Friday, November 21, 2008

Public Vice

I have to admit that there have always been apparently basic things about economics that have been incomprehensible to me. One example of this can be exemplified by an image that has, for me, been symbolic of the Great Depression as a whole: piles of apples, with prices set ridiculously low, yet going to waste, rotting, because still no one can afford them. Deflation, of course (link via American Leftist).

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman, every Liberal's favorite economist, wrote about the decline in American consumption, the "long-feared capitulation of American consumers". In doing so, he touches on another example of what I'm talking about. He provides some numbers showing this decline in consumption and reminds us that this is unusual, since Americans "almost never cut spending". Americans, of course, have been without any manufacturing base for some time and have thus long since been relegated to the role of the world's consumers. Krugman doesn't say anything about this. He does, however, try to explain why the "timing of the new sobriety is deeply unfortunate". He writes:
. . .one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.
Here, Krugman helps me to better understand what my problem has been. We are continually told that, collectively, we do not save enough--Americans' savings rate is effectively zero--while at the same time we are constantly told to consume more, that consumption will save us. Krugman's paragraph essentially makes it plain that the economic system does not serve people, rather people serve the system. Not that this was news to me.

My problem with the phenomenon of the rotting apples was that, in my youth and ignorance, I did not understand why the price of the apples mattered; I didn't understand why they couldn't simply be given to people. And yet, I felt that there must be some obscure reason, and I had no doubt it would be a good one and that if I studied economics I would grasp it. The fact, however, is that there is no good reason. But we've so internalized the idea that capitalism is the natural order of things that we simply accept the notion that food can and will go to waste alongside masses of people starving to death.

Krugman's article points to another element of capitalism that is deeply troubling. Any system in which "individual virtue can be public vice", in the manner in which he is discussing, is simply and profoundly wrong.

Since what I'm suggesting with the example of the apples sounds dangerously like communism, allow me to close with a quote from an article by David Graeber (link via From Despair to Where?--apologies to Stuart for quoting much of the same passage!):
Consider here the term "communism." Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy, and this is an impossible utopian dream because history has shown it simply "doesn't work." Capitalism, however unpleasant, is thus the only remaining option. But in fact communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"—which is the way pretty much everyone always act if they are working together to get something done. If two people are fixing a pipe and one says "hand me the wrench," the other doesn’t say, "and what do I get for it?"(That is, if they actually want it to be fixed.) This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. This is also the reason whole cities or countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters, or economic collapse (one might say, in those circumstances, markets and hierarchical chains of command are luxuries they can’t afford.) The more creativity is required, the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be: that's why even Republican computer engineers, when trying to innovate new software ideas, tend to form small democratic collectives. It's only when work becomes standardized and boring—as on production lines—that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism.
(This passage is strikingly similar to that found in a pamphlet I read a few years back--called, I think, "What is Anarchism?". The simple idea was that anarchism is what we do everyday in order to get things done. I found this to be a remarkably liberating idea. Meanwhile, the other day I rejected a comment from a brave anonymous soul, which read as follows: "Please leave the Western world. We have no room for socialists. We like our people independent of mind and carefully guarding and accumulating property." No doubt.)


Anonymous said...

It was irony, my dear friend. I'm sorry it wasn't clear to you. I kind of thought "carefully guarding and accumulating property" could only be understood ironically. My bad. I have trouble with this kind of thing at other blogs too. Do you think in future I should adopt some kind of code? You know, like >I< to indicate irony, >M< to indicate metaphor or other figure of speech, >W< to indicate that it's difficult for me to devote my full attention right now because I'm being waterboarded.

Anonymous said...

"The simple idea was that anarchism is what we do everyday in order to get things done."

I like it! Reminds me of this anecdote. I was doing a stall for the Radical Anthropology Group at the Anarchist Bookfair last year. Some guy was flicking through some of the literature and said, "Interesting, but is it anarchist?" To which someone retorted, "If it's true, it's anarchist." Nice line!

Richard said...

Thanks, Stuart.

And Mr. Anon, yes, those words, by themselves, appear to be obviously ironic. So have your fun. But there's irony and there's irony. There are those who ironically say what they really mean, whereby it becomes merely sarcasm. If you had commented non-anonymously, and if your previous anonymous comments here had not been obnoxious and abusive, then I might have been inclined to let it pass as simply irony.