Never Enough

The current recession may turn into a small depression, and may push global living standards down by five percent for one or two or (we hope not) five years, but that does not erase the gulf between those of us in the globe’s middle and upper classes and all human existence prior to the Industrial Revolution. We have reached the frontier of mass material comfort—where we have enough food that we are not painfully hungry, enough clothing that we are not shiveringly cold, enough shelter that we are not distressingly wet, even enough entertainment that we are not bored. We—at least those lucky enough to be in the global middle and upper classes who still cluster around the North Atlantic—have lots and lots of stuff. Our machines and factories have given us the power to get more and more stuff by getting more and more stuff—a self-perpetuating cycle of consumption.

[…]

Today, buttermilk-fried petrale sole with pickled vegetables and parsley mayonnaise, served at Chez Panisse Café, costs the same share of a day-laborer’s earnings as the raw ingredients for two big bowls of oatmeal did in the 18th Century. Then there are all the commodities we consume that were essentially priceless in the past. If in 1786 you had wanted to listen to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in your house, you probably had to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, with a theater in your house—the Palace of Laxenberg. Today, the DVD costs $17.99 at amazon.com. (The multiplication factor for enjoying The Marriage of Figaro in your home is effectively infinite for those not named Josef von Habsburg.)

That’s a taste of Brad Delong’s fascinating new column at The Week.

MLK, BHO, and Moral Progress

It puzzles me a little that the idea of moral progress is still in such poor repute among intellectuals. It’s easy to see how Whiggish meliorism would seem naive at the center of the last century when the immense productivity gains of the modern era of growth brought “productivity” gains to the enterprise of mass coercion and death-dealing. But even then we were getting a distorted picture. That there were more people than ever alive to kill, that there was better technology with which to document concentrated carnage, led us understandably to miss that, despite all of this well-reported horror, we were on the whole becoming more civilized, more peaceful, better.

Indeed, over the past half-century, progress has been so rapid that perhaps with distance we might come to think of it as the Great Era of Moral Progress.

I was thinking about this today while reading Martin Luther King Jr’s great “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is impossible to read King’s enumeration of injustices — injustices still fresh in the memories of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations — and to not feel sickened and then gladdened at the staggering moral distance we’ve traveled in such a short time.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

To say that we are better, that our moral culture has progressed, is not to say that it could not be better still. But thanks to MLK, to those who marched beside him, and to the tens of millions to whom he gave such a powerful voice, we have become better. The idea that ours is a culture in moral stagnation or decline is simply preposterous. Martin Luther King Day is an excellent time to expose the silliness of the moral stasists and declinists. It’s an excellent time to celebrate the profound and rapid progress we have made, and can continue to make.

Now, I’m cynical about the romantic personality cult around Barack Obama because I am cynical about the romantic personality cult around the American presidency, which, because it is contemptible and stupid, demands cynicism. I think I’m not being cynical about liberal democratic politics when I concede that it is a very advanced, civilized, and relatively peaceful form of organized coalitional agression. But I’m definitely not cynical about what Barack Obama’s election means in light of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I’m admiring, I’m proud, of that.

Because I intend to be pretty hard on Obama, the politician, and his starry-eyed, mush-headed followers, I think it’s important to note that it’s not only possible, but morally recommended, to assume a posture that ought to be comfortable, but is in fact culturally awkward. One should both recognize in Obama a real symbol of morally meaningful cultural change and attack the romance of democracy and the cult of the presidency — because that is the direction of further moral progress.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

The Lost World

I find myself somehow charmed by this no-room-for-satirization Austin Bramwell post. It perfectly exemplifies the quaint essence of elite American conservatism: a sense of grievance at the loss of exclusive WASP folkways. 

For the well-heeled, perhaps the biggest problem with economic growth is that eventually one is forced to compete with the hoi polloi for non-manufacturable goods. In this example, to avoid entirely the snowboarding philistines, one ends up having to own a mountain. But in what kind of damnable world must a Yale man be that rich in order to carve virgin powder?

I feel Bramwell’s circle and its habits should be the subject of a careful ethnography, or declared endangered and legally protected, before all is lost. Perhaps he could be placed in a handsome diorama on weekends, so that snowboarding American slobs can contemplate first-hand just how much gracious living their vulgar appetites have displaced.

What We Need More of Is Science

I’m all in favor of this.

Increasing prosperity and longevity are mainly driven by scientific advance. Productivity enhancements within science increase the pace of discovery, which increases productivity enhancement generally, which increases the pace of productivity enhancement within science, which increases the pace of discovery, etc. The way scientific discovery, given the right kind of institutional-economic environment, be self-accelerating is, I think, underappreciated. And I suspect losses in prosperity and longevity from over-zealous IP protection may be underestimated.

[HT: Fat Knowledge]

Complementarity and Contingency

Tyler Cowen’s post on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is fascinating. 

The main point, in economic language, is that human talent is heterogeneous and that the talent of a particular person must mesh with the capital structure of his or her time if major success is to result.

[…]

It is too easy to find contingency in the world and Gladwell doesn’t begin to look for a theory of which contingencies are interesting or not.

[…]

Gladwell descends into the swamp of contingency but he is unwilling to really live in it and take it seriously or, alternatively, to find a way out. 

In reality the complementarity concept is easier to work with and also more fruitful for thinking about policy implications or for that matter the implications for management or talent training.  Success is fragile but foster competing cultures based on clusters of talent motivated by rivalry and emulation.  Don’t filter out the eccentrics or the risk takers.  That’s about where David Hume ended up but Gladwell never gets anywhere close.

I agree with Tyler, especially that Hume is teh awesome, but I’d like to emphasize the contingency of complementarity. Tomorrow’s capital structure may be too different from today’s to attempt to cultivate in young people the talents that will mesh with it. Who knows what those will be? As the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, this will be an ever bigger issue. For example, nobody I knew had heard of the Internet when I was in high school. But I spent a huge amount of my time in college talking to people on the Internet. Without it, I’d probably be a high school art teacher today. With it, I’m doing everything I’m doing instead. All my best opportunities came from meeting people in online discussion groups and having a blog. That’s weird!

Naomi Klein

Is an angry fish, wondering where her water went. Naomi Klein is a Catholic without a Pope. Naomi Klein cannot believe it all turned out this way. Naomi Klein wants to sell you a better buggy whip. Naomi Klein is brought to you by the objects of her confused contempt. Naomi Klein “believes her own bullshit.”

On the topic of Naomi Klein’s recent contribution to human ignorance, Brad DeLong offers Keynes’ retort to Trotsky. Let’s freshen this up a bit and ask Klein to consider the thoughts of another disappointed hereditary communist. Here is the late Richard Rorty in “The End of Leninism and History as Comic Frame” speaking to Naomi Klein and her comrades:

The events of 1989 have convinced those who were trying to hold on to Marxism that we need a way of holding our time in thought, and a plan for making the future better than the present, which drops reference to capitalism, bourgeois ways of life, bourgeois ideology, or the working class. We must give up on the Marxist blur, as Marx and Dewey gave up on the Hegelian blur. We can no longer use the term “capitalism” to mean both “a market economy” and “the source of all contemporary injustice.” We can no longer tolerate the ambiguity between capitalism as a way of financing industrial production and capitalism as The Great Bad Thing that accounts for most contemporary human misery. Nor can we use the term “bourgeois ideology” to mean “beliefs suited for societies centered around market economies” and “everything in our language and habits of thought which, if replaced, would make human happiness and freedom more easily realizable.”

Rorty, regretfully agreeing with Alan Ryan and Jurgen Habermas that market economies appear to be part of the best we can hope for, suggests other dissappointed Marxists should just go ahead and drop their jargon, which turns out to be good for little more than signaling to one another. “It would be a good idea,” Rorty argues “to stop talking about ‘the anticapitalist struggle’ and to substitute something banal and untheoretical — something like ‘the struggle against against avoidable human misery.'”

Naomi Klein did not get this memo, or she burned it. Naomi Klein took 1989 with less honesty and grace than did Richard Rorty. Indeed, a yearning for the restoration of 1988 rises from every page of Naomi Klein oeuvre. Indeed, that’s a decent account of her project: to restore, in the early 21st Century, the sense that one can be a real intellectual, and not something like a young Earth creationist, while believing what even Richard Rorty could not believe after 1989.

But let’s not give Rorty too much credit here, either. To see “the struggle against avoidable human misery” as “banal and untheoretical” is ridiculous. That human beings should not suffer, that suffering is avoidable, that we should not simply reconcile ourselves to its inevitability and retreat to the consolations of mysticism, is an invention of modernity, and central to the ideology of progressive liberalism. The struggle to improve human welfare is banal only in contrast to the expectation of something much more romantic, dramatic, and stupid, such as the consummation of history through the revolutionary remaking of human society. And that is precisely what Rorty rightly says that it is baseless to expect and wrong to want.

But Klein wants it. And Rorty’s bourgeois petty reformism must seem anything but untheoretical; it is certainly ideological. And the struggle against avoidable human misery is evidently still not good enough, for Klein exhibits a rare genius in carefully avoiding the ample and well-understood body of knowledge about how human misery is best avoided.

Conspiracy theory will always find an audience among the ignorant, but there is no real chance that Naomi Klein matters much in the end. There is Naomi Klein and then there is the way the world is. Well-functioning market institutions will continue to lift the world’s poor from misery. It remains that Milton Friedman did immensely more to avoid avoidable human misery than did three generations of Richard Rortys and Naomi Kleins, who in stark contrast helped drive tens of millions of human beings straight into it. And Naomi Klein is a  dishonest, self-infatuated hack. With a little help from people who know what they are talking about, it all works itself out.

[Next up in the “What You’re Searching For” series: “Mormon”]

Bourgeois Deeds

I just discovered that Deidre McCloskey has posted on her website a draft [doc] of the second volume of her work on bourgeois virtues. For those of us who love the history and anthropology of morality and economic history and rhetoric and political economy, McCloskey’s hard to beat for interestingness value.

HT: David Boaz

No Limits to Growth

Here is a thumbnail sketch of my position on the sustainability of economic growth. What do you think is wrong with it?

(a) energy is not scarce; the historically most efficient sources (oil, coal, etc.) are;

(b) a well-functioning price system will shift energy consumption to (cleaner) alternative energy sources as prices for historical extracted sources of energy rise;

(c) the initial high price of alternative energy will temporarily slow growth, but competition and technological progress will eventually push prices below the historical trend and even asymptotically approach zero, increasing average rates of growth;

(d) environmental quality is a global public good, but;

(e) this is most likely to be secured as a consequence of growth — as a consequence of the technological innovation that both creates and is created by growth — together with the rising scarcity and prices of the most environmentally degrading energy sources.

So,

(f) there are no meaningful limits to growth from either the scarcity of energy, or from negative environmental externalities from economic production, since in the medium run, those externalities are positive.

America: Actually Quite Poor!

I read Kevin Phillips cover article [$$$] in this month’s Harper‘s, and thought he was completely crazy. First of all, I was amazed that they printed an article largely about one of my pet interests, the methodology of the Consumer Price Index, which I thought was a bit too esoteric for a general readership. But I was really baffled by Phillips’ claim that the CPI massively underestimates inflation. Phillips thinks the Boskin revisions were a big mistake, despite the fact that they were very conservative, and most economists who know about this that I have talked to think the problem goes in the opposite direction. Tyler is his usual ambassadorial self in his blog review of Phillips’ book Bad Money when he says:

Either the current market estimate of inflation is the best estimate available, or you know that it is wrong and you will be a very rich man.  I find the former scenario more plausible.

But thankfully he really lays it out there in his comments:

A lot of the Phillips book is simply economically illiterate. For sure America has its economic problems, but they are not the ones identified in *Bad Money*

Perhaps it is time to convene an Overcoming Bias colloquy about how it is that estimates of the trend in real wealth can be so massively divergent.

Fact of the Day

From Tyler Cowen:

When a Pole moves to London he can buy many more goods and services.  It’s a big move up in real income plus lots of new goods are introduced to the consumption basket.  So when there is lots of voluntary movement from poorer to richer regions, changes in measured income will understate some of the true gains.

The other measurement understated is the reduction in real consumption inequality.