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. Amy says:

    I would describe “hegemony” as “the power to define the categories in public use”. It can be a restricted set of categories belonging to one discipline or unrestricted (e.g. political or religious systems), belong to a person or an organization or even an abstract ideology (of course, the latter can also be phrased as “people society considers experts on “, and if it is unrestricted, guess who determines what it means to be an “expert”?), It is a very soft kind of power, it’s not telling you what to do or even what to think, just giving you a toolbox of categories that structure how you think – but also extremely exploitable in – recent politics has shown us just how powerful defining even a restricted set of language can be.

  2. TDB says:

    I think that this is an engineering problem. We must figure out how to engineer, or grow, or somehow make a society capable of truly chaining Moloch to human values. And we must do so within a world that he rules. Where every step we make, he’s trying to twist our steps back the way we came. In my view, the best way to do this is with a free and equal society, and the way to have that is an equitable distribution of power.

    You had me up to this point. I should probably go back and reread the Moloch post (always worth it), but I think Moloch will be laughing. He loves slapstick.
    Sorry, that was rude. But aren’t you saying something like “wave a magic wand to create a solution, and then use the solution to defeat Moloch”? What you describe is the situation after Moloch has been defeated, not the means by which to defeat him.

    I want to figure out why Moloch didn’t win absolutely and decisively millenia ago. There has to be some counterveilling force that has allowed people to abolish slavery, reduce poverty, etc. We just don’t have a good grip on it yet.

    • angularangel says:

      The reason slavery was defeated was at least in part because of the northern working class that had a substantial economic incentive to abolish slavery, and thereby prevent themselves from having to compete economically with slaves. Same thing with reduced poverty – as others have pointed out, as the citizenry of a country become more economically productive, the country moves towards democracy. That’s because being economically productive is a form of power – the power to stop working, or threaten to stop working, and make the system grind to a halt, or to demand concessions so that you won’t do this. See also the resource curse, where a country discovers a new resource and suddenly their citizens become much less important than they used to be, and get a much shorter end of the stick, because they no longer wield economic power.

      That’s what I mean when I say an equitable distribution of power is necessary. It’s about checks and balances, much like with government. If power is equitably distributed in society, then people will, at least to some extent, use it to demand democracy and abolish slavery and the like. Now, this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s a good start.

      On another note, what happened to my post? You responded, so you must have seen it. Did it get deleted for being too long, or having too many links? Or is it awaiting moderation? I would appreciate a message or something, if that’s the case. :/

      • TDB says:

        That’s what I mean when I say an equitable distribution of power is necessary.

        It is one thing to say “x is necessary”, quite another to say “this is how we get x”. Is Moloch helping youto achieve this equitable distribution of power, or will you have to slip it by him when he’s not paying attention?

        On another note, what happened to my post? You responded, so you must have seen it. Did it get deleted for being too long, or having too many links? Or is it awaiting moderation? I would appreciate a message or something, if that’s the case. :/

        Think it’s there. Maybe refresh your browser? Right now I am using an iPad, have no ability to search.

        It’s quite possible I put my reply in the wrong place. My iPad tortures me when I follow a link from my email client but have not yet logged in to SSC.

        • angularangel says:

          No, it’s definitely gone, at least for the moment, for me. Try searching by my user name, you won’t find that post.

          As for Moloch, it could go wither way. There are both positive and negative feedback loops in place here. Larger, more powerful systems are often less maneuverable. We’ll see.

        • 10240 says:

          I don’t see it (on this page at least), this is the only place Google finds it.

      • Plumber says:

        @angularangel

        “…what happened to my post? You responded, so you must have seen it..”

        In going through my e-mail notifications I’m guessing you mean:

        “@Alleged Wisdom

        In order for a rationalist to understand and steelman the communist paradigm, you just need to believe one thing: that a limited liability corporation is an UnFriendly artificial superintelligence. Everything else follows logically. If you have a constantly-growing, self-improving, unaligned ASI in your midst, and you observe that it is controlling politicians, writing laws that.…”

        Mmm, I dunno if this is quite right, but it does get really close to the issue. Let me take my own crack at an explanation, and see where it takes me.

        Now, I’m not a normal communist. I’ve barely read most communist literature, even the manifesto. Indeed, most of my philosophical underpinnings stem from one of Scott’s own works, Meditations on Moloch. To put it simply, my concern is that the nature of life is hunger and violence. Every living things must optimize for evolutionary fitness, or be discarded and forgotten. And in the process of this optimization, they must take any opportunity to further their competitiveness within the available constraints, regardless of the cost. Thus, most living things gain the resources they need to survive by taking them from other living things. Even plants compete for sunlight, water, and other resources. Predation is near ubiquitous.

        Now, in the human context, we’ve defrayed some of this because of our ability to trade. But even so, much of the process still remains. We still compete with each other in a variety of ways, and find many more opportunities to engage in conflict. As Scott notes in Meditations, “The reasons Nature is red and tooth and claw are the same reasons the market is ruthless and exploitative.” And of course, the principle of accumulative advantage (Not actually super familiar with this website, I just found it, but their overview looks decent and it should be a good jumping off point) applies- due to positive feedback loops, the more you have, the more you can get. Now, this effect is counteracted by negative feedback loops eventually, which is why you see growth in most areas fall off eventually. But this still permits billionaires and megacorps. Some of these might be very nice people, and perhaps even very nice megacorps! But it doesn’t matter. The system selects for competitiveness, and if there is a competitive advantage to be had at your expense, well… Sucks to be you.

        Now, there are several things that constrain these systems. In the case of evolution, there’s no intelligence to guide it, which means that if an optimization can’t happen randomly or by gradual evolutionary change, it can’t happen. There might be lots of competitive advantage to be had from engineering our eyes to no longer have the neural wiring and blood vessels in front of the rods and cones, but if it takes lots and lots of changes to do that, and those changes would mean moving through a period of decreased competitive advantage, it’s unlikely to happen naturally. Furthermore, the system is constrained by physics and all of it’s consequences, sometimes even so that it will optimize for our values! We care about our children because it’s a competitive advantage to do so, for example. Or, in the case of capitalism, we have a surprising variety of different methods to keep the markets in check – sufficiently bad PR, for example, can kill even the mightiest of corporations if they’re too careless. So, in practice, they need to constrain their behavior to not cause too much negative PR, which rules out a lot of bad behavior. We also have various laws and our government to constrain them, and of course some positive behavior is a competitive advantage, like paying employees enough that they keep working for them.

        But, as Scott talks about in Meditations, new advancements bring new opportunities for competitive advantage, and there’s no guarantee that those advancements will be good for the rest of us. Automation is a good example. Or advertising, or lobbying, or union-busting, or trickle-down economics, or any of a host of other innovations.

        Now, here we get to my problems with other communists, and it’s historical problems. See, all that stuff I talked about above, it doesn’t stop with Capitalism, or Evolution. It applies to anything where you can compete, and optimize for competitiveness. Which includes Politics, including the internal politics of communist political organizations. There’s an excellent video on this, The Rules for Rulers, and a book, The Dictators Handbook. Scott even wrote an article himself about how this applies to communist politics. To give you the short version, communists have regularly made the mistake of allowing themselves to be made to compete for power, and be forced to discard all values in the pursuit, including communism. Moloch is a cruel and malevolent god, and worse, he thinks he’s funny. To try and escape the system is to allow it to entangle you in new and interesting ways. -_-

        So, here we get to me, and my view of a way forward. To put it simply, I think that this is an engineering problem. We must figure out how to engineer, or grow, or somehow make a society capable of truly chaining Moloch to human values. And we must do so within a world that he rules. Where every step we make, he’s trying to twist our steps back the way we came. In my view, the best way to do this is with a free and equal society, and the way to have that is an equitable distribution of power. Most communists focus on revolution, and I don’t believe that’s an actionable way forward, because it tends to only serve to concentrate power, and it removes many of the constraints that would otherwise prevent the system from optimizing it’s way into anything too horrible. So, then you end up with Gulags.

        Of course, gradual change is no picnic either, but I think it’s a lot more possible. My current work is on a new means of mass communication, because I think that in order to solve a problem of this complexity, no individual human is smart enough. You can see my project here, if you’re interested. -_-“

        I edited in two of the many links in your post, but frankly I’m too lazy to do more.

      • angularangel says:

        …How did I not find that second one before? It’s fantastic, thank you! And thank Scott too, for writing it. XD

    • Vanzetti says:

      I want to figure out why Moloch didn’t win absolutely and decisively millenia ago. There has to be some counterveilling force that has allowed people to abolish slavery, reduce poverty, etc. We just don’t have a good grip on it yet.

      Most humans have some amount of empathy, which means that we feel good when other human feel good, and feel bad when others feel bad. This tends to align values and push people toward cooperation.

    • Clutzy says:

      I am personally skeptical of the Moloch concept, and I’ve read most of the big posts about it, and I simply don’t think its real. Its kind of like a conspiracy theory I’m not a part of, the logic of it, no matter how stated, does not appear to square with the evidence I see in the real world.

      Maybe I’m an optimist? I think not, I consider myself closer to a pessimist.

      • TDB says:

        That tells me your conclusion but not the process that brought you to the conclusion. I’d love to agree with you, please help me out.

  3. googolplexbyte says:

    Once you’re done with Marxism, do Georgism next: https://www.hgsss.org

    A reading list: https://www.reddit.com/r/georgism/wiki/readinglist

  4. JohnBuridan says:

    Good review. I tend towards Butlerian Jihad since I am so afraid of the effects on massive unemployment on society. I am curious if Inventing the Future provides any account for why the UBI, Automated society would be stable?

    Avinash Dixit the economist recommends Whither Socialism by Joseph Stiglitz as the most economically sensible account of why markets and capitalism are bad. I have been meaning to give it a look for some time now.

  5. Sure, Napoleon did it once

    I would like to point out that Napoleon took over France twice.

  6. Alleged Wisdom says:

    In order for a rationalist to understand and steelman the communist paradigm, you just need to believe one thing: that a limited liability corporation is an UnFriendly artificial superintelligence. Everything else follows logically.

    If you have a constantly-growing, self-improving, unaligned ASI in your midst, and you observe that it is controlling politicians, writing laws that favor it, and otherwise warping the world to serve its needs, you do not try to make deals with it, or patch rules onto it, or try to extract resources from it. You do not do economic calculations saying that we would be X% poorer if we shut it down, or that we could be Y% richer if we patched a ‘control system’ onto it that made it do things for us. That is completely missing the point. In order for humanity to not go extinct after the ASI reaches critical mass, you have to destroy it utterly, or shut it down and replace its source code with something provably friendly.

    Anyone who would activate a recursively-improving UnFriendly ASI for personal gain, or otherwise enable or defend it, is a traitor to the human race, no matter what their intentions are or how good of a person they are otherwise.

    The fact that the ASI is making a lot of things work better, and that it would be very painful to shut it down, is more proof that you must get rid of it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the worse it gets, because the thing will keep growing until it controls more of the world and is more important for civilization.

    If there are lots of these ASIs growing all over the world, nominally allied with people who are using them, then of course it is useless to shut down just a few of them. That just gives more resources to the others. If everyone else is using ASIs, and you shut yours down, you are cooperating against DefectBot. You have to shut them all down at once, and then make sure that nobody can make more. This will require massive worldwide coordination, involving a lot of persuasion as well as some violence.

    Of course, most communists don’t believe that corporations are going to find ways of operating without a human substrate and then kill us all. But they don’t need to; getting ruled forever by a malevolent force that respects none of our values is definitely on the list of global catastrophic risks.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      Anyone who would activate a recursively-improving UnFriendly ASI for personal gain, or otherwise enable or defend it, is a traitor to the human race

      Well, when I look at what the corporate ASI offers me and successfully actually providing, and I look at what the “freed from corporate ASI” “human race” has to offer…

      … so be it.

    • Nootropic cormorant says:

      I was skeptical at first, but I approve of this explanation as a communist.
      It captures nothing of the Marxist outlook, but it does depict the moral impetus for fighting capitalism correctly.

  7. dark orchid says:

    The argument in part I. reminds me of the influential feminist pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo “Joreen” Freeman. The basic argument (as I read it) is that you’re not going to take over the world, or even achieve much beyond a local community support group, if you don’t have some kind of structure in your movement and that women’s movements shouldn’t reject structure just because men do it too.

    Joreen then goes on to say that every movement has some kind of structure, and if you refuse to have an explicit structure then an implicit one will naturally form in your movement, and this has a lot of disadvantages like that unofficial leaders are much less accountable than officially sanctioned ones.

  8. ChrisA says:

    Am I missing something here in the comparison to the Mont Perlerin Society ? Didn’t the Communists already take over a bunch of countries? They already achieved their goal! The problem was their ideas didn’t work. Not in any of the countries tried. Whereas the neoliberal ideas did work. By 1989 the neoliberal countries was clearly better places for everyone than the Communist countries. Literally people were prepared to take huge risks to get from socialist countries to neo-liberal ones. The reason the communists are not successful now is the same reason that no-one today accepts the Philostogen theory of heat – it was perhaps a reasonable hypothesis in the 19C but experimental evidence showed it wasn’t valid.

    • Nootropic cormorant says:

      You are wrong in considering Communism a blueprint for a society that is somehow to be implemented as an experiment. This is what is traditionally called utopianism and Marxism makes a big point of fighting it.

      Instead, the Communist movement sees the Socialist revolution as a historical change in the relations of production undertaken by the working class as a political subject. It is thus not a projection of a platonic ideal onto society from a handful of ideologues, but a historical process arising from the actually existing societal situation which includes Communist ideology itself.

      It is also unacceptable to observe a single country as a closed system, the “success” of capitalism depends on the imperialism of first-world countries, which exploit weaker countries of the periphery. It is these first world nations that are sought after by immigrants, and not their third-world victims they produce.

      These first-world nations were also far more developed than the rest of the world before the October revolution, and Socialist revolutions in general have happened “at the weakest link(s) of the imperialist chain”. These countries have achieved great advances which, while unable to close the gap, allowed them to compete against the first-world in some cases and support the world proleteriat, including the workers of first-world countries themselves.

      Now, with the downfall of Socialist states in Europe, we unmitigated aggression of neoliberal ideology upon the working classes of the world, with foreign interventions, austerity measures, dissolution of organized labor and loss of political freedom. It should thus not surprise us to see a revival of interest in Marxism, violent protests, rise of populist parties and tankie effort posts in the SSC comment section.

  9. Worley says:

    Your description of the Mont Pelerin Society resembles David Warsh’s description of the Federalist Society. (http://www.economicprincipals.com/issues/2019.03.10/2194.html) In all these cases, one needed input is a steady income to pay for the think tanks, etc. Though I suppose that isn’t so terribly hard, as there seem to be a lot of rich people around these days.

    Your summary:

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

    sounds tremendously like the world in Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”, where ultimately the displaced workers rebel and smash the machines to produce demand for human labor.

    In regard to the matter of work being a “source of meaning” for people, I recall reading a recent story in New York magazine (I think it was) about a man who made $1.2 million/year. His job required that he invest $5 million of his employer’s money every day. Apparently, the job sucked and the man disliked it. He was offered a position at a startup for half that money, and he would have loved to take it, but when he mentioned it to his wife, she laughed. So apparently she found a lot of meaning at living at the $1.2M level rather than the $600k level.

    • Clutzy says:

      The Federalist society is a good example, because like Mont Pelernin, both were, and remain massively underrepresented on campuses compared to in the professions and in the populace as a whole.

    • The Mont Pelerin Society itself didn’t require much of “a steady income to pay for the think tanks, etc.” It doesn’t have any think tanks, just annual meetings. And it charges its members dues.

      Other parts of the same movement, such as the IEA, did depend on subsidies from people who supported their position. But I think if you compare the amount of money that went into pushing that ideological position with the amount spent by individuals and foundations pushing rival positions, you have to conclude that money wasn’t the advantage that the classical liberals had or have.

  10. boylemariotte says:

    Total automation indeed may create (at last) species suitable for a communist society. Of course, we are speaking about robots, not humans.

  11. nameless1 says:

    >Anyone who believes that utopian thinking is dead should come to the Bay Area.

    Yes, but the rest of the world is not only not utopian, it isn’t even optimistic. Cities from NY to Paris that once thought of themselves as important, proud centers of culture, progress, and all that, are basically just trying to stay afloat and everybody feels there is some impending doom coming. Seriously, SF sounds like a place not on – or of – this planet.

    Besides, there are articles about an increasing number of homeless, junkies, discarded syringes and human feces on SF’s street. Is SF’s utopian optimism justified if it cannot even clean itself up to the level that 100 years ago was entirely normal everywhere outside the worst slums? I think our pessimism is more justified. Look out your window. What do you see?

    • Plumber says:

      @nameless1

      “….What do you see?”

      I work in and for the City and County of San Francisco and what I see is an explosion of tent encampments and discarded hypodermic needles in the last few years, and maybe it’s because unlike our host I was born here and haven’t spent much time elsewhere, but mostly I see far less utopianism than in the past, but he’s younger and judging by his posts our “bubbles” are very different.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Though it’s certainly not utopian, NYC still thinks it’s the center of the universe. The rent is too damn high, the subways are falling apart, and everyone* hates the mayor, but none of those are anything new. Outside my (office) window I see the skyscrapers of Midtown, some of them under construction. On another side of the building I can see the new (and hellaciously expensive) residential towers on the West Side, some of them also under construction. NYC certainly had a pessimistic era, but it’s not in one now.

      * For some large but not literal value of “everyone”

  12. deciusbrutus says:

    >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.

    Why does a world in which employees make $100k per year operating car-making robots give employees more political power to employees than one where they make $50k per year making cars?

    Yes, the first possibility has many more ‘cars’ around, since each car consumes fewer man-hours and more skill-adjusted man-hours are being spend on ‘cars’ (if the total adjusted man-hour investment were less, the total cost would be less; if automation takes more work than not-automation, it is automation that shouldn’t be done).

    Or are we trying to pretend that money spent on automation is destroyed without being received as payment for work done?

  13. Ransom says:

    This is very late in the discussion, and not perfectly on topic, but any time the idea of a fully automated economy/society comes up, I wonder: “Doesn’t that make (almost) all us humans parasites (literally, not in some Randian sense)? Won’t the system (eventually) just get rid of the parasites?”
    And I don’t think “getting rid of parasites” requires an intelligent AI, or even any intentional awareness on the part of the overall system at all. I think the problem of how to distribute the goodies from an automated economy is very secondary to the problems of it creating a huge useless blob of humanity that can (by one mechanism or another) simply be jettisoned.
    (I also think being useless is really really bad for any human being, psychologically. Would lead to lots of very bad pathologies. But that’s another issue.)

    • MilfordTrunion says:

      Congratulations, you invented AI Risk

      (this is stated in a flip way but the point is that there’s a worldwide philosophical debate about the issue you describe here–it’s worth looking into if you’re interested!)

      • Ransom says:

        “Congratulations, you invented AI Risk”
        No, the opposite: the system would eliminate the parasites even without anything that approaches intention or self-awareness or “intelligence” or “mind”, and certainly without anything like a “singularity”. The mechanism by which this happens may not be predictable, but there’s a (strong) statistical driving force–greater economic efficiency–so the parasites would (somehow) get eliminated anyway, as a result of some unpredictable event that upsets the metastable status quo.
        I think AI risk as usually discussed is much exaggerated. But making (almost) all human beings redundant could be very bad anyway.

  14. clever political judo trick the Marxists have played on them!

    But what I find odd is that while they might be Marxists, they seem to be giving up on communism in exactly the direction that big tech corporations (where UBI is surprisingly favorable) seem to want. How do they know a trick isn’t being played on them? Obviously no one with any humanistic and empaphetic impulse on the left can easily agitate against a basic income, but isn’t the policy itself a concession that capitalism can leapfrog over its own contradictions?

    If the increasing capital content of capitalism was supposed to herald its end due to the contradictory bomb that is wage labor, but then instead capitalism breezily resolves this through UBI, that leaves communism with a lot less historical momentum than it had before. Certainly, the end of work means, in of itself, the abolition of the proletariat (and their conversion into a lumpenproletariat), but in no way means the end of the bourgeoisie.
    It’s easy to imagine a world where we have full automation, a basic income, and no direct work, that is nonetheless operating on extremely capitalistic principles as regards property and money relations. As technology trickles down, we can envision every man as a capitalist as opposed to every man as a proletarian, and a yet new middle class ideal. Their nervousness about Hayekian support for UBI may be rather telling, but even so if “communists” are going to replace communism with full automation and the basic income, then I have no reason whatsoever to oppose them. Everyone wins… more or less.

    • marxbro says:

      There’s like zero serious communists who want UBI. It’s mostly leftish socdems / demsocs who have floated the idea. As he suggested might be the case, Scott is jumping into a debate when he doesn’t really understand the politics of most groups having that debate.

      • j r says:

        It is strange to be advocating for a system that wants to take over the world and drastically alter all political, economic and social relationships, while simultaneously also arguing that you can only enter a conversation about that system if you are a sufficiently versed in the correct politics.

        Why would anyone agree to play by those rules?

        I’m not a Marxist. I think communism is one of the three most destructive ideas in human history. If a bunch of people are arguing that I should be forced, at the barrel of a gun, to hand over all of my stuff to the government and passively accept what a bunch of political theorists and apparatchiks think that I ought to get in return… well, guess what? I’m going to have an opinion about that. And I don’t care if you don’t feel that opinion is fair to your system that wants to take over the world.

      • MilfordTrunion says:

        “There’s like zero serious communists who want UBI. It’s mostly leftish socdems / demsocs who have floated the idea. ”

        Which, see my comment–the book seems weird to a neutral observer because it’s not trying to convince a neutral observer of anything, it’s trying to convince communists that UBI and “full automation / zero employment” are ideas compatible with communist ideology rather than Dirty Capitalist Dogma And We Hates It Forever.

      • There’s like zero serious communists who want UBI.

        I understand that theoretically this should be the case because they understand the implications of the policy, but I think that once UBI becomes mainstream, it will be very hard for anyone on the left including outright communists to resist it, because there’s a built in empaphetic core to the left that undergrids all the serious minded theory. It’s easy to stand in front of a crowd and talk about the exploitation of the working class and how revolution is the answer, but it’s a damn sight harder when you have to attack a policy that would do something to alleviate the economic issues of the working class now.

        I think one of the reasons that communism never got beyond a fringe in the West is because social democracy is much more powerful than communism, and the humanistic arguments behind it tend to draw communists into its orbit anyway in spite of protests to materialism (even if they are kidding themselves that they’re doing entryism), and when the time comes it is quite willing to betray the supposed revolution too (see the relation between the German socdems and the freicorps after WWI). Ultimately, the masses might abstractly want to be free from things such as “alienation” perhaps, but not as much as they want a meal ticket. Just as automation kills the ancap, UBI is like a social democratic finishing move for communism. All the historical inevitability just disappears into thin air, like that.

  15. MilfordTrunion says:

    We’re 450 comments into this thread, but I’ll add my two cents:

    To quote TLP, this book seems odd to you because it’s not for you. It’s an explanation of (or, perhaps, an apology for) how they propose that the glorious Communist future results from full automation and no jobs, a sentiment that’s pretty close to the front in the Libertarian manual. Like, we know THOSE dudes say they want this, and, like, here WE are saying the same things, but it’s different because THOSE dudes are bogus.

  16. Jon says:

    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

    I assume that’s you talking for yourself, and not for S&W. Do you really think automation is bad, and not, say, how we’ve had unprecedented growth in societal wealth for a few hundred years?

    I wouldn’t fear whatever the current automation/AI scaremongers are saying. This time is not different.

  17. Simon_Jester says:

    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.

    The distinction can be summed up as follows.

    First, the fact that some Marxists believe that converting powerful institutions by staffing them with Marxists is a good idea, does not mean that they have succeeded in doing so. Without specific evidence that Dr. Smith is, in fact, a Marxist, calling them part of a Marxist conspiracy to take over academia or the media or whatnot is just baseless.

    Second, the accusations from the right of being part of a Marxist “march through the institutions” are getting thrown at people who not only aren’t Marxists, but have very little in common with Marxism, and just happen to be, y’know, somewhere to the left of Barry Goldwater. For example, post-modernism is a reaction against, among other things, Marxism… and yet a postmodernist critique of patriarchy can get labeled “cultural Marxism” even though this is about as accurate as calling a libertarian critique of industrial regulations “cultural Naziism.”

    Third, the “cultural Marxist” construction very closely echoes the accusations of “cultural Bolshevism” used by the Nazis against Jews to blame them for communism even while Stalin was still persecuting Jews in Russia. This could hypothetically be a coincidence, but it suggests that a vigorous sense of caution may be called for.

    Consider two framings of the idea of Marxists “marching through the institutions.” Firstly:

    “Some groups of communists think they should pave the way for future communist success by having communists work heir way to the top of major cultural and academic institutions. There are some communists who have in fact done so. They make up, like, a few percent of the relevant organizations. Maybe ten percent?”

    Secondly:

    “Academia and the media are in the grip of a Marxist conspiracy that censors anti-communist ideas. Most of the the newest things about modern society, such as feminism, the idea of ‘gay rights,’ and the racial replacement menace, are products of this international communist conspiracy.”

    The first framing is a lot closer to reality, if only because it is less likely to do dumb things like conflate postmodernism with Marxism.

    The problem in this case is that the first framing is not particularly relevant for the same reasons that Cold War holdover communists aren’t really relevant in modern politics: there aren’t very many of them and nobody listens to them, except insofar as capitalism scores own-goals and makes itself look so bad that socialism begins to appeal to people by comparison.

    But the second framing is explosive. It warns the right of an evil conspiracy, one that occupies rarified circles most people don’t travel among and don’t know very well. It’s hard to prove that academia and the media aren’t a big communist conspiracy, for the usual reasons why it’s hard to prove a negative. And it gives them an immediate way to explain away any inconvenient things reported by the media or any inconvenient scientific results: namely that the reporters and scientists and philosophers in question are all cultural Marxists so of course they’re saying such things, you’re not dumb enough to trust people with Ph.Ds over ME, are you?

    The truth reflected by things like what Marxists actually talk about and do in the context of “march through the institutions” is more like the first framing. The conspiracy theory accusations made by the right more closely resemble the second framing.

    • Ambi says:

      My (probably wrong) understanding of this concept of cultural Marxism has been to equate the term Marxism in this context to class conflict. In Marxism, the working class joins together to overthrow the capitalist class in a rich vs poor fight.
      In cultural Marxism, historically disadvantaged groups (LGBT, racial minorities, women) join together in an attempt to overthrow the currently powerful (white males). The “cultural” part of cultural Marxism changes the context from economic classes to cultural or social ones.
      This type of class struggle doesn’t seem too far off from a lot of social justice rhetoric (although I don’t think most people who support social justice would fully agree with it) and people who complain about cultural Marxism also tend to be anti-social justice.

      That’s the way I make sense of this situation. I would love for someone to tell me if I’m missing something.

      • dick says:

        It seems to me that you’re relying on the conflation of two very different senses of “overthrow”, one literal and one figurative.

        More generally, “Marxist” is a very loaded word, and I think that attaching it to a group you don’t like requires more than just finding a sense in which they are similar. The comparison you draw is interesting and seems valid; the problem is all the myriad ways in which Marxism and SJW are different and sometimes opposed. One common complaint about SJ activists from within the left is that they blame sexism/racism for problems that are actually caused by class differences!

        This whole situation seems very similar to the left calling Trump supporters “Fascists”. It’s not a totally inapt comparison – there are similarities between them on a policy level – but if I used that term and you called me on it, and I said, “Oh, it’s not an insult, I only use that term because of the similarities they have on a policy level” no one would believe me.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          I definitely got the sense, long before the term “cultural marxism” got big, that postmodern types wore Marx’s influence as a badge of pride and loved to call their analysis ‘Marxist’, even though they could have just as easily argued that all it had in common were some fairly broad concepts. I got the sense they were doing this essentially because they enjoyed being as anti-‘Murican as possible.

          I dunno, I don’t think there’s a horrible conspiracy here, I think the academic left has had some good ideas and some bad ones and hasn’t been immune to human tribal tendencies. But I also kinda feel like they’ve spent the last several decades high-fiving each other about how ‘subversive’ their work is and are now saying “How dare you accuse us of subversion!”

    • JohnBuridan says:

      I just want to chime in with an approbation of the second framing. I think the framing is right on, not the idea. The idea is horrible.

      I personally know at least several people who believe in the second framing. When they talk about communism or socialism, they elide a lot of concepts and have some strange beliefs. Something like this.
      1) Socialist policies inevitably lead to communism. (cf. Economics for Helen by Belloc)
      2) People on the left promote socialist ideas (everything from George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells’ idealism to violent revolution to universal healthcare).
      3) Those socialist ideas will eventually lead to godless, immoral, immiserating communism. (Marcarthy wasn’t all bad; he saw this).

      4) Modern culture promotes many ideas that are “anti-traditional family.” (abortion, free love, gay marriage)
      5) The USSR promoted many ideas that were “anti-traditional family.” (erasing distinctions between men and women, replacing family with THE STATE)
      6) Therefore modern culture is heading towards Marxism.
      If I’m against modern culture, and I think modern culture leads to Marxism… then it follows that modern culture is “cultural Marxism.”

    • The Element of Surprise says:

      calling a libertarian critique of industrial regulations “cultural Naziism.”

      I believe the correct term of art is “alt-right”.

    • It’s a common sophomoric argument to strawman belief in X as a “conspiracy” and then assert that the implausibility of a conspiracy to do X means X is not real. For instance, once can point out that it’s implausible to believe that car salesmen meet in an evil lair and plot how to fleece the public to show that people’s sense of caution around car salesmen is an unjustified “conspiracy theory.”

      “For example, post-modernism is a reaction against, among other things, Marxism… and yet a postmodernist critique of patriarchy can get labeled “cultural Marxism” even though this is about as accurate as calling a libertarian critique of industrial regulations “cultural Naziism.””

      A more fitting comparison would be Nazism and Strasserism. The existence of disagreements between the two ideologies doesn’t negate their essential connection. Humans form categories in their minds to simply the world, I am sure that within the academy the difference between the self-described Marxist(about 18% of social science professors identity as Marxist: https://www.econlib.org/archives/2015/03/the_prevalence_1.html) and the postmodern critique of Marxism seems large, but to the average person, they are both in the same far-Left conceptual category, just as few outside of libertarianism care much about the different “flavors” of the ideology which seem very important on libertarian blogs.

    • Hyzenthlay says:

      and yet a postmodernist critique of patriarchy can get labeled “cultural Marxism” even though this is about as accurate as calling a libertarian critique of industrial regulations “cultural Naziism.”

      Which also happens quite a bit. Though they usually just say “Naziism.” Or more commonly, “fascism.”

      It’d be nice if both sides could come to an agreement to stop throwing around loaded terminology of this sort.

      I definitely got the sense, long before the term “cultural marxism” got big, that postmodern types wore Marx’s influence as a badge of pride and loved to call their analysis ‘Marxist’

      Yeah, back when I was in college it seemed like everyone around me was referring to the stuff they liked as “Marxist” (phrases like “Marxist-feminist deconstruction of X” abounded). I also think 90% of those people probably hadn’t actually read Marx and didn’t know what they were talking about.

    • MostlyHamless says:

      Some concepts need to be sorted out here. In the good ole guilt-by-association vein, you’re pitting people who remark a raise in cultural Marxism, against whatever Nazis had been remarking on cultural Bolshevism.
      OK fine, a Godwin-free thread just wasn’t in today’s cards. But you’re also freely interchanging “cultural Marxism” and “communist conspiracy”, which is plain wrong.

      Here’s another common framing. To some, justice is “equality of opportunity”. To others, it is “equality of outcome”. In old times, society was so far away from either of the two, that it was sufficient to just speak of “equality” without fretting over details. Even a vaguely-specified “equality” was sufficient to give a rallying sense of direction, precisely because society had so evidently not achieved it.

      In modern day, we have still not achieved neither equality of opportunity nor equality of outcome, but we are much closer to them than before — so much closer that the differences between the two directions can no longer be ignored.

      It’s hardly debatable that modern academia is overwhelmed by “social justice” types. Don’t take it from me, take it from leftist professor Jonathan Haidt. (watch 16:35-19:38 if you cannot watch it whole). If going from a 2:1 ratio to a 5:1 or 17:1 ratio in a couple of decades does not meet the criteria of “march through the institutions”, then we must be nitpicking meanings of words. The debatable point is whether it is a Marxist march, which you seem to contest.

      “Social justice” is implied to mean equality-of-outcome. The popularisation of such a concept with a supporting ideological framework, traces back pretty much to Marx. Marx and his famous “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as the very principle of his manifesto.

      In Marx’s times, that principle had necessarily translated into pitting the working class against the upper classes, delving into ownership of means of production etc. etc. Today, the working class is deemed irrelevant (much to their chagrin), but that same principle has remained at the fault line between the left and the right, between what each side considers just and unjust. (“equality of outcome” is going a few steps further than the original “from each by ability / to each by need” principle, yes, but those are steps taken after that original fork in the road)

      You think that such a conceptual framework is older than Marx — say, part of Christian principles? No, not really. Christ’s promises to the poor referred to the afterlife. The religious practice always endorsed the virtue of charity towards those who had “less fortunate outcomes”, but has never been known to claim that they had a god-given right to an equal outcome. (AFAIK other major religions are similar)

      Or that the meaning of “equality” was so elaborately detailed during, say, the French revolution? No, not really, and that whole thing turned into a quite bloody affair.

      So yes, social justice, in its prevailing modern “equality-of-outcome” interpretation, quite squarely derives from Marx. Combining it with Marx’s instigation “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”, and a plethora of other such things attributable to Marx, it’s fairly straightforward to classify modern social justice champions as “cultural Marxists”.

      So, about “cultural Marxism” and “communist conspiracy”, I am not dragging historical communism into this (Stalin, Mao etc.), I’m just sticking to Marx himself. And I emphasize that this is not a “conspiracy” — it is all very overt. It just happens to not be so universally agreed upon as a worldview outside of academia, and it appears to be more and more frequently defended by recourse to Godwin’s law.

  18. benf says:

    The idea that work would, could, or should ever be eliminated is enough to make me immediately stop being interested because any edifice built on that foundation is doomed.

    Work is productive activity. Automation does not reduce the amount of productive activity done in an economy, it INCREASES it. Automation is a force multiplier that allows the same amount of productive activity to lead to greater output. That’s the fundamental underlying story of civilization. But it never makes humans obsolete, it shifts them to tasks that can’t be automated but for which people still have a use. And the last part of the story is, we will never stop coming up with those tasks.

    Let me put it this way: We now have machines, and have had for decades, that are perfectly capable of making a cappuccino with no human intervention whatsoever. Are there fewer baristas now than before the invention of this machine? Obviously not. The question is, WHY NOT.

    I can think of at least two answers. First, the space that dispenses the cappuccinos has a number of different requirements beyond making cappuccinos. It can be rented as an impromptu working space, so it needs to be cleaned, tidied, and above all it needs to have an actual human being to be put in a position of responsibility, such that if something goes wrong you can blame and punish them. A robot cannot, and will never be able to, take responsibility in the way a human can, and that’s not an AI problem, it’s a HUMAN problem.

    Secondly, the point of paying a human to do something is, at least in part, to inconvenience a human. If you opened a fully automated starbucks, nobody would be willing to pay five bucks for a robot to make a coffee. If I’m going to pay five bucks for a coffee, I need someone else to take time out of their lives to produce it. Humans value human effort in a way they do not value machine effort. A print of a Da Vinci looks just as good as the real thing, but nobody would ever pay millions for a PRINT, even if it was the only print in the world.

    The more menial tasks are freed up by automation, the more creative we get about how to put the available human effort to use. That creativity is limitless and we will never automate our way out of it. I’ll leave the point about how we shouldn’t want to for another day.

    • Bugmaster says:

      If you opened a fully automated starbucks, nobody would be willing to pay five bucks for a robot to make a coffee.

      I would, if the coffee was better than the one I can brew at home. On a related note, I still go to the movies sometimes, despite owning a TV; and I’ve never talked to a projectionist (nor wanted to). I don’t want humans to do stuff for me; I just want stuff to be done.

    • Murphy says:

      Once everything is genuinely just status games then the only point of maintaining a system dedicated purely to making people feel big/dominant would be to stroke the egos of people who would be , at that point, contributing nothing that couldn’t be contributed by a rock with property rights… the rocks become superfluous.

    • OriginalSeeing says:

      Eventually doesn’t this just leave the top jobs available out there being a starbucks barrista or robotics technician?

      Also, extend this out 200 more years then 200 more years again. At that point (even ignoring AGI) you can’t tell the friendly robot barista from a real person and the robot barrista is a far better #StarbucksBarista than the real person ever was anyway (jadedness, awkward smile because they’d rather be somewhere else, and all).

  19. Black Ice says:

    As a believer in superintelligent AI, I like where S&W are coming from. It seems to me that the prevailing form of capitalism probably isn’t the best system to further progress in AI, and safe AI in particular.

    A universal basic income, which genuinely provided for all basic needs, apart from helping everyone else would allow the smartest people to study whatever they choose for whatever reason. I don’t think it’s widely believed that enough very smart people are totally free to devote their intellects to safe AI theory and AI in general.

    On a related note, I hate to imagine the mass of hard-working, or indeed unemployed and impoverished, people being suddenly informed that greater-than-human AI is on the way so they need to submit to this or that political state of emergency. I prefer to imagine a relaxed population of average humans with lots of leisure time being gently introduced to the reality of AI over time.

    A UBI would discourage political extremism that leads to x-risk from things like nuclear war.

    UBI with very high levels of automation is also a kind of political transition towards creating safe greater-than-human AI, in the sense that if you don’t believe “the elite” would allow average people in general to live comfortably without working, if that were realistic and sustainable, out of selfishness or spite then I think you should also be concerned that this elite don’t have the most responsible and safe attitude towards AI.

    A downside to UBI is that arguably, many average people need to work in order not to become restless, immoral and make a nuisance of themselves. Whether the incentive of living more luxuriously is sufficient to prevent a large number of citizens from becoming a problem is a point of discussion.

  20. ing says:

    I would like to know more about this:

    > 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.

    Why do socialists want Aubrey de Grey and the Seasteading Institute and especially basic income in Oakland to stop?

    • Brett says:

      They generally seem suspicious of rich folks and techies wanting to do something. I remember on Twitter pointing out that Tesla was trying to make electric cars available to Americans in general, and Marshall Steinbaum had an angry response that “innovation should be done by the government in the public interest” or something like that, not “controlled by rich people”.

      • MilfordTrunion says:

        It’s not an entirely wrong sentiment. If a rich person is doing something good because they want to, what happens when they stop wanting to? If something depends on the whims of the wealthy, can it really be said to be stable?

        Not to mention the idea that rich people will, so the dogma goes, prefer to give their money to attractive tall well-coiffed low-BMI neurotypical gender-conforming cishet white people, as opposed to the truly needy who are few or none of those things. (which, again, is…not entirely a wrong sentiment!)

    • John Schilling says:

      Why do socialists want Aubrey de Grey and the Seasteading Institute and especially basic income in Oakland to stop?

      Basically, because the initial and direct benefit of their work goes to only a small number of people, even though the problems they claim to be addressing affect a large number of people. So, first, Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics – once you’ve noticed a problem, you are perceived as ethically responsible for it. If you notice that in Oakland persons X, Y, and Z are poor and you provide a basic income to X and Y, you are now “guilty” of having condemned Z to poverty. Second, and closely related, how did you decide that Z doesn’t get the UBI? That sounds like “playing God”, deciding who should go hungry and who should not, which never goes over well. And if the decision is left to the market by offering the solution for sale at some large price, then you’re dividing society into the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”, and ditto.

      If instead you promote a government program to develop electric cars or better medicines or to raise new land with good government, or to distribute a UBI, then that may fail utterly or be spread so thin as to help no one, but you’ve at least “tried” to help everyone who suffers from the problem you noticed and are thus responsible for. You have not Played God, and have successfully signaled virtue.

  21. Brett says:

    The funny thing about the “how capitalism if big firms are command-and-control entities in miniature?” question is that big, bureaucratic firms actually do start showing a lot of the ailments predicted from a command economy. They’re just perversely better at weathering them unless the calamity really is severe, and are more at risk of a change-over in management from outsiders if they “under-perform”.

    It’s such an odd question for me. Such firms exist because size gives them some big advantages in survivability, and our current technology seems to gravitate towards the hierarchical bureaucracy as the best way to organize large organizations with specialization (I think of it as the “military bureaucracy” model because that’s where I think it came from originally).

    • Lambert says:

      And when they do ossify too much, a startup comes and puts them out of business.
      Or gets bought up by them (which is really just outsourcing production of the benefits of a market economy).

      • Mark Atwood says:

        We call the concept of that first sentence “Day 2” where I work.

        The main HQ skyscraper building is called “Day 1”, just so that everyone doesn’t forget.

        • Narcindin says:

          I have immense respect for the culture Bezos and other inflencial people at Amazon have built. Imo the results speak for themselves.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            It’s kind of fun from the inside too. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.

            When the day comes if it ever does that I decide to leave for another company, I’m going to shamelessly steal and reuse some of the actionable culture of the company, specifically

            * the meeting style [ https://www.businessinsider.com/bezos-admits-amazon-has-the-weirdest-meeting-culture-2018-4 ]
            * (closely related) the near ban on PowerPoint
            * the hiring interview process (sorry, I can’t find a good external link)
            * every issue boils back to “who is the customer? what is good for the customer?”
            * the attitude of “problems should solved by creating a service, and can that service be vended to an external paying customer”

  22. One thing I think the book’s account of the Mont Pelerin Society has wrong. I’m too young to have been involved in the beginning, but the impression I have gotten was that the original purpose was much less ambitious than a program to change the world. It was to let people who believed in the free market, classical liberals, spend a few days a year interacting with other people who didn’t think they were crazy. That was in an intellectual environment where almost everyone assumed that that set of ideas was obviously wrong, that the real alternatives were dirigiste capitalism or socialism.

    As best I can tell, the program to change the world came in with Anthony Fisher and the IEA.

  23. benwave says:

    Hello again Scott. Thanks to you, as always, for your thoughts and your reading-so-we-don’t-have-to-can-make-decisions-on-what-to-read-with-more/better-information. I’m glad that you’re interested in learning more about Marxism and so forth. It’s an idea that’s close to my heart.

    I think the prefiguration idea you discuss is not a straw man, and I think you’re right in that the authors will be talking to a presumed audience for which those ideas have support as a matter of course. Your confusion over hearing leftists hold this view versus hearing leftists complain about this view may stem from the fact that there is a pretty significant difference between published and well circulated leftist authors on one hand, and leftist activist and organising groups on the other. I suspect that you have not read a lot from the latter, and that this is where the main support of the prefiguration idea exists. Leftist authors would be exposed to these groups in a way I wouldn’t expect you to be.

    My own understanding of hegemony is close enough to your paradigm framing in this article, although I would also say that when we talk about hegemony we are also thinking about the power relations that paradigms reinforce, and whether or not we think these power relations are fair, necessary or desirable. I don’t know why there is a tendency for mentioning this to result in accusations of “a vile far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory” or similar (you’re right, I think we do want to influence institutions. So do our opponents. Why wouldn’t everyone want for our ideas to be right and gain wide approval?) – but I acknowledge that it does.

    It is interesting to hear the authors explicitly trying to use labour prices to incentivise automation! But it’s certainly conceivable (and I would have thought obvious?) that low labour prices would discourage it.

    As for recommendations for books, I think David Harvey is a good Marxist author to read. I’ve read The Enigma of Capital, and Seventeen Contradictions from him and I really enjoyed both. I’ve got some reading time coming up so I’ll see if I can’t go back over those and figure out which I would recommend.

  24. slofgren says:

    Books to add if your goal is to understand what it feels like to be a utopian leftist, in the way you can switch your brain to understand what it feels like to be a libertarian, neo-reactionary, etc., are the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robison. Super utopian, very techno-optimistic, very well written and well reviewed (basically all books won at least one of Hugo/Nebula/Locus and some of them won multiple).

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      Red Mars is very good, Green Mars still okay, Blue Mars (and even more so the sequel-ish The Martians) sells its birthright for a pot of message.

      • Brett says:

        I still found that long section in Blue Mars quite interesting, even if it was KSR essentially playing out his Fantasy Russian Revolution on Mars and toying around with ideas for a Democratic socialist market system with cooperatives and so forth. It’s at least much more interesting than when he ended 2140 with an anachronistic feeling Take That to the banks and financial system (IE his Fantasy Response to the Financial Crisis).

  25. Maxwell says:

    “reduction of the working week” seems like a worthy goal independent of everything else (also not particularly left-wing. After all, the vulnerable of society are mostly not workers).

    Just make up new holidays. Repeat until every week has a holiday associated with it, and eventually you arrive at a 4 day work week.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Also mandate overtime if companies make people work on those holidays, even if people are salaried-exempt. In theory, my employer gives me Presidents’ Day off. In practice, there was an urgent project last month, and well…

      I don’t think my situation is that unusual.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I know, France is doing great!

  26. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    . 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.

    +1. I think the intellectually honest response to what most conservatives mean by “cultural Marxism” would be to acknowledge that yes, many intellectuals did and do believe that America’s values ought to change and have taken steps to make it so. Something like this defense of public choice economics against similar charges:

    …[the author] documents [public-choice founder] Buchanan’s and others’ glee about their conspiracy as they gathered around a roaring fire in the remote mountains of Virginia. Buchanan said that what the cause needed was to “create, support, and activate an effective counterintelligentsia” to begin to change “the way people think about government.”

    But some nuance is in order… notice that there was no swearing to secrecy; there was no claim that the goals of the movement should be hidden. In fact, Buchanan actually said, “If a history of the . . . movement is ever written, it can talk about origins in a log cabin deep in the Virginia mountains.” Friends, [the author] has in fact written that history, using easily available public documents that no one has made any effort to disguise or destroy.

    This wasn’t a conspiracy; like anyone trying to establish an academic “school,” Buchanan very much hoped that the movement would sweep the nation and the world… If you think that the current system is bad and getting worse, then you hope to start a movement.

  27. John Schilling says:

    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 […] On the other hand, UBI would lead inevitably to the other three points.

    Inevitably? Really?

    I’m pretty sure than when you and S&W talk UBI here you’re talking the idealized version where everybody gets the equivalent of at least a lower-middle-class income and nobody makes them jump through any onerous hoops and there’s no stigma attached. And I’m pretty sure that if you impose that UBI without the necessary automation being right around the corner, you either retreat screaming from the UBI, or you watch the economy collapse into ruin for your inability to simultaneously pay for all the work needed to keep the economy running and all the work necessary to roll out massive automation in an environment where the UBI has just massively increased real market wages but you don’t yet have automation that massively increases real productivity. We can’t afford idealized middle-class-for-everyone UBI unless we already have the automation.

    If, on the other hand, you’re talking about the sort of UBI that could plausibly be implemented in any society and economy resembling our own, then you’re necessarily talking about a poverty-level income floor and that achieved by way of extensive compromises with people who don’t think we can afford a UBI and people who have emotional or ideological reasons to oppose it. That sort of marginal UBI doesn’t result in millions of happily unconstrained people working at whatever private projects they think produce maximum hedons or utils and/or negotiating massive life-changing wage increases. Such a UBI is likely to be quite unsatisfactory, in ways I’ve discussed before, and to have baked into its deep structure from day one the constraints that will prevent it from ever becoming the happy fun UBI we want.

    There are dystopian futures that include a UBI, and I see “Manna” has already been invoked here. And there’s a path dependence problem in avoiding those dystpoias. Because you’re right that doing full automation without having a UBI at the same time is dangerous, but so is doing UBI without having full automation come online at the same time.

    S&W aren’t wrong with their four-point platform. It’s going to take all four, implemented in parallel and with reasonable synchronization. I don’t know how to do that, and from your description neither do S&W, but that’s what needs to be done.

  28. Tarpitz says:

    And on the off-chance that Andrew Yang gives them everything they want

    Am I correctly interpreting the link as implying that the prediction market thinks Yang has approximately a 1/8 of winning the Democratic nomination for President? Am I alone in viewing that estimate as utterly insane? Is a known failure mode of Predictit people with money to burn bidding up the implied likelihood of things they view as desirable happening in the hope that doing so will increase their actual likelihood? Or is this just a more traditional case of wishful thinking?

    • EchoChaos says:

      I would view Yang as a similar type spoiler to Donald Trump at this stage.

      He has a small (2%-ish?) passionate base because he is seen as vocally and uniquely dedicated in the way that sitting politicians aren’t.

      If that base propels him to the debates and he manages to position himself as caring about this issue that the base cares about and position his opponents as not genuinely caring about this issue, he could suddenly skyrocket the way Trump did.

      I would put his chances at lower than Trump because of his lower name recognition and financial resources, and I think 1/8 is probably high, but I would say that 2-3% chance is reasonable.

      • Tarpitz says:

        I agree that 2% is probably reasonable; that’s very different to bracketing him with Harris and O’Rourke, ahead of Warren and Booker.

        I don’t see much evidence that Yang has anything like Trump’s ability to work the media, and I don’t see his message as being as in-demand and under-served within the Democrats as Trump’s was within the Republicans.

        I would love to be wrong about this. Among people who have a >1% chance of being the nominee of a major party in 20/20, Yang is by far the one I like best. But the belief that he is a leading contender strikes me as nerd bubblethink of the highest order.

    • Do you think it’s any less improbable that Trump won?

      • Tarpitz says:

        Yes, much. Trump had huge pre-existing name recognition and a ton of experience with the media, especially the broadcast media. He also had the means and intent to bankroll his campaign.

  29. benquo says:

    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.

    Didn’t Bryan Caplan write at least a closely related book? And then there’s, like, 80% of Overcoming Bias.

  30. TDB says:

    Utopian visions have monoculture problems. The authors almost always imagine that one unifying vision will form the basic organizing principle for all humanity, usually directed by a coherent group of persons who have planned the outcome in detail. Any idea that depends on their plan working the first time (or even the seventh) seems destined to fail.

    Perhaps the market’s greatest strength is that it avoids this mistake. It doesn’t require that everyone do things the same, or even all use markets. It just colonizes all the space it can, advancing or retreating according to local conditions. Utopian visions usually need people to prop them up carefully. The market spreads like a virus, and few are immune.

    What if we thought about the problem from the bottom up instead of top-down? What viruses could infect humans that would help us survive the trials of automation, AGI, climate change, etc. without becoming indifferent to the fate of humanity in general? What sort of bison could a 23rd century tribe hunt?

    Will automation really make resources so plentiful that all conflict will consist of atavistic status seeking? However great the resources we imagine acquiring, we can always imagine a population too big to survive on it. So it will always be a struggle between increasing population and increasing availability of resources (even assuming demand for resources per person is constant or can be reduced).

    Am I turning into Malthus? I don’t think I am that pessimistic, but I don’t have an answer either.

  31. ManyCookies says:

    I know approximately fuck all about communist literature outside of cliff-notes Marx, but I can’t imagine a pop-y book with provocative titles in big words (one I definitely judged by the cover!) represents the best literature communism has to offer. That seems akin to researching conservatism thought through Ann Coulter’s work. This seems like a strange reading choice for Understanding the Communists or whatnot, did a socialist/communist you know enthusiastically recommend it?

    • koreindian says:

      I picked up Inventing The Future (on advice from a couple of left-accelerationists I encountered at the Southern California SSC meetup)…

    • marxbro says:

      Scott doesn’t want to leave his bubble so he only reads “leftist” books recommended to him by people within his bubble.

      • Evan Þ says:

        As we said in the last open thread’s subthread on publishing, most of us read most books thanks to recommendations.

        That said, I agree this book doesn’t sound like the best to represent communist thought.

  32. sclmlw says:

    I have a lot of conservative friends and I’ve spent plenty of time in rural KY, PA, OH, and a couple other states. There is a concern among conservatives that if a welfare state is too generous it will become poorly targeted, no longer just accessible to people in need but also to people who just don’t want to work. Conservatives constantly fret about people trying to game the system, claiming disabilities they don’t have so they can get money for not working.

    And in my experience there is a certain amount of this going on. I knew a man in the mountains of KY who bragged that, among his neighbors, he was the only one not getting SSI checks. This is a bizarre thing to crow about unless you’re claiming your neighbors are cheating the system – which is exactly what he was saying. A couple months later, he started getting SSI checks. I guess it’s hard to stand up to the pressure of being the only working stiff in the holler.

    Most centrists Democrats claim that this is either not a problem, or that the problem is outweighed by the benefits provided to the needy. In reading this review, I realized there are some who may see this as a feature not a bug. Indeed, they might say only problem with the current welfare system is that people have to either be in dire straits to use it, or they have to lie to get in. In that case, the authors should add a fifth prong to their strategy: 5. Remove restrictions to current welfare benefits programs.

    Perhaps you could include this under reducing the work ethic. Certainly, if you told people they could get ‘disability’ without actually being disabled it would change the work ethic. I seem to remember some research that demonstrated the rate at which people on unemployment find a new job rises significantly in the last couple of weeks before the benefit runs out, regardless of how long the benefit is set at. There is a lot of debate about whether a UBI would disincentivize work, but I think there’s strong evidence a program that pays people so long as they do not work (and stops paying once they start working, similar to disability or unemployment) would have a strong negative impact on work.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      I have many problems with a UBI, but the one thing it gets right is that it doesn’t penalize people who work.

      • TDB says:

        @Edward Scizorhands You don’t think people who work will end up paying for UBI? How will that work, a government endowment pays for it? They will still pay for it in effect, as otherwise they could use the endowment for something else. Bleed only the rich? Not enough. You can argue that UBI is worth it, but people who work definitely will pay.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          To repeat, I have many problems with a UBI. I’m not their spokesman.

          All taxes discourage work, but the marginal taxes that people climbing out of poverty are sometimes greater than 100%.

          https://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2008/02/poverty-trap.html

          She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more.

          She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. … She has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

          That is the trap that a UBI avoids. In theory.

      • sclmlw says:

        I agree that it doesn’t penalize work. However to my knowledge we still don’t know whether it will disincentivize work. As in, “I get $35k/yr. on the UBI. I could work 40 hrs./wk. for another $22k, but is it worth it? Maybe I’ll take a part-time job, pull in an additional $10k/yr, and not have to work as much.”

        Depending on how high the UBI is (knowing of course it will have distortion effects on prices) the incentive to work goes down a little or perhaps a lot. Certainly the incentive to take the least pleasant jobs goes down. This is inversely correlated with how much we expect UBI to have an effect on poverty. Obviously a UBI of $5k/yr. isn’t going to do much to help the poor. This is usually seen as the trade-off, but apparently to the communists it’s a trade they want to make on both sides of the bargain.

        It’s probably true that the lowest paying jobs are often among the least pleasant, though not always (paving roads in Phoenix in the summer comes to mind). Since employers would still need most of those positions to be filled by humans, they would have to pay more to overcome any UBI work disincentive effects. Thus, UBI should be expected to increase wages for those who do choose to work (and for those jobs that are not in turn automated as a result of increased cost of human labor). That in turn should pass through to prices, though not equally across the board.

        Prices should go up more in industries that rely heavily on low-paid manual labor, such as restaurants and grocery stores, as wages increase overhead costs. Thus many of the goods and services closest to the poor will see a disproportionate level of inflation, while tech and other products rich people spend money on should be spared much of the distorted inflation. Since everyone will have more money to spend, but rich people’s money will be shielded from much of the resulting inflation, a UBI might cause increased inequality.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Yes, one of my larger concerns about the UBI is that, in addition to driving up my taxes to pay for it, it will also drive up the wages I need to pay for all the things I consume.

          Don’t tell me how there’s no work to be done after I get home from a full day of work, and then need to mow my lawn and go shopping and find someone to fix my car and get inspections done and . . .

  33. greghb says:

    If you’re looking for another of the 50 books to read to understand a communist (or, at least, anarchist) perspective, and you like utopias, and you haven’t already read it, I recommend The Dispossessed by Le Guin.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      Seconded. Le Guin distinguished herself as a much more honest left-utopian than most, and one of my formative realizations of high level value differences came from reading The Dispossessed and thinking that she must have an esoteric anti-left-anarchist message because Urras was so obviously a better place to live than Anarres. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias series from the 1980s was similar in that the world of _The Gold Coast_ was clearly preferable to that of _Pacific Edge_.

      • The Dispossessed plays fair on its anarchist society, showing it with its problems. But the statist planet it is contrasted to looks like 1950’s USA as imagined by a loyal communist who had never been out of the Soviet Union. Its only real advantage is that the planet is a much pleasanter environment than the satellite.

  34. Sigivald says:

    “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”

    These particular Communists say that, as would, say Iain Banks (who may or may not have been a Communist, but sure did write about a post-scarcity utopia) – and I share with you the both the belief they’re wrong about a lot of things, and that it’d be great to not have to work.

    But “Communists” in general don’t think “work is bad and we should not have to do it”, at least not historically.

    They just want labor to be “un-alienated”, and not parasitized by a Capitalist class; thus their love of labor movements, oddly never predicated on ending work.

    (I completely disagree with Marxian analysis and worldview, myself, but it’s not like historical Communism was silent about labor; it wasn’t trying to abolish it, not by any means!)

    • Plumber says:

      @Sigivald,
      IIRC the CPUSA’s “International Publishers” (along with others printed both visions of ‘socialist’ utopias from the 19th century: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards had a “post-scarcity” technological future of 2000, and William Morris’ News From Nowhere, which had it’s revolution take place in 1952 and took place in the pastoral communism where “the state has withered away” of 2102 and everyone happily harvest wheat and makes handicrafts which they give as gifts to each other (no cash or explicit barter), and somehow there’s enough food and shelter to go around while much of the time us spent being sculpters and such, and steam engines and other industrial machinery of the 19th century abandoned.

      I think it was in response to Morris that George Orwell wrote (IIRC) “The work had been done by hand – bleeding hands.

      • eigenmoon says:

        Bellamy is actually pretty much into working. His society is a Gulag where everybody “owes” a military-like service to the state and a lot of moral weight is put upon it:

        “Service, now, I suppose, is compulsory upon all,” I suggested.

        “It is rather a matter of course than of compulsion,” replied Dr. Leete. “It is regarded as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of. He would be thought to be an incredibly contemptible person who should need compulsion in such a case. Nevertheless, to speak of service being compulsory would be a weak way to state its absolute inevitableness. Our entire social order is so wholly based upon and deduced from it that if it were conceivable that a man could escape it, he would be left with no possible way to provide for his existence. He would have excluded himself from the world, cut himself off from his kind, in a word, committed suicide.”

        Morris is a libertarian socialist and doesn’t really count here.

        Actual communism does seem to have a cult of working. “Labour in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, pride and heroism” and all that.

    • Viliam says:

      But “Communists” in general don’t think “work is bad and we should not have to do it”, at least not historically.

      I agree. Here is a song we learned at elementary school during the communist regime.

      Song of Work (Slovak audio)

      Sound, o song famous, noble
      Praise the work which alone
      Can lead humanity to welfare

      Because everything the human has here
      Only the brave work gives
      Be honored the work!
      Be honored the work!

      That work, mother of progress
      Along with the army by her side
      Defends her honor

      The world shakes off the yoke of chains
      The battle of our principles wins
      Be honored the work!
      Be honored the work!

      I think it would be kinda difficult to define yourself as a “Party of workers, peasants, and working intelligence” without making work an applause light.

      Engels believed that work was responsible for evolution of apes to humans.

    • benf says:

      According to a Czech student of mine, at least in Communist Czechoslovakia, unemployment was a CRIME. To each according to his needs is the part everyone remembers, but the from each according to their ability is the other side of that coin. After all, the problem with the rentier class parasites is that they DON’T work for their money, right?

  35. Qith says:

    Not sure if someone already posted about this, but if you want some anti-deregulation of the airlines pieces I’ll leave them here (I’m not saying I agree with them, but the position exists).
    This is a good summary
    A piece by Matt Stoller
    This talks mostly about
    regional inequality

    As does this one, although you have to get to the middle before it talks about airlines

  36. Deiseach says:

    Perhaps a reason for “why don’t ordinary people pick up on hey, there’s an alternative to capitalism and it’s called communism” is because ordinary people have seen communism in action, and no, all those attempts do count as Real Communism, not some “but Real Communism has never been tried!” excuses I see trotted out.

    For example, I very much don’t want this to happen:

    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.

    Because this is how it turns out when the Left does capture the academy and Real Communism is installed. I like arguments over sources, I don’t want arguments over sources to revolve around “is X in or out of political favour?” and not on scholarship, as this example from Chinese Communist scholarship on the classic Journey to the West displays (all text taken from a 1989 paper on Suen Wu-Kung = Hanumat? about whether or not the Handsome Monkey King of Chinese literature was influenced by, or even an imitation of, the Indian Bajrang Bali*).

    Commentary excerpted from text:

    Chinese Communist scholars, however, have vehemently repudiated the theory of Monkey’s Indian origin – to them, this is another instance of Hu Shih’s deliberate slighting of China’s creative self-sufficiency. In an important paper [published 1958] the learned scholar Wu Hsiao-ling has traced all references to The R[amayana] in Chinese literature.

    Everyone knows that the scholars who are mired in the mainland have not had freedom of expression. Even today, academic papers are devoted to political themes. Therefore, the present writer suspects that Wu Hsiao-ling’s argument was in reality based on political opposition to Hu Shih. In 1955, Feng Yüan-chün issued her criticism of Hu Shih’s textual research on J[ourney to the] W[est]. In it, Feng claimed that Hu Shih’s statement that “The disciple Suen has his origin in Indian legend” was a deliberate attempt to diminish the confidence of Chinese people in their creativity.

    And the kind of polemic that even a scholar is expected to churn out to fit in with The Party Line? Here you go:

    Feng Yüan-chün, 1955, excerpt from article criticising Hu Shih’s scholarship on the “Journey to the West” (Hu Shih held that Hanuman was the inspiration for Sun Wukong):

    These views commit the following two errors:

    First, these views reflect Hu Shih’s slave mentality to his foreign masters of worshipping everything that comes from abroad and denigrating his own native country. Under the control of his obsequiousness to foreign countries and his traitoriousness (sic) to his own country, Hu Shih believe that, throughout the ages, China has always fallen behind in everything. “Our country’s indigenous culture, in truth, was lacking”. As a result of this kind of thinking, there develops a situation where, if China has something which is similar to that of another country, then it definitely is an import or an “imitation” that arose under the influence of the import.

    … (H)e perversely has to bring up Hanuman, this Indian import. …In this fashion, not only does Hu Shih sever the legitimate relationship between a work of literature and oral folk creativity, he betrays the creative rights of the Chinese people. This is patently his slave mentality to foreign masters of worshipping everything that comes from abroad and denigrating his own native county which is playing mischief.

    …If one does not have a firm grasp of the hard evidence, and arbitrarily imagines that something belonging to one people is an “import” from another people, or goes so far as to say that what was indigenous to a people is an “imitation” of an “import” from another people, this is really being crazy, ignorant, and opposed to science.

    No matter whether he is denigrating his own native country or acting in opposition to science, Hu Shih’s conclusions are all premised upon his comprador-capitalist class mentality that remains constant despite all of its apparent changes.

    So an important “Chinese philosopher, essayist and diplomat … widely recognized today as a key contributor to Chinese liberalism and language reform in his advocacy for the use of written vernacular Chinese. He was influential in the May Fourth Movement, one of the leaders of China’s New Culture Movement, was a president of Peking University, and in 1939 was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature” still gets the stick when the political winds blow from another quarter and he’s a disfavoured person. Never mind the scholarly basis for or against the proposition, feel the complete agreement with the pure principles of Communist thought!

    Yeah, I’ll pass, thanks.

    Wow, it’s been a long time since I heard or read the term “comprador” but apparently it’s back in fashion! Or maybe it never went away:

    With the emergence (or re-emergence) of globalization, the term comprador has reentered the lexicon to denote trading groups and classes in the developing world in subordinate but mutually advantageous relationships with metropolitan capital. The Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin has discussed the role of compradors in the contemporary global economy in his recent work. In addition, the Indian economist, Ashok Mitra, has accused the owners and managers of firms attached to the Indian software industry of being compradors. Growing identification of the software industry in India with comprador ‘qualities’ has led to the labeling of certain persons associated with the industry as ‘dot.compradors’.

    *Don’t @ me, as the young people say, for this being the kind of thing I read for fun; you guys do the same kind of thing 🙂

  37. (notice the suggestion to raise the minimum wage in order to encourage automation;

    That’s a terrible way to go about it. You should want high status, high wealth people to be the vanguard of the automation movement. As long as unemployment is associated with the dregs of society, then the populace and people in government will fight against it.

    • Eponymous says:

      The point is that a high minimum wage raises the cost of labor to companies, which incentivizes labor-saving innovation (e.g. automation).

      • Obviously. But even if you assume that new jobs won’t be created to replace those, then that still doesn’t affect the jobs of the high status. And people copy, or at least attempt to copy to the best of their abilities, the high status.

        • Nicholas says:

          It seems like automating unskilled tasks would be easier than automating skilled tasks though, and developing a task automation industry would seem like a great way to start advancing from automating unskilled to skilled tasks. If we said you have to start by automating Elon Musk, well, you probably won’t get there before the singularity. Start at the bottom and we can automate 80+% of the workforce in short order.

          • I’m not suggesting to automate Elon Musk. I’m suggesting that you get the wealthy of the world to get their status from leisure/philosophy/anything not economically useful. Focus your marginal effort on culture rather than economics. Otherwise, new jobs will be created but they’ll all be something stupid like social media coordinator.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            all be something stupid like social media coordinator.

            e.g. “it’s just paying someone to fart around on Twitter, why is that a real job”?, right.

            I used to think that “social media coordinator” was a stupid job. Then I saw from the inside the kind of expensive mistakes that a company can make by not having one, and the kind of advantages a company can create by having a good one.

            “social media coordinator” is no more a “stupid job” than “press secretary” or “campaign manager” or “editor”.

      • It only raises the cost of unskilled labor, since skilled labor was already making more than the new minimum wage. So it’s an incentive to automate away things done by unskilled labor or to substitute skilled labor for unskilled.

        • baconbits9 says:

          To be fair this assumes that skilled jobs are otherwise equal to unskilled jobs. If the minimum wage was high enough some people would forego college reducing the pool of skilled labor, driving up prices.

          • Nicholas says:

            Not to mention, if the UBI is high enough….

          • You appear to be assuming that a high minimum wage means anyone who wants to can get a job at that wage. But the wage for low skilled labor, absent a minimum wage law, is at the level at which quantity supplied equals quantity demanded, like other prices. The higher the minimum wage, the bigger the difference between the two.

            A better argument for your conclusion is that, since skilled labor and unskilled labor are sometimes substitutes, pricing the latter out of the market will raise the demand for the former.

            Arguably, that was the political motive behind the imposition of a federal minimum wage. The textile industry was moving south to take advantage of cheap unskilled labor, so politicians from northern states supported a law that would force up the wages that southern mills had to pay, thus increase employment of northern textile workers.

  38. Rob K says:

    I’d actually say that implementing your ideals in the structure of your movement is a great way to test whether your ideals work.

    In the mid 2000s, I was basically an anarchist, politically. It was actually a really successful time for anarchism – via the anti-war movement, a lot of practices descending from things like Quakers via the Clamshell Alliance that were compatible with an anarchist vision of the world became part of the standard operating manual of broader left organizations.

    And then Occupy happened! Basically an opportunity to field-test those principles and practices in a rapidly growing movement with a national platform. And it was a total shit-show, and quickly degenerated into petty parochial squabbling. The institutions were completely incapable of processing the amount of business that needed to pass through them, or of effectively prioritizing big picture concerns vs the hobby horses of whoever happened to have a lot of time on their hands.

    And, after thinking some about whether there were obvious ways around this problem, I decided that there weren’t any that were good enough to want to use them as a model for society (as opposed to small, self-selected groups with barriers to entry, where it works just fine), and so I’m not an anarchist anymore.

    From a communist perspective, the flip side of this is a lot of what Darkness at Noon is about. They built a movement that was structured around doing whatever it took to achieve power, and it resulted in…a government that was all about doing whatever it took to maintain power. Seems possibly connected.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      As an anarchist who remains an anarchist, I’m interpreting Occupy’s failure as a mixture of lifestylism and SJW particularism. You won’t get a successful movement/society out of people with no real stake in it.

      I’m sure that if you dropped the Occupiers on a remove uninhabited island, they’d do better. (The joke about how so would the remaining leftists goes here.)

      • Doctor Locketopus says:

        If you dropped typical “Occupiers” on a remote, uninhabited island, you’d have cannibalism in two weeks, and all of them dead within six months.

  39. Doctor Locketopus says:

    One explanation (advanced by Eric Raymond, among others) for the “We’ve smashed things up. Now what do we do?” phenomenon is that this is not a planning failure at all, but quite intentional.

    According to this theory, the Western “left” is primarily made up of human memebots who are running unmaintained propaganda scripts that were written by the KGB decades ago.

    The “leftists” are not supposed to know what to do after the system has been smashed. What’s actually supposed to happen next is that the commissars fly in from Moscow, say “Thanks, useful idiots. You’ve been useful.”, and load them on a train to somewhere they can continue serving the State in other capacities, such as by digging a canal across the Canadian Arctic by hand.

    • OriginalSeeing says:

      Propaganda scripts or political philosophy scripts that are still running unmaintained decades (or centuries?) after their creation seem really common. A lot of things I’ve heard people say today make a ton of sense for pre-revolutionary France, but nowhere near as much sense today.

      Scott’s post about rentiers is all over that shizbiz.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      I wish I could muster sufficient charity towards communists to recoil in horror at that thought, but my spontaneous reaction was “yeah, that sounds totally right”.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The difficult bit here is establishing that all the memes found in the left were in fact supplied by the KGB with this goal in mind.

      Because it’s a lovely theory, if one simplifies the history of the political left in the Western world enough. Say, to the point of oversimplification.

      • Doctor Locketopus says:

        See:

        http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=260

        and:

        http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=218

        The American “left” was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the KGB and its predecessors for a very, very long time, long before Molotov and Ribbentrop made nice and Hitler suddenly became the new hero of the proletariat (for a short while).

        Most “leftists”, of course, adopted the new party line without a qualm.

        Orwell parodied the phenomenon with his “We have always been at war with EastAsia” bit.

        Eric Hoffer also had much to say on this.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          You are misinterpreting Orwell, for starters. If you want a detailed discussion about his views on Soviet infiltration and the degree of same, I suggest you consult more of his writings:

          https://orwelllibrary.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/orwell-george-collected-essays-journalism-letters-vol-4-1945-1950-secker-warburg-19681.pdf

          In particular I’d like to refer you to pages 339-342 of the PDF. Too long to quote the full passage usefully here, but suffice to say that Orwell points out that depictions of Western leftists as a secret army of infiltrators loyal to Moscow “all sound true enough until one applies them to the Communists one actually knows.”

          There were individual communists who were blatantly willing to sell out their own countries to Moscow. There were a fair number on the left who were at times susceptible to being turned into dupes by those individuals. There were also a great many on the left who were neither of the above. Including, for example, George Orwell.

          [Orwell has a memetic status as either a right-wing thinker or as a repentant left-wing thinker. He was neither. He was, quite simply, an anti-tyranny socialist, and as such had a far better accuracy rate when it came to denouncing mid-20th century political movements that deserved denunciation than almost anyone else of his time.]

          As to Eric Raymond’s blog posts in your links, suffice to say that I’m reluctant to take his word for all things without a deeper dive than time permits at the moment. Red-baiting is an extremely common tactic that has been used both rightly and wrongly by many people. Those who used it wrongly or for personal advantage range from Hitler through McCarthy and all the way down to Donald Trump, in descending order of competence and effectiveness. It’s been used as a malicious lie enough times that one should be suspicious of it, much as one should be suspicious of the claim “all these bad things are the result of a conspiracy of wealthy Jews.”

          It is very easy to say “every intellectual who was ever in contact with the Communists is a Stalinist plant whose writings are all part of a plot to destroy the West.” It is very convenient to do so. It is a very effective way of avoiding the real question “but was this person demonstrably taking orders from Moscow,” or for that matter the real question “but were this person’s writings factually correct?”

          • I agree that Orwell’s letters and essays are a good source on this, but I think his picture of his fellow leftists is a good deal less positive than yours. Certainly there were some, such as Orwell himself, who were critical of the Soviet Union. But the impression I get from his writing is that they were the exception, not the rule, that most of the left minimized Soviet atrocities and were generally sympathetic to their policies.

            Orwell’s review of The Road to Serfdom and The Mirror of the Past by Zilliacus gives a good picture of Orwell’s view–that socialism was very dangerous for Hayek’s reasons, but the alternative unworkable for Zilliacus’ reasons, hence one had to hope that it would be possible to establish socialism while somehow avoiding its totalitarian potential.

            The summary at the beginning:

            Yet each writer is convinced that the other’s policy leads directly to slavery, and the alarming thing is that they may both be right.

    • James says:

      As a programmer, esr should know better than to think that scripts unmaintained for decades will just mysteriously continue to operate.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        This is also a good point. It would be most peculiar if active KGB agents’ propaganda and tactics could persist, functionally unchanged, decades after they themselves had been recalled or transferred to go start suborning the far right instead of the far left.

        You might expect the odd slogan here or there to persist, but everything? When the ’60s radicals are two generations removed from the present-day radicals?

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        The thing is, we know that this can and has happened.

        People still, to this day, repeat nonsense about nuclear winter which was deliberately spread by the KGB to weaken America’s nuclear position.

        To clarify, I don’t think that this represents super-human propaganda skills on the part of the Soviet Union. Rather, there were and are a lot of highly influential people in the West who desperately want to believe anything which justifies disarming their nations. All the Russians needed to do was to provide justifications; our fifth columnists happily accepted those justifications just as they happily accept them from Islamists and environmentalists today.

      • Nornagest says:

        Unmaintained scripts from decades ago don’t work because the toolchains have changed. But the “script” here is running on people, and I don’t think people change like that. Their environments do, but does that really matter so much?

  40. Nicholas says:

    Is it just me or is UBI + automation pretty weak-sauce communism? It’s certainly no dictatorship of the prolitariate. In fact, it seems like the ultimate concession to capitalism. “Ok capitalists, you can keep doing your capitalist thing, but first we’ll put a system in place where you can completely exploit your ‘labor’ (robots are technically just more capital) and then we’ll just opt out of economic production altogether. Oh, but please never stop capitalism-ing, because our ubi cheques are all depending on you.”

    It’s been a while since I read any Marx, but I’m pretty sure ownership of the means of production was important for directing the outputs of production as much as capturing returns of production for labor.

    Also, in a labor-theory-of-value framework, how is ubi not exploiting capitalists? If each doesn’t contribute according to their ability, what is the justification for each receiving according to their need?

    • I agree. UBI is trendy pseudo-socialism from people who have capitulated into thinking that the essential features of capitalism (production of use-values for sale as commodities by independent producers, where labor-power itself is also a commodity) are immortal.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Or, alternatively, that said features of capitalism are useful, too useful to give up lightly. But that while we need to preserve capitalism, we must break the connection between having to labor for the capitalists and being able to survive in the world, because otherwise capitalism will replace all the laborers with more capital and everyone is doomed.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          because otherwise capitalism will replace all the laborers with more capital and everyone is doomed.

          Why doomed?

          The WEIRD cultures, especially in the technocratic cities, appear to be switching to a negative population growth context. If the automation-labor substitution process tracks roughly the same rate, we will have a bumpy but sustainable demographic ride down to…. something.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Two reasons.

            One, automation may yet start to outpace population decline. Population decline is a consequence of demographic trends that were pretty well set in stone decades ago. Advances in automation are consequences of totally unpredictable changes in computer technology and programming, things we cannot now predict. And obviously, if automation starts to outrun population decline, we have a problem so long as society is running on a “who does not work, does not eat” paradigm.

            Two, we cannot guarantee that most humans will be [i]useful to the robot economy.[/i]

            Most people have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to become computer programmers, robotics engineers, or the like. Most people have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to fetch opera slippers and serve as arm candy or harem slaves for the billionaires who own the robot factories.

            So we’re thinking about the prospect that in 20-30 years the economy is becoming increasingly robotic and human labor is becoming marginalized (a la Manna), BUT there simply aren’t enough wealth-generating assets productive enough to compete for resources and opportunities with the growing robotic sector.

    • Sigivald says:

      Post-scarcity Communism, if we envision such a thing, can’t be Marx’s Communism.

      Because Marx’s Communism is a Communism of scarcity; it is, at least in that, firmly grounded in the real, current world.

      (Labor theory of value? Do even Marxists still try to justify that? Last I vaguely checked I thought they’d invented enough epicycles and jargon to finally give it up, if not to admit they’d done so.

      I’m baffled that even Marx, in 1840, could have thought that worked, that eight hours of ditch-digging had the “value” of eight hours of repairing a locomotive.)

      • marxbro says:

        I’m baffled that even Marx, in 1840, could have thought that worked, that eight hours of ditch-digging had the “value” of eight hours of repairing a locomotive.

        He addresses this in the first 20 pages or so of Capital Vol.1. You must not have engaged with Marx charitably or else you wouldn’t have this misunderstanding.

    • marxbro says:

      Yes, it’s not communism, and these kinds of books are only produced by social democrats / democratic socialists who are kidding themselves.

  41. lumenis says:

    I’ve got a friend in a well known publishing house who assures me they have a saying that “if you CAN’T judge a book by its cover, then the publisher hasn’t done their job.”

  42. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    This review is incredibly interesting, not so much for the explanation of the book’s policy proposals (which are insipid) but for what it shows about the psychology of the authors and their intended audience.

    One great example, although in this case from Scott:

    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.

    This makes perfect sense if business owners were perfectly capable of automating their businesses at low or no cost, but simply chose not to. Light a little fire under the rich and they’ll cough up all the treasure they’ve been hiding.

    But what if the rich actually aren’t hiding any treasure? What if most business owners just don’t know how to automate their businesses, or the automation would cost more than they could afford after labor prices shoot up across the board? Then you’re fucked: you could turn up the heat until you burn down the entire economy and never see any treasure.

    This instinct to look at scarcity and assume that there must be hoarders behind it is ancient but also fundamentally innumerate. If the entire wealth of the world was confiscated and redistributed evenly, the sum for each person would be paltry even with perfect efficiency. There’s no secret storehouse of unlimited wealth to tap, and consequently no amount of searching will uncover it. The only way to enrich the world is to work to create new wealth.

    • Walter says:

      Your point about the businesses is roughly why I am against a UBI. That is, ok, if you have to pay lawyer wages to get a gas station attendant, then it doesn’t mean that the gas station attendants will be better paid, it means that the gas station is closed.

      Like, the numbers on the paper can be whatever, hat tip Venezuela, if nobody is doing any work (and why would we?), then things will fall apart.

    • Deiseach says:

      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

      Look, I’ve been seeing this prophesied since the 70s, when I was a pre-teen reading a condensed encyclopedia of history and they got to “what will the future hold?”

      In the upcoming decades of the 1980s and 90s, because of all the automation and efficiency and productivity, people would only be working four days a week, and only something like four hours a day. Everyone would be earning full pay for fewer hours, so they’d have plenty of disposable income and plenty of leisure to dispose of it.

      Everyone on here with tales of “yeah but you have to put in sixty and seventy hour work weeks if you want to climb the ladder” tell me how that worked out?

      It’s always promised and it’s never going to happen. When the typewriter eventually took over from pen-and-ink clerking in Victorian and Edwardian offices? Yes, the new improved models and trained operators meant that a day’s correspondence could now be disposed of in a morning. This did not mean that the boss said “Very well Miss Jones, you may go home for the rest of the day” – work expanded to fill the time. Now you could handle extra correspondence, and linking all this in with the telegraph and telephone meant that (relatively) instantaneous communication could happen, and the pace picked up. Now businesses expected answers to letters immediately, and now they could write to more customers and farther afield. Increasing automation didn’t mean fewer work hours, it meant an expansion of work that could be done.

      We’ll never have “automation means you only need to work three hours a day”, we’ll have “fully automated and you’re out of a job” or “24/7 availability because now we can talk to the other side of the globe when their offices are open and we need someone on call all the time”.

  43. fion says:

    Typo: Section V is followed by Section V.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      You consider this a problem only because of your mis-guided desire for order and hierarchy.

      Do I have to add the /sarc ?

    • danridge says:

      I actually liked this typo. It reminded me of reading The Last Psychiatrist.

  44. simbalimsi says:

    I haven’t read the book myself, but from your review (still considering the angle that I’m reading a review by a non-communist) I can say that it’s not that great.

    It’s nice to know that you want to understand the communist way of thinking as well. I can do my best to explain stuff here, and also where I think the book is wrong. Marxism basically says capitalism is another phase in human civilization, that came after feudalism and will leave its place to some other thing which would eventually be replaced itself as well. I’m not 100% convinced if that next phase will be communism and not some other thing, but it’s a bet as good as any (and definitely better than to think capitalism will stay indefinitely, old high kings probably also thought the same about their ways). Capitalism is a system that has to grow in order to not implode. In the past it fueled itself by colonization, later imperialism, and also technological improvements. It is not a bad bet that once all the world is a part of capitalism and we’re not technologically advanced enough to exploit the rest of the universe at scale, only technological advancements will not be enough to fuel the growth capitalism demands. If that growth is not there, the number of failing businesses and jobs will roughly equal the ones that thrive.

    Their critique of folk politics is correct at the beginning, but their conclusion of deciding to create a Pelerin kind of society does not make sense at all. One can have the most devious society there is, but without some top dogs who has some vested interest in the change about to come, nobody will resort to their ways. If it wasn’t going to make the top 0.01% much more richer than the rest of the planet, nobody would’ve listened to the Pelerin people’s neoliberal ways no matter how secretly influential they are at academic circles. So, you can have the most powerful communist secret organization, it’s no good unless you also indoctrinated some big shot leaders or also controlling the army/police.

    Moreover; it’s things like equality for everybody, honesty and answerability to people etc who draw people to far left and communism. People who has deep beliefs in those avenues would be less inclined to run a secret infiltrating society for long. Also, the ratio of power hungry sociopaths who like the optics of left or who just see it as another way of rising into power will be higher there.

    There’s also violent reaction from capitalism to various kinds of left everywhere. It’s a cliche to say socialism/communism didn’t work anywhere, but many of those places were couped to death, bombed to stone age or at least economocally strangled by the capitalist world. Not only countries but also parts of countries that didn’t revolt in any way and just governed themselves communally. It is no coincidence that the more brutal and repressive the government, the longer living the communist country. When they try to run it normally, they get infiltrated and couped. So the good died young like Chile and the crazy stayed until the end like North Korea.

    I think the biggest problem of communism is the same as the biggest problem of capitalism. There are actual people who can have vested interests, greed, lust for power etc in critical places be it the central commissariat of whatever in communism to heads of big financial institutions in capitalism. There’s always a bottleneck in the system that will be abused. The people who need to make sure nobody has a lot of power have no motives to not collect the power themselves.

    Communism experiments failing does not mean that capitalism is not failing. Crisis comes after crisis. Inequality is rising hand in hand with fascism. The richer are getting logarithmically more richer than the rest. What comes after capitalism can have a different name than communism, but something will come after capitalism. This cannot be the peak of human civilization.

    What I believe now myself is a lot different than what I used to believe 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Now I know that when there are positions of power, everything will devolve. Also, a top-down revolution would just get one bombed by the capitalist world. The best is trying to take under control the place one works. More than 50% of the stocks of the company I used to work was owned by one of the big telecom R&D companies who got hit hard by the dotcom bubble and financial fraud by executives. The bankruptcy process took more than a decade, and finally they were about to sell the shares they had in the company I worked for. I suggested instead of selling to another corporation, they can sell to a board comprised of the workers of the company. So, any profit to be made would go to whoever is working there and any decision the board takes would be taken by a board by the workers.

    That was (and still is) what I believe the solution is. On local scale, try to seize the means of production and try to make every process democratic. This doesn’t have to be the workplace, it can be your building administration, your local park or whatever. Take local initiative, try to do good, and try to seize the means of production. If you be a good example, more people will do and at one point you’ll have started a movement. Since working at places where the profits also go to workers will be more appealing to people looking for jobs, you’ll have a more competitive product and outcompete the capitalist companies out of the free market.

    Well, I still believe in this but what happened was different. The CEO and the then current board of the company who was taking place in selling process had ties to one of the buyers, probably receiving kickbacks of different kinds. I was bullied out of the company (now I have a better job, but still I would’ve preferred my old job where we also would get to be in charge), the company was sold to an investor company for a value lower than the land the company’s campus was built on, the investor company in turn sold the patch of land in months (and already turned a profit), moved the company elsewhere on a rented plaza building and sold the rest to a Chinese company the following year.

    Communism may be some failed experiments, and some nutjobs like Kim, but capitalism is my small story that happens everywhere everyday. The corrupt politicans, pork barrels, kickbacks, all that happened before 2008 crisis, ultra rich people hiring armies of the best finance people and lawyers so they don’t pay any taxes and be above law while the working class people just toil for them. Same people would’ve been the corrupt party leaders in an alternate communist version of today and I’d be probably more or less as pissed off with the system as I am today. All I can confer is that an ideal system should prevent any individual or group from having big amounts of power. If humans find a way to be in a position give or accept bribes, they’ll do so. It really feels nihilistic but that’s the reality.

    Humankind is beautiful, but there is enough rot in us to make all of us go bad. Police and armed forces will be violent, politicians will be corrupt, executives will be swindlers. Under a form of extreme left ideology it will be less worse, but that’s that. With extreme automation it can be utopia, but more likely dystopia.

    I know I’m not 100% coherent in this post but I wrote it in the course of a day while working and I have some conflicting thoughts about the subject anyway but I believe what I’m trying to say is still there if read with an open mind 🙂

    • Capitalism is a system that has to grow in order to not implode.

      I have seen that claim, but no justification for it. Why couldn’t you have a steady-state capitalist society? Population happens to remain stable, savings are just sufficient to maintain the capital stock.

      In practice you don’t get that because of the combination of capital accumulation and technological progress, but what in the logic of a market economy makes it impossible?

      • simbalimsi says:

        Because in a real free market profits will converge to zero in the long run due to competition if there’s not enough growth. It will turn into a zero-ish sum game between companies. In order for it to stay steady state there should be some meaningful amount of regulation.

        You say capital accumulation as if it’s a good thing

        • NoRandomWalk says:

          simablimsy that’s just…not true
          ‘profits’ don’t go to 0 in long run
          ‘economic profits’ goes to 0
          ‘economic profits’ is a term of art in economics, and it means your profits in excess of your opportunity cost, or internal pricing of leisure

          so let’s say everyone is indifferent between working an hour and making $5, and watching tv

          profits don’t collapse to 0 for working an hour because there’s no one willing to give up an hour of tv for $4. profits stay at $5/hour.

          there’s nothing about capitalism that depends on exponential growth to exist, it’s just a positive side effect

          • simbalimsi says:

            If a business is turning a profit, its competitor has motive to lower the price a bit more and turning in a little less profit. This converges to zero.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            It doesn’t go to zero, though, is the thing. At least in the usual models, it goes to the opportunity cost. Which is to say, “economic profit” — different from profit in the ordinary sense — goes to zero. (And it should be fairly clear that it can’t converge to something lower than the opportunity cost, because then people would switch businesses rather than go that low. Admittedly this is assuming said opportunity cost remains fixed, I suppose, so that’s not a proof or anything, but still worth noting.)

            But, I’m just repeating what NoRandomWalk already said. I think we need to get here a better idea of just what your reasoning is. What is your basis for claiming that it goes to zero? What mathematical analysis or empirical evidence or combination of the two are you using, that would suggest that it would go to zero rather than to the opportunity cost?

          • Nornagest says:

            If a business is turning a profit, its competitor has motive to lower the price a bit more and turning in a little less profit. This converges to zero.

            Let’s say I think I can make widgets for $8, and I also think I can dust off my resume and go work as a product manager for Gizmos, Inc. for $200,000/yr. If I think I can sell 100,000 widgets a year, then the lowest sale price that keeps me in the widget business is $10. And similar reasoning applies to all my competitors.

            IRL the calculations are more complicated because the amount I sell is also going to vary with price (not to mention that I’d probably be paying different tax rates, etc.), but the point is that I’m not incentivized to drive the price all the way down to cost, as long as there’s other things I could be doing.

          • simbalimsi says:

            I cannot seem to reply to messages after a certain level. Whatever.

            I wrote like 10 paragraphs of stuff, and all you guys want to argue is a technicality and a mathematical proof for that.

            There aren’t many corners of the world left not consumed by capitalism, we’ll see in a decade or so who is right.

            Maybe that’s not even necessary. Why does capitalist economies have big shrinking periods every once in a while? Without shedding off some fat to consume later capitalism just cannot survive.

            Let’s say you are right and the profit converges not to 0 but to some very small value. Will it be enough for capitalism to subsist?

            Without exploitation of some people, without consuming some other system, capitalism just cannot survive. Capitalism is barbarism. Capitalism is cannibalism. Believing in a cannibalist cargo cult doesn’t make it any less so.

            @Nornagest: In an economy where your widget business is not as profitable as you working elsewhere, the places you’ll be working will either be shutdown or else offering much less salary.

          • Nornagest says:

            In an economy where your widget business is not as profitable as you working elsewhere, the places you’ll be working will either be shutdown or else offering much less salary.

            Wrong. There is no law of nature saying that one industrial process has to be as efficient in resources as another one, or that the money costs of resources have to stay constant over time. No law of psychology saying that you have to be as good at making widgets as at wrangling Gant charts, either. Any of these could make widget-making less profitable for you even if the economy’s doing just fine.

            And this isn’t just a theoretical argument. Entrepreneurs give up their businesses to work for someone else all the time. Most business ventures fail, even in strong economies. I personally know something like half a dozen founders that now work for other companies and make more money doing it.

          • @simbalimsi:

            Economic profit goes to zero, and not just in the long run. But economic profit is net of, among other things, the market return on the capital used in the business. Profit in the sense of the return on capital goes to the equilibrium interest rate, the interest rate at which the supply of capital from people willing to trade consumption now for more consumption later equals the demand for capital, borrowers willing to give more in the future than they get now.

            So you have a long term equilibrium in which all prices, including the rent on capital, are at their quantity supplied equals quantity demanded level. The fact that economic profit averages zero isn’t a problem.

        • Eponymous says:

          Because in a real free market profits will converge to zero in the long run due to competition if there’s not enough growth.

          There’s no necessary connection between rate of profit and rate of growth. You can have balanced growth with zero profit (e.g. in the Solow growth model). Or you can have zero growth with profit (e.g. if firms have market power and there are barriers to entry).

        • Clutzy says:

          Capital just means goods that produce value either on their own or as a force multiplier for labor. So, yes, it is good for a society to accumulate it.

          • simbalimsi says:

            capital accumulating at a small number of individuals instead of getting distibuted is the bad thing

          • John Schilling says:

            Why? There are definitely economies of scale in the use of capital, e.g. you can run a much better transatlantic airline with 1.0 jet airliners than with 0.9 (or one that has the range to cross 90% of the Atlantic). Having one person own the capital that will be used for one venture seems like the ideal approach to e.g. running airlines, and I’m not sure how “we distribute the capital to many people but they all delegate it back to one person who runs the airline for them” is fundamentally superior.

            If there really is some reason to believe that returns on capital generally outgrow returns on labor, sure, dividing nominal ownership and dividend-sharing of the capital may be useful within limits, but even then understand that operational control of capital will and should accumulate in a power-law fashion.

          • Clutzy says:

            simbalimsi says:
            March 19, 2019 at 4:38 pm ~new~

            capital accumulating at a small number of individuals instead of getting distibuted is the bad thing

            You are just handwaving away the most important step of generating the capital.

            This POV common in left wing circles reminds me of jokes about engineers and physicists where at some point the engineer inevitably says, “assume a spherical chicken.” Of course there are no spherical chickens. But, that’s why its a punchline. But it also shows the wisdom of the person saying it because they admit they have little clue how to formulate the “real answer” so they are giving you an estimate, and being upfront about the estimate.

            When you make a statement that “assumes the capital” then you are inherently admitting you have no clue how capital comes into being. Thus the conclusions that follow should be humble about capital formation and how it goes. But it seems the conclusions often drawn after “assuming the capital” are generally extremely bold.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            you have no clue how capital comes into being

            It’s obvious how, though. Labor produces it.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Clutzy, you quoted a post with “~ new ~” in it. Many people search for new posts by finding that string. Sadly you are out of the edit window, but it’s generally frowned upon to do that.

            I suspect you didn’t know all this, so that’s okay.
            It’s also a chance for other people to learn that today, too.

          • Lambert says:

            @Edward Scizorhands

            Thanks for the tip, the ‘n comments since’ box is a real faff.

            Ctrl-F’s *squiggle* new *squiggle*

          • Clutzy says:

            Oops, I certainly had not noticed that in the least. Now I can’t unsee the letters and squiggles on a bunch of posts.

          • acymetric says:

            Funny enough, I discovered using that method of browsing new posts due to someone else including it in their post like Clutzy did…I previously had never noticed it. Made browsing active posts much more pleasant.

        • Aapje says:

          @simbalimsi

          In order for it to stay steady state there should be some meaningful amount of regulation.

          A long term lack of growth is not the same as a steady state. Capitalist society seems to always oscillate, even if the long term growth is zero, negative or just a little bit positive.

  45. fluorocarbon says:

    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.

    I would go one step further and say that these kinds of societies don’t have much of an effect in the long run. I think the success of their ideas can be better explained by these two things:

    1. For any philosophy, there will be a group of people interested in it and arguing for it.

    2. Ideas that are true (or more true than the current set of ideas) become widely accepted (eventually).

    If these two points are correct, then for any currently widely-accepted idea, you can find some group of people (Fabian, Pelerin, etc.) supporting it at some point in the past. But it would be a mistake to say that any other idea can become accepted simply by copying a past group’s tactics, since the reason that past group’s ideas are accepted isn’t because of their tactics.

  46. bernie638 says:

    UBI. Have you given any thought to what real people would do with enough automation to produce a UBI that allows people to not work? People imagine that it would be used for learning and arts and self improvement. I’m not so sure.

    I just had a friend leave HER job to go work at a nuclear power plant in the UAE. Why? Money, lots and lots of money. I don’t understand how that happens. High paying jobs at nuclear power plants should be the one thing that a government would want filled by its own citizens, but apparently they can’t or won’t.

    Look at the places with enough oil wealth to hire foreigners to do most of the work. It’s not automation, but from the perspective of the population it’s a distinction without a difference. The wealth is available without having to work.

    Please don’t assume that work will be replaced by utopia when the closest examples have replaced work with higher inequality and extreme religious fundamentalism.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Please don’t assume that work will be replaced by utopia when the closest examples have replaced work with higher inequality and extreme religious fundamentalism.

      UBI and welfare states necessarily create more inequality, they have to for the system to run.

    • broblawsky says:

      The UAE would replace jobs like your friend’s with robots if they could, though.

      • bernie638 says:

        Quite true, but it wouldn’t change anything for the general population. The point is that what people do with the time they have if they are free from work may not be moving closer to utopia.

        Idle hands are the devil’s workshop and all that.

    • Andrew Cady says:

      People imagine that it would be used for learning and arts and self improvement. I’m not so sure.

      I assume we’re all going to become ancient Greek philosophers. Everyday life will be just like Plato’s Symposium.

  47. baconbits9 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

    This is classic “one side of the ledger” thinking. A UBI has to be funded, and if labor is dropping out of the equation that leaves only one thing to be taxed: capital. A tax on capital reduces the incentive to invest in automation, and you get less, not more! This is not hypothetical, Greece with its generous benefit structure and high UE rate isn’t steadily creating a post scarcity world, neither is it happening in France. The countries with large/strong welfare states, like the Nordics, tend to have HIGHER labor force participation rates, not lower. The fastest automating societies (China) are ones that mobilized more labor, and more cheap labor, not less.

    The logic is so simple that you would think even a Marxist would appreciate it: Labor creates value, a reduction in labor will only create value if the automation creates more value for the cost than labor did. If there was some process that would allow capitalists to create more value through automation they would already be doing it, a UBI compounds this by increasing the costs of automation. The only way this logically works is if capitalists are dumb as hell and can’t figure out how to automate effectively until they are stripped of their ability to use labor (which by the way is a component in creating automation). If you think this is a sound scheme perhaps you would like to meet me in my hollowed out volcano lair where we can discuss plans to cure cancer by giving all the doctors in the world doses of radiation thereby increasing their incentive to cure it!

    • As a Marxist, I agree that UBI is dumb for exactly this reason. UBI is ultimately a scheme for trying to redistribute surplus value to workers, but it is a scheme that would threaten the very production of surplus value in the first place. Insofar as it is actually successful at liberating workers from the need to work and increasing their bargaining power, UBI will drive away investment and diminish the very basis on which it is funded.

      The same thing would be true, to a lesser extent, even with a job guarantee program for reasons explained here.

      Most “communist” policies don’t actually make capitalism run better. If actually carried out, most “communist” policies should provoke capital flight and job losses if done correctly. Ergo, communists should not be trying to run capitalism for the capitalists. Communists should be aiming for socialism (a democratic workers’ state running the economy) and then superabundance and actual stateless communism.

      It’s a bit like a basketball player seeing that everyone else on the playground is playing football instead, and have been playing football for a long time. Basketball in and of itself is a perfectly consistent and functional game, so the basketball player could encourage everyone to switch games, but for most of the other people on the playground playing basketball is unthinkable. So instead the basketball player proposes a slight reform to the game of football to make a little more like basketball: now the person holding the football must dribble the football in order to run with it downfield. Within the game of basketball, dribbling makes sense and is perfectly functional. But within football, of course, it makes the football game ludicrous and completely sabotages any team that volunteers to follow this new “rule.” It thereby reaffirms the football players’ pre-conceptions that “all that basketball nonsense is a bunch of hokum, propagated by people who are either ignorant of the game of football, or actively want to sabotage our team’s chances of winning by telling us to dribble the football.”

      • benwave says:

        I am interested in this objection to UBI.

        I can see that if it results in a higher share of surplus value going to labour, it can result in various responses such as capital flight to a lower wage country, or just to changing the way capital is deployed domestically in ways which may harm workers (property speculation?).

        But surely any change which results in greater power or wealth being enjoyed by workers would result in the same?

        I guess maybe this could be just the age old incrementalism vs revolution question, and you don’t think incremental advances is the right strategy?

        Lately I’ve been less concerned with who nominally commands capital and much more interested in the ways in which it is put to use, and what drives those. Which use values the economy produces and how they are distributed. For that reason, I’m quite interested in a UBI. To the extent that it increases the share of income going to workers, it makes the market more responsive to their needs.

        • baconbits9 says:

          But surely any change which results in greater power or wealth being enjoyed by workers would result in the same?

          No, a UBI should lead to lower productivity so the top workers are getting a smaller share of a smaller pie. Top workers might be completely happy with getting 90% of a medium pie but be even happier getting 80% of a pie twice as large.

    • broblawsky says:

      Why do we have to tax capital? Why can’t we tax corporate income derived from capital? We do it right now, after all.

      • baconbits9 says:

        It amounts to the same thing, you have to tax productivity, and if labor isn’t being productive then you are taxing capital. Taxing capital gains is taxing capital.

    • Andrew Cady says:

      if labor is dropping out of the equation that leaves only one thing to be taxed: capital. A tax on capital reduces the incentive to invest in automation, and you get less, not more!

      Right, but labor is dropping out of the equation, so that increases the incentive to invest in automation.

      Besides, explicitly directly investing in automation increases incentive to automate. Like literally just pay people directly to complete automation projects, as if you were paying them to build highways. Isn’t that what the book is talking about? They don’t predict that automation will just happen, they make it a plank of their platform.

    • Galle says:

      The only way this logically works is if capitalists are dumb as hell and can’t figure out how to automate effectively until they are stripped of their ability to use labor

      To be fair, this is a completely reasonable claim. Capitalism’s only real defense against capitalists being dumb as hell is to have a capitalist who’s not dumb as hell outcompete them, and that’s a slow process. Large, powerful corporations doing absolutely boneheaded things for absolutely boneheaded reasons and losing lots of money, yet continuing to be large, powerful corporations is not exactly a rare or unheard of thing.

      • TDB says:

        Speed depends on circumstances and a slo

      • TDB says:

        Speed depends on circumstances and a slow process is better than none. Do we want a slow process with robust error detection and correctio or a faster process that is vulnerable to suboptimal local attractors? Might depend on the application.

        All of this is experimental. Do the ethics of conducting experiments change when they happen at the scale of an entire society?

        Some social policies do not allow us to let reluctant participants opt out. But should the existence of such difficult cases provide cover for those where we can act ethically?

  48. 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.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            Membership in the capitalist class is determined by your ownership of means of production, not by the magnitude of financial capital you own.

            You have to own the means of production that workers other than you yourself use. And you have to own enough to live on income from this, for two reasons.

            The first is just vernacular usage: if you made $10 last year from playing piano, you are not actually a professional pianist. To “be” something, in ordinary usage, it has to be your primary occupation.

            The second and more important is that your objective economic interests are not aligned with other capitalists if you are only getting $2 checks every 6 months from some stock options from a job you had 5 years ago.

            It just doesn’t make any sense to group you in with “capitalists” who are not dependent on wages if you are dependent on wages. One of the most important structural features of capitalists is that they cannot be “fired” and thereby separated from the means of producing their livelihood. But if you are a wage worker who owns some trivial amount of capital (some trivial share of “the means of production”) you can still be fired.

    • Murphy says:

      Not all that far left… but I can identify with not considering hierarchy inherently desirable.

      There’s various research showing that if you create an arbitrary,genuinely utterly pointless hierarchy the people you place on top will quickly come up with pointless justifications for the hierarchy and reasons why it should remain or be solidified further.

      On the other hand, hierarchy works pretty well for organizing things. But you can get by just fine with hierarchy’s built as-needed and rebuilding them when needed allows you to discard unneeded elements or hierarchy members for the particular situation.

      Do you consider hierarchy desirable for hierarchy’s sake? if you found a community where people were getting on with life pretty well without a strong hierarchy above them would you consider it inherently good to install a hierarchy above them?

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I think there are some positive benefits to a moderate level of hierarchy, both for those higher up in and also for those lower in it. I guess I think the optimal level of hierarchy for human happiness is… some. Not maximally fine-grained and rigid, nor certainly not hugely unequal, but also not extremely flat either.

        If you ask me to imagine a group larger than say… 50 people in which there’s very little hierarchy and everything’s running great, then while I wouldn’t presume to say “they’d be better off with more hierarchy,” it also strains my imagination, because it goes against my conception of human nature.

        Or, if you said to me “you get to live in one of these three societies, all equally prosperous, on average; but differing in the amount of hierarchy: “low hierarchy, moderate hierarchy, high hierarchy.” Then I’d pick the “moderate hierarchy” society, even if you stipulated I have to be near the bottom of whichever society I pick. And even if you stipulated I get to be near the top of whichever society I pick, I’d still pick the “moderate hierarchy” society.

        • Murphy says:

          Fair though, you’re probably right that it’s likely a high-level generator of disagreement.

          For me hierarchy is entirely instrumental. If the village is facing some threat and people are having trouble organizing, a hierarchy is useful… but I don’t see any particular utility in it’s mere existence beyond what it actually achieves.

          I’m not sure where the utility would flow from. I get no satisfaction from being told what to do and I don’t particularly enjoy giving orders. I get frustrated when people try to blindly follow me rather than double checking things for themselves.

          I’m probably influenced by a few years as a member of a large hackspace that was fairly hierarchy-minimalist. Not out of idealism but rather because hierarchy creates work and single points of failure. If Bob is the leader everyone depends on and one day Bob has to move city for some other reason… suddenly everything that depends on bob is disrupted. On the other hand if everyone just gets on with what needs doing with Bob occasionally settling disputes or arguments…. Bob is much easier to replace.

          We had some elected trustees but no middle-managers and the list of trustee responsibilities were short and mainly there to satisfy UK company law.

          It was honestly kind of refreshing telling people, “ya, if you think something’s a good idea and it’s easy to undo, just do it. If it’s hard or expensive to undo ask around first and see if people mostly agree, if unsure ask on the mailing list.” …. and seeing that system actually work quite well for many years with 1000+ paying members.

          And I think a lot of people found it refreshing too. There’s the potential for “edit wars” but when it takes actual effort they’re very rare and a mailing list makes a pretty decent place to bring disputes.

          • ReaperReader says:

            On the other hand an attitude of “ya, if you think something’s a good idea and it’s easy to undo, just do it” is hard to apply to say a hospital, or a farm.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I for one loathe non-hierarchical working environments. I want someone to be in charge. I am fine with being that person (provided that I feel competent to do the job in the specific context) and I am fine with someone else being that person (provided that I do not find them obnoxious or incompetent) but I find egalitarian, “collaborative” set-ups very stressful and not conducive to me doing my best work, unless perhaps the number of people involved is very small and I know and trust all of them extremely strongly, and have a high opinion of all of their abilities.

          • Murphy says:

            @ReaperReader

            say a hospital

            Sure, hence hierarchy’s as-needed.

            Like how you don’t put the same resource investment into a script that’s supposed to run “The Fart Button” that you would put into making sure the code running a nuclear reactor is correct.

            Though farms seem to work reasonably well with groups of reasonably experienced people making most decisions without running back to some authority figure at every step.

      • Walter says:

        I tend to just substitute ‘hierarchy’ for ‘effectiveness’ in terms of how I think about it.

        That is, when we care about something, we set up a hierarchy to do it, but the hierarchy itself isn’t the terminal goal, it is there to achieve that something.

        There is an argument to be made to having a ready hierarchy in case something comes up that you need to take care of, but as long as you can throw one together real quick when you need to I don’t tend to think that’s necessary.

      • Do you consider hierarchy desirable for hierarchy’s sake?

        I think many people enjoy being part of a voluntary hierarchy. Partly because they enjoy the feeling of coordination–our leader pointed out something that needed doing, I did it, he praised me, other members of the group respected me. Partly because it provides a structure within which one can succeed–start at the bottom, gradually work your way up.

        Part of the context I see that in is the Society for Creative Anachronism. People seem to like the idea of a structured series of awards–an Award of Arms for being an active member of the group for a while, a local award for being a bit more than that, then higher level kingdom awards–often at least two levels, and specific to some activity such as arts or service. My gut level response is that one ought to be doing something like medieval cooking or calligraphy or poetry because it is worth doing, but a lot of people seem to feel more comfortable doing it in the context of working towards a kingdom level award and eventually becoming a member of the Order of the Laurel.

        • Plumber says:

          @DavidFriedman,
          My guess is that hierarchy is more attractive when there’s a promise of rising after “paying your dues”.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Depends on what the hierarchy is for, and what the payoffs and responsibilities of being higher up in the hierarchy is.

            I ran a raid team for quite some time, a clear hierarchy: as the leader of the team, I had near-complete power over the decisions made on the team (The GM could theoretically override me, but this was largely symbolic, and she almost never used that power). There wasn’t really much room at the top: we maybe had a few secondary officer positions, but the expectation is that I would continue as Supreme Leader for the indefinite future. But there weren’t really any rewards for being raid leader, other than respect, and it came with a lot of stress and work to do.

            There were definitely people who wanted my job, but there were also tons of raiders who were perfectly content to be rank-and-file with no aspirations of improving. We even had a couple secondary officer positions that we couldn’t fill, namely the “DPS/heal lead” position to coordinate those parts of our team more closely. And if it was just about power, those positions are arguably the best for power/work ratio: you get to boss around your fellow raiders at the cost of spending an hour or two a week reviewing logs.

            When I finally stepped down, we didn’t have people rushing in to fill the void: we actually had to hack together a raid leadership team from a few other senior officers, that sort of worked together to do what I previously did. If someone had stepped up and wanted to take it all over, the officers would have happily let them.

          • EchoChaos says:

            This is strongly counter to my experience. I work in a tech job where virtually everyone makes a very good wage. The wage difference for rising in the hierarchy is large (~10-15% for middle managers over line employees), but not enough to make or break a good life.

            One of my problems as a middle manager is getting enough people who are interested in leading to fill the roles that I need. And this is with offering them a large bump in pay and responsibility without a huge bump in hours.

            My experience is that people like a place in a hierarchy and that a not-insubstantial number don’t mind if that place is low as long as they have a good life with it.

            Edit to add: I see moonfirestorm agrees with me on this.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            @EchoChaos:

            That’s my impression in tech as well. Plenty of people end up just being super-senior developers instead of moving to management, because they like that work and are fine with being guided by other people as long as they’re getting paid well for it.

            In my first real job, my boss actually sat me down and asked me which path I wanted to take. I initially started out pretty optimistic about management, but after seeing the difficulties a coworker had in transitioning to our manager (from above, not below), I decided I wouldn’t be effective in that role.

          • The Nybbler says:

            My guess is that hierarchy is more attractive when there’s a promise of rising after “paying your dues”.

            Yeah, and a promise is all it is. The only thing “paying your dues” gets you, most of the time, is a bill for the next month’s dues. You’ll be sitting there paying your dues and some outsider or newcomer will go and take the higher-level spot.

    • Eponymous says:

      almost everyone on the far-left shares a strong, basic intuition (which I don’t share) that hierarchy is bad

      I think this is (mostly) accurate, but far from unique. It’s also true of a good chunk of the right (libertarian/anarcho-capitalist/localist).

      Perhaps a stronger differentiating factor is whether they are more concerned with hierarchy deriving from social status and wealth, or from government/explicit power.

      • Clutzy says:

        I think that is a mischaracterization of a lot of the libertarian movement. There are a lot of “left libertarians” that indeed think like that, but they are not part of the Hayekian, Cato, Friedman, etc mainstream right-libertarianism. And that aspect embraces hierarchies that are voluntary (like firms, families, aid societies, etc) because they think the alternative is a demand for government. And if you read anarcho-capitalist works they posit a great many firms, that carry out the functions of a night-watchman government, and those would be inherently hierarchical.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Whoa whoa whoa, families are not voluntary.

          • Aapje says:

            Semi-voluntary. Finding a partner to start a family with is usually mutually voluntary.

          • Murphy says:

            @Aapje

            I assume it was in reference to the kids, who aren’t there voluntarily under any meaning of the term but may have to deal with complete nutcases who they never consented to be bound to who have almost complete control of their life far beyond what even the most insane dictator has over their subjects.

      • Andrew Cady says:

        Wealth is explicit government power.

    • Nick says:

      I’m not going to discuss because Lent, but I had to share this quote from an article I was reading this morning. It’s from the perspective of an integralist, viz. folks who want to bring back confessional states or altar and throne:

      Robin’s book [The Reactionary Mind] is a strident defense of the same program of liberation in the form of an attack on the reactionary conservatism that has always opposed it. “Since the modern era began,” Robin writes, “men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions.” Robin sees this series of rebellions of subjects against their rulers—the bourgeoisie against the nobles, peasants against land owners, workers against industrialists, wives against husbands, and so on—as fully just. Conversely, the reactionary response has always been unjust. It has been the response of those who enjoy an unjust share of power and liberty to defend that share. Reactionaries have always clothed their propaganda in high-sounding, public-spirited words, but this has always been a pure concoction of lies. The original defense of hierarchy, Robin perceptively notes, was in terms of “ancient and medieval ideas of an orderly universe, in which permanent hierarchies of power reflected the eternal structure of the cosmos.” Later reactionaries were to modify such justifications somewhat, due to the decline of their plausibility after the anti-teleological Scientific Revolution, but the original justification remains the foundation of reactionary thought. Again, like Rosenblatt, Robin sees the Catholic Church, with her hierarchical understanding of Divine Order, as being one of the chief culprits in spinning the web of reactionary lies.

      As an integralist I am convinced that Rosenblatt and Robin are in error. Creation truly does reflect the goodness of the Creator through the wonderful harmony of hierarchy—an order of goods, an order of beings, an order of rulers and subjects. And human affairs are indeed best when they reflect that order; when they are composed of many parts each subordinated to the other, the lower obeying the higher in humble obedience, the higher helping the lower in loving condescension. Rightly understood, freedom and equality are true goods. As rational beings, men are capable of understanding their good and pursuing it by their own will: true freedom. As beings of the same specific nature, men are all called to participate in the same common good: true equality. But freedom and equality are goods that depend on hierarchy and rule, obedience and humility. “If you remain with my teaching,” our Lord says, “then you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). True liberty is not opposed to hierarchy and obedience; it depends on obedience to the hierarchy of truth and goodness. And the same is true of equality: “You are my friends if you do what I tell you to. No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I call you friends, because I made known to you all that I heard from my father.” (John 15:14-15). Jesus raises his disciples from slavery to a quasi-equality with God, so that they can even call him friends. But this quasi-equality depends on submissive obedience to the commands of the Lord. It is only in losing our lives in this obedience that we find our true lives and reach our deepest desires. Indeed, the great wonder of this quasi-equality depends on a more fundamental inequality. It is because God, as the shoreless ocean of perfect happiness, is so infinitely higher than us that his condescension in calling us into the friendship of his Trinitarian life is so marvelous.

      I admit, of course, that in human affairs the good of hierarchy has often been abused. Rulers have often exploited their subjects for selfish advantage rather than aiding them to attain to the common good. And, indeed, the world has seen many false hierarchies—such as chattel slavery—founded on unjust principles. But the abuse of something does not take away its proper use.

      (emphasis mine)

      So to Murphy and others, there you go, a view under which hierarchy is inherently desirable!

      • Murphy says:

        See, I don’t dispute that people exist who like hierarchies… though I’m still really willing to bet that many who favor them for their own sake quietly believe that the just nature of the universe wouldn’t land someone as awesome as themselves on the bottom….

        I just don’t follow the argument as to how they’re good, what utility they inherently provide by existing beyond their utility for dealing with problems.

        This smells like “natural law” justifications which always end up looking like the philosophical equivalent of ugly hacks: someone just picking out their gut feelings and declaring that the gut feelings are obviously a sign that the creator of the universe is sending them a message. Perhaps that everyone should do what they say…. perhaps that their teenage child growing up touching themselves and starting to think about sex is obviously awful… because where else could their uncomfortable feelings on the matter flow from other than the creator of the universe.

        Anti-hierarchy types have a clear chain of logic: many hierarchies aren’t based on any particular merit or serve no purpose and people exploit/abuse them to favor themselves with resources and power.

        Pro-hierarchy has a good case for when there’s utility provided by a hierarchy being able to help deal with a problem. Again, nice and clear.

        There’s even a decent case for people who like to nominate a leader for doing things so that there’s a simple and clear way to choose directions (just go with bob here who we like)

        So far no problem.

        But there’s no chain of logic. No chain of reason when it comes to the justification of perpetual kinda-pointless hierarchies for their own sake. It seems to fall back on the natural law or god-tells-me-what-he-wants-though-my-feelings justifications.

        True liberty is not opposed to hierarchy and obedience; it depends on obedience to the hierarchy of truth and goodness.

        the good of hierarchy

        This is straightforwardly justifying hierarchy as good quite literally by stating that it’s an inherent good by the nature of reality.

        https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/n5TqCuizyJDfAPjkr/the-baby-eating-aliens-1-8

        “The Babyeater word for good means, literally, to eat children.”

        Trying to think about how I might persuade them that eating babies was… not a good thing.”

        I don’t think you could twist them far enough around to believe that eating babies was not a babyeating thing.”

    • Galle says:

      That intuition is pretty widely strongly-held, not just in the far-left. It’s very closely related to the strong, basic intuition that personal liberty is good, since hierarchy is always an obstacle to the personal liberty of those who are lower on the hierarchy.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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!”

  55. 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).

  56. 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!

  57. 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?

  58. 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.

  59. 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).

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 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.