Edward Glaeser: valueless agent for a valueless system
My last post was on the values (and value) of economists and I’ll stay with that theme again for another day. It’s an important subject for any critique of capitalism since, as noted many times here, economics is the intellectual propaganda organ for a valueless socioeconomic system in which people are mere commodities to be bought and sold. To provide a support role for such a valueless system, economics itself must be valueless and we find unsurprisingly that one of its most treasured canons is that it’s a non-normative “positive” science.
The spark for this post is an article in today’s New York Times by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, flippantly entitled “Goodbye, Golden Years”, in which he puts a happy smiley face on the sharply declining quality of life of American seniors. It’s an excellent demonstration of the lack of values in both the economics profession and in the overall system for which it speaks.
Glaeser ably documents the declining living standards most Americans have suffered in the past decades. “By the 1980s, retirement at age 65 was nearly universal for American workers. Today, however, 36.5 percent of 65- to 69-year-old men are still part of America’s labor force.” And an additional “450,000 Americans 65 and older are unemployed and looking to work.” “Many”, he notes, are forced to keep working “or at least continue to look for work, because they feel they can’t afford not to. Nearly 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-old Americans don’t have retirement accounts. Less than a quarter of this group owns a single stock or savings bond”.
This sad state of affairs of course can’t be blamed on the system, it’s the worker’s fault for having been such a glutinous spender. “American households saved less than 4 percent of their incomes for every year between 1999 and 2008” and “A nation that prefers spending to saving is going to find it difficult to enjoy a comfortable retirement”. Glaeser conveniently ignores the reality that wages have consistently declined not only in the cited period but since the 1970’s as feudal-like inequality has directed all economic gains from rising productivity to the very top tiers.
As a system of propaganda, economics is always being forced into counterintuitive doctrines of the Orwellian black is white type. Keynes himself noted that “The extraordinary achievement of the classical theory was to overcome the beliefs of the ‘natural man’ and, at the same time, to be wrong”. Glaeser is inevitably forced down this path with the outlandish valueless claim: “It’s counterintuitive, but the forever work life of older Americans may turn out to be a good thing for young workers”. One can just imagine our youth celebrating in the streets over their “forever work” future. There is no value here, no purpose; only endless work in the service of producing ever more commodities.
Glaeser goes on to assure our highly unemployed youth that their desperately over-worked grandparents aren’t competition for their jobs as “Over time, growth and innovation can create plentiful new work opportunities”. There’s ever rising evidence though that we’re entering a completely new world of vastly more sophisticated labor replacing technology. In fact, the biggest contest will far more likely be a “race against the machine” rather than against grandma and grandpa. On what evidence is Glaeser so optimistic about future employment? Nothing, it seems, other than the historical fact that employment expanded between 1975 and 2000. This is a pretty thin ice extrapolation, not only because job saving technology is far more advanced today, but also because the 1975 to 2000 period, in which wages declined we mustn’t forget, was dominated by debt fueled bubbles.
Like many right wing ideologues, Glaeser brings in a left wing figure to demonstrate an appearance of moderation and breadth of reading. John Kenneth Galbraith, an ardent critic of capitalism, serves this purpose here as Glaeser, calling him a “colleague”, remembers that he “imagined an ‘affluent society’ in which we would be able ‘to dispense with the labor of those who have reached retiring age’”. “The Affluent Society” is my favorite work of Galbraith’s and is one of the inspirations for many of my posts. In it, Galbraith sees economic thought as erroneously rooted in past eras of poverty and economic peril which are no longer relevant. We’re now in an affluent era where wants are mere creations of the circular process in which they’re satisfied. Welfare isn’t necessarily advanced by higher production levels and we’re committed to it, not for the sake of the goods, but for the economic security that employment brings. Since demand wouldn’t exist if it weren’t contrived, its utility or urgency is zero and the marginal utility of aggregate output is zero. Attitudes and values which make production the central achievement of our society are very twisted, he wisely writes. When people are unemployed, we don’t miss the goods they would have produced, they’re only marginal but the unemployed desperately miss the income. Galbraith sums up his argument with this tremendous insight: “To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it, and to fail to proceed thence to the next tasks would be fully as tragic.”
Descending from the great heights of Galbraith, we return to Death Valley as Glaeser sheds a few crocodile tears: “It’s a source of common sorrow that his words — and their promise — turned out to be a mirage. While I feel sorry for every American who … wants to retire but can’t, there is a lot to like in this surge of experienced workers”.
Typical of all mainstream economists, Glaeser demonstrates the lack of moral vision needed for a protagonist of a system in which the production of commodities is the only principle and where we easily accept homelessness, poverty, massive student debts, substandard health care, and have no problem placing unending workloads on our parents and grandparents. All at a time, as Galbraith saw back in the 1950’s, when the production problem has been solved and our biggest difficulty is finding work to do.
I can’t finish without quickly noting another NYT Glaeser article written a few months ago that gives us further insight into the political nature of economics. The article’s entitled “The Rule of Economics in an Imperfect World”. He starts by claiming that “economics has plenty to contribute to the war of ideas” and proceeds to explain the “canonical” status of “the distinction between positive and normative economics”. “Positive economics attempts to understand the world as it is; normative economics describes how the world should be”, he tells us channeling Milton Friedman, and “One reason that I’ve enjoyed writing (in the New York Times) is its emphasis on the positive economics that is the real heart of the discipline”. As noted, economics as a propaganda industry for a valueless system must itself be valueless.
But Glaeser quickly proceeds to expose himself and his valueless industry as a complete fraud. Despite his non-normative pretensions, he writes this on the what turns out to be very normative ideologies animating economics.
There is a strong predisposition within economics to emphasize individual freedom. Our theories start with the assumption that giving individuals more choices is a good thing — and that assumption leads to the view that people benefit from having more money or lower prices for the goods that they buy.
Economics marries a predilection for personal freedom with a longstanding tendency to view the interests of the government as being distinct from the welfare of the people.
In the 18th century, it seemed clear that what was good for King George III was not necessarily good for Britain and certainly was not necessarily good for his American subjects.
Democratic revolutions muddied the waters and made it possible for some to think that the government was a faultless servant of the people’s will, but a healthy skepticism about the benevolence (and competence) of the state continued within economics.
In short, economics is a normative ideology that defends private economic power, individual rather than collective action, private goods versus public, and has an antipathy to democracy, a political system inherently threatening to concentrated ownership.
He concludes by assuring us that “The world isn’t and shouldn’t be run by economists — many perspectives need to be at the table. But economists have plenty to add: formal models, statistical evidence, a focus on freedom and a sophisticated centuries-old approach to public policy.”
The world, at least beyond Greece and Italy, isn’t run by economists, but it’s increasingly evident it’s tightly managed by the power the economists serve. And it’s a very limited “centuries old” definition of freedom and “public policy” that rules from the gold and marble halls of power to the economic halls of Harvard and beyond.