October 17, 2007

The Wizards of Oz

This started out as a comment to Amanda's post at Pandagon about Naomi Klein's new book, "The Shock Doctrine." It's all about the economics of theft, our pwnership society.

Inevitably, a bunch of tedious neoliberal 'free trade' boosters jumped into the threads to say that it was ridiculous that they should have to suffer discussing economics with amateurs such as ourselves, but in case we hadn't realized, we're all better off today than we were 30 years ago. The equations prove it. And look! Cell phones! Big TVs! Of course things like land, food, fuel, education and healthcare are more expensive, but it all balances out. Why, oh why, do you silly liberals expect to be entitled to as good a standard of living as your parents had when they were your age and had jobs of lower relative status?

Even if the market basket of goods were representative, let's take another look at some of the so-called luxuries people striving to maintain a middle class lifestyle are wasting their money on, as cited by the neoliberal commentors: cars and fuel, cell phones and computers.

Most geographic regions in the US have terrible public transit. If you want to reliably find and get work, you probably need a car and you'll also need to put fuel in it. And I personally know very few people who insist that said car be new if that's a stretch for them. Cell phones are critical status symbols and are expected in many white collar workplaces, even if your employment is relatively menial. With the falling availability of pay phones in public spaces, they're also more important for safety. Then computers ... we're at a point in our society where a child that comes from a home without a computer is going to be almost as bad off as a child that comes from a home without books. These are not luxury goods.

Yet there's also the social aspect. I'm a bit of a Luddite relative to what you'd expect; I've always prided myself on being a late adopter. I don't have an iPod or a video game console, and took years to get around to having a smart phone (which I got on substantial discount.) There are conversations that this lack of technology excludes me from, including conversations with people who are colleagues and peers that I should reasonably be trying to network with. There are legitimate social advancement trade-offs between economizing on gadgets and being able to pass as a[n aspiring] member of the professional class.

If you're not a member of the professional class these days, you can expect to face a society very hostile to the idea that your trivial, menial labor deserves such returned benefits as health care or a pension. Not even all the members of the professional class can get that anymore, and who the hell do you think you are, anyway?

Other people in the thread mocked the study of economics itself for wanting to be the physics of the social sciences. They will never be that. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said, "If you can't explain your research to your grandmother, then you don't understand it yourself." And he was talking about physics. These people can't explain the purported study of human decision-making to other human beings who make decisions every day.

So one could simply presume that they don't know what they're talking about. I'm a college educated adult who managed to figure out the mysteries of biology and chemistry, and I still can't make heads or tails of these people. Like someone who, when seeing widespread suffering and worldwide street protests in the wake of structural adjustment policies (they call them "IMF riots" for a reason), will say that the unhappy people in question are irrational because their theories and GDP numbers should be proof enough that everyone is really better off. Or people like this, a young, well-polished, heartless creep with good teeth who related to me the following opinion regarding the way out of poverty over lunch one day after we escaped from a Farm Bill hearing:

"Buy less crack." - An affiliate of the Cato Institute on what families on Food Stamps living on $21 a week for food should do if food prices went up significantly. After all, if people weren't "strung out all the time," why would they be poor? Ideas he had for American families not on public assistance should they face higher food prices included deciding not to buy new plasma televisions, forgoing ski lessons, canceling their broadband service, or other means of trimming their discretionary spending.

That same guy had also told me earlier that if it took kids dying to put pressure on manufacturers to make their products safer, that was the market. That was how it was supposed to work, and it would be much more efficient than government regulation. What if it's my kid and I don't want them to die? Too bad. Seriously, this was how our entire conversation went. But what can you expect from an idiot who thinks that the reason people are poor in America is because they spend all their "discretionary income" on big screen televisions and crack.

Indeed, if it weren't for outstanding human beings like Paul Krugman and Muhammad Yunus, I might want to advocate an end to the study of economics for its evident perniciousness. Because it can't be that the high gurus of neoliberal economics have watched all this happening and are all still as completely clueless as that dumb Cato kid.

They must know that their byzantine mumbo-jumbo is being used to sell a kleptocracy to the public. That they are advocating policies whose ends are the impoverishment of millions and the erosion of the middle class. That their circular, self-congratulatory macroeconomic logic is accelerating wealth inequality to levels that the robber barons of the Gilded Age could never have imagined.

They're not scientists. It may be over charitable to describe them as social. They're the new Wizards of Oz. And they only care about your well-being if you're already wealthy. But deep down, you already knew that, didn't you?

Posted by natasha at October 17, 2007 03:24 PM | Economy | Technorati links |

Economics used to be "political economy" in the days of Smith and Marx. Divorcing various interrelated topics in the social sciences from each other (into economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, etc.) does a nice job of obscuring the realities they ostensibly refer to- as you've seen from your libertarian/Cato friend.

Also, a lot of the whacko policy prescriptions of libertarianism break down quite nicely into "I've got mine, Jack; screw you". Pity they don't seem to understand how much "free markets" are a cooperative effort, as opposed to a competitive one.

Posted by: Rob at October 17, 2007 04:12 PM