Elliptically Answering a Question About My “Slouching Towards Utopia”, &
BRIEFLY NOTED: For 2022-04-17 Su
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FIRST: Elliptically Answering a Question About My “Slouching Towards Utopia”:
The principal focus of this ‘Stack for the next five months is flogging my book-to-be <https://bit.ly/3pP3Krk>, after all. And people are talking about it on the Internet:
Nick S.: "I've always associated Brad with the phrase, ‘equitable growth’ and [his] history <https://bit.ly/3pP3Krk> makes me realize how recent a concern that is. Based on the story… the possibility of equitable growth—of a rising tide lifting all boats—is only 150 or 200(?) years old.
I think about that and I am struck, on one hand, that it's no wonder that it's difficult to achieve, if we only have a couple centuries of collective history to draw upon to figure out how to achieve equitable growth. On the other hand, it makes me feel more optimistic (or not) that the future will be less analogous to the past than I might have thought—the broad era we are living in is different from the majority of human history.
Is that a reasonable conclusion, or is Brad stacking the deck for that interpretation?”
& I reply:
Brad DeLong: Say, rather, that if you wanted to live a comfortable life before 1870, humanity was so poor that the only way to do this was to figure out some way to take a substantial share of stuff other people were making and grab it for yourself—and then find some way to make that grabbing stable, and also to convince yourself that you deserved to grab so that you could then be happy with yourself about doing so. And that requirement for how to live a comfortable life—it, to say the least, profoundly marked humanity and its history.
Now and in the future—since 2010—however, we are rich enough—technology is advanced enough, growth is fast enough, and women have other ways of gaining social power than being the mothers of sons enough that Malthusian pressures no longer keep us so poor—that we can all lead comfortable lives, in the sense that it is straightforward to produce enough, so our collective economic problems are ones of distributing the enough and of using it appropriately to make us happy rather than miserable.
In between 1870 and 2010—during the long 20th century—things were both marvelous and terrible, but in the context of previous human history more marvelous than terrible. The coming of the industrial research lab; of the modern corporation; and of the globalization triple of the iron-hulled ocean-going screw-propellered steamship and of the railroad, of the submarine and land telegraph cable, and of the open world economy—those removed the final barriers to the rapid discovery, development, deployment, and then diffusion of new technologies: new and better ways of manipulating nature and organizing humans to make stuff and do things. After 1870, the deployed-and-diffused technological prowess of humanity doubled every generation, a pace previously unimaginable and unimagined. That meant that the global market economy revolutionized the economy and then re-revolutionized it again, once every generation, in a process of profound and repeated creative destruction in which all established patterns and hierarchies were steamed away.
Technological progress and creative destruction under the aegis of the market economy solved the problem of not being able to make enough stuff for all. But it left the problems of distribution and of utilization untouched. Moreover, 140 years of repeated creative destruction of economic patterns upended all of the patterns and bargains that did guide distribution and utilization, and then upended them again. This led to great fear among the powerful: their relative status and power depended on those patterns. And this led to great anxiety among the powerless: they could dream of utopian changes, but they did fear that the market economy would take away what little they had.
People think they have rights—to a stable community that validates and nurtures them, to an income commensurate with what they deserve, and to a stable life. But the market economy does not recognize those rights. The market economy recognizes only property rights. Your social power is your wealth and is only your wealth. And you only have wealth if the property rights you possess are to things useful in producing commodities for which the rich have a serious jones.
Friedrich August von Hayek, that genius-idiot Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde figure of the long 20th century, saw the power and productivity of the market economy unleashed and preached subservience to the market: "the market giveth, the market taketh away: blessed be the name of the market". To seek for anything other than the expansion of production, to seek for "social justice" and resolving the problems of distribution and use would, he claimed, destroy the ability of the market economy to solve the problem of production and create enough.
Karl Polanyi said: that simply will not work. Market-worship to create a stark utopia in which the only rights are property rights is inhuman, and humans will not stand for it. Attempting to enforce a system that destroys all rights other than property rights, all of "society" and all dreams of social justice, will call forth an unstoppable counterreaction of some kind. Humanity must try to resolve the problems of distribution and use, for: "the market is made for man, not man for the market". But how is the market made for man? And in what way?
John Maynard Keynes said: All we need are a few technical and technocratic adjustments to the way the market economy works, and we can all but guarantee that everyone will have a job and see themselves as useful. Moreover, these proper technocratic adjustments to the system will produce the euthanasia of the rentier: interest rates would be so low that the only way the unproductive rich can exert their social power would be by spending-down their capital, and so joining us non-rich. Plutocracy would not be a permanent problem. With the problems of production and distribution solved, there would remain the problem of utilization: how to use our resources to enable all of us to live happy and fulfilled lives, rather than have us hag-ridden by necessity, greed, and fear of poverty. But a world in which that is the problem is a much better world.
But it did not work out, did it? We did not run or march forward, but only slouched, didn't we? And what did we, over 1870 to 2010, slouch towards? Was it utopia? Or was it something else?
Some other comments:
Heebee-Jeebee: Equitable Growth: ‘as a society, don’t we immiserate ourselves pretty routinely in the absence of material hardship? I’m picturing the goalposts moving for what women ought to be able to accomplish, as feminism takes hold over the past hundred years. I would absolutely prefer to have my current set of freedoms and rights, but that doesn’t mean that each gain hasn’t been exploited and reduced in its possible impact. I think that when Trump was elected, it fundamentally broke my belief in “the arc of history is long but…” kind of framing in favor of “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man”…
Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’ Marenhide: Equitable Growth: ‘The autumn sun was low in the sky, a vivid red disc, dusty and gaseous and the colour of blood, and rubbed into these well-fed Western faces in an image of a poison-price. I looked them in the eyes, but they looked away; I felt like taking them by the collar and shaking them, screaming at them, telling them what they were doing wrong, telling them what was happening; the plotting militaries, the commercial frauds, the smooth corporate and governmental lies, the holocaust taking place in Kampuchea… and telling them too what was possible, how close they were, what they could do if they just got their planetary act together…
Nick S.: ‘I am not surprised by the fact that we have not yet built a utopia (even with levels of wealth that would have stunned previous generations). What I found really striking about Brad's argument (and which I tried to explain in the O[riginal ]P[ost], but might not have done a good job), is the way in which it breaks the idea of a smooth arc of history. The world of Jane Austen is recognizable in many ways but, practically speaking, in 1810 it wouldn't have been possible to distribute the products of technological progress in such a way that everyone could lead a comfortable life. The level of technology relative to the population was not enough to support that—but now it is. We haven't figured out how to do that yet (or lack the will), but it's both heartening and concerning to realize that we, as a species, haven't had that much time to work on the problem…
Michael Hobbes: Panic! On the Editorial Page: ‘Breaking down a “cancel culture” scare story. I’m trying out a new video series where I break down the tropes of moral panic journalism line by line. The first episode is about the already-infamous “America Has a Free Speech Problem” editorial in the New York Times…
Very Briefly Noted:
Robert Nozick (2001): Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 0674006313) <https://archive.org/details/invariancesstruc0000nozi/page/n5/>
Isaac Asimov (1955): The End of Eternity (New York: Doubleday) <https://archive.org/details/endofeternity00asim/page/n5/mode/2up>* Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’ Marenhide: Comment on Guest Post: Equitable Growth: ‘The autumn sun… low… vivid red… the colour of blood… rubbed into these well-fed Western faces in an image of a poison-price…. I felt like taking them by the collar and shaking them… <http://www.unfogged.com/archives/comments_17966.html#2137600>
Dani Rodrik: Development Economics Goes North: ‘Policymakers in advanced economies are now grappling with the same questions that have long preoccupied developing economies… <https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rich-countries-with-developing-country-problems-by-dani-rodrik-2022-04>
Alexey Kovalev: Russia’s Ukraine Propaganda Has Turned Fully Genocidal <https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/09/russia-putin-propaganda-ukraine-war-crimes-atrocities/?tpcc=recirc_latest062921>
Steve M.: Relax, Politics Has No Real-World Consequences! https://nomoremister.blogspot.com/2022/03/relax-politics-has-no-real-world.html
Josh Chafetz (2004): ’[George W. Bush] should make "a series of major addresses—long and thoughtful speeches… https://web.archive.org/web/20040730023543/http://oxblog.blogspot.com/2004_02_29_oxblog_archive.html#107840868977668125
Matt Levine: Sure Elon Musk Might Buy Twitter: ‘Oh why not… <https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-04-15/sure-elon-musk-might-buy-twitter>
On Twitter & ‘Stack:
Josh Barro: Brain-Dead Environmentalism Loses a Round in New York: ‘Histrionic, bad-faith “social justice” claims were weaponized against a green energy project. Policymakers didn’t listen, this time…
Chad Orzel: Email, Social Media, & Toxic Flattening
Michael Tae Sweeney: ’Everyone’s dunking on Andrew Sullivan but you can hardly blame him for his feeble attempt to reason when he’s cursed with the sloping brow and shallow brainpan of an Irishman… <
Matt Yglesias: The Case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire: ‘This was part of [Nozick’s] effort to develop a philosophical account of historical contingency that he teases a little in his 2003 book “Invariances” but doesn’t explore at great length there. The basic idea is that some moments in history are causally thin while others are thick… <
Clever thoughts from Chad Orzel. We are built to listen to and keep track of about 150 different people. With more than that number start yammering at us, we group them into categories in order to keep the number of types of people we have to keep track of down to 150 or so. And this produces major errors in our social cognition:
Chad Orzel: Email, Social Media, & Toxic Flattening: ‘When that hits your email inbox or Slack notifications, though, those individual scheduling decisions get flattened into an amorphous “They.” All the emails from all the people who kept working after you went to bed, or started before you woke up look the same, and the result can be overwheming. If you’re not careful to disaggregate these, working asynchronously can create a false impression that everybody is working basically around the clock. This is a variant of the flattening of ideological groups that happens a lot on social media, and creates the impression that the political poles are full of self-contradicting idiots…
I had forgotten this, from the late and much-missed Iain M. Banks, I believe from the novella The State of the Art. Had I remembered it, and had we lived in a different world in which he had had the audience he deserved, and thus in which it would have been broadly recognizable, I would have been very strongly tempted to choose this as the epigraph for my forthcoming Slouching Towards Utopia <https://bit.ly/3pP3Krk>:
Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’ Marenhide: Comment on Guest Post: Equitable Growth: ‘The autumn sun was low in the sky, a vivid red disc, dusty and gaseous and the colour of blood, and rubbed into these well-fed Western faces in an image of a poison-price. I looked them in the eyes, but they looked away; I felt like taking them by the collar and shaking them, screaming at them, telling them what they were doing wrong, telling them what was happening; the plotting militaries, the commercial frauds, the smooth corporate and governmental lies, the holocaust taking place in Kampuchea… and telling them too what was possible, how close they were, what they could do if they just got their planetary act together…
Peter Temin deserves more credit—and his The Vanishing Middle Class <https://www.amazon.com/Vanishing-Middle-Class-Prejudice-Economy/dp/0262535297> deserves more readers – then he and it got:
Dani Rodrik: Development Economics Goes North: ‘Dualism was long held to be the defining feature of developing countries, in contrast to developed countries, where frontier technologies and high productivity were assumed to prevail…. This marked development economics as a distinct branch of the discipline, separate from conventional neoclassical economics. Development policy… traditionally focused on… overcom[ing] productive dualism through new institutional arrangements that would alter how markets work and expand access…. In his 2017 book The Vanishing Middle Class, the MIT economic historian Peter Temin pointed out that the Lewis model of a dual economy had become increasingly relevant to conditions in the United States…. As a result, policymakers in advanced economies are now grappling with the same questions that have long preoccupied developing economies: how to attract investment, create jobs, increase skills, spur entrepreneurship, and enhance access to credit and technology—in short, how to close the gap with the more advanced, more productive parts of the national economy…
There were people back in 2004—people whom I would not have thought that dumb—who thought that the George W. Bush administration knew what it was doing, but was just failing to communicate that to the world. The first Appropriate response is to be f———ing enraged, horrified, and sad. The second is to laugh. The third is: “ask not for whom the bell tolls…”:
Josh Chafetz (2004): ’John Podhoretz Is Right that the President [George W. Bush] should make “a series of major addresses—long and thoughtful speeches of the sort that have continually helped to elevate his presidency and given it substantive heft.” For the most part, Bush’s prepared speeches have been exquisitely written and well-delivered (this year’s SoTU being the big exception)…. I’d like to see the centerpiece devoted to a detailed exposition of the strategic vision behind the war on terror. By and large, I think the President has done a good job on this front. I think the Iraq war was important and good and essentially a component of the war on terror. But, as I’ve noted before, the President has not done a good job explaining this to the American people. I want to see him do that. I want to hear an hour-long address that does the following things: (1) Discusses the dangers that still exist, where they’re coming from, and why they need to be met with a military response. (2) Defends the Bush Doctrine that regimes that harbor terrorists will be treated as terrorists. (3) Lays out Bush’s understanding that despotism and oppression are root causes of terrorism, and explains his vision for international democracy promotion. Emphasizes that this is both the humanitarian thing to do and the necessary thing to do to protect American national security. (4) Explains how non-military options are also being used to promote these goals—ranging from the $15 billion AIDS initiative in Africa and the Caribbean to the Millennium Challenge Account. (5) Explains how the war in Iraq served a number of goals related to the above points. Focuses on how Saddam was a destabilizing force…. Argues that democratization has important cross-border effects…. Reiterates and defends the doctrine of preemption—focusing on what terrorists could have done on 9/11 if they had WMD and on why it is plausible to think that a regime like Saddam’s would cooperate with a group like al Qaeda…. (6) Is honest about the lack of WMD in Iraq. Promises (and follows up on) a good faith effort to find out why our intelligence was faulty…. (7) Lists the countries that made up our coalition in Iraq. Points out that calling the war “unilateral” is an insult to these allies…. (8) Emphasizes the importance of rebuilding, not just infrastructure, but the organs of civil society, and not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but everywhere…