the pie ought to be problems as solvable as baking the pie turned out to be. But not so. The second half of the big story of the twentieth century is that very painful one. And is slicing and tasting even possible?
As Richard Easterlin wrote a generation ago, humanity’s is a “hollow victory”: “In the end, the triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is a triumph of material wants over humanity…”
And as John Maynard Keynes wrote a century ago: “We lack, more than usual, a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas.... It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait...”
Ricardo Reis: Inflation Risks <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIHorfqTYDE>:
Very Briefly Noted:
Delphine Strauss: Note to Central Banks: Keep It Simple, Stupid | Financial Times <https://www.ft.com/content/b58afd5b-e74c-4497-bc1a-d78f83670eaa>
Odd Lots Newsletter: Recession Risks Turn Real <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-05-20/odd-lots-newsletter-recession-risks-turn-real?cmpid=BBD052022_oddlots>
Bloomberg: Apple (AAPL) Shows Headset to Board in Sign It’s Reached Advanced Stage <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-19/apple-shows-headset-to-board-in-sign-it-s-reached-advanced-stage?sref=Yg3sQEZ2&cmpid=socialflow-twitter-business>
Bryce Elder: Barclays to Tether: The Test Is Yet to Come <https://www.ft.com/content/a9a0bf66-9232-4980-8ac5-e6d6b8f1cb75>
Daniel Davies: Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don’t Whine. That Is All: ’You don’t get to complain that people have “misinterpreted” your piece by taking you to be saying exactly what you carefully constructed the argument to look like you were saying…. Contrarians ought to have thick skins, because their entire raison d’etre is the giving of intellectual offence to others. So don’t whine, for heaven’s sake. Own your bullshit… <https://crookedtimber.org/2009/10/22/rules-for-contrarians-1-dont-whine-that-is-all/>
George Steer: The Switch Back from Goods to Services That Wasn’t <https://www.ft.com/content/b8b0bc12-b93c-42cb-a87e-9ecdfb20314c>
Twitter & ‘Stack:
Ian Leslie: Seven Varieties of Stupidity: ‘Once a clever person has adopted a mistaken belief it is very hard to talk them out of it…. They are so skilled at bending reality to fit the model of it they have constructed… with high verbal fluency…. The right words just magically appear, perfectly turned, glistening like truth… <
Director’s Cut PAID SUBSCRIBER ONLY Content Below:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.