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August 5, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Why Oh Why Can't We Have A Better Economic Overclass?

or: They Teach the Children of California

It was annoying, but not dramatically so, when Brad Delong decided to deride a perhaps-misguided professor who, teaching a class on globalization, urged his students to consider the abusive practices that might have produced the goods they buy:

Yet he keeps buying them anyway because he has "a mortgage and child-care expenses." A stupid little Nietzschean wannabe who eagerly indulges in what he believes to be grave moral turpitude in order to save a few bucks.

It is probably very nice to live comfortably, as DeLong does, where the greatest consumer dilemma on the horizon is whether or not to buy a new iPhone. Many people, however, are not in a situation where they can afford to choose between their morals and their checkbook. Even considering that the "stupid little Nietzschean wannabe" is probably misinformed about the degree to which child and slave labor are employed, the invective still seems a little harsh and out of place.

But his insistence a few days earlier that "if you do not feel the force of [Milton Friedman's] grand argument, you need to think again" is somewhat more galling, particularly given the quotation he provides from Friedman himself:

The United States today is more than 50% socialist in terms of the fraction of our resources that are controlled by the govern ment. Fortunately, socialism is so inefficient that it does not control 50% of our lives.... The really fascinating thing is that our private sector has been so effective, so efficient, that it has been able to produce a standard of life that is the envy of the rest of the world on the basis of less than half the resources available to all of us.

As far as I have ever been able to tell, Friedman's "grand argument" has always basically amounted to sheltered, fanatical free-market boosterism. If all it takes to have a grand argument is to equate some kind of ideological principle directly to vaguely-defined terms like "freedom," then we can all have equally grand arguments, I suspect. And ponies. Speaking personally, I get better grand arguments out of cereal boxes.

But perhaps what has annoyed me most was the post which started it all, DeLong's glowing recommendation of a hit-piece on University of Chicago employees who had the temerity to object to the formation of a Milton Friedman Institute. It's a chunk of writing that, I kid you not, relies on deriding the term "global south" and accusing the writers of attending "fashionable lefty cocktail parties in Venezuela"--in other words, why do these filthy commies hate freedom? And then it tries to claim that China (!) is a fine example of Friedman's free market principles at work.

It's increasingly clear that the quality of my feedreader will be dramatically improved by removing Brad DeLong, and adding in his place Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber, who writes:

China has done very well out of managed opening of its markets and out of introducing capitalism into its domestic economy, but it hasn't followed anything like the kind of policy agenda that's described by neoliberalism, and it's still a very unfree society in political terms. [...] If Cochrane [the original author] is representative of the University of Chicago economics faculty (he says that he's speaking purely for himself, but he seems to have gathered widespread endorsement), and we're to take seriously the idea that the recent history of China is something that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute will be endorsing, analyzing, etc, then that's quite a radical reassessment of the fundamental political basis of Chicago libertarianism.

... I've no idea why so many people are calling it a 'fantastic polemic' -- you could click randomly on a list of right wing blogs and have at least a 50% chance of finding a better cliche-ridden philippic against those terrible left-wing academicessess. I suspect it's the Milton Friedman Reality Distortion Field Generator, the same strange psychophysical device that makes people believe that Friedman was a principled opponent of the PATRIOT Act and never really knew what Pinochet was planning when he recommended that trade union rights should be removed. The MFRDFG is powered by fifty per cent fear of being redbaited and fifty per cent disdain for dirty fucking hippies, and I'd regard it as a harmless intellectual defence mechanism if it didn't generate industrial pollution in the form of toxic criticisms of JK Galbraith and/or Paul Sweezy.

Indeed. I worry about the school of economic thought that insists on opening markets at the expense of anything and everything else. It seems to me like the kind of thing that can come only from an ivory tower--and reminds us that ivory is a bone often forcibly harvested from its former owners.

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