Reckoning With Competitive Capitalism

“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral:
namely, that a man is always prey to his truths”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)

I wrote a post about 2½ years ago (Aug. 31, 2017) with the same title as this one. It referred to University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak’s book Economism, which warns against “the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society.” Prof. Kwak defines “economism” as “a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge,” and makes the case that free market ideology is guilty of it:

“The competitive market model can be a powerful tool, but it is only starting point in illuminating complex real-world issues, not the final word. In the real world, many other factors complicate the picture, sometimes beyond recognition.”

As we’ve seen, free market economic theory is based on the assumption of a “pure” capitalist state. Prof. Kwak calls for a new approach that meets the complex challenges of real life:

“Real change will not be achieved by mastering the details of marginal costs and marginal benefits, but by constructing a new, controlling narrative about how the world works.”

“Reckoning” means “a narrative account” and “a settling of accounts,” as in “Day of reckoning.”[1] A reckoning on economic policy therefore begins with an examination of  whether the prevailing ideology actually delivers what it theoretically promises. Honest reckoning is hard, because the neural circuits of our brains are predisposed to maintain status quo and resist change to both individual and cultural belief systems. The difficulty is amplified when fundamentalist ideology is at play, because  reckoning threatens historical cultural mythology, which is tantamount to sacrilege.

 “History is powerful. George Santayana’s warning that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ rings true because the past influences the present.

“Unfortunately, history’s power does not depend on its accuracy:  A widely believed historical lie can have as much impact as a historical truth.

“President John F. Kennedy explained to Yale’s graduating class of 1962 that ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest —  but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears…. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”

The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019)

Change that breaks with predominant ideologies and historical cultural myths requires more than individual changes of opinion:  it needs shifts in cultural belief and practice, and a willingness to learn from history. The odd are stacked against it, for reasons Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent Chris Hedges describes in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014):

“Every society, ethnic group or religion nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of the nation or the movement itself. These myths lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to rise ascendant, to define and glorify followers or member in times of crisis. National myths are largely benign in times of peace…. They do not pose a major challenge to real historical study or a studied tolerance of others in peacetime.

“But national myths ignite a collective amnesia in war. They give past generations a nobility and greatness they never possessed…. They are stoked by the entertainment industry, in school lessons, stories, and quasi-historical ballads, preached in mosques, or championed in absurd historical dramas that are always wildly popular during war.

“Almost every group, and especially every nation, has such myths. These myths are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict.

“Archeology, folklore, and the search for what is defined as authenticity are the tools used by nationalists to assail others and promote themselves. They dress it up as history, but it is myth.

“Real historical inquiry, in the process, is corrupted, assaulted, and often destroyed. Facts become interchangeable as opinions. Those facts that are inconvenient are discarded or denied. The obvious inconsistencies are ignored by those intoxicated with a newly found sense of national pride, and the exciting prospect of war.”

All of this makes the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation and the World Economic Forum’s Davos Manifesto (we looked at them last time) all the more remarkable, since they defy four decades of the prevailing economic myth that “The [sole] social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

On the other hand, a recent administrative order imposing work requirements on food stamps recipients offers an equally remarkable example of myth-driven policy-making. According to ABC News (Dec. 4, 2019), proponents say the move will “restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population” — clearly a nod to the cultural myth that anybody with enough gumption (and enough education, funded by the newly nationalized student loan industry) can work their way out of poverty, and if they don’t, it’s their own fault. As we’ve seen, data to support this way of thinking has long been absent, but the myth prevails, and never mind that “all the rule change does is strip people from accessing the benefit,” that the food stamp program “is intended to address hunger and not compel people to work,” and that “those affected are impoverished, tend to live in rural areas, often face mental health issues and disabilities.”

Economism was published on January 10, 2017, just shy of three years ago as I write this. Today’s “Reckoning” post was inspired by a Time Magazine cover story last month:  How the Elites Lost Their Grip: in 2019, America’s 1% behaved badly and helped bring about a reckoning with capitalism, Time Magazine (Dec. 2-9, 2019). We’ll look at what it says about economic reckoning next time.

[1] Etymology Online.

Economic Fundamentalism

We saw last time that the goal of Chicago School free market economics was to promote “noncontaminated capitalism,” which in turn would generate societal economic utopia:

“The market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

To the School’s free market advocates, these ideas were pure science:

“The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. If follows ineluctably that if something is wrong with a free-market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free.”

The Shock Doctrine

Scientific method requires that theories be falsifiable:  you have to be able to objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

But how do you prove an economic theory based on “uncontaminated capitalism” in an economically contaminated world?

“The challenge for Friedman and his colleagues was not to prove that a real work market could live up to their rapturous imaginings…. Friedman could not point to any living economy that proved if all ‘distortions’ were stripped away, what would be left would be a society in perfect health and bounteous, since no country in the world met the criteria for perfect laissez-faire. Unable to test their theories in central banks and ministries of trade, Friedman and his colleagues had to settle for elaborate and ingenious mathematical equations and computer models.”

The Shock Doctrine

Mathematical equations and computer models aren’t the same as empirical data collected in the real (“contaminated”) world. If falsifiability is what separates scientific knowledge from belief-based ideology, then Friedman’s free market theory is the latter. Some scientists are worried that this spin on scientific theorizing has become too prevalent nowadays:

 “In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all…. For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

But Is It Science?

The Chicago School believed so ardently in the free market theory that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of belief-based indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”

The Shock Doctrine

This dynamic applies to every ideology that can’t be falsified — verified empirically. The ideology then becomes a fundamentalist belief system:

“Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers a closed loop. The Chicago solution is always the same:  a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.:

The Shock Doctrine

Journalist Chris Hedges describes the dynamics of “secular fundamentalism” in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. (The book’s title is too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”)

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others…. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

Thus we have Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously saying, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself” — a statement entirely in keeping with the Mont Pelerin  Society’s idealistic Statement of Aims, which we looked at last time.

And thus we also have Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz countering with his thoughts about economics in a contaminated (“pathological”) world:

“The advocates of free markets in all their versions say that crises are rare events, though they have been happening with increasing frequency as we change the rules to reflect beliefs in perfect markets. I would argue that economists, like doctors, have much to learn from pathology. We see more clearly in these unusual events how the economy really functions. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, a peculiar doctrine came to be accepted, the so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis.’ It argued that once markets were restored to full employment, neoclassical principles would apply. The economy would be efficient. We should be clear: this was not a theorem but a religious belief.”

As we also saw last time, historical socialism and communism join free market capitalism in their fundamentalist zeal. In fact, some think that economics in general has become today’s dominant cultural form of belief-based thinking. More on that next time.