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Book Review: Inventing The Future

I.

They say “don’t judge a book by its cover”. So in case you were withholding judgment: yes, this bright red book covered with left-wing slogans is, in fact, communist. Inventing The Future isn’t technically Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ manifesto – that would be the equally-striking-looking Accelerate Manifesto. But it’s a manifesto-ish description of their plan for achieving a postcapitalist world.

S&W start with a critique of what they call “folk politics”, eg every stereotype you have of lazy left-wing activists. Protesters who march out and wave signs and then go home with no follow-up plan. Groups that avoid having any internal organization, because organization implies hierarchy and hierarchy is bad. The People’s Front of Judaea wasting all their energy warring with the Judaean People’s Front. An emphasis on spectacle and performance over results. We’ve probably all heard stories like this, but some of S&W’s are especially good, like one from an activist at a trade summit:

On April 20, the first day of the demonstrations, we marched in our thousands toward the fence, behind which 34 heads of state had gathered to hammer out a hemispheric trade deal. Under a hail of catapult-launched teddy bears, activists dressed in black quickly removed the fence’s support with bolt cutters and pulled it down with grapples as onlookers cheered them on. For a brief moment, nothing stood between us and the convention centre. We scrambled atop the toppled fence, but for the most part we went no further, as if our intention all along had been simply to replace the state’s chain-link and concrete barrier with a human one of our own making.

S&W comment:

We see here the symbolic and ritualistic nature of the actions, combined with the thrill of having done something – but with a deep uncertainty that appears at the first break with the expected narrative. The role of dutiful protester had given these activists no indication of what to do when the barriers fell. Spectacular political confrontations like the Stop the War marches, the now familiar melees against G20 or World Trade Organization and the rousing scenes of democracy in Occupy Wall Street all give the appearance of being highly significant, as if something were genuinely at stake. Yet nothing has changed, and long-term victories were traded for a simple registration of discontent.

To outside observers, it is often not even clear what the movements want, beyond expressing a generalized discontent with the world…in more recent struggles, the very idea of making demands has been questioned. The Occupy movement infamously struggled to articulate meaningful goals, worried that anything too substantial would be divisive. And a broad range of student occupations across the Western world has taken up the mantra of “no demands” under the misguided belief that demanding nothing is a radical act.

All of this is pretty standard commentary, both from leftists and from rightists making fun of them. What S&W added that I hadn’t heard before was an attempt to portray this all as coming from bad philosophy. I had always assumed most leftist groups sucked because they were primarily made of stoner college kids and homeless people, two demographics not known for their vast resources, military discipline, or top-notch management skills. But S&W believe they suck because they choose to suck, for principled reasons.

They give a few specific principles, but sum them up in the idea of prefiguration: leftist groups should embody utopian leftist values right now. If capitalism is big and complicated and inhuman, leftist groups should be small, simple, and human-scale. If capitalism is coldly rational, leftist groups should be based on transient displays of emotion. If capitalism creates highly-organized hierarchies, leftist groups should be a formless mass of equals. If capitalism is ruthlessly focused on results, leftist groups should prize the journey itself. The goal shifts from concrete results to “prefigurative experience”: where people have a sense of life outside of capitalist strictures, which then sort of mystically lights a spark that kindles revolution in the hearts of all mankind. Or something:

Even granting the problematic assumption that most people would want to live as the Occupy camps did, what efforts might be possible to physically and socially expand these spaces? When theorists face up to this question, vague hand-waving usually ensues: moments will purportedly ‘resonate’ with each other; small everyday actions will somehow make a qualitative shift to ‘crack open’ society; riots and blockades will ‘spread and multiply’; experiences will ‘contaminate’ participants and expand; pockets of prefigurative resistance will just ‘spontaneously erupt’. In any case, the difficult task of traversing from the particular to the universal, from the local to the global, from the temporary to the permanent, is elided by wishful thinking.

Is this a straw man? I have read many leftists complaining that this is what other leftists think, and relatively few leftists saying they think this – though this could be an artifact of who I read. But S&W don’t think it’s straw-mannish. To their credit, they write to an implied audience of pro-folk-politics leftists, begging them to change their ways. More on this later.

They conclude this section by saying that folk politics has failed and better ideas are needed. They give a brief nod to a long string of leftist victories over the past half-century or so (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental regulation, massive increase in most categories of government social spending, etc, etc, etc), but are unimpressed, since these are compromises within capitalism domination. I would have liked to see them address an alternate perspective, where capitalism having to keep making compromise after compromise to defuse pressure from the left is exactly what lefist victory should look like. Would electing Bernie Sanders and instituting Medicare-For-All be just another capitalist compromise? What about electing Andrew Yang and instituting Universal Basic Income? At some point you have to admit that all these “compromises” add up and now you have 90% of what you wanted in the first place. I assume they have some kind of complicated theoretical structural reason why this doesn’t work, but it still seems like a pretty good deal.

II.

What is the opposite of folk politics? S&W point to the Mont Pelerin Society.

The Mont Pelerin Society has a great story, and you should read Kerry Vaughn’s long writeup of the same topic. But the short and oversimplified version is: in the 1940s, everyone serious was either a Big Government Socialist or a Big Government Keynesian. Friedrich Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society (named after the site of its first meeting) to promote neoliberalism – here meaning the sort of small-ish government free market thinking common in economics today. At first they were just a few fringe thinkers with no power. But they developed a long-term strategy to change that. Vaughn, S&W, and others sum up the basic points as:

1. Foster intellectual talent

2. Seek long-term academic influence. Getting your members professorships won’t feel as exciting and tangible as reshaping policy immediately. Get the professorships anyway.

3. Push a utopian vision (in the case of the neoliberals, one of freedom and prosperity), along with practical first steps within the Overton Window (eg deregulating the airline industry).

4. Be prepared to step in as saviors when a crisis arrives. Milton Friedman:

There is enormous inertia — a tyranny of the status quo — in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

The neoliberals spent the 1940s through the 1970s slowly moving through steps 1 – 3. They gathered a stable of friendly academics, journalists, politicians, and (especially) think tanks, sometimes by converting people in positions of power, other times by putting their own loyalists into positions, and especially by founding their own organizations. When the stagflation crisis of the 1970s struck, they had marshalled a strong case as the alternative to the Keynesian system that had produced the crisis. Politicians – especially Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – agreed to implement their policies, and the rest is history.

S&W abhor the Mont Pelerin Society’s policies, but they are impressed by their success. They describe the result of MPS’ efforts as a “hegemony”, a paradigm so self-consistent and self-contained that it seems like, as the famous saying goes, “there is no alternative”. Neoliberal economics has stock answers to all of the objections raised against it and supports neoliberal politics, which has stock answers to all the objections raised against it and supports neoliberal culture, and so on.

They argue that leftists should abandon folk politics and do something more Mont Pelerinish, which they call a counter-hegemonic project. The Left should create a network of academics, journalists, think tanks, and politicians who come up with leftist ideas, push the culture to the left, and make sure the public knows Communism is the alternative to the current failing system.

Isn’t this pretty much just the “long march through the institutions”? And didn’t it happen thirty years ago?

I’m confused by this whole topic. Marxists seem to talk a lot about Gramsci and “cultural hegemony”, and “march through the institutions” was a phrase used by Gramscians to describe their strategy of controlling institutions in the name of Marxism. And Inventing The Future seems to say “Yes, this is exactly what we want” and even cites Gramsci in a bunch of footnotes. But whenever a non-Marxist mentions this, it gets branded a vile far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. I’m guessing that there’s some subtle distinction between the stuff everyone agrees is true and the stuff everyone agrees is false, and that lots of people will get angry with me for even implying that it might not be a vast gulf larger than the ocean itself, but I can’t figure out what it is and don’t want to land on the wrong side of it and get in trouble.

So let’s say no. Let’s say S&W’s plan of taking over institutions in the name of leftism is completely new. Could this exciting and very original idea be just crazy enough to work?

S&W and their fellow communists aren’t the first group I’ve heard bring up the Mont Pelerin Society as an example to be emulated. As you can tell from the link above, some effective altruists are thinking in this direction too. And “take over academia and dominate the intellectual world” is a good job if you can get it. But it still sounds pretty hard, especially if lots of other people have the same idea.

The neoliberals had some dazzling successes. But so did Napoleon. And if the centerpiece of your strategy is “Take over France, then go from there, after all it worked for Napoleon”, you could be accused of focusing too much on one past success without considering alternatives. Also, you probably can’t take over France. Taking over France is hard. Sure, Napoleon did it once, but think of all the people who must have tried to take over France and failed. I don’t know, seems like a really underspecified plan.

III.

So what is S&W’s plan?

This doesn’t get a huge amount of space in the book, but it seems to be: fight for automation and universal basic income in order to produce a “post-work world”.

There is much discussion of why work is bad, which I appreciate. I think communists are wrong about a lot of things, but when this is all over, I believe their principled insistence that work is bad and that we should not have to do it – maintained firmly against a bunch of people who want basic job guarantees or who consider freedom from work a utopian impossibility – will be one thing they can be really proud of. S&W are very sure work is bad, they manage to express this without accidentally adding on anything blitheringly stupid, and their point that we should head into a post-work world is well-taken.

They discuss the increasing role of automation in society, complete with ill-fated predictions that many people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession (just before the book was written) will never get them back and unemployment will remain permanently high. They argue that automation is a vital component of a post-work world, and argue that leftist movements should use whatever strength they have to fight for automating things further. They argue that capitalism is not automating as quickly as it could be, and this is bad for workers:

Full automation is something that can and should be achieved, regardless of whether it is yet being carried out. For instance, out of the US companies that could benefit from incorporating industrial robots, less than 10% have done so. This is but one area for full automation to take hold in, and this reiterates the importance of making full automation a political demand, rather than assuming it will come about from economic necessity. A variety of politices can help in this project: more state investment, higher minimum wages, and research devoted to techniologies that replace rather than augment workers. In the most detailed estimates of the labour market, it is suggested that between 47 and 80 per cent of today’s jobs are capable of being automated. Let us take this estimate not as a deterministic prediction, but instead as the outer limit of a political project against work. We should take these numbers as a standard against which to measure our success.

(notice the suggestion to raise the minimum wage in order to encourage automation; this is more realism than I usually hear in this kind of discussion.)

Alongside the demand for increased automation, leftists should demand a universal basic income:

Drawing upon moral arguments and empirical research, there are a vast number of reasons to support a UBI: reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy. Depending on how UBI is presented, it is capable of generating support from across the political spectrum—from libertarians, conservatives, anarchists, Marxists and feminists, among others. The potency of the demand lies partly in this ambiguity, making it capable of mobilizing broad popular support […]

The demand for a UBI is a demand for a political transformation, not just an economic one. It is often thought that UBI is simply a form of redistribution from the rich to the poor, or that it is just a measure to maintain economic growth by stimulating consumer demand. From this perspective, UBI would have impeccable reformist credentials and be little more than a glorified progressive tax system. Yet the real significance of UBI lies in the way it overturns the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital. As we saw in the discussion of surplus populations, the proletariat is defined by its separation from the means of production and subsistence. The proletariat is thereby forced to sell itself in the job market in order to gain the income necessary to survive. The most fortunate among us have the leisure to choose which job to take, but few of us have the capacity to choose no job. A basic income changes this condition, by giving the proletariat a means of subsistence without dependency on a job.

S&W finally sum up their platform as:

1. Full automation
2. The reduction of the working week
3. The provision of a basic income
4. The diminishment of the work ethic

I am surprised by points 1, 2, and 4. I don’t disagree with them. But they seem heavily dependent on point 3. If there’s no basic income, automation is a disaster – it just leaves everyone in the same kind of normal bad old unemployment we have now. Same with a diminished work week and lack of work ethic. Usually I think of platforms as the sort of thing where if you get three-quarters of what you want you can declare victory; here three-quarters of the platform would be a dystopia.

On the other hand, UBI would lead inevitably to the other three points. As S&W mention, once living off a UBI becomes a viable alternative to working, many people (though not everyone at once) will choose to do this. That will increase the cost of labor, drive wages up, and encourage businesses that haven’t yet automated to do so. It will also reduce the number of hours people need to (or choose to) work, and once people aren’t working and goods are being produced without labor, there won’t be any need for a work ethic.

I’m especially surprised by the insistence on automation (which takes up more space than this review might indicate). Aside from its ability to enable a UBI, automation itself doesn’t necessarily seem good. If it would cost more to automate a task than to hire workers to do it, there doesn’t seem much advantage in automating, assuming that workers have free choice to take whatever deal the business offers. That is, compare a world in which a factory pays $100,000 per year to operate a car-making robot, and you get a $30,000 a year basic income, vs. a world where a company pays $50,000 per year to hire a car-building employee, and you have the choice between getting a $30,000 a year basic income, or earning $80,000 a year by taking the company’s offer. The second world seems clearly better. I know the usual communist answer is to talk about flow-through effects on who has political power, but I feel like a world in which workers are necessary to make goods is one in which workers have more political power than a world where they aren’t.

So maybe a friendly amendment to S&W’s platform would throw out everything except the UBI?

I doubt they would accept this amendment, but I can’t predict exactly what they would say when turning it down. Certainly they really don’t like libertarians who agree with them on UBI and want to help them with it, but I can’t seem to wring a specific complaint out of their denunciations:

The demand for a UBI, however, is subject to competing hegemonic forces. It is just as open to being mobilized for a libertarian dystopia as for a post-work society. Hence, three qualifications must be added to this demand. First, it has to provide a sufficient amount to live on, second, it has to be universal and third, it has to be a supplement rather than a replacement for the welfare state…

There’s a lot of stuff like this, culminating in a triumphant jab that if there were a UBI, we would end up in the world libertarians claim they want, the one where everyone is free and happy and can choose how to live their lives, rather than the world we all know libertarians secretly do want, where everybody is oppressed by the rich forever. Won’t that be ironic! Won’t the libertarians howl with anguish when they realize what kind of clever political judo trick the Marxists have played on them!

I think I speak for everybody when I say: please don’t throw me in the briar patch! Not the briar patch! Anything but that!

IV.

S&W often use the word “hegemony”, usually in the context of a current neoliberal hegemony or a hoped-for future communist hegemony. I started out reading this as just an emphatic way of saying “power”, as in “the neoliberals are definitely almost-irreversibly in power” or “the communists are definitely almost-irreversibly in power”. After looking into it more, I think the best interpretation of “hegemony” is “paradigm” in the Kuhnian sense, or as the sort of thing that should be in one of the leftmost boxes of this table. A hegemony is a self-consistent way of looking at the world that guides how we think about things and what questions we ask. It is not just made of facts, but also of perspectives, biases, values, and investigational techniques, all coming together into a coherent whole.

I picked up Inventing The Future (on advice from a couple of left-accelerationists I encountered at the Southern California SSC meetup) because I feel bad that I’ve never been able to get my head around the communist paradigm. In the past, I’ve learned new paradigms by reading a lot of books from within that paradigm (and hating them) and debating people from within that paradigm (and thinking they’re crazy). Then fifty books and a hundred debates down the line, I finally get some kind of inkling of where they’re coming from, and then after a while I can naturally make my mind shift into that mode and my only differences with them are at the high-level generators of disagreement. I was born into the Woke California Liberal paradigm, I managed to force myself to understand the libertarian paradigm in college, I managed to force myself to understand the right-wing paradigm a few years ago, and I would really like to be able to understand the communist paradigm too.

This leaves me in the awkward position of needing to read a lot of communist books and wanting to be as accepting as possible towards them, while also inevitably knowing I’m going to hate the first fifty. So I’ll be honest: I really didn’t like Inventing The Future.

Part of this isn’t S&W’s fault. The book was very much not meant for me. Not everything has to be a 101 space. It’s perfectly fine for the Pope to write an encyclical explaining the Catholic position on marriage without including a justification of why you should believe in God, or why Jesus is so great, or why anyone should care what the Pope thinks, or whether marriage should exist at all. People who already believe all of those things should be able to debate the godly Christian papal way of defending marriage among themselves. Likewise, a book for communist true believers about how to win doesn’t necessarily need to justify communism.

But there were times when I feel like even a true believer would have been groping for some reassurance. During their attack on folk politics, S&W were pretty open about how the problem was that groups tried to apply communist principles to communist activism. For example, communism should be non-hierarchical, so some activist groups tried to be non-hierarchical, but then all those activist groups failed. Or: communism says we should abandon market economies for ones based on mutual aid, so Occupy camps tried to have internal economies based on mutual aid, but then those camps couldn’t get resources distributed effectively. S&W’s conclusion was: stop trying to run your activist groups in a communist way, that never works. I’m sure they’re right. But I feel like even true believers might have wondered why real communism, when it came, would go differently. This was never explained.

Likewise, S&W talked quite honestly about how many small-scale experiments with communism have failed. They gave the example of some Argentine workers forming commune-like organizations when that country’s economy collapsed. These kind of worked for a while, but the authors describe them as uninspiring, noting that such communes-within-capitalism could be “as oppressive and environmentally damaging as any large-scale business”. Once the economy recovered, Argentines were pretty relieved to be able to return to normal capitalist living. S&W’s conclusion: you have to destroy all of capitalism at once or it doesn’t count.

I understand this has been a common position in communism since well before Trotsky. But imagine a pharmaceutical company admitting that its drugs have killed everyone who’s taken them so far, but adding “But if we give this drug to everyone in the world at the same time, then it will definitely cure everything!” You would think they would at least add “We recognize this may be a cause of some concern to people who worry past trends won’t suddenly reverse, and we will just end up killing everyone in the world, but here’s why you shouldn’t worry…”. You would think even true believers might want to hear some reassurance at this point. S&W do not provide it.

I don’t want to be too harsh on them. Capitalists have a similar conundrum: if the free market works, how come most businesses are organized as top-down hierarchies? How come there’s a Vice President of Sales who gets hired, promoted, and fired – instead of just some sales consulting businesses offering their time to the CEO at market rate? Capitalists have confronted these issues; probably communists have confronted theirs too. This is the sort of 101 stuff that Inventing The Future is under no obligation to bother with. It just made the book a bad match for me.

And all of this was exacerbated by S&W devoting entire chapters to ideas I considered obvious that were apparently highly controversial to their intended audience. For example, S&W were going to make some demands for what a future communist state should be like. I was interested in hearing these demands. Instead they went on for page after page about whether it was okay to demand things. For example:

We [will] advance some broad demands to start building a platform for a post-work society. In asserting the centrality of demands, we are breaking with a widespread tendency of today’s radical left that believes making no demand is the height of radicalism. These critics often claim that making a demand means giving into the existing order of things by asking, and therefore legitimating, an authority. But these accounts miss the antagonism at the heart of making demands, and the ways in which they are essential for constituting an active agent of change. In this light, the rejection of demands is a symptom of theoretical confusion, not practical progress. A politics without demands is simply a collection of aimless bodies. Any meaningful vision of the future will set out proposals and goals, and this chapter is a contribution to that potential discussion…

When they get to discussing how communism is good, they don’t anticipate any object level complaints about how, eg, maybe capitalism is better. But they do worry that “communism is good” sounds like a universal statement, and universal statements can be exclusionary. So:

To invoke such an idea is to call forth a number of fundamental critiques directed against universalism in recent decades. While a universal politics must move beyond any local struggles, generalising itself at the global scale and across cultural variations, it is for these very reasons that it has been criticised.

As a matter of historical record, European modernity was inseparable from its ‘dark side’ – a vast network of exploited colonial dominions, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the slave trade, and the plundering of colonised nations’ resources. In this conquest, Europe presented itself as embodying the universal way of life. All other peoples were simply residual particulars that would inevitably come to be subsumed under the European way – even if this required ruthless physical violence and cognitive assault to guarantee the outcome. Linked to this was a belief that the universal was equivalent to the homogeneous. Differences between cultures would therefore be erased in the process of particulars being subsumed under the universal, creating a culture modelled in the image of European civilisation. This was a universalism indistinguishable from pure chauvinism. Throughout this process, Europe dissimulated its own parochial position by deploying a series of mechanisms to efface the subjects who made these claims – white, heterosexual, propertyowning males. Europe and its intellectuals abstracted away from their location and identity, presenting their claims as grounded in a ‘view from nowhere’. This perspective was taken to be untarnished by racial, sexual, national or any other particularities, providing the basis for both the alleged universality of Europe’s claims and the illegitimacy of other perspectives. While Europeans could speak and embody the universal, other cultures could only be represented as particular and parochial.

Universalism has therefore been central to the worst aspects of modernity’s history. Given this heritage, it might seem that the simplest response would be to rescind the universal from our conceptual arsenal. But, for all the difficulties with the idea, it nevertheless remains necessary. The problem is partly that one cannot simply reject the concept of the universal without generating other significant problems. Most notably, giving up on the category leaves us with nothing but a series of diverse particulars.

I am tempted to sum up the book as something like “So, obviously everyone agrees that we should overthrow all existing societies to install world communism. But many people doubt that causes lead to effects. Well, I’m here to tell you that we’ll never overthrow all existing societies in favor of world communism unless we take actions that cause that to happen.”

And the authors aren’t just being silly. The book has an epilogue where they respond to criticism they received since the book was published, and it’s all people praising them for their commitment to revolution while also accusing the causes-have-effects thing of being highly problematic. So A+ on writing what your audience needs to hear. I’m just not among them.

V.

Feminist critics of bad pick-up artistry accuse it of “looking for women’s secret cheat code that will make them have sex with you”. The opposite of looking for a cheat code (they say) is actually having and demonstrating value. If women don’t like you, you should try to cultivate value, or demonstrate the value you already have, instead of finding the Three Words And Five Gestures That Will Make Any Girl Get Naked Right Now.

Not everything has to be a 101 space. So maybe my concerns are just an artifact of me wandering into a part of literature where I don’t belong. But at its worst, Inventing The Future feels like a search for the public’s secret cheat code that will make them have a revolution with you.

There is no discussion of why communism is good. There is no discussion of whether the masses might not like communism because they’ve thought about it for a while and decided that communism is a bad idea. There is no discussion of whether some demonstration that communism is good would convince the masses to like it more. Just a laser-like focus on finding the secret propaganda cheat code that will convert the masses to communism.

I don’t know how unfair I’m being here. The most sympathetic reading I can give this is something like “Somewhere off-screen we’ve already agreed that every right-thinking person already knows communism is better than capitalism. And we’ve all agreed that the elites have brainwashed the masses into denying it. And the elites will never give up their own self-interest. So the only remaining question is how we can create a system of organization and publicity and so on powerful enough to reverse the masses’ brainwashing.” This is at least good conflict theory.

But at times S&W seem to dip into a deeper epistemological nihilism. From a paragraph on the rise of neoliberalism:

The crisis (stagflation) was one that no government knew how to deal with at the time, while the solution was the preconceived neoliberal ideas that had been fermenting for decades in its ideological ecology. It was not that the neoliberals presented a better argument for their position (the myth of rational political discourse); rather, an institutional infrastructure was constructed to project their ideas and establish them as the new common sense of the political elite.

Google cannot find any references to “myth of rational political discourse” except in this book. Maybe there’s some long discussion of this idea under another name somewhere, but S&W don’t think it’s worth clarifying or giving any further pointers. They just declare it a myth and move on.

Anyone who spends time on Twitter can be forgiven for thinking that rational political discourse is mythical, and that this is so obvious as to not require justification. I’ve written about these issues before and won’t repeat the entire debate. But one subpoint seems especially important: how does this interact with the plan to build a Mont Pelerin Society of the left?

I mentioned above that “take over academia and all other consensus-building organs of society” isn’t a primitive action. I imagine there are libertarians, tradcons, and fascists trying the same thing. What determines who wins?

I group the Mont Pelerin Society together with the Fabian Society and the EA/AI risk movement; all three groups followed similar strategies and were (or have been so far) remarkably successful. And they all share one key feature: remarkably talented people. My summary of MPS elides this as “cultivate intellectual talent”, but again, this isn’t a primitive action. If everyone tries to cultivate intellectual talent, who wins?

The Fabian Society sort of put some work into cultivating intellectual talent. But a more accurate description of the situation is “couldn’t keep intellectual talent out even if they tried”. They would just be sitting around, dreaming up a new idea for pamphlets, and George Bernard Shaw would wander in, say “Hey, I want to swear allegiance to your group and help you with whatever you need”, and they would say “Okay”, and then Shaw would do some kind of brilliant essay that transformed the way everyone thought about everything. Then the next time they needed something written, H.G. Wells would wander in and say “Hey, can I join and you can give me whatever work you need done and I’ll gladly do it?” and they would shrug and say “Sure”. The “cultivation” was downstream of having a really easy time attracting geniuses.

Right now one of the big issues in effective altruism is more available talented people than the movement knows what to do with. People with a resume a mile long who graduated in the top 10% of their class at Oxbridge show up at organizations, offer to work for peanuts, and the organizations say sorry, we’re still busy finding jobs for the last hundred people like you (EA leaders want me to clarify that you should still apply to EA jobs, because talent-matching is hard and people are generally bad at predicting whether they will be useful). Every so often random prestigious professors who control big pools of institutional resources will email the movement asking how they can join and what they can do.

The Mont Pelerin Society seems to have found itself in a similar situation. From Vaughn’s writeup:

Anthony Fisher was a highly decorated fighter pilot who read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in Reader’s Digest. He traveled to London to seek out Hayek. “What can I do? Should I enter politics?” he asks. As a decorated veteran with good looks and a gift for public speaking, this was a live possibility.

“No.” replied Hayek “Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.”

Later in 1949, Ralph Harris, a young researcher from the Conservative Party gave a lecture with Anthony Fisher in the audience. Fisher loves what he hears and takes Harris aside after the talk. He explains his idea for an organization to make the free market case to intellectuals. Harris is excited. “If you get any further” he says, “I’d like to be considered as the man to run such a group.”

In 1953 Fisher starts the Buxted Chicken Co. which brought factory farming to Britain. The company begins to show a profit which allows him to revisit his idea for for a free-market institute. Fisher signs the trust deed with two friends and gets back in contact with Harris about running the institute. Harris agrees and becomes the new general director on 1 January 1957. Harris meets Arthur Seldon in 1956 and in 1958, Seldon joins the organization. He was initially appointed Editorial Advisor and become the Editorial Director in 1959.

Thirty years later in 1987, Harris become Lord Harris of High Cross and oversaw an institute which boasted 250 major corporate supporters and a budget equivalent to around £1.6M (in 2016 pounds). Seldon helped produce more than 300 publications and nurtured and developed more than 500 authors. Fisher founded the Atlas Economic Research Foundation which worked to aid in the creation of new think tanks, creating 36 institutes in 18 countries all based on the IEA model.

Note Hayek’s advice to Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.” Maybe Hayek believed the public was generally rational. Maybe he didn’t. But he at least believed reasoned argument worked on some people, and that those people would disproportionately be the intellectuals and thought leaders who could bring everybody else around.

How come the Mont Pelerin Society took over academia, but you didn’t? I think the active ingredient of Mont Pelerin strategy is having a good idea. I don’t necessarily mean objectively good in a cosmic sense. But good in the sense that the smartest people around in your era, using the best information around in your era, will conclude it’s true and important after reasoned debate, and offer to help. Good in the sense that you’re not the sort of people who use the phrase “myth of rational political discourse”. The Mont Pelerin Society has been proven right about a lot of things; does anyone want to un-deregulate airplanes these days? Being right about a lot of things seems heavily correlated with eg Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi joining you, and eg Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi joining you seems heavily correlated with being the sort of group that can get your people into high academic positions.

I admit that Naive Rationalist Praxis is repeating all the reasons why your idea is right – and then, if people don’t listen, repeating them louder and more slowly, like an American tourist trying to communicate in France. I admit that probably you should be more sophisticated than that, and that S&W’s approach hints at a much-needed corrective.

But I still think that if Friedrich Hayek is looking down on us from his gold-plated mansion in Neoliberal Heaven, he’s going to think we’re doing something important right that Inventing The Future is missing.

V.

The last part of the book I found interesting was the emphasis on utopianism.

Both Vaughn and S&W identify the Mont Pelerin Society’s utopianism as part of its strength. From Vaughn:

Hayek believed that liberalism was losing to socialism because the socialists had the courage to be Utopian. The socialists explained the values they were working to attain and justified their project in the context of these values. To combat the socialists, Hayek insisted on explaining the Utopian vision of the neoliberals – a vision he couched in human freedom with competitive markets as the only way to ensure this freedom. As the development of the movement shows, this focus on Utopian visions is an extremely potent weapon.

S&W agree, and say the left’s greatest victories have come in an equally ambitious climate:

Utopian ideas have been central to every major moment of liberation – from early liberalism, to socialisms of all stripes, to feminism and anti-colonial nationalism. Cosmism, afro-futurism, dreams of immortality, and space exploration – all of these signal a universal impulse towards utopian thinking. Even the neoliberal revolution cultivated the desire for an alternative liberal utopia in the face of a dominant Keynesian consensus. But any competing left utopias have gone sorely underresourced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We therefore argue that the left must release the utopian impulse from its neoliberal shackles in order to expand the space of the possible, mobilise a critical perspective on the present moment and cultivate new desires.

As the last sentence suggests, they believe that capitalism and neoliberalism are incompatible with utopianism, and their success has snuffed out previously widespread utopian ideals:

By contrast, today’s world remains firmly confined within the parameters of capitalist realism.32 The future has been cancelled. We are more prone to believing that ecological collapse is imminent, increased militarisation inevitable, and rising inequality unstoppable. Contemporary science fiction is dominated by a dystopian mindset, more intent on charting the decline of the world than the possibilities for a better one. Utopias, when they are proposed, have to be rigorously justified in instrumental terms, rather than allowed to exist in excess of any calculation. Meanwhile, in the halls of academia the utopian impulse has been castigated as naive and futile. Browbeaten by decades of failure, the left has consistently retreated from its traditionally grand ambitions. To give but one example: whereas the 1970s saw radical feminism and queer manifestos calling for a fundamentally new society, by the 1990s these had been reduced to a more moderate identity politics; and by the 2000s discussions were dominated by even milder demands to have same-sex marriage recognised and for women to have equal opportunities to become CEOs. Today, the space of radical hope has come to be occupied by a supposedly sceptical maturity and a widespread cynical reason.

Anyone who believes that utopian thinking is dead should come to the Bay Area. You can spend Monday listening to an Aubrey de Gray lecture on the best way to ensure human immortality in our lifetimes, Tuesday talking to the Seasteading Institute about their attempts to create new societies on floating platforms, Wednesday watching Elon Musk launch another rocket in his long-term plan to colonize space, Thursday debating the upcoming technological singularity, and Friday helping Sam Altman distribute basic income to needy families in Oakland as a pilot study.

And at every one of these events, you’ll see socialists demanding these people stop, and doing everything in their power to make these people’s lives miserable. Capitalism hasn’t snuffed out utopianism. Utopianism is alive and well everywhere except on the left.

I know the arguments in this space. I know people wonder “what if the benefits of utopia only go to the rich?”. Or “what if letting people have their own private visions of utopia means elites can shape the future?”. Or “when some people don’t have health care, doesn’t spending money on utopian visions seem irresponsible?”. Or a thousand other different things.

But the more of this you do, the less Mont Pelerinny you’ll be. Also, you’ll prevent us from reaching utopia. Which, by definition, would be really really good.

Despite my differences with S&W, I respect them for having a utopian vision. I respect them for putting some work into achieving it. I respect them for (to the limited degree that they can specify exactly what they want) having some decent ideas, even if it’s in a paradigm I can’t quite get my head around. And on the off-chance that Andrew Yang gives them everything they want, by throwing out their entire way of thinking and marching under the banner of libertarianism instead, I intend to be very polite and avoid rubbing their faces in it.

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775 Responses to Book Review: Inventing The Future

  1. mutual says:

    There was a wave of left-wing futurism between 2014-2015 that includes this book, Peter Frase’s Four Futures and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism that all tried to map out left-wing futurism. Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is arguably the best of the bunch: it’s a pretty good analysis of the 08 financial crisis, as well as how emerging technologies might be used to left-wing ends and finally a more coherent picture of how to get to where we want to go. Plus Mason, being a journalist is a pretty good writer and it’s a much easier read then S&W

    However, what I’d actually recommend (based on your review of Red Plenty) is Leigh Phillips’ and Michael Rowozksi’s People’s Republic of Wal-Mart in which they give both a comprehensive defense of economic planning in the information age and also explore the degree to which actually-existing-capitalism is in many parts centrally planned already. Much more stimulating then calls for a fully automated society.

    • eggsyntax says:

      I was just about to mention The People’s Republic of Walmart. Scott, I’m absolutely dying to read your thoughts on this book, and it does seem like a very natural part of this reading series for you.

    • the degree to which actually-existing-capitalism is in many parts centrally planned already.

      I think this is the main way in which actually-existing-capitalism is truly tyrannical in effect. It’s true that larger and larger firms gain scale economies that mean lower prices, but they also gain a scope for total control that is defended with misguided voluntaristic arguments. Obviously scale diseconomies exist too, and the graph is U shaped, but even if this wasn’t the case, the effect of market alternatives is what sets a true limit to prices. If there was a total monopoly on production, a true economic monopoly, and not the oligopoly we have currently, the price would be set at whatever can feasibly be extracted from a passive consumer. The only practical difference with socialism is that you are measuring things with raw resource units and not prices, and you are quite deliberately forming a total monopoly by fiat.

      • whereamigoing says:

        Yeah, to me this seems to be the fundamental problem with communism, no matter how exactly it’s implemented — in communism, there’s only the government, whereas in capitalism, the government and corporations are too busy fighting each other to screw everyone else over too badly.

  2. Plumber says:

    As far as a “post work society” there’s lots of historical precedent for that with increased automation the “jobs of the future” will increasingly be as bodyguards, escorts; flunkies, prostitutes, and valets.

    Basically flattereing, and being an entourage for those with the wealth to pay.

    So as beggers and “courtiers”

    I imagine the legal owners of the productive robots will pay for the status marker of having others act subservient towards them.

    So opera slippers on human faces forever, or until Morlocks begin to eat the Eloi.

    As for the authors of the reviewed book’s prescriptions for “Revolution”, it sounds much like Lenin’s “democratic centralism” led by the “vanguard”, which I’m very suspicious of.

    Those whom those who are working-class elects to be their leaders themselves (Harry Bridges, George Meany, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, et cetera) are one thing, but “intellectuals” who aim to “remove reformist false consciousness from the proletariat” scare me when they aren’t pitiable.

    I forget who wrote it but I still find hilarious the statement that “Radical Marxists trying to emancipate working-class kept being hindered by the working-class beating them up”.

    • Bugmaster says:

      So opera slippers on human faces forever, or until Morlocks begin to eat the Eloi.

      I don’t see why this necessarily has to be true. If we reach a point where robots are providing food, shelter, and all the basic necessities for everyone on Earth (and that’s a big “if”, I will grant you), then what is my incentive for selling myself into slipper-slavery ? I understand that the rich would want me to become their bodyguard/prostitute/valet, but what can they offer in exchange ? One answer could be “fabulous luxuries”; but then, the arrangement is less like slavery and more like a cushy job.

      • Aapje says:

        Lots of people are very unhappy with just having the basic necessities today and feel that they need more. Some people are even willing to cross desserts and seas to achieve more than just food, shelter and such.

        Why would this change if people get Dry Bread and Water Robot?

        • Bugmaster says:

          Why would this change if people get Dry Bread and Water Robot?

          As far as I understand, people cross deserts and seas because they do not have access to basic necessities in their own countries — either because such necessities are simply not available, or because the level of violence is so high that their existence becomes moot.

          Also, I’m not sure why our choices should be limited to “Dry Bread and Water Robot” and “Nothing”. How about a “Balanced Diet and One-Bedroom Apartment Robot” ? It’s still not Hedonism-Bot, but now you’d really have to think twice before signing up for that slipper-torture.

          • Aapje says:

            The evidence pretty clearly shows that it is typically not the most deprived who migrate. For example, see here.

            Furthermore, we see that people regularly migrate to the West in stages, where they flee from violence to a situation that is relatively safe and where they have food & shelter, although to a lesser standard than they were used to. The lowered standard of life is then the motivation to migrate on, not the absolute level of deprivation or danger.

            Also, I’m not sure why our choices should be limited to “Dry Bread and Water Robot” and “Nothing”. How about a “Balanced Diet and One-Bedroom Apartment Robot” ?

            That was my point. Why not go on to “Luxury Meal and College Education for Timmy Robot”?

            If people keep increasing their demands, then there will never be a time when they become ‘independently wealthy,’ unless they have close to the maximum that society/the world has to offer.

        • I assume people could save up enough off the UBI to either buy some of this automated capital, which should be a lot cheaper if you have robots making robots, and/or buy shares in the companies. Probably people could complain about not feeling like they have a purpose or like they’re needed, but that’s better than the misery created by a world of required toil.

      • ikew says:

        Do you think anti-ageing treatments would be covered by BI?
        Who wants to die at the dawn of the future?

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          I know it’s popular to imagine unbounded growth in all fields here, but “robots” and “anti-agathic treatments” are pretty different technologies. There’s no really strong reason to believe that we’ll get both at roughly the same time.

        • orangecat says:

          An anti-aging treatment would save a fortune in avoided medical expenses and would also increase productivity (assuming people still have jobs), so there would be strong incentives for governments and/or insurance companies to make it widely available.

          • John Schilling says:

            Most people are healthy enough to work at near full productivity to age 65. And most people very much expect to and believe they have the right to retire permanently from productive work at age 65 or so with no reduction in their standard of living. If you propose to change that, it would help if we knew how.

            Bonus points if the proposed solution is applicable to anti-aging treatments in the early stages of development, when the benefits are small and uncertain but society will be busy locking in its economic adaptation to such treatments. Also bonus points if the proposal doesn’t get you “accidentally” run over by a Winnebago.

      • 1soru1 says:

        > If we reach a point where robots are providing food, shelter, and all the basic necessities for everyone on Earth

        ‘Could’ is not ‘Are’. The fundamental principles of libertarianism are non-coercion and ownership, so in a libertarianish society the existence of robots that could do a thing does not imply that that thing will be done; the owners will freely decide. And if the owners will only press the ‘make food’ button when they get a foot rub, then foot rubbing will happen. And if they like foot rubs, they probably will, because why wouldn’t they?

        In the ‘four futures’ model, this is rentism. Which is a perfectly self-consistent and plausible society that, due to it’s assumed tech level, is very likely better than today. But would still such relative to the alternatives, in the same way that modern North Korea probably beats medieval or WII Korea but still sucks compared to its peers.

        https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/24/four-futures-life-after-capitalism-peter-frase-review-robots

        • toastengineer says:

          Why wouldn’t everyone figure out that they can set the price of X many foot rubs to be “one food shelter & necessities machine to belong to me forever, thanks?”

          • pochti says:

            I think the difficulty would be that the maximum value of a foot rub – no matter how low the supply – is lower than the actual value of a Necessities Machine. After all, people need necessities, so as long as I control the supply of Necessities Machines, I can convert them into practically whatever I want. Every Necessities Machine I give out destroys some of that power. From a rationally self-interested perspective, I should only ever give out Necessities Machines in extremis. If that means I can’t get foot rubs anymore, well, that’s still worth it.

            That’s not to say that there are no luxury goods that would be worth it or that every Necessities Machine owner would be so rationally self-interested, but I would expect it to be pretty tough to get hold of a Necessities Machine.

          • After all, people need necessities, so as long as I control the supply of Necessities Machines, I can convert them into practically whatever I want. Every Necessities Machine I give out destroys some of that power.

            That would make sense if there was one monopolist owning all of the necessities machines, but that isn’t a plausible scenario, at least in a market society.

            Consider your argument at present. Everyone needs to eat. Farmers produce all the food. So why would a farmer sell food for anything less than the highest price a starving person would pay?

          • vV_Vv says:

            Because capitalism in general and automation in particular promote centralization. Can you buy your personal Google?

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Can you buy your personal Google?

            You can, in fact.

            It’s just that you will have to pay a price in dollars, time, and convenience, it’s just that that price is currently greater than Google’s usual ad-tech supported price of zero. But the price and those costs are trending downward with time.

            (I had started an essay describing how, but decided that it was unnecessary.)

          • Hoopdawg says:

            that isn’t a plausible scenario, at least in a market society

            It is a perfectly plausible scenario in a market society.

            It is implausible in society society, because either the government will get hold of and share the machines, or some techno-anarchist will construct and spread an open-sourced version. That’s despite of the market, though. In market society, no price pays for “everyone’s my slave forever”.

            You can, in fact.

            For a bargain price of several hundred billion dollars. Ergo, realistically, you can’t, and can’t even conceive of it unless you genuinely and unironically consider yourself a temporarily embarrassed trillionaire.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            … For a bargain price of several hundred billion dollars …

            I can operate “my own personal Google” for a few thousand dollars a year, plus personal sysadmin and devops time, out of a mix of off-the-shelf open source software and competing service providers.

            It will cost me money, time, and convenience true, but your estimate of the cost is off by 7 orders of magnitude.

            That you don’t know that makes me wonder what else you firmly and loudly believe is true, that is not.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I can operate “my own personal Google” for a few thousand dollars a year, plus personal sysadmin and devops time, out of a mix of off-the-shelf open source software and competing service providers.

            For a lot of effort and network bandwidth you’d get a crappy search engine on the same level of Yahoo! in the 90s.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Web search one of the least important components of
            a “my own personal Google”. And I would either use DuckDuckGo (because I already do, and because I have met and trust their founder), or if I really needed to build my very own own, one of the readily available open source full-text search packages backed by one of the readily available open source tablestore packages.

            But hey, if you want to keep insisting that Google is really irreplaceably amazingly that much better, with an end user sticker price of effectively zero, then why be upset at their 11 digit valuation? Sounds like they are worth it!

          • Doctor Locketopus says:

            > For a bargain price of several hundred billion dollars.

            Nonsense. You can download a (nearly) full crawl of the web here. For free.

            http://commoncrawl.org/

            Then you can search it, index it, transmogrify it…in any manner you see fit.

          • Nornagest says:

            Probably wouldn’t even be that hard to reimplement PageRank, if you weren’t worried about stuff like monetizing it. Most of the details of the algorithm are public. I don’t believe the coefficients are, but I expect you could get something that worked well enough.

            If you’re not an engineer you’d need to pay someone to, but it’d take much less than a hundred billion dollars.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Probably wouldn’t even be that hard to reimplement PageRank, if you weren’t worried about stuff like monetizing it.

            On 30 trillion pages? Go ahead.

            And PageRank gives you at best 1998-Google, which was terrible compared to current Google or even current DuckDuckGo. In order to have anything remotely comparable to modern search engines, you need to do machine learning on a large dataset of user activity logs. Where would you get such a dataset?

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          This has always been the least plausible part of the paranoid fantasies of leftists. The idea that we would live in a world in which it was trivially possible to provide all the needs and comforts of the world to everyone, but that the rich, in an incredibly monolithic, multi-generational act of class consciousness, will somehow prevent even the tiniest of leaks of these means of production to anyone outside of their class, and if such a leak happens, will roll it back, probably with grotesque violence.

          See, for example, the entirety of Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway.

          This is conspiracy theory. I mean that literally, it’s actually all the same fallacies as a conspiracy theory. It assumes vast, overwhelming discipline over an unfeasibly large, informal group.

          • simbalimsi says:

            I think I missed the episode of the real world where the rich started giving their stuff away along with the means of production instead of looking for intricate ways to hoard all of them on offshore accounts.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Computers are a pretty great means of production and just about everyone has at least one.

            I just find it really hard to believe that someone’s going to invent food-and-shelter robots but suddenly all the effective altruists are going to say “hey look, we’d give away mosquito nets, but mass producing food-and-shelter robots for the poor?! Hells no!”

            This is silly, I know, but as an undergrad electrical engineer I worked in a robotics lab and had daydreams of my robots making a post-scarcity society. And I dreamed of getting some land, and starting a community where the robots did all the work necessary for 500 people to live for a year. And if that worked out, I’d have my robots build a cathedral, and I’d call it The Cathedral of the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and I’d invite the Pope to come do Mass, and then he’d see how great the robots were and use the resources and organizational abilities of the Church to establish these post-scarcity communities through the world.

            Once we’ve got the robots, absolutely no one is going to be interested in making the free-stuff robots available to anyone else? Where’d all the altruists and religious folk go?

          • Murphy says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            Computers are a pretty great means of production and just about everyone has at least one.

            Given Richard Stallman’s tendency to be pretty good at calling out trends… I’m seeing more and more of “right to read” implemented in reality.

            But not only were they illegal, like debuggers—you could not install one if you had one, without knowing your computer’s root password. And neither the FBI nor Microsoft Support would tell you that.

            Sure, lots of people walk around with pocket-supercomputers… with OS’s so locked down that you have to get certs issued to installed anything where the OS effectively has a root password that the manufacturer will never give you.

            And much of the lock-down at the expense of the device owners has been for the sake of trivialities like copyright.

            If someone invented a matter-compiler tomorrow and let everyone copy any object they liked…. they’d spend the next 50 years locked in copyright, patent and trademark disputes with Ferrari, Prada and Disney.

            Part of the problem is market forces. Create free-stuff robots and suddenly the market price of labor they can do drops through the floor and the market price of robot-parts goes through the roof. Sit around too long living off you free-stuff robots and someone outside your community will spend their time out-producing you, out-maneuvering you and a few years later they’ll own the deed to the land you live on and be charging you rent on your robots.

          • AG says:

            We have the real life example of high-class hoarding with the current pricings of medications, and the ever increasing controls on copyright.

            Which is ironic, that China is the place with all of the piracy.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            And yet I still run Linux on my laptop.

            If the world is as you say, Microsoft would have already won everything everywhere forever. But they haven’t.

          • Nornagest says:

            Given Richard Stallman’s tendency to be pretty good at calling out trends…

            The Richard Stallman that won’t use a cellphone because he can’t find one that’s free enough?

          • TDB says:

            @simbalimsi Did you miss the episode of the real world where in spite of their desire to hoard, the rich can’t trust each other not to stab each other in the back? They would love to set up a nice cartel, but cheating is a very tempting strategy. If we believe the libertarians, you need government complicity to make a cartel really work. But that is an empirical question, not one we can settle in our armchairs calculating game odds.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            The rich give vast amounts of stuff away. The stuff that they give away currently doesn’t just trivially reproduce itself into its own economic system.

            Copyright is not ever-increasing — we just got the first new stuff into the public domain in the last like 100 years or so, and Disney appears to have given up on keeping Steamboat Willy out of the public domain. All this “intellectual property is going to destroy us all” stuff is very 10 years ago. The Supreme Court set limits on software patents. The fundamental thing stopping 3D printing from being a big thing is neither “the machinations of the rich” nor “offensive IP law,” but “3D printing continues to suck.”

            The futurist left occupies itself with fantasies of persecution because the ugly reality is that it may actually be that for the forseeable future, we do not in fact live in a post-scarcity society and they don’t have an answer to that.

          • Eponymous says:

            @simbalimsi

            Huh? Are you really claiming that rich people don’t engage in philanthropy? That seems obviously false. Or do you mean something else?

          • Valiant says:

            I think I missed the episode of the real world where the rich started giving their stuff away along with the means of production instead of looking for intricate ways to hoard all of them on offshore accounts.

            Well, here‘s the episode you were searching for.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            It doesn’t take a conspiracy. The megacapitalists who own the giant automated farm machines (and the farm land) will compete among one another to own the most automated farm machines and farm land. In order to be competitive, they will turn the corn into ethanol to fuel the other trillionaires’ flying yacht-cars and/or mars colonization missions and/or 800ft tall bronze statues of themselves — not into feed for obsolete work animals (i.e., the poor). Any strategy for amassing capital that involves giving away the product (let alone the capital) to the poor is just going to be uncompetitive. As Jesus said, there are too many poor already, and yet they keep on coming.

          • benwave says:

            @Andrew Cady, This is my fear, yes. My biggest problem with the current economic system is that: serving the most human needs and desires, and earning the highest return on investment are divergent goals, and becoming moreso.

          • Aapje says:

            Y’all are missing the obvious issue that Farming Bot and Fishing Bot are not actually Jesus-like. They depend on limited resources, farmable land and fish, respectively.

            Getting control over farmable land and fishing rights is already increasingly important.

            The logical outcome of having these bots is that control over such limited resources will separate the rich from the poor. It doesn’t matter that you have Farming Bot and Fishing Bot when there is no place you can decently farm or fish without going to prison for poaching.

          • Murphy says:

            @Nornagest

            people mention that as if hes crazy for such a choice but he kinda has a point. even 1984 didn’t propose that we’d bring the networked device with it’s microphone and always-on-tracking-to-within-a-few-meters with us all the time.

            Wanting to actually have real administrator control of such a device if you’re gonna have it in your pocket isn’t exactly unreasonable. And there is, effectively, no commercial phone available that gives you real administrator access to all of the phone.

            I know a few people who choose not to carry phones for similar reasons.

            @Conrad Honcho

            Which likely runs a “Trusted Platform Module” and , if it’s newer, UEFI.

            Plus the tablets that lots of schools are starting to embrace for handing out to students are pretty much locked down almost exactly as he outlined even down to the creepy creepy spying on kids at home in their bedrooms.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            So now we’re on to “we’re running out of land?” Didn’t Scott already settle this in the “what happened to 90s environmentalism” post? There’s no shortage of landfill space, either. And won’t global warming make Siberia arable?

            This all seems related to the “your preferred political system is bad because it doesn’t stop a motivated super rich/powerful person from being insanely evil for no reason” “argument.” For the past few thousand years, improvements in technology have gone hand in hand with greater wealth in the hands of more people. Fewer people are starving to death today than ever before. I suppose that could suddenly change, if people became about two orders of magnitude more selfish and evil than they already are, but you need to do the work to show they will become two orders of magnitude more selfish and evil than they already are.

            What happened to all the good people? Why don’t they have any resources? Why are the rich hoarding ALL THE LAND so their robots can grow them ALL THE SOYBEANS? Why is the terminal goal of the rich owning ALL THE SOYBEANS?

          • Murphy says:

            Looking at the existing world we have right now, right this second, big farmers aren’t too keen on donating chunks of their land to offer homesteads to america’s homeless.

            Do you expect this to suddenly change? If so, what will make enough people suddenly multiple orders of magnitude nicer?

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The core argument from the leftists here isn’t “disciplined conspiracy by the rich to suppress the poor.” It’s “suffering for the poor as a coincidental side-effect of the rich doing what they happen to want.”

            If you are a trillionaire, and if what you really care about is having trillion dollar flying hover-yachts, or building increasingly gigantic statues of yourself, or building a Mars colony and running it like an ant farm, then that is what you will do. And if trillionaire control a large enough fraction of planetary GDP, and if they don’t need to engage with the labor force as a whole to achieve their goals, then what everyone else wants stops mattering very much.

            Historically, the middle and lower classes have always been able to claw enough income out of the economy that they can’t simply be ignored and left to moulder on a ruined world while the trillionaires live on Elysium. But that is precisely because no economic project can proceed without the labor of huge numbers of individual humans. If human labor becomes less relevant, the prospect of large sectors of the population getting ‘left behind’ becomes more relevant as well.

            We’re already seeing this pre-figured in the hollowing out of rural communities in the US. These are places that were founded under an economic paradigm where a lot of indispensable labor was needed to grow food, mine metals, and so on. Then the paradigm changed; ten men can mine as much coal as a hundred or five hundred used to, and so on.

            Now, those communities are redundant, their citizens are redundant, and everyone capable of doing so has moved off to the cities. And while rural Americans are very much not politically powerless, it is in some ways a historical accident that gives them any ability to force capitalist society to pay any mind to their problems as they become left behind.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            “All the land to develop agriculture on” is valuable to the precise degree that there’s a market for the stuff grown on that land. All these stories about all land being locked up by the rich are implausible because they offer no story about what the hell rich people are doing with that land.

            (And no, they don’t need it for “ethanol for their cars,” or indeed to get to Mars.)

            We’ve seen what rich people are willing to give away. It’s definitely not the majority of their wealth (in aggregate, individuals may indeed give away the majority of their wealth), but it’s not nothing, either. Right now, a couple million square miles of agricultural land is very valuable. If the value of that falls, it will fall into the realm of “what rich people are willing to give away, particularly if lots of the world seems to be in danger of starving.”

          • AG says:

            All these stories about all land being locked up by the rich are implausible because they offer no story about what the hell rich people are doing with that land.

            The rich currently own plenty of land that they’re doing fuck-all with. It’s the owning that matters to status.

            We’ve also seen that the rich are rarely willing to give to a certain underclass. The argument is that this underclass is likely to grow because they offer no value to the rich, who tend to target their giving to people who will offer a ROI.

            For the past few thousand years, improvements in technology have gone hand in hand with greater wealth in the hands of more people. Fewer people are starving to death today than ever before.

            And yet, life expectancy for Americans is now decreasing.

          • John Schilling says:

            “All the land to develop agriculture on” is valuable to the precise degree that there’s a market for the stuff grown on that land

            Only to the approximate degree, and you can hide a fair degree of hunger and starvation in the rounding errors.

            Many versions of the Robin Hood origin story have him outlawed for (defending some other schmuck for) poaching a deer from land that could have fed many peasants either through farming or hunting, but was owned by the King and kept deliberately unproductive in case the King wanted to spend a day walking through unspoiled wilderness free of unsightly peasants and with a surplus of deer to make his hunting easier. Robin Hood is probably fictional, but it’s plausible fiction and that’s definitely real rich-person behavior. Ability to walk through a nice forest, not be bothered by unsightly poor people, and maybe hunt(*) a deer or two, is a thing of real value.

            And, as a rich person by global standards, it’s behavior I sort of engage in myself. I do so in good conscience because I do not think the present economy has people starving due to an absolute shortage of farmland. Were that to change, I’d probably shift to charities that buy fenced-off wilderness and give it to hungry farmers.

            But not all rich people will do that. And I’m not certain that the balance is such that, in a world where 98% of humanity is stuck with negligible economic power, the remaining 2% will allow them enough land to survive as opposed to posting “Keep your starving peasant bodies off our pretty wilderness” signs backed by discreet killbots. I think it is probable that rich-person generosity would be sufficient for the poor to muddle through at least where access to farmland is concerned, but it’s not a sure thing. More to the point, simply asserting that the land has no value unless farmed so the price will necessarily drop to the point where farmers can afford it, is not an adequate counterargument.

            * With bow, rifle, or camera

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Citation needed. Where are the vast tracts of unused-but-usable land that the rich own?

            To be clear, it is certainly the case that the rich may own a few hundred acres here and there that is just their own private reserve. But nobody needs one million square miles of farmland as their own private reserve. You can probably find one rich person who just really bad wants to own a vast tract of land. But you don’t find that every rich person wants to own huge amounts of unproductive land.

            This is, again, where the conspiracy theory part comes in. The futurist left wants to imagine that every rich person is single-mindedly devoted to doing unproductive things to assure their class-conscious stranglehold on the means of production. But in fact, they aren’t a monolithic bloc.

            EDIT: @John, the technological landscape of Robin Hood made people much more a victim to the behavior of The Local Rich Person rather than Rich People In Aggregate.

          • Doctor Locketopus says:

            > I think I missed the episode of the real world where the rich started giving their stuff away along with the means of production

            To a first approximation, the entirety of human factual knowledge is available on the web, almost all of it produced by “the rich”, and given away. For free.

          • Doctor Locketopus says:

            > The rich currently own plenty of land that they’re doing fuck-all with.

            The “rich”? I think you mean “the federal government”.

        • Bugmaster says:

          so in a libertarianish society the existence of robots that could do a thing does not imply that that thing will be done

          I’m not sure why you’re assuming that any future society would necessarily be libertarian.

          Consider our current society (here in the US). It’s a mixed economy, with high degree of automation. In the past, being a farmer meant waking up at 4am to dig ditches all day. Today, being a farmer means waking up… probably still at 4am, to manage the settings on your automatic cow milking machine. You still need to dig ditches, only now you’ve got a monstrous digging machine that does most of the work.

          As the result, food is very cheap, compared to ye olden days. Yes, shade-grown locally source organic produce is still pretty expensive, and so are gold-plated mini-sliders; however, low-quality bread and even meat are readily available.

        • JPNunez says:

          You can buy your own Google if you mean running a web crawler and algorithms to do your own search-the-web website.

          Of course it will probably run on AWS or Google’s own Google App Engine, or Azure.

          What most people can’t buy is the actual google datacenters, the campuses full of engineers, etc, etc.

          If it turns out interesting AGI is possible only with huge datacenters, and Moore’s law runs into problems just before AGI miniaturization kicks in, well, normal people will be fucked, no matter how open source its code is.

          I don’t think there is much use on running your own google, on the other hand. Capitalism made sure that Google can provide us web search for free, or free + some ads and surveillance. But if AGI becomes real and it scales, control of huge datacenters will be critical. What good will be running your own super-einstein level AI on your personal computer if the uber rich can command a million of those, or a plain old god on their datacenters (this last one, of course, assumes the Dragon Ball Z theory of intelligence, which may not be real and I don’t completely suscribe to)

          • Mark Atwood says:

            The challenge was “run your own personal Google”.

            If the intended goalposts were to “build a company that can provide Google services to a few billion people”, if that is what the original sneering challenge in fact really was then it was poorly framed and constrained.

            And about the ML thing, all three of the major US based cloud service providers and both of the major CN based cloud service providers, they are all more than happy to execute for anyone, any state of the art ML process, at any scale anyone can realistically afford, on the latest production state of the art ML optimized CPUs, and at wholesale prices.

            (I’ve had this argument before, with some wannabe 21C trustbuster who had the brilliant idea to force ML companies to give the enabling software away for free for anyone to use and to force the companies to provide capacity to everyone at wholesale rates, and were kind of crushed when I pointed out that it’s already been done.)

            I don’t know about the other 4, but I do happen to know that the cloud service provider in the US northwest that started as a bookstore crosscharges itself for it’s own services, and at a discount that is available to every other customer that purchases service at that scale.

            But really, if someone has a hundred billion dollar ML idea, they have 5 different competing companies that are more than happy to run it for them at just barely over the cost of the electricity. No need to upfront the cost of the many hundreds of billions of dollars to building all the datacenters and hiring all the devops people. The evil capitalists of the world have instead already paid for it and have it ready for anyone to use. Have at it.

      • Murphy says:

        There’s a story, Manna, that plays with the idea of what automation could start to look like if we just barreled ahead with roughly our current system, no genocide of the poor but with the rich not being terribly interested in them in a world where workers are replaced by robots.

        Because there’s only so much of a market for prostitute’s, eventually you reach the point where each ultra wealthy person has a full stable of the prettiest members of the underclass and there’s no more slots in the day.

        http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

        Chapter 5 onwards is the authors idea of some kind of open-source pseudo-utopia I don’t like the sound of much… but the first 4 chapters are much stronger in my view.

        The government had finally figured out that giving choices to people on welfare was not such a great idea, and it was also expensive. Instead of giving people a welfare check, they started putting welfare recipients directly into government housing and serving them meals in a cafeteria. If the government could drive the cost of that housing and food down, it minimized the amount of money they had to spend per welfare recipient.

        As the robots took over in the workplace, the number of welfare recipients grew rapidly. Manna replaced tens of millions of minimum wage workers with robots, and terrafoam housing became the warehouse of choice for them. Terrafoam buildings were not pretty, but they were incredibly inexpensive to build and were designed for maximum occupancy. They clustered the buildings on trash land well away from urban centers so no one had to look at them. It was a lot like an old-style college dorm. Each person got a 5 foot by 10 foot room with a bed and a TV — the world’s best pacifier. During the day the bed was a couch and people sat on the bedspread, which also served as a sheet and the blanket. At night the bed was a bed. When I arrived they had just started putting in bunk beds to double the number of people in each building. Burt was not excited to see me when I arrived — he had had a private room for 10 years, and my arrival was the end of that. At least he was polite about it.

        At the end of the very long hallway of rooms there was the communal bathroom. This was my least favorite part of the terrafoam experience. The bathroom consisted of a bunch of sinks, a bunch of shower stalls, a bunch of toilets. Given the location of our room, it was about a 200 foot walk down to the bathroom. When you had to go at night, it almost seemed easier to wet the bed and let the robots deal with it in the morning. By the time you walked all the way down and back, you were completely awake.

        There were no windows anywhere in the building. It was a cost-cutting measure, but it also helped to make every room identical. The ceiling height was 7 feet throughout, so it felt very small all the time. LED lights everywhere — our room was absolutely identical to every other room in the building and had a single, bare two-foot LED panel bolted to the ceiling. There was the same panel every ten feet in the hallways. Absolutely everything in the entire building was brown. Brown walls, brown bedspreads, brown ceilings, brown floors. Even the bathroom and every fixture in it was completely brown.

        Downstairs there was the cafeteria staffed by robots. The robots were not bad — the food was acceptable. They also kept the bathrooms, hallways and rooms spotless. Every day at 7AM, 12 PM and 6 PM the breakfast, lunch and dinner meal shifts began. There were six 15-minute shifts per meal to save on cafeteria space. Burt and I had the third shift. You sat down, food was served, you ate, you talked for 5 minutes while you drank your “coffee” and you left so the next shift could come in. With 24,000 people coming in per shift, there was no time for standing in a cafeteria-style line. Everyone had an assigned seat, and an army of robots served you right at your table.

        Because no one had a window, they could really pack people into these buildings. Each terrafoam dorm building had a four-acre foot print. It was a perfect 417 foot by 417 foot by 417 foot solid brown cube. Each cube originally held exactly 76,800 people. Doubling this to 153,600 people in each building was unthinkable, but they were doing it anyway. On the other hand, you had to marvel at the efficiency. At that density, they could house every welfare recipient in the entire country in less than 1,500 of these buildings. By spacing the buildings 100 feet apart, they could house 200,000,000 people in a space of less than 20 square miles if they had wanted to. At that density, they could put everyone in the country without a job into a space less than five miles square in size, put a fence around it and forget about us. If they accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb or two on us, we would all be gone and they wouldn’t have to worry about us anymore.

        It was a funny experience. Manna informed me on Friday afternoon that I was to be fired. But the Manna network also knew that my bank account was close to zero and there was no way I would be able to make the next rent payment. The Manna network also knew that there were no job prospects for me, since it knew the employment status of everyone. Like most people, nearly everything I owned was leased. I wouldn’t be able to make the payments on any of that either. I was unmarried and all of my relatives were in Terrafoam already. Manna knew that. No one I knew in the city had offered to take me on as a guest, so that was out and Manna knew it.

        Was it prison? Yes. But there were no walls. The food was good. The robots were as nice and respectful as they could be. You could walk outside wherever and whenever you wanted to. But there was an invisible edge. When you walked too far away from your building and approached that edge, two robots would approach you. I had tried it many times.

        “Time to turn around Jacob Lewis105. There is construction in the next zone and, for your safety, we cannot allow you to proceed.” There were a hundred reasons the robots gave for making you turn around. Construction, blasting, contamination, flash flooding, train derailments, possible thunder storms, animal migrations and so on. They could be quite creative in their reasons. It was all part of their politeness. If you turned around you were fine. If you made any move in any direction other than the one suggested, you were immediately injected and woke up back in your room. I had only tried it twice.

        • Walter says:

          Good story, thanks for the link!

        • Randy M says:

          Yep, that story paints a pretty plausible transition to dystopia.

          • Murphy says:

            I kinda like that it’s not evil evil. Just kinda off-brand grey-evil, the kind that’s much more common in normal life.

            If there were enough robo-police that the guys in charge didn’t have to worry about rioting plebs…. I could genuinely imagine them just kinda packing people away out of the way where they can forget about them.

        • sharper13 says:

          Of all the societies I know about, this example sounds most like the Soviet Union, which is a little ironic, considering the original topic of discussion.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            It sounds like housing conditions on forcibly collectivized farms in the 1930s because of the parallels- the state is trying to force you into a place where there is nothing to do except work, or a place where there is nothing to do at all.

            But that’s not representative of living conditions in the USSR overall, which were more complicated and also more, for lack of a better term, normal. The Soviets didn’t actually have everyone living in gray spartan dormitories.

        • Roxolan says:

          They could be quite creative in their reasons. It was all part of their politeness. If you turned around you were fine. If you made any move in any direction other than the one suggested, you were immediately injected and woke up back in your room.

          This is the part of the story I have more trouble accepting. Manna is apparently allowed to casually and publicly violate some fairly strongly established laws.

          I can imagine additional world-building might justify it. But it’s not just a natural consequence of “Manna is very interconnected and efficiency-focused” the way everything else in the story is.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I don’t see why this necessarily has to be true. If we reach a point where robots are providing food, shelter, and all the basic necessities for everyone on Earth (and that’s a big “if”, I will grant you), then what is my incentive for selling myself into slipper-slavery ?

        The question you should be asking is why would the owners of the robots provide you with food, shelter, and all the basic necessities, rather than having you die in the street and use their robots to extract and process all available resources towards their leisure.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Why would precisely zero robot makers build robots that build robots that make free stuff for the poor?

          • vV_Vv says:

            You could be the endangered animal in the zoo, so to speak. But I doubt that the elites would have a use for billions of people like you.

          • AG says:

            Because any such makers would be crushed under the oligopoly with legal and not-so-legal action?

            See, for example BP Oil probably murdered people who opposed their use of a toxic and anti-effective dispersant to address the oil spill.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            So it’s conspiracy, then.

          • simbalimsi says:

            why would any of them do so?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Why do EAs do EA stuff? Why to people volunteer for Habitat for Humanity? Why do churches feed the hungry?

            Basically you’re positing a world in which it’s finally possible to actually give everyone anything they need without depriving anyone else and the millions of people who try to do that today at their own expense are going to instantly not.

            The economic philosophy of Islam is basically communist. Everybody in the Islamic State got housing and free optical care and all that. Wouldn’t the Muslims be all over this?

            Why not? In the post-scarcity world, what happened to all the Effective Altruists, all the Muslims, all the Catholics, all the Mormons and Jimmy Carter?

          • Civilis says:

            Basically you’re positing a world in which it’s finally possible to actually give everyone anything they need without depriving anyone else and the millions of people who try to do that today at their own expense are going to instantly not.

            Especially because building those post-scarcity replicators is going to require work. Someone’s going to need to be altruistic enough to actually do the last human work of building them in the first place. You can’t pay people to do it because that money instantly becomes worthless when they’re done. You haven’t eliminated the requirement for altruism, just moved it.

          • vV_Vv says:

            It’s not obvious to me that automation => post-scarcity. Natural resources and technological level will always be limiting factors.

            There is only so much agricultural land and for a given technological level it will only produce so much food. This food can be used to feed poor people or to feed the genetically-engineered pet dragons of Queen Zuckerberg Stormborn first-of-her-name or to make the rocket fuel for the personal spaceship of Emperor Elon III and so on.

            Sounds crazy? Well, what about the animal shelter in San Francisco that was using a security robot to harass homeless people out of its parking lot? A charitable enterprise in one of the richest part of the world that cares about pets more than people, and has already started to use robotic enforcers.

            Sure, these homeless people were trespassing on private property, just like you will be trespassing and stealing when you will be trying to gather food in a post-labor economy: the elites will be always able to outbid you for the legal ownership of the land or any other resource.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Why do EAs do EA stuff? Why to people volunteer for Habitat for Humanity? Why do churches feed the hungry?

            Basically you’re positing a world in which it’s finally possible to actually give everyone anything they need without depriving anyone else and the millions of people who try to do that today at their own expense are going to instantly not.

            If churches feed the hungry, why are there still hungry?

            Automation doesn’t mean a world in which everything becomes free. It means a world in which labor is no longer needed, so at most you can think as if labor became free. Energy doesn’t become free. Minerals don’t become free. Farm land does not become free. Space in which to live does not become free. And capital (such as the “robots” or automated production facilities) won’t become free either.

            Volunteer labor is already the part that is easy to procure in a charity operation — as opposed to fund-raising. And even insofar as volunteer labor is hard to acquire, the hard part is mainly owing to the fact that you eventually need to pay labor to sustain itself. (At least room and board.) So charity isn’t going to be getting a whole lot easier necessarily.

          • Cliff says:

            If churches feed the hungry, why are there still hungry?

            Isn’t hunger in the U.S. basically a solved problem, to the point where the anti-hunger charities have to make up a new, vague measure “food insecurity” which measures people being worried that they won’t have enough money to buy all the groceries they want?

            Several times I have read stories about athletes who grew up in dreadful poverty and often they say “All I had for breakfast sometimes was potato chips and peanut butter!” and I’m thinking hey… that sounds pretty good and also quite nutritious.

            Normal people roll up to grocery store dumpsters and collect good food they threw away just to save money. Poor people are incredibly obese.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            If churches feed the hungry, why are there still hungry?

            To my knowledge they’re not. I bring a bag of food to Mass first Sunday of everybody month and load it into the Catholic Charities truck along with everybody else, and it leaves for the community pantry stuffed full. The Church has absolutely no problem begging us for money every other week for this Mission or that Society or whatever, but they’ve never asked for more food, so I assumed that meant “problem solved.” If the poor are still going hungry, just let us know and we’ll start bringing two bags a month. I wasn’t only bringing one because that’s all I can afford, I was only bringing one because I thought that solved the problem.

          • Jiro says:

            Normal people roll up to grocery store dumpsters and collect good food they threw away just to save money.

            I think you’re in a bubble. In probably most of the US, normal people don’t do this. Some may take other things like discarded but working electronics, but even then, doing so is low status.

          • acymetric says:

            @Jiro

            Yeah, without passing any judgement whatsoever on people who do it, that is decidedly not normal, either in terms of how many people do it or how accepting most people would be of people they knew doing it.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            My own experience is that people don’t go to scavenge grocery store dumpsters NOW, but they used to.

            Today, people “scavenge” grocery stores by going to either Food Not Bombs, or to a local food bank, or by shopping at Grocery Outlet. Heck, I’ve occasionally bought remained expired food at Grocery Outlet because it was convenient to routing while running errands.

            Grocery stores in the US no longer throw expired-today food into visible dumpsters, because the optics are bad, because they get a tax writeoff for the donations, and because in many munis doing so has been banned (and relatedly, because many governments have repealed the well-meaning but idiotic laws and regulations that required the grocery stories to trash aged stock). And, of course, grocery store owners and managers are not commie-fever-dreams villains.

            But yeah, when I was a kid in the rural southeast, scavenging the grocery store dumpsters and restaurant dumpsters were definitely a Thing that ordinary people did. And it wasn’t even just poor families: kids in my school who do it on the walk to or from school to grab some snacks or party food.

            I’ve been a guest to dinner hosted by friends and acquaintances where I know that a lot of the food on the table came from Food Not Bombs or from a food bank or from Grocery Outlet. There was no shame in it, nor status-jockying.

          • AG says:

            Simon Jester’s comment here shows that we’re arguing at a little bit of a disconnect, I think.

            We’re not necessarily arguing that the underclass will become worse than anyone ever in history ever was. Today’s homeless have access to clothing, food scraps, and jerry-rigged shelter materials that would be positively rich by historical standards. First Nation peoples aren’t all in squalor.
            However, the argument is more that upward class mobility will be obliterated, and the distribution of wealth will become extremely skewed and concentrated, and everyone else on a sliding scale of “living but miserable.” As per aforementioned obliterated class mobility, the huge majority of these living but miserable people will have basically no capability of improving one’s own lot. More and more people will be pushed into this underclass.
            (And this will result in the rise of criminal activities and underclass intraconflict, as well.)

      • Winja says:

        During the Roman Empire, such a system did exist. The goverment provided a base level of food and entertainment (bread and circuses) and it was evidently incredibly common for regular folks to get up in the morning and make the rounds at the doorstep of various wealthy patrons in order to ask for some amount of money.

        The wealthy would dole out cash with the explicit understanding that they were basically buying the loyalty of these people, and they could be called upon to perform various actions, from acting as part of an entourage, to running errands, to voting a certain way or, if needed, delivering beat downs to political opponents.

        • vV_Vv says:

          The Roman patricians didn’t have robots, though.

          • INH5 says:

            They had the oldest form of automation in human history, commonly known as “slaves.”

          • vV_Vv says:

            But they couldn’t rely on slaves for everything, in particular not for security.

            If a mob tried to attack them the slaves would probably stand and watch, try to run away, or turn against their masters. You needed loyal, well paid guards to deal with that, and even a small private army wouldn’t be able to do much against a large scale insurrection or an attack by a sufficiently powerful rival faction, hence the need to placate the population with panem et circenses.

            Once you get mass surveillance and super-human security drones, on the other hand, the risk of insurrection is basically zero.

          • Winja says:

            I honestly couldn’t speak to whether the Roman upper class (not all of whom were Patricians) could have relied on slave labor for security.

            It’s not outside of the realm of possibility. And, I suppose for those who didn’t utilize slaves for security, there’s always the client side of the patron/client relationship.

            As to your rich people killbots, someone’s got to maintain them.

          • Doctor Locketopus says:

            > But they couldn’t rely on slaves for everything, in particular not for security.

            They absolutely did. Well-off Roman households had a slave designated as the ostiarius, whose duties primarily consisted of guarding the door day and night to keep intruders out. Roman courts also had them. They served an equivalent function to a bailiff in a modern court.

            It was very common for Romans to have a bodyguard of husky slaves when traveling the streets.

            > If a mob tried to attack them the slaves would probably stand and watch, try to run away, or turn against their masters.

            That was not actually the case, in most instances.

            This may make more sense if one stops to consider the likely fate of a disloyal slave.

    • albertborrow says:

      That is not a very good point. Putting aside the fact that the demand for humans literally all of those jobs will be lower in the future than they are now, (because most of them can be automated, or have easily automated substitutes, like the very real VR porn market) if you fired everyone who is currently not in one of those industries, the collective voting power of the unemployed is enough to make a world where they don’t get fed preposterous. Unless the population of the United States crashes by 300 million I can’t see a world in which the only way to survive is to become a beggar.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Why in the world would unwashed masses of unemployed people retain political power when faced with opponents with near unlimited resources?

        • Cliff says:

          How could they not?

          • Walter says:

            So, I think the canary in this coalmine is prisoners.

            Like, they are a class of people who don’t do work. We feed them and keep them alive despite the fact that we think they are bad.

            But we don’t let them vote. Not even on stuff about prisons.

            Going by how prisoners get treated, I’m more with bacon than with cliff on this one. I think the people who aren’t contributing will lose their political power in roughly the same way as prisoners have.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But the population of prisoners is small, and opposed by literally everyone else in society. If the population of “people who don’t have robots and want the stuff robots make” is 499 million to the 1 million people with robots, I think the 499 million win.

          • Walter says:

            I dunno what you mean by ‘win’, Conrad. Like, are you talking about a physical war, or a democratic contest, or what?

            I tend to go off what has already been a thing. There have been times in history where 1% or less had all the power. Heck, pharoah style systems might have been the majority. I don’t have any trouble picturing one arising.

            But I don’t know of any system where 1% did all the work (or, in this case, had their robots do all the work) and took orders from everyone else. It seems like they’d get sick of it.

          • vV_Vv says:

            And even if people retain a formal right to vote and run for office it doesn’t mean that they will retain effective political power.

            You can surely think of various historic and modern examples of countries with democratic political systems on paper but with autocratic or oligarchic regimes in practice.

          • Cliff says:

            I don’t know of any system where 1% did all the work (or, in this case, had their robots do all the work) and took orders from everyone else. It seems like they’d get sick of it.

            Okay.. and what would be their mechanism for doing anything about it? They are going to take over the military which has a million mostly blue-collar guys in it? They’re going to get the population to pass a constitutional amendment taking away their own sovereignty? Remember, these guys are going to be incredibly rich and high-status and the only thing they are being asked is to let the other people skim $30kyr off them or whatever when they were already giving away billions voluntarily and in many cases already support more government intervention and redistribution.

          • Walter says:

            @Cliff:

            Like, they already have the chance to do that, yeah? You could go up to Bill Gates, or, you know, his door guy, and make that same case. “All you have to do is give me 30k per year, you are already giving billions, you support redistribution…”

            But for some reason it doesn’t seem like that happens. I dunno the exact composition of the word cloud that would be emitted in response from a given progressive billionaire, but the idea of just them paying for the poor doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and it is important to realize that it isn’t because anyone is standing in the way and denying them the ability to pay you.

            SOMETHING is stopping the ‘progressive billionaires pay for the poor’s living wages’ from getting off the ground. It isn’t enemy action, I think I speak for all conservatives when I say we wouldn’t stand in the way and would probably cheer you on.

            So there’s desire to resist, I dunno what exact form it would take, but it is there.

            As far as the means go, shrug, it would depend on what form the resistance took, but I feel like betting against the economy and in favor of the military that it maintains isn’t as sure a thing as you are acting like.

          • vV_Vv says:

            They are going to take over the military which has a million mostly blue-collar guys in it?

            Who do the golden cloaks follow? The man who pays them.

          • John Schilling says:

            Okay.. and what would be their mechanism for doing anything about it? They are going to take over the military which has a million mostly blue-collar guys drones and killbots manufactured by the Military-Industrial Complex in it?

            Fixed that for you.

            And, not saying that this is the inevitable or even most likely outcome, but it is consistent with the underlying “everything is automated” scenario in a way that assuming the military will be just like today’s isn’t.

          • baconbits9 says:

            What political power did the serfs have in Russia? Peasants in France under the late monarchy?

            Democracies tend to evolve as countries get rich(er) as some form of middle class that controls/influences parts of the economy more directly and claim more power. This is why embargoes support dictatorships rather than toppling them. The way to topple a dictator is to declare their country a free trade zone and watch as power slips slowly through their fingers.

          • raj says:

            Historically the unwashed masses have had this implicit ultimate veto due to the fact that an individual human was the unit of account for both economic and military output. Automation is a black swan that threatens to upset this ancient balance of power. It might not happen this side of 2050 but there could come a point where a base-line human is scarcely different than a (territorial and intelligent) animal, from a certain economic calculus

          • albertborrow says:

            Look, there’s got to be a point where sheer numbers overwhelm wealth, even disregarding all of the other reasons this premise is implausible. (like how most of the wealth that these people have comes from creating goods that consumers need to buy, and if the consumers don’t have money the entire market falls apart) At some point people will start piling the bodies of the starving masses in front of the skyscraper doors.

            Also, @Walter, Bill Gates doesn’t give people basic income because it’s not the most altruistic use of his money. Instead, he spends it on the poor and dying in other countries, because that’s the most cost-effective way to save lives. Almost like a certain other movement that we know of…

          • baconbits9 says:

            Look, there’s got to be a point where sheer numbers overwhelm wealth, even disregarding all of the other reasons this premise is implausible

            Why? Will none of the unemployed masses sell themselves to be an army for the rich?

          • Cliff says:

            @Walter,

            To me the answer to your questions is very easy. The money isn’t there. Bill Gates can’t give everyone a $30k salary, not even close, not even for one year. Basic math should tell you this. Does Bill Gates in fact oppose UBI? I don’t know but if he does I REALLY doubt it’s on the basis that he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes. He’s giving away 99% of his money.

            As far as drones and kill-bots and far-future technology, yes okay that throws things off, but I think it is more likely to result in the death of all humans than the domination of society by the 0.1%. I will concede that if the singularity is achieved then the future has a huge error bar and lots of things become possible. But in a world anything like this one it seems very hard to imagine the ultra-rich successfully forming a conspiracy and enslaving the 99.9%.

          • Walter says:

            @Cliff: I feel like you did a weird jiu jutsu thing there and suddenly took over my arguments. I’m comfy letting you ‘win’ my points, but, like, are you ok with that?

            Like, the point that Bill Gates won’t pay for you is the one that I’m making. The idea that he and his friends will pay for you and your friends is the contention that you were on a few replies ago. I’m comfortable agreeing with you that the rich won’t voluntarily pay for you, and it sounds like I’ve convinced you.

            As far as enslaving goes, it sounds like you have kind of danced around to my side of the discussion on this one too. Your position was that the people doing all the work, BG and his robots, would pay for the rest of us to live. That setup would have them as the slaves, not us.

            I’m saying that they would not do that. People, given the choice, tend to opt not to do that, and your contention had them as having all the resources, so it seems pretty clear to me that they’d have a choice.

            That doesn’t mean that they would enslave us. I agree with you that there is no reason for that to happen, although I share your point, re: the replicator or whatever nonsense tech is coming down the pipe means that unpredictability is high at this time in history.

    • ReaperReader says:

      there’s lots of historical precedent for that with increased automation

      What?

      • Plumber says:

        @ReaperReader,
        For history I had in mind the courtiers of “the Sun King”, Hollywood entourages, the many servants in Edwardian manor houses of various specialties and doubtful efficiency – all mostly to signal the wealth and status of the employer, and also the rise of “administrative services” while the number of hands directly in production drops in the last 50 years.

        • ReaperReader says:

          Some people across history have had entourages is hardly an argument that increased automation is going to lead to more entourages, the Pharoahs had entourages.

          • Plumber says:

            @ReaperReader,
            With or without increased automation with the “new gilded age” increased entourages, “administrative services”,  and “security services” (bodyguards/goons) seem likely to me.

            At the turn of the last century (late Victorian/Edwardian era) before the world wars the “economic ladder” was pyramid shaped, with the poor greatly out numbering the rich, and not the mid 20th century diamond shape with most being “middle class”, labor was cheap (think third world) and labor saving devices (washing machines, et cetera) weren’t common (taking in others laundry to hand wash in boiling pots was a common gig) and instead of microwave ovens – cooks, vacuum cleaners – maids, being “in service” was more commonly a job than in the mid 20th century to now, and “professional class” (what today would be new car owners) people were more likely to have “help” in the home.

            With the world wars top income tax rates go up, labor is more in demand (as soldiers and in the munitions factories) and with the interwar Great Depression great fortunes are lost, at the same time jobs in manufacturing are getting unionized – the “family wage” becomes regular, mansions on Long Island are subdivided and tenements empty out, while “Levittown” and other suburban single family homes are built by the millions, cars and televisions become plentiful as are jobs assembling them, and women are now more commonly housewives with union wage earning husbands instead of going “into service”, while “the rich” are just less rich – so the difference is owning a Cadillac or a Chevrolet instead of having servants or being one.

            In time upper tax rates are cut, fortunes build again, automation and foreign competition – plus closing factories and moving them out of “the rust belt” and into Dixie and then across the border, and then overseas, plus government no longer supports unions (except among it’s own employees) and what had been called “the Great Compression” turn into “the Great Divergence” – plus immigration, which had been limited in 1924 to 1965 increases, now the “professional class” employs “nannies” (what the previous gilded age called “governesses”), and also landscapers,though companies, not live in gardeners, (my wife reports that when she takes our younger son out during the week playgrounds have many more immigrant nannies with their charges than when we’d bring are older son out a decade ago).

            At the same time as there’s been decreased jobs in manufacturing, many more now work in “administrative services” (flunkies and/or “box tickers” for increased regulations).

            I’m not predicting that automation will increase a demand for entourages (I imagine that human vanity is more static than that), instead I’m predicting increased unemployment lowering wages which will increase the willingness to be in one for a living. 

          • ReaperReader says:

            @plumber:
            So we’ve gone from you claiming that increased automation historically caused x to you claiming that x will happen with or without automation? Have I got that right?

          • Plumber says:

            @ReaperReader,
            Extrapolating recent trends yes, but “the future” has a way of being pretty damn unpredictable so I don’t know for sure (nor does anyone else), but suffice to say I’m not a “techno-optimist” (nor any kind of optimist).
            What do you predict for the Brave New World?

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The core point here is that while we can’t say “historically, automation allowed…”

            We CAN say “historically, when you give a small clique of humans total, unquestioned, personal control over economic output, not just in the sense that they manage it but in the sense that it belongs to them, personally… This is what happens.”

            The “palace economies” of the Bronze Age were very centralized, as much so as a typical communist country of the 20th century or even more so. To simplify for the sake of compactness, the rule seems to have been that all economic output was officially the property of the deified monarch, or the temple, or some other such authority. And this authority acted as the clearinghouse for all goods.

            And lo and behold, the pharaohs and god-kings lived in enormous, lavishly furnished palaces, and a significant chunk of the economic surplus of those civilizations must have been going into things like building pyramids and collecting a few teaspoons of ‘royal purple’ dye for imperial garments and so on.

            In ancient Rome, the latifundia system meant that the estates of prominent senators kept getting larger and larger. Yeoman farmers were squeezed off their land, which was converted into slave-operated plantations, the economic output of which was controlled by a relatively small number of Roman patricians. Which, in turn, meant that those patricians began running huge, overstaffed households and picking up entourages of entertainers, hangers-on, and security goon squads to beat back any uppity plebs.

            So the suggested recurring pattern indicates the following prediction.

            If we wind up with a robot-economy world where global per capita GDP is, say, $100,000 per year in constant 2019 dollars, where the vast majority of humans are incapable of directly laboring in a way useful to this economy, and where all the ownership is in the hands of an elite of billionaires…

            Well, you’ll get a world in which a small minority of necessary technical experts get 100-200k a year, where the billionaires spend the absolute bare minimum possible to stop the masses from rioting, and where everything else is surplus they personally control and which goes into building their golden palaces or other vanity projects.

            And “the absolute bare minimum possible to stop the masses from rioting” is unlikely to be a very pleasant or fulfilling experience, because keeping people docile and compliant is usually cheaper than making people happy.

  3. Sniffnoy says:

    Good post. There were some things I wanted to add but I think you basically covered them!

    But there one is other thing I wanted to note. While pure prefiguration with no plan is obviously stupid, I do want to warn against would could perhaps roughly be considered the opposite mistake — the decentralized two-phase plan.

    Basically: Mass movements don’t pivot. If your plan has two phases, and where in phase one your mass movement militates for one thing, and in phase two for a different thing, phase two ain’t gonna happen. You can expect phase one to be repeated over and over. And if you do have a central controlling body, well, that won’t necessarily help. Because good chance once you try to switch to phase two, all your people will desert you for a different group whose purpose is, of course, to repeat phase one.

    A related mistake, I suppose, is thinking you can have an exoteric doctrine for recruitment and an esoteric doctrine for the insiders. I mean sure to some extent you can do this and indeed to some extent everybody does it, playing up for the outsiders the parts of their thinking that are more palatable, avoiding explicit statements of what follows. But when it goes beyond simple spin, there’s a serious disagreement between the two, or when you’re not merely leaving implications unstated but rather actively being misleading — well, who’s going to be doing that central control in the future? The people you recruited with the exoteric doctrine. And that’s what they’re going to push for.

    So no, you don’t want undirected prefiguration; but if you want a mass movement, you should try to formulate a plan that will only have one phase. Because that’s what type of plan will be executed, whether it’s your plan or not.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Basically: Mass movements don’t pivot. If your plan has two phases, and where in phase one your mass movement militates for one thing, and in phase two for a different thing, phase two ain’t gonna happen. You can expect phase one to be repeated over and over. And if you do have a central controlling body, well, that won’t necessarily help. Because good chance once you try to switch to phase two, all your people will desert you for a different group whose purpose is, of course, to repeat phase one.”

      Can you give some examples of what you mean by this and how people got this wrong?

      • j r says:

        Can you give some examples of what you mean by this and how people got this wrong?

        Marxism-Leninism is a pretty good example of this. The Bolshevik revolution was supposed to be a two-stage revolution, wherein a committed, pragmatic and, most importantly, professional vanguard of revolutionaries would take power from the Tsarist autocracy and use the dictatorship of the proletariat to sweep away the vestiges of capitalism. And from there, they would transition to a fully communist society in which the state would whither away and they’d be left with communal, non-hierarchical utopia.

        It didn’t quite work out that way.

        And almost the same thing happened after the Chinese Communist Revolution.

        • John Schilling says:

          The Bolshevik revolution was supposed to be a two-stage revolution, wherein a committed, pragmatic and, most importantly, professional vanguard of revolutionaries would take power

          Period, The End, and I don’t think the Bolsheviks have anything close to a monopoly on revolutions that can be so described.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Except, see, that’s the point.

            We have access to a lot of the writings and internal communications of the early Bolsheviks nowadays, and it looks like they actually believed in the plan to first seize power, then destroy the old order, then usher in true communism.

            Lenin may have been fooling people into thinking he would usher in true communism, when in fact he was just securing a monopoly on power for his successors in the Party bureaucracy. But if so, not only was he fooling the masses and the foreigners, he was fooling his own party, and himself.

            So the fact that the Bolsheviks’ originally planned revolution ended right there at “we seize power” and then just stayed in that frozen moment with the Bolsheviks permanently in power and deciding what to do with it on the spur of the moment right up through 1989 is exactly the point

            It wasn’t a trick, the Bolsheviks didn’t secretly plan in 1917 to seize power forever while pretending otherwise.

            It just didn’t matter what Phase Two of the plan was, because by optimizing their organization to achieve Phase One (the part where they brutally purged all their enemies and installed an all-powerful state bureaucracy), they ensured that forever after their government would be run by the kind of people who are good at brutally purging enemies and maintaining an all-powerful bureaucracy.

      • Aapje says:

        @Scott Alexander

        See feminism. The idea was that men and society in general had to change to liberate women from mandatory behaviors and they would thus be free to make decisions (1), whereupon women would take control of their own future (2).

        Yet what actually happened is that the agency that women have is constantly being denied, recreating the narrative where men and society has to change, while women are still powerless. See how unequal earnings is framed, the lesser representation of women in certain professions, #metoo, etc.

        You can even see the very process playing out where the esoteric insiders get replaced with esoteric ‘fresh meat’ who want to keep fighting part 1 over and over.

      • Eric Rall says:

        The conservative movement in the US is another example. I was involved in Republican Party politics for several years starting in 2007, and when I recently-ish read Rick Perlstein’s book about the Barry Goldwater campaign (Before the Storm), an awful lot of the details (especially about the various factions and their attitudes and activities) matched up very closely with what I saw there. The players have changed, but as of early 2016 they were playing the same roles in the same game as 50+ years ago. The closest correspondence was a group I had contact with which was running directly out of the John Birch Society’s playbook from the 1960s.

    • Lambert says:

      There is one way to pivot.

      Though you could argue that it was as much a factional issue as a ‘direction of the movement’ one.

  4. astaereth says:

    The Mont Pelerin Society has been proven right about a lot of things; does anyone want to un-deregulate airplanes these days?

    This seems like exactly the sort of random assertion you fault the book for, Scott. Maybe I’m just not familiar enough with the issue but “here’s an industry for which everyone agrees we have the exact right amount of regulation” is a statement I’d want to see some support for or explanation of no matter what the industry, let alone airlines (is anybody happy with the air travel industry these days?).

    Wikipedia quotes a balanced perspective from Justice Breyer:

    What does the industry’s history tell us? Was this effort worthwhile? Certainly it shows that every major reform brings about new, sometimes unforeseen, problems. No one foresaw the industry’s spectacular growth, with the number of air passengers increasing from 207.5 million in 1974 to 721.1 million last year. As a result, no one foresaw the extent to which new bottlenecks would develop: a flight-choked Northeast corridor, overcrowded airports, delays, and terrorist risks consequently making air travel increasingly difficult. Nor did anyone foresee the extent to which change might unfairly harm workers in the industry. Still, fares have come down. Airline revenue per passenger mile has declined from an inflation-adjusted 33.3 cents in 1974, to 13 cents in the first half of 2010. In 1974 the cheapest round-trip New York-Los Angeles flight (in inflation-adjusted dollars) that regulators would allow: $1,442. Today one can fly that same route for $268. That is why the number of travelers has gone way up. So we sit in crowded planes, munch potato chips, flare up when the loudspeaker announces yet another flight delay. But how many now will vote to go back to the “good old days” of paying high, regulated prices for better service? Even among business travelers, who wants to pay “full fare for the briefcase?”

    Maybe “nobody” wants to un-deregulate because nobody wants to trade back cheaper flights for higher standards, but there are lots of things that are unpopular that are worth not immediately accepting at face value.

    Anyway I’m not arguing either way, it just seemed like a curious assertion to drop in here. To be fair, at least it encouraged me to learn a little history.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I have literally never met anyone who wants to un-de-regulate airlines, and it sounds like Justice Breyer is making the same point I am (“How many now will vote to go back to the good old days?”) If such a person exists, let them post here, and I’ll admit I was wrong and remove that sentence.

      (…maybe. I’m pretty sure I can also find people in this comment section who want to destroy all human life, so this might be too low a bar)

      • Plumber says:

        @Scott Alexander,
        Please don’t remove the sentence, but regulations mandating more minimum space per passenger, or less time spent trapped on a plane (and there have indeed been calls for a “passengers bill of rights“) seem a fine idea to me, and I’m just old enough to remember passenger air travel in the early 1970’s (when people smoked on planes!) though I was too young to buy tickets and I don’t remember my parents saying anything about the price.

        • The question isn’t “are there any regulations you would be in favor of” but “would you prefer the airlines under regulation as it existed to the airlines as they now are.”

          Lots of people would be in favor of income redistribution, provided that all it did was to give them lots of money taken from strangers. But that doesn’t tell us whether they would be in favor of the actual results of a government that redistributes income.

          So far as your examples are concerned. The reason there was more space on planes before deregulation was that airlines couldn’t compete on price, because they needed FAA permission to reduce fares and their competitors would object. Since price was set well above cost, it was still worth flying a plane that was only a bit more than half full, and doing so would divert passengers from a competitor who could only compete on schedule.

          If customers were willing to pay twice the current air fare in order to fly in half full planes, airlines would be happy to provide. Is that what you want?

          More generally, what reason do you have to think that the changes you want would be worth their cost to you, yet the airlines don’t choose to offer them at that price? As you may have noticed, airlines do sell different classes of service at different prices. Is your objection that you want the airlines to be compelled to offer you a more luxurious service at the same price? If so, doesn’t that come down to “I am in favor of regulations that compel other people to give things to me”?

          Which makes sense if you believe you will end up in charge–but that can’t work for everyone, and it’s hard to see why you would expect it to work for you.

          • bean says:

            It’s worse than that. Pre-deregulation air travel is essentially called business class today, in terms of price, space, and service. (Modulo some security stuff, which is not the airline’s fault and can be taken care of by getting PreCheck. Which is basically the best thing.)

          • Plumber says:

            @DavidFriedman,
            Since I’ve only been on a plane four times in over fifteen years (but dozens of times in the ’70’s and ’80’s) my “revealed preference” is just not to fly at all, but judging by other people flying more now that conditions are more crowded but flights cheaper, my preferences are far from universal.

          • Lambert says:

            Has anybody actually done a rigorous comparison of the cost of like-for-like air travel over time?
            i.e. taking into account x amount of legroom, y amount of complementary junk etc.

            If the number’s getteng smaller, then the airlines *are* giving Plumber more of what he wants.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @bean

            Most flights I’ve been on don’t have a business class, just First ($$$$$$$$$$$ and your little dog too), Economy Plus (Economy with 2010 seat pitch), Economy, and Ha Ha We Put You In The Last Row Window (took me a week to recover from the back pain that one caused).

          • bean says:

            @Nybbler

            These days, airlines are really intensely monitizing their first class sections, which means that the cost is down to a fairly reasonable multiplier over economy, not that much more than you’d expect in terms of raw floor space on the plane. This makes the cost tradeoff not that far from the pre-deregulation days.

            (I said business instead of first because the US is unusual in describing what is in the front of our airplanes as first. Also, this wasn’t true 5-10 years ago, when the multiplier was much higher, and more of those seats went to upgrades.)

            As for Economy Plus being 2010 Seat Pitch, nonsense. It’s usually something like 34″, which hasn’t been standard anywhere except JetBlue for 15 years. And that experiment on American’s part was a total failure.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I just checked a round trip from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, May 10 to May 17

            Economy: $218

            Premium Economy: $493

            First Class: $635 (little dog not listed on fee page)

            Business not available.

            That’s quite the difference. I’m used to Premium Economy being $50-100 more per seat (and usually closer to $50 on EWR-FLL), not over twice as much. But it’s been 6 months since I flew anywhere.

          • bean says:

            First, this is to somewhere in Florida, the never-ending sink of traveler demand. It’s quite possible that this is a route where coach fares are low because of competition from Spirit et al, and premium fares are higher because the ULCCs don’t have premium cabins. (Except for Spirit, sort of. Long story there.)
            Second, you yourself admit that it’s somewhat unusual compared to your experience on that route. The last time I looked, which was admittedly a while ago, cost tracked relative floor space reasonably well.

            As for business vs first, that’s a quirk of the US domestic market. What we call first, everyone else calls business (except Europe, but that’s a different issue) and I spend enough time thinking about international flying that I got it wrong.

          • Jiro says:

            The airlines have an incentive to make the conditions worse so they can sell you the service of making them better. Making the conditions worse does not make the airline’s expenses any less; it’s just a means of extracting consumer surplus.

          • Lambert says:

            Ryanair deliberately being dicks does not lead to more of my money in Michael o’ Leary’s pocket.
            It leads to me flying Easyjet instead.

          • bean says:

            >Ryanair deliberately being dicks does not lead to more of my money in Michael o’ Leary’s pocket.

            Michael O’Leary is a long-time devotee of the “any publicity is good publicity” school of thought. A lot of the stupider things that Ryanair has “considered” (standing seats, charging for bathrooms) are basically just rumors floated to get headlines and tie “Ryanair” and “cheap” in people’s minds. It seems to work.

        • J Mann says:

          Plumber, I think people’s revealed preferences are for cheaper, less comfortable air flight. In particular, there seems to be a market for new airlines that have worse lowest-tier flying conditions than the majors, but not much of a market for an airline that says “we have nothing lower than what would pass for business class on any other plane.”

          It’s possible that some people would be better off if you regulated away the cattle car class seating – people who already fly in the next class up, or who would prefer it if it were slightly cheaper, but still more expensive than existing base class – might be better off if everyone else were forced to fly at their preferred class, but those people would be worse off, including people who had to skip flights they would like to take.

          • Plumber says:

            @J Mann,
            I don’t disagree with your logic that the market is giving more people what they want more, I’m just not among the more.

          • myers2357 says:

            La Compagnie offers business-class-only flights, but appears to only be available for New York -> Paris -> Nice.

            I’m sure more exist, but I’m also sure they market directly to a few select businesses – whereas Frontier’s or Spirit’s potential market is in the millions.

          • bean says:

            The basic problem with all-business-class airlines is that they really don’t make a lot of sense. All else equal, bigger airplanes are cheaper per seat, so for any given number of business-class seats, it’s almost always better to get a bigger plane and fill the back with coach seats. The countervailing pressure is for frequency, which business travelers really like, but that’s easily done by downsizing the 2-class plane and flying more of them.

          • Jiro says:

            The reason people have such preferences is that bad conditions are easy to hide and prices are difficult to hide, not that people actually prefer bad conditions to high prices.

          • bean says:

            @Jiro

            Bad conditions aren’t that easy to hide. Everyone who has flown Spirit once knows that they have really tight seats. Even people who haven’t flown Ryanair know that they are horrible. And yet they’re not starving for passengers. American tried “more legroom throughout coach” about 15 years ago, and discovered that it didn’t let them charge a revenue premium, or even drive bookings at the same price, despite what I believe was a substantial marking campaign. People simply don’t care. This is one of the best-established facts of airline economics, despite continual attempts to deny it.

      • bean says:

        @Scott

        I’ve run across occasional people who seem to want to underegulate. I think they’re working from a “golden age” model, where the quality of service is remembered and the price (namely in terms of real dollars, which was twice what it is today) is forgotten.

        Side rant: Why are so many people weeping over the effects on the workers of the airline industry? Seriously, there are lots of sectors which have much worse conditions and have been hit much harder over the last 30-40 years. Auto workers spring to mind. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what they do, but it’s hard to see what has happened as anything other than a long, slow recovery from an age when the airlines were guaranteed a fixed profit, and didn’t have any real incentive to hold labor costs down.

        @Plumber

        The people behind the various “bills of rights” have problems with basic principles of airline economics, like “the plane, to a first approximation, costs the same to operate no matter how many seats we have in it”. So banning 28″ seat pitches means that tickets will get more expensive. Is there more of a premium for 32″ pitches than there would be if those were the minimum? In theory, yes. In practice, Southwest. But the people who can’t afford anything other than Spirit are definitely better off.

        • J Mann says:

          Bean, it looks like your spell checker changed “un-deregulate” to “underregulate.” (It’s kind of funny that the same sequence of letters can be almost reversed in meaning with a hypen, though.)

          • bean says:

            Actually, I left the hypen out by myself, and didn’t stop to check for the almost collision with a different word. (Mine only has one r, not two.)

          • J Mann says:

            D’oh! I hoped I had made a clever point, and instead it turns out I’m just not good at counting the number of r’s in a word!

      • fion says:

        I don’t really understand how un-de-regulate is different from “regulate”, but it seems to me that there should be (and I’m sure there is) some regulation of the airline industry.

        There’s also the environmental point. If deregulating airlines makes it easier for planes to fly, that might be a bad thing in the long run.

        • “un-deregulate” means return to the regulatory system we had before deregulation. “Regulate” leaves it open what the regulations will be. The latter looks more attractive because each person can imagine it would be his preferred set of regulations—whether or not they are possible, either financially or politically.

      • Deiseach says:

        I have literally never met anyone who wants to un-de-regulate airlines

        Oh, I think it could be swung, if we’re talking about “aeroplane travel should be severely reduced, because of carbon footprint, because of climate change, because of THE APOCALYPSE IS COMING TO KILL US ALL IN 12 YEARS!!!!!”.

        How better to force people to cut out unnecessary air travel than by hiking up ticket prices? Say, not by going back to the good old days of lots of leg room and air hostesses waiting on you hand and foot, but on the basis of ‘paying the real price for the trip which includes the pollution and carbon taxes’. And if we get regulators who regulate on the basis of “is your journey strictly necessary” for the sake of climate change goodness, then I imagine there are a lot out there who’d be happy to un-deregulate (I’m not going to mention the Green New Deal, that’s shooting fish in a barrel).

      • Brett says:

        Phillip Longman and (unsurprisingly) Lina Khan at Washington Monthly wrote a piece called Terminal Sickness that was basically a defense of the regulated era and a critique of deregulation.

        TL;DR: Most of the piece is complaining about how the change in air travel routing is cutting out tons of cities from air service (ironically being undone now with the revival of point-to-point air travel routes – see the failure of the Airbus A380), but there’s a section on the consumer effects lower down. Rates were already falling due to technological advancements, and the percentage of Americans who had traveled by plane at least once was up to 63% by 1977. Deregulation seemed to lower prices for a while, but that was mostly because of the collapse in oil prices in the 1980s made it cheaper to fly planes. They claim that rates were falling faster in the ten years before deregulation than in the ten years afterwards (although that is an EPI study, and the EPI is a pro-labor think tank – and the airline unions had been some of the biggest opponents of deregulation).

        Or so they say. I’m not necessarily in agreement with them, and open to counter-arguments to that.

        • bean says:

          Counterargument: All of the above is completely insane. Ticket prices today are, in real terms, half of what they were during the regulated era, and have been for a long time. Precisely because the airlines aren’t shoveling huge chunks of money to the unions. The DoT has all of the numbers you need to confirm this yourself, and claims to the contrary are people attempting to pull the wool over your eyes.

          As for loss of service, this is a red herring made by mashing together several different issues. There are lots of places where air service didn’t make much sense, but it was kept there by the regulations. They complain about “state capitols not being accessible by air”, but in every single one of those cases, they’re talking about a small market that was presumably outcompeted by much larger and much cheaper airports an hour or two away. (Sea-Tac, for instance, is 52 miles from Olympia.)

          And then you get to cities that used to be hubs and now aren’t, and have thus lost a lot of service. (I did check, and the St. Louis airport handles almost as many passengers as the one in Tampa, the next-largest MSA without a hub, despite not being in the endless sink of tourist demand that is Florida.) This is bad for those places, but I don’t see having a hub as being a fundamental right.

          Two other major problems:
          1. They mention Southwest as little as possible, probably because it’s completely at odds with their thesis. St. Louis, for instance, is a big “focus city” for SWA, even if traffic isn’t at the levels it was when TWA had a hub there.
          2. Their claims about the continued shrinking of the airline industry really haven’t been borne out. In 2012, things were bad, but as the economy has recovered and oil prices have fallen, service has recovered. As have airline profits, and even noted airline skeptic Warren Buffet has recently moved into the Big 4 US airlines.

          • Ticket prices today are, in real terms, half of what they were during the regulated era, and have been for a long time. Precisely because the airlines aren’t shoveling huge chunks of money to the unions.

            How does that factor compare with increased load factor? My memory was that, pre-deregulation, load factor was somewhere close to .5.

          • bean says:

            Load factors are definitely up, but I don’t know how much. Current numbers are in the 80-85% region, but I can’t find numbers pre-2000. That doesn’t account for everything, but it does make a big dent.

      • byonge says:

        I actually met a guy about a year ago who was lamenting the days of airline regulation. He flies to a lot of tier 2 & 3 cities to look at private equity deals. Apparently competition in those markets hasn’t materialized in the way most would have hoped so prices, choice, and scheduling are still a mess.

        I would take this anecdata with a grain of salt but I felt like sharing.

      • Viljami Virolainen says:

        >I have literally never met anyone who wants to un-de-regulate airlines […]

        But maybe people should argue for un-de-regulating airlines more? See for example:
        https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/business/boeing-safety-features-charge.html

        • The Nybbler says:

          Boeing isn’t an airline, it’s an aircraft manufacturer. And the safety record of commercial airliners in the US in the past 10 years is such that a sparrow falling when the FAA isn’t watching appreciably increases the relative risk, so safety isn’t really a good argument for the old regulation regime.

        • bean says:

          Deregulation covered price and schedule, and had absolutely nothing to do with safety. (Also, Boeing hasn’t been an airline since the mid-30s.) If we compare the last years of regulation with today, we’d conclude that deregulation saved thousands of lives. It’s not true, because the drivers for safety improvements are basically orthagonal to deregulation.

      • Worley says:

        Megan McArdle mentioned people who are significantly worse off from airline deregulation — people whose employers have to fly them around the country, but who aren’t high-ranking enough to be able to demand first-class tickets. So they fly a lot, but on the cheapest tickets their employers can find. It was a lot better for them back when regulation guaranteed a minimum amenity level for flying, and a lot worse for their employers.

  5. Clutzy says:

    Isn’t this pretty much just the “long march through the institutions”? And didn’t it happen thirty years ago?

    This was the most confusing thing I saw you write about. There are certainly more communists in academia than there ever were Hayekians. Its that the appeal of them outside those cloistered institutions has had different levels of appeal.

    • j r says:

      That confused me as well, along with:

      The Left should create a network of academics, journalists, think tanks, and politicians who come up with leftist ideas, push the culture to the left, and make sure the public knows Communism is the alternative to the current failing system.

      Maybe part of the problem is the use of the term neoliberal to cover the range of opinion from Elizabeth Warren to Larry Summers to Mitt Romney.

      • Clutzy says:

        That explanation would not make sense when previously they discussed the neoliberals supplanting the Keynesians, which those 3 certainly belong to.

        • “The neoliberals supplanting the Keynesians” isn’t the right way of thinking about it. Keynes in fact wrote a glowing endorsement of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom–quoted on the back cover of at least one edition.

          Keynesianism is a version of neoclassical economics that implies that governments should tweak a market economy by running budget deficits part of the time. Doing that is consistent with a laissez-faire system. One could even, in principle, be a Keynesian anarcho-capitalist who believed that Keynesian policies were desirable but a government couldn’t be trusted to actually apply them properly. The argument between Keynesian and Monetarist economic theories is an important one, but it isn’t the same as the argument between laissez-faire and regulation.

          • Mabuse7 says:

            True, people forget that Lord Keynes himself was an avid stock market speculator and was very flexible as to how countercyclical fiscal policy should be done, and heterodox Keynesians have suggested stimulus via tax cuts, helicopter drops, even directly stimulating financial markets (this one’s getting a lot of interest lately thanks to Roger Farmer’s Prosperity for All). It was primarily Keynes’ Cambridge circle of colleagues and first-generation acolytes; many of then Fabian Socialists and Soviet sympathisers, who worked hard to get Keynesian fiscal policy intrinsically tied with “massive, monolithic, hyper-centralised government programmes”.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          That’s the beauty of “neoliberal”: its definition can expand and contract to suit the needs of the moment.

        • fluffykitten55 says:

          Everything perhaps makes more sense if you replace ‘Keynesians’ with ‘Lernerians’. Lerner’s ‘The Economics of Control’ was sort of the blueprint for anglophone postwar social democracy. In addition to the standard Keynesian macro policy you also has a case for income redistribution, Pigovian taxation or regulation, public good provision, price suppression in monopolistic sectors (usually via nationalisation and in theory setting prices near marginal cost – though only France formally actually adopted MC pricing for public utilities ) etc. In parts of Europe (Scandinavia, Austria, Netherlands etc.) there was also left corporatism. In Germany there was an influence of social democracy with a tinge of Hilferding (focusing more on regulating banking than Keynesian stabilisation and full-employment policy).

          We can sensibly talk about a neoliberal revolution because all these models of a robust mixed economy were supplanted by some neoliberal consensus in which the idea that extensive state intervention to overcome pervasive and major market inefficiencies was no longer desirable.

          This does not mean the state shrunk but that the microeconomics framework shifted from one where the base assumption was market inefficiency to one of market efficiency.

          The microeconomics supporting such a change is very poor but unfortunately very few on the left are sufficiently familiar with the relevant literature to make the case – for example very few can explain why the optimal price for traveling on an uncontested train or bus route is zero, or why centralised bargaining lowers inequality and raises employment, or why firm reinvestment is increasing in bank as opposed to equity financing, or why there is a case for at least one government supplier in a monopolistic sector etc.

          • At a considerable tangent …

            Very early in my career, I gave a talk on what was to be my first econ journal article, an economic theory of the size and shape of nations. An elderly man in the audience made some very good comments–what they were I no longer remember.

            It was Abba Lerner.

          • fluffykitten55 says:

            That is interesting. Was he wearing his canonical shorts and sandals ? He was a real interesting character – I think in 36 or so he drove to Mexico from Berkley to go visit Trotsky and try to convince him of the merits of market socialism.

            Obviously I meant ‘uncongested’ not ‘uncontested’.

          • I don’t remember noticing anything different about Lerner’s garb, but it was a long time ago and I’m not very observant on such things.

            But to continue on the subject, my father’s comment when I mentioned meeting him was that Lerner had a beautifully clear, logical mind, utterly uninterested in facts.

    • Rohan Crawley says:

      I was under the impression that of all the communists in academia, very few are actually economists, who as a field have more influence on policy.

    • Ketil says:

      One reason why a “long march” might not work, is that society’s trust in academic institutions seems to have seriously eroded these days. I don’t know about outright Marxists, but it is a common meme that the left already owns academia, and outside some dark corners of the economy department, I suspect you can find more market liberalists in the Chinese Communist Party than in our academic institutions. And while institutions carry weight into some areas of politics, the populist movements we see almost everywhere (including Trump, AfD, Gillets jaunes, SVD) is to a large degree an expression of distrust of an elite whose views are perceived to range from the incomprehensible (postmodern relativism) to the obviously false (gender is a social construct). If institutions were now to become beacons of communism, I would worry that the effect would be more to diminish the importance of the institutions than to spread communist ideas.

      On the other hand, “democratic socialism” appears to be a thing these days, so perhaps I’m wrong, and we are finally reaping the fruits of the “long march”?

      • tmk says:

        If you are a communist in America, trying to appeal to right wing populists probably isn’t your first priority.

        Put an other way, if right wing populists are anti-intellectual and anti-academic, and the populists are taking over the broader political right, that means the field is wide open.

        The theory based on the Mont Pelerin Society and the Fabians is is that long term political changes is driven by who develops the strongest high-brow intellectual theories, rather than electoral successes or agitating the masses. If that is correct, the populists will lose.

        • vV_Vv says:

          The theory based on the Mont Pelerin Society and the Fabians is is that long term political changes is driven by who develops the strongest high-brow intellectual theories, rather than electoral successes or agitating the masses. If that is correct, the populists will lose.

          Alternatively, those who succeed will be then retroactively seen as high-brow intellectuals.

          The right-wing populists certainly do have they own intellectuals: Steve Bannon, Peter Thiel, Mencius Moldbug, Scott Alexander (sorry I couldn’t resit 🙂 ) and so on. Currently these people are looked down by the establishment in the media and the academia, but if the electoral victories of the populists don’t flame out and consolidate their power then I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation will see them as the highly successful thought leaders who shaped society.

          • tayfie says:

            Bannon would agree he’s a populist, but Thiel would disagree and MM would slap you. Probably the strictest category all of them fit would be the new right.

    • Azure says:

      The problem the left in academia is not a very god left. The part of the left that is both technocratic and radical seems to have been hollowed out by what I think of as a shift from concrete, more quantative concern over people’s wellbeing to critique. I’m not unsympathetic to taking a step back for a humanistic examination of things, but when when there’s a widespread view that concrete, materialist approaches are synonymous with Neoliberalism or that if a libertarian capitalist speaks favorably of something it has Capitalism Cooties, the left excludes form itself the kinds of thought processes that are capable of getting anything done.

      This kind of work, pushing a living UBI as a leftist project, is at least a positive indicator that anti-technocratic obscurantism and revolutionary falderol are becoming less dominant as parts of socialism and communism.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Why does the technocratic left have a good reputation?

        • Azure says:

          I don’t know if they have a good ‘reputation’. If you want to know why I want them around, it’s because if you’re going to have a socialist left, it’s good to have a competent one that focuses on well-being and analysis. Just the same that if you’re going to have capitalist libertarians, you’d want them to be more like David Friedman and Tyler Cowen than they are like Murray Rothbard. Even if I disagree with a position I want it to have defenders who are competent and argue in terms of things I value. I might be wrong, so I’d like someone who can demonstrate that I am wrong. Even if I’m broadly correct, I want an opposition that can find problems in the ideas I support so they can be addressed. I want insightful people with whom I happen to disagree.

          As I am on the left in the liberal-socialist combination of ‘I want to allow individuals to pursue their personal projects and development and also work is bad and we should have less of it and a high level UBI is a good way to go about that’ sort, I prefer to not have the people who support many of the same things I do reason and act in ways I think are kind of useless.

          Basically, I would want every political position to have a large wing oriented in more technocratic, consequentialist, and meliorist direction whether I agree with that position or not.

          • Plumber says:

            @Azure

            “..if you’re going to have capitalist libertarians, you’d want them to be more like David Friedman and Tyler Cowen than they are like…”

            I don’t know who Tyler Owen is but I’m pretty strongly a “New Deal Democrat”, but I find conversation with David easier (and more illuminating) than with many “on the left” so supposedly “my side”, and speaking of “my side” just because I think Walter Mondale was correct and will most likely vote for a Democrat in the next election doesn’t mean that I’d prefer to be ruled by the ideas of Mao Zedong instead of Milton Friedman.
            If Denmark sounds better to me than Pinochet’s Chile that doesn’t mean I want North Korea.
            I’ve posted before that I think the labels “Left” and “Right” obscure as well as (and maybe more than) illuminate.

      • fluffykitten55 says:

        I agree, but the returns have been slight even from the careers of the most talented progressive economists.

        For example Stiglitz is absolutely at the top of their game and if you understand the work you almost have to be some sort of socialist. But overall little has shifted as a result of their and similar work.

    • 10240 says:

      There are certainly more communists in academia than there ever were Hayekians.

      I don’t think that’s true. Marxists in academia are heavily clustered in social sciences, but are not common overall.

      • Clutzy says:

        3% is higher than the number of Republicans on some faculties. The number of those that are more Romney-ey than Hayek-ey is probably 10-1

        • 10240 says:

          I suspect that a Hayekian in academia is more likely to be a Democrat or an independent than a Republican. Most academics are big on the idea that Republicans are racist, or anti-science Christian fundamentalist creationists, or something like that, and this (rather than economic policy) is the main reason there are so few Republicans among them. The Democratic Party has a large enough neoliberal faction to be seen as a better compromise. More generally, I expect that there are fewer conventional conservatives in academia than neoliberals or libertarian-leaning conservatives for the same reason there are fewer of them on SSC: features of conventional conservatism such as religion and a survive orientation tend to be unappealing to intellectual professionals.

  6. j r says:

    Out of curiosity, is there a point in chasing the communist paradigm where you just say, ‘I understand why they feel this way, but communists are just wrong about a bunch of very basic things and that throws everything else off?”

    Or am I not understanding what you mean?

    • shorewalker says:

      I’m in the same camp as j r. Communism is just wrong about enough things that not many people take it seriously, and those that do have to make a bunch of hard-to-justify claims.

      Scott sort of said all he needed to pretty early on:

      They give a brief nod to a long string of leftist victories over the past half-century or so (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental regulation, massive increase in most categories of government social spending, etc, etc, etc), but are unimpressed, since these are compromises within capitalism domination. I would have liked to see them address an alternate perspective, where capitalism having to keep making compromise after compromise to defuse pressure from the left is exactly what leftist victory should look like. … At some point you have to admit that all these “compromises” add up and now you have 90% of what you wanted in the first place. I assume they have some kind of complicated theoretical structural reason why this doesn’t work, but it still seems like a pretty good deal.

      And we get all that through Popper’s “piecemeal social engineering”, without any of the risks of revolution.

      Yep, good deal.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I assume there will be, I just haven’t reached it yet.

      • antilles says:

        Perhaps it’s a system with multiple sinks in which gradient towards the “non-hierarchical propertyless utopia” equilibrium is only strong very near that point, and the gradient tilts towards the “hierarchical property-owning liberal capitalism” or “hierarchical oligarchic autocracy” equilibria across much of the the rest of the state-space. So we need a big movement across most of the state space before we can be sure that we’ll end up settling on stable utopian communism.

        Ironically, that reminds me of one of Joe Stiglitz’s critiques of neoliberal radicals at the IMF in “Globalization and Its Discontents.” He claims they were dominated by the idea that radical changes were necessary to shock illiberal economies into a more liberal equilibrium, because “you can’t cross a canyon in two leaps,” and ended up making things a lot worse than necessary by rejecting incrementalism for (what seemed to them to be) principled reasons.

        • fluffykitten55 says:

          A more cynical reading is that they wanted to destroy the old system so thoroughly and quickly that no one could then backtrack or build some hybrid system (as Gorbachev originally intended and many Russians seemed to want to do in 1993).

          The even more cynical reading is that the damage was a bonus, in order to bring Russia out of play as a strategic competitor.

          • antilles says:

            Sure, fine. I’m not saying this is correct or even accurately descriptive of the real views of historical communists, I’m just blue-sky brainstorming for a good-faith reason why someone MIGHT reject incrementalism and believe that only full communism immediately is adequate.

  7. Capitalists have a similar conundrum: if the free market works, how come most businesses are organized as top-down hierarchies?

    And the solution was offered by Ronald Coase in The Theory of the Firm.

    You mention the Fabians, but it wasn’t clear to me whether the authors did. From the standpoint of the founders of the MPS, the Fabians and the socialist movement in general were the obvious model. My father used to argue that the Socialist Party was the most successful U.S. political party of the 20th century. They never elected anyone more important than the Mayor of Milwaukee, but most of what was in their platform at the beginning of the century was implemented by its end.

    • shorewalker says:

      Your dad sounds like a pretty smart guy.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Notice I did link the Wikipedia page for “theory of the firm” in that paragraph.

      The authors did not link the Fabians, which seems to me like bad judgment on their part.

    • Murphy says:

      I’ve heard something similar about the Monster Raving Loony party in the UK.

      They got very few people in… but a remarkable fraction of their early manifesto ended up in law eventually.

      Lowering the voting age to 18,legalisation of commercial radio,pet passports among others…

    • Eponymous says:

      the Socialist Party was the most successful U.S. political party of the 20th century. They never elected anyone more important than the Mayor of Milwaukee, but most of what was in their platform at the beginning of the century was implemented by its end.

      An alternative hypothesis is that they were a completely unsuccessful political party that happened to be ahead of the curve in their policy preferences.

      Certainly in cases like this one must face the objection that you can’t argue with results. If Magnus Carlsen seems to make lots of bad moves but keeps winning games, you should suspect he just understands chess better than you do. More generally, if you know the preferences of an entity, and observe that reality continually achieves high positions in its preference ordering, you should suspect that it is a powerful optimizer.

      But in this case it doesn’t need to be the socialist party that is the powerful optimizer. They could just be expressing general socialist preferences, and then some *other* powerful optimization process did the work.

      Since socialist political preferences mostly work out to the distribution of material goods to the majority through various government programs, the combination of economic growth (so there’s more stuff to distribute) plus democracy (the majority vote to distribute some of the stuff) seems sufficient to explain the observed facts.

  8. There is much discussion of why work is bad, which I appreciate. I think communists are wrong about a lot of things, but when this is all over, I believe their principled insistence that work is bad and that we should not have to do it – maintained firmly against a bunch of people who want basic job guarantees or who consider freedom from work a utopian impossibility – will be one thing they can be really proud of.

    This surprised me, and I’d love to read more about it if Scott or anyone else has written about this more extensively?

    My naive understanding was that while some jobs are obviously terrible, the data suggests work is one of the biggest sources of meaning in people’s lives. Not only that, but janitors and other such blue-collar folks often get a lot out of satisfaction from what they do, and don’t need to be ‘saved’ by anyone. You might hope that in a post-work world, people continue to work if they want to, or find non-work sources of meaning, but isn’t (imperfect) wireheading just as likely an outcome? It seems like a heck of a leap of faith, kind of on a level with the vagueness of the utopian ideas critiqued in this post.

    (I’m guessing I’ve missed something important here, or my priors are straight-up wrong – just wanted to put it out there so someone can straighten me out).

      • Thanks, this is pretty convincing. That was basically my only remaining reservation about UBI. I could make a couple of weak arguments against your critique of point iv), but I suspect I’m probably just trying to rationalise some lingering puritanism around self-indulgence, the virtue of hard work, etc.

        • Jon says:

          Basic income not basic jobs was one of my inspirations for starting to write, on rare occasions. Probably because that post is one of the rare instances where I think Scott is mistaken:

          We all need somewhere to live, and we all need a way to get around when we’re out of the house. Having a job doesn’t take away those expenses, so all the job could do in this context — regardless of whether it’s of the “guaranteed” or market-provided variety — is change the size of them.

          Alexander has previously lamented that it’s a mistake to be upset by giving people extra choices; those upset by an extra choice are comparing it to an imaginary perfect world, rather than to the one we live in (where choice is beneficial). I detect a bit of that mistake in the jobs-actually-cause-poverty take.

          Of course, high housing and travel expenses can cause money problems. But the option of taking the new job with higher associated expenses is an extra choice, regardless of what the status quo is. Presumably people who choose to increase their housing and travel expenses for a job are coming out ahead due to the income that comes from the new job.

          That’s from one of my first posts.

          Maybe he’ll find that odd, in that I’m generally in agreement that “work is bad”. I suspect it’s the “we should not have to do it” part that I object to; sure work is bad, but if we want nice things… it’s kind of the price of admission.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The catch is that when we talk about hypothetical future conditions of humanity, “everyone has to work or we can’t have nice things” may not actually be true.

            It may turn out to be an “eternal truth” across human societies only in the sense that “don’t get too attached to your one month old infant child, there’s a double-digit percent chance they won’t live to the age of five” was an ‘eternal truth’ until we figured out decent pediatric medicine.

            Suppose we had the option of creating a society where everyone could have reasonably nice things, and everyone who wants to work, works. But there’s no Moloch-esque pressure forcing everyone to work hard even if at something that makes only marginal contributions to society at large. We might reasonably welcome this development.

      • TheRadicalModerate says:

        I’ve been thinking about this since I read the original post and, while I appreciate the fundamental immorality of forcing people to do things they hate to survive, removing that basic reality by fiat vandalizes Chesterton’s Fence so thoroughly that things will be blundering through it for decades, if not centuries.

        I’d like to think that we can reason our way through the implications of a future where life without struggle is a genuine human right, rather than just an aspiration. But this is so vastly complex that I favor an evolutionary approach.

        I think I’m more in favor of an expanded version of EITC than I am of UBI for this reason. It has huge drawbacks in that it requires a more bureaucratic approach to doling out benefits to those who really can’t work, and that it’ll crash wages without some kind of legal support. But it preserves the cultural framework that work entails, at least for long enough that we can perform a few million experiments on how to dismantle that framework without Bad Stuff popping up where we don’t expect it.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          So much this. Let’s not dismantle a system that is working great because we hope the new system will work even better, when we could slowly try changing into that new system.

          • TheRadicalModerate says:

            “Working great” might be a little excessive, but “working in a way we sorta-kinda understand” wouldn’t.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          How about just starting with a small UBI, so that living off it starts out as a minimally viable last resort for those least willing/able to work, and gradually ramping it up as long as it doesn’t seem to be causing any disasters?

          Also, this ‘EITC will crash wages’ concept… do we actually think wages in America are set by subsistence?

          • baconbits9 says:

            What is a minimally viable UBI? What is it for a guy living in NYC vs Mississippi? For someone living in a major city the absolute minimum UBI to cover rent and food (ie no clothes, transportation, utilities) is going to be $3-4k a year.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            The nice thing is that if you undershoot the viable minimum, you don’t actually make anything worse (assuming we’re not dismantling the rest of the welfare state at this point). So just start at Mississippi-subsistence levels and see what happens to Mississippi, and in the meantime the New Yorkers won’t mind the extra pocket money.

          • TheRadicalModerate says:

            No, wages are set by what the market will bear. Subsistence is one of the inputs into that market, but hardly the only one.

            However, if the average worker demands subsistence plus some premium, and UBI or EITC boosts the wage above that level, then employers will be free to reduce wages until they stabilize back at subsistence + the premium. Since you’re trying to actually improve standards of living, employers have to be prevented from doing this. How you do that is… tricky.

          • No, wages are set by what the market will bear. Subsistence is one of the inputs into that market, but hardly the only one.

            As I occasionally point out, the estimate of economic historians is that the average real income in the developed world at present is twenty to thirty times what average income was through most of history. So literal subsistence isn’t a real issue in determining wages.

            As best I can tell, your “what the market can bear” is implicitly assuming a cartel of employers, who agree on the lowest wage they can pay and then pay it. It’s hard to make that consistent with any real world observations—why, for instance, doesn’t the cartel hold the wages of computer programmers down to a level close to that of cab drivers?

            Wages are determined by supply and demand for labor, like the price of other inputs.

          • 10240 says:

            The nice thing is that if you undershoot the viable minimum, you don’t actually make anything worse (assuming we’re not dismantling the rest of the welfare state at this point).

            You do. To pay a (low) UBI without dismantling the rest of the welfare state, you have to raise taxes, with all of its consequences. It’s weird to what extent many people skip over the “who is going to pay for that” part when discussing UBI.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            Okay, sure, you’d have to either raise taxes or dismantle part of the welfare state. I support the former; I can see how the latter could be politically tricky compared to replacing the welfare state in one fell swoop, but it doesn’t seem impossible.

            My point is, there’s no catastrophic failure mode from starting the UBI too low. The costs will all be proportional the the UBI you’re implementing.

          • baconbits9 says:

            My point is, there’s no catastrophic failure mode from starting the UBI too low.

            Of course there is, the catastrophic failure for all welfare programs is to cut into productivity perpetually until the underpinnings of society are fractured. You think that setting a low UBI will be safe while simultaneously showing the merits/detriments of such a system, but this is a false assumption. Small changes are more easily absorbed or hidden than large changes. A Mississippi level UBI would mean something like 90% of the country is transferring resources to 10%, that is far more workable, with the costs far more distributed, than 50% transferring to 50%. This will give the false impression that the costs of a UBI are low, but if you shift from a UBI aimed at the 10% (say $5,000 per person per year) to one aimed at the 30% mark (say $15,000) the costs aren’t triple, the costs are quadruple for those paying it. If you are aiming it at the 50% level (say $25,000 a year) then costs aren’t 5 times as high, they are 9 times as high. If you try to run a 90% UBI (say $50,000) then the costs are 90 times as high.

            You (I think) stated earlier that the New Yorkers would just get extra money in their pocket at a Mississippi level UBI, but that isn’t how it would work. At a Mississippi level UBI your average New Yorker is losing money from their paycheck as they have average earnings of something like 30% more (using GDP per capita by state as a proxy) than the average American. Net transfers to most New Yorkers will be zero or negative.

          • but if you shift from a UBI aimed at the 10% (say $5,000 per person per year)

            To put the “starting with a small UBI” in context, $5000 per person per year is $1.5 trillion/year. That is roughly the total revenue from all individual income taxes, so if you are imagining funding it by an income tax increase, it would require doubling all individual tax rates, even if we ignore the reduction in taxable income due to doing so.

            That isn’t small. A UBI that could be funded with a substantial but not impossible tax increase is more like $1,000/year.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            You (I think) stated earlier that the New Yorkers would just get extra money in their pocket at a Mississippi level UBI, but that isn’t how it would work. At a Mississippi level UBI your average New Yorker is losing money from their paycheck as they have average earnings of something like 30% more (using GDP per capita by state as a proxy) than the average American. Net transfers to most New Yorkers will be zero or negative.Except that’s already what’s happening. States like Mississippi tend to be net liabilities for the federal government; they receive more in aid and spending than they produce in tax receipts. On a casual Googling, Mississippi is being in effect subsidized by the federal government to the tune of $7,000 or so a year already, whereas New York state (and probably even more so New York City) is paying more than they receive.

            Arguably, all UBI would do is to some extent cut out the middleman and move the money more directly into the pockets of the residents of already-subsidized states.

          • baconbits9 says:

            States like Mississippi tend to be net liabilities for the federal government; they receive more in aid and spending than they produce in tax receipts. On a casual Googling, Mississippi is being in effect subsidized by the federal government to the tune of $7,000 or so a year already, whereas New York state (and probably even more so New York City) is paying more than they receive.

            Arguably, all UBI would do is to some extent cut out the middleman and move the money more directly into the pockets of the residents of already-subsidized states.

            These facts are somewhat irrelevant for the discussion at hand, but relevant for the broader discussion.

            I’m taking the concept of a Missippi UBI to mean that everyone in the US gets a UBI that would provide a basic standard of living at the cost of living in Mississippi. I think this is the correct reading of the discussion.

            Such a UBI would still have to be in the thousands per person, rent of $250 a month, utilities of $50 a month and food of $50 a month is $4,200* on its own, with no subsidies for education, health care, transportation etc. Like David Friedman says, a UBI at $5,000 per person is >$1.5 trillion dollars, and total social spending in the US is a bit less than that. So if there is any of the welfare state leftover net taxes and transfers has to increase, and they will have to increase from the rich (ie New Yorkers) to the poor.

            It is very unlikely that such a UBI would mean the same, or a lower level of transfers from New Yorkers to Mississippians.
            * You can get some savings giving children a partial stipend etc, but you aren’t moving it to much here.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @baconbits9

            I’m not saying that UBI would reduce net transfer payments from rich areas of the country to poor ones. What I’m saying is, it would represent some moderate increase in the quantity of those already-existing transfer payments, not some kind of radical new unprecedented problem for our society to grapple with. Mississippi already receives $7,000/year more money per capita in federal spending than it pays in taxes, and somehow the world fails to end.

            Personally, I favor starting UBI at a very low level and dialing it up gradually. As Scott has alluded to in other posts, there are an alarming number of people in this country whose lives are so financially precarious that the presence or absence of even a few hundred dollars can have life-altering consequences.

            A $1200/year UBI would be a joke to live on, but for people who are very poor, it would be noticeable. And stepping up the amount gradually would help us figure out how to handle any unwanted side effects more gracefully.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Simon_Jester

            The post you are responding to, and the context I took your comment in, was an explanation of how a low level UBI would not reflect the dangers of a high level UBI. The dangers of UBI do not scale linearly with the increases due to the way the burden/benefit is distributed. A $1,000 UBI to every adult in the country isn’t going to break the system, but it also isn’t going to tell you anything about what level it would break the system. You are going to risk the long term stability for some small gains plus limited useful information about the future? The system that has pulled more people out of poverty in the last century than perhaps every other system in the history of the world combined? For making a ‘big’ difference to a modest number of people?

          • Mississippi already receives $7,000/year more money per capita in federal spending than it pays in taxes, and somehow the world fails to end.

            The way you put this sounds as though you think that means that the Federal government is giving people in Mississippi $7,000/year more than it is collecting from them. But spending isn’t the same thing as transfer payments.

            Some of that money buys goods and services. Revenue isn’t profit–producing stuff costs something. Some of it is wages and food and housing for military stationed in Mississippi. Some of it is wages of post office employees.

            That tells us nothing about what the effect would be of (say) taxing nothing from people in Mississippi and giving each of them seven thousand dollars a year.

          • 10240 says:

            Personally, I favor starting UBI at a very low level and dialing it up gradually.

            That’s one of the reasons I oppose it even at a low level.

            As Scott has alluded to in other posts, there are an alarming number of people in this country whose lives are so financially precarious that the presence or absence of even a few hundred dollars can have life-altering consequences.

            Spending tends to expand with income for many people. The number of people whose lives are so financially precarious that the presence or absence of even a few hundred dollars can have life-altering consequences has more to do with their spending decisions (namely, spending their entire paycheck even though they could survive while saving some of it) than with their income level. As such, handing out a small amount of money to everyone would barely change the number of financially precarious people.

          • TheRadicalModerate says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            As best I can tell, your “what the market can bear” is implicitly assuming a cartel of employers, who agree on the lowest wage they can pay and then pay it.

            At the low end of the wage scale, you don’t need a cartel–just a labor supply glut. If you heavily automate, the only thing competing for unskilled and no-longer-skilled labor is “out of labor force”. That’s about as glutty as I can imagine.

            On the demand side, employers will only be interested in hiring an unskilled human if the human is cheaper than the amortized capex + opex on the robot that can do the job.

      • Robert Jones says:

        I think the thesis of “basic income not basic jobs” is so obviously right to me that I overlooked that you were saying that work is bad.

        I don’t think that can be right. The only distinction between work and non-work is that you get paid for the former. But how can being paid for an activity make it bad?

        Your argument doesn’t seem to amount to any more than saying that you’re happy when it’s Friday “just like everyone else”. Leaving aside that not everyone TGIFs, isn’t this just the desire for variety? At the end of the week, you look forward to the weekend, and at the end of the weekend, you look forward to getting back to work.

        Leaving aside the wider social and economic issues, I predict you would feel sad if you personally were replaced by a robot, on the basis that you continued to receive your current salary (with increases in line with your present expectations) but were prevented from taking on another job.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I don’t think that can be right. The only distinction between work and non-work is that you get paid for the former.

          That’s not the only distinction. Sometimes it’s not even a distinction; consider a subsistence farmer vs a hobby gardener. Neither gets paid, but the subsistence farmer is definitely doing work.

          I’m not sure of the exact distinction, but pretty much everyone knows it when they see it. An inexact one: Work is what you have to do to survive, or to get other things you want.

          Leaving aside the wider social and economic issues, I predict you would feel sad if you personally were replaced by a robot, on the basis that you continued to receive your current salary (with increases in line with your present expectations) but were prevented from taking on another job.

          I predict otherwise. I also predict that if my robot has to commute as well, there’s going to be an unfriendly AI incident on NJ Transit.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          Work is what you have to do to survive, or to get other things you want.

          That can’t be right. I get status, rewards, influence, power, and new opportunities directly from the social aspects of my hobbies, my volunteering, and my recreational activities.

          Our own David Friedman is another example: one would hesitate to call his SCA involvement as “work”, but he also gets status, rewards, influence, and opportunities from it. Plus I’ve bought his fiction novels and his cookbook (delicious stuff!), and one hesitates to call writing them “work”, but he does get royalties.

    • Guy in TN says:

      I would say that people are only getting life-fulfillment out of the activity itself they are doing, not the activity+the threat of starvation for not doing it. Adding in the threat of starvation does nothing in terms of adding life-satisfaction to the activity.

      All the UBI/social dividend does is dial back the “necessity” aspect, by taking away the threat of destitution. Net life-fulfillment should remain unchanged.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        I actually disagree with this very strongly.
        There is a common archetype of a low-skilled man doing a job he doesn’t find particularly interesting, say truck driving, but deriving great life sustaining satisfaction from the cause-and-effect reality that he very much is ‘providing for his family’.

        I personally do versions of my job outside of my job that I find more fun because I have no boss voluntarily, but I think that’s unusual.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I enjoy my job, but there are lots of parts of it that, well, suck. I do them because I get paid to do them. If this was just a hobby, those parts that suck wouldn’t get done, but they still need to happen.

        • fluffykitten55 says:

          We just need to create a new model where ‘being a good parent’ and maybe doing some part time job or volunteer work while getting UBI is praiseworthy.

          We need this sort of model anyway as many people already end up unemployable due to injury, disability etc.

    • Aapje says:

      @Richard Meadows

      I would argue that a post-work world is only mentally healthy if we establish a strong norm that people should voluntarily do things for others.

      • myers2357 says:

        Agreed.

        The norm to “voluntarily do things for others” is going to need to come with a strong social arrow pointing towards the-things-in-need-of-being-done.

        The traditional “Widows, Orphans, Sick & Poor” Schelling Points all need help for pretty much the same reasons – and it would seem that many of those reasons would be largely eliminated by a Very High UBI (Scott’s example of 40k household + free healthcare + almost no schools from a post I can’t find right now is in this category I just made up).

        Today, peeling a limited supply of volunteers away from those Schelling-point causes has typically required a relatively large injustice (civil rights causes) or market failure (environmental causes).

        So in the world of both Very High UBI and Strong Prosocial Volunteerism Norms, we’ll have a super-abundance of volunteers. At first, The Low Hanging Fruit is gathered. Then one Short Term passes, and we are left with no Low Hanging Fruit. We do have, however, a strong prosocial norm we need to act on. How do we resolve the dispute between the “Lets build Wheelchair ramps in national parks to make Appalachian Trail 2:Electric Bogaloo” Boy Scouts and the Stop Constructing Wheelchair Ramps In National Forests Now (SCWRINFN) Activists?

        I think this might be an issue, but I would love to be wrong.

      • I notice that I am still very confused. It’s way too hard to think through the first, second, third, nth-order consequences, let alone see how they interact along all the various dimensions (cultural, social, economic, hedonic, etc).

        This seems like it could be fertile ground for speculative (hard) science fiction? I know utopias are boring, but it would be cool to read a novel-length treatment along these lines, with ridiculously detailed world-building, gigantic info-dumps, and as little hand-waving as possible.

        If anyone writes this/has written it already, I will buy it. And signal-boost it if it’s good!

        • Mark Atwood says:

          It’s been done, too many times. They are all a weird mix of deathly boring and inadvertantly hilarious.

          The canonical first one was Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”. Some of the more recent ones are the “News From …” trilogy by Robert Llewellyn.

          If someone can recommend some that are more realistic and less “look how awesome everything will be once all the $PRESENT_YEAR progressive ideas are fully implemented and all the nasty wreckers and parasites are Reeducated”, please, list them here.

  9. TheRadicalModerate says:

    Would it be too glib of me to summarize this as, “If you’re drowning in post-abundance wealth, it’s really hard to mess up your economy,” and leave it at that?

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Yeah, that’s another thing — Scott sort of mentioned this but maybe could’ve expanded on this more. Like, from the liberal perspective, full automation as political demand rather than a technological goal is really odd. “Full automation” isn’t something you demand, it’s something you build. Not having to work is usually presented as something that follows from post-scarcity-level technology, rather than automation being a result of UBI. (True post-scarcity is actually impossible, I’d say, but that’s another matter and not related and let’s ignore that for now.)

      It sounds like the authors do make actual arguments for their claim that actually people aren’t automating as much as they could be, so that full automation as a political demand makes sense, but I do think it is still worth noting that, hey, that’s a surprising claim.

      (It’s also interestingly different in that it does acknowledge scarcity presently exists; which doesn’t sound controversial, but I can certainly point you to internet Leftists who’d claim otherwise.)

      • Aapje says:

        Political decisions affect what we built, though.

        Libertarians tend to argue that we don’t build enough nice things because regulations are in the way and make things unprofitable that would be viable with fewer/no regulations.

        This book argues the opposite: that we don’t build enough nice things because it is unprofitable to do so and we should add regulations to force companies to automate more.

        • John Schilling says:

          Political decisions affect what we built, though

          They affect what we try to build; they don’t guarantee success. Nor do they necessarily shape the form of that success. Politicians and political activists had long been trying to decide for the American people that they should be driving clean, efficient electric cars, but Tesla happened because a billionaire thought it would be cool and, being a billionaire, he built a very popular electric luxury car instead of the mass-market commute-o-box the political program had in mind.

          If your political program demands successfully building something to avoid a self-induced catastrophe, maybe avoid inducing the catastrophe until you’ve built the thing and seen how well it works.

      • antilles says:

        I think the communists have a pretty good response to this one, which is: well, if that’s true, why haven’t we seen it happen yet? Productivity has increased by a few percent per year in most sectors over the last century, but we haven’t seen a reduction in work – in fact, the work week has gotten longer, on average, since the major achievements of the labor movement in the 19th century. This suggests that the dividend of whether higher productivity translates into higher wages, higher profits, or less work is significantly determined by political, rather than economic, questions.

        • ReaperReader says:

          We’re also having much longer retirements.

          • antilles says:

            If your argument is about life expectancy, not as much as you’d think, because of the difference between at-birth and post-adolescent life expectancy.

          • ReaperReader says:

            @Antilles – I remain of the opinion that life expectancy at age 60 is a more useful measure for judging retirement spans than life expectancy at post-adolescence. But if you wish to make an argument for using life expectancy at age 20 instead, I am prepared to listen.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            No wait, I can see it.

            The basic argument is that people spend more years of their life not directly contributing to the economy- nearly universal high school students in what would once have been a youth’s early productive years, frequent college likewise, higher odds of living to retirement, higher odds of living past 70-75, and higher odds of consuming a lot of expensive medical care before finally kicking the bucket.

            That combination may be forcing the working population to work harder than would otherwise be necessary if teenagers still joined the labor force at sixteen and if the typical old person died within a few years of the point where they’re too infirm to function independently and work for themselves.

            Which is a reasonable tradeoff to make, but it’d explain a few things.

        • Garrett says:

          One of my hypothesis is that we are consuming a lot of the productivity in non-monetary forms. For example, we have a lot of labor protections which protect not just health and safety, but also against discrimination. So we have lots of administrators whose job it is to ensure that certain types of harassment don’t occur. But those extra people chew into the revenue stream.

      • TheRadicalModerate says:

        Seems to me that the obvious reason why companies don’t automate is that the tech is new and there aren’t a lot of people who know how to use it effectively. Beyond that, when you don’t know how to operate and maintain the tech efficiently, it’s often cheaper to use a Mark I human instead.

        The recent experience that Tesla had is instructive. There, Musk really wanted to automate up to the eyeballs and wound up ripping out robots in the interest of getting the line to move smoothly. If those guys can’t do it, it’s fair to assume that it’s still immature tech.

        Never attribute to politics or ideology that which you can more easily attribute to cluelessness.

        • iamnoah says:

          All tech is immature until there is a market for it. The communist call for UBI is, ironically, to create the market by taking away cheap human labour.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Banning immigration and trade from low income countries would do more to reduce cheap labor than a UBI.

            I don’t see communists as particularly in favor of that.

          • TheRadicalModerate says:

            There’s plenty of market for it. But the market doesn’t really have much to do with the adoption curve.

      • fluffykitten55 says:

        ‘Full automation’ probably requires a UBI or other inequality reducing policy in order to stop net incomes falling so sharply at the bottom that low wage jobs proliferate on the basis of a large and desperate reserve army of labour willing to work for low pay. On the other hand higher wages encourage automation so long as there is not a financing constraint due to excessively squeezed profits.

      • Nootropic cormorant says:

        This is covered in Das Kapital already, Chapter 15, Section 2:

        The use of machinery for the exclusive purpose of cheapening the product, is limited in this way, that less labour must be expended in producing the machinery than is displaced by the employment of that machinery, For the capitalist, however, this use is still more limited. Instead of paying for the labour, he only pays the value of the labour-power employed; therefore, the limit to his using a machine is fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it. Since the division of the day’s work into necessary and surplus-labour differs in different countries, and even in the same country at different periods, or in different branches of industry; and further, since the actual wage of the labourer at one time sinks below the value of his labour-power, at another rises above it, it is possible for the difference between the price of the machinery and the price of the labour-power replaced by that machinery to vary very much, although the difference between the quantity of labour requisite to produce the machine and the total quantity replaced by it, remain constant. [33] But it is the former difference alone that determines the cost, to the capitalist, of producing a commodity, and, through the pressure of competition, influences his action. Hence the invention now-a-days of machines in England that are employed only in North America; just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, machines were invented in Germany to be used only in Holland, and just as many a French invention of the eighteenth century was exploited in England alone. In the older countries, machinery, when employed in some branches of industry, creates such a redundancy of labour in other branches that in these latter the fall of wages below the value of labour-power impedes the use of machinery, and, from the standpoint of the capitalist, whose profit comes, not from a diminution of the labour employed, but of the labour paid for, renders that use superfluous and often impossible.

  10. Guy in TN says:

    And on the off-chance that Andrew Yang gives them everything they want, by throwing out their entire way of thinking and marching under the banner of libertarianism instead,

    This is a head-scratcher to me.

    Andrew Yang wants to capture a portion of the value produced by capital by:
    1. Levying taxes, which transfers the ownership of this portion of the wealth to the state
    2. Paying out this state-owned wealth to the public as a UBI.

    Democratic socialists want to capture this value by:
    1. The state levying taxes
    2. Using this wealth to buy shares of capital
    3. Paying out the value produced to public in the form of a social dividend.

    This is practically same thing. I’m struggling to even articulate what the difference might be, other than the state nominally owning the capital in the latter, and merely having the power to tax and regulate (but not explicit “ownership”) in the former.

    And yet, you call Yang the “libertarian” because he has strong differences from revolutionary communists. But then again, so do the democratic socialists. Does Yang’s economic policies differ from say, Bernie Sander’s in any significant way? Medicare for all, mandatory paid leave, carbon tax, equal pay…its the same policies with the branding of “human-centered capitalism” instead of “socialism”.

    If you (and others in this weird blog bubble) can convince a bunch of people that “libertarianism” now means a social-democratic welfare state funded by higher taxes, then I, uh, quote:

    please don’t throw me in the briar patch! Not the briar patch! Anything but that!

    • False says:

      Yes, I’m having trouble understanding how Andrew Yang can’t be summed up as “tricking right-leaning libertarians into thinking socialism is cool by calling it ‘not-socialism’ and wearing a pink hat”. What position of his can be described as “libertarian” full-stop without any overlap with socialist groups?

      • Politics is about cultural closeness more than policy. A lot of libertarians are more defined culturally than politically: they don’t like the blue-hairs and the bible thumpers. Seen in the light of his persona Yang’s appeal to libertarians and former Trump supporters is obvious. And unlike many I don’t think it’s “irrational” to vote this way. I live in Colorado, and here’s a quote from my governor, Jared Polis. This is not some obscure radical feminist blog I’m cherry picking to make all feminists look unreasonable, this is the governor of my state:

        “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework, then, that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard [for deciding whether to expel college students accused of sex offenses]. If there are 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people. We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty, we’re talking about them being transferred to another university, for crying out loud.”

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/09/11/better-that-five-innocent-students-get-expelled-than-one-guilty-student-stay-enrolled/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4b13ffb05675

        Now you may say these cultural war issues are “symbolic” and “unimportant.” Thinking back to my college days it would have been a rather big deal for me had I been expelled from my university for something I didn’t do. Polis and (in my view, maybe I’m wrong) most socialists see it differently.

        • fluffykitten55 says:

          I think you are a little bit misguided. Most socialists are extremely skeptical of identity politics and especially of how centrist liberals play the culture war game.

          • Nornagest says:

            Online socialists keep telling me that, but the leftiest people I know in real life are also the most culture-warry. Granted, they’re mostly anarcho-communists or anarcho-syndicalists or some other species of left anarchist, rather than mainline Marxists.

            Anecdote is not evidence, but it’s a little suspicious when there’s this big a gap between my experience and the party line, you know?

    • Baeraad says:

      I have yet to understand how the hell UBI became something libertarians were for.

      I mean, I try not to question it too much, because hey, I’d rather have libertarians trying to feed me than trying to starve me, no matter how little sense it makes. But from a position of pure intellectual curiosity, I’d like to know how we went from “TAXATION IS OBJECTIVELY LIKE RAPE!!!!!” to “okay, so maybe we can have the government take some of our income and distribute it equally among all citizens, just as long as it doesn’t, you know, get too many of its grubby fingerprints on it.”

      My best guess is honestly that those small victories and unfocused demonstrations that S&W are poo-pooing actually did add up to something, and that the idea that A Man Is Entitled To The Sweat Of His Brow is no longer considered viable.

      • Ketil says:

        “TAXATION IS OBJECTIVELY LIKE RAPE!!!!!”

        This is a quote from Hayek, I presume? I mean, since Milton Friedman argued for UBI.

        To me, I don’t think there can be any question that globalization and free trade cause larger corporations (global > national > local), which cause a concentration of wealth. Arguably, societies with smaller socioeconomic differences are better societies for everybody, which is an argument for (some) redistribution. And if we are going to distribute, better do it with cash, so that individuals can decide for themselves how to prioritize – so UBI is at least more libartarian than more specific welfare programs.

        Also, from a purely utilitarian perspective, a poor person derives more utility from $100 than a rich person does, so redistribution is also a way to optimize total utility.

        And one might (reasonably or not) worry that with automation and technology, some people may find they have no valuable skill to contribute to society, and thus lack means to support themselves in a pure market economy. Some may harbor a conviction that libertarians are evil or callous people who at best are happy to see people starve over a principle. I don’t think that’s a reasonable or generous interpretation.

        • To me, I don’t think there can be any question that globalization and free trade cause larger corporations (global > national > local), which cause a concentration of wealth.

          I don’t see why you would expect either step of that logic to work, let alone being beyond question. Globalization and free trade could lead to larger corporations but doesn’t have to, and would be expected to lead to a more competitive economy, not less.

          Why would you expect larger corporations to cause a concentration of wealth? Most of the income of those corporations is paid out to workers, the rest to stockholders. The resulting wealth concentration would depend on how unequal the distribution of marketable skills and capital holding are.

          The two predictable effects of free trade and world markets are to reduce wealth inequality internationally and to increase real incomes. Local inequality could increase or decrease.

          Can you sketch out the arguments that lead you to your “I don’t think there can be any question that” conclusions?

          • Ketil says:

            I don’t see why you would expect either step of that logic to work, let alone being beyond question. Globalization and free trade could lead to larger corporations but doesn’t have to, and would be expected to lead to a more competitive economy, not less.

            “Beyond question” is perhaps going to far, but basically because economies of scale. I think evidence points to larger corporations: the richest people in the world lead corporations like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle¹ that serve global markets where they are (in various degrees) natural monopolies, or at least, enjoy a high degree of economy of scale. In general, success globally means larger revenues than success in a smaller market, and even if overall profitability (as percent of revenue) is lower, the top executives and founders will still reap larger rewards – and inequality – measured as the difference between the richest and the poorest – will rise.

            I would agree that for more competitive/commoditized sectors, global competition may still favor many smaller companies, but that just means that successful entrepreneurs in those sectors won’t be as super-rich.

            I also agree that globalization decreases overall inequality by making people in poor countries richer at the expense of relatively poor people in rich countries – at least temporarily, but probably also in the long run, since unskilled labor in developed countries now must compete in a global market.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Ketil

            It seems like you are looking at this only from one direction. A large portion on the world is still living on less than a dollar a day, and US median income is 200-300 times that. Globalization has been pulling the poorest of the world up, and it gets harder to argue that inequality must increase when you factor that into account.

          • “Beyond question” is perhaps going to far, but basically because economies of scale.

            If there were only economies of scale, all industries would be monopolies. In practice, diseconomies of scale at some point outweigh economies of scale–in most industries, at a scale well below the size of the entire market. Free trade makes the market larger, so makes it less likely that the firm size that minimizes average cost is large enough to produce for the entire market.

            I think evidence points to larger corporations: the richest people in the world lead corporations like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle¹ that serve global markets where they are (in various degrees) natural monopolies, or at least, enjoy a high degree of economy of scale.

            That doesn’t give you increased inequality, because the total income of those richest people is a small fraction of the total revenue of those corporations–most of it is going to employees and stockholders.

            I think you are making the usual mistake of focusing on those industries where there is a very large, hence very visible, firm. The result is to greatly overestimate average market concentration.

          • Ketil says:

            @baconbits: I agree that globalization has been pulling the poorest up, like you say. I’m not against globalization (at all), but I think it is fair to say that it has had negative conseqences, especially for rural and/or working class people in rich countries. Furthermore, even if the poorest get richer, the rich may benefit even more – increasing inequality even if everybody benefits.

            @DavidFriedman: I agree that economy of scale isn’t infinite, and that it varies between industries. You are probably right that I put too much weight on highly visible megacorporations. But it seems to me that this is exactly where the megabillionaires are made?

            Perhaps it is time to look at empirical evidence. There are plenty of claims that working class income has stagnated, while a larger and larger fraction of income and wealth is concentrated on fewer hands. While the picture is more nuanced (working class benefits like education, health, and retirement have increased without being reflected in wealth or wages, for instance), I still believe it is essentially true that inequality is increasing, and I maintain that globalization is a major contributor to this. Both because low skilled workers compete against a much larger labor pool, and because capitalists can reap the benefits of serving a much larger and more affluent market.

            What’s interesting to me is that from the examples I mentioned, economy of scale or monopoly power seems very unequal. Facebook’s value derives almost exclusively from being a natural monopoly (you need to be where your friends are; nobody likes Facebook, but nobody is able to leave), while Amazon pushes commodities behind a web interface – something that seems easy for anybody to set up as a competitor to.

          • I still believe it is essentially true that inequality is increasing, and I maintain that globalization is a major contributor to this.

            I think, although I’m not sure, that within country inequality is increasing, at least in the U.S. But I don’t think your megabillionaires are a large part of that. They are very visible, but a very small part of the population.

            Let me offer two other possible explanations, both of which view the inequality as basically between high paid workers (doctors, lawyers, Google employees) and low paid workers.

            1. Technological change increases the productivity difference between smart, highly educated people and less smart, less highly educated people.

            2. The combination of meritocracy and selective mating is widening the spread of abilities. It used to be that Harvard students were selected for being the children of rich, upper-class families, only some of whom were smart. Now Harvard students include smart people not from that environment, replacing some of the not-smart people who are. Harvard students marry Harvard students. Repeat that pattern throughout the society

            This, incidentally, was a problem that the authors of The Bell Curve worried about.

          • Ketil says:

            I think, although I’m not sure, that within country inequality is increasing, at least in the U.S. But I don’t think your megabillionaires are a large part of that. They are very visible, but a very small part of the population.

            The degree the very rich contribute to rising inequality would depend on how you measure. Are you comparing the top and bottom 10-percentile, using the gini index, are we looking at wages or wealth, or wages including non-monetary benefits, adjusting for cost of living, etc etc.

            So we have three competing explanations:

            1. Technological change increases the productivity difference between smart, highly educated people and less smart, less highly educated people.

            2. The combination of meritocracy and selective mating is widening the spread of abilities. It used to be that Harvard students were selected for being the children of rich, upper-class families, only some of whom were smart. Now Harvard students include smart people not from that environment, replacing some of the not-smart people who are. Harvard students marry Harvard students. Repeat that pattern throughout the society

            And mine:
            3. increasing globalization means larger markets, and relatively fewer firms leading to more concentraiton of wealth.

            4. increasing globalization means a larger labor pool/more competitive job markets especially for low-skilled workers, and thus slower growth for lower socioeconomic classes than for elites

            How do we differentiate among these empirically, and what does the data say? Are there more proposed explanations?

        • since Milton Friedman argued for UBI.

          Milton Friedman argued for a negative income tax as a substitute for existing welfare programs–more generally, for programs justified as helping the poor. He didn’t argue for it as a thing good in itself.

          • Ketil says:

            Milton Friedman […] didn’t argue for [UBI] as a thing good in itself.

            Well, I’m pretty sure he didn’t argue that RAPE! was better than welfare. I defer to your authority on this, but from e.g. this post
            https://medium.com/basic-income/why-milton-friedman-supported-a-guaranteed-income-5-reasons-da6e628f6070 he seems to be rather favorable to it. Yes, he obviously considers it superior to more complex schemes, but it seems strange to me to argue for doing something efficiently if one doesn’t think it ought to be done at all.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            it seems strange to me to argue for doing something efficiently if one doesn’t think it ought to be done at all

            I feel like if your neighbor kept playing loud out-of-tune guitar all night, and your attempts to make him stop seemed futile, and you shouted “At least tighten your damn E string!”, that wouldn’t really connote support for late-night-guitar.

          • but it seems strange to me to argue for doing something efficiently if one doesn’t think it ought to be done at all.

            It’s not at all odd, if you don’t think abolishing something is an option, to try to figure out how to do it in the least bad way.

            The fundamental difference between his approach and mine was that he was mainly interested in figuring out how the existing world could be made better, I was interested in figuring out what the best set of institutions would be.

            That applies to lots of issues. Arguing that the Fed should follow a simple monetary rule doesn’t imply either that the Fed should exist—he pretty clearly thought it shouldn’t—or that the simple monetary rule was the best possible one. Take a look at his essay on the optimum quantity of money—it isn’t the monetary rule he recommended for the Fed to follow.

            It doesn’t even imply that he thought money should be produced by the government. As I pointed out to him, a competitive market of private issuers would, to first approximation, produce the pattern he argued for in the optimal quantity of money article.

            Arguing for school vouchers doesn’t imply that they are better than an entirely private system, only that they are much better than an entirely public system.

        • 10240 says:

          And if we are going to distribute, better do it with cash, so that individuals can decide for themselves how to prioritize – so UBI is at least more libartarian than more specific welfare programs.

          This is indeed the libertarian reason to support UBI/negative income tax as the way to do redistribution, if the level of redistribution is given. Your other points are arguments for redistribution, but they have nothing to do with libertarianism, and they are, to varying extent, opposed to it. In particular, I don’t think right-libertarians tend to think that inequality is an important measure.

      • sohois says:

        Because there is a difference between Deontological Libertarianism and Consequentialist Libertarianism. The latter would be in favour of UBI while the former would not

      • moonfirestorm says:

        I think the idea is that the government is already going to take some of their income and distribute it to citizens. Given that starting point, it’s better to provide it in the form of unconditional cash subject to the whims of the market than centrally-planned guesses as to what citizens need and who needs it.

        It’s not that they’re in favor of UBI, it’s that UBI is better than the existing welfare systems, given the same funding. Many here have talked about how the math doesn’t work out for that and a UBI would require significantly increased taxes: my impression is that when that starts coming up, the libertarians will oppose those tax increases and require a UBI to be funded only from existing tax revenues.

        • Guy in TN says:

          Again, its pretty wild to me. The idea that benefits should be cash and not means-tested is the socialist left position. There is a huge inter-party debate about this within the Democrats!

          • Clutzy says:

            Removing means testing and specific social engineering is the bonus to the libertarians that support UBI. Its more about dismantling the central planning than about the income. They acknowledge that there is a social demand to not let people die in the streets, so this is their preferred method of filling it.

            And yes it mirrors the more socialist left but there are many things that mirror things. Like Alt-Right and SJWs being near exact copies of each other.

          • Guy in TN says:

            I’m sure libertarians have their own ideas on how to use the UBI as a Trojan horse to dismantle the welfare state and whatnot. But Andrew Yang is not a libertarian. His platform clearly lays out the UBI as an additional government program funded by increased taxation.

            Did Scott just cite him as a joke, which I foolishly took literally? I’m not so sure. I recall Scott expressing a similarly confused political topology along these lines in the past.

          • Nornagest says:

            Astonishingly, people sometimes converge on the same policy for different reasons.

          • Guy in TN says:

            I think you’ve missed my point here.

            Andrew Yang is not a libertarian. His economic platform is only a hair removed from the Democratic Socialists’. It’s super-weird to cite him as a libertarian, the only explanations I can think of is Scott using a highly esoteric and non-standard political ideology classification, or some sort of in-joke I’m not getting.

          • Astonishingly, people sometimes converge on the same policy for different reasons.

            It isn’t the same policy. The version of UBI that some libertarians support is as a replacement for all existing welfare programs–ideally also for all programs, such as subsidized state universities or the farm program, that are defended as ways of helping the poor.

            That’s apparently not the version that Andrew Yang supports.

          • Clutzy says:

            Andrew Yang is not a libertarian. His economic platform is only a hair removed from the Democratic Socialists’. It’s super-weird to cite him as a libertarian, the only explanations I can think of is Scott using a highly esoteric and non-standard political ideology classification, or some sort of in-joke I’m not getting.

            I thought the reference of Yang was to compromise not to him being a libertarian?

          • Guy in TN says:

            That’s a possible reading I didn’t think of.

      • Few would dispute that “A Man Is Entitled To The Sweat Of His Brow.” What’s disputed is that Jeff Bezos’ sweat got him 100 billion in value.

      • The Nybbler says:

        There’s Milton Friedman, who saw it as a more efficient alternative to traditional welfare. I think his vision founders on the fact that there’s no way to replace other welfare with it, and if a genie came down and did so, the other welfare would pop back up immediately.

        There’s the left-libertarians, who are just a bit confused about economic liberty :-).

        And there’s the utopians (some overlap with left-libertarians), which seems to be where this book is coming from. They think today’s society of scarcity will be replaced by a society of abundance, and the UBI is then the best way to distribute the abundance. I might buy into that but I want to see the abundance first.

        Anyway, libertarians claim taxation is theft, not rape. It’s a lot easier to put up with a bit of theft than a bit of rape.

    • Aapje says:

      @Guy in TN

      It’s only the same if you think that state ownership results in the companies doing the same thing as when they are being privately owned (including by stock holders).

      Suffice it to say that this is disputed by many.

  11. bbeck310 says:

    One of my favorite lines you’ve ever written is, “one of the central principles behind my philosophy has been ‘Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out.’”

    A corollary seems to be “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope Star Trek replicators pop into existence and make everything work out.” And it sounds like that’s what S&W (and Andrew Yang and most advocates for an immediate UBI) are doing.

    Basic math tells you we don’t have the production yet to offer a UBI large enough to give everyone a work-free middle class lifestyle. A very low unemployment rate shows that robot-induced mass unemployment isn’t here yet. More to the point, we’ve seen in history that productivity hasn’t led to any diminishing of work ethic or shortened work week; people just keep wanting more stuff. And for the people who don’t want more stuff, who are content to live like 18th century tenant farmers without the threat of starvation, they’re allowed to go off and do that and we can ignore all five of them.

    The model for techno-communism is Star Trek, but you can’t get there without a technological solution. The Fabians, the Mont Pelerin Society, and EA all promoted political solutions through political means. S&W seem to want a technological solution through political means, and that just can’t work.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      More to the point, we’ve seen in history that productivity hasn’t led to any diminishing of work ethic or shortened work week; people just keep wanting more stuff.

      My understanding is that a lot of people would prefer to have shorter work weeks in exchange for a lower salary, but that this is often difficult because employers generally prefer having a single full-time worker rather than two part-time workers. Also in many countries various legally-mandated benefits (e.g. healthcare) only kick in if you work enough hours: you can’t just work 40% and get 40% of the benefits. Which is also part of the problem, since if the law says something like “you get 100% of the healthcare when you work 50% of the hours”, then that’s an additional reason for the company to prefer a worker who does 100% of the hours and gets 100% of the healthcare benefits. After all, two 50% workers would together do 100% of the hours and get 200% of the healthcare benefits.

      I recall reading one Finnish economist lamenting the fact that the people who are the most likely to downshift and do less work are those who are in the most specialized professions and in the most demand, giving them the negotiating power to do so. It’s poor resource allocation if the people who are the least replaceable are the ones who work less than average.

      • Garrett says:

        After all, two 50% workers would together do 100% of the hours and get 200% of the healthcare benefits.

        Wouldn’t this problem go away in other Western countries with non-employment-linked healthcare? So you’d expect to see this happen a lot in eg. Canada or the UK but not the US. Are there any numbers which indicate that this is happening?

        • A1987dM says:

          Dunno about Canada or the UK specifically, but it does seem to me that working weeks are considerably shorter in places like France or the Netherlands or Scandinavia than in the US.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I’m in favor of disentangling health care and employment, but one thing to watch out for is that the most functional part of the health care system is the part used and funded by people with employment-based coverage.

        • Ketil says:

          Well… here, nurses complain that women are paid less than men and demand raises, their opponents point out that women working part time explains the difference, nurses demand the right to full time positions, employers complain that nurses don’t want to work full time.

          Depends on who you believe, I guess, but it is certainly possible to work part time, and possibly mandated. (There are also complications, with limits to weekend and night work allegedly making it difficult or impossible to fill out a hospital schedule with full-time workers)

          In general, 37% of women and 12.5% of men work part time here. Is this very different in other countries?

      • My understanding is that a lot of people would prefer to have shorter work weeks in exchange for a lower salary, but that this is often difficult because employers generally prefer having a single full-time worker rather than two part-time workers.

        If two half-time workers produce less than one full-time worker, which I would expect to be true in some activities but not others, then the relevant question is whether the worker would prefer half-time work at a correspondingly less than half-salary.

        • simbalimsi says:

          One twice-time worker is also probably going to produce more than two full-time workers, but workers once revolted against that, so may revolt against this as well which may make half-time the new full-time

          • Mark Atwood says:

            One twice-time worker is also probably going to produce more than two full-time workers,

            Turns out, that is not the case. Henry Ford did the experiments, and in over a century since of various CEOs and industries thinking “yes, but THIS time it’s different”, it’s never changed. A standard issue healthy adult’s sustained work output is maximized at 40 hours of real work a week. Making someone work 80 hours a week works for less than a month, and then the output drops to less than one person working for 40 hours, and often drops to below zero output, where they are causing more damage than they are getting work done.

          • johan_larson says:

            A standard issue healthy adult’s sustained work output is maximized at 40 hours of real work a week.

            I’ve read articles to that effect, and they seem sound. But I find the conclusion hard to square with another observation, namely that people in very competitive employment situations or chasing after lofty dreams invariably work more than 40-hour weeks. It seems no one reaches the top of their profession or builds anything really awesome on a 9-5 M-F schedule.

            So what’s the synthesis? Can the people work productively more than 40 hours per week if they have intrinsic motivation, as opposed to the purely extrinsic kind? Or are there some very special people who really are capable of sustained productive 60-hours weeks for years on end?

          • Viliam says:

            Can the people work productively more than 40 hours per week if they have intrinsic motivation, as opposed to the purely extrinsic kind? Or are there some very special people who really are capable of sustained productive 60-hours weeks for years on end?

            People are different, so there probably are a few for whom 60 hours every week are the best way.

            I could do an intrinsically motivating work 60 hours a week, but definitely not every week. There are other things in life, which I can easily postpone for one week, but not forever. I imagine that my optimal working schedule (assuming UBI, and no kids) would be 60 hours on some weeks, but less than 40 hours a week on average.

            Although, in an UBI world, the line between “work” and “hobby” is blurry, and 60 hours a week spent on work+hobby seems plausible.

          • Aapje says:

            A potential explanation is that the factory workers that Ford employed actually spent 40 hours doing the same thing, while what a CEO counts as work is far more varied and sometimes hard to distinguish from leisure.

            If a CEO does business on a golf course, he might count that as part of a 60 hour work week, but it may actually relieve stress, rather than cause it.

          • baconbits9 says:

            but it may actually relieve stress, rather than cause it.

            Obviously you’re not a golpher

          • slojently says:

            people in very competitive employment situations or chasing after lofty dreams invariably work more than 40-hour weeks. It seems no one reaches the top of their profession or builds anything really awesome on a 9-5 M-F schedule.

            There’s a very Hansonian explanation in The Age of Em:

            the reason most workers today tend to work too many hours might be because the few most productive workers are indeed more productive when they work many hours, and ordinary people are trying to resemble these super-workers.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Robin Hanson tried it:

          Once as a young man working at Lockheed, I decided to switch from working 40 to 30 hours per week, to spend more time on my independent research. My rate of advancement in the company didn’t just slow by 25%, it stopped completely — I was seen as not serious about my job.

          • Viliam says:

            I completely agree with what Hanson says. The problem is signaling: if you want to work “less time than usual in your type of career”, the impact on your career will be disproportionate. It’s not just that less time means less output, but you will appear less dedicated to work, which is a bad signal.

            My own experience is that when I wanted to work 80% of time (four days a week), I was only able to get 50% of my usual salary. That seemed too extreme, so after a while I returned to the usual full-time work.

      • JPNunez says:

        Is it a problem if someone gets 200% the healthcare benefits?

        It’s not like this guy is gonna live twice due to it.

        • moonfirestorm says:

          Well, the company has to pay for the healthcare benefits, so it’s clearly to their advantage if they hire a single 100%-hour workers rather than 2 50%-hour ones, because they save 100% of a worker’s healthcare benefits in doing so.

          If you’re suggesting that instead the company hiring a single 100%-hour worker has to pay twice the healthcare benefits, so to force them to be ambivalent between one 100%-hour or two 50%-hours… I guess that’s a solution, but who are they paying it to? Seems like it’s just free money for the healthcare company.

          Alternately, some sort of super-luxury healthcare for 100%-hour workers arises to incentivize them to create these profits for the healthcare companies. Which probably ends with that being considered the default, 50%-hour worker required benefits rising to meet it, and we’re back to no one wanting 50%-hour workers.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        People may not be given the opportunity to work 20 hour weeks in exchange for consuming less, but they can retire at forty or fifty in exchange for consuming less, and yet they keep choosing “consume more”.

        As someone who has done the financial planning and is on-track to retire at thirty-five, I feel qualified to say there are no obstacles on this path, just buy less stuff.

        • The Nybbler says:

          As someone who has done the financial planning and is on-track to retire at thirty-five, I feel qualified to say there are no obstacles on this path, just buy less stuff.

          Obstacle #1 is taxes, obstacle #2 is healthcare costs, obstacle #3 is inflation, obstacle #4 is uncertainty. Obstacle #4 can’t be planned for. If you retire at 35 and a black swan wipes you out at 40, you’re now broke with no job history for 5 years.

          • Ninety-Three says:

            Obstacles 1, 2 and 3 are all variations on “things cost money”, which is not a problem unique to early retirement. Seriously, everyone pays taxes, and it’s not like they’re especially punishing on retirement, how is that supposed to be an obstacle?

            As for obstacle 4, you might be a degenerate gambler, but there are in fact ways to invest that do not leave you at risk of suddenly going broke, even in the event of a financial collapse. The strongest form of this argument is that you have to pay for the privilege of low risk with lower ROI, and you do, yet it remains quite viable to simply buy less things and work less.

          • The Nybbler says:

            It’s not just that things cost money. It’s that things keep costing more money, and once you’re not making money any more, you bear the full brunt of it. The longer you live, the less your savings is going to be worth, from inflation making it literally worth less, to taxes going up in real terms (which they always do) and to the redistributors of the world seeing your nest egg and coming up with new taxes to take it away. With health insurance, not only does it increase much faster than inflation, but once you’re not employed any more you’re paying a lot more for a lot less.

            The only ways to get around this are to have a truly massive nest egg (which you probably can’t), or to take enough risk to grow your savings faster than those factors. If you take that risk, you run into obstacle 4 faster.

      • GrowWiser says:

        One of the things that market forces have to overcome when setting the salary is employee’s resistance to working more than they want. The salary has to increase more than linearly with hours because this resistance increases more than linearly. So expecting it to decrease linearly when cutting hours amounts to an unjustified pay raise request.

        Furthermore, there are many costs aside from health insurance already mentioned that grow with headcount: office space and equipment, SS taxes (unless total salaries end up under the cap), coordination costs, tech support, HR, legal, etc.

        A fairly adjusted salary is too likely to generate outrage to be offered in typical circumstances.

    • whereamigoing says:

      I don’t see how a moderate UBI is “destroying all existing systems” (unless you think welfare is already destroying them). At least the version Yang is proposing wouldn’t be so hard to fund.

      • The Nybbler says:

        At least the version Yang is proposing wouldn’t be so hard to fund.

        It will cost $2.5T. Total Federal revenue for 2018 was $3.7T. It seems pretty hard to fund to me.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Hes adding a 10% VAT tax, that is going to hammer the economy, I notice that he doesn’t cite what European tax rates are lower, or that promise to cut defense spending down to European levels to pay for it or note that the average European country has far lower consumption levels than the US.

      • baconbits9 says:

        BTW what Yang is proposing is NOT a UBI, a UBI is an income level that (supposedly, wouldn’t in practice) guarantees a person could cover basic necessities. Yang is calling for a level of spending WAYYYY below that level and then calling it a UBI to make it sound good.

  12. ReaperReader says:

    As S&W mention, once living off a UBI becomes a viable alternative to working, many people (though not everyone at once) will choose to do this. That will increase the cost of labor, drive wages up, and encourage businesses that haven’t yet automated to do so. It will also reduce the number of hours people need to (or choose to) work, and once people aren’t working and goods are being produced without labor, there won’t be any need for a work ethic.

    Call me ignorant, but if a UBI drives up the cost of labour, drive wages up, and encourage businesses that haven’t yet automated to do so, won’t it make it harder to live off the UBI? E.g. the garbage collection might go from costing $10/week to $50/week. The bill for a plumber might double. Etc.

    • Ketil says:

      but if a UBI drives up the cost of labour, drive wages up

      I don’t think this is a given. I could probably work 50% and live reasonably well – might have to find a smaller place to live, couldn’t go to restaurants or holiday trips. Yet I keep my full time (actually 120%) position.

      A UBI will make people less dependent on labor, but – if implemented correctly, e.g. as Milton Friedman’s negative income tax – people will still want to work to earn more, or to have something fulfilling to spend their time on. People may desire free time and financial freedom, but mostly people want to feel relevant.

      Pay is only part of it, and people even work for free as volunteers in many cases. UBI also means that you don’t depend on a high salary. Employers might find that they have to provide more fulfilling work to attract employees, but they won’t necessarily have to pay more. And if UBI replaces traditional welfare, there is a large contingent currently in various welfare programs where benefits are conditioned on not working. UBI could thus increase the available labor as well as reducing it.

      • Aapje says:

        Employers might find that they have to provide more fulfilling work to attract employees, but they won’t necessarily have to pay more.

        I don’t see how this follows, since these two things trade off against each other. The more pleasant the job, the less an employer has to pay, all other things being equal.

        Furthermore, making the job more fulfilling will often make it more expensive, so then you just end up with the same outcome: that garbage collection is more expensive.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          This gets glossed over so much, but it needs more attention. My feeling is that if I start paying more in taxes to cover a UBI, I’m also going to start needing to pay more for garbage collection. And all the while, someone is telling me how rich society is getting, but my taxes need to keep going up?

          Reservation wages are a thing. It costs more to do garbage collection in a rich country than it does a poor one.

        • Ketil says:

          I don’t see how this follows, since these two things trade off against each other. The more pleasant the job, the less an employer has to pay, all other things being equal.

          If the alternative is starvation, I’ll accept a lot of unpleasantry for my wages. If it’s just a question of a more expensive holiday, maybe not so much? Basically, it’s the argument that (additional) money has higher utility if you are poor. (Although I’m not quite as convinced that pleasantry has lower utility when you’re happy 🙂

      • eric23 says:

        Negative income tax is not a UBI! It means that someone with zero income receives zero money, and starves.

        An actual UBI has the same effects of a negative income tax, except that it actually supports people with very low incomes, and is much simpler to implement (making the tax preparation/avoidance industry unnecessary). To show this, just open Excel and quickly model a $10k/year UBI paired with a 40% flat tax. For very wealthy people, the effective tax rate is near 40%. For people of lower incomes, the effective tax rate drops, eventually reaching 0% and continuing smoothly to negative values. In the extreme of zero income, the effective tax rate approaches negative infinity. No person ever gets less than the $10k they need to live on per year. Since the effective tax rates for poor people range between negative infinity and about zero, a huge number of tax brackets would be needed to even approximate a smooth net/gross income curve for them.

        • nadbor says:

          Negative income tax is not a UBI! It means that someone with zero income receives zero money, and starves.

          Not necessarily. At least the Milton Friedman’s proposal included a floor on income. From wikipedia’s article on negative income tax:

          Example:

          The income tax rate is 50%.
          The tax exemption is $30,000.
          The subsidy rate is 50% and equal to the income tax rate.
          Under this scheme:

          A person earning $0 would receive $15,000 from the government.
          A person earning $25,000 would receive $2,500 from the government.
          A person earning $30,000 would neither receive any money nor pay any tax.
          A person earning $50,000 would pay a tax of $10,000.
          A person earning $100,000 would pay a tax of $35,000.

          • eric23 says:

            OK. That is mathematically identical to a $15k UBI plus 50% flat tax. Just described more awkwardly. (And probably administered more awkwardly, in practice)

          • John Schilling says:

            Correct. And it would be just as correct (and awkward) to say that the UBI is mathematically identical to NIT except with more flexibility on how you pay for it. Also, if you are going to claim that the probable real-world administration of a UBI and whatever scheme pays for the UBI, is going to be anything but awkward in the extreme, then I am going to be sorely tempted to abandon my self-imposed moratorium on the phrase “sweet summer child”

            But to the immediate point, that’s what Negative Income Tax has always meant. It has never meant zero income = zero tax = starvation, even if one might naively deduce such a meaning from the implied etymology.

            Why we decided to start talking about “UBI” instead of “NIT” when they are mathematically the same thing, is an interesting question.

          • Why we decided to start talking about “UBI” instead of “NIT” when they are mathematically the same thing, is an interesting question.

            Or “UBI” instead of “Demogrant.”

        • JPNunez says:

          Negative Income Tax is just a shorthand and simplification.

          The proposal included a minimum income below which you’d receive money, so at $0 you get max benefits.

          • Aapje says:

            An aside:

            When the Dutch tax agency was ordered to pay people, rather than just collect taxes, they learned that handing out money is a lot more difficult, as this makes many more kinds of fraud viable.

          • JPNunez says:

            @AApje

            There’s def a fuckton of problems that UBI cancreate.

            I also imagine it would spawn a whole new industry of scams.

        • ReaperReader says:

          No person ever gets less than the $10k they need to live on per year.

          Hope they stay healthy then.

          • eric23 says:

            Ah yes, when I started to analyze a utopian UBI, I took a non-dystopian health care policy as a starting point 🙂

      • ReaperReader says:

        But what matters is people at the margin. Even if a bunch of plumbers keep working the same, if some plumbers stop, or cut their hours, then the price of plumbing services will rise.

        And the UBI comes with a sharp rise in tax rates, reducing the incentives of at least some employed people to work.

    • Plumber says:

      @ReaperReader,
      It seems to me that any “Basic Income” would quickly lead to higher rents (eating up any income gains), ’cause that’s pretty much what happens when wages get higher.

      • bean says:

        Would it, though? Wages are inherently tied to jobs, and those jobs are usually located in a specific place. UBI isn’t. I know you personally are big into living where you grew up, but someone on UBI could easily decide “You know what, rents are too high in the Bay Area, I’m going to quit my job and move somewhere cheap.” And there are a lot of cheap places out there where you could probably live more comfortably on just the UBI than you could on UBI + a low-end job in the Bay Area.

        (This message brought to you by the foundation to remind people that there is an America outside major urban areas.)

        • Statismagician says:

          Just a gigantic +1. I live in a perfectly nice Midwestern city with good jobs, cultural amenities, and all the other fun city stuff, but my rent is ~$1/square foot. Compare San Francisco at ~$5.

          • Error says:

            Which city, out of curiosity?

            (I’m in ATL, not the bay area, but I’ve considered moving to cheaper locales)

      • JPNunez says:

        I think this is one of my biggest objections to UBI. Most of it would go towards rent, at least for the people who don’t need UBI in the first place (but have to get it because, you know, Universal), which in turn would drive up rent for the people who actually needed UBI.

        And landlords are so prone to rising rent and surely they would notice that everyone receives UBI -starting by the fact they receive it too- that they would do everything in their power to raise their rent and absorb their tenants’ UBI.

        UBI probably cannot work without some kind of state housing program. I am starting to think that the ideal arrangement is something like Singapore, where ~80% of the people live in government built property, on 99-years lease. Of course the Singaporean model is only needed by the weird conditions of Singapore, but it shows that a government can apply weird and extreme housing models to the economy and still grow, give a roof to nearly everyone, at good prices, etc.

        Even without the extreme measures of Singapore, something needs to be done to housing before UBI can work.

        • A1987dM says:

          Well, even just relaxing zoning requirements would help, because in that case rising rents would incent people to build more housing, which would bring rents back down to some extent.

        • I think this is one of my biggest objections to UBI. Most of it would go towards rent, at least for the people who don’t need UBI in the first place (but have to get it because, you know, Universal), which in turn would drive up rent for the people who actually needed UBI.

          That is wrong twice over. UBI isn’t coming out of the air–it’s financed by taxes. So your “people who don’t need UBI in the first place” don’t have higher incomes as a result of UBI–they are paying out in taxes the money they are getting back and, for many of them, more than the money they are getting back since some of it is going to people with lower incomes than theirs.

          But it also assumes that landlords act like a single monopoly instead of a competitive industry, which is what they are. What keeps rents high is the existence of restrictions on building more housing units.

          • JPNunez says:

            This is not necessarily true. Let’s say UBI is close to minimum wage, let’s say $300 a week. Surely people who were making minimum wage before, will not pay _all_ of their new UBI back in taxes. Therefore, they suddenly have ~2x money, which their landlords knows and who will be tempted to raise their rents. A bunch of people will make more from their UBI at the lower levels than they get taxed back, between those who make the minimum, up to a certain level where tax policy determines they need to give back more than they receive (which is probably on the well paid professional level). So now there’s a bracket of people with more money, between 2x before, to 1.01x before. Everyone in this bracket who rent now have landlords who know their tenants can pay more.

            But it also assumes that landlords act like a single monopoly instead of a competitive industry, which is what they are. What keeps rents high is the existence of restrictions on building more housing units.

            That’s what _keeps_ the rent high; if suddenly people have UBI as an additional income, they will start competing for the existing (and newly built) units, and thus their price will tend to raise too.

            Again, this is talking about theoretical houses that are all equivalent, but in reality, people could use their UBI to try to get bigger houses, or apartment closer to work, where building permits may not make that much difference. Not everyone wants a house in the middle of nowhere where market price = construction price.

            The process needs not be sudden. Landlords won’t raise rent as

            new_rent = old_rent + UBI;

            but eventually a new equilibrium will be reached and I see no guarantees it won’t benefit landlords a lot, unless it’s the government who is providing housing for an important part of the people who didn’t really need UBI before, but who are taxed at the level where they still benefit.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Landlords will try to get the UBI, but so will sellers of food, of health care, of entertainment, of everything else what people want or need.

            Housing isn’t always in a fair-market equilibrium, especially in highly built-up areas. But rents, like most prices, are determined by the tension between landlords who want it to go up but know that tenants may move elsewhere, and tenants who want it to go down but know that landlords may lease elsewhere.

            I’m overall skeptical of UBI, but it will generally allow people more flexibility in where they live. The best real estate is a finite resource, but there’s a lot of places to live that aren’t the best that are perfectly fine.

          • orangecat says:

            Therefore, they suddenly have ~2x money, which their landlords knows and who will be tempted to raise their rents

            Gas station owners know that people will buy almost as much gas at $4 per gallon as they will at $2. This knowledge doesn’t allow them to keep prices at $4/gallon indefinitely.

      • @Plumber:

        Two problems with that argument:

        1. Even if your facts were correct, you can’t tell the direction of causality. Maybe income is rising because high rents mean you have to pay people more to live in the location where you want them–most obviously the Bay Area.

        2. One would only expect higher wages to drive up rents to the extent that the supply of housing is fixed. If, at the other extreme, anyone can build a house for fifty thousand dollars and land is plentiful, then housing prices are not going to get much above fifty thousand however high income is–except to the extent that people choose to build bigger houses.

        Is plentiful land a reasonable approximation? For the U.S. as a whole, yes–fly from the west coast to the east coast and look down. For the Bay Area, where you live, not under current regulations. But, absent restrictions on building, one can add the equivalent of another acre by building an acre’s worth of housing one story higher, which limits rent costs in essentially the same way.

        • Plumber says:

          @DavidFriedman

          “…you can’t tell the direction of causality…”

          An interesting point that I hadn’t considered.

      • peterispaikens says:

        A major part of rent, often the majority in first world, is paying for a location; and currently much of the “location attractiveness” is not because that location is good to *live* in but because that location is good to *work* in.

        Right now in USA there are places where *very* highly paid professionals can’t afford a non-shared apartment while at the same time there are places where houses cost approximately zero and still are left empty.

        UBI decouples housing locations from the business centres. Just as it gives you the option to walk away from a bad job because it’s not a necessity to survive, it also gives you the option to walk away from a too-expensive housing market, because it’s not a necessity to live in a particular place just because it has jobs.

        • AG says:

          And that, in turn, actually creates jobs where there were previously none, because as people move somewhere, the opportunity for services pops up. Grocery, hardware, restaurant, healthcare, shipping, entertainment, the like.

        • raj says:

          > UBI decouples housing locations from the business centres.

          I don’t see how that is at all true, except by changing the numbers due to somewhat lower demand. People who work are still going to want to work in the best places, and people who want to live in the best places for any reason are still going to have to pay market prices

      • ReaperReader says:

        Houston is a counter-example. It doesn’t have zoning.

      • John Schilling says:

        It seems to me that any “Basic Income” would quickly lead to higher rents

        It would lead to modestly higher average rents(*), but if rents increase 50% across the board in the United States, that still leaves an awful lot of rust belt cities where the rent is now 150% of almost nothing.

        The issue is people who want to live in Cool Cities(tm) and will feel any economic system is broken unless they can make Cool City Rent rather than just Rust Belt Rent. And I get that you’re one of these people, but living in a Cool City is pretty much by definition a luxury good that no more than 10% or so of the population will ever be able to afford – and in anything resembling a market economy, they’ll be paying $$bignum for the privilege, just like first-class airline passengers necessarily pay more than everyone else.

        The good news is, with a UBI in place, nobody needs to live in Cool Cities for their job. Also good news, the Cool People in Cool Cities will still need plumbers, and if plumbers all have the option of moving away and spending more time with their families in cheap-rent towns, Cool City People will have to pay lots more money to convince plumbers to A: stay on the job B: in their high-rent Cool Cities.

        There’s no guarantee that the plumbers they offer those very highly paid jobs to, will be the ones who happen to live in Cool Cities now, of course.

        * Assuming renters are overrepresented among net beneficiaries of the UBI and homeowners among the net taxpayers supporting the thing, which seems reasonable.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      The bill for a plumber might double. Etc.

      That leads back to the point others have made about the authors mistaking a technological demand for a political one. If you’re still dealing with leaky pipes by calling a plumber instead of telling your handybot to fix them, we’re not yet in the technological future in which a UBI on the scale the authors want is feasible.

  13. ARabbiAndAFrog says:

    I think one of the underexplored possibilities is that full atomation will effective split humanity in two. Those who own robots will retreat to safety of their smart homes, catered to robot butlers and protected by ferocious killbots while the rest will be deprived of industry and probably starve for a while until they create parallel civilisation and will have as much relations with the first group as some Amazonian tribe does now. Maybe once in a while a drone will fly by to film a documentary, or killbots will come to massacre a village sitting on top of valuable resource deposit. But otherwise two sides might as well be living on separate planets.

    • antilles says:

      I have some bad (or possibly good) news; this has been explored in a little-read tome called “every cyberpunk book.”

      • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

        To my knowledge, an average cyberpunk poor is still part of ecosystem. Living in the megacities and being hackers or other criminals stealing from the Man to survive.

        I picuture two sides as severed from one another almost entirely, with the poor masses living in pre-industrial, possibly early industrial society with regular non-automatized economy.

        • antilles says:

          Isn’t that the premise of that movie Elysium? I didn’t actually see it and heard it was atrocious.

          Anyway, I think if the poor are so marginalized that their primary “economic” interaction with the mega-rich is theft and hacking, that’s a difference of degree from what you’re talking about, not kind. Fundamentally that’s not really sharing a society so much as… being a remora fish to a whale shark.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            Elysium is not atrocious, it is just a standard action movie. That being said, it is close in premise but does not explore it – main character is working in a factory owned by space people and his goal is to gain access to their technology.

            What I envision for the future, is not particularly good for storytelling, that’s probably why you won’t see it much. People who make dystopian cyberpunk still think alone the lines of the current economic relations where not having income makes you a hobo, and in the future everyone will be a hobo, while I propose that once critical mass of hobos is achieved and number of privileged shrink so they end up occupying relatively small amount of territory and resources, hobos will create their own economy with all sectors we currently have, or at least on agrarian level, going above and beyond Hooverville. With their own governments, police, trade farmers, artisans and maybe industry assuming robots won’t take over all the fuel. The rich would be so transcendent, there’d be nothing for them to want from the poor, and poor will be left to their own devices, like pre-contact tribes.

          • Murphy says:

            I propose that once critical mass of hobos is achieved and number of privileged shrink so they end up occupying relatively small amount of territory and resources, hobos will create their own economy with all sectors we currently have

            Why would the privileged cede territory and power to the hobos?

            They could force the hobos into camps with subsistence living and use all the best land to grow gene-engineered space-ship-fuel-plants.

            if they have that much power over the hobos why would they give up some of their own power? they’ll still be in their own competitions with other privileged where the balance could be tipped by resources they control.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            They’ll have little use for this land, so might not bother waste resources pushing hobos around as long as they don’t approach their walled cities and resorts or deposits used by robots to power their indulgences. At some point, after a few generations, the privileged might forget there were hobos at all.

            Of course, that’s not the only scenario. But I think, come fully automatic robot decadence, it is quite likely the robodecadent presence would shrink.

          • AG says:

            @ARabbiAndAFrog

            The US’s history with the Native Americans doesn’t bear this out. The rich will maintain their ownership of the land with all of the good resources for to continually increase their own life quality. Need has nothing to do with it.

            See also the current treatment of hobos, which is that we refuse to grant them some place of their own, because eventually we’ll want to gentrify that place, and get rid of the hobo eyesore.
            So we go back to the Native Reservations, where hobos get shunted to the land with the worst resources. At best, instead of using the imperfect proxies of booze and casinos, future hobos get access to some sort of wireheading. More likely, it becomes a drug war rat race.

          • Walter says:

            @AG: We don’t give hobos land not because we might someday want to gentrify it but because ‘we’ aren’t a center of agency that owns land.

            Like, do you own land? Give it to a bum. Nobody will stop you. If you want to tell someone else what to do with their land it will fail entirely on its own, no gentrifying needed, people don’t like taking orders.

          • AG says:

            @Walter: ergo, revealed preferences show that no one will give hobos a nice piece of land. Certainly not the rich.

        • Why should it be pre-industrial? In your scenario, what keeps the “poor masses” from building a non-robotic industrial civilization, just as the poor masses c. 1800 already did–with the advantage of having all of the technological development already done?

          Is the implicit assumption that all the smart people are in the robotocized part of the civilization, and the poor masses are too dumb to do non-robotic technology?

          • peterispaikens says:

            The expectation is that the labor of poor masses would become absolutely uncompetitive. Sure, you *could* build an industry that takes 20 hours of non-robotic labor to make some thingy which noone would buy at that cost, as the roboticized plants are making and selling it ten times cheaper, so your industry is useless and unsustainable. The poor masses would find that living off the scraps and obsolete hardware and garbage of the rich civilization is easier that making things themselves.

            For example, I have the ability to connect two houses with a self-built landline phone, but it’d take a lot of effort and so the fact that I can simply buy a $20 cell phone *is* preventing me from doing it.

          • Lambert says:

            If the scraps and garbage of obsolete hardware are so much better than everything we are making today, then I’d happily live off those scraps.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            The implicit assumption that the poor masses won’t have access to fuel because it will be one of the things robots would care to take over, but they would be less likely to keep the poor from fertile land and the like.

          • The expectation is that the labor of poor masses would become absolutely uncompetitive. Sure, you *could* build an industry that takes 20 hours of non-robotic labor to make some thingy which noone would buy at that cost, as the roboticized plants are making and selling it ten times cheaper, so your industry is useless and unsustainable.

            Short answer: The principle of comparative advantage.

            Long answer: We have two economies in this hypotherical, robotocized and non-robotocized. If people are not part of the robotocized economy, where do they get the money to buy things in that economy? What keeps them from working in their economy and buying the same things from that economy they could have bought before?

            Things made by robots are ten times cheaper measured in how long someone who programs robots has to work to buy those things, but someone who programs robots has many times the income of someone who isn’t part of his economy, so the things made by robots are still expensive for that person. Things made by people, on the other hand, exchange at (first approximation) their labor cost, so he can buy the same amount of human made stuff for his labor as before.

            That result is complicated by the fact that not all labor is the same (my earlier point that perhaps all the smart people are being bad away into the robotocized economy) and that cost also depends on capital and non-labor inputs. But it’s still the right first approximation, and to argue that it is wildly off, as you are doing, you have to show why some of the inputs for the non-robot economy have become much less available than they were before the robots arrived.

            You also have to deal with the large gain to the non-robot economy, due to gains from trade. Its members can exchange whatever goods the robots have the least advantage in for whatever goods they have the greatest advantage in, and so get much more for their labor than they could before.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            In your scenario, what keeps the “poor masses” from building a non-robotic industrial civilization, just as the poor masses c. 1800 already did–with the advantage of having all of the technological development already done?

            They would need physical resources. Like coal, wood, sunlight, iron, & empty space.

            The c. 1800 poor masses did not have to compete for land or energy sources against megafleets of robotic self-replicators programmed to colonize mars (or whatever else consumes resources in the “robotic industrial civilization”).

            (The American Bison, on the other hand, did have to compete against a technologically superior megaconsumer…)

            Is the implicit assumption that all the smart people are in the robotocized part of the civilization, and the poor masses are too dumb to do non-robotic technology?

            The poor masses are too poor to do non-robotic technology.

            It doesn’t matter who is smart or dumb anymore. It just matters who owns the things. The economy is now 100% capital and 0% human labor. The poor as well as the rich are too dumb to compete with the AI, but the rich, who own the AI, don’t have to. (They do have their AIs competing against each other though.)

            Things made by robots are ten times cheaper measured in how long someone who programs robots has to work to buy those things,

            Why are you talking about labor of programmers here? It’s the people who own the robotic factories &c who get the product. The scenario is “full automation,” not “programmer labor does everything, and also programmers inexplicably get to charge monopoly prices.” So the programming is done by AI here. There’s no labor input.

      • Plumber says:

        @antilles

        I have some bad (or possibly good) news; this has been explored in a little-read tome called “every cyberpunk book.”

        I read (and was very bored by) Neuromancer and When Gravity Fails (which was better), and part of the Mirrorshades anthology (the parts of which I read didn’t intice me to read further) back in the 1980’s, but I skipped most everything else labeled “Cyberpunk” (and pretty much stopped reading Science Fiction by the early ’90’s and switched to Fantasy instead) so I’m also ignorant of what you might mean.

    • AnthonyC says:

      I agree it’s underexplored to the extent that most people I encounter in daily life find it a extremely surprising concept, too many inferential steps from what they know to sound plausible/

      Have you read Manna? It’s a novella-length webfiction exploration of that idea, how it might evolve ad how a society might sidestep it.

      • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

        I haven’t read it, maybe one day I will.

        I think the reason why people find this scenario implausible is similar to why people tend to subscribe to various utopian ideas – people believe that there are rules that are immutable. Utopians believe there are rules that can be set to make people act for some kind of utopian goal. Most people also tend to hold the rules they currently live by as immutable.

        In this case people think the elites want to be capitalists and sell thing to plebs. But in reality they don’t want to, they just want goods and status. They need to keep money circulating so people would work in their businesses. If they get free will-free workforce, they won’t need to sell anything ever again.

    • Winja says:

      This already exists. It’s called an Indian Reservation.

    • syrrim says:

      Even today, some of the richest people donate extensively to charity. Post singularity, I don’t think it is unlikely that some of the winners will band together to look out for the interests of the common man. I would compare what amounts to a massive charity effort that lead to the abolishment of slavery, first the trade across the atlantic, then in the US. Wars were fought and banks were broken to free slaves, which would otherwise have continued contributing to the economy. I have confidence that when full automation is developed, some of those who control it will feel compelled to give it to all of humanity, and will twist the arm of those who aren’t so sure.

      In terms of predictions, Asimov talks about one side of this society in Foundation and Earth. In his optimism, he finds that those without robots turned out better than those with robots, although both turn out worse than a communist utopia where everyone is part of a single super-organism.

      • JPNunez says:

        Ugh, the Foundation sequels are so bad. I largely blame Star Trek for them, as they are basically a small Star Trek homage; the protagonists go to different planets, scan them, descend and have intercourse with the local women.

        It’s a shame he waited so long to write Foundation sequels, since by the 80s he had moved onto writing long novels, while his strength had always been short stories. Asimov probably hit his peak around the late 60s, early 70s, maybe coincidently around the time Star Trek came out.

        In the 80s, I feel his science fiction becomes less interesting and more sentimental in a way that makes some of his stories lame, like the super manipulative Bicentennial Man. On the other hand he becomes a superb comedy/mystery writer, as his Azazel/Black Widow Club stories are excellent.

        edit: also I want to point out this is funnily similar to hopes that AI will turn out to be good that Yudkowsky et al consider wishful thinking.

        Maybe The Real Superintelligent AI Is Extremely Rich Psychopaths.

    • raj says:

      This isn’t really a stable equilibrium though; there’s no reason the side with all the power wouldn’t just keep laying claim to more and more land until they own it all.

  14. Norman says:

    ” if the free market works, how come most businesses are organized as top-down hierarchies?” This question was answered by Ronald Coase, The Nature of the Firm (1937) Economica 4 (16): 386–405. It’s worth reading. It does not have much economic jargon, and was the basis for his Nobel Prize (along with The Problem of Social Cost, which is also worth reading).

  15. mai_neh says:

    “Full automation” is an imaginary concept. Systems that appear to operate automatically require humans to design, build, test, operate, maintain, troubleshoot, repair, etc.

    What happens with automation is that an automated process requires fewer laborers, but a group of highly skilled automation engineers.

    These automated processes increase output per person, but it never goes to infinity. In fact, productivity growth has been in decline during the past 20 years — instead of output per person speeding toward infinity, it has started to stagnate as compared to the second half of the 20th Century.

    So this entire program is built upon a magical myth of infinite productivity, when the reality is that productivity growth has slowed considerably.

    There are also other constraints that either impose or should impose limits on such a fantasy of limitless automation. One constraint is resource availability. Another is pollution/waste/greenhouse emissions. The inputs for your automated processes are limited, and the outputs create pollution. An infinitely productive UBI society would destroy the planet even more thoroughly than our current global economy.

    And — assume it works, we automate nearly everything — why wouldn’t the automation engineers, the ones who still have to work, why wouldn’t they organize into unions and go on strike unless they were given a larger share of the output — they’re the ones who are required for it all to function. As 98% of the planet stops working, the 2% who still must work to keep the automatic processes functioning will inevitably rebel. It doesn’t seem fair or just to enslave a minority in order that the majority can just have sex and take drugs all day long 😉

    • Murphy says:

      why wouldn’t the automation engineers, the ones who still have to work, why wouldn’t they organize into unions and go on strike unless they were given a larger share of the output

      The idea with UBI is that they would get a larger share, but not 98%.

      Partly because any members of the 98% who want to earn more than UBI are standing behind them willing to take the jobs if they go on strike.

      They’re not slaves, they can stop any time they like and someone else will take the job. If the job isn’t offering enough to attract anyone else then it will need to offer a higher salary.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Exactly. Full automation of everything without a UBI or some other such thing could lead to the cyberpunk scenarios where the titular owners of the land and robots leave everyone else living on the scraps, or as essentially slaves or not living at all.

      But that’s not very realistic, and even if it were, an intermediate scenario where we _don’t_ have full automation but we do have a UBI is also bad. Once you’ve automated away the janitors, farmers, factory workers, truckers, bus drivers, retail clerks, etc, but still need doctors and nurses, lawyers and engineers (including automation engineers), and you institute a UBI… well, you’ve now got exactly the opposite problem. Your doctors and nurses and engineers are doing all the work, but as they have to support more and more people who aren’t contributing at all, they’re getting less and less. When you consider democracy and incentives, this is very unstable; as you get more people on the UBI they have the power to vote themselves an even larger share of the pie. And the marginal automation engineer who nets just a little bit more than the UBI has a strong incentive to give up working and drop onto the UBI, leaving that much more work for the rest.

      • Andrew Cady says:

        you’ve automated away the janitors, farmers, factory workers, truckers, bus drivers, retail clerks, etc […]

        Your doctors and nurses and engineers are doing all the work, but as they have to support more and more people who aren’t contributing at all, they’re getting less and less

        They wouldn’t be getting less and less though, because you just ramped up productivity with all that automation. And you have to pay them enough to keep them showing up, so you have to up their wages.

        Either they end up with a larger proportion of the manufactured goods, or else superior access to positional goods.

        as you get more people on the UBI they have the power to vote themselves an even larger share of the pie

        Not really because even this majoritarian collective still has to buy the labor of the workers. No matter how high they raise the taxes, they have to take their UBI (or else take government funding) and buy every bit of labor they consume.

        the marginal automation engineer who nets just a little bit more than the UBI has a strong incentive to give up working and drop onto the UBI

        After which you need to offer him a raise.

        (If you don’t, I guess you didn’t really want his labor that much.)

        See, it’s still supply/demand setting the price here. It’s not volunteer laborers or slaves being burned out.

        • The Nybbler says:

          They wouldn’t be getting less and less though, because you just ramped up productivity with all that automation.

          Not so much. If I replace a $15.00/hour worker with a machine with an amortized cost of $14.75/hour, I’ve ramped up productivity a little bit, but not necessarily enough to reduce prices enough to offset the higher tax burden to workers from that worker no longer paying taxes.

          Not really because even this majoritarian collective still has to buy the labor of the workers. No matter how high they raise the taxes, they have to take their UBI (or else take government funding) and buy every bit of labor they consume.

          That’s why the system collapses, but it doesn’t stop the collapse. Sure, they’re “buying” the labor of the workers… but they’re doing it entirely with taxes incident on those workers. They can ramp up the UBI arbitrarily, and as this knocks more and more marginal workers onto UBI-only, they gain more power to do so.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            And what do we do if the doctors and nurses and engineers leave the country for someplace where they aren’t taxed at Insane% to pay for the UBI? Do we send the killbots after them?

        • Andrew Cady says:

          If I replace a $15.00/hour worker with a machine with an amortized cost of $14.75/hour, I’ve ramped up productivity a little bit, but not necessarily enough to reduce prices enough to offset the higher tax burden to workers from that worker no longer paying taxes.

          There’s $0.25 more in the economy, so there is going to be larger tax revenues not smaller.

          Just consider, for example, the fact that whoever receives that $14.75 is also someone who pays taxes.

          Sure, they’re “buying” the labor of the workers… but they’re doing it entirely with taxes incident on those workers.

          No, not at all. Most of the taxes will be on capital. People who own manufacturing facilities or service-providing robots or such will be paying most of the tax.

          Right now, the economy is about 66% labor and 33% capital, so most of the tax revenue is from taxing labor. But in the economy where we got rid of almost all the workers, it’s going to be the other way around. After all, capital will be where all the production is (not labor). So of course that is where all the tax will be.

  16. Godfree Roberts says:

    The only country capable of getting from here to there is China. They have the most competent, most trusted government and demonstrated their commitment to emancipating ordinary folk: next year every Chinese will have a home, a job, plenty of food, education, safe streets, health- and old age care.  500,000,000 urban Chinese will have more net worth and disposable income than the average American, their mothers and infants will be less likely to die in childbirth, their children will graduate from high school three years ahead of American kids. Then there will be more drug addicts, suicides and executions, more homeless, poor, hungry and imprisoned people in America than in China.

    They’ve dedicated the years between 2021-2035 to getting inequality down to Finland’s level and automation is one tool they plan to employ (which is why they paid a fortune for Kuka, the German automation conglomerate.

    • Murphy says:

      I’m always a little distrustful of official figures from censorship-happy countries like china.

      Also pushes to reduce inequality for it’s own sake tend to falter when they rely on the support of the people who are currently benefiting from the inequality.

      • sohois says:

        This does not reflect any of my experiences of rural China or the lower tier cities. There are still homeless people in China. Many rural homes are of an extremely low standard. Old age care relies heavily on youner generations taking care of their parents and I do not believe that older Chinese without family to rely on would have a reasonable quality of life by any metric.

        Naturally this is anecdotal evidence, but as you say you really can’t trust the statistics coming out of the CCP.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Your view of China’s economic situation is overly rosy.

      My ex girlfriend came from a well-off family living in Shanghai. At the time we were dating, they lived in an unheated apartment without indoor toilets and relied on bed-warmers and a chamberpot like my peasant ancestors probably used. These people had much more money in absolute terms than my American family, I saw that first-hand in how far her allowance went here, but all those Yuan couldn’t buy them what we would consider the bare essentials in China.

      Chinese economic growth has been very impressive, and that has translated into real improvements in quality of life. But you still need to be a multimillionaire to live like a member of the middle class in a first world country. They’re nowhere near where you’re claiming.

    • AG says:

      Sucks for those Uighurs eh

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        The links are good to have, but why did you have to lead off with such a rude question?

  17. MugaSofer says:

    “There is no discussion of whether some demonstration that communism is good would convince the masses to like it more. ”

    Isn’t that what the Occupy Wall Street and Communes bit was about? Demonstrating on a small scale that (your brand of) communism is awesome and fun and hoping that it catches on?

    It seems the problem here is that they weren’t actually that awesome. But I think S&W would argue that that was due to outside hostile actors, which is why they need to become powerful enough to get governments etc. on board with large-scale demonstrations where they use communism to solve a major crisis.

    • Plumber says:

      “Occupy” never ended, as after Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, and Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland were cleared out hundreds of tent encampments spread out all over, sometimes explicit protests, most of the time “urban camping” by the homeless.

      • Murphy says:

        Occupy london pissed off a lot of other groups when they dispersed.

        They’re the reason London hackspace has a bunch of the rules against people treating the space like a home. Because a crowd of them started occupying the hackspace.

        The Hackspace, to an extent I’d describe as non-idealist-non-political-anarchist, or perhaps minimum-organization-ist. People try to minimize Administrative work with automation wherever possible and the organization is fairly flat most of the time because complex hierarchy takes more effort and people like sharing resources etc but there’s no particular politics or idealism to it.

        back when Occupy were kicked out of a bunch of locations in london a crowd of them descended on the hackspace.

        But man did they get sick of Occupy extremely quickly.

        Cause it turns out that groups of bright, motivated people who are into sharing resources and shared space… really really detest useless leeches who make a mess, only take and contribute nothing.

        I get the impression that most “Occupy” people would be swiftly expelled from any real communist commune on account of mostly being useless slobs.

        • Plumber says:

          @Murphy,
          I’m not suprised, third and fourth hand I’ve head that (at least in the San Francisco bay area) the initial idealists of “Occupy” (who never seemed to have a plan past visibility) were soon swamped by homeless looking for a place to sleep and socialize that wouldn’t soon be rousted, which the Mayors (having been “activists themselves in their youths) weren’t keen to do right away, though Mayor Lee was much faster to roust (perhaps because of his previous experience as Director of Public Works) than Mayor Quan who really seemed to be acting out the perils of the fable of the Miller, His Son, and their Donkey.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          They’re the reason London hackspace has a bunch of the rules against people treating the space like a home. Because a crowd of them started occupying the hackspace.

          Oh god yes. I used to co-own a local hackerspace. When we started, we had a couple of couches, a kitchenette, and a shower. Really useful for when a member was hacking on something late into the night.

          Then the obvious happened, and we got a couple of Occupy-ish people, who would Occupy until we kicked them out. And it kept happening, and it kept happening, and just kept happening.

          We finally had to take out the long couches, take the cooking supplies out of the kitchenette, and turn the shower into a closet for cleaning supplies.

          I am grinding my teeth right now, remembering.

    • Picador says:

      Yeah, my hackles got raised by a couple of the characterizations of Occupy in the pull-quotes above, e.g.:

      “The Occupy movement infamously struggled to articulate meaningful goals”

      This was a standard neoliberal canard, addressed pretty effectively by many, including Matt Herper at Forbes (not exactly a lefty rag — Herper is just an excellent reporter):

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2011/10/07/some-say-occupy-wall-street-protesters-aimless-facts-say-otherwise/

      Excerpt:

      “Here is what our survey of the Occupy Wall Street protesters found:

      80% of those polled said that the rich should pay higher taxes and that it’s fair that approximately the top 10% of tax payers pay more than 70% of the taxes in the US and about 40% of employed people pay no income tax.
      93% say that student loan debt should be forgiven
      98% believe that health care should be free
      98% believe that Insurance companies make too much money and some of their profits should be taken to pay for more healthcare for others
      95% believe that drug prices should be controlled
      32.5% think the government will do a bad job managing healthcare
      44% believe that instead of spending money on ObamaCare, we should spend it on jobs today, while 30% believe that we should do both, and 27% say ObamaCare was fine use of money
      88% agree with the statement that “The government should put some controls on CEO pay – like limited to 20x or 30x the lowest paid employee.”
      93% believe that communications like cell phone and internet access be a right and not just reserved for the rich and we should have free internet and cell phone service as a national goal.
      54% do not believe that the Obama stimulus program was a good idea.
      84% said they think that if a bank decides to implement a $5 debit card fee, the government should not allow it, while 16% said let them do what they want – customers can move.”

      That’s about ten concrete demands. The “no concrete demands” story was always a CNN/NYT smokescreen. (Fox and other right-wing outlets didn’t bother with this critique — they just called them communist terrorists.)

      • Plumber says:

        @Picador,

        (Full disclosure: the last time I saw my father before he was taken to hospice he was wearing an “Occupy Oakland” t-shirt)

        “Visibility” isn’t enough, did the Occupy protesters expect that hearts would be changed and then the policies they wanted would get enacted?
        The earlier “Tea Party” movement got those who claimed to support their view elected – and they got their tax cut, I suppose maybe the visibility of Occupy got Sanders to run for President which inspired Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress and now many Democratic Party candidates say they support “Medicare for all” but in terms of concrete changes the main effect of Occupy seems to be tent encampments of the homeless all over.

        • Picador says:

          I’m not saying Occupy was doing everything right (although the changes you list are just a few examples of the way they shifted the national conversation around income and wealth inequality in a profound way that’s almost impossible to appreciate fully in retrospect).

          I’m just saying they had coherent policy goals, and many in the movement articulated those goals very clearly, and the media responded by pretending they were a bunch of stoned hippies speaking gibberish.

          • Plumber says:

            @Picador,
            True enough, but I don’t just want opinions changed, I want actual laws changed.

            The Affordable Care Act was a game changer for me, for the first time in decades actual progress was achieved by “progressives” instead of slowing the retreat or just more “tontine socialism”, and now I’m impatient for changes for the better, not just “changing the conversation”.

            The Left protests (big whoop!), while the Right actually legislates, again the contrast between Occupy and the Tea Party movement is stark – the Right got their tax cut, and the Left?

            Nothing but campaign promises!

            (Note: Everything is reversed with ‘Social Issues”, but I care far less about them and my small “d” democratic leanings say let the “Red States” govern themselves on that stuff as it “neither picks my pocket or breaks my bones”, i.e. gay marriage is fine and dandy for those who want it, but it doesn’t get kids medical care or the homeless sleeping under solid roofs instead of tent fabrics!).

      • bbeck310 says:

        Limiting it to the eight demands you list that had supermajority support, all of them are “give us free stuff and make other people pay for it.” It should be obvious why these are not meaningful revolutionary goals.

        • simbalimsi says:

          I can imagine some noble saying similar things before the french revolution or collapse of feudalism

          • ReaperReader says:

            And the French Revolution ended in a military dictatorship.

          • kaathewise says:

            @ReaperReader

            And the French Revolution ended in a military dictatorship.

            What would the world be like without French Revolution?

            Simply “one military dictatorship less”?

        • Galle says:

          I think you’ve missed the point entirely.

          The claim wasn’t that Occupy failed to articulate demands that could not be described as “give us free stuff and make other people pay for it”. The claim was that Occupy failed to articulate concrete policy demands at all. Picador responded by providing a list of concrete policy demands articulated by Occupy. Sure, you can describe many of them as “give us free stuff and make other people pay for it”, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still concrete policy demands. If someone says, “I want student loans to be forgiven,” then you know exactly what needs to be done in order to fulfill their desires.

      • Beck says:

        @Picador
        Those aren’t articulated demands, though. According to the article you linked, they’re just the results of a poll someone passed around.

        • Picador says:

          I’m having a hard time believing that these arguments are being made in good faith any more than when they were being made by CNN and the NYT in 2011. Ten second on Google yields a hundred documents like this one:

          https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/donnad/occupy-wallstreet-list-of-demands

          These demands were consistent with the survey results above and contemporaneous with the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Why are people so invested in this transparently false, trivially disprovable canard that Occupy “had no demands” or “struggled to articulate its demands”?

          • John Schilling says:

            That would be the one that comes with the disclaimer,

            “Admin note: This is not an official list of demands. This is a forum post submitted by a single user and hyped by irresponsible news/commentary agencies like Fox News and Mises.org. This content was not published by the OccupyWallSt.org collective, nor was it ever proposed or agreed to on a consensus basis with the NYC General Assembly. There is NO official list of demands.”

            So, did you post to the buzzfeed link rather than the actual Occupy forum post to obscure the fact that Occupy was disavowing this list of proposed demands, or did you just not bother to check?

      • John Schilling says:

        That’s about ten concrete demands.

        No, those are ten hypothetical demands, and they’re demands being hypothetically made by a staff writer for Forbes.

        A demand isn’t something someone simply wants or favors, it is something that they at minimum ask for. If you’ve got a large-scale semi-organized protest movement, and nobody is bothering to ask for anything, then there are no demands even if some outsider can ask questions and determine that if they did make demands it would probably be these.

        ETA: ninja’d by Beck

    • Deiseach says:

      Back at the heyday of the whole Occupy Wall Street debacle, what I enjoyed (in the sense of Schadenfreude) was watching the collision between the reality on the ground and the liberal progressives who were all supportive of the movement, right up until it started hitting them personally in the pocket.

      Trinity Wall Street, for those of you who don’t know, is a parish of The Episcopal Church in New York city and is reliably liberal and progressive. It is also stinkin’ rich, and I mean loaded. When Occupy was going on, Trinity was all over that because this was precisely the kind of activism and social justice they’d been preaching. They were all buddy-buddy and ‘come use our spaces’ and everything was hunky-dory.

      Until the Occupy lot got too big for their boots, started making demands, and those demands included wanting a piece of land turned over to them (after they’d been booted from Zuccotti Park). That soured the big-wigs in Trinity on them fast and they fell back on the fascist oppressive forces of the state (i.e. called the cops on them and had them arrested):

      Trinity is located near Zuccotti Park, the location of the Occupy Wall Street protest. It offered both moral and practical support to the demonstrators but balked when church-owned land adjoining Juan Pablo Duarte Square was demanded for an encampment. For withholding this property the church hierarchy were criticized by others within the Anglican movement, most notably Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On December 17, 2011, occupiers, accompanied by a few clergy, attempted to occupy the land (known as LentSpace), which is surrounded by a chain-link fence. After demonstrating in Duarte Park and marching on the streets surrounding the park, occupiers climbed over and under the fence. Police responded by arresting about 50 demonstrators, including at least three Episcopal clergymen and a Roman Catholic nun.

      The whining and self-justification from both sides was glorious. It also taught me why Occupy hadn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of ever doing anything, because ultimately it relied on rich progressive liberals who would support it as long as it was against a nebulous The Man but as soon as it hit them in reality, they’d drop it like a hot potato.

      • Winja says:

        It must have sucked to find out that they were The Man the poors hate so much.

        That #Resist bumper sticker on your Audi isn’t going to save you when the proles decide to rise up and revolt.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          “Resist” mentality by rich progressives can be seen as an attempt to reform the system before the masses are driven to revolt in the first place.

          I’m sure there were a handful of French nobles in 1786 saying “look, if we don’t do more for the peasants and eliminate some of the most blatant corruption and abuses, it’s going to end in blood and tears.”

      • Picador says:

        “It also taught me why Occupy hadn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of ever doing anything”

        … and now every Democratic candidate for President is pushing Medicare for all, a policy that would have gotten you laughed off the stage at the DNC before 2011.

        People’s amnesia is really striking when it comes to how dramatically the national conversation around income inequality has shifted — hell, has sprung up from nothing — in the years since Occupy. There were murmurings after the 2008 crisis, and Occupy was the first mass movement to articulate them. Now they’re part of mainstream policy proposals. Everyone from Silicon Valley libertarians to mainstream Democratic politicians is talking about UBI and socialized health care. Please go revisit what policies “serious people” were talking about about in 2010 and compare to today. Night and day.

        • Plumber says:

          @Picador

          “…Everyone from Silicon Valley libertarians to mainstream Democratic politicians is talking about UBI and socialized health care…”

          Yes, talking.

          Big whoop!

          How ’bout some actual legislating?

          The “Tea Party” got their tax cut, and “Occupy”?

          Gets talk.

          Part of the blame is the Lefts insane confusion of visibility with actual ballots, another part is the siren song of Anarchism and “dropping out”.

          Less “changing the conversation” and more actual progress please!

  18. VirgilKurkjian says:

    Uh… this seems like a good time for me to plug my serious concerns about automation.

    • Murphy says:

      I think the first lines of the top comment kind of nail it for me:

      This is an entertaining essay but extrapolates wayyyy too far. Case in point: I don’t even think it’s actually about automation – the thing you’re criticising sounds more like bureaucracy.

      • VirgilKurkjian says:

        I really don’t understand this line of criticism. If I had to distill my point down into a single sentence, it would be something like, “Automation is bureaucracy on steroids.” Everything we dislike about bureaucracy is made worse by automation, and without even the recourse to common-sense intervention available to human bureaucrats. So yeah, I talk a lot about why I hate bureaucracy, but mostly in service of trying to make a point about why we should expect to hate automation.

        • Murphy says:

          I’m not sure it follows.

          One of the big things people hate about human bureaucracy is that other humans get to play silly little power games.

          Automate it and you mostly remove that element.

          It even seems preferable when your case doesn’t fit the workflow.

          In a human-bureaucracy any humans you talk to are probably worked off their feet processing things by hand and aren’t going to be terribly interested in dealing with your special weird case that breaks their workflow.

          In an automated bureaucracy the humans you interact with spend most of their time dealing with the edge cases where things don’t quite fit the automation and their job is dealing with the special weird cases, keeping the special weird cases happy and arranging for how the automation can be changed in future to deal with the most common classes of special weird case.

          • VirgilKurkjian says:

            I’m still confused. This doesn’t seem related to the body of my argument, which has to do with making decisions based off of legible signals.

            I think it might be useful to taboo the term bureaucracy here, actually, since it seems to mean slightly different things for the two of us. So specifically, do you have any problem with my claims that 1) Automation means making decisions based off of legible signals, and 2) making decisions based off of legible signals has specific negative consequences, in part because of Goodhart’s law?

          • Murphy says:

            legible signals vs what? human gut feeling?

            So, you have some process. Perhaps you it’s processing taxes, perhaps it’s deciding whether to give you a loan.

            Really Really old way: some humans didn’t bother with legible signals much and just shook you down for everything their gut feeling told them you might have.

            Old way: some humans carry pieces of paper around according to a planned out process for making decisions based on information you’ve given someone, likely some numbers like your yearly income. It’s reliant on legible signals but 95+% of human-labor- time is taken up dealing with the common-case scenarios.

            Some people and their situations don’t fit the assumptions of the people who planned out the process.

            The people involved in this labor aren’t terribly interested in dealing with your special weird case that breaks their workflow.

            This feels terrible to deal with on a human level.

            Newer way: The same process is automated. Instead of people carrying paper around and following rules specified in binders most of the rules have been encoded into software.

            95+% of human-labor-time is taken up dealing with the weird cases.

            This still feels terrible but far less terrible than dealing with the version mostly running on top of human wetware.

            Your argument seems to be that dealing with process-like decision making based on legible signals is horrible …. hence automation that make that easier makes it even more terrible. I don’t believe that follows. I believe the automated version is much less horrible to deal with.

          • VirgilKurkjian says:

            It’s interesting that you bring up taxation, since my post was inspired in large part by Scott’s review of Seeing Like a State.

            I mean, legible signals versus an actual understanding of how the system works. If a college admissions officer chooses to admit based on some test score, then they will miss out on students with more potential who test poorly, admit bad students who test well, and render the whole process vulnerable to capture. The only solution is to have a real human mind trying to understand the problem and participating in the arms race with people who are trying to fool the system. It’s harder to hit a moving target.

            (Consider Scott’s story about interviewing for residencies.)

            You seem to have in mind a case where the easy parts are automated away and the people involved get to spend all their time dealing with the cases the automation can’t handle. I agree that this would be awesome. I’m concerned about cases where people commit hard to what you call the “old way”, which I think really does happen. I think we would both agree this would be terrible!

            I’m also concerned that setting up the system you imagine is really difficult. Under the old system, there was already some level of inefficiency. When things are automated, why not just fire the people who were doing the job before? The level of inefficiency is the same as before, and it’s cheaper.

            Even if the people can be kept on (doing a fraction of the work they did before!), the automated part of the system will need to know when to direct edge cases to them. But by definition anything that is an edge case is something that the automation can’t detect.

          • Murphy says:

            If a college admissions officer chooses to admit based on some test score, then they will miss out on students with more potential who test poorly, admit bad students who test well, and render the whole process vulnerable to capture.

            With a human making all the calls (especially without any clear process for how they should make the calls, leaving everything up to their “judgement”) it’s already supremely vulnerable to capture already. It just means that “capture” involves going to the same church as the assessor, sending him bribes, appealing to his ingroup-biases and doing him favors.

            Real human minds tend to be strictly worse along many…. many …. many axis.

            For example unless the tests are extremely poorly designed… on average the people who score highly are mostly smarter than the people who score poorly and in throwing that out you’re mostly screwing over genuinely good, hard working people in exchange for people who “feel right” to the assessor…. but human assessors tend to suck.

            Read Feynman’s Judging books by their cover for an idea of just how well relying on poorly specified holistic human judgement tends to go: hint, the title comes from the situation where blank books were being judged as better than average.

            Plus judges were just being flat out bribed.

            http://gama.fizika.unios.hr/~zglumac/ZFeynmanJudgingBooks.pdf

            why not just fire the people who were doing the job before

            You do fire many of them. but the ones who are left aren’t trying to spend 95% of their time dealing with common cases, they’re spending 100% of their time on oddball cases.

            In any system you need something to flag things up, typically this may be the individual themselves.

          • VirgilKurkjian says:

            I’m not trying to suggest that there’s *no* other way things can suck. I’m suggesting that automation is dangerous in ways that usually aren’t recognized, specifically because of Goodhart’s law.

            I don’t want to give examples that support my side, because I’m concerned you might think of it as cherry-picking, but you seem surprisingly (to me) positive about automation. Can you think of some examples of decision processes that have been automated where it’s turned out really well?

          • Murphy says:

            I’ve worked as an automation engineer.

            My day job involves taking processes for dealing with scientific data and automating them.

            It’s kinda my bread and butter.

            Most of the time when you automate things people don’t really notice except that 20x as much work is suddenly getting done in a fraction of the time and the error rate drops through the floor.

            Typically weird cases manifest as errors or otherwise get kicked out to be reviewed by a human at which point you either revise the automation to handle the cases causing errors or push them into the “have a human deal with it” pile if simply improving the code isn’t an option for some reason.

          • baconbits9 says:

            My day job involves taking processes for dealing with scientific data and automating them.

            My dad is in genetics and when he was in graduate school sequencing a single gene was a PhD thesis level project, when I was working in his labe ~12 years ago it was an afternoon’s work, and now sequencing a genome* is an afternoon’s work.

            * Not quite, but we are getting there.

          • Murphy says:

            If we took a whole evening per genome we’d be doing terribly.

            150 whole genomes crossed my desk, literally in the form of a box of hard drives, a couple months back and that wasn’t even a particularly big project that definitely didn’t take 3 months worth of labor.

            My currently work involves processing the data for hundreds of exomes per week along with slightly rarer batches of genomes and feeding them into databases so that lay-users can query them easily.

            😀

            I remember being at a conference a few years back and an old professor was talking about how his whole PHD was based around decoding a 20 amino acid section of a protein, so 60 bases, his Phd student had just completed a project on 180 whole (microorganism) genomes.

            Now that was a few years ago… and now projects involving less than a thousand exomes are tiddly little things.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Yeah, but you aren’t counting the costs of setting up the sequencers :).

          • VirgilKurkjian says:

            Interesting example! I agree that what you describe doesn’t sound bad. But on the other hand, that pretty much means that the example you went to doesn’t fit my concerns.

            I worry that we’re missing the ability to describe an important distinction here, swept under the rug by the word “automation”. I think that self-driving cars, for example, will be amazing and we should adopt them immediately. Automating things like who gets grants, who gets jobs, who gets dates, and who gets bail seem like terrible ideas to me, and I worry that it can creep into these decisions without us noticing. Online dating, to use Hotel Concierge’s example isn’t automated in the normal sense, but it’s still been reduced to a problem of legible signaling, with the attendant problems.

            Hotel Concierge uses the slightly weird term “fetishize”:

            My complaint is not that fetishization is bad. It is bad, often, but so is unprotected sex, and both are fun, and you knew that already. Hot take: use your judgment.

            My obsession is rather with the way in which fetishization is subsidized by society. All societies. The bigger the society, the more one has to perform the anthropologically modern task of pleasing a stranger, and a thumbnail glance followed by upvotes-to-the-left will always favor viral image over substance. The prior essay established a formula for our betrayal by appearances: When you ask for a display of X, you select for people who are good at displays, not X. If the display measures ability to lie, and X is a virtue, then map not only differs from territory, it insults it.

            I would say it’s something about “automating” “decisions”, though one could argue that a self-driving car “decides” to turn or brake or swerve, etc.

            Anyways, between “fetish”, “automation”, “bureaucracy”, and “decisions”, I think we’re in a bit of a mess, since none of those do a great job capturing this problem (though personally I still think most forms of automation are vulnerable to this issue).

  19. Bobobob says:

    “Taking over France is hard. Sure, Napoleon did it once, but think of all the people who must have tried to take over France and failed. I don’t know, seems like a really underspecified plan.”

    Woody Allen beat you to it: “With the emperor out of the way, all that remains is to kill Don Francisco. That will destroy His Highness’ stupid dreams of a treaty with Spain. Then I’ll sail to Austria, and form an alliance with the crown. Not the king, just the crown. They call me mad, but one day, when the history of France is written, they will mark my name well…Sidney Applebaum!”

  20. HeelBearCub says:

    Despite my differences with S&W, I respect them for having a utopian vision.

    How many people here find utopian visions plausible? Even remotely so?

    If you are a believer in the divine, I guess you at least get credit for a plausible path to Utopia. I find God just as implausible, but at least Utopia imposed by omniscient omnipotence is seemingly possible if you don’t think about it too hard.

    But the idea that we don’t need to work for better, we can just go ahead and implement perfection, seems like fundamentally flawed thinking to me.

    • Civilis says:

      This was one of my two big problems with the essay: beneficial progress isn’t necessarily utopian. Take the following paragraph:

      Anyone who believes that utopian thinking is dead should come to the Bay Area. You can spend Monday listening to an Aubrey de Gray lecture on the best way to ensure human immortality in our lifetimes, Tuesday talking to the Seasteading Institute about their attempts to create new societies on floating platforms, Wednesday watching Elon Musk launch another rocket in his long-term plan to colonize space, Thursday debating the upcoming technological singularity, and Friday helping Sam Altman distribute basic income to needy families in Oakland as a pilot study.

      None of those promises a perfect society. The only one that might is the ‘technological singularity’, which, by nature, is something that has results we can’t predict, but I give long odds on the result being a utopia. The protesters have a point in protesting, that the benefits that come from progress will be unevenly distributed, but that’s true of all progress. The closest we can come to perfection, since everyone will measure perfection differently, is allowing each individual to pursue their personal perfection. That individual pursuit naturally conflicts with an ideology that pursues equal outcomes for all; something inadvertently acknowledged by the utopian communists when they admit “you have to destroy all of capitalism at once or it doesn’t count“, with all the horror that statement should cause once you consider the implications.

      My second biggest problem is that eliminating the work ethic is suicidal, both for individuals and for society. Even if we were to eliminate the need to work via automation, you’re always one unforseen event away from being knocked back, and recovering requires hard work. One asteroid strike, one super volcano, one massive solar flare, one amok paperclip maximizing AI: your utopia falls apart, and people will need to work to survive.

    • Galle says:

      The point of a utopian vision isn’t to be plausible. The point of a utopian vision is to figure out what you want. It’s meant to set goals, not achieve them. A political philosophy that lacks even a utopian vision is just spinning its wheels accomplishing nothing.

  21. Plumber says:

    The thing about “Fully Automated” futures is they just don’t fit my experience, the plumbing systems I repair, and the heating systems most of my immediate co-workers repair require more maintenance than those of the past, the change is that replacements fixtures are cheaper (adjusted for inflation) not longer lasting – the old brass and bronze valves could go longer between repairs than the new plastic ones – there still seems like a lot of work still needing human hands.

    • Garrett says:

      This comes to mind as well. Automation is great for certain types of tasks. Most obviously, fixed repetitive task. Anything which is or can be partially turned into a fixed repetitive task is ripe for automation. So if you are interested in having a like full of IKEA furniture, you might be in luck. But plumbing repair involving on-site diagnostics, troubleshooting, part replacement and cleanup is probably a lot harder.

      Now that I think about it, it’s quite possible that the easiest way to automate the repair of a plumbing problem is to automate the complete demolishing of the existing building, complete with installation of a new, automatically built building.

      • baconbits9 says:

        This comes to mind as well. Automation is great for certain types of tasks. Most obviously, fixed repetitive task. Anything which is or can be partially turned into a fixed repetitive task is ripe for automation. So if you are interested in having a like full of IKEA furniture, you might be in luck.

        It doesn’t even work for an IKEA lifestyle, IKEA has hundreds of thousands of employees and they don’t even build your furniture for you, you get it cheap by providing labor on the back end. There is no full automation.

      • JPNunez says:

        I think that this full automation future may need a full AGI, which seems far away right now.

        Maybe we won’t have to worry about its effects as general intelligence is very slowly approached, so today we have to worry about retail jobs being partially automated away by amazon, tomorrow we worry about truck drivers being partially automated away by almost-autonomous driving, then about construction work partially automated away by giant 3D printers and robots and a few workers, and it’s only 500 years in the future where we finally automate the job of building better AIs and notice nobody is actually working.

        But right now, the non-starter is full automation, not whether we implement UBI. UBI is at least technically feasible today.

        • m.alex.matt says:

          Maybe we won’t have to worry about its effects as general intelligence is very slowly approached, so today we have to worry about retail jobs being partially automated away by amazon, tomorrow we worry about truck drivers being partially automated away by almost-autonomous driving, then about construction work partially automated away by giant 3D printers and robots and a few workers, and it’s only 500 years in the future where we finally automate the job of building better AIs and notice nobody is actually working.

          This brings to mind an interesting sci fi story where, in the future, everyone gets up at 8AM, goes to work, spends all day doing what seems to be productive work at first glance, goes home at 5PM, and does that five days a week from when they’re 22 to 65. All the while, a fully general AI is actually taking care of 100% of production in society and people go to work every day out of cultural habit and all they do all day is engage in rituals of productivity because they’ve forgotten what the actual purpose of it all is in the first place. The protagonist is the one to recognize the naked emperor and fight a battle of wits against a society that calls him/her crazy for pointing out that no one actually has to do any work at all.

  22. JPNunez says:

    They give a brief nod to a long string of leftist victories over the past half-century or so (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental regulation, massive increase in most categories of government social spending, etc, etc, etc), but are unimpressed, since these are compromises within capitalism domination. I would have liked to see them address an alternate perspective, where capitalism having to keep making compromise after compromise to defuse pressure from the left is exactly what lefist victory should look like. Would electing Bernie Sanders and instituting Medicare-For-All be just another capitalist compromise? What about electing Andrew Yang and instituting Universal Basic Income? At some point you have to admit that all these “compromises” add up and now you have 90% of what you wanted in the first place. I assume they have some kind of complicated theoretical structural reason why this doesn’t work, but it still seems like a pretty good deal.

    This seems overoptimistic. Particularly on enviromental regulation, but then again you have the GOP trying to cut back on gay rights and social spending. Maybe globally this is true.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Yeah. The communists do in fact have a reply to “well why not just accept a lot of incremental changes until they add up to 90% of what you wanted in the first place?” I know this because when I ask communists that question, this is generally what they say.

      Translated into a pithy form of SSC-esque terminology, it’s something like “Moloch will always swim rightward, unless we chain him up for good.”

      Basically, the idea that in a society where capitalism remains reasonably powerful, capitalists will persistently try to subvert the political system for their own purposes- either because it’s in their economic interest, or just because they’re rich and influential and so their political opinions carry more weight.

      And this is inherently a consequence of competition and private control of capital, the communist will argue. Even if you make some gains that are contrary to the interests of capitalists, it’s only a matter of time before they find a way to roll things back. Either directly, the way high taxes on the rich got rolled back via the democratic process in the US, or indirectly, by some relative handful of rich people helping to set a de facto coup in motion or something.

      So the communist reaction is a cynical “yes, you can convince Uncle Monocle McRichpants to give you some goodies for today, but it won’t last for long, and your gains will always be in danger as long as he has the bulk of the money and power.”

      • JPNunez says:

        Communists will never be happy with nothing but full on communism anyway, but this is not to say that “we got it pretty good” is a reasonable reaction.

        I’ve had to paypal money to american friends so they can eat, or they can pay rent that month. It’s been a couple of times, punctual things, but jeez.

        I do not worship at the altar of Musk and Thiel for that, even tho they facilitated helping them. What I want is some social security net in America so that my friends don’t live in a constant state of financial fragility. Unemployment severance, better veteran care, public housing would go a long way. If we have to sacrifice paypal and Musk/Thiel’s fortunes, Tesla, SpaceX, etc, etc for that, I’ll fucking take that deal.

  23. marxbro says:

    I had always assumed most leftist groups sucked because they were primarily made of stoner college kids and homeless people, two demographics not known for their vast resources, military discipline, or top-notch management skills.

    How charitable of you! Maybe you should actually talk to a homeless person sometime. Can I ask how many leftist group meetings you’ve sat in on?

    What even is your criteria for “suck” here? You’re not a leftist, so why would a leftist group ever want to appeal to you? Did the Cuban Revolutionaries “suck” even though they achieved their aims? What could “suck” possibly mean here? You’re a rationalist, so presumably you have some sort of deep reasoning for using the word “suck” here, surely? Or are you just being flip for no reason and exposing your own ignorance?

    Since you’ve apparently long abandoned your supposed principles of charitability, niceness, or even constructing sentences carefully, I might as well dole out some harsh truths of my own. You will never understand what leftism is, on even a basic level, if you keep picking random ‘flavor of the month’ books written by unintimidating Jacobin-approved pseudo-socialists and approaching their ideas with all the good-faith of an Ayn Rand cultist. My suggestion to you is to read Marx deeply to start with and we can have a conversation in a month or two when you’ve been humbled.

    • I think you are being a little hard on Scott, Marxbro. But I do think that there are better entrypoints to communist ideas than the ones recommended by Scott’s acquaintances. I would recommend that Scott just start at the beginning of Critique of Crisis Theory blog.

    • ReaperReader says:

      You’re not a leftist, so why would a leftist group ever want to appeal to you?

      It’s rather hard to build political power without the support of a decent number of people.

      • marxbro says:

        Ok, how much money does Scott earn per year? Is he labor aristocracy?

        Why should socialist parties be tailoring their appeals towards rich professional Californians?

    • Deiseach says:

      You’re not a leftist, so why would a leftist group ever want to appeal to you?

      Gonna be rather hard to convert the ignorant to your politics if your first principle is “We don’t want anyone who isn’t already up to speed, so non-leftists can fuck right off”.

      All the people who aren’t leftists are going to get the message and will fuck off, and then the six of you can sit in your perfect pure space and never have any effect on wider society or change a damn thing.

      Though I am not saying you should change your approach, Marxbro, far from it! The left engaging in ripping one another apart like crazed weasels (“unintimidating Jacobin-approved pseudo-socialists”) is precisely what will keep you ineffective and protect the rest of us from the lunacies you would otherwise force upon us if ever you got real power. Keep on being perfectly pure Marxist-only Marxism Marx Marx!

    • Eponymous says:

      I read Scott’s post as fairly humble in just the way you say. He explicitly says that he is not the intended audience, that he’s trying to understand people coming from this perspective, and that he’s not there yet.

      I’m pretty sure the homeless/stoner line was a joke, and “suck” means “are ineffective”.

      • marxbro says:

        If suck just means “ineffective” than I can definitively say that Scott Alexander’s writing sucks.

        Haha, just a joke.

        Is it charitable if I write stuff like this? Is it “nice”? Aren’t these principles Scott proclaims himself to value and then thoroughly ignores every time he writes about the left?

        Again, as I said, if the left “sucks” then why isn’t he reading about say the Cubans who by any objective measure don’t “suck” because they actually won and achieved most of their aims? Surely that would be a better starting point to understand leftism? I genuinely believe that reading Fidel Castro’s autobiography would be a better starting point to understanding leftism than this random utopian flavor-of-the-month book.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Aren’t these principles Scott proclaims himself to value and then thoroughly ignores every time he writes about the left?

          Given the last 150 years refuting every aspect of communist thought, plus the murder on top of it, Scott has been far more generous than communists deserve.

          • marxbro says:

            “Murder” doesn’t really mean anything – every political ideology engages in violence. “Political power flows from the barrel of the gun” and all that.

            If Scott wants to be generous to communist thought I would suggest reading the classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, etc) rather than some flash-in-the-pan Verso book that nobody will remember in 5 years.

          • EchoChaos says:

            “Political power flows from the barrel of the gun” and all that.

            Which is why there are so many fewer Communist countries than there were 50 years ago. Because it’s a failed ideology that can’t project political or economic power.

          • marxbro says:

            @EchoChaos

            Seems weird to call an ideology “failed” just because there’s less socialist countries than there were a few decades ago. Kind of seems like someone from 1870 calling liberalism “failed” because of 1848.

            The Fukuyama-ish end of history rhetoric makes a little more sense in 1994 when Western intellectuals were predicting the total collapse of communist countries, but I don’t think it really makes much sense now that we’ve seen places like Cuba and North Korea hang on despite immense pressure.

            I guess this raises the hypothetical question: if another country went communist would you admit that communism might not be a failed ideology?

          • EchoChaos says:

            Seems weird to call an ideology “failed” just because there’s less socialist countries than there were a few decades ago. Kind of seems like someone from 1870 calling liberalism “failed” because of 1848.

            No, it’s failed because the countries that adopted it collapsed catastrophically, not because it wasn’t implemented and stopped.

            The countries that were liberal in 1848 were doing better. The countries that were communist in 1992 were doing worse.

            Do you see mass protests asking for the return of communism in Poland or Romania? They know how great it was and they don’t want it back.

            Instead, you’re like a multi-level marketer, trying to sell to new clients because the old ones realize how badly you’ve ripped them off.

            If North Korea and Cuba are your ideal states, man, I want none of that. I’ll take my inequality any day.

          • marxbro says:

            @EchoChaos

            I don’t really think it’s up to you how political economy evolves. Just like individual peasants didn’t really have much of a say on keeping their kings or not. This kind of historical development is a very slow one. Maybe you’ll never be under any sort of communist government, maybe you will.

            But I notice you didn’t answer my basic question. Would you admit that communism is not a “failed ideology” if another country or two turned communist in the near future? Honestly I just find this “failed ideology” talk weird when places like North Korea still exist, which has a population larger than the country I’m from. I’m not saying that NK is the perfect place to live, but surely we shouldn’t count communism as a “failed ideology” if there’s a nation of 25 million people which still operates under said ideology.

          • EchoChaos says:

            you admit that communism is not a “failed ideology” if another country or two turned communist in the near future?

            No.

          • baconbits9 says:

            “Murder” doesn’t really mean anything – every political ideology engages in violence. “Political power flows from the barrel of the gun” and all that.

            Only for violent, sociopathic nutjobs, ie communists. For the rest of the world political power flows from a full wallet, which is much nicer for everyone involved.

            “Murder” doesn’t really mean anything – every political ideology engages in violence.

            Only a communist would argue that tens of millions of deaths is the same as every other political ideology and that some violence and as much violence as you can possibly generate are exactly the same.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Only for violent, sociopathic nutjobs, ie communists. For the rest of the world political power flows from a full wallet, which is much nicer for everyone involved.

            That may be true, but downstream from that, the USA uses its full wallet to buy a lot of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, fighter jets, plain old rifles, etc., and for a reason.

            Only a communist would argue that tens of millions of deaths is the same as every other political ideology and that some violence and as much violence as you can possibly generate are exactly the same.

            The amount of actualized violence (killing), as opposed to latent violence (threatening), is mainly a product of how close of a fight it is. When there’s no hope of resistance, violence remains mostly latent. When it could go either way, only actual violence proves who has the power. I don’t say that to justify the actualized violence.

          • Guy in TN says:

            For the rest of the world political power flows from a full wallet, which is much nicer for everyone involved.

            The political power of capitalism is derived from the threat of initiation of violence for those who do not respect its authority.

            Comment reported for unnecessary meanness, strawmanning.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The political power of capitalism is derived from the threat of initiation of violence for those who do not respect its authority.

            Nope, it that was true then you can’t get the progression from other, violence based societies (like feudalism), because the capitalists never gain power except through their pocket books.

            Comment reported for unnecessary meanness, strawmanning.

            Marxbro isn’t the equivalent of a holocaust denier, he is the equivalent of someone who claims we shouldn’t judge the Nazis by the outcomes of the holocaust and WW2. Whatever meanness is in my post is clearly not excessive for a person who thinks tens of millions of deaths is immaterial to a debate about communism.

            Further there is no straw-manning in that post, the OP straight up said “murder doesn’t matter”.

          • ramora says:

            Since you put “murder doesn’t matter” in quotes, and add that this is something that MB said “straight up”, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that this not something MB said, but rather something that MB did not say. You may be arguing at cross purposes, and disagree about less than you think.

    • gettin_schwifty says:

      Why don’t you read Adam Smith deeply? Hell, I’m not even convinced you’ve read Scott deeply considering your accusations.

      • Eponymous says:

        But the beauty of it is that you don’t need to read Adam Smiith! Just pick up a standard economics textbook. There’s been progress in the last 240 years!

        It would be nice if there was an equivalent “Marxism 101 textbook” written by someone with Mankiw-like prose (and, being a Marxist, without the insane price tag).

        • It would be nice if there was an equivalent “Marxism 101 textbook” written by someone with Mankiw-like prose (and, being a Marxist, without the insane price tag).

          Critique of Crisis Theory.

        • My Price Theory can be read online for free.

          I’m planning to make it into a kindle, but I’ll probably charge five dollars or so for that version.

          If my agent manages to get back the rights to Hidden Order, which she thinks she can do, it should become available as a kindle at about the same price.

          Does that qualify as “without the insane price tag”?

          • Eponymous says:

            I was looking for a Marxist equivalent to Mankiw, not a free equivalent to Mankiw! But thanks for the link.

            Incidentally, what do you mean by the term “price theory”? I vaguely know that this is what Chicago calls their micro classes, and it seems to imply a certain perspective (I know Glen Weyl likes to talk about it). But is there any substantive difference between this approach and what you find in a typical principles textbook?

            Also, do you cover any macro? I didn’t see it in the TOC.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Did you become a Marxist??

            😛

          • I was looking for a Marxist equivalent to Mankiw, not a free equivalent to Mankiw! But thanks for the link.

            I took your “and, being a Marxist, without the insane price tag” as implying that existing econ 101 texts, not being Marxist, had an insane price tag, so was offering one that didn’t.

            Incidentally, what do you mean by the term “price theory”? I vaguely know that this is what Chicago calls their micro classes,

            The terms “Microeconomics” and “Macroeconomics” sound as though they mean the economics of small things and the economics of big things, but they don’t. The world wheat market is a “microeconomics” problem.

            Price theory is a better term, although equilibrium theory might be better still. It’s the part of economics which analyzes how activities are coordinated via the price mechanism, and does so on the assumption of equilibrium—the market price is the price at which quantity supplied equals quantity demanded.

            One implication of that model is that involuntary unemployment doesn’t exist. That’s a disadvantage, balanced by the advantage that the equilibrium assumption gives us a solvable model, and one that is a pretty good description of large parts of the real world economy.

            The alternative is a model that takes seriously the implications of disequilibrium, that for various reasons markets don’t all clear all of the time. That gets called “Macroeconomics.” Unfortunately, nobody yet has succeeded in creating a version of that anywhere close to as satisfactory as price theory. As I like to put it, a course in macro is a tour of either a cemetery or a construction site. But you should discount that for the fact that I don’t do macro, so am not an expert on its current state.

            But is there any substantive difference between this approach and what you find in a typical principles textbook?

            I haven’t read any current principles textbooks. A good micro book is a book on price theory, it just uses a catchy and misleading label for what it is doing.

            Also, do you cover any macro? I didn’t see it in the TOC.

            Chapter 22 from the first edition is what I think of as my micro/macro chapter, an attempt to make some sense of what is classified as macro from a price theory starting point. It is one of two chapters of the first edition eliminated in the second to be replaced by material the publisher thought more appropriate for what was typically taught in the sort of course the book would be used for. The webbed version has all of the second edition plus those chapters from the first.

            Most textbooks, I gather, are written as someone’s tweaking of the currently successful textbooks in the field. Mine are not. That might be one reason that none of them have made me rich.

            But there are balancing benefits.

          • @Aapje:

            I remember enjoying You Bet Your Life when I was young, but I watch very few movies so don’t have an opinion on the oeuvre as a whole.

          • Eponymous says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            I see. I recall looking through your father’s textbook “Price Theory” and thinking that it didn’t look so different from a standard micro text. There seems to be some difference in emphasis, but perhaps not enough to justify a separate name.

            I mentioned that Glen Weyl has written about this. He has a JEL on it that you might find interesting (if you haven’t seen it):
            https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2444233

            Incidentally, I teach macro, and your description of the field is not wholly inaccurate. Though perhaps a better description is that macro consists of two pieces, awkwardly grafted together: a purely classical long run (flexible prices, all markets clear, etc), and a Keynesian short run. Textbooks differ somewhat in their emphasis between these, and their treatment of the second, though the main texts are fairly standardized at this point.

    • Winja says:

      You’re not a leftist, so why would a leftist group ever want to appeal to you?

      That’s a pretty amusing statement coming from someone who evidently adheres to a political ideology that is well known for shooting anyone who doesn’t find said philosophy appealing*.

      *And a significant number who do.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        This shit is why the famed ingenuousness and good faith of this community is bullshit. You can’t be one inch left of center without some libertarian dickhead saying that you personally want to start the gulag.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Uhh, this is marxbro. He’s more than an inch left of center. He claims to be a Maoist. I may be a libertarian dickhead, but I’m pretty sure Mao was well known for killing people who he thought might get in his way.

          • marxbro says:

            Mao helped liberate the Chinese people. You seem very biased against communist thought.

          • j r says:

            Yes, Mao helped to “liberate” the Chinese people from the Nationalists, who, let’s grant for the sake of this conversation, had their problems.

            Mao then sent China down a path of forced collectivization of farms and nationalization of industry at a pace that even Stalin thought foolish and all without knowing much about agriculture or industry. And when any of the other members of the CCP tried to interject and make changes based on the facts on the ground, Mao wielded his cult of personality to unleash political terror on those who disagreed with him.

            It’s a little weird to claim to represent an ideology that seeks to abolish hierarchy and then hold up as pillars the very people who were most authoritarian.

          • marxbro says:

            @j r

            “Authoritarian” doesn’t really mean anything much to Marxists. I think the question is, are we living under the authority of the bourgeoisie, or the authority of the proletariat? It seems to me that in Mao’s China the proletariat had considerable power, which is why it appears so terrifying to liberal Westerners.

            It’s a little weird to claim to represent an ideology that seeks to abolish hierarchy

            That’s not what Marxists want and I’m not sure where you’re getting it from. Marxists want to abolish class, not “hierarchy” (whatever that means).

          • j r says:

            It seems to me that in Mao’s China the proletariat had considerable power, which is why it appears so terrifying to liberal Westerners.

            That’s just historically inaccurate. The government enforced collectivization on the peasants while simultaneously increasing their taxes to support the industrial areas. The result of lower output from collectivization and less food left after taxation was famine. Same thing happened in the USSR under Lenin and then Stalin.

            You could try to argue that Chinese communists were subjugating the reactionary elements in rural areas to support the proletariat in the cities, but the CCP submitted workers to a similar process. As the CCP became both the owners of capital (after nationalization) and assumed the role of labor leadership (i.e. independent labor unions were prohibited), there was no check on their power. And they used that power to lower wages while forcing more output.

            So, in post-revolutionary China neither the peasants nor the workers had much power. Power was monopolized by the CCP and exercised almost solely by its cadres.

            I go back to my comment above about having some objective measure by which to evaluate the claims of Marxism and communism. There’s always some reason why things in practice didn’t go as things in theory said they would. And that’s fine. Most theories fail in practice. It’s just that communism’s failure mode turns out to be catastrophic.

          • marxbro says:

            That’s just historically inaccurate. The government enforced collectivization on the peasants while simultaneously increasing their taxes to support the industrial areas.

            It was the peasants that formed the base of Mao’s support and in many cases they were more radical than the local communist party members. I would suggest reading books like “China Shakes The World” by Jack Belden and “Fanshen” by William Hinton.

            You have the history entirely backwards, so I really suggest reading some books that are unbiased towards communism. If your entire knowledge of history is given to you entirely by anti-communist sources how will you even know what worked and what didn’t?

          • Hoopdawg says:

            Abolishment of class is abolishment of social hierarchies and liberation of the individual. This is what Marx actually advocated, and you’re making him a disservice by equating his thought with Leninism, much less the practices of various state capitalist regimes that followed Octover Revolution.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If your entire knowledge of history is given to you entirely by anti-communist sources how will you even know what worked and what didn’t?

            Readers of SSC have a massive survivor-ship bias, which is really why they don’t like communism.

        • roxannerockwell says:

          This shit is why the famed ingenuousness and good faith of this community is bullshit. You can’t criticize a guy who literally thinks “Stalin was a good comrade” without some socialist dickhead moaning about how a comments section with multiple Marxists and at least one tankie is soooo right-wing.

        • Winja says:

          I’ll take Marxbro’s endorsement of political power flowing from the barrel of a gun as vindication of my correctness.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Can’t imagine why you guys aren’t more popular.

      • marxbro says:

        Why? Because we say harsh truths?

        • CatCube says:

          Well, it’s more the harsh untruths.

          • marxbro says:

            What did I say that was incorrect?

          • CatCube says:

            Just from skimming your post:

            My suggestion to you is to read Marx deeply to start with and we can have a conversation in a month or two when you’ve been humbled.

            The last time I bothered to read anything by Marx was in college, and let’s just say that the experience didn’t leave me humbled. Nor do I expect Scott to find it any more compelling; I do give him my respect for trying.

          • My suggestion to you is to read Marx deeply to start with

            I read all of volume I of Capital and a good deal of the other two volumes quite a long time ago. My conclusion was that, as a prose stylist describing vast vistas, Marx had Stapledon level talents, but that as an economist he suffered from being less smart than Ricardo.

            Of course, so are most of the rest of us.

          • marxbro says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I agree that Ricardo may be smarter, but then the question becomes: If Marx was less smart than Ricardo how come Marx got everything right? I assume through hard work and collaboration with Engels, who was quite smart in his own right. Plus the benefit of being born a little bit later in history so that they could see more clearly how capitalism was actually developing in the real world.

          • If Marx was less smart than Ricardo how come Marx got everything right?

            So far as prediction is concerned, he got things strikingly wrong.

            in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labor increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by increase of the work exacted in a given time, or by increased speed of the machinery, etc.
            The lower strata of the middle class … all these sink gradually into the proletariat … as machinery … nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.
            The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.

            (Communist Manifesto)

            That’s a clear prediction of a vanishing middle class and a gradual fall in the wages of workers. What happened since Marx and Engels wrote that was the precise opposite.

          • marxbro says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Actually, that was correct, you’ve just edited it so that it appears incorrect. An interesting gambit on your part, but one that did not pay off I’m afraid. The first paragraph, if you actually read it in context, is not a prediction (as you falsely claim) but a description of the times Marx was living in. Such a reading on your part makes me suspect you’re either not participating in good faith, or unable to read at the level that a debate of this nature would require.

            You’ve also cut out very important details about the strata of the lower middle class he was actually talking about in that passage. I would suggest you don’t use those ellipses in such a dishonest way in future. It only stunts your intellectual development and misleads people who may be reading this.

            I think most of the readers of SSC are much better at looking at people’s arguments charitably, and I hope most readers are able to look Marx’s words up in context and see that I am correct here.

            Like seriously, you’ve snipped out *multiple paragraphs* with your little “…”s. Did you expect people not to notice? You decided this was a good idea despite the Communist Manifesto being one of the most famous documents of all time? Hahahahaha

          • marxbro says:

            Hey Davey-Boy, now I know your secret that you stitched together Marx quotations in order to misrepresent him in your lil magnum opus book. Probably shouldn’t have lazily copy/pasted yourself in order to try to win an internet argument with a user named “marxbro” huh? Did you assume someone named “marxbro” had never actually read Marx? Did you assume I couldn’t simply look up the supposed Marx quote you’ve ‘cited’ in the copy of the Communist Manifesto sitting right next to me?

          • That passage is describing what Marx claims is happening, not merely what has happened in the past.

            Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

            The use of machinery and division of labor were increasing, and continued to increase for the next century plus. Hence if that claim was true, the conditions of the workers would have gotten worse and worse. But they got better and better.

            The lower strata of the middle class … all these sink gradually into the proletariat … as machinery … nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.

            Machinery continued to develop, but wages did not get sunk to the same low level–they rose far above what they had been in the past.

            Marx had a theory. That theory had implications about how society was changing. Those implications turned out to be the opposite of what actually happened. That is good evidence that the theory was wrong.

          • marxbro says:

            Hey David, good to see you back. Let’s first address the fact that you stitched together separate sentences from Marx, often deleting entire paragraphs, in order to give a misleading impression of Marx’s work. In fact you’re still doing it in the post just above. I have a copy of the Communist Manifesto right in front of me and I can see what you’re doing. It’s not clever in any way and it seems beneath an academic of your pedigree.

            I would like a full admission of this fact before we continue, as it is central to establishing that you’re a good-faith actor in this debate, not simply a partisan hack (or someone unable to read properly).

            I see that your work you were ‘citing’ from is from the early 1970s. Perhaps this is a good time to say that your previous work is shoddy or outdated in some way?

          • I am waiting for you to explain why the impression is misleading. Do you deny that Marx and Engels were describing what they believed was happening through the logic of capitalism, that the result of increasing mechanization of production and division of labor was to make the work of workers harder and push their wages down, that

            In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.

            and

            The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.

            That was what they said was happening.

            You are not denying that Marx and Engels wrote those words. Is your argument that they were only describing the past, not what they expected to continue to happen? Can you find any trace of support for that claim in what they actually wrote?

            Is it your claim that what they wrote was true–that increased mechanization and division of labor has had those effects? That workers through the 19th century were getting poorer, that wages were sinking below subsistence?

            There is a real world out there, however uncomfortable you find its inconsistency with your ideology.

            If anyone wants to check on which one of us is misrepresenting Marx and Engels, the Communist Manifesto is webbed.

            It makes entertaining reading, and you can see why Marx reminds me of Olaf Stapledon. It wouldn’t surprise me if Marx was the inspiration for Stapledon’s literary style.

          • While we are on the subject of Marx and Ricardo… From the same bit of the Manifesto we have been discussing:

            Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production.

            That’s the iron law of wages, more or less as per Malthus. But Marx had read Ricardo—Ricardo and Aristotle are pretty much the only previous thinkers he has anything positive to say about in Capital. And Ricardo had offered a much more sophisticated view of the argument, in which wages could be above the natural wage for an unlimited length of time and the natural wage itself depended not merely on the cost of feeding workers but on the tastes of the workers.

          • marxbro says:

            @DavidFriedman.

            I wrote a comment which highlights how much you cut out from those Marx quotations but the SSC blog literally could not handle the amount of words and my comment has disappeared into the ether. Suffice it to say that you have deleted many, many paragraphs and nowhere indicated that you have done so in your “quotation”. This is especially egregious between the paragraphs, where you don’t even put a customary “…” or even refer to a page number (likely because page numbers would immediately give away your game). The average dupe (and I do hope there’s not too many reading your work) will come away thinking that you have quoted Marx’s work honestly and in good-faith, rather than stitched together a patchwork quilt for your own edification, which is what you’ve actually done.

            I implore anyone reading this comment to check Marx’s original work and to confirm that what I’m saying is true. Although I only picked up on your dishonesty because I’m fairly familiar with Marx, but in today’s internet/computer world any layman can confirm what I’m saying is true by going to Marx’s work and ctrl+F for the relevant passages:

            https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

            You have dishonestly taken multiple different sentences that Marx & Engels wrote over an entire chapter and mashed them into one misleading quotation. I don’t like to psychologize, but I’m guessing you did this because you were too lazy to read Marx’s work in good faith and to rebut it on its merits.

            I suggest that you admit to your academic malpractice now. You’re making a complete fool of yourself now.

            edit: Please stop talking about Ricardo, Malthus, etc until you actually address the fact that you have dishonestly deleted many many paragraphs in a desperate attempt to misrepresent Marx to the average (or below average) reader. You have not established any reason for people to trust you. There’s absolutely no way I’m going to bother engaging you in mock-good-faith at the moment. If you can man-up and admit what you did wrong perhaps my opinion will change. I only debate people who actually can discuss things like adults, and that doesn’t include people who delete multiple paragraphs from a quotation and try to pass it off as a cohesive train of thought. I really don’t think having inane conversations with people dishonest enough to do that is in the spirit of SSC with it’s emphasis on being charitable to outgroup thinkers.

            So, again, I ask you that you admit to your academic malpractice. I see that it occurred almost 50 years ago. Perhaps you’ve changed and grown since then? Maybe you were a young ideologue back then who had no ethical dilemma regarding misquoting people?

          • Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto, which I was quoting from, is about five thousand words. Of course I was only quoting bits of it–the bits that were most relevant for showing how wildly wrong its predictions were.

            So far as mashing things together into one quotation, if you look at the post where I originally gave the quote, you will notice in several places “…”. That’s an ellipsis. It is used to mark “an intentional omission of a word, sentence, or whole section from a text without altering its original meaning.”

            I will concede, however, that I didn’t bother to put ellipses between separate paragraphs, just within paragraphs to mark elisions.

            And despite all your talk, you have yet to explain how my presentation altered the original meaning.

          • marxbro says:

            Thank you for beginning to admit that you were wrong David. This is the first step on your journey to real intellectual growth. Some people are late-bloomers I suppose.

            Now I suggest admitting that quoting sentences while deleting many many paragraphs in between them changes the meaning of said sentences and gives people a false impression.

            I can see how you thought that you might get away with this in 1973, when laymen couldn’t simply look up the quoted source material on the internet, but now it’s 2019 and your approach is sorely outdated. Literally any person can follow my link and see that I’m correct and you’re 100% wrong.

            Since you’re the one transgressing all notions of good-faith debate I suggest you write a long piece explaining your mistake and why you think it doesn’t alter Marx’s meanings. I don’t see why I should be doing your work for you, I googled you and you seem like a professional academic, I’m simply an interested amateur who knows Marx well enough to know when you’re stitching together quotes from an entire chapter into one (Un)cohesive whole.

          • a_chn says:

            Happy to do the scut work here. I don’t have a print copy in front of me but the full text seems to be here: https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/The-Communist-Manifesto/

            The first full paragraph DF quoted from is:

            The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople,
            shopkeepers, retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and
            peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly
            because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale
            on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the
            competition with the large capitalists, partly because their
            specialized skill is rendered worthless by the new methods of
            production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes
            of the population.

            The first ellipsis is just a description / examples of the “lower strata”; its omission doesn’t misrepresent anything.

            The third ellipsis spans this sentence a few paragraphs later, and also does nothing to misrepresent the overall meaning:

            The various
            interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the
            proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as
            machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly
            everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.

            The middle ellipsis excises about two and a half paragraphs (which I presume are too long to quote in full in a comment), that describe the projected evolution of the proletariat in the face of technological progress and the formation of proto-unions.

          • marxbro says:

            @a_chn

            Except Marx uses the term “middle class” in a very different way to the average popular use of “middle class” in 2019 (or 1973) so omission of Marx’s examples absolutely degrades the argument he’s making and purposely misleads modern readers.

            The fact that you missed this proves my point about how misleading David Friedman is being.

            Now please butt out because you don’t seem to know anything about Marx – you are simply not helping and are wasting your time.

          • Frog-like Sensations says:

            @a_chn
            Sorry, I accidentally reported you while trying to report a marxbro comment.

            I can only hope that marxbro isn’t already banned due to Scott not having gotten around to these comments yet, rather than due to a misguided belief that the intellectual diversity that comes from having a tankie in the comments section justifies allowing them to miss the mark on “true, kind, necessary” by ten times the margin of anyone else here.

          • Plumber says:

            @Frog-like Sensations,
            I’m pretty sure that citizencokane also identifies as a “Marxist” (please correct me if I’m wrong) so there’s at least one besides marxbro who may post comments from that perspective without as much rancor.

            And while he’s decidedly not a Marxist @DavidFriedman seems to be able to say what Marx has written pretty well if asked.

            @marxbro,
            Criticism of DavidFriedman for citing something from the ’70’s when the discussion is of theories from the 19th century?

            I really don’t follow.

            Reading recommendations are good but “If you read [lengthy body of work] you’ll be convinced, I promise you”, isn’t a very convincing argument.

            I’ve known (and still know) guys that have visited Cuba and others who grew up in the Soviet Union, Romania, and Tito’s Yugoslavia and reviews are mixed (“Not that bad”, and “Better than civil war” are the most praise I’ve heard).

            Attacking how someone argues doesn’t help your argument much.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I can only hope that marxbro isn’t already banned due to Scott not having gotten around to these comments yet, rather than due to a misguided belief that the intellectual diversity that comes from having a tankie in the comments section justifies allowing them to miss the mark on “true, kind, necessary” by ten times the margin of anyone else here.

            1. I already reported about three of marxbro’s comments above. (The comments visible now are edited versions of what I was seeing in email notifications, and if anyone thinks they read poorly above…)

            2. I don’t recall any instance of MB calling for tanks in Hungary, so I don’t know if the term “tankie” applies to him, and therefore that specific slur may be undeserved.

            3. citizencokane definitely does a better job of making me want to understand Marxist theory in more depth, and he’s not the only one, but I don’t mind seeing more Marxists around provided they adhere to the same comment rules as the rest of us, and especially if they effort-post.

            4. I’d like to see Scott take roughly the same action he took with Moon: cut MB a bit of a break by way of having a rare perspective, but require more effort from him insofar as connecting with the other commenters here. I don’t want a ban… yet.

          • @Marxbro:

            I gather your complete defense of the claim that my selective quotation distorted meaning is that I didn’t explain what Marx meant by the middle class. Will this help?

            The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat

            Not a complete description of the middle class but a description of the part of it that was supposed to be vanishing.

            Does that fit your observation of the world around you? Not a lot of peasants, but lots of shopkeepers, small tradespeople, and the like in the world I observe.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            2. I don’t recall any instance of MB calling for tanks in Hungary, so I don’t know if the term “tankie” applies to him, and therefore that specific slur may be undeserved.

            I assumed that was shorthand for “in the tank”, as in “The press was in the tank for Obama.”

            [Edit: Ah, but if I search for “tankie” in particular I see that you are quite right about the derivation.]

            I agree with you about not banning, yet. But this is the first Marxist or near-Marxist I’ve seen here where I wish the smarter folks would just ignore him. Not because he’ll never be convinced (though he won’t), but because his posts are so insipid and smug that even rebuttals aren’t very interesting. (I would never have expected to say that about a post from David Friedman, but there you are.)

          • Frog-like Sensations says:

            Regarding all the comments on my use of ‘tankie’, I was in fact using the term to refer to apologists for various past atrocities committed by nominally Marxist regimes. I wasn’t using it as a slur for Marxists more generally. But since I can’t find the comments that led me to believe Marxbro fit this more specific label, I’d like to retract it.

            I’ll add that Marxbro’s being a tankie was not supposed to be part of what was banworthy. Just the opposite: that was the main claim to their adding to intellectual diversity over and above other Marxist or at least far left posters here. The banworthiness comes solely from Marxbro’s extreme lowering of the level of discourse.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Plumber:
            If I am interpreting this correctly, the reference to the 70s being made is that Friedman originally put together these quotes of Marx in the 70s, not that Marx wrote them then.

            It seems to me that small business owners and skilled tradesman are far less powerful and influential now than they once were. Much ink has been spilled on the loss of these kinds of businesses in the face of rising global corporate hegemony. Eliding the specific description does seem misleading to me.

            And pulling quotes together from different pages and making them appear as if they are a single continuous paragraph? Really? People are defending this?

          • marxbro says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I gather your complete defense of the claim that my selective quotation distorted meaning is that I didn’t explain what Marx meant by the middle class.

            No, that’s not my complete claim at all. I’m revealing my argument step-by-step, and at every stage I’ve caught you in a lie.

            At first you did not want to admit that you’ve selectively quoted Marx at all, then the lie changed to “You are not denying that Marx and Engels wrote those words” (an absolutely hilarious way of defending taking quotes from multiple different pages and stitching them together with no indication for the audience, by the way), now you’re starting to admit that perhaps you shouldn’t have taken out details on what Marx meant by the middle class (correct me if I’m wrong, but most modern readers don’t think of “peasants” for example when they think of the middle class). I can continue pointing out ways in which your frankenstein-monster quotation is misleading. The fact of the matter is you’re simply not approaching Marx’s work in good-faith, you didn’t use “…” between paragraphs and you didn’t cite page numbers because it would have immediately given your little game away to the even the most layman audience.

            You deleting these sections is willfully misrepresenting Marx’s argument. You’re apparently an academic and you’ve been caught making spurious arguments and stitching together a quote to misrepresent someone. The way you’re continuing to avoid apologizing makes me think you’ve done this completely intentionally and with the explicit purpose of misleading your audience.

            It would be better for everyone if you simply apologized now, admit you took Marx wildly out of context, and committed to correcting your misrepresentation in any future editions of the book. Should we get in touch with your publisher?

            @everyone else. It’s strange to me how many people are defending a person who stitched together multiple quotes from different pages to make them seem as if they were a single flowing thought contained in a few paragraphs. I thought this community upheld things like good-faith, charitability, steelmanning, etc? If the New York Times had done the same thing to one of Scott Alexander’s writings you’d all be howling about how unfair it was. Maybe you all think I’m not “kind” but pointing out this kind of academic malpractice and wildly misleading activity on the part of David Friedman is both true and necessary.

            For those saying I should put in “more effort” and that I’ve done some “extreme lowering” of the discourse. I’m the one who spotted this misleading quote in David Friedman’s work, not you. I have increased the level of discourse by pointing out his misleading practices. Nobody else here is apparently familiar enough with Marx to realize when a bad actor among you is manipulating quotes in a dishonest way. Whatever you think of Marx, he was clearly one of the foremost critics of modern society. Taking him out of context in the way David Friedman has done only degrades and impoverishes public discourse.

          • and pulling quotes together from different pages and making them appear as if they are a single continuous paragraph?

            Can you point to where I did that?

            I separated paragraphs with carriage returns, which is the usual way of doing so, and within each paragraph I marked the elisions with ellipses, which is the usual way of marking them. The comment was far enough down in the thread so that your screen may have shown it in a narrow window, which makes the carriage returns at the end of paragraphs less obvious.

            The only thing I didn’t do was to make it clear that the separate paragraphs I quoted had other text between them.

          • It’s strange to me how many people are defending a person who stitched together multiple quotes from different pages to make them seem as if they were a single flowing thought contained in a few paragraphs.

            Do you really not know what the symbol “…” stands for?

          • marxbro says:

            Do you really not know what the symbol “…” stands for?

            I think there’s only one person here who doesn’t know how that symbol is used, and it’s you David. I’m surprised you’ve gone so long in academia without someone pulling you up on this. Perhaps your colleagues don’t know Marx very well either? Perhaps they’re too afraid to speak to you frankly because of your family name. Maybe you don’t often talk to the common working class man like me who values a “no bullshit” attitude, instead of valuing obfuscation and word tricks like the ivory tower is wont to do.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I’m throwing my lot in with DF that he does know what ellipses are. From Wikipedia:

            An ellipsis … is a series of dots (typically three, such as “…”) that usually indicates an intentional omission of a word, sentence, or whole section from a text without altering its original meaning.

            DF has shown understanding of this. Stating that DF intentionally omitted a section from the text is not scandalous, as that is expressly the purpose of ellipses. Instead, one must argue that his doing so “alter[ed] its original meaning”. So far, marxbro has persistently avoided even trying to make that argument.

          • marxbro says:

            @Controls Freak

            Actually I did show that, with my example of how Marx uses the term middle class, which Marx uses in a different way to modern popular American usage of “middle class”. Omitting Marx’s examples in this instance absolutely misleads the audience and changes the meaning of the passage for the large majority of Friedman readers.

            I have more examples of why he’s using the “…” incorrectly, but I’m waiting for David Friedman to expose his ignorance of Marx further (or to admit his wrongdoing, apologize, and contact his publisher), not random SSC readers.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            MarxBro is banned indefinitely

        • j r says:

          Marxbro,

          Can you give an example of one of these “harsh truths?” I mean this sincerely.

          Cards on the table: I am decidedly not a Marxist. And my biggest criticism of Marxism is that it always appears as a self-contained whole. And my impression of Marxist arguments is that they tend to be circular. Either you buy the whole paradigm or none of it makes sense.

          That said, I tend to believe that every -ism has something of value to offer, some distinct nugget of information that ought to be incorporated into my world view. So, I would legitimately be interested in hearing an example of some truth – of the falsifiable and empirically demonstrable variety – that Marxism offers that other points of view fail to capture.

          • marxbro says:

            Thanks for the question j r, it’s a tough but fair one I think.

            If you’re interested in the more empirical side of things I would suggest learning some basic Marxist economics first: this video is a good starting place for understanding Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e8rt8RGjCM

            Blogs such as Critique of Crisis Theory or Andrew Kliman’s work might be very useful for you if you have that kind of bent (although I have disagreements with both thinkers). David Harvey’s lectures are also useful.

            What I think Marxism does well, and why I was drawn to it initially, is that I think it gives a much more thorough explanation of the various conflicts in our society. That is, that these aren’t random struggles that we can fix with a few tweaks here and there, but rather deep rifts that flow from the structure of our economy. Liberal theories tends to create conflict as if it was something that was imposed from outside (or a leftover from some old ancient blood feud) and can be easily fixed. Look at Scott’s article on Conflict vs. Mistake and you’ll see why Marxists consider liberals like Scott somewhat naive here.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @Marxbro

            As an attempt at steelmanning:

            It would seem like the best reason to say “Marxism appeals because it provides conflict-theory explanations for why there are deep structural conflicts in our society” is because of the added observation:

            “There are clearly conflicts in our society, and (importantly) they do not go away; many of them persist in form across generations and despite numerous attempts to fix them or finesse them away, often in massive series-parallel.”

            Because that kind of observation tends to serve as evidence for conflict-theory applying to the situation.

            If a disagreement is purely a product of being mistaken about some matter of fact, or failure to understand someone else’s perspective, it should tend to fade over time. People can only keep themselves ignorant of a relevant fact for so long. By contrast, if people have specific, concrete reasons to oppose each other and a strong incentive to continue doing so, that incentive may persist forever.

            Would you say that’s relevant to your position on Marxism? That economic conflicts appear to you to loom large and permanent, and to be sufficiently resistant to ‘finesse’ that a conflict-theory model of society is required to explain them?

          • @ Simon_Jester:

            Interesting point. But one problem with the argument is that whether people stay ignorant of a fact partly depends on whether knowing the truth about that fact is in their individual interest.

            Take the case of tariffs. One reason they exist is that the protected industry is a concentrated interest group, the customers (and export producers) a dispersed interest group, so the former can solve its internal public good problem (of buying the law it wants) better than the latter can solve its (preventing that law). That’s conflict theory, plus differing ability of the parties in conflict to get what they want.

            But the other reason they exist is that the theory of comparative advantage is hard to understand, the theory of absolute advantage, although incoherent, easy to understand, so people with no incentive to get the right answer—rationally ignorant voters—are likely to believe the latter. That explains why the concentrated interest group gets its subsidy via a tariff rather than by the more efficient approach of taxing everyone else and giving them the money. That program would be much harder to disguise as in the general interest.

          • marxbro says:

            @Simon_Jester Sure, that sounds like a decent summary.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Interesting point. But one problem with the argument is that whether people stay ignorant of a fact partly depends on whether knowing the truth about that fact is in their individual interest.

            Take the case of tariffs. One reason they exist is that the protected industry is a concentrated interest group, the customers (and export producers) a dispersed interest group, so the former can solve its internal public good problem (of buying the law it wants) better than the latter can solve its (preventing that law). That’s conflict theory, plus differing ability of the parties in conflict to get what they want.

            But the other reason they exist is that the theory of comparative advantage is hard to understand, the theory of absolute advantage, although incoherent, easy to understand, so people with no incentive to get the right answer—rationally ignorant voters—are likely to believe the latter. That explains why the concentrated interest group gets its subsidy via a tariff rather than by the more efficient approach of taxing everyone else and giving them the money. That program would be much harder to disguise as in the general interest.

            Hm.

            On the one hand, you’re clearly right. Ongoing structural problems can be caused by such things. If the voters (or other power-holders) have incentives that don’t give them cause to learn about something, that gap in knowledge can cause permanent problems or permanent divides within society.

            On the other hand, this is in the context of the question “does the persistence of conflicts in society suggest that there actually are conflicts caused by something more profound than a misunderstanding?”

            So, suppose a conflict is caused by structural ignorance, something baked into the system by strong incentives to preserve it. In theory, resolving the misunderstanding might resolve the conflict. But an attempt to do so faces obstacles that are built into the structure of society itself.

            This will tend to converge on “society has a structural problem, and we need to analyze the structure and identify a fundamental problem built into the system.” It’s not quite “conflict” as opposed to “mistake,” but it definitely occupies the sort of middle ground where it becomes useful to point out contradictions within the system.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        It reminds me so painfully of those awkward libertarians you would meet at parties. Someone needs to do a quiz, “Who said it, hipster communist or college-age libertarian?” They both have the remarkable skill of finding the people most likely to be their allies and declaring them monsters, as if their own approval were the most important thing in the world.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          The other thing it reminded me of was the short-lived “Are you right for Grape-Nuts?” ad campaign from my younger days. The idea of having to prove oneself worthy of a breakfast cereal was about as widely derided as, well, Communism.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      Did the Cuban Revolutionaries “suck” even though they achieved their aims? What could “suck” possibly mean here?

      Yes, they definitely sucked. And by “suck”, I mean they killed 10s of thousands of innocents and impoverished millions.

    • David Shaffer says:

      @Marxbro

      Past experience suggests that people who argue in your style, long on assertions and short on specifics, generally cannot have their minds changed. However, as I find economic debate interesting, here goes anyway.

      “Murder” doesn’t really mean anything – every political ideology engages in violence. “Political power flows from the barrel of the gun” and all that.

      Certainly every political ideology engages in violence. However, not all violence is morally equivalent. If someone randomly murdered you, would you agree that is a bad thing? If someone tried, and you were only able to protect yourself by killing them, would you agree that you are not at fault for defending yourself? Moreover, not all violence is equal in intensity. Communism has killed an estimated 100 million people so far, mostly in peacetime! There is nothing remotely similar on the records of Western Capitalist nations. Even if you were to try to argue that the casualties of Communism were worthwhile, you should at least be able to admit that fewer people dying is better than more, all else equal. Rounding everything off to “murder doesn’t really mean anything” because there is a non-zero level of violence under every system is like saying “wealth redistribution doesn’t really mean anything”, because there will be a non-zero level of poverty and/or inequality under any system. I’m sure you see the problem with this?

      The Fukuyama-ish end of history rhetoric makes a little more sense in 1994 when Western intellectuals were predicting the total collapse of communist countries, but I don’t think it really makes much sense now that we’ve seen places like Cuba and North Korea hang on despite immense pressure.

      I guess this raises the hypothetical question: if another country went communist would you admit that communism might not be a failed ideology?

      I’m not saying that NK is the perfect place to live, but surely we shouldn’t count communism as a “failed ideology” if there’s a nation of 25 million people which still operates under said ideology.

      Sadly, Fukuyama’s predictions never came true-as should be obvious with five seconds’ thought. It is human nature to disagree, especially about politics. If we cannot agree in a comments section with a relatively small number of people, drawn from a relatively small subset of backgrounds, what hope does the entire human race have of agreeing?

      On the other hand, while the continued survival of Cuba and North Korea suggests that total Communist collapse isn’t as near as Fukuyama thought, a comparison of standards of living in North and South Korea suggests that Communism isn’t helping, even if it is enduring. I can’t speak for Echo Chaos, but if another country went Communist, that would be evidence that the ideology is going to last longer than it otherwise might. That obviously doesn’t make it a good idea! The Dark Ages lasted centuries, but who will call them remotely sane?

      Mao helped liberate the Chinese people. You seem very biased against communist thought.

      Around 50 million Chinese people died under Mao’s rule. Perhaps you will argue that this was due to conditions that weren’t Mao’s fault, or even try to claim that it was worth it for whatever reason. But you cannot simply brush it aside. Moreover, as soon as power passed to his successors, who deliberately did not maintain a Maoist degree of Communism, conditions improved. You keep telling Scott to read Marx; maybe it would be wiser to read actual history.

      “Authoritarian” doesn’t really mean anything much to Marxists. I think the question is, are we living under the authority of the bourgeoisie, or the authority of the proletariat? It seems to me that in Mao’s China the proletariat had considerable power, which is why it appears so terrifying to liberal Westerners.

      “Authoritarian” is a meaningful concept, however, and if Marxist thought ignores it, that’s hardly a point in its favor! In point of fact, it is possible to have more or fewer options, more or fewer ways in which you are allowed to work, or socialize, or spend your life. In point of fact, there have been regimes that imposed more or fewer restrictions, with very meaningful consequences to people’s lives. Indeed, you should be well aware of this, as decrying Fascist authoritarianism is a staple of Communist thought!

      Consider a society where all proletarians are required to work 60 hours a week without pay. I assume you are opposed to this? But that’s an abuse of authority per se, we didn’t specify whether it was the bourgeoisie or the proletariat who imposed the law! Now, you might say that the proletariat are very unlikely to so oppress themselves, and that such injustice is surely the sole province of the bourgeoisie. But at that point, you’re not arguing that authoritarian isn’t a meaningful concept, you’re arguing that you hope that the proletariat will be less authoritarian. And that that point, we are well within our rights to desire a less authoritarian government, regardless of which classes are calling the shots.

      As for Maoist Chinese society seeming undesirable or “terrifying”, personally I’m less worried about which classes are ostensibly in charge and more worried about whether I’d be one of the 50 million dead if Maoism were implemented here. When people get scared of the equivalent of 5 Holocausts, it seems a bit strange to posit another reason for our concern!

      It’s understandable to be concerned about how our economy is (not) working. It’s understandable to want a better life for oneself, and for the people as a whole. It’s understandable to see super rich people alongside those struggling to make ends meet, and wonder if redistribution could solve the whole thing. But empirically Communism does not work. There may be other solutions that do. Maybe basic income will solve many of our problems. Maybe automation will increase wealth to the point that everyone flourishes. Maybe we’ll figure out a new and better economic system tomorrow. But rehashing Marxism without even a pretense of trying to fix the problems that made it flat out genocidal… that’s not a solution, and it’s astoundingly disrespectful to the people who suffered and died under Marxist regimes. You asked before what would make us admit that Communism isn’t a failed ideology. How about when a Capitalist regime has to put a wall up to keep its people from leaving for a Communist one?

      • Guy in TN says:

        Communism has killed an estimated 100 million people so far, mostly in peacetime! There is nothing remotely similar on the records of Western Capitalist nations.

        Questionable, and much of the the responses to Marxbro hinge on this assumption. British colonization of India was a contributing factor in ~60 million deaths alone.

        The science of comparing body counts is, of course, rife with ideological bias regarding methodology. But at the very least, I cannot accept as a historical fact that communism is responsible for more deaths per capita than capitalism. I think the question is too complex to answer, plagued with uncertainty in how to assign responsibility, and the necessary-but-nearly-impossible task of mapping-out plausible alternative histories.

        Marxbro is absolutely on-point to dismiss “well, your ideology supports murder” as a serious argument.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          I think this is a fair point.

          When millions of people starved to death in Ireland or India or Iran (1917-19) or even other countries not beginning in an I, as a result of British colonial/imperial policy, we don’t attribute the deaths to capitalism. Even though the countries in question were very explicitly being managed under a capitalist system, and even though in each case there were very active and very capital-aligned policy decisions being made in the country at the time.

          We don’t often see people trying to count up the total number of people killed by anticommunist death squads over the course of the Cold War and add them to the capitalist body count, either.

          Either we need to be consistent about when a “planned famine” or a “purge” does or does not reflect on the economic ideology of the country responsible…

          Or we need a better metric than “count bodies.”

          • Civilis says:

            Here’s the problem with this formulation:

            We associate the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, run by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in a country who’s red flag was decorated with the Hammer and Sickle and put up statues to Karl Marx with Socialism / Communism / Marxism. It’s 1924 Constitution explicitly sets forth its status as a Socialist state and its opposition to Capitalism. The reason for its existence and justification for its actions was explicitly and inexorably tied to its ideology.

            The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wasn’t run by the Capitalist Party. It’s flags don’t show pictures of money or banks, and it didn’t idealize Adam Smith. None of the historical documents in its history talk of capitalism at all.

            Talking about Britain’s political policies as being explicitly capitalist only makes sense if you use the usual dodge of lumping all countries not explicitly Socialist and some conveniently not Socialist enough together as capitalist. (And half the people that do this conveniently ignore their erstwhile allies that claim anything done by the government as Socialism, which is really inconvenient when talking about things like the Corn Laws.)

          • Guy in TN says:

            David Schaffer’s OP said, with emphasis added:

            There is nothing remotely similar on the records of Western Capitalist nations.

            I think David is pretty clearly talking about countries like US or UK here. To say that “well, explicitly capitalist countries don’t actually exist, so there’s nothing to compare it to” is a motte and bailey to OP’s point.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @Civilis

            You realize you’re falling back on a variation of the same defense commonly deployed by the communists, right? I don’t think you’d accept the argument that the Soviet Union never achieved true communism, it was a ‘state capitalism’ or whatever. So why would you expect anyone else to argue that, say, 19th century Britain (a bastion of laissez-faire economic doctrine) doesn’t count as a True Scotsman capitalist country?

            I mean, it would not be difficult for me to point to examples of (for instance) British colonial authorities and the British Parliament enacting policies in Ireland and India that directly contributed to the death toll from major famines, with the express purpose of forcing those nations’ economies into a shape more consistent with their preferred doctrines about markets, trade, employment, and lifestyle.

            I can do that later, but suffice to say that one would have to talk pretty fast to establish that Great Britain is any less complicit in the famines that struck India during the 1800s and early to mid-1900s than Mao was in the famines that struck China under his rule. It might be that one could make that case- but it isn’t trivially obvious.

          • Civilis says:

            You realize you’re falling back on a variation of the same defense commonly deployed by the communists, right? I don’t think you’d accept the argument that the Soviet Union never achieved true communism, it was a ‘state capitalism’ or whatever. So why would you expect anyone else to argue that, say, 19th century Britain (a bastion of laissez-faire economic doctrine) doesn’t count as a True Scotsman capitalist country?

            I’m trying to short-circuit that defense entirely. I do this because I’m frustrated to the point of anger by the motte and bailey games played by self-identified Socialists over and over again, where hardcore Marxists that pawn off the USSR’s flaws as ‘State Capitalism’ remain silent when the Democratic Socialists claim the Scandanavian welfare states as Socialist.

            I can identify where self-identified Socialist parties governing countries where their system of government is set forth on Socialist principles put forth policies suggested by Socialist philosophers, so I can follow a line of causation from Socialist ideology to policy, all of it helpfully tagged with ‘Socialist’ by people that tag themselves as Socialist.

            The Libertarian party platform doesn’t include the word ‘Capitalist’ at all. It does prominently include the phrase ‘Free Market’, covering a whole section of party policy, enough that what’s included can be considered an ideology, and since it’s part of a political platform, it’s a political ideology. If you want to say that Libertarian (a self-identified term) ideology incorporates Free Market ideology, I will happily agree. But Free Market isn’t the same as Capitalist. If the Libertarian Party comes to power and the economy goes to crap, we can blame the Libertarian ideology or the Free Market ideology.

            The Republican party platform contains the word capitalism five times, three of them declaring opposition to crony capitalism. It contains the phrase ‘free market’ six times, almost always as a descriptive term. The only section devoted to either is the section about opposing crony capitalism. The US Consitution doesn’t contain the word Capitalist or Free Market.

            I can find a single Capitalist party, a Norwegian party that has elected precisely zero of its candidates (ironically, Wikipedia describes its ideology as Classical liberalism, Euroscepticism, Laissez-faire, and Minarchism). Aside from that one party and a handful of even more fringe cases (Anarcho-Capitalists, for example) things tagged Capitalist or Capitalism are tagged so by Socialists, and some of the things which are tagged Capitalist claim to be Socialist themselves.

            So why would you expect anyone else to argue that, say, 19th century Britain (a bastion of laissez-faire economic doctrine) doesn’t count as a True Scotsman capitalist country?

            You’re not doing the work of connecting the political actions (Corn Laws) to the government (Tory Party) to the government’s ideology (Conservatism), if such a connection exists. Socialist countries are often one-party states; it’s very easy to connect the actions of the country to the party and party leader’s ideology. Most countries don’t define themselves by adherence to an ideology, and multi-party systems have governments with members with conflicting ideologies, so most actual policies are practical compromises between multiple ideologies.

            Your particular dishonest obfuscation illustrates why this is important: if Britain was truly a bastion of lassiez-faire economic doctrine, the Corn Laws would never have been passed. If at the time of passage of the Corn Laws Britain claimed to be a lassiez-faire country we could fault the British for failing to live up to their ideology by passing the Corn Laws and could fault lassiez-faire ideology for letting its followers implement the Corn Laws. On the other hand, in reality neither the country of Britain nor the party in power that implemented the law was associated with lassiez-faire policies. The laws were still wrong, and it was still a mistake to pass them, but anyone who believed lassiez-faire political theory at the time knew that, as lassiez-faire economic theory arose as a reaction to and in opposition to mercantilist theory.

          • Guy in TN says:

            This is really straightforward:

            If you are trying to make the argument that “x is better than y”, you have to specify what “x” and “y” are.

            In this case, OP began with comparing socialist countries vs. “western capitalist nations”, presumably using the US and UK and representative of this.

            You however, object to this framework by claiming “capitalist countries” aren’t a thing (because those words aren’t written into our constitution. Highly dubious methodology, but whatever).

            So alright. You’ve just eliminated “x” in the initial “x vs. y” comparison. This does not actually help your case, in terms of argumentative power. This just render’s OP’s point a non-argument.
            —————————————————————–

            If you want to compare apples to apples, instead of saying “well, the US and UK aren’t true capitalists, so the comparison is invalid” you can articulate what you think their economic ideology actually is (Republicans, and even most Democrats, will gladly tell you that its based on free market capitalism. But regardless, call it “state crony capitalism” or whatever it is that fits your definitions enough). Likewise, we can investigate what the ideology of places like the DPRK actually are (hint: not true communism!). This way we can compare actually existing ideology to actually existing ideology.

            Instead, you seem to want to be compare actually-existing ideology of the US and UK (which are not pure capitalism) to mythologized ideology of places like China and the DPRK (“communist”, despite only having a tenuous relationship to communism in reality), but do have a flag with a communist symbol, which is apparently the sort of things that matters to you.

            I think the fact that practically every US president and congressman over the past 60 years claims to support capitalism, ought to factor in at least as much as a symbol on a flag, or the verbiage used in the constitution. But that’s just me!

        • David Shaffer says:

          No doubt ideological bias is present any time one considers a system’s failures. However, accounts of the horrors of the Holodomor or the Great Leap Forwards are widespread, while no one even attempts to pretend that anything similar has happened in Capitalist nations.

          The harm of colonization is a good point. It would perhaps be better to say there is nothing remotely similar on the records of Western Capitalist nations under Capitalism-colonialism is very much not a free market. For instance, British mismanagement resulted in food being shipped out of India during the Bengal famine, leading to horrific results. This does somewhat mitigate the moral superiority of the West-nations that take care of their own people but harm others are still committing harm. But that’s not a point against Capitalism; it’s a point against colonialism, and a reminder that authority cannot always be trusted. Indeed, that very fact is not exactly favorable to Communism, as it depends heavily on authority.

          “Well, your ideology supports murder” is a terrible argument unless you’re arguing against something like Nazism which literally does (and since it does, a Nazi wouldn’t likely find that argument compelling). Communism does not directly support murder, merely economic redistribution and totalitarianism intended to further that goal. However, as a matter of historical fact this reliably leads to murder, both through abuses of that totalitarian power and through catastrophic mismanagement leading to starvation.

          • Guy in TN says:

            It looks like a double standard to me.

            So communism is to be judged on the results of self-described communist countries’ political systems, regardless of whether the system conforms to their purported ideology or not.

            But capitalism is to be judged on the merits of the stated ideals of self-described non-communist countries, and if they happen to commit colonialism along the way, we don’t get to factor that into our judgement.

          • Nornagest says:

            Can’t speak for David, but I hold utopian schemes — including communism, but also including e.g. Christian communes or hypothetical libertarian seasteads if those ever get off the ground — to a higher standard than incrementalist non-utopian viewpoints. That’s a double standard, but I think it’s a justifiable one, considering that the stakes get a lot higher when your system calls for tearing everything down, building it back up, and hoping that your Dear Leader didn’t forget anything load-bearing along the way.

          • Guy in TN says:

            But capitalists often do call for tearing everything down! Especially in regards to currently-existing socialist countries (Venezuela, DPRK, ect).

            I’m skeptical of your utopian/non-utopian dichotomy here, not sure quite what it means.

          • Guy in TN says:

            And I disagree with the premise that high-stakes changes should be held to a different standard, anyway.

            If the question is “is traveling by airplanes safer than by car?”, and you respond with “planes kill hundreds of people every year”, a normal response might be “well, how many people do cars kill a year so we can compare?”

            A weird response to this question would be to say “Switching from car to air travel would be a massive tearing-down-and-building-back-up of our entire transportation system. Because of this, instead of comparing actually existing airplane safety, to actually existing car safety, we should compare existing airplane safety to idealized car safety, where no one ever drove drunk, or broke the rules in any other way”

          • Nornagest says:

            But capitalists often do call for tearing everything down!

            Sometimes they do, and you’d be right to be suspicious of any plans for regime change or whatever the current euphemism is that start with “burn it to the waterline”, for exactly the same reasons. I certainly am. The fact that non-socialists sometimes come up with stupid utopian schemes doesn’t make them any less stupid when it’s socialists doing it, and it doesn’t excuse the fact that revolutionary communism is built around one.

            Cars vs. air travel is a poor comparison, in part because air travel can be (and, in fact, was) built up incrementally. A long-term plan that ends with most people taking planes instead of cars for their long-distance travel is not high-stakes or utopian as long as it follows a path where the individual steps are small and mistakes can be recognized and corrected without incurring massive expenses.* Now, a plan to crush everyone’s cars and replace them with personal helicopters or Hyperloops or something, all at once? That would be very high-stakes and utopian, and I think it’d be appropriate to investigate some more extreme failure modes. Particularly if the last time someone tried it, it killed a few million people and crashed a national economy.

            (*) Similarly, I’m basically cool with communist-adjacent ideologies that call for incrementally growing things like co-op organization, even if I think they’re empirically wrong about some of their talking points.

          • David Shaffer says:

            David Schaffer’s OP said, with emphasis added:

            There is nothing remotely similar on the records of Western Capitalist nations.

            I think David is pretty clearly talking about countries like US or UK here. To say that “well, explicitly capitalist countries don’t actually exist, so there’s nothing to compare it to” is a motte and bailey to OP’s point.

            We can hardly say that Communism does worse than Capitalism without looking at Capitalist nations. That said, forcing someone to export food is not Capitalist. Unless the Bengali farmers decided they’d rather sell their crops than eat them even while starving to death (somehow that seems unlikely…), Britain’s mistake was an abandonment of the free market, not a failure of it. The UK was internally Capitalist and did very well on its own soil; it was colonially non-Capitalist and did disastrously badly at times in its colonies.

            Someone is likely to call that moving the goalposts, but forcing an export is literally the opposite of the free market. Now, if we see a famine of that scale while permitting people to decide when and where and how to buy and sell food, that would be a counterexample to the success of Capitalism.

          • David Shaffer says:

            It looks like a double standard to me.

            So communism is to be judged on the results of self-described communist countries’ political systems, regardless of whether the system conforms to their purported ideology or not.

            But capitalism is to be judged on the merits of the stated ideals of self-described non-communist countries, and if they happen to commit colonialism along the way, we don’t get to factor that into our judgement.

            Nations that commit colonialism should absolutely be judged accordingly. Whether colonialism is on balance good or bad is an entirely separate debate, but certainly colossal failures like the Bengal famine or King Leopold’s Congo count against Great Britain or Belgium. However, if nations practice Capitalism at home and non-Capitalism in their colonies, and proceed to do well at home and poorly abroad, the worst that can be said of the free market is that applying it in one area does not automatically make one apply it everywhere.

            Also, the Soviets practiced colonialism in as many places as they could, so even if one considered colonialism to be the worst of all evils, Communism doesn’t necessarily seem to help avert it.

            But capitalists often do call for tearing everything down! Especially in regards to currently-existing socialist countries (Venezuela, DPRK, ect).

            Venezuela’s sitting ruler is a man who lost the election, claimed a win by fraud, and has since blocked aid deliveries by force. It is not unreasonable to be concerned at Mr. Maduro’s actions. If you value democracy, you should want President Guaido to take his office. Even if you don’t, you should look askance at deliberately denying your people food! Hoping for the peaceful continuance of Venezuelan democracy hardly seems like “tearing everything down”. Now, if Trump decides to start a war over this, that would be much more in the tearing down vein, and I very much hope he does not. But “hoping democracy continues peacefully” and “destroying our entire economic system and hoping to build something viable afterwards” isn’t much of an equivalence.

          • marxbro says:

            @Shaffer

            Venezuela’s sitting ruler is a man who lost the election, claimed a win by fraud, and has since blocked aid deliveries by force.

            This is absolutely untrue. The Venezuelan government is blocking aid delivered from the USA because the USA is actively trying to destroy the Venezuelan government. This seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. This is especially reasonable considering the US’s use of “humanitarian aid” as a cover for weapons smuggling in South America, a tactic that Elliot Abrams (US Special Representative for Venezuela) has personally overseen before in the 80s in Nicaragua. The Venezuelan government is accepting aid from countries like Cuba and Russia who actively work with the Venezuelan government to ensure the people of Venezuela actually get the goods/services.

            Practically, how exactly would the non-existent US puppet government in Venezuela even distribute the aid? It was entirely a media sideshow aimed to trick Westerners, and it looked like you swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker.

            If you can’t even comment correctly on news events that happened weeks ago how can people possibly trust your historical accuracy when commenting on communist governments from decades ago?

          • Civilis says:

            So communism is to be judged on the results of self-described communist countries’ political systems, regardless of whether the system conforms to their purported ideology or not.

            But capitalism is to be judged on the merits of the stated ideals of self-described non-communist countries, and if they happen to commit colonialism along the way, we don’t get to factor that into our judgement.

            I’m perfectly fine with judging Capitalism by the merits of self-described Capitalist countries, if there are any. Capitalist and non-communist are not identical. Alternatively, we can ascribe all the horrors of every country that wasn’t perfectly Capitalist to communism, which is what you seem to want to do to Capitalism.

            The Venezuelan government is accepting aid from countries like Cuba and Russia who actively work with the Venezuelan government to ensure the people of Venezuela actually get the goods/services.

            Wow, talk about swallowing the propaganda hook, line, and sinker!

            American Marxists are so reflexively anti-American they’ll defend anyone opposed to the US. Sure, Putin’s a power-hungry Oligarch that represents for real every bad the US far left thinks the US government is capable of, but he’s opposed to the US! What’s worse is Guaido is a socialist himself! So they’ll prop up Empenada Man against a Socialist that hasn’t proven himself totally corrupt at the behest of a foreign oligarch!

          • baconbits9 says:

            It looks like a double standard to me.

            Capitalism is a description of what happens when people are free to make exchanges (or mostly free, or free within a legal structure). Idealized communism is actually a variant of capitalism, its a projection (wild guess) on what capitalism would look like if capital were redistributed in a specific way.

            Communism requires some revolutionary action, massive economy wide redistribution is a prerequisite and that means the revolutions that instantiated or attempted to instantiate communism are fair game for criticism. It is a known, expected and accepted cost for most revolutionaries and most theoretical communists.

            Capitalism does not have this flaw, there is no theoretical need for the British to be mercantalistic bastards and end up starving millions of Irish and Indians to have otherwise free exchanges of goods and services between people. It is not a double standard then to note that we can do capitalism without famines, which implies that people, not capitalism, were to blame for the famines while noting that we cannot do communism without the revolutions* which means we can lay those atrocities at the feet of communism the idea itself (along with the bastards who attempted the revolutions).

            The fact that capitalism is also associated with not causing famines (and decreasing their frequency over the last century+) makes capitalism qualitatively different from communism, and it will remain so until someone introduces something that is largely communistic in a national scale without the violent revolution.

            * Yes, I know, there are communists who claim we can piecemeal the whole thing, but with no real empirical support and attempts to grass root it has failed totally.

          • baconbits9 says:

            This seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

            It is not at all perfectly reasonable to prevent starving people from access to food because the people offering the food don’t like you. It is not at all reasonable to claim to represent the people while acting clearly against their interests and in your own.

          • marxbro says:

            Again, Venezuela is blocking the aid because the US government is trying to “distribute” the aid through their puppet government which doesn’t even really have the infrastructure to distribute aid effectively. Plus the US government has been caught using humanitarian aid as a cover for weapons smuggling in the region before. If the US government would approach the Venezuelan government and come to some agreement about coordinating aid distribution then I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem. Trying to ram aid through the border doesn’t seem like a great solution, and I’m sure if the Mexican government was trying to do the same at the Texan border while promoting a parallel self-proclaimed US president, the actual US government wouldn’t appreciate it either.

            Other governments such as Cuba and Russia already give aid to Venezuela and if US were to donate aid through the same (or similar) channels I doubt there would be a problem. if you guys are genuinely concerned about people starving then that’s the pragmatic solution to take.

            Given these facts, I don’t see why people have swallowed US government propaganda so willingly. It really makes people like me question the ability of people to look at historical events objectively.

          • David Shaffer says:

            @marxbro

            What specifically is untrue? You agree that the aid is being blocked, and justify(!) it on the grounds that the U.S. is hostile to the Maduro regime. You then ask how the “non-existent U.S. puppet government in Venezuela” could distribute the aid, and call the whole thing a propaganda show.

            Is there aid being blocked or isn’t there?

            If there is, then what have I gotten wrong? You also quoted my claim that Maduro “won” by fraud, but only talk about the aid, so it sounds like that’s what you’re objecting to.

            If there isn’t, why are you trying to justify denying aid that doesn’t exist? Or are you claiming that American efforts to feed Venezuela don’t count because it’s actually weapon smuggling and/or the aid workers knew the food would be turned down, so they only offered it for propaganda purposes?

            Venezuela is in crisis. You admit that circumstances there are bad enough to require assistance from Cuba and Russia, so it doesn’t sound like you’re disputing that. If your nation is facing a food shortage, and you’re offered free food, shouldn’t you accept it? Perform whatever searches you deem necessary if you’re worried about contraband being smuggled in alongside it, but accept the food! And if you think this is just a propaganda play by the U.S. to get you to reject help and look bad, shouldn’t you call the Americans’ bluff? That way, you get food and deny your opponents a propaganda victory!

          • David Shaffer says:

            Again, Venezuela is blocking the aid because the US government is trying to “distribute” the aid through their puppet government which doesn’t even really have the infrastructure to distribute aid effectively.

            Assuming you’re referring to the (as yet purely theoretical) Guaido regime, this is both untrue and irrelevant. The aid was being distributed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Office of Food for Peace. These are American organizations, not Venezuelan, either Maduro’s or Guaido’s.

            Even if we assumed that you were correct about that, however, it would not excuse Mr. Maduro. The traditional reason given for why government can be legitimate and not just a bunch of thugs is that it’s supposed to act in the interests of its people. Turning away food in the middle of a famine isn’t exactly helping the Venezuelans, to put it mildly.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Capitalism is a description of what happens when people are free to make exchanges (or mostly free, or free within a legal structure). Idealized communism is actually a variant of capitalism,

            We’re speaking different languages here. I can’t imagine to have a productive conversation, if you are using such non-standard definitions. Market socialism is a thing!

          • Guy in TN says:

            If your nation is facing a food shortage, and you’re offered free food, shouldn’t you accept it?

            Not if the food is being delivered by enemy troops amassing at your border who insist on crossing to deliver it themselves (lead by literally the same guy who previously used this tactic to smuggle weapons!)

          • baconbits9 says:

            Market socialism isn’t communism, and I am not using non standard definitions.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Communism is a variant of capitalism? Capitalism is just “free exchange”?

            Come on, man. No way I’m going to accept those premises.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Anything marxbro says aside, I don’t feel like it’s very honest to claim either:

            1) “Oh no, that wasn’t capitalism, because the government interfered in the market!” Or…

            2) “Oh no, that wasn’t capitalism, that was colonialism committed by one of the most successful capitalist nations of its time!”

            In regards to (1), capitalism is not market economics. You can have markets without capitalism. You can have very very distorted markets under capitalism. Capitalism is, specifically, a state of affairs where control of valuable or productive assets is distributed among private owners- usually few of them- and where those owners use their control of capital to invest in enterprises they deem likely to become profitable, thus gaining ownership of the enterprises and the rights to the profits of same.

            Nor is ‘capitalism’ the absence of government activity influencing the economy. There is absolutely no reason to artificially limit discussions of capitalism to situations in which the government does not interfere in the market. Capitalism seeks to suborn governments all the time. It happens everywhere, all the time, routinely. Going by the historical track record, it is vanishingly rare to find a nation where the government isn’t consciously acting to promote the interests of at least some of its corporations in at least some cases

            If we are supposed to restrict ourselves to historical, non-ideal communism (the kind with Bolshevik-style dictatorships and purges), then we had damn well better restrict ourselves to historical, non-ideal capitalism (the kind where the government exists, views the interests of at least some of its corporations as being equivalent to the national interest, and tilts the economy accordingly).

            So yes, the government interfering in the market in a way that profits owners of wealth but hurts the public is a category of deadly bad outcome that can occur under capitalism. By rights it belongs on the balance scale.

            As to (2), it is effectively impossible to separate the economic success of most of the great capitalist powers of the 1800s and 1900s from their colonialism.

            Yes, capitalism survived and even thrived in nations with few colonies, too (e.g. Germany and Scandinavia). But among the nations most conspicuously enriched by industrial booms in the early 1800s, it is hard to overlook the point that so many of them had access to very large masses of ‘extra’ resources and large captive markets to tax and sell to, without having to do the work of convincing them piece by piece.

            Just as people argue that we cannot separate Soviet-style authoritarianism from communism (even when many Marxists openly say that autocracy is bad and don’t want it), we shouldn’t separate out colonial atrocities committed by countries whose economy was capitalist and who made policy decisions based on those economic facts.

            Especially not in the case of the British, where political beliefs about market economics were explicitly, repeatedly given as justifications by British authorities for policies that made famines worse.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Come on, man. No way I’m going to accept those premises.

            Neither of those premises are necessary to understand to thrust of that post. The system/definition of capitalism that most people identify was at least partially in place when Marx was writing and Communism was not. Communism required a radical shift in the structure of ownership from the status quo, capitalism did not. Communism required revolutionary actions, capitalism did not. They are qualitatively different scenarios to discuss when talking about the merits/risks/costs of each.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Capitalism is, specifically, a state of affairs where control of valuable or productive assets is distributed among private owners- usually few of them-

            Usually few of them is false, over half of US families own stock in public companies. Ownership of capital in capitalistic countries is generally broad, not narrow.

            If we are supposed to restrict ourselves to historical, non-ideal communism

            As I recently pointed out you don’t have to restrict yourself to non-ideal communism. It was understood that ideal communism would only come about via revolution. Revolutionary action was a prerequisite for communism, the corn laws are not a prerequisite for capitalism.

          • marxbro says:

            Is there aid being blocked or isn’t there?

            Yes, the Venezuelan government is correctly blocking US “aid”.

            Your statement that:

            and has since blocked aid deliveries by force.

            Is either incorrect or wildly misleading. The Venezuelan government is accepting aid from countries that are willing to work with the Venezuelan government, such as Russia. US “aid” is a political sideshow designed to pull at the heartstrings of bleeding heart Western liberals. Did they even have a plan to distribute aid in an effective way without the help of the Venezuelan government?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Communism required a radical shift in the structure of ownership from the status quo, capitalism did not. Communism required revolutionary actions, capitalism did not. They are qualitatively different scenarios to discuss when talking about the merits/risks/costs of each.

            What are we even debating about here? I thought it was the total harm or benefits of each respective system- not merely the problems of setting the system up initially.

            I mean, such an argument is also a slam-dunk case for feudalism, back in the day. “We already have feudalism, so the harms of setting up feudalism are zero. Ergo, feudalism is the system that causes the least harm compared to every other system”

          • Andrew Cady says:

            People in this thread keep using the phrase “self-described communist countries.” Communists have an idea of what constitutes communism, and as far as I know, have not ever claimed to have put it into place, even when they have had dictatorial control of the government. As I understand it, it is this absence of self-proclaimed communism that leads to the common claim that nothing is ever true communism.

            E.g., here is what Lenin claimed about the state of the Russian economy in 1921:

            No one, I think, in studying the question of the economic system of Russia, has denied its transitional character. Nor, I think, has any Communist denied that the term Soviet Socialist Republic implies the determination of the Soviet power to achieve the transition to socialism, and not that the existing economic system is recognised as a socialist order.

            But what does the word “transition” mean? Does it not mean, as applied to an economy, that the present system contains elements, particles, fragments of both capitalism and socialism? Everyone will admit that it does. But not all who admit this take the trouble to consider what elements actually constitute the various socio-economic structures that exist in Russia at the present time. And this is the crux of the question.

            Let us enumerate these elements:

            (1)patriarchal, i.e., to a considerable extent natural, peasant farming;

            (2)small commodity production (this includcs the majority of those peasants who sell their grain);

            (3)private capitalism;

            (4)state capitalism;

            (5)socialism.

            Russia is so vast and so varied that all these different types of socio-economic structures are intermingled. This is what constitutes the specific feature of the situation.

            In the larger context, Lenin is explaining why Russia must transition the economy to “state capitalism” before it can hope to transition from there to “socialism.”

            Later he even says:

            While the revolution in Germany is still slow in “coming forth”, our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, without hesitating to use barbarous methods in fighting barbarism. [emphasis in original]

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Yes, I know, there are communists who claim we can piecemeal the whole thing, but with no real empirical support and attempts to grass root it has failed totally.

            I tend to see a lot of perfectly functional piecemeal communists, if you’re willing to define piecemeal communism as pooling one’s resources with other like-minded communists to achieve some communal goal. But in my view, they manifest as co-ops, small businesses, and occasionally corporations.

            If you expand the definition further to include pooling of resources among individuals who aren’t able to consent, I see a lot more, manifesting as families.

            I consider the former to be completely consistent with free markets, and the latter slightly inconsistent variations made necessary by the fact of individuals who lack some degree of agency.

    • Galle says:

      Scott already explained why he’s reading “random flavor of the month books written by unintimidating Jacobin-approved pseudo-socialists” rather than reading Marx directly:

      I weighed the costs and benefits of reading primary sources versus summaries and commentaries, and decided in favor of the latter.

      The clincher was that the rare times I felt like I really understand certain thinkers and philosophies on a deep level, it’s rarely been the primary sources that did it for me, even when I’d read them. It’s only after hearing a bunch of different people attack the same idea from different angles that I’ve gotten the gist of it. The primary sources – especially when they’re translated, especially when they’re from the olden days before people discovered how to be interesting – just turn me off.

  24. NTD_SF says:

    Concerning the disdain for compromise expressed by S&W, the reason is likely the same as that for deontological AnCaps – compromising with the current system, whether “capitalism” or “the state” is seen not as merely non-optimal but truly evil. By allowing any elements of their enemy to survive they are abandoning their values.

    • Nick says:

      This might be true, but I wonder if there’s not a more charitable explanation.

      Suppose that a few weeks ago your wife started smoking. You didn’t notice at first, because she almost always showers when she gets home and, well, you aren’t the one doing the laundry. But eventually you do. You insist she ought to quit, and you remind her of the terrible health effects and how secondhand smoke is bad for kids, and she promises that that none of that will be an issue because she won’t smoke in the house.

      Pretty soon you notice that she smells like smoke even during the weekends, and she confesses she’s been stepping out once in a while. The kids have noticed too and the two of you agree they need to be reminded smoking is bad, even though mom has started. Regardless, it’s clear she’s smoking more, which means it’s only going to be harder to quit. So you agree with her that she should only smoke away from the the house.

      With time she’s getting out of the house to hang out with other people who smoke… and sometimes they come visit. What are you supposed to do, say her friends aren’t welcome? And now your 13 year old is more resistant when you remind him smoking is bad. What if one of his friends asks him to try smoking?

      You talk to your wife again and she says she’s not giving up her new friends, nor does she see the big deal with smoking inside the house. After all, her clothes come inside the house with smoke on them, and it’s not hurting anyone, right? And she can’t smell anything. And anyway, Bob from accounting has been smoking for thirty years and he’s the healthiest guy she knows. You get mad, she gets indignant, and finally you concede.

      The lesson is that sometimes compromises are ineffective. Some things need to be cut off at the root or whittled down; compromises might do the latter, or they might only give it time or space to entrench. Sometimes they can even exacerbate it. Take Scott’s point in III about automation, etc. without basic income: if this makes people even more helplessly dependent on the kindness of Bigcorp, then we’ve moved farther from S&W’s communist utopia, not closer!

      • jasmith79 says:

        Isn’t that analogy flawed?

        A more, well, analogous one might be that you want your wife to stop smoking. A bunch of her friends tell her to stop smoking as well. She suggests switching to vaping, which carries far fewer health risks and avoids a lot of the other negative externalities like the smoke smell. Her friends say yes that’s a great idea, maybe even a first step towards quitting entirely. You start attacking her friends, insisting that the compromise is terrible, nothing less than complete cessation will do. So your wife continues to smoke, and you continue to be furious, and her friends on the outside think you’re just a jerk.

        I mean, I agree with your last bit about automation, but I wonder if the communists have made the proverbial horse/cart mistake (we won’t accept the outcome unless we also approve of the process that generated it).

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Right.

          Incrementalism isn’t a good unto itself, rather, incremental progress is progress.

          Yes, you need to watch out to avoid circling local maxima, but that usually those have at least afforded a higher energy position with which to climb to the next peak.

        • Nick says:

          The analogy isn’t very close, but I was only trying to illustrate that compromises can fail in certain ways and can thereby serve to reinforce the problem. Your analogy, meanwhile, might be more accurate—it depends on whether the policies do actually avoid negative externalities and enable one to quit like vaping does. If not, the analogy is just begging the question. Mine does too, assuming that the compromises are just going to entrench or reinforce the problem, but that’s because I was writing it from the perspective of the communists.

  25. onyomi says:

    My not super-extensive, but non-negligible attempts to understand far-left thought have left me with the strong impression that almost everyone on the far-left shares a strong, basic intuition (which I don’t share) that hierarchy is bad–maybe a necessary evil, maybe an unnecessary evil, but definitely something everyone agrees you’d obviously want to minimize to the extent possible. The effect of this seems to be that there’s no leftism “101” enough for me.

    I guess this qualifies as a high-level generator of disagreement at least?

    • marxbro says:

      Perhaps try Rius “Marx For Beginners”

      https://archive.org/details/MarxForBeginners-English

      As 101 as it gets.

      • Plumber says:

        @marxbro,
        My mom gave me that book (and latter others in the series on Einstein, Lenin, and Trotsky) when I was a kid around 1979.
        For radical leftism in comic book form I found the Tin Tin ripoff Breaking Free more entertaining, and for 19th century socialistic agitprop I found William Morris’ News from Nowhere (which foretold “the Revolution” happening in 1952!) better reading.

      • Viliam says:

        Okay, I have read the “Marx for Beginners”. The first 3/4 of the book is the usual Marxist interpretation of history as a monotonous progress from greater oppression towards lesser oppression, as humanity gets smarter thanks to philosophers. The proof in a nutshell is “well, first there was slavery… then serfdom, which was a bit better… then employment, which is still better… so obviously, something even better will follow in the future.”

        The remaining 1/4 is the usual Marxist interpretation of economy, where if you take the money you made selling products, and subtract all material expenses (raw materials, damage to machines), the remaining money should all rightfully belong to the worker (because he worked to accomplish all this, duh), and the capitalist should get zilch (because he didn’t work, duh). Any money the capitalist takes is stolen from the worker. (The capitalist regime supports this theft by allowing the capitalist to own the company and the machines.)

        In other words, anything an entrepreneur does (such as market research or coordinating people) is intrinsically worthless. Unless someone else would be hired to do it, in which case it would become a real work again. The fact that if something goes wrong, the entrepreneur might lose the investment, is somehow also not a real expense.

        …eh, why is it so hard to admit the idea that someone who lived centuries ago might actually be wrong about something?

        • That’s not the fundamental mistake. There is no reason why the labor theory of value can’t include market research and coordinating people as different forms of labor, or consider returns in a way that takes account of the risk of loss.

          The fundamental mistake is not recognizing that capital it itself an input. Using capital means bearing costs now for a future return. People would rather have the return available now, so having to delay it is a cost, just as working instead of playing is a cost. It’s the return on that input that provides the income of capitalist qua capitalist.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Using capital means bearing costs now for a future return. People would rather have the return available now, so having to delay it is a cost, just as working instead of playing is a cost. It’s the return on that input that provides the income of capitalist qua capitalist.

            One interesting thing about this form of contribution — i.e., refraining from consumption — is that every other person in the world also simultaneously refrains from consuming the very same resource that the capitalist qua capitalist refrains from consuming.

          • One interesting thing about this form of contribution — i.e., refraining from consumption — is that every other person in the world also simultaneously refrains from consuming the very same resource that the capitalist qua capitalist refrains from consuming.

            The difference being that it is a resource that the capitalist could have consumed.

            Do you really find this puzzling, or is are you making some implicit assumption of a previous act of theft that got him the resource? If so, the argument would apply equally to labor as a cost–you just have to assume that some of the inputs to the labor, say the medical care that kept the worker alive and healthy, were stolen.

            Instead, start with the assumption that people own things, and see how from that you get the conclusion that the capitalist owns some more things, not because he contributed labor but because he lent some of what he owned to someone who could make productive use of it instead of immediately consuming it himself.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Do you really find this puzzling

            I never said I found it puzzling.

            The capitalist qua capitalist has the legal right to consume something. Every other person in the world has the legal obligation not to consume that same thing. And all of them, equally, refrain from consuming the thing.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            It would seem, in that case, that the legal system has granted the capitalist the unique opportunity to display his virtue and good sense… by granting him the unique privilege of getting to decide how a resource will be consumed.

            Which means that this form of contribution by capitalists exists only because the legal system has enabled them to make it, which in turn means it isn’t a very good argument for how the capitalist is contributing.

            To borrow an idea from HPMOR, you don’t cannot make someone into valuable member of a team by fiat. Not even by inventing a special task that only they can perform, making it impossible for the team to succeed without them performing the task, and then applauding loudly when they do it well.

          • It would seem, in that case, that the legal system has granted the capitalist the unique opportunity to display his virtue and good sense… by granting him the unique privilege of getting to decide how a resource will be consumed.

            Not unique at all. Everyone in the system has the power to decide how some resources–whatever he owns–gets consumed. The defining feature of the capitalist is that he is the person in that system who decides to consume some of what he owns later rather than sooner, and is rewarded for doing so.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The capitalist’s ability to invest a meaningful amount of resources in enterprises in exchange for the right to own them and profit from them in the future, would seem to be correlated with his already possessing the means to survive in secure and comfortable style in the present.

            It’s not that the laws forbid anyone outside a special small group from being capitalists. It’s that the laws surrounding ownership are very much designed to promote a certain status quo. One in which some people are rich enough to invest in the future, think like a capitalist, and usually profit accordingly. Meanwhile, others are not rich enough to do so without placing themselves in extremely precarious positions.

            Given that this is the way things are, it seems unreasonable to give the capitalists credit for being wiser and more full of foresight than others who fail to invest as they do. Especially while at the same time organizing society so as to maximize their ability to continue such exercises and to profit from them in safety.

          • The capitalist’s ability to invest a meaningful amount of resources in enterprises in exchange for the right to own them and profit from them in the future, would seem to be correlated with his already possessing the means to survive in secure and comfortable style in the present.

            In modern capitalist societies, the average worker has a real income twenty or thirty times as high as the global average through most of history, so if he chooses to live as inexpensively as he can he can save and invest. No need to live in a “comfortable style.”

            Given that this is the way things are, it seems unreasonable to give the capitalists credit for being wiser and more full of foresight than others who fail to invest as they do.

            You might find the exchange more productive if you responded to arguments I made rather than inventing ones for me. Where did I say anything about the capitalist being wiser or more full of foresight?

            The capitalist is willing to bear a cost–postponing consumption–in exchange for a benefit–ultimately consuming more. The fact that it is a cost explains why he has to be paid to bear it, hence why interest rates are usually positive. The fact that capital is productive, that you can get more output if you are willing to produce in ways that are costly now and produce benefits in the future, is one reason other people are willing to pay him to bear it.

          • benwave says:

            “In modern capitalist societies, the average worker has a real income twenty or thirty times as high as the global average through most of history, so if he chooses to live as inexpensively as he can he can save and invest. No need to live in a “comfortable style.””

            One note on this – anybody dependent on welfare does not actually have this option, because development of sufficient wealth and/or income streams means the clawback of their welfare. They are not better off by their decision to invest. So, there is at least some section of the population which does not have the opportunity to do this.

            I also wonder about the real ability of low-wage urban workers to achieve this in practice, given the cost of housing (and, in the USA, of healthcare)

          • Andrew Cady says:

            The defining feature of the capitalist is that he is the person in that system who decides to consume some of what he owns later rather than sooner, and is rewarded for doing so.

            That is just grossly inaccurate. What you are talking about is a person who is saving up for the future. That isn’t the same thing as a “capitalist.” A person can be a capitalist and yet be spending down the principle over time. Meanwhile, a person can be a laborer and yet be saving up for retirement.

            Saving for the future isn’t what makes you a capitalist. Having sufficient income from capital not to need another source of income is what makes you a capitalist. Whether you save for the future or piss away the estate.

            Very disappointing false claim you’re making here.

          • Very disappointing false claim you’re making here.

            Or in other words, it is terrible that not everybody uses the same definitions you do.

            I am explaining why capital earns income, hence why the argument that everything is produced by labor, some of it consumed by owners of capital, hence the owners of capital must be stealing from the workers, is wrong.

            For that purpose, the difference between someone who gets five percent of his income from capital and someone who gets 100% of his income from capital doesn’t matter.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Or in other words, it is terrible that not everybody uses the same definitions you do.

            I really don’t care about the words. It’s the referents. It’s real hard to ever have a conversation about the people who own things like banks and make personal phone calls to people like the president and so forth, because people like you want to talk about Bob from accounting who makes $50k and maxes out his IRA every year.

            I am explaining why capital earns income, hence why the argument that everything is produced by labor, some of it consumed by owners of capital, hence the owners of capital must be stealing from the workers, is wrong.

            You’re trying to tell a ant vs. grasshopper morality tale, but you have to make it about Bob since it would sound too ridiculous if you started to refer to the people who make the big money — and certainly aren’t, at least as a group, characterized by self-restraint in consumption.

          • Clutzy says:

            andrew you are very wrong here I would say.

            That is just grossly inaccurate. What you are talking about is a person who is saving up for the future. That isn’t the same thing as a “capitalist.” A person can be a capitalist and yet be spending down the principle over time. Meanwhile, a person can be a laborer and yet be saving up for retirement.

            Saving for the future isn’t what makes you a capitalist. Having sufficient income from capital not to need another source of income is what makes you a capitalist. Whether you save for the future or piss away the estate.

            If you are earning money off capital and not laboring that means that you previously saved up to get the capital, or someone did on your behalf.

          • You’re trying to tell a ant vs. grasshopper morality tale

            I am not trying to tell a morality tale at all–that’s your projecting your view of the controversy onto me.

            I am trying to explain economics.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            A subsistence farmer, living alone on the plains, keeps a cow for milk or breeding instead of slaughtering it for meat. Delayed consumption for future reward.

            No employment, no trade, no society, arguably no economy, and yet still you have delayed consumption for future reward. I suppose the subsistence farmer is divided within himself, and the capitalist qua capitalist is the voice inside his head that says “it would be prudent to save.”

            “Delay consumption for future reward” is practically a law of nature. It’s certainly a basic principle of productivity. Humans, who rely on tools, biologically adapted to dependence on tools, must delay consumption by accumulating tools (capital) or else they will have no way to survive. It is a biological fact as much as an economic one.

            So, even “after the revolution,” the worker’s collective who have taken control of all industry must similarly delay consumption by choosing to reinvest some of what is produced into building tools, maintaining machines, and so on.

            It is true, this is a cost that must be borne. And by a certain kind of accounting, the cost is borne in proportion to how much of the production one owns. A person is always delaying consumption of every thing he owns (just like he is always risking every thing he owns), so you can say his cost is proportionate to his net worth here.

            But this is a type of cost that is very different from the type of cost involved in labor. Because if you remove the laborer from the equation, the cost of providing the labor disappears. Nobody is bearing it anymore. Whereas if you remove the owner of the capital, the capital remains (being physical material), and so does (or at least can) the cost associated with it. The workers can remove the capitalists, take the capital, and then bear the cost of not liquidating the capital. In fact, as a matter of logic, the way it has been defined, taking the capital is bearing the cost. The cost, like the ownership, can actually be moved around just by changing some documents called “titles,” without changing anything about production. (And since bearing the cost is supposed to be the justification of the reward on the capital, the workers having seized the capital can rely on the same justification.)

            So those are some differences in these kinds of costs.

            Anyway I think the important thing here is this: if what you’re saying about “capitalists” applies to the subsistence farmer who engages in no trade, it isn’t reaching what Marx was talking about.

            Marx was talking about how society ends up divided into a minority of people who have control of the lives and productivity of the majority. So what you need to justify is that social division, and not just some generic principle that saving must be rewarded. And saving is rewarded anyway as a law of nature, which humans are biologically adapted to understand, so don’t worry about that too much.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Also my original objection to that way of accounting stands.

            If Congress passes a law declaring that such-and-such forest is a national park and I can no longer take trees from there (whereas before nothing stopped me) I think you would agree that that imposes a cost on me. No?

            But if the law instead says that exactly one person (not me) can take the trees, it’s no longer a cost to me?

            It’s the non-owners of any given piece of capital that bear the largest cost of non-consumption, since they don’t consume even part of it, or benefit from any ROI.

          • koreindian says:

            Having sufficient income from capital not to need another source of income is what makes you a capitalist.

            This is also not correct. Membership in the capitalist class is determined by your ownership of means of production, not by the magnitude of financial capital you own.

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