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.

The Loose Meaning of Middle-Class

Just as “proletarian” once was to the communist model, “middle-class” has become a rallying term of endearment for a capitalist society.  Although frequently references, it exists nowadays loosely as a flexible term of political rhetoric, instead of any true economic bracket.  Election season demonstrates this better than most other times.  In the purview of political campaigns, I’m middle-class, and you’re middle-class; the guy cleaning the toilets at my work is middle-class, and the managers of major corporations are middle-class; just as the elected officials sitting in Congress are middle-class–sometimes it sounds as if everybody is middle-class, regardless of their actual earnings.  The reason for this is that the term serves as a nice label onto which one can project all things a society might deem as decent personal attributes.  Hence, giving skilled orators the opportunity to tweak its definition just enough to meet their specific agenda.  “We need to strengthen the middle-class!”, “I stand for the men and women of the middle-class America!”, “My plan is to help rebuild middle-class America!”  And, bit by bit, each tweak eventually brings us to an economic model where individuals earning $40,000 a year are placed in the same income group as individuals earning $140,000 a year, as if their interests and hardships can be addressed by the same universal platform.

It would be incorrect to ascribe middle-class as a word whose meaning has died, or is on the verge of dying.  Rather, it is a label that has become wholly undefinable, which makes its usage as good as dead from my perspective.  Literally speaking, there certainly exists a class of people whose earning wage places them in, or near, the center bracket of the population, and in that sense, it is fair to refer to such individuals as being middle-class.  However, the disparity between those on the high end of the “middle-class” spectrum has so drastically exceeded those on the low end, that to continually categorize the two within the same income realm seems to me as not just nonsensical, but incoherent.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that something is clearly off when those making over three times more than your income are considered your class equals.

A further issue I have with the term is that it so easily serves as a smokescreen against enacting substantial reform needed to alleviate the plight of the lower working class, as well as the downright poor.  And, sadly, this is an offense committed by the political Left, which claims to hold the plight of the poor far more to heart than the political Right.  Because, while the Left will rightly dismiss trickle-down economics when it’s set-up on the fallacious belief that wealth will naturally distribute itself evenly amongst all sectors of society as long as the affluent top is given the economic means and versatility to prosper, much of this same Left will often wholeheartedly embrace the equally fallacious idea that by focusing on the interests of the middle-class, it will trickle-down aid to the lower-class sectors of society.  It hasn’t, it doesn’t, it won’t; namely, because the concerns of the former do not evenly align with the concerns of the latter, and benefits enacted to aid one class can (and often will) conflict with the interests of the other.  To pretend otherwise, and insist that elevating the concerns of the middle-class will also somehow elevate the plight of the downright poor (not those tightening their belts, or just getting by living paycheck to paycheck–the actual no-belt, no-steady-paycheck, forgotten-and-ignored poor-poor), is to be willfully ignorant and choose a one-size fits all solution to a problem that cannot have one quick fix.

And no amount of political rhetoric will change that, regardless of which side of the political spectrum it’s coming from.