Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Wattys 2018 Longlist

As the above banner subtly conveys, I have just made the longlist for the 2018 "Wattys"--the awards given out by Wattpad to qualifying, posted content. This is specifically for my novel, Tales From the Singularity, which you can read here. (Or if you would find it convenient, on Kindle, with a copy ordered from Amazon or other outlets. A paperback edition should also be available very shortly, while in the meantime it can also be found in print form in the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection of stories set in the same universe, which you can get here.)

I am, of course, honored and grateful for the unexpected recognition--too few of us get any at all in this age in which the writer-to-reader ratio has so exploded--and hereby congratulate all of those who have made it this far.

The shortlist is due out in mid-September. In the meantime, I encourage anyone not already familiar with the site (and those who are) to go and take a look at the full list. (You can read it here.) And again, congratulations all.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Makes a Troll a Troll?

We all know that the Internet, and especially social media, are inundated with trolls--pathetic, repugnant, dark triad-afflicted losers (narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic) whose idea of a good time is ruining them for everyone else.

Many will acknowledge that it is a bad idea to respond to a troll. They are uninterested in anything you have to say, only in distracting you from what you were doing, knocking the conversation off track, making you waste your time and effort dealing with them, and causing whatever harm they can. This may be so much the case that they will say things they don't mean simply to satisfy their desire to disrupt and to hurt--but much of the time, maybe, probably, most of the time they believe them, if not always wholeheartedly.

But how does one tell the difference between trolling and an opinion they simply do not like?

I find that trolls tend to butt into ongoing conversations among other people--usually, people of quite a different sensibility than themselves. (To choose an admittedly non-neutral example, one might find, for example, a few people who might all be considered left-of-center responding to an item to which such persons might be expected to be more attentive than their counterparts on the right when a right-winger suddenly turns up.)

I also find that when they do butt in they do one of three things:

1. Fling insult and abuse. (All they can do is call the participants in the conversation stupid--which often betrays that this is exactly what they are.)

2. Rub their opinions in the faces of people they expect to be repulsed by those opinions, rather than try to actually discuss anything. It is a little harder to be sure of this than, for example, insult. Still, there are giveaways. Such opinions are typically canned, often by someone else (they don't actually do much thinking for themselves, or they'd have better things to do than this), and commonly irrelevant to the conversation into which they have entered. (I recall a thread where people discussed the President's reply to the Thanksgiving Day question "What are you thankful for?"--and only that--and someone felt the need to inject the claim that "Socialism killed 100 million people.") When others react, they commonly display satisfaction, perhaps repeating the action.

In cases I have had the impression that they are like exhibitionists, deriving satisfaction from others' disgusted reactions. In others, they seem to delight in lobbing a grenade into a crowd of bystanders. In still others, it seems they are more purposeful--intent on diverting a discussion, for example. (I recall the comments thread of a news story about the Netherlands' police training eagles to catch drones, and seeing it from the start diverted into an attack on solar energy, with the hundreds of comments that followed caught up in the ensuing flame war. Alas, renewable energy and sane climate policies are very common troll targets.)

3. In the rare case that they are able to actually interact with others regarding the subject, they behave in very unreasonable, bullying fashion. They do not ask for an explanation of another person's opinion, they demand that they defend it, and raise the bar for such defense very high--asking for the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, complete with footnotes, as the price of their having opened their mouth. Even after a satisfactory opinion has been given, they refuse to accept that the other person has said their piece and keep coming at them, as if intent on making them recant, on converting them to their cause. (I have, unfortunately, found myself having such talks with proponents of atomic energy who want me to "admit" that renewable energy can never be our principal energy source.)

Can normally decent people find themselves acting in ways similar to this? It's not impossible. Annoyance, a foul mood, and they slip into some bad behavior. But I think one can go too far with the "Everyone can be a troll" line, and certainly anyone who has doubts about a particular interlocutor can, on Twitter at least, just look at their the account, see the way the suspected troll has chosen to present themselves to the online world, see the things they choose to post and share.

Some I have seen proudly and not at all ironically write the word "Troll" in their bio. And I find it best to take them at their word.

When I run into someone whom I am convinced meets these criteria, I don't mute the conversation, I block them. Permanently.

Yesterday, one of my comments proved to be pure troll-bait, alas, inciting dozens of attacks from people who responded in exactly these ways. I have blocked each and every one, and at the time of this writing, find myself continuing to block them--setting a one-day record, which is, I suppose, why I buckled down and wrote up this post.

I strongly urge everyone else to similarly block those who conduct themselves in such a manner. Trolls, especially as defined here, may have the right to speak, but you have no obligation to listen to them, let alone answer them. They have no right to your time, attention, well-being.

Do not let them have it.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A (Hopefully) Handy Guide to Political Definitions: Liberalism, Conservatism, Radicalism

In recent weeks I have spent some time in Twitter, and had occasion to participate in a good many discussions of politics. In the process I have been reminded that of those who pontificate about the subject only a comparative few have any understanding of the meanings of even the most basic terminology of political science--such words as liberalism, conservatism, radicalism, let alone their better known variants (not least, libertarianism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, fascism, social democracy, socialism, Communism, Marxism).

For that reason I have decided to write a blog post spelling out the meanings of these terms as I understand them and use them, and as I think most people who have any real familiarity with the subject matter understand and use them, in as concise a fashion as possible. Of course, any attempt at a round-up in such a short space as a single blog post will have its limitations, especially given that each of the major terms refers to an old, complex, evolving, multi-stranded tradition, one which saw less outright replacement of one version of them by another than a combination of modification of the old while new ones were added alongside them. Still, if much more can be said about any of these matters (and indeed I can only regard this post as a perpetual work in progress), it does not seem unreasonable to try and offer a useful minimum, and I think I have managed to do that here.

Classical Definitions
In considering the key terms here it is worthwhile to subdivide the "classical" definitions whose roots lie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries within and in reaction to the West European "Enlightenment"; and in the next section, the more "contemporary" definitions emergent by the nineteenth century and refined over the twentieth that evolved from the earlier ones. Central to my explanation is "liberalism," which led to the rise of "conservatism" and "radicalism" as responses.

Liberalism: The roots of liberalism lie in the early modern shift from a reliance on authority (the teachings of religion, the pronouncements of the Ancients) for explanations of the world, toward rigorous observation of the empirical world and reasoning from that observation. Early on codified in the "scientific method" (the formation of testable hypotheses, their rigorous and repeated testing, the mathematical measurement of the results, and induction from these to general explanations) which figures like Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes helped formalize, and soon leading to striking gains in knowledge in areas like astronomy and physics (for example, the classical dynamics of Isaac Newton), and hopes of human mastery of the natural world conducing to the well-being of all.

However, the Enlightenment extended the use of such reasoning from the natural world to the social one as well. Again, authority had been the foundation for thought about such matters, the world imagined in traditional, Medieval thought as a hierarchy where said authority ultimately derived from God in a "Great Chain of Being" that sanctified "things as they were"--the mix of Medieval and early modern that combined king, warrior-landowner aristocracy, established Church ruling over stratified societies which interacted with one another through an anarchic system of combative nation-states whose policy was determined by the imperatives of those ruling elites and that conflict--not least, in their penchant for a mercantilist economics designed to enrich the state above all.

The social and political thinkers of the era who proved influential in following this line of thought began not with what had been built up, but what they imagined to be the most basic building block of society's organization--the individual human being. They concluded that humans, across cultures and as a species, were rational beings who "maximize their self-interest," seeking the most pleasure and the least pain for the minimal effort, and furthermore, enjoy inalienable rights to life, liberty and property in the classic formulation of John Locke. Put less poetically, this meant physical survival; freedom from the control of one's actions by others; and security in the ownership of one's goods, on the assumption that one owned their actions, labor included, and their appropriating or working a piece of the natural world, by mixing their labor with it, also made the object theirs.

Proceeding from this assumption such theorists concluded that the only legitimate basis of binding association with others is a consensual agreement, a contract, to make which they have complete freedom. Accordingly, the only government that can be considered legitimate is one which governs by their consent--fulfilling a "social contract" by which it secures those basic rights in a way they could not do individually (such that early theorists of these matters, like Thomas Hobbes and Locke, posited society's origin in a prehistoric contract of such a type). Moreover, the broad conception of those rights of liberty and property relegates government to a minimal, "night watchman," contracts and property-protecting state, a preference furthered by the view that individuals' maximum latitude to make other contracts was not only their right as free beings, but economically desirable. Specifically eighteenth century theorists argued that the play of profit-seeking private interests in the "free" market, through competition that would reward or punish actors according to how efficiently they furnished supplies of wanted goods in response to the genuine demand for them, was the best inducement to efficiency and productivity; and the efficiency and productivity of individuals in the aggregate the efficiency and productivity of society as a whole. (One can sum it up as a philosophy of laissez-faire within nations, and free trade between nations.)

The combination of democratic, rights-respecting, minimal government and free markets, and the application of reason to the natural world in the form of science, which the pursuit of efficiency would spur with regard to product and process, would facilitate "progress"--the improvement of the condition of all human beings over time, which is regarded as the long-running tendency of modern life. In line with this went the hope of abolishing old practices and institutions like slavery, torture and even war--proponents of this view imagining that a cosmopolitan, free-trading order would pacify the world, which in turn would enhance prosperity. As might be expected given these values, sympathies and antipathies, liberalism was closely identifiable with the rising commercial-industrial bourgeoisie, who found themselves pitted against the "Old Regime" prevailing in Western Europe--its governance of Medieval-feudal institutions of monarchy, landowner-warrior aristocracy, an established Church interpenetrated with and aligned with those institutions.

Conservatism: What we think of as major developments in conservative thought emerged in reaction to liberalism, often after the experience of liberal revolutions--the seventeenth century English and eighteenth century French most notably (the former producing Thomas Hobbes and Robert Filmer, the latter Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre).

Typically a matter of making the arguments for what had previously been done more explicit and elaborate, conservative thinkers take a very different view of humans and society than do liberals. For them societies are not simple aggregates of individuals, but organic entities, while the human beings comprising them are not all the same (de Maistre famously quipping that while he knew of "Frenchmen, Italians, Russians" and others, "There is no such thing in the world as Man"), and rather less rational than liberals made them out to be--indeed, inherently flawed in the manner conceived by Christian thinkers--Fallen, tainted by original sin. Indeed, given the organic nature of societies, and the imperfections of human understanding and human sinfulness, the individual pursuit of self-interest is in their view a road to chaos; while they regarded projects aimed at increasing human happiness more generally with irony, attempts to change the world for the better apt to actually make it worse, and conservatives were quick to point to the violence of past revolutions as support for their view. (It is from this that we get the common view of the French Revolution as the Terror and nothing else.)

Accordingly, they argued that humans ought to be wary of social and political change, and submit to established authority even in the face of grave oppression and injustice, to the point that a certain sort of callousness regarding it was equated with wisdom. They also fortified the argument for authority on pragmatic grounds. Conservatives championed religion not because (or not simply because) it was revealed truth, but because it was conducive to social order. (Napoleon's quip that "Society cannot exist without some being richer than others, and this inequality cannot exist without religion" sums this up nicely.) An increasingly intricate argument was also made on behalf of tradition of all kinds, in part because the living were bound by the decisions of and their obligations to those who preceded them, but also because the ways of a society that had endured for a long time embodied the "wisdom of the ages" and what actually "works" in real life rather than on paper. In practical terms this made conservatives defenders of the Medieval heritage, and of rule by its elite--kings, churchmen and above all the aristocrat to which they were linked, to which the rest were expected to defer on this and sometimes other grounds. (It became common to contend that the aristocratic ethos--rural, leisured, martial--was superior to that of the grubby merchant, for example.) All of this, of course, meant that throne, altar and aristocracy inclined toward conservatism out of self-interest as well as principle, and that both of these bound all three together.

Of course, it might be noted that these principles do not wholly rule out a regard for society's weakest out of paternalism, noblesse oblige or simple fear of what extreme inequality or widespread hunger would mean for social stability (and indeed, Old Regime governments had, after a fashion, instituted laws regarding the pay and conditions of workers, and provision for the poor). Nor do they necessarily rule out the possibility of gradual change in the direction of a more egalitarian or cosmopolitan social or political model. Yet, any such expectation was apt to be low, and given the underlying politics, enthusiasm for it not very great. Similarly not ruled out, and arguably more commonplace, was the privileged standing on what they perceived as their rights in the face of claims of other groups.

Radicalism: Radicals share the liberal's preference for reason and concern for the rights of the individual, freedom, justice, progress, and their cosmopolitan aspiration to a more peaceful and prosperous world being for all. However, they see liberalism as failing to satisfy these objects. To some extent this was merely a matter of the inadequacies of liberals' application of their own avowed prescriptions--for example, which humans enjoyed "universal" human rights. Implicitly this was often limited to adult male property owners (and in the U.S., where race was at issue, "White" male property owners specifically), where the radical inclined to their extension to all regardless of gender, economic condition, race.

However, a more fundamental difference was that even in the event of such extension, radicals recognize that liberal prescriptions do not necessarily realize liberal ideals, with economic life the key scene of such a failing. In liberal theory, for example, all people are equally free to make contracts, and coercion accordingly an impossibility in the marketplace. However, the radical recognizes that the position of the worker with nothing to sell but their labor is in a very different position than a prospective employer, a very disadvantageous one by comparison, and the fact hugely significant in a world where people increasingly subsisted on such terms--what would later be called a proletarianized world of working people separated from "the means of production." They noted, too, that in such an arrangement the contradiction within the old "theory of labor value" that liberals had been content to use since Locke became increasingly central--namely, the split between the earnings of labor (wages) AND the earnings of capital (profits), with the latter coming at the expense of the former.

Radicals were attentive, too, to the fact that liberal ideology sat uneasily with such obvious remedies for workers' disadvantage in the marketplace, as collective bargaining by organized labor, or state-sanctioned minimum wages; while in practice (bourgeois) liberals were consistently more forgiving toward deviations from their principles that advantaged them. (Indeed, none other than Adam Smith noted how much more lenient governments were to associations of business owners than they were to associations of workers.)

Ultimately radicals came to see a tension between the claims of property-holders and the freedom of their fellow citizens; between the private agendas of an unequal capitalism (it is radicals who in fact coined the term), and the egalitarianism of democracy--and given the choice, the radical opted for democracy over a capitalism that seemed to make democracy simply the rule of the moneyed. In response, to one degree or another, they favored an economics which protected working people and the poor, and organized economic life in a collective fashion, perhaps extending to public ownership of the means of production and their use not for the sake of profit but the fulfillment of the needs of all members of the community in question--the quintessence of "socialism"--and the key dividing line between radicals and liberals.

Still, if radicalism emerged as a presence in political life quite early on (as with the Diggers in the English Revolution), it was a relatively minor actor in a political contest largely fought out between liberalism and conservatism. However, this changed profoundly in the nineteenth century, such that one could increasingly think of liberalism as the "center," conservatism as the "right" and radicalism as the "left," a development which changed much else.

Contemporary Definitions
As liberal, conservative--and radical--struggled through and after political revolutions, the world underwent a profound techno-economic revolution. Generally termed the Industrial Revolution it saw science, commercialization and in particular mechanization drastically raise the capacity of agriculture and manufacturing. In the process a world of rural, land-bound peasants increasingly became an urban world of uprooted proletarians--while the bourgeoisie continued to wax in wealth and influence. Connected with both developments there was also a military revolution, as the old pattern of mercenary armies gave way to larger, national armies for which governments sought to mobilize their people as willing and able conscripts and reservists; while needing to foster economic development along those industrialized lines as the price of modern military technique. Both meant that the illiterate and usually passive populace increasingly became a literate, conscious, organized political actor in its own right.

Meanwhile, the radical, socialist tradition grew much more varied and intellectually sophisticated, and founded organizations to promote its ideas, including political parties vying for office at the ballot box. Indeed, liberals and even conservatives came to expect (and fear) that the world's direction was ultimately socialist. As a result, much as conservatives would have liked a return to the Old Regime, they increasingly accepted that there was no avoiding modernity. At the same time the bourgeoisie, increasingly contented with its lot and made nervous by the restlessness of the lower orders, also shifted to a different outlook than before--by and large, a more conservative one. It is with this shift in outlook that the following discussion will begin.

Conservatism (I): In the early nineteenth century conservatives' initial impulse was reactionary--simply "turning the clock back" to before the French Revolution, in line with their previously established ideals. However, they increasingly found that they could not totally avoid concessions to liberal notions of rights, or even formal democracy; or refuse the bourgeoisie a greater say in affairs (or the growth of the industrial capitalism that went with it, of which they increasingly partook, whether through their own commercial activity, or their marriages to wealthy bourgeois). Still, in line with their continuing to view human beings, society, reason and social change as they did before (imperfect and Fallen individuals in an organic society poorly understood through reason and dangerous to change), they sought to minimize such concessions, while preserving as much of the old institutions as possible, and the elitist principle along with them in the face of both liberalism, and a still more threatening radicalism.

The limitation of the franchise to property-owners rather than all citizens, the preservation of aristocratic institutions to whatever extent possible--a constitutional monarchy with a House of Lords rather than a full-blown republic, for example--was an obvious inclination. (The same goes for such compromises as the maintenance of tariffs on agricultural imports to protect the interests of substantially aristocratic landowners.)

Conservatism (Ia): As the bourgeoisie continued its ascent, becoming richer, more powerful, more comfortable--indeed, even aristocratic--the line between one class and the other blurred. At the same time they increasingly regarded the lower orders as threatening, because of the increasing consciousness of the conflict between a capitalism where property was distributed unequally, and a democracy which distributed votes equally, such that the poor majority might attack the economic interests of the wealthy minority.

Unsurprisingly, liberals increasingly armed themselves with an intellectual basis for defending property and markets not just against grasping monarchs, but the claims of the discontented poor as well. One early case of such thought was Thomas Malthus' attribution of poverty and misery to overpopulation rather than the inequities of capitalism, which Malthusianism led eventually to a Social Darwinism (championed by Herbert Spencer) that interpreted human society as an arena for "survival of the fittest"-style competition, and economic success the measure of fitness, such that the poor had only their own unworthiness to blame. Additionally, they turned to a "neoclassical" economics which replaced the "classical" labor theory of value devised by Locke and espoused by figures like Smith (and its built-in conflict between labor and capital) with a theory of value based on marginal utility (which eliminated the possibility of exploitation from their economic models, and downplayed the role of labor in wealth creation).

These ideas were in many cases well-received by conservatives, who embraced them; while at the same time, liberals gravitated toward conservatives' more distinct anti-revolutionary and ultimately conservative views, to the point that where they had once fiercely opposed the rule of throne and altar, they were content to accept and even support it. Where this process is concerned the European revolutions of 1848 are regarded as a watershed moment--the French bourgeois afterward content to have a monarch or other dictator in Napoleon III (if genuine Old Regime institutions were no longer viable, ersatz ones would do) as the price of keeping the radical threat to property at bay.

One could thus speak of a "liberal conservatism" or a "conservative liberalism," depending on the starting point, and the extent to which it was colored by the other view. (Putting it another way, as radicals chose democracy over capitalism, some liberals were choosing capitalism over democracy, property over liberty, and going right accordingly.)

Conservatism (II): As the nineteenth century progressed the limited franchises became less sustainable, and the vote accorded a wider proportion of the population--increasingly, even extending to the working class. Additionally, even non-voters increasingly mattered when an age of conscription made the loyalty of the broad population base important, and revolutionary sentiment was in the air.

Accordingly conservatives increasingly recognized that rather than simply expecting the general public to stay out of political life they needed its acquiescence, raising the problem of making policies that served the elite, at the expense of other groups, acceptable to those other groups within the liberalized new context. Elites were, in cases, prepared to make certain concessions to the less well-off. (For example, Wilhelmine Germany's groundbreaking social legislation--which started with its establishment of old age pensions in the 1870s--was utilized to help neutralize support for socialism.)

However, the key to such a politics was "nationalism," the idea that the nation (the ethnic group) is the basic unit of humanity, whose members not only share ties of blood and culture but a destiny--a common past and future, ideally lived within an ethnically homogeneous and politically sovereign nation-state. Conservative nationalists opposed national distinctiveness to liberal or radical universalism, and commonly defined their nation's identity in an anti-liberal, anti-radical understanding of its character and heritage (e.g. "Democracy may be all well and good for those other types, but not for us, who have a higher, more spiritual calling"), making respect for and deference to the existing order, Old Regime institutions (throne, altar and the rest), and the status quo more generally (thus subsuming class differences), a duty of the "patriot" (the lover of country, a love increasingly conflated with the more specific notion of nationalism), though by no means the only one.

Conservative propagandists for nationalism also held that the individual had a duty of loyalty to their nation and nation-state, extending to hatred for its enemies and a readiness to give their life as a soldier fighting against such enemies, to such an extent that nationalism was strongly bound up with a more general militaristic glorification of the possession, use of and participation in armed force (the idea of duty to country increasingly equated with military service and war). Reflecting the old aristocratic, martial, Old Regime ethos such thinkers made much of the idea of national "honor" and "glory"--of the avenging of insult, the fulfillment of threats, and the humiliation or domination of other nations as praiseworthy (the "nationalist," ironically, depriving other nations of their national aspirations by imperialistically ruling over them). Given the demographic reality that few if any areas lent themselves even approximately to the nationalist ideal of sovereignty and homogeneity, built into this concept was a source of constant conflict. An ethnic minority inside the country was marginalized, suspect, under pressure to assimilate; while states ruling over one's coethnics and barring them from joining their brethren in the nation-state were seen as an obstacle to the integrity of the country--all on top of the already existing propensity of an "anarchic" international system to conflict.

All of this was reinforced by, besides the greater demand on the subject or citizen in the form of military service, the pressures of modernization. Key among these was the spread of public education, and the expansion of clerical and other official, literate employment, which made such matters as a nation's official language (and the problems of linguistic minorities) matters of personal consequence for growing numbers of people. The translation of evolution into pseudoscientific Social Darwinism and scientific racism, which identified nations as not merely cultural but biological types in conflict with one another, with the successful thriving and the unsuccessful declining and even disappearing, further intensified such thinking (arguably, along with a resurgence of the economic and strategic attraction of imperialistic adventure for the great powers in the late nineteenth century). In Britain in the relevant period the "yellow journalism" of the popular press, the "jingoism" of the music hall, the cult that Benjamin Disraeli created around Queen Victoria, and the boom in "invasion literature," all reflected and promoted such a sensibility. (At the same time, the manner in which a militarized nationalism provided an excuse for suppressing dissent, denying social claims and otherwise checking liberal and radical movements helped to make such policies more attractive to conservative thinkers.)

Conservatism (IIb): The tendency described above--the increasing need for popular acquiescence in conservative policies--shaded into a politics which actively mobilized the public in a movement of rebellion not against reactionary ideas (as was the case with socialism) but on behalf of them. More concretely, where traditionalist-nationalist conservatives downplayed divisions within society and exalted respect for authority, this variant of conservatism tended to be "populist" and stridently anti-elite; and where traditionalist-nationalist conservatives accepted (if grudgingly) the liberals' social structure, such conservatism tended to be anti-liberal, specifically anti-democratic and even anti-capitalist, overtly looking to supplant them with a formally authoritarian order. Commonly termed "fascism" after the pioneering example of Benito Mussolini's party in interwar Italy, and also identified with the National Socialist party led by Adolf Hitler in Germany, the combination of elements clearly distinguishing it from other forms of rightist politics (the blend of rebellion and reaction) is obviously contradictory and unstable, and relies on a certain sleight-of-hand.

Where their anti-elitism is concerned, fascists direct popular hostility to just part of the elite, perhaps even an imaginary part (e.g. "intellectuals" or "international bankers"), with the backing of other portions of the elite (or even nearly all of it, when the target is imaginary). This is reflected in the economics that fascism, in another sleight-of-hand, conventionally presents as its "alternative" to the capitalism it superficially opposes, "corporatism." Rather than an abolition of capital in the socialist manner, what it claims to do is replace the confrontational capital-labor relationship with a collaborative state-capital-labor relationship that formally preserves the essentials of capitalism (private property and profit), and in practice extends it (with business favored over labor, which is suppressed, with unions eliminated and wages held down) in an arrangement that may see more state intrusion into business decisions than in the conservative-liberal ideal, but nonetheless tends to be as profitable for business as the circumstances allow.

All of this is made more passable by perhaps the subtlest sleight-of-hand of all, what Walter Benjamin describes as fascism's organization of its adherents around collective "self-expression" while suppressing their self-interest--its emphasis on belonging within and unity of the group and aggression against those outside it; and its associated stress on "culture war" and propensity for theatricality. These are arguably bound up with the inclination of this form of conservatism to its particularly extreme manifestations of nationalism, racism and militarism.

Conservatism (IIc): Arguably the ascendance of fascism in the era following the First World War and the Great Depression was the declining ability of the traditionalist-nationalist form to maintain popular acquiescence amid increasing political and economic stress, and the radicalism to which they led--this more radical conservatism the last resort against the gains of a radical left. However, following the defeat of the fascist governments of Germany and its allies the conventional view was that fascism had been relegated to the margins of Western political life, in the form of blatantly "neo-fascist" groups. Moreover, much of the basis for fascist appeals, such as aggressive nationalism, militarism or imperialism, lost their mainstream respectability; while in subsequent decades the same went for racist appeal.

Still, it may be argued that all these endured as a far from trivial presence in political life. Indeed, it is arguable that virtually all major parties of the political right today are reliant on fascistic appeals to one extent or another. Moreover, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is arguable that fascistic appeal was becoming more blatant within Western political life (normally referred to by the less charged term "right-wing populism").

Liberalism (I): As noted above, there was a fusion between significant portions of conservative and liberal thought. However, liberalism, to the extent that it remained distinct from and opposed to conservatism, was liberalism increasingly informed by radicalism. This was, in part, a matter of radicalism's inducement to liberals to be more thoroughgoing in the application of core liberal principles--for example, in the abolition of slavery or the extension of the franchise over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, there was also the matter of liberalism's grappling with the incompatibilities between eighteenth century theory and economic life as it was already being lived in the nineteenth century, and still more the twentieth.

The economic ideal of classical liberalism was the individual entrepreneur who managed their own, typically small, capital in a market they could not control, so that established traders could not attain lasting or significant structural advantage, entry was easy, and competitive pressure high. Nevertheless, as Alexander Hamilton began to argue before the eighteenth century even closed, economic history contradicted liberal theory with regard to the manner in which countries industrialized--state support in such ways as tariffs, infrastructure investment, and even government ownership of critical enterprises (such as a postal service), critical to the development of a sophisticated manufacturing base such as all states now desired and required. Additionally, the advance of technology that led to such complex, high-cost products as the railroad necessitated the large corporation, where ownership and management tended to be separate, big business enjoyed great "economies of scale" over the small, and oligopoly and monopoly undermined the discipline the market was supposed to impose. (The conflict between monopolistic rail lines and farmers in the United States, for example, demonstrated the imbalance of power even among two parties of entrepreneur.) There were, too, all the complexities of currency and credit. All this made the old faith in the market seem less plausible as a guarantee of efficiency or shield against exploitation. Moreover, the extreme severity of working conditions in factories, mines and other industrial sites, and the unhealthfulness of modern urban life generally, raised doubts about the wisdom of pure laissez-faire.

The result was that rather than being cases of mere deviation from liberal principles, liberals who still adhered to capitalism as the preferred economic model increasingly acknowledged the need for selective state intervention for the sake of economic expansion, and even public welfare. In all this liberalism's support for economic growth, and regard for other of its basic values like individual freedom (extreme deprivation is an indisputable obstacle to the enjoyment of basic freedoms), was reinforced by an alertness to the politics of class, social radicalism and the fear of revolution, which liberals dreaded as much as conservatives--to the point of supporting them in anti-revolutionary military action. (Thus, for example, stood the policy of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, or American "Cold War liberalism.")

Consequently, while the origin of the modern welfare state is most associated with the conservative regime of Wilhelmine Germany, the use of a strong welfare state to shield society's most vulnerable from the harshness of capitalist economics is more commonly regarded as a liberal conception, with liberals championing such interventionism more frequently than their counterparts on the right (in such realms as unemployment protection, health care, education, housing). Liberals also supported the use of the state's regulatory powers for the sake of protecting workers (in such areas as working hours, safety conditions, minimum wages and protection against termination) and consumers (like America's Pure Food and Drug Act); and then after the Great Depression of the 1930s, macroeconomic management through fiscal and monetary policy to simultaneously moderate business downturns, reduce unemployment and restrain inflation (in the manner prescribed by, for example, John Maynard Keynes). Also part of the package in many cases was the nationalization of key enterprises previously conducted on a private basis, particularly those where monopolies naturally occurred (such as transport, utilities and defense). This enlarged state, moreover, was paid for through increased taxation, and typically through greater progressive taxation (those who have more paying more, through graduated income taxes, and taxes on corporations, capital or inheritance which affected the rich more than the poor). Besides direct state action, such liberals also advocated a measure of tolerance for collective bargaining as necessary for workers to best address the problem of their pay and conditions.

In the post-World War II period a "mixed economy" of this type, a baseline of industrial capitalism modified in these ways, became the norm in the Western world. The term "social democracy" has been used to refer to this version of liberalism, though simple "liberal" is more commonly used in the United States, where the social democratic element has been comparatively mild (the U.S. never providing universal health care or free college education, for example, and eschewing even the limited industrial nationalizations seen elsewhere). However, reflecting the continued centrality of an increasingly corporatized capitalism in their schema, they have also been known (from further left) by the more derisive term "corporate liberal." More recently the term "democratic socialist" has come into vogue in this usage in the U.S. (the shift in the word order, arguably, reflecting an American tendency to equate socialism with totalitarianism and driving attempts by avowed democratic socialists to distance themselves from such perceptions).

Liberalism (II): As conservatism increasingly accommodated classical liberalism, and liberalism was increasingly informed by radicalism, the older, eighteenth century-style liberalism remained a force--and arguably, became "fundamentalist," insisting on the complete, continuing validity of that pre-industrial, eighteenth century prescription of laissez-faire and free trade as the guarantor of efficiency, prosperity and freedom in a world of industrialized, monopolistic, corporate capitalism unforeseen by eighteenth century thinkers. Indeed, such liberals argued explicitly that where society's conditions were less than optimal the problem was not too much "of the market," but rather "too little of it," with the further unleashing of the market the sole hope of redress--and any failing in spite of that stomached as simply the best human beings could do for the time being, given the even poorer economic results, and loss of freedom, that any alternative would entail.

Proponents of such views continued to be referred to as liberals in much of the world (e.g. in Western European use), while the term "classical liberal" or "libertarian" is used in the United States (even if, in practice, they tend to be affiliated with the parties and policies of the political right).

Liberalism (IIb): By way of institutions like the Mont Pelerin Society and the Chicago and Virginia "schools" of economics, a substantial portion of libertarian thought coalesced into a political project, "neoliberalism," significantly differing from eighteenth century liberalism because of the prevailing political context. The eighteenth century liberal was a revolutionary opposed to the feudal Old Regime and aspired to build a new order beyond it, but the classical liberal was a reactionary looking to dismantle social democracy toward the end of reestablishing a past order, as demonstrated by its concrete policy prescriptions--its looking to undo social democratic reform by eliminating state welfare functions and regulations, privatizing still other functions, shrinking the fiscal state (in particular, eliminating progressive taxation) and suppressing organized labor.

It may also be said that just as the social democratic version of liberalism reflected the stress under which eighteenth century liberalism quickly came, and the necessity of choosing between liberal theory and present day demands, this version was also forced to compromise classical liberal ideals. Like the anxious bourgeois of the nineteenth century, when they felt themselves forced to choose they opted for capitalism over democracy, not as a compromise of old principles but in the name of them--the belief in property and enterprise as the foundation of freedom--and champion a profligate use of force, such as could only be generated by a massive, militarized state (in their staunch hostility to Communism).

Indeed, the more traditional right drew many of its economic ideas from libertarian thinkers (such as Milton Friedman), which enabled neoliberals and conservatives to make common cause. Nor was this necessarily the end of the traffic between them, many "liberal" thinkers taking on a larger part of the conservative package for the sake of the neoliberal project (for example, the conservative concern for nationalist evocations and social order). In the process "neoliberalism" laid the foundations for a "neoconservatism" (identifiable with thinkers like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol) that can be read as the other side of the neoliberal coin.

In the 1970s the stagnation of the world economy created an opportunity which neoliberalism fully exploited--by presenting an alternative they promised would produce unprecedented economic growth, while also claiming that changed conditions allowed of no alternative. In particular they held that new digital computing and communications technology were incompatible with "central planning," while along with easier transport, they made national economies more porous, forcing nations to cater to business rather than the other way around--a view that became the conventional wisdom in short order. Subsequently, and symbolically, the first great scene of such policymaking proved to be a military dictatorship which had overthrown a democratically elected socialist government, Chile, where the Friedman-trained "Chicago Boys" implemented a neoliberal program on the dictatorship's behalf. Where the developed world was concerned, the following years saw the Britain of Margaret Thatcher (famously identified with the declaration that "There Is No Alternative" to such policies) and the United States of Ronald Reagan became by far the most conspicuous scenes of such endeavor.

Where practical results are concerned, it should be said that, especially in the major developed economies, the realization of the declared program was never complete, with portions of it only very slowly making headway. In practice it proved far easier to roll back taxes on high incomes, privatize state-owned enterprises, deregulate the private sector and lower trade barriers than to weaken organized labor (which typically involved a major political battle, like Reagan's against the air-traffic controllers' union, Thatcher's against the coal miners). And it was easier still to suppress organized labor than to attack the cores of welfare states, such that neoliberals tended to erode these rather than speedily dismantle them. It should be noted, too, that as had long been the case with libertarian ideologues, the avowed hostility to government intervention in economic life, very clearly shown in the event of intervention on behalf of workers, consumers, the poor or the environment, was contradicted by an extremely high tolerance for government interventions on behalf of business and the wealthy. Suppressing organized labor, for instance, was state action--while massive taxpayer-funded bail-outs of investors as financial deregulation unleashed irresponsible and destabilizing speculation became routine. Indeed, critics of neoliberalism commonly charge that the liberal ideology was a mere rationalization, the true agenda the restoration of the earlier power of economic elites and especially financial elites--who, even as neoliberalism on the whole delivered weak economic growth, prospered greatly.

Liberalism (III): Pressed by neoliberalism from the right, and radicalism from the left, the liberalism previously identified with social democracy was also influenced by the emergent, postmodernist politics of identity. In the process it tended to acquiesce in the conservative/libertarian thrust in economic policy, not least in regard to the agenda of privatization, welfare state reduction, etc.., while turning its attention away from the politics of class toward the cultural politics of individual freedom, personal identity and "lifestyle." This meant a shift from liberal extension of basic rights to all irrespective of ethnicity or gender to increasing recognition of differences in ethnicity and gender, with special protections or concessions perceived as necessary for their full participation in society (such as "affirmative action" for minorities subject to prejudice in the work force); and a new attentiveness to sexual freedoms and reproductive rights.

Along with the decreasing distance between what had been social democrat/liberal and libertarian/conservative on economic matters, conservatives' traditionalist opposition to liberal initiatives on these issues meant that these were increasingly the basis of the liberals' claims to difference with the right, and identification with progressive values; and the associated "culture wars" the heart of political debate. The resulting form of liberalism has commonly been termed "woke" neoliberalism by leftward critics, and the pattern continued even as neoliberal economic prescriptions proved painful for and distasteful to the public, with many commentators arguing that voters' choices within the mainstream were increasingly between a woke neoliberalism and a more plainly right-wing kind.

Radicalism (I): While conservatism and even liberalism underwent the deep changes described above, radicalism, too, underwent an evolution, though of a different kind. Rather than adapting its principles in the fundamental manner of the other ideologies what it did was develop a sophisticated body of theory, and a considerable variety of premise and program in relation to its continued attachment to the principles of freedom, progress and justice, and its critical stance toward capitalism (to the limitations and problems of which it was still more sensitive than liberalism).

In particular the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the emergence of schools of socialist thought with powerfully different understandings of social reality, and which accordingly were more or less idealist or materialist, more or less technologically-minded, more or less statist, more or less class based, more or less cosmopolitan and globally-minded, more or less "utopian" or pragmatic, more or less reformist or revolutionary, as comparisons of a mere handful of thinkers (for example, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen) quickly demonstrate. However, they increasingly had in common the view that liberal/social democrat-style reform, at best, ameliorated rather than eliminated the problems it set out to resolve--whether unemployment, poverty or the vicissitudes of cyclical downturns, while failing even to guarantee the functionality of democracy in the face of the continued power and influence of the wealthy; and to advocate for deeper changes as necessary for more fundamental progress, or even human survival.

Radicalism (Ia): From a political standpoint the single most significant socialist ideology was Marxism, which accordingly merits a word. The particular brand of socialism Marxism represents is founded on a historical materialist philosophy, on the basis of which it offers a reading of history, society and economics. In brief it may be said to posit that particular "material conditions create consciousness," in particular the economic sub-structure of a society--how people actually subsist. This shapes social relations, creating a particular class structure, which tends to bring with it a particular source of class conflict. As a particular form of society develops, as technology evolves, it can be expected to achieve material progress, but in the process the contradictions of that model (its inability to accommodate newer methods that would continue economic development, and the conflicts of its class system) render it dysfunctional, stagnant and decreasingly legitimate in its people's eyes. This may lead to its displacement by another social model, championed by a new, rising class against the old elite, by way of a revolution.

Thus did aristocratic feudalism stagnate, and get displaced by bourgeois capitalism (the hallmarks of which are the separation of workers from the means of production, owned by capitalists who hire them as "free," unattached labor for the sake of profit-oriented commodity production), with revolutions like the English and French completing the transition. In the aftermath capitalism did revolutionize production, creating a genuinely global, high-technology economic system. However, for all its successes that system was in turn being undone by its own, increasingly problematic contradictions, not least that between the "social" production of wealth (the scale and complexity of economic life in a corporate, technological, industrial age) and the individualistic, private appropriation of that wealth. This means that socialism is in their understanding not just preferable, but increasingly a necessary alternative to a capitalism that is failing the way feudalism failed before, and they expected the currently dominated group, the working class, to seize power from the dominant but failing ruling elite that the once revolutionary bourgeoisie had become. This revolution would establish its class rule, in which socialism would replace private property and profit-oriented capitalism, as a transitional stage to a final social form in which the old contradictions would be finally resolved, a classless, stateless Communism. (It is from this final object that "Communist" parties get their name.)

The ultimate seizure of power by a Communist Party in Russia in 1917 and subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent shifts in course and political divisions of the Soviet leadership, led to such crucial splits as that between Stalinism and Trotskyism--the followers of Joseph Stalin (proponents of "socialism in one country" under the one party-and-command economy model) and Leon Trotsky (insistent that, there being only one world economy, socialism's realization ultimately requires a global economic base, and a working class unswervingly pursuing its own political line, extending to its resistance of bureaucratic domination), respectively.

Radicalism (II): During the twentieth century socialism had its successes, but also its limitations, particularly its failure to take power in even a portion of the "core" of the world economy--the most advanced and wealthiest countries. Additionally the Soviet Union, in spite of its successes in modernizing and industrializing a previously backward Russian Empire and assorted other states, never matched let alone exceeded the productivity, output, wealth or living standards of the capitalist states which, whatever their problems, or their compromises (e.g. their incorporation of a certain amount of socialistic practice), have avoided societal collapse or a surrender of power to the left.

All of this contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and international Communism more generally by the 1990s. However, well before that point, disenchantment with the actuality of the Soviet Union by many on the left, and the success of a conservative-liberal ideological offensive in equating socialism with the failures of Soviet-style states, undermined the old socialist tradition. The closely associated trend toward postmodernist thought also had its influence on radicalism, again shifting much radical thought away from economics and class toward questions of identity, in a manner paralleling what occurred with liberalism. This shift was further reinforced by the demise of Communist Parties in name or fact in much of the territory where they had gained an ascendancy; and a liberal-conservative triumphalism that declared the day of socialism and ideological disputation over, with capitalist-democracy the champion for all time.

However, while radicalism, especially in its more conventional forms, was marginalized within political and culture life, and like liberalism, subsequently colored by postmodernist thinking utterly inimical to its intellectual foundations, the "real thing" cannot be said to have disappeared. In particular, discontent with the results of neoliberalism, and with the conduct of social democrat/liberal parties in response to it, endured. Consequently, in the wake of their deepening by the 2007-2008 economic crisis leftist thought enjoyed a new currency, even in the United States, where socialism had been particularly anathematized. By and large used to refer to social democracy rather than a socialized economy in the sense discussed here, it did nonetheless constitute a significant break in the years preceding the time of this writing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Two Terms: "Conventional Wisdom" and "Convenient Social Virtue"

Recently I have had occasion to cite John K. Galbraith's concepts of the "conventional wisdom," and the "convenient social virtue." Not finding a wholly satisfactory explanation of them online that is succinct and free, I decided to write them--each linkable from below in this post.

On "Convenient Social Virtue"

On the "Conventional Wisdom"

My Posts on John Kenneth Galbraith
10/27/18
Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose
7/15/18
Review: Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith
11/26/12
The Culture of Contentment and the Election of 2012
11/7/12
Review: The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/17/12
Review: The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/16/12

On the "Conventional Wisdom"

The common understanding of the term "conventional wisdom" seems to be that it is, as Dictionary.com puts it, "something that is generally believed; prudence."

However, John Kenneth Galbraith , generally credited with coining the term in his economics classic The Affluent Society (1958) had a much more precise, much richer definition, which gets into the matter of just what tends to be accepted as such, and why, and what the conventional wisdom of his moment actually was.1

The conventional wisdom is accepted because it is what is acceptable to its adherents (8), accommodated "to the audience's view of the world" rather than "the world that it is meant to interpret" (11). Implied there--more than implied--is that rather than being based on the most rigorous examination of all the known facts, it is a matter of what is convenient ("what most closely accords with self-interest . . . promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life" (7)), flattering, easy to understand (no one likes social or economic complexity), and after the passage of time, familiar to that audience--so much so that its very utterance is reassuring, comforting, ego-affirming, an intellectual life "raft" (7) on the stormy seas of life.

Indeed, repetition of the conventional wisdom is virtually a religious rite (10), while just like religious rites tend to be, it is a source of "inertia and resistance" (16) to the acknowledgment of inconvenient facts and truths, let alone serious grappling with them; outlives any usefulness it may have had as an alternative to the confusion and chaos of an utterly uncontrolled and unmanageable flow of ideas (16); and never surrenders, but only dies (12).

Galbraith makes clear that the conventional wisdom changes over time, that there may be more than one conventional wisdom operative at once (for example, a "liberal" conventional wisdom and a "conservative"), and that it may be "articulated at all levels of sophistication" (for example, in both intricately scholarly and crudely mass audience-oriented renditions of the same idea). Still, by and large the conventional wisdom for society at large--like the conventional wisdom he sought to challenge in that particular book--was that of the comfortable, mainstream, respectable, whose received, generally unexamined, commonplace views, defined above all by their congeniality to the maintenance of their immediate, selfish comfort, are the "mainstream, respectable" ideas.

Robust as Galbraith's discussion of the matter in The Affluent Society is, I still find it useful to refer also to his much later book The Culture of Contentment (1992), about the titular "contented" with the status quo in American life. As he observed, they were untroubled by problems not distressing them personally in the here and now, callous toward others' misfortunes, which they justify by blaming those others for their lot, insensitive to questions of justice, the well-being of the community or the public as a whole, or the long-term at any level; fearful and resentful of any suggestion that might even slightly diminish their comfort; and inclined to inaction over action in dealing with the larger problems of the world. ("Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow; better still, never do it at all.")

The "conventional wisdom," one might say, is how a George F. Babbitt or Archie Bunker sees the world.

Especially coming from the left-liberal Galbraith, the term was rather pejorative. But that is a far cry from saying that made it unuseful--rather more useful, in fact, than our bland, mildly approving use of the term today (i.e. as a synonym with prudence), arguably in itself a reflection of progress giving way to regression.

1. Chapter Two of The Affluent Society, which starts on page six, is actually devoted to explaining the concept in depth and detail because, to his credit, it was the conventional wisdom that he challenged in that book and its follow-ups (The New Industrial State, Economics and the Public Purpose).

My Posts on John Kenneth Galbraith
10/27/18
Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose
7/15/18
Review: Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith
11/26/12
The Culture of Contentment and the Election of 2012
11/7/12
Review: The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/17/12
Review: The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/16/12

October-November 2018

On "Convenient Social Virtue"
11/7/18
Yes, Tax Breaks ARE Subsidies
10/31/18
Review: Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, by Adam Tooze
10/26/18
Review: On History, by Eric Hobsbawm
10/26/18
I Get Interviewed About the Singularity
10/1/18

On "Convenient Social Virtue"

John K. Galbraith first presented the concept of "convenient social virtue" in his book Economics and the Public Purpose--the work that capped off decades of study of the shortcomings of economic orthodoxy as descriptor of or source of solutions for mid-century American life with a social democratic vision for America. There he explained "convenient social virtue" as the presumed "meritoriousness" of "any pattern of behavior, however uncomfortable or unnatural for the individual involved," that is "advantageous . . . for . . . the more powerful members of the community."

One can describe this, as essentially, the demand of the powerful that others quietly defer to their superiors and offer no resistance to their exploitation and misuse because of the presumption that is right, proper, moral conduct--and instead of the material compensation properly due them, or even a measure of genuine respect, being fobbed off with a few words of pious praise for their "good service." Meanwhile, those who refuse the service, or demand more than such praise for that service, are subject to "righteous disapproval or sanction" for their "inconvenient" behavior.

Consider, for example, the difference between the way doctors are treated, as opposed to the way nurses are treated. That doctors expect very high compensation for their work is regarded as natural, and society generally does not think it is unseemly when they stand on such a demand. By contrast, nurses who demand better pay or conditions are condemned and even demonized in much media coverage (as in Governor Schwarzenegger's California).

Today where the term "conventional wisdom" remains in use, albeit quite a different use than Galbraith intended, "convenient social virtue" fell by the wayside. This was partly because of the way the book has been marginalized--the work summing up his research, thought and proposals even more ignored than those that led up to it. However, it is also a reflection of what led to that work's being so ignored in the workplace. Where "conventional wisdom" was turned from a powerfully critical term into an innocuous or even flattering one, it is difficult to think of "convenient social virtue" being redefined as anything but a criticism of inequality and exploitation in need of redress--a thing with which the conventional wisdom already had little patience then, and rather less now. Ironically, that is why we need the word now more than ever.

My Posts on John Kenneth Galbraith
10/27/18
Remembering Galbraith's Economics and the Public Purpose
7/15/18
Review: Economics and the Public Purpose, by John Kenneth Galbraith
11/26/12
The Culture of Contentment and the Election of 2012
11/7/12
Review: The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/17/12
Review: The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith
10/16/12

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Yes, Tax Breaks ARE Subsidies

Many have encountered the claim, typically made by right-wing and especially libertarian commentators, that tax breaks are somehow not subsidies.

As is usually the case when libertarians and other champions of the most hardline economic orthodoxy make such "educational" pronouncements, the assertion is, all at once, utterly contrary to any conventional understanding of economic reality; Olympian in its arrogance and contempt toward anyone who would presume differently; and opaque in its reasoning.

After all, Investopedia, no bastion of left-wing, communistic thought, defines a subsidy as:
a benefit given to an individual, business or institution, usually by the government. It is usually in the form of a cash payment or a tax reduction. The subsidy is typically given to remove some type of burden, and it is often considered to be in the overall interest of the public, given to promote a social good or an economic policy.
Note that "tax reduction" is explicitly included in the definition they provide.

Indeed, one does not find the essentials contested even in the Mises Institute article that seems to usually be at or near the top of the list of search hits on Google when anyone uses it to research the topic, "No, Tax Breaks are Not Subsidies." While the article does charge an "economic and ethical" difference between a cash payment and a tax break (the difference between keeping what you have and being given something taken from someone else), this does not in and of itself make a tax break not a subsidy. In fact, the article acknowledges that "entrepreneurs who take advantage of tax breaks will incur fewer costs than entrepreneurs who don't," and that such breaks are indeed "beneficial to those who claim them"--which is totally in line with the idea that, in conferring advantage to some business at public cost (in this case, forgone tax income, which is shifted to other parties who accordingly bear a greater part of the tax burden, or the burden of forgoing such expenditures), a tax break has the same practical costs and benefits as a subsidy.

So where, one might wonder, is the argument?

The real core of the argument appears a little later, when the article continues with the explanation that government is "not a wealth creator," but only a taker of others' incomes. Because of this such seeming special advantages are really just reprieves from taxation on business that it compares in its various metaphors to a "life jacket in a sea of wealth redistribution," with capitalism only able "to breathe" through such loopholes. Indeed, the web site followed up this piece with another article titled "The Answer to 'Unfair' Tax Breaks is More Tax Breaks."

In short, the "tax breaks are not subsidies" argument assumes that governments have no business taxing business, so that any such taxation is illegitimate (rather than a We-the-people argument for "No taxation without representation" their stance is a pre-1789 French aristocrat's arrogant "No taxes on us, ever!"), and accordingly any respite from such taxation only just, natural, appropriate, and not at all a show of special favor.

None of this is self-evident to most. And when explained to them, most will flatly (and justly) reject the premises for the argument, with the result that.

Moreover, it will appear thew case not only that a subsidy IS a subsidy IS a subsidy, but that, as is so often the case the arrogance and opacity are mere cover for unbelievably shoddy reasoning in the name of the self-serving ideas to which persons and institutions of this type are so prone. Like the claim that one can "never run out of" a given resource, or that involuntary unemployment "cannot exist," an economists' insistence that "tax breaks are not subsidies" is simply a matter of "theologians" posing as social scientists, in the way that orthodox economists have been doing for at least a century now; of the staff of right-wing think tanks and the like pretending to be public intellectuals interested in and explaining the actual world rather than PR hacks for the interests that pay their salaries, utilizing theories formed and held without interest in or regard for the real world because they conveniently legitimize their political positions; of the inmates in the asylum insisting that they are really sane while it is everyone else who is crazy.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Friday, October 26, 2018

On Adam Tooze's Crashed

Having read Adam Tooze's two prior books, The Wages of Destruction (reviewed here) and The Deluge, I was naturally intrigued by the first report that his next book would be about the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath--a move from the early twentieth century that had been his longtime research focus to the twenty-first. I review the book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, here.

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