All posts filed under: Economics

The Limits of Expertise

“People are sick of experts.” These infamous and much-derided words uttered by UK Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove express a sentiment with which we are now probably all familiar. It has come to represent a sign of the times—either an indictment or a celebration (depending on one’s political point of view) of our current age. Certainly, the disdain for expertise and its promised consequences have been highly alarming for many people. They are woven through various controversial and destabilising phenomena from Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, to the generally ‘anti-elitist’ tone that characterises populist politics and much contemporary discourse. And this attitude stands in stark contrast to the unspoken but assumed Obama-era doctrine of “let the experts figure it out”; an idea that had a palpable End of History feeling about it, and that makes this abrupt reversion to ignorance all the more startling. The majority of educated people are fairly unequivocal in their belief that this rebound is a bad thing, and as such many influential voices—Quillette‘s included—have been doing their best to restore …

Growing Up in a Progressive Utopia

I grew up in one of the most progressive societies in the history of humanity. The gap between the rich and poor was tiny compared to the current gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ we find across much of the West. Access to education was universal and students were paid to study and offered free accommodation. Healthcare was available to all and free at the point of use. Racial tensions were non-existent, with hundreds of different ethnic groups living side by side in harmony under the mantra of ‘Friendship of the Peoples.’ Women’s equality was at the very heart of Government policy. According to the prevailing ideology “all forms of inequality were to be erased through the abolition of class structures and the shaping of an egalitarian society based on the fair distribution of resources among the people.” You are probably wondering whether the idyllic nation from which I hail is Sweden or Iceland. It was the Soviet Union. In modern Britain the top 10 percent earn 24 times as much as the bottom 10 …

Two Arguments for Inequality

Social inequality is amongst the most contentious and prominent social issues in the twenty-first century. After declining significantly in the mid-twentieth century, inequality has now reached stark levels. A recent Credit Suisse report indicated that the globe’s richest 1 percent are on track to own half of the world’s wealth. In November 2017, Forbes reported that the three wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million. The disparity between those who have a great deal, and those with much less, has grown so stark that in his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century economist Thomas Piketty warned that we might be entering a new “Gilded Age.” It would be driven by a global class of individuals who enjoy vast inherited wealth, demonstrate little allegiance to the nation state and its tax laws, and commit themselves to further entrenching their social power. These prompts raise the question of what can possibly justify such stark inequities; especially in a global context where the World Bank estimates that in 2013 roughly 767 million individuals lived on …

Does Religion Impede Economic Development?

In the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses that propelled the Protestant Reformation, it is timely to recall that the shockwaves were not just confined to Christian doctrinal matters but were central to the rise of industrial capitalism that transformed the whole world. This thesis was set out in the most famous link between religion/ethics and economic development by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1904. I should like to make the claim that it has relevance in the present day in regard to the development of the Global South. In the introductory chapter, Weber makes some forceful observations that are of considerable importance to the goal of global development: “Only in the West does science exist at a stage of development which we recognize today as valid … A rational chemistry has been absent from all areas of culture except the West … [A] rational, systematic, and specialized pursuit of science, with trained and specialized personnel, has only existed in the West in a sense at all approaching its …

Crown and Consternation

A UK survey conducted in 2014 found that, in the previous year, only 1 in 50 actors had made more than £20,000 (the UK mean income was £29,172). 46 percent of actors made less than £1,000, and a further 30 percent only made between £1000 and £5000. With this context in mind, consider the outrage produced by the recent revelation that the £40,000 Claire Foy received for every episode of The Crown in which she appeared was less than the amount paid to her male co-star, Matt Smith. Foy played Queen Elizabeth in the hugely successful Netflix drama, and Smith played the Duke of Edinburgh. Apparently, the large sums involved do not affect the principle at issue. And that principle is important. Confusingly, however, it has been impossible to discern what this principle actually is. A variety of alternatives have been offered, but none of them makes much sense. For example, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, by now well known for her views on equal pay, tweeted the following: This is beyond parody. She played the most powerful woman in the …

What Has Capitalism Ever Done For Us?

When bemoaning the evils of capitalism, often from the soapbox of internet-connected smartphones or laptops, opponents of the free market are wont to wax lyrical about increasing income inequality. The rich are richer than ever before, because they hog obscene amounts of wealth that could be put to better use by plebs who are slaves to ‘the man,’ oppressed under the obligation that they toil endlessly for their wage. Like Reggie in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, they demand to know: “What has capitalism ever done for us?” In the mouth of the anti-capitalist activist, ‘capitalism’ has become a dirty word. It conjures images of bloated, greedy, rich one-percenters reclining behind piles of cash as they exploit their low paid workers, hoarding profits borne of the ethic of consumerism, which manifests itself in millions of brainwashed souls mindlessly handing over their meagre earnings for the instant gratification that comes from buying the next unneeded gizmo. Such a dreary summation sells capitalism short. Capital itself is nothing more than privately owned money or assets used …

Get ‘Em While They’re Young

A review of: Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak, 2017, MIT Press and Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young, by Helen Razer, 2017, Allen & Unwin. A century after the Bolshevik Revolution, and a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, somehow the Marxist dream is still alive and kicking. There are some who see the fading embers of communism not as a dark reminder of past horrors, but as an opportunity to usher in a new blaze. Keenly aware of millenials’ growing discontent with the status quo, they are reaching for the tinder-box. German writer Bini Adamczak’s Communism for Kids is a paean for the ideology written in the form of a children’s story. As its translator into English noted in the New York Times, the book seeks to convey the virtues of communism in a much simpler way than is usually done by economists, political scientists and policy experts. This involves cute animations of a talking factory, whose obsession with producing more and more stuff makes its workers very unhappy …

Academic Journal Publishing is Headed for a Day of Reckoning

Imagine a researcher working under deadline on a funding proposal for a new project. This is the day she’s dedicated to literature review – pulling examples from existing research in published journals to provide evidence for her great idea. Creating an up-to-date picture of where things stand in this narrow corner of her field involves 30 references, but she has access to only 27 of those via her library’s journal subscriptions. Now what? There isn’t time to contact the three primary authors to get copies directly from them. Interlibrary loan will take too long. She could try other sites that host academic papers – such as ResearchGate and Sci-Hub – but access to particular articles isn’t assured and publishers are cracking down on what they call copyright violations. This fictitious example illustrates the quandary in which many researchers find themselves today. Access to journals is crucial for how they do their work. But few research libraries can afford all the journal subscriptions needed by all of their faculty for all occasions. As the dean of …

Misunderstanding Capitalism

On 3 November, Jacobin magazine hosted a public debate (available here) on the merits of capitalism. Representing Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara and Vivek Chibber made the case for the prosecution; representing libertarian magazine Reason, Nick Gillespie and Katherine Mangu-Ward made the case for the defense. Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for the New York Times, served as moderator and opened proceedings by declaring herself persuadable by either side. To the participants’ credit, it was exciting to see people of opposing viewpoints engaging in civil debate during these tribal and polarized times. Podcast: @reason debates @jacobinmag on capitalism, socialism: @nickgillespie and @kmanguward make the case for “free minds and free markets” as the best way to improve the world https://t.co/wGhCixLPDC — reason (@reason) November 16, 2017 This debate offered an opportunity to reflect on the respective merits of capitalism and socialism (the Jacobin representatives’ preferred alternative) and lessons from the past that might help us to build a better tomorrow. It was, however, also a frustrating affair, not least because of persistent misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the subject …

Universal Basic Income and the Threat of Tyranny

Much praise has been heaped on the idea of a universal basic income in recent years. Experiments have begun in many countries, some mainstream politicians are starting to advocate it, and if we listen to many thinkers, especially among the Internet and tech crowds, it seems like our inevitable future. This is quite understandable, as the idea attempts to solve a real problem: with the advance of technology, fewer and fewer people are required to produce the amount of wealth required to sustain more and more people. Rather than invent more and more artificial jobs and scarcities, why not just accept the reality of this changing world, where not all people are needed for working, and instead release them to pursue their hobbies, studies, or charity? There has been criticism of the idea, but so far the debate tends to focus on two issues: the economic reasoning behind a universal basic income, and the ethics of allowing a majority of non-workers to live off the fruits of the labour of a small minority. What is …