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Thoughts on Capitalism & Stuff

Stereotypes are positive and negative. But no matter the distinction, they are always harmful to someone. Like all stereotypes, there exists several unfounded, uncritical and plainly false ideas about how a particular person, apparatus, system, work which then culminate into a belief system. In the case of capitalism (or the U.S’s current iteration of meritocratic liberal capitalism), the dominating stereotype (among others) is that there is no need for its abolition because everyone has equal opportunity to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, and everyone who doesn’t is thus making a choice not to do so thus deserving of any punitive consequence that comes to them as a result of their poor choices. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the old adage goes. But in today’s corporate-controlled capitalist economy, an overwhelming majority of us are sinking. The amount of people with the share of boats are shrinking at a breakneck pace.

If you consider yourself a reasonable person or especially if you’re religious, you can sympathize with the thrust that science does not prove anything. In fact, many science communities make this a crucial point about what scientific inquiry is all about. Nor do any of these sciences as a whole purport this as their mission. Whether it is astrophysics, climate/earth science, or geology or archeology, none of these scientific enterprises claims to prove (or disprove) anything nor does it require you to believe emergent truths at a glance without further, critical examination on your own.

Economics, by contrast, is a social science. And a shared characteristic economics shares with all sciences, is that we economists (again, except maybe a handful of some real disagreeable ass clowns) do not purport as a discipline to prove anything, just as a physicist would tell you that their research proves the existence (or non-existence) of God. That would be irresponsible in my view as well as malpractice, and I think many scientists would agree. Similarly, just like those scientists from other disciplines, all we as economists can really do is give you a reason we think something is true, thus drawing an inference from the amalgam of research, then offer compelling enough evidence so as to either (1) give you much less of a reason to believe something is true or false based off your prior beliefs and likely limited/bad information you’ve got or (2) give you enough reason to believe your prior beliefs are false/unfounded altogether. This is the quiet objective of the work of many economists, working in tandem with the production of reliable and thoroughgoing literature that could leave little doubt in your mind that you’re wrong about some economic phenomena as well as help you to see the associated costs of wrong beliefs. The goal is to disabuse you of nonsense and unshackle you to orthodox myths, just as it is the mission of physics to unshackle you from myths or misconceptions of the natural environment around you and enlighten you on working mechanics and phenomena of the universe. The only difference is that there actually exists observable natural “laws” in a science like physics that certain things–gravity, turbulence, orbit, electrical waves, etc.–abide by. How do we know how the trajectory of the moon or the weight of our mother planet? Because physicists can directly measure and observe it. By contrast, there are no such things as natural, determined, inevitable economic laws, but there are observable legal rules and sociological phenomena that govern the economy.

Another contrast between economics and physics for instance, is that you cannot always trust your eyes or other senses to tell you the trust about your world. Often times, as one attempts to reconcile what’s going on around them against popular, traditional wisdom so widely recycled in accessible media, the latter tends to win out, and equations of what is ethical are subsumed by narratives that reinforce objectionable policy and laws. Knee-jerk reactions are a good indicators for the need to further examine what you really believe. For example, statistical regularities and data are not to be taken as truth without context and critical analysis. They are simply there, existing, and it is up to the economist/statistician to draw inferences from them (which themselves have biases). For sure, it is an indescribably large moral imperative that the economist understands the responsibility of interpreting such data. Staying committed to the bit of the intransigent troglodyte (regardless if you’re a scientist or non-scientist), either willfully ignorant to new perspectives/information or just flat-out denying emergent truths/realities is, in my view, a deeply impoverished way of thinking.

This brings me to my next point: Denialism. Economists of all stripes as well as politicians, researchers, and otherwise non-economists are guilty of this. There is no shortage of well-informed, insightful research available to understand that capitalism is a failed experiment, a system broken beyond repair. It is brutal and unforgiving and, while it has brought immense and unprecedented prosperity, only few have realized the gains. Growing the economic pie does not automatically translate to equitable trickling down of material gains, and who gets to keep the gains is increasingly and obscenely concentrated and controlled within a small minority of hands.

We must ask ourselves what the costs are for all this realized prosperity. Who’s prosperity and at what costs? Historically and indeed today, the answer is the cost of human lives and a healthy, properly functioning society and democracy.

Likewise, it is important to note that it is not only the equitable distribution of each pie slice that capitalism (an amalgam of particular entangled legal/socioeconomic/political arrangements) deems impossible. It is also how these goods and services are produced and the management systems (which are close derivative of management systems created so that slavery could thrive) that make it possible to produce a more egalitarian economic.

Over the past several decades, neoliberal economic policies and aggressive austerity measures have been the direct cause of this constant state of anguish and torment. And academic economics has justified the rhetoric of sacrificed values in the service of “efficiency.” I do not believe this is the kind of trajectory we should desire, not the least bit because of how morally objectionable it is for the wealthiest country in the history of humankind to actively refuse to take necessary action that would erase homelessness and poverty over something as trivial as money, which we print ourselves and have an unlimited amount of. I believe we can demand more and should demand more of our political leaders. They only way to change is by demanding political change on higher ethical standards and common solidarity with the most vulnerable, which in turn effects the laws necessary to combat capitalism (which itself is defined by certain laws). Political mobilization is of course important, because political contest is the only way laws will change. The state is the only entity with the capacity to enact these laws.

Capitalism is literally killing us, and all of the lukewarm and half-baked bullshit neolib policies that got us here (from environmental policy to education policy) are products of ignorance, evil, and the endurance of bipartisan compromise. If we are going to improve material conditions for the other 99%, we need to demand an end to the era of austerity politics and punitive laws and adopt a politics (and economics) of care.

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