Thoughts on welfare-ism and nationalism

rawRobert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising is a book which tries to make sense of how the human mind works, how to make it work better, and the implications for human development, from the past through the present to the future. It is in part a work of social philosophy, and is truly enlightening about humanity, containing plenty of thought-provoking insights. Here is one which I think is relevant to this blog:

“Welfare-ism, socialism, totalitarianism, etc. represent attempts, in varying degrees of rationality and hysteria, to re-create the tribal bond by making the State stand-in for the gene pool. Conservatives who claim that no form of Welfare is tolerable to them are asking that people live with total bio-survival anxiety and anomie combined with terror. The conservatives, of course, vaguely recognize this and ask for “local charity” to replace State Welfare – ie.,, they ask for the gene-pool to be restored by magic, among people (denizens of a typical city) who are not genetically related at all.”

This is surely right, but for me there is no alternative to some form of welfare state under capitalism, if some of its worst aspects are to be mitigated. Some sort of middle way is preferable to political extremes which have historically been associated with repression and a widespread disregard for human life in the pursuit of ideological purity. Continue reading

Classical economics, rents and the surplus under capitalism

rents-rent-seeking-coverAn extract from SOAS Professor Mushtaq Khan‘s illuminating chapter on ‘Rents, Efficiency and Growth’ which summarises the classical economists’ concern with the economic surplus. He discusses the relation of the surplus to economic rents, and how conflicts over their distribution can affect economic growth and development.

By drawing on ideas from classical economics in his discussion of rents and rent-seeking, it is possible to broaden the analysis of neo-classical economics, which dominates the modern mainstream, by bringing in the insights of Smith, Ricardo and Marx. The book that this quote comes from ‘radically’ extends the rent-seeking framework, ‘by incorporating insights developed by political scientists, institutional economists, and political economists’.

For me, an interdisciplinary political economy such as this can yield deeper insights into the nature of economic processes by considering notions such as power, conflict and the resultant distribution of resources and their effect on growth and development.

“Our analysis of rents can be substantially extended by introducing some insights from classical political economy. Classical economists were interested in the size and allocation of the economic surplus which constitutes the potential investment fund of a society. In particular, they were concerned with the allocation of the surplus since this determined growth. The surplus could be productively invested, or ‘wasted’ in luxury consumption, and, even when it was invested, its allocation across sectors could determine the rate of growth achieved. While there were differences between classical economists, they defined the surplus not as the excess income of any group but, rather, as the income accruing to property owners after paying the direct costs of production. In a capitalist economy, the principal property owners are capitalists, but landlords and some of the middle classes may also be recipients of parts of the economic surplus. What is interesting about the classical analysis is that distributive conflicts and the associated re-allocations of the ‘economic surplus’ can determine the rate of growth. Thus, like rents, surpluses can be associated with a wide range of economic outcomes, depending on the technological context, and the type of distributive conflict going on over the allocation of the surplus. Since rents too can be the subject of distributive conflicts, the classical analysis is of immediate relevance (my emphasis).”

Mushtaq Khan (2000), Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development, Ch.1, p.23

Robert Anton Wilson on the source of wealth


Robert Anton Wilson

A quote from a book which is, for once, not about economics. The book that is, not the quote! Prometheus Rising is an eclectic look at how the human mind works and is both entertaining and enlightening.

“Where does this wealth come from? According to orthodox economics it comes from land, labor and capital. According to Marxists, it comes from land and labor alone, and the capitalist is a thief who has inserted an artificial book-keeping system into the process. Both are wrong. Land and labor alone, and land, labor and capital together, can’t produce new wealth if they are all organised by a fallacious idea, such as searching for oil where oil is not. The real source of wealth is correct ideas: workable ideas: that is, negative entropy – Information.

The origin of these coherent (workable) ideas is the human nervous system. All wealth is created by human beings using their neurons intelligently.

Robert Anton Wilson (1983), Prometheus Rising

I have plenty of time for Marxist thought, not so much for socialism. But the labour theory of value (LTV) is, for me, perhaps not as scientific as Marx and many Marxists make out. The above quote sums it up nicely, suggesting that the LTV is misleading or at best incomplete, and designed to make social injustice and exploitation into something scientific.

If one wishes to fight injustice, including exploitation, that is all to the good. However I am not convinced that surplus value, a key concept in classical political economy and Marx, necessarily originates solely in the efforts of the workers. Management by the capitalists or their representatives is probably necessary for a productive and profitable workplace and can take many forms, coercive or otherwise.

To draw once more on the quote above: in the right political, social and economic environment, capitalists and workers, sometimes in conflict, sometimes cooperating, can be collectively productive if they work (and use their neurons) intelligently.

Ha-Joon Chang: beyond the self-interested individual

A short talk with Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang, who explains how mainstream economics tends to assume that individuals are entirely (and rationally) self-interested and why this is wrong and damaging to society. He illustrates how our broader motivations in the workplace and elsewhere are beneficial and should not be ignored in economic theory.

I think that modern behavioural economics has begun to address this, but it still begins with the idea of the individual, to the neglect of larger social structures and institutions, from class to society as a whole.

Ecological economics: human progress as part of nature

599px-The_Blue_Marble“The term ‘ecological economics’ should be a little redundant, as both words share the Greek root oikos (household) and together mean something like household-study household-law. It is telling that the two fields of ecology and mainstream economics have grown so far apart in the century and a half since they were named that they now represent completely different sets of principles.

The basic idea of ecological economics can be summarised by [Herman] Daly‘s argument with the World Bank economists: when you draw the box for the economy, you have to put it in a larger box called the environment. The human economy is a subset of the world system. Our inputs, in terms of natural resources, and outputs, including pollution, are like the metabolism of a kind of super-organism. We can analyse it using the same kinds of tools as we use to analyse other living systems, such as a cell, or a beehive, or a complete ecosystem.

Instead of being a closed system, like a machine, the economy is open to the environment. Attention therefore shifts from the inner mechanics of the economy to big-picture questions related to things like scale and timing and the flow of energy. Is the economy becoming to big relative to its environment? Is it consuming resources at too fast a rate? Is it adequately disposing of its own waste? Is it endangering the food chain on which it depends for its survival?”

David Orrell (2010), Economyths: How the science of complex systems is transforming economic thought

But remember, it’s all just models within models within models. They are all we have, so if we are to sustain human progress, we need to build better ones: better at explanation, and better at laying out the options for responding to change.

Divisions between the economy, society and the environment are a simplification, and a potentially dangerous one. Ecological economics offers useful ways of thinking about the state and direction of humankind as part of nature, rather than its master. So too does sustainable development. In my view we also need a political economy approach to the environment which studies how the costs and benefits of change lead to potential conflict and particular distributions of power in society. These processes require management by governments working with each other and with civil society. Such issues are surely the most urgent of our times.

The irrelevance of perfection and imperfection in economics

9780199390632“Many of the central propositions of economic analysis can be derived without any reference to hyperrationality, optimization, perfect competition, perfect information, representative agents, or so-called rational expectations. These include the laws of demand and supply, the determination of wage and profit rates, technological change, relative prices, interest rates, bond and equity prices, exchange rates, terms and balance of trade, growth, unemployment, inflation, and long booms culminating in recurrent general crises…

…I propose that we reject the claim that perfect competition was ever appropriate and refuse the notion that observed outcomes should be attributed to historically arisen imperfections. The economic dynamics of capitalism arise from competition itself. There was never any Garden of Eden, and our current condition does not stem from its loss.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism – Competition, Conflict, Crises

These passages come from the opening paragraphs of the conclusion to Shaikh’s magisterial work. Drawing on the classical political economists such as Smith and Ricardo, as well as Marx, Keynes and many others, he sets out to construct a comprehensive approach to the economics of capitalism which goes beyond theories of perfection and imperfection. This is very appealing to me. Continue reading

The nature of the social world: a touch of philosophy

599px-The_Blue_Marble“The…argument is against methodological individualists, such as Popper (and Margaret Thatcher who claimed that ‘society’ does not exist!), who argue that all explanations can be couched in terms of an individual person’s beliefs and actions. The first refutation concerns emergent properties. There are attributes of people that concern physical properties such as height or weight; there are attributes that we share with other animals such as pain or hunger; but there are many attributes, essentially human ones, that are unavoidably social, for example ‘bachelor’, ‘banker’, or ‘nun’. These are only intelligible within the context of a social institution or practice. The second argument is that many activities we undertake, most obviously perhaps language, must already exist and be available for people to learn and then use. As Wittgenstein argued, there can be no such thing as a private language – every time anyone has a conversation, uses a credit card, or waits for a train they are assuming the existence of a structured, instransitive domain of resources, concepts, practices, and relationships. The successful occurrence of social activities warrants the existence of causally efficacious, although unobservable, social structures.”

John Mingers (2014), Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy

Mingers makes a good argument for the relevance of what are variously called structures or systems in social science. There are objects we can think about that are larger than the individual, such as society, which cannot be directly observed while their effects can be. This produces a rational for examining the economy of a nation, particular industries, social groups such as class etc. Continue reading