Tag Archives: political movements

On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.


Straining the Plank: Why Occupy Wall Street Failed

The Tea Party movement began as a set of right-wing protests following the election of President Obama in 2008.  It’s original intent was to institute financial reform, by way of reducing government spending and lower taxes across the board.  Subsequently, it began to add more and more elements from the conservative end of US political spectrum, largely by way of influence from the evangelical Christian right, to the point that the two political movements became synonymous with each other by its latest incarnation (thereby alienating the strong libertarian and moderate capitalist wings that may have been inclined to support its original message).

Similarly, Occupy Wall Street was a serious of protests that launched in late 2011, whose stated goal was to address the economic inequalities brought about by crony capitalism, and called for system-wide economic reforms to be instituted within financial and political sectors.  (That was the focus of the movement from the beginning, and it was articulated very clearly for those who were willing to listen; despite several media outlets repeatedly claiming confusion on what the goals of the Occupy protesters were from the time of the first sit-ins in Zuccotti Park).

What made Occupy Wall Street (OWS) unique was the fact that it wasn’t organized like a rally (like most protests of this nature usually are, including the aforementioned Tea Part protests), but a sit-in, with tents and separate “tent-communities” being set up for what most people there expected to be an indefinite stay.  The protests lasted for months (some would count it in years) after the initial sit-in in NYC, and it’s even been argued that fragments of it are still going on, and have expanding into several cities and countries around the world.  The message is slightly different from region to region, but the main points (it is argued) remain the same.   Yet, I would argue that from very early on a vital shift in focus (or loss in focus, as I would put it) doomed the movement before it really gained real traction.

Like the Tea Party rally, early in its development OWS started adopting several social issues to its already ambitious platform.  And like the case with the Tea Party, I personally think this was an unwise move on the part of whoever makes up the ranks of the main organizers for these things (yes, there is always a core group of organizers in these things, otherwise nothing would ever happen).

The central theme of the current financial system needing serious reform is a cogent message to the majority of people who might potentially support your activism.  People will disagree about the methods and phrasings, but the basic desire for change will be heard.  The problem is that as any movement gains a following, social interests groups will naturally gravitate to them in hopes of bringing attention to their own concerns and issues.  Though seemingly a benign move (and I have no reason that it is in any way motivated by malice), it can have the inverse effect of drowning out the original message, which attracted the majority of attention to begin with, spiraling the whole discussion into irrelevancies that only appeal to a select minority of participants.

It’s what I call straining the plank, where too many issues are put on one surface, causing it to eventually bend and break from over-extension.  This is not to say that the social interests advocated for aren’t worth promoting, individually.  It does mean that if you allow every seemingly worthwhile concern to be heard under one tent, at the same time, almost no one’s interests are going to be addressed due to the fact that everyone sees her or his pet-issue as the rightful focus of the discussion.

By far the most valid criticism that can be targeted at my occasional posts on sociopolitical matters is that, while I spend a great deal of time writing polemics against other people’s ideas and reasoning, I offer little to nothing as an alternative to the (in my opinion) faulty thinking I’m so fond of ranting against.  Fair enough, and allow me to break this annoying cycle today.

If I was a more politically active person (the sort that starts and supports social movements; in other words, someone completely unlike me), and I was setting out to reform the global financial system, I would focus on reforming the global financial system.  If, for example, in the midst of my efforts I was approached by an environmentalist group, or a social liberties group, or any other sociopolitical activist group whose affiliation with financial reform is only tangential at best, looking to incorporate their message in with mine, I would greet them, give them the number to an already established organization that caters to their specific interests, wish them well, and telling them that if their group’s interests ever directly correlate with financial reform, to give me a call.  But not before.

In other words:  Do the environmentalists wish to promote their cause?  Great, give them the number to Greenpeace, and continue to focus on financial reform.  Gay rights, you say?  Absolutely, I believe GLAAD would be more than happy to have your time and contributions, while we continue to focus on financial reform.  Anti-war?  Women’s reproductive rights?  Separation of Church and State?  All wonderful and worthwhile causes, all very important, but if our focus is financial reform, then our focus is financial reform, and it is the cause we have decided to promote at the moment.  Period.

This might sounds heartless and elitist to many, but I see it as being focused on the task that’s been set out.  Strength in numbers only works when everyone pulls in the same direction.  100 different hands, placing pressure in 100 different directions just creates stagnation, and deforms the shape of the original platform.  The problem with wanting to do or reform everything in one go, under one banner, is that you will undoubtedly end up doing and reforming nothing of long-term value (biting of more than you can chew in one sitting, so to speak).  Resulting in the possibility of finding yourself part of a movement that either dead on arrival, or–worse yet–whose stated goal(s) has become unrecognizable to you.

What Occupy Wall Street failed to understand is that there is nothing compromising about picking one’s battles, one at a time, and not being distracted by 50 other equally pleasing objectives.  In fact, if real political change is your goal, I would submit that it’s pretty much a necessity of the game.