Is That a Bug or a Feature?

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Radley Balko has a nice piece up at Tech Central Station observing that criticisms of capitalism seem to have degenerated from morbid predictions of class war and eco-apocalypse to quibbles about features of modernity that aren't unambiguously problems at all.

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  1. yeah, but the “West” is raping and pillaging the Earth/Gaia!

    seriously, the complaining now is about natural resources, environment/global warming, and population growth in the 3rd world.

    Admittedly even PBS folks are talking about decrease in population in certain parts, while scaring us with overpopulation doom …

    read somewhere about “raising diaper-less babies” to conserve water (and avoid plastic disposables which are bad for landfills) to go with flush-less toilets 🙂

  2. I read Eastbrook’s book and the one thought that came to mind was, “Geez, we’re some whiney ass bitches.” I felt in a great mood after reading it. The first third of the book was a demonstration of how far we’d come in the last 100 years and it was hard to get upset about how people aren’t happy about it. Of course, we’re not happy with where we are, that’s human nature. That’s why we keep innovating. We have more time to bitch and moan about cold and allergies and the guy outside your building that blows smoke in your air instead of wasting it on the struggle to survive.

    As we solve the bigger problems, all we will be left with is the old little problems that we haven’t gotten around to fixing yet and the new problems that arise from changing technology and times. So we solve the bacterial infection problem, but now have an antibiotic resistance problem. For the most part, the problem solved is bigger than any new ones created. The solution is to keep pushing forward and look for new solutions. People will always complain and want things to be better, which is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. I’d rather complain that our poor are too fat than that our poor are starving and malnourished.

  3. Sorry, don’t break out the champagne just yet.
    Radley needs to broaden his reading list. Here’s are a couple of critiques, one from the left and one fron the right.

    Empire
    by Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674006712/reasonmagazinea-20/

    Globalization and Its Discontents
    by Joseph E. Stiglitz
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393324397/reasonmagazinea-20/

    And on and on. Being a capitalist fellow traveller, i’m not even particularly well read on these issues but its ridiculous to pretend that they don’t exist.

  4. If you shipped all the obese, poor Americans to the Third World, they’d surely lose weight quickly… and beg to be sent back.

    I wish there was a quick solution to bring prosperity to the Third World. Unfortunately, as long as we’re keeping their corrupt rulers in office with generous foreign aid, nothing is going to change.

    In fact, foreign aid PERPETUATES the misery in places like Africa, because we’re rewarding misrule and ignorance.

    If we want to modernize the Third World fast, we may have to start by cutting off foreign aid. Then we should start making demands: “No more loans or food shipments until you have FORCED your population to read and write, including all women. Then you will FORCE them to give up superstition and FORCE them to learn about germs and hygiene and the HIV virus.”

    You think I’m exaggerating? In Africa, people still get accused of *witchcraft*. AIDS is rampant, because “folk wisdom” teaches that you get rid of AIDS by giving it to a virgin.

    Ignorance must be forced out of the ignorant, or ignorance will kill them. But since nobody in the West *really* cares about Africans, this isn’t going to happen… 🙁

    -A.R. Yngve
    http://yngve.bravehost.com

  5. If you shipped all the obese, poor Americans to the Third World, they’d surely lose weight quickly… and beg to be sent back.

    I wish there was a quick solution to bring prosperity to the Third World. Unfortunately, as long as we’re keeping their corrupt rulers in office with generous foreign aid, nothing is going to change.

    In fact, foreign aid PERPETUATES the misery in places like Africa, because we’re rewarding misrule and ignorance.

    If we want to modernize the Third World fast, we may have to start by cutting off foreign aid. Then we should start making demands: “No more loans or food shipments until you have FORCED your population to read and write, including all women. Then you will FORCE them to give up superstition and FORCE them to learn about germs and hygiene and the HIV virus.”

    You think I’m exaggerating? In Africa, people still get accused of *witchcraft*. AIDS is rampant, because “folk wisdom” teaches that you get rid of AIDS by giving it to a virgin.

    Ignorance must be forced out of the ignorant, or ignorance will kill them. But since nobody in the West *really* cares about Africans, this isn’t going to happen… 🙁

    -A.R. Yngve
    http://yngve.bravehost.com

  6. I’ll fess up. Philosphically, I come down on the side of the doomsayers. I actively dislike many aspects of modern society, including cell phones, e-mail spam, McDonalds, sprawl, shopping malls and stupid TV. I spend as much time as I can trying to avoid these annoyances.

    Yet, at the same time, I recognized the paradox at work. Moden technology and western affluence are the very things that allow me to have the luxury of distancing myself from modern technology and affluence. People forced to live in poverty don’t have that choice.

    That’s where I differ from much of the doom-and-gloom crowd. I view my rejection of these annoyances as a *choice*. I hate cell phones and I like veggie burgers. But I would never support laws banning cell phones and outlawing McDonalds, any more than I would support laws requiring cell phones and mandating that everyone eat at McDonalds.

  7. You’re my kind of Lud …

  8. “criticisms of capitalism seem to have degenerated from morbid predicitons (sic) of class war and eco-apocalypse to quibbles about features of modernity that aren’t unambiguously problems at all”

    Aw jeebus, what bullshit. For every editorial you’ve seen that matches that over the top position, I’ll find you one of a more nuanced nature.

    It’s easy to agree with Balko’s observations about “too many choices” and “Luddites”. And if these were examples of the best critiques of capitalism, I’d have no disagreement with him. Of course, Balko’s article doesn’t mention any serious critiques of capitalism. Discussing “The Economics of the Welfare State” is apparently just too much work for him.

    Obviously, I disagree vehemently with the tenor of his piece. Just because capitalism is the most productive economic system going, doesn’t mean it is without fault. One example: the strong motivation to ignore external costs, and let others deal with them. Laws help solve this problem, but it’s a band-aid, not an “elegant” solution.

    Another issue (though not the fault of capitalism per se): The American tendency to think of capitalism as a social system, not just an economic system. Perhaps that’s a broad generalization, but it’s no worse than any of Balko’s. Capitalism as a “social system” is characterized by laissez-faire attitude toward social services, and a near complete disregard toward the poor. One of the governments current solutions is “faith based” charities, is that a market solution? Are America’s poor better off than the fistulas sufferers in Niger? Sure. Is that the metric?! Were there a lot of fistulas sufferers in the USSR?

    Balko’s cheerleading for capitalism is right on par with Schwartz’s “Paradox of Choice” sillyness.

  9. “Capitalism as a “social system” is characterized by laissez-faire attitude toward social services, and a near complete disregard toward the poor.”

    So are you advocating a mixed economy solution? Don’t think for a second that “social services” are independant from the economy.

  10. It’s silliness, not sillYness.

    Gee, get it wright.

    I wonder if the debate is now over industrial/cartelized capitalism based on state sanction and subsidisation and open, free markets based on association and voluntary arrangements?

  11. “Don’t think for a second that “social services” are independant from the economy.”

    Of course not. Social services are a cost. The priority a society gives to funding them says something about that society.

  12. Somewhere it is written: he who spelling flames should use a spell-checker.

    “subsidisation” indeed.

  13. “Of course not. Social services are a cost. The priority a society gives to funding them says something about that society.”

    It sure does. It says that societies that fund them don’t know much about economics, or don’t pay attention to history. In the case of the U.S., about sixty years of history.

    How long do social welfare programs have to keep poor people poor before people like T.J. see them as part of the problem instead of the solution?

  14. TJ:

    I don’t follow this:

    “One example: the strong motivation to ignore external costs, and let others deal with them. Laws help solve this problem, but it’s a band-aid, not an “elegant” solution.”

    These things don’t exist in highly redistributive economies? Externalizing costs is fine, so long as you are extracting value from someone on the wrong side of a democratic vote? This is, to me, a major fallacy of the ‘third way’. You aren’t internalizing costs through regulation, you are allowing different people to externalize them.

    Balko was supposed to take on “The Economics of the Welfare State” in a TCS one pager? I can’t believe you didn’t take on “The Economics of Public Choice” in your post! 🙂

  15. Ok Radley, I’ll bite. Explain to me how social welfare programs are part of the problem, with regard to a “70 IQ, barely able to dress himself, mentally handicapped”, individual. I’m often sympathetic to libertarian notions, and I’d really love to hear about a better solution than government handout.

  16. Jason:

    I don’t follow this:

    “You aren’t internalizing costs through regulation, you are allowing different people to externalize them.”

    ??
    A simple example would be laws regarding pollution. Regulations force a company to internalize the cleanup cost.

    “Balko was supposed to take on “The Economics of the Welfare State” in a TCS one pager?”

    Perhaps not, but to cherry pick some really easy targets is still rather disingenuous.

  17. “Of course not. Social services are a cost.”

    Actually they are not “services” at all. They are forced transfers of wealth from some individual citizens to other ones.

    ” The priority a society gives to funding them says something about that society.”

    Says something to who? Such statements imply we should care what others think about how we’ve chosen to organize the country. I don’t.

  18. “A simple example would be laws regarding pollution. Regulations force a company to internalize the cleanup cost.”

    I was thinking broadly about redistributive efforts like social services. Or roads.

    Let’s try out a law that says you can only drive on roads to the extent you paid for them. Gates drives all over the country, but I doubt I could drive 100 feet. I am externalizing my costs to Bill Gates through legislation.

    With regard to environmental regulations, there is nothing uncapitalist about the notion that I can’t dump toxic waste in your front yard. If you want to prevent me from doing so in my yard, you are going to have to demonstrate that I am going to cause you harm. Otherwise, you are imposing costs on me that I may not choose to bear. You can’t just choose some level that you would prefer and call any excess an unfair externality, any more than I can force you to remove your lawn gnomes because they scare me. The standard for environmental law has to be harm, and if you stick to harm, you are well within the bounds of a modern capitalist understanding of property and rights.

    Someone always has to pay. The people who receive benefits in a modern social democracy are the majority of people. Shockingly, they are not the same people who pay for those benefits in a vast majority of cases. That is why I said that legislation allows different people to externalize.

  19. Jason:

    No real disagreement, just discussion.

    “Gates drives all over the country, but I doubt I could drive 100 feet.”
    Isn’t most road construction / maintainence funded with gasoline tax? Does Bill drive THAT much more than you do? I can’t argue that Bill pays more into the general fund than all of us put together, but rich people do occasionally burden society proportionally. One example:
    http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/steve_duin/index.ssf?/base/news/1082634941318780.xml

    “The standard for environmental law has to be harm”
    Certainly. Although measuring “discomfort” vs “long term harm” vs “immediate harm” is tricky business in the courtroom. The devil is in the details.

    “Shockingly, they are not the same people who pay for those benefits”
    The people who -really- need those benefits can’t pay for them. Not won’t, can’t.

    “…legislation allows different people to externalize.”
    Yup. The devil is in the details. 🙂

  20. “Even on Reason, poor hating social darwinists are a distinct minority.”

    Multiple falicies in a single statement, a bird a plane? No, it’s Straw Man!

    “Say Radley, have you bothered to look at the improvements that have occurred in our economic position since the creation of the modern welfare state?”

    Because, of course, those improvements are due to social programs, not in spite of them…

  21. OK… fallacy

  22. “That is a very generous view of who receives redistributed wealth and for what reason”

    I certainly would not say that most of the people receiving “redistributed wealth” deserve it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. 🙂 And I am no fan of “highly redistributive economies”. However, I stand by my statement: “The people who -really- need those benefits can’t pay for them.”

    How many people are we talking about? While small compared to the entire population, it still might suprise you. And yes, “…they don’t vote themselves very much.”

    It’s interesting that those of a conservative bent often come into this issue with a mental picture of some fat welfare queen popping out babies, while those of a liberal bent have a mental picture of some handicapped mentally defective sad sack who has never been able to work a day in his life.

  23. I still say they’re a minority on this site, wellfellow.

    The poor deluded sould actually think their ideas will help poor people.

  24. Sloppy Thinking Alert:

    Society =| Government

    I can easily posit a society that gives a high level of assistance to the poor, the disabled, etc., but does so through voluntary individual or collective effort, not state compulsion. There is even a Gresham’s Law of sorts for charitable works: the introduction of government-managed and funded efforts tends to suppress private action in the area the state moves into. The new regime isn’t, in the long run, any better than the old one, and is frequently worse for the recipients, not to mention the former donors, who have been transformed into mere taxpayers.

    Kevin

  25. Kevin, try looking up annual rates of charitable donations since the election of Ronald Reagan, then compare them to tax rates. You will find that there is no correlation whatsoever.

  26. “…while those of a liberal bent have a mental picture of some handicapped mentally defective sad sack who has never been able to work a day in his life.”

    You have as much as admitted that the majority of redistributed wealth doesn’t go to those people, so if one is pondering the welfare state, does it make more sense to have your picture or the other one? I will say that you will find yourself in line with a whole big mess of centrist libertarians if you restrict redistribution to the case you have mentioned.

    Okay, true believers, let’s try to go for it at the next DNC festival. We will propose a platform that says ‘welfare for the truly needy, and no one else!’ When talking in Michigan, and some guy asks, “What are you going to do for The Working Man?” We can respond, “Uh, dude. You make $30 an hour plus overtime. WTF are you talking about?”

    Who’s with me? Hello?

    I submit, TJ, that thinking about your proverbial sad sack is defensive self-delusion on the part of the left. The reality is that most on the left promote 80% of the country into ‘needy’ status so that the democratic process will give them the justification to take what they want. That is the appeal of liberalism. Who wants to duke it out with Santa Claus?

    And, again, I am hostile to the notion that someone in Washington can tell me that your hunger problem is more of a need than me preparing for my old age. The locus of decision making can’t lie with people who buy votes through redistribution.

  27. “Shockingly, they are not the same people who pay for those benefits”
    ‘The people who -really- need those benefits can’t pay for them. Not won’t, can’t.’

    That is a very generous view of who receives redistributed wealth and for what reason. Here is the rub. This republic of ours is a democratic one. The people who are incapable of keeping themselves alive based on their own productivity are a very, very small number of people, and they don’t vote themselves very much. So who does?

    Do you recall Al Gore’s “Working Americans”?

    “Hey, Joe. That Gore, he’s for workin’ folk like us! He ain’t like that other guy, who’s for them Fat Cats.”

    This is the message of redistribution. The Fat Cats owe you medicine, they owe you better schools, they owe you roads, they owe you a retirement, they owe you pay when you are not working, they owe you transportation, housing, and in extreme cases, cable TV.

    All of these things are great, no doubt. I happen to be in a position to know how little people save for their own retirement, and how horrified they are when they have to bear even a small portion of their own healthcare costs. It is very easy to say that someone needs X, but it is truly remarkable what the standard of need changes to when the beneficiary of a service also has to pay for it.

    Even at that, need is a poor excuse for forcibly taking. There may be a hundred million dollar piece of equipment that will extend my life by one year, but that doesn’t mean that I should take your retirement, or money that you might need for the same procedure later in your life. Such a system is functionally foolish, in that it changes the market from one of willingess to pay to one of who can demonstrate the least productive capacity, but it also empowers a bureaucrat to determine who needs Fat Cat largesse the most. It is therefore not only crippling to the very mechanism that created the ‘excess’ wealth to be redistributed, it grants central control of the flow of wealth. The message of every Democrat for the last 50 years has been, ‘Wote for me, and I will give you more Fat Cat money.’

  28. Well, maybe they didn’t say, “Wote ..”

  29. Actually, a great deal of what libertarians refer to as “redistribution” goes not to individuals who themselves are in need (or claim to be in need, or who someone else thinks is in need) directly, but rather into projects intended to improve the overall economic prospects of a troubled community, so that the needy people therein will be better able to improve their economic status in a more vibrant marketplace. For example, revitalization projects in cities suffering from the flight of industry and capital. There is plenty of room to debate whether this or that project being carried out in Detroit with “redistributed” money is effective, but there’s really not much room to argue that Detroit or Gary or New Bedford (still suffering from the loss of its whaling industry) isn’t a basket case.

  30. “It sure does. It says that societies that fund them don’t know much about economics, or don’t pay attention to history. In the case of the U.S., about sixty years of history”

    Say Radley, have you bothered to look at the improvements that have occurred in our economic position since the creation of the modern welfare state? Or do the other shills give you wedgies if you don’t pretend that 19th century Manchester was the pinnacle of human society?

    You know, a very interesting piece could be written about how the criticisms of capitalism have become more nuanced, along with the defenses of capitalism. Even on Reason, poor hating social darwinists are a distinct minority.

    But you’re clearly not the person to write such an article.

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