Economics Professor Richard Wolff blames austerity for the problems of forced food disposal; redefines ‘demand’; romanticizes thuggery

What I look like when I listen to Richard Wolff’s ‘Economic Update’.

I love UMass economics professor emeritus Richard Wolff’s podcasts because they challenge me to think in ways that I normally wouldn’t. Consider these snippets from his broadcast of August 11, temporarily available for download at WBAI.org. The first quote begins at 4:26 into the broadcast:

[First, the story from the town of Girona in the north of Spain.] They are in the news this week for having decided to padlock the bins that the city has all around supermarkets. Those are the bins into which supermarkets are required by law to put all the food that has passed the date printed on it by which it must be sold. And the reasons the bins have been padlocked, the story explains, is because there are now fights among the many, many people who can only eat by raiding those bins on a regular basis and taking that food, which may not be healthy because it is older than it should be to be consumed by human beings, but it is a sign of what is going on in Spain, and in many other countries, that are suffering from the austerity programs that are being used as a way of shifting the cost of this crisis onto the mass of people. So the town there has padlocked the bins and urged the people who now can’t get the food anymore to go to food distribution centers, which other stores in Spain indicate can not begin to handle the demand for their services.

Emphasis added. Now, I’m no economics professor, but I have a hunch that I know what the problem is, here. I think it has less to with austerity, and more to do with the Girona government requiring by law that private business throw away food that people want so badly that they fight for it. This food should be in the stores, available to purchase at a discount, and protected by store security, should it not?

Now, Wolff doesn’t actually express an opinion as to whether the government is acting in the public interest when it forces stores to throw away food—although he seems tacitly to approve of this course of action by describing the food in question as “older than it should be to be consumed by human beings.”  If one asked those who hold fight club in supermarket parking lots whether that food is fit for human consumption, I wager one would get a different answer.

In contrast, Wolff specifically identifies fiscal responsibility on the part of government as a cause of suffering. He also fingers food speculators as part culprits of rising food prices. In the previous week’s show of August 4, he explains the evils of speculation in the most curious words, especially as they come from one who touts himself as a professor of economics. The pertinent part begins at 16:38, and the quoted passage begins at 17:19:

What is interesting is that the research now shows that the booming [food] prices of 2008 and ’09, and again now, have nothing to do with supply and demand. There is no relationship between rising prices and a loss of supply. Keep that in mind when you read all these report about droughts in the Midwest, and so on. Climates come and go, and scientists have done the work to see if whether the rise in prices and falls in prices are correlated with supply and demand. They are not. What then is the explanation?

As finance finds it harder and harder to make money in manufacturing and in service industries—as a depressed economy keeps being depressed—bankers and other financial speculators have focused increasingly in on what is called commodities: basic things like meat and grain, wheat and corn and rice, because they can make money trading on the ups and downs in the price. That’s what’s shaping prices, and it’s again a sign that when you let private markets looking for profit invade basically needed products of the human community, like food, you can be in for massive injustice, waste, inefficiency and the cruelty of millions of unnecessarily hungry people. Because the supply is there, and the demand is not outstripping the supply. We have to prevent or control private capitalist speculation in the ups and downs of prices to deal with this problem, which is, of course, what a humane society would have done long ago.

… … … Riiiight.

So…um. Well, those who hear an econ professor speak so disparagingly of such a fundamental economic law might at first be liable to discard their old Econ 101 textbooks by bonfire and embrace instead Richard Wolff’s magical new economics of anti-capitalism, where there is “no relationship” between supply and demand on one hand and price on the other. I would advise against this.

I submit that Wolff’s reasoning fails because he applies an idiosyncratic definition of the word demand. In Wolff’s economics, only demand for purpose of immediate consumption is demand. Demand for other purposes, such a speculation, is not demand, in Wolff’s view. Rather, it is simply the diversion of food into inaccessible economic doldrums by people whose purposes Wolff wants us to believe are illegitimate . Well, no, Richard. I don’t believe their purposes are illegitimate. Demand for food is demand for food, regardless of the use to which the food is put.

Consider the sensible practice of pantry-building: Suppose I saved up a lot of my money and bought enough food not just for the week, but enough to last me the next two months. Is that really an awful thing to do? Does that sort of behavior need to be “prevented and controlled”? Now, suppose a tornado wipes out half of the town, including the supermarket, but spares my pantry. My stockpile can now potentially serve a great benefit not only to my self, but also to my neighbors. Now, suppose I didn’t just give the food away, but rather asked to receive something I needed in return for it, such as either tools, or gasoline. Would that really be a terrible thing to ask? Is it really so bad that I profit from my preparation? And what about my good neighbors who have stockpiled other useful things, such as tools and gasoline? Do they not also deserve to profit from their preparation?

Sure, one could object that my pantry-building increases the price of food for now, but the good effects of my pantry-building are twofold: First, higher prices encourage the production of more food, thereby increasing future supply. Second, my pantry serves to smooth out shocks in the supply of food caused by natural disasters, bad climates and other unforeseen circumstances.

What is speculation but large-scale, systematic pantry-building? Speculators buy the food now. This increases demand (yes, demand) for food, and thereby encourages the production of more food. When that price of that food falls relative to life’s other necessities, speculators release that food once again into the market where others may benefit from it at that lower price. Speculation is almost synonymous with preparation. See the Wikipedia article on speculation for quick run-down on some of the other economic benefits of food speculation, such as the insulation of farmers from risk.

Richard Wolff ignores these benefits at our peril. In the words of Dr. Emmett Brown, “he’s not thinking fourth-dimensionally”. Wolff would raid all speculatory stockpiles of food now. That would reduce prices, but it would also leave us all vulnerable to supply shocks and higher prices later .

Oh, but wait a minute. I already forgot: There is “no relationship between rising prices and loss of supply.” …. Right, right.

So….austerity is bad. Preparation is bad. Forcing stores to throw food in the trash is, well, inconclusive. What sorts of behavior would Richard Wolff consider helpful in these trying economic times? Let’s continue listening to his broadcast of August 11 to find out. The following quoted portion begins at 5:48:

The second story is, in a sense, the other side of the coin. It comes from this famous town in the south of Spain, Marinaleda, where workers, led by SAT, a local trade union organization that represents workers in the Andalusia region of Spain, where, by the way, official unemployment is now listed as 34%. Unemployment in Spain across the country is listed now as 25%, so Andalusia has worse unemployment even than that. Here’s what the people there did, let by the trade union and supported by the famous mayor of Marinaleda: They raided supermarkets. They carefully told the people who work in the supermarkets to stand aside. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was threatened. The people who worked in the supermarket stood aside as the unionists came in, filled many, many baskets with all kinds of food, and then, with cameras showing and the press invited, they marched out of the supermarket without paying, and took the food to a local food distribution center where poor people have the rights to come and get the food, and they explained that they were redistributing income in a way that people need, and they are not going to wait for the Spanish government or any other authorities to do what they should have been doing and haven’t been doing long enough. And they argued that the supermarkets they chose were part of international chains, for example, the Carrefour chain based in France, which owns one of them, and a big Spanish conglomerate that owns the other,  that they chose carefully the large corporate outlets, carefully avoided hurting anyone, and solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food in this direct way. All the usual political and trade union leaders denounced this act on the basis that it was illegal. The people running it responded, “Illegal is nothing compared to what you are doing to the mass of people.” So the news from Spain covers both sides.

Again, Richard Wolff does not say in so many words that he endorses this behavior, but he takes care to leave a favorable impression of the marauders by describing them generally as peaceful and their raids as serene. As a professor of economics, his failure to challenge the union’s assertion that it has “solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food” could potentially be interpreted as a tacit approval of the said “solution”.

Regarding the serenity of the raids, CNN has posted a purported video clip of one of them:

IBTimes reported further that “three people were slightly injured“, so Wolff’s assertion that the mauraders “carefully told the people who work in the supermarkets to stand aside. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was threatened. The people who worked in the supermarket stood aside….” seems more a romanticization of thuggery than an unbiased account of the events of the day. But let’s let that pass.

Did the marauders really “solve the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food”? I rather doubt it. Normalization of this sort of behavior would discourage food production by ensuring an ever-diminishing return on investment to those who produce food and to those who stock store shelves with it. When fewer food is produced and sold in Andalusia, prices will rise, and this will necessitate more theft until food is too hard to come by, even to steal. That is no solution to the problem of high food prices, and Richard Wolff should say so, I reckon.

So let’s recap UMass economics professor emeritus Richard Wolff’s assessment of the food situation in Spain:

  1. Austerity is bad. Profligacy is good.
  2. Forcing stores to throw out food should not be opposed, and what a shame it is that the dumpsters must be padlocked.
  3. Encouraging the production of more food by buying extra food now for later use is unjust, wasteful, inefficient, and cruel, and should therefore be at least controlled if not prevented entirely.
  4. Discouraging the production and sale of food by stealing it in large quantities should not be opposed as a potential solution to the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food.

Interesting. Well, I’d like to thank Professor Wolff for his insight. Like I said, I enjoy the challenge of thinking about the world and about economics is ways that I’m not used to thinking about them. These broadcasts have certainly delivered. I’m not a Marxist quite yet, but he should keep at it, and I will continue to listen. Maybe one day it’ll click.

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8 Responses to Economics Professor Richard Wolff blames austerity for the problems of forced food disposal; redefines ‘demand’; romanticizes thuggery

  1. Shaun says:

    There are two parts of your post that strike me as disingenuous, Tim: the first and last paragraphs. While I admire your willingness to listen to Wolff — or, for that matter, to me — and while I believe that this represents a desire “to think in ways that [you] normally wouldn’t,” upon encountering propositions that seem wrong, even ridiculous, you don’t attempt to guess at why a rational person might think that way. You don’t try to formulate Wolff’s potential responses either. Or, if you make such guesses and toy with such formulations, you don’t share them with us. Instead, we only get your incredulity at Wolff’s apparent disregard for reason itself. In other words, you drop the assumption that he’s a rational person; you drop what some philosophers call the principle of charity.

    I don’t want to sound pedantic. But, whatever his faults, I will wager that Wolff could make your arguments for you. I think he knows the other side, trained in “bourgeois” political economy as he is. In fact, in my view, properly understanding Marx requires understanding “bourgeois” political economy, since the former developed his ideas out of an immanent critique of the latter. I am getting away from my point, though, which is that I don’t think you could reconstruct his arguments in a form that he would recognize. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    I suppose I just wish you had used your imagination and tried to guess what reasons could lay behind Wolff’s apparent nonsense, inserting what you could to make him into the theoretical enemy you deserve — which is to say, a rational one, a coherent one. As it is, I don’t think Wolff really challenged you to think in new ways; I suspect your criticism of him came out fairly easily. It wasn’t really a challenge, was it?

    You aren’t immersed in the tradition of Marxian political economy (are you even acquainted with it?), so you might say I’m being unfair. I’m not convinced that such immersion is necessary; on that, I may be mistaken, given how far Marxian political economy is from neoclassical political economy. Regardless, let me move onto what feels obligatory — that is, let me try to make Wolff seem more intelligible by bringing to my interpretation of what you and he say my background, minor as it is, in Marxian political economy.

    (Note: Don’t think that Wolff is innocent in this, either. He’s guilty for not anticipating your criticisms; for not trying to speak to you, an audience coming from a very different place.)

    First, I’ll take my turn at criticizing Wolff. Though I am unfamiliar with his work, he strikes me as old-fashioned — a member of the old guard, when Marx desperately needs a new one. Right now, those who believe Marx still has something to teach us need to make sense of finance (some of us are), but Wolff still holds to the old party line here, which opposes the fictional realm of finance to the real world of industrial production. You burn him for this — correctly, in my view — when you speak of his redefinition of demand.

    I will go a step further in criticizing Wolff than merely saying that he is wrong in attacking speculation for being unreal. I think it may be dangerous. I think it lends itself to a fascist interpretation. After all, the Nazis made much of “the bad bankers”; so does Glenn Beck, with his anti-Semitish conspiracy theories about George Soros. Marxian scholars can and should do better than this anti-finance routine. Anti-capitalism, if it is to be meaningful, has to be more and other than that.

    But I have some sympathy with where Wolff is coming from. One of my favorite of Marx’s ideas is what Marx called the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production. Marx was in awe of the how productive capitalism is, and he offered a more sophisticated account of the relationship between technological development and capitalism than any political economist before him. He saw that capitalism would soon make it possible for the necessities of life — nay, the luxuries, too — to be available to all people with but a fraction of the labor their production would have required prior to the industrial revolution. (He also valued capitalism’s destruction of feudalism — another story for another day.) Yet the relations of production — specifically, the private ownership of the means of production, utilized to generate profit, and what is the other side of the same coin, the separation of the majority of people from the necessities of life — prevents the the utilization of those productive forces to provide the best possible life for all people, with a balance between having needs provided for with a minimum of labor time and maximum of luxuries. In short: Capitalism gives us the power to make a better world, but the rules that capitalism uses to regulate that power prevent the realization of that better world.

    Marxians see the existence of poverty — worldwide, yes, but especially in otherwise wealthy nations — as the epitome of irrationality, seeing as we could easily provide for all people with the tools at our disposal. They believe capitalism has eliminated the impediments to universal wealth, in some general sense, and at least as far as the forces of production are concerned.

    I want to note, it is my opinion that Marx did not go very far in giving us solutions. To say that we should collectively own and control the means of production seems to me correct, but it is an extremely abstract statement. Given the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, the most I can say is such an abstract statement as: We could make better use of these materials if we collectively owned them and sorted things out a little differently. Which is really just another way of saying: I really don’t think private ownership of the means of production, which are used to generate profit, is the best way to do things in terms of minimizing labor time and maximizing availability of necessities and luxuries.

    In the context of the irrationality of poverty from the perspective of the forces of production, I see the looting of the supermarket in Spain as reasonable, in a precise sense of the word which I hope will soon be clear. I am not sure I can endorse it; to be able to do that, I’d have to consider the specific situation of the looters, the supermarket, the viability of other options, how they went about it, etc. However, seeing as we live in a world where desperate need is unnecessary, in the grander scheme of things, the rage of the looters and their turn towards theft seems to me to be a logical consequence of their situation. To tell them to wait until the labor market has grown sufficiently, while in the meantime they go hungry — this strikes me as cruel. The first injustice is their circumstance; the second, its consequent. If Wolff admires them, it is because they dismissed the relations of production and asserted their right to life, if you’ll allow the expression in this context; they proclaimed that, regardless of what the rules are, there’s enough stuff for all of us. That’s how he reads it, at least, and I may read the situation that way myself. If you believe that the looters are entirely wrong in their actions, I’m inclined to say that it’s easy to speak those words when your tummy is full.

    I have, I think, three more points.

    1) You suggest that the real problem is not austerity but government regulation of what food is good and what food is bad; and what food, on the basis of that, should and should not be sold. I find it shameful that what you see as standing in the way of addressing the hunger problem in this situation is the government’s prevention of selling expired or nearly expired goods. That’s what bothers you most? Not that there’s more than enough good food for people and that, nevertheless, some are going hungry? Here is where I find your capitalist-libertarian goggles cause you to see problems in a very silly way. But I wonder whether I’m just accusing you of not being a good Marxian — which is to say, I’m not saying much. Since the market is the end all be all, I suppose that that is the solution open to you. And, long-term, you might even have faith that the market would provide good food for all. Long term… and if the short term sucks, so much for the people who must endure it, yes? I’ll repeat this long term point presently.

    I could follow a line of thought that would have many supporters, not only Marxian, but those who support even modest government intervention. The line of thought goes something like this: The three-part assumption made by most proponents of capitalism, enlightenment product that it is, is that both seller and buyer are rational individuals who know their desires and know what they must to do to satisfy them. Neoclassical political economy has, with the help of decision theory, formalized this. However, in actuality, the assumption that both seller and buyer now how to satisfy their desires is unwarranted, not least because — what is relevant in this case — the buyer may very well have incomplete knowledge of his situation. For instance, he may not know the difference between good and bad food; or, if he has some loose grasp of the difference, he may not know the consequences of buying bad food. Slightly stale bread causes no harm. But what if he doesn’t see the pink mold? Or doesn’t care? What if he doesn’t know that that old can of beans is so bad, he will get sick enough that he won’t be able to work the next day? What of those people whom most of us, even the proponents of capitalism, recognize fail to meet the criteria for rational individuals — for example, children and the mentally impaired?

    I can imagine two responses on your part. First, the idea that any organization other than the individual buyer should make decisions that affect the individual buyer will likely appear as an imposition on the individual buyer’s liberty. He has, in other words, the right to do what he will, stupid or thrifty — in this instance, potentially both — as it may be. This does not address those whom we generally regard as falling short of rational individuals; but I leave this aside. The second response I can imagine bounces off the last. The individual buyer will learn from his stupidity, you will say, if he is stupid in the first place. In time, a standard will arise — order out of disorder — according to which the product is sold at a price determined by supply and demand, not by the outside influence of the government; and this circumstance optimizes efficiency. Moreover, eventually, goods not fit to eat will not be bought, nor will they be sold; the seller will come to know after which date it is more expensive to keep an item on his shelf than to dispose of it. To this, I say: In the process, who will be hurt? How many people will get sick as they learn what food is good and what bad?

    But I neither need nor want to fight this fight. I suspect you have the uphill battle here, and social democrat types will defend the high ground for me. I have bigger fish to fry.

    2) Marx was, among other things, a historicist. Hence, he maintains that the law of supply and demand holds only given a specific set of social relations, namely, one in which commodities are produced for profit and bought and sold by individuals; and in which the entire process is governed by, while also reciprocally determining, something called price, which is a measure of the value of the commodity. The law also requires that there be scarcity with regards to the commodity. Marx doesn’t think that there is anything absolute about any of these conditions; so while he does not entirely disregard this law — it applies within a context: capitalism — neither does he think it is exactly right. This may explain why Wolff seems to speak as if he were ignorant of it: he doesn’t think we need to stay in that context.

    3) You say: “Now, suppose a tornado wipes out half of the town, including the supermarket, but spares my pantry. My stockpile can now potentially serve a great benefit not only to my self, but also to my neighbors. Now, suppose I didn’t just give the food away, but rather asked to receive something I needed in return for it, such as either tools, or gasoline. Would that really be a terrible thing to ask?”

    I want to be snarky and just say, Yup. After such a disaster, and with your neighbors in need — maybe without your food they would starve — if, prior to distributing the food, you ensured that you got something in return; in other words, if you turned it into an exchange of commodities, asking either for tools or gasoline — or, should the person be lacking those, perhaps you’d be a proper capitalist and ask for labor — before distributing food, then yes, I would say that you had done a terrible thing. To put your desire for personal gain above the needs of your fellows in such a situation — I cannot but shake my head. And if those without anything to barter looted your pantry, I can’t say I’d feel bad.

    Marx, and I with him, abhorred the notion of human nature. Thus, I refuse to assert the inner goodness of people; that is, I cannot ensure that you would not be taken advantage of for the reason that people are really, deep down altruistic — they’re not really greedy and vicious, as capitalism assumes. I don’t do “really” when it comes to people.

    Now, I actually agree with your assumption that you should get something in return for your food. That seems to me a reasonable assumption. The question is whether cooperation should or has to take the form of commodity exchange. There are other options. Most of them are vaguer than commodity exchange — a favor based economy, for example. What happens after most disasters? I don’t feel like looking them up, but I’m willing to bet that such states of nature don’t generate proto-capitalist economies with that much frequency. And I’m not sure those who have survived disasters wished they had.

    Regardless of the likelihood of compensation, I feel comfortable saying that your concern that you be compensated for your scarce goods in such a situation — a concern great enough that you can say now that you would be using it as a bartering tool — that is terrible.

  2. autofyrsto says:

    I’m trying to get people to stop using words that end in “-ism” and “-ist”. For example, you have stated:

    Capitalism gives us the power to make a better world, but the rules that capitalism uses to regulate that power prevent the realization of that better world.

    Understand that different people use different definitions of the word capitalism, and this leads to a muddling of communication. The word could potentially refer to either a laissez-faire free market system or to our American market-based system in which special interests often buy political favors from an interloping government. The rules are different in each case, and this leaves your point unclear.

    The general sense I derive from your comment so far is that markets create an immense accumulation of commodities (strong force of production), but fail satisfactorily to distribute those commodities to where they would be most useful (poor relation of production). Perhaps if you would be good enough to identify some of the rules that, in your view, prevent the better distribution of commodities and the realization of a better world, I could explain in greater detail the alleged purpose of such rules and my opinions of them.

    You wrote:

    I see the looting of the supermarket in Spain as reasonable. … I am not sure I can endorse it; … [T]he rage of the looters and their turn towards theft seems to me to be a logical consequence of their situation. To tell them to wait until the labor market has grown sufficiently, while in the meantime they go hungry — this strikes me as cruel. … [T]here’s enough stuff for all of us. … If you believe that the looters are entirely wrong in their actions, I’m inclined to say that it’s easy to speak those words when your tummy is full.”

    I respect your point of view, but most of this is unresponsive to my post. I’ve cast no judgment on the SAT workers as to whether their actions were either reasonable or logical, in light of their situation. Whether my advice strikes you as cruel, or was easy to speak has no bearing whatsoever on whether that advice was sound. According to Dr. Wolff, the mayor of Marinaleda asserted that he has “solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food” by stealing food from Carrefour and redistributing it. I believe that he has not. I explained that if this behavior becomes normalized, no food provider will want to do business in Marinaleda, and the poor people of that town will soon find that there is no longer food on the store shelves for them to steal. What say you, Shaun? Put aside the reason and logic of stealing food. Put aside your personal opinion of my assessment as cruel and too easy for me to utter. Answer: Do you believe that the mayor of Marinaleda has “solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food,” as has been asserted? I’ll take a yes, a no, or an I’m not sure, followed by an explanation.

    I sense by your writing that you take our food supply for granted. You assert above that “There is plenty of stuff to go around”. In the next paragraph, you write:

    I find it shameful that what you see as standing in the way of addressing the hunger problem in this situation is the government’s prevention of selling expired or nearly expired goods. That’s what bothers you most? Not that there’s more than enough good food for people and that, nevertheless, some are going hungry?

    I know you know where food comes from, Shaun, but the words you have chosen—twice—evince a lack of due appreciation for the diligence of the many people who have made all of this abundance possible. It’s easier to sympathize with thieves when you treat the victims of theft like they don’t exist and the fruits of their labor like a part of the scenery.

    A really great short film to watch is Tom Smith and his Incredible Bread Machine. Go have a look! It should explain why I do not view Carrefour as an enemy, and why it’s probably not a good idea to shout, “Illegal is nothing compared to what you are doing to the mass of people!” at the backs of those who used to stuff your town’s supermarkets full of food, but who are now leaving town because their efforts are not longer appreciated, and their agreements with the townspeople are no longer respected.

    I’ll respond to your three points:

    1) I’m going for succinctness here, but I don’t know if I’ll succeed. Since you “don’t want to fight that fight,” I won’t go through your point number one line-by-line. I’ll sum it up this way: First, if you believe that free markets are not the “end all be all”, then I await your better suggestion. To get a sense‎ of the task at hand, read this article, and do watch the included video, as well as this video. The people’s health and wealth has been improving at quite a clip over the past century, especially in those countries with the freest markets, even without perfect knowledge among buyers and sellers, and even when government intervention addles those markets. Your better suggestion must outperform this. You’ve conceded that Marx “did not go very far in giving us solutions”. Let’s hear your solutions.

    My battle may be uphill, but that is not because the facts aren’t on my side. Rather, it is because appeal to emotion is stronger than appeal to intellect, as you have demonstrated above by ctiticizing my advice to the people of Marinaleda a “cruel” and “easy for me to speak” without confronting it on its merits.

    Second, that people generally lack the omniscience always to make the best possible decisions for themselves does not justify the surrender of all individual autonomy to just any authority. It does not suffice to say, “The people are ignorant; therefore, they must be led.” Go the distance. Identify the person or people who know better how to live others’ lives. Establish their authority over others by proving their superiority of intelligence and purity of motive. Identify the proper penalties for disobeying that authority. Or, alternatively, don’t worry about it. You don’t need to fight that fight. The popinjays at ThinkProgress and on Being Liberal‘s facebook page are hard at work“defending the high ground” for you. Good luck. Pick a winner.

    2) Now this is some interesting economical stuff that I’d like to know better. I’m a podcaster, so if you know any more good podcasts about Marxist economics, I’d love to subscribe. There has just been a dearth of Marxist podcasts relative to libertarian podcasts. Marxists need a think-tank as prolfic as the Mises Institute that offers regular commentary on not only current events, but also economic theory. Richard Wolff has the current events covered, but not so much the theory. I know that librivox has an audiobook of Marx’s Capital, and that David Harvey has some companion lectures out, but is that it? If you know of any other good podcasts, drop a line.

    3) Congratulations. You have finally crossed the line and “shocked the conscience”. Now, of course I don’t disagree with you because you have shocked my conscience. I disagree with you because I believe that your proposal would decimate the incentive structure that encourages providence and preparation.

    So let me get this straight: Some people in a town are more prescient, more provident, more diligent, and better prepared than others. Others are less prescient, less provident, less diligent, and less prepared. You honestly “can’t say you’d feel bad” if the latter looted the former in just the type of situation for which the former had prepared and for which the latter had not? Really? Sure, I can understand the reasonableness of looting and the logic of looting, but, Shaun, I’d feel bad for the people who were unable to profit from their providence and diligence.

    You agree that the diligent maybe ought to receive something for their efforts, but only some vague scraps that may or may not be what they asked for. Balderdash. I see that you’re rightly concerned for the hungry, but where is the concern for those who make, preserve and distribute food? You marginalized them earlier in your essay. Now you disdain them. Your attitude is foolhardy. If our goal is to feed the hungry, my strategy is to take very good care of the people who produce, preserve, and distribute food, not to ignore them, take their bounty for granted, and plunder them.

    So one Marxist assumption is that the notion of human nature is abhorrent. That actually clears up quite a bit, as it explains why collectivists seem unmoved by the free-marketer’s concern for incentive structures. This is a great bugaboo for us. I’m sure people like me ask you all the time: What about incentives? In our little tornado example above, if no one could be assured that they could benefit from their own preparation, and if everyone believed they could benefit from someone else’s preparation, would incentive to prepare and, consequently, a reduction in overall preparation result? Why or why not?

    Free-marketers like myself believe that some elements of human nature are unavoidable. For example: Humans act do satisfy their most urgently felt needs. Humans generally prefer larger benefits to smaller benefits. Humans generally prefer to receive benefits sooner rather than later. These sorts of things seem unavoidable to me and explain why incentives are important. How does the Marxist respond? Is there really no way to predict what humans will do in any situation? Does that run counter to your assertion of a reason or logic behind the supermarket raids of Marinaleda?

    What of this so-called “favor economy”. How does that work? Do you really believe that we would all just up and do favors for one another? What of a person who, in a favor economy, dares to withhold a favor except upon the satisfaction of some condition? What sort of punishment is in store? Please be specific.

    Well, I got it in fewer words than you, which hopefully that means I’ve managed to stay on point. If I’ve missed anything to which you were eager to see a response, point it out. I’ll try and get to it.

  3. Shaun says:

    I. Metaphysics and epistemology already? Very well.

    I use the word “capitalism” to indicate both the “ideal” laissez-faire free market system and its “real,” imperfect approximations, such as the American market system. My primary target is the former, but I include the latter as a subspecies of it. I am aware that you will be unsatisfied if my arguments apply only to the latter — that is, if I simply say, “There is still poverty in the US, even though we’ve a capitalist economy.” You will point to the distinction between the “ideal” and the “real,” and blame it on our failure to fully embrace the “ideal.” That is why my argument cannot merely involve pointing at empirical evidence and must be what some would call, variably, analytic, structural, or philosophical. And so, for that matter, must yours.

    I do not have a reason to use a different term. Of course, there are differences between the “ideal” and the “real”; they are not especially significant to my argument here, as far as I can tell.

    II. You say:

    “The general sense I derive from your comment so far is that markets create an immense accumulation of commodities (strong force of production), but fail satisfactorily to distribute those commodities to where they would be most useful (poor relation of production). Perhaps if you would be good enough to identify some of the rules that, in your view, prevent the better distribution of commodities and the realization of a better world, I could explain in greater detail the alleged purpose of such rules and my opinions of them.”

    This is a difficult question for me to answer economically, since I must show capitalism as good and bad — at the same time, doing justice to both. I will try my best.

    As Schumpeter famously noted, capitalism, through the process he termed “creative destruction,” promotes the production of wondrous new technologies. One of the functions of these new technologies is to increase the productivity of labor. The amount of clothing workers can make in a factory is many times that which could be made by those same workers had they stayed at home as part of the putting-out system. Both Marx and myself believe this to be a splendid development.

    That Man must labor in order to survive is a fact of life. It is, I might say, a kind of slavery imposed by Nature herself; for this is labor Man must accomplish regardless of his other desires. Man may prefer to spend his time painting, or writing, or joking with friends; but if he has no home, no food, and no water, then all is for naught anyway. Under any economic system with a division of labor — which is to say, under every economic system we know of — no single person entirely takes care of his own shelter, his own food, or his own water. The point is, all of this is necessary, unfree by Nature; it must be done, even if the tasks are divvied up.

    You may quibble with some of my phraseology, but I suspect I have not yet lost you. In what follows, I may.

    I have already said that the technology developed under capitalism significantly reduces the labor necessary for the tasks we must fulfill in order to survive. We might say that, to some extent, it frees us from Nature — and frees us in order to involve ourselves in activities we deem more worthy. How is it, then, that the modern day worker — be he factory worker, office worker, or waiter — labors for significantly more hours than the hunter and gatherers, as contemporary anthropological evidence suggests? Because the development of technology under capitalism serves the explicit purpose of increasing profit by increasing the commodities produced per unit of time. Increasing efficiency in technology does not “cash out” in terms of a reduction of labor time, although the reduction of necessary labor time is in fact a consequence. The capitalist is paying the same amount in labor, yet getting more of his product; he sells the product at a lower price, but sells more of it, and makes a profit — again, labor time unaffected.

    Problem of Relations of Production #1: Technologies that reduce necessary labor time do not result in humans laboring less (except insofar as they are sometimes laid off after having been “replaced” by machines, which is entirely different).

    The one note I would add, before moving onto Problem of Relations of Production #2, is that this is complicated by another side of creative destruction. I identified the way in which technologies allow us to deal more efficiently with old desires; yet capitalism also involves the multiplication of new desires, which are engendered by new technologies as they change our standards of living. Some of the surplus labor — that which goes beyond the necessary labor reduced by new technology — goes into the production of commodities to satisfy these new desires. Radio. Television. Internet. Hell, toilets. And these are not merely for the “upper classes.”

    I admit this. Everyone benefits from these technologies, albeit unequally. Nevertheless, the point that I would make is that the kinds of life we would like to lead, as well as the amount of labor that is required to lead such lives, are not determined through a democratic process. Marx’s hypothesis, and mine, is that we would be better off working a little less; and though the technologies that capitalism has given us make this possible, in capitalism, we will not be able to fully realize this possibility.

    Problem of Relations of Production #2: Capitalism does not provide a sense of security to those within it; in fact, it requires a certain amount of insecurity.

    Assuming we have not inherited money, we must work for it. We must must work for it because without it, barring the overthrow of this society and the creation of a new one, we will not have access to what we need to survive. If we are not allowed to die biologically — that is, if this is a capitalism/socialism hybrid, the only kind of either that has ever existed — then we will be allowed to die socially, in the sense that we will not have access to those goods we need to lead healthy social lives. This latter is variable depending on the society and the class in which one starts. The point is, one does not exactly “choose” to work. One must. And one cannot go out into the woods and work for oneself, living as one pleases, building one’s own home and growing one’s own food; nor can one go to the labor market and demand the job that seems interesting; one must do the work that is available. The applicant is in the position of supplicant, in a way.

    There is much work that is undesirable, and I believe that it gets done because those who do it have few other options if they are to survive. If people did not feel insecure — or, rather, if they were not insecure — they would not do those jobs. Nor would they put up with bad working conditions. Capitalism eliminates the need for such insecurity; given the technology available, there is no real reason for us to wonder whether we will be fed, not in the same way that hunter and gatherers wondered this. Yet capitalism retains insecurity in order to blackmail people into doing undesirable jobs.

    My point is not that we could live in a world where there are no undesirable jobs. I would like to point out, however, that no democratic process is involved in determining who does those jobs; and those who do the jobs don’t raise any questions because, frankly, they’re not in a position to — they need the jobs.

    III. You say:

    “What say you, Shaun? Put aside the reason and logic of stealing food. Put aside your personal opinion of my assessment as cruel and too easy for me to utter. Answer: Do you believe that the mayor of Marinaleda has “solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food,” as has been asserted? I’ll take a yes, a no, or an I’m not sure, followed by an explanation.”

    I deleted that aspect of my response that would have answered your question.

    For the record, my goal in responding to you was not only to respond to what you were saying. As I said, I also wanted to provide a background against which a more charitable interpretation of Wolff would be possible.

    Of course this has not “solved the problem of an economic system that can not provide even basic food.” That would require ensuring that no one would go hungry ever again, eliminating the very possibility of poor food distribution, either within capitalism or in a new system.

    I believe Wolff misspoke. I say this because, already in 1920, the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs published an essay criticizing the romanticism of illegality among his fellows for being insufficiently revolutionary. The “heroes of illegality,” he said, had an “ideological attachment… to bourgeois concepts of law.” To put it in a long, twisted rhyme: to make breaking the law the solution is to keep the law in place so that you have something to break. (Okay, so the rhyme is a slant rhyme…)

    Wolff is probably keen to such reasoning. It’s standard stuff. I believe he said what he said for the reasons I indicated already. If he genuinely believes what he said as you are interpreting him, then phooey on him. But I believe you are being uncharitable.

    IV. You say:

    “I know you know where food comes from, Shaun, but the words you have chosen—twice—evince a lack of due appreciation for the diligence of the many people who have made all of this abundance possible. It’s easier to sympathize with thieves when you treat the victims of theft like they don’t exist and the fruits of their labor like a part of the scenery.

    “A really great short film to watch is Tom Smith and his Incredible Bread Machine. Go have a look! It should explain why I do not view Carrefour as an enemy, and why it’s probably not a good idea to shout, “Illegal is nothing compared to what you are doing to the mass of people!” at the backs of those who used to stuff your town’s supermarkets full of food, but who are now leaving town because their efforts are not longer appreciated, and their agreements with the townspeople are no longer respected.”

    It’s here that we speak different languages, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ll try to explain.

    But first, as a side note, please, do not add extra watching or reading material without making an argument that summarizes it. I will find myself contending with this new material rather than with you otherwise. I could at a number of points in this and the last post simply directed you elsewhere instead of trying to present my reasoning here.

    Now, I am not sure if I am more shocked as to your reasoning or to the fact that you thought that I, working under different premises, would find it at all convincing. Did you really expect you’d convince me by telling me how hard capitalists and entrepreneurs work? And of what did you expect to convince me?

    That aside…

    The idea that, when capitalists leave town, a great source for food is gone — and as we both know, the local economy would be impacted in various ways — is true. It is true, however, only because we live in a capitalist system — that is, in a system in which the means of production are privately owned and used to generate profit; a system in which businesses go where they can make money, and human needs and desires come into the equation only to the extent that they take the form of that variable. In other words, your challenge — well, what happens when they take their business elsewhere? — doesn’t exactly mean much to me, since I don’t take it for granted that such businesses are especially good in the long run. In fact, I have a suspicion we might be better off without them.

    “Illegal is nothing compared to what you are doing to the mass of people!”

    I didn’t say that, and I wouldn’t. Capitalism is not violent in the sense that individual business owners are mean, nasty people; people who beat their workers; people who force others to buy their overpriced food, etc. Not that it is never violent in such a way. However, while I wouldn’t say that, I would say this (assuming that “illegal” means the theft in Spain and not, say, mass executions, which are a whole other matter):

    Illegal is nothing compared to what is endured by the impoverished persons of the world!

    V. 1) I’m going to jump ahead to a minor point, then jump back; once I get into heavy reasoning, I don’t want to have to interrupt it. You say:

    “My battle may be uphill, but that is not because the facts aren’t on my side. Rather, it is because appeal to emotion is stronger than appeal to intellect, as you have demonstrated above by ctiticizing my advice to the people of Marinaleda a “cruel” and “easy for me to speak” without confronting it on its merits.”

    You know, Tim, I really resent your suggestion that I am appealing to emotion rather than reason. Three reasons — one major, two lesser — why:

    a) If you think we are engaged in purely rational discussion — if such a thing exists — you’re wrong. There is more than a dash of polemic here, as in most worthwhile discussions. Consider your response to me, when you say that I “treat the victims of theft like they don’t exist and the fruits of their labor like a part of the scenery.” Is that any different from what I’m doing? Or when you call me “foolhardy”? Or even when you say I “crossed the line and shocked [your] conscience”? The fact/value distinction simply doesn’t apply as neatly as you think it does here, and this is evidenced at least as much by your post as by mine.

    b) And in the opposite way, too: I offered arguments for why I thought what you said was cruel. Furthermore, when I said that it was easy for you to say that when your tummy was full, I wasn’t just using a piece of rhetoric. I think it’s true and significant.

    c) This may be just a repetition of (b), but so be it: I find suggesting that I am merely appealing to emotion a way to disregard my argument — maybe even a kind of insult, which is another sort of appeal to emotion. I made my arguments. These contentious, emotive terms are just a part of them — as are yours a part of your argument.

    VI. 1 (continued)): It is ironic that the two parts of my response I saw fit to delete ended up coming up in your response to me. For that reason, I am less likely to edit this one down. I had a bit about how theft was not a solution, per se; and I had a bit about the relationship between critique and solution development.

    As I have said previously, I am well aware of the benefits of capitalism. From your point of view, perhaps not enough aware, since when I write a book about it, it will not be titled, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

    But what you’re asking is the question that, as I still find it amusing to point out, Lenin asked first: What is to be done? I’m afraid you’d have a little more fun with someone willing to give longer answers on this point; I am not. I believe that systematic critique is something that, within limits, an individual can do at the present moment without too much embarrassment. Devising a system to replace the one we have? That is something a group has to do. I think it may be appropriate to suggest hints, directions it may be fruitful to go in. More than that I see no purpose in doing. Not at the moment.

    Historically speaking, real social change has not come about through the imposition of a system that has, in conceptual terms, been fully articulated. Right now, I see it as more important to get people to agree about the problem; then we’ll go from there.

    I don’t deny that developing alternatives is a very real, very difficult task; and I’m not that much a procrastinator here, as if we could blow up capitalism and then make something out of the rubble. But the revolution is not ready yet. It’s not time for solutions. Right now, I’m content with critique. Or, rather, I’m trying to be.

    If I gesture at possibilities, I do so to dispel the notion that some, usually ones I’m fond of, are unthinkable, impossible, unworkable, etc. That way, though I cannot provide working alternatives right now, I can at least demonstrate that such solutions are not logically impossible.

    VII. 2) I am not at all a podcast listener. I can vouch for Harvey; I have read the lectures, which were published in book form. They are truly brilliant. He has a knack for paying attention to the nitty-gritty of the text, from footnotes to gendered metaphors. I learned a lot from the book, and I had read the first volume of “Capital.”

    VIII. 3) You asked a very precise question in your initial post:

    “My stockpiles can now potentially serve a great benefit not only to my self, but also to my neighbors. Now, suppose I didn’t just give the food away, but rather asked to receive something I needed in return for it, such as either tools, or gasoline. Would that really be a terrible thing to ask?”

    And my answer was precise. I did not say that people who didn’t prepare should loot the people who did prepare; nor did I say that, generally, I would not feel bad if they did so. I said that it would be terrible if, “prior to distributing the food, you ensured that you got something in return”; that is, “if you turned it into an exchange of commodities, asking either for tools or gasoline — or, should the person be lacking those, perhaps you’d be a proper capitalist and ask for labor — before distributing food….” And when I said that I wouldn’t feel bad if people looted you, I meant you, specifically, after you had insisted on there being an exchange of commodities prior to receiving food.

    Of course, I would also feel bad if you were in fact looted.

    I wonder, and it is not idle wondering: What would you do with those who had not prepared? Who had nothing left of or from their homes to barter?

    IX. 3 (continued)) I won’t accept a simple parallel between those who saved up extra food in case of a storm and capitalists and the entrepreneurs that develop their technologies. So when you say the following:

    “I see that you’re rightly concerned for the hungry, but where is the concern for those who make, preserve and distribute food? You marginalized them earlier in your essay. Now you disdain them. Your attitude is foolhardy. If our goal is to feed the hungry, my strategy is to take very good care of the people who produce, preserve, and distribute food, not to ignore them, take their bounty for granted, and plunder them.”

    I turn off. I see these as very different situations, and the rules for one don’t carry over willy-nilly into the other. I probably should have refused to discuss this mythical tornado situation in the first place; it’s evident that you meant it as a version of the all-too-Classical bourgeois version of the story of primitive accumulation.

    X. 3 (continued)) It’s funny. I consider free-marketeers more “collectivist” than myself. The attitude of the former towards laborers faced with the labor market, full of unappealing jobs as it may be, is: Make do! Do what society wants you to do! What there is demand for! Or else — well, what can you do? That’s it: Or else! The individual with nothing to sell but his labor is the individual versus society, which has all he needs to live. This is hardly a vision of individualism. Behind the consumer as lord lies the laborer as bondsman.

    XI. 3 (continued)) I could quibble with your account of human nature. You say:

    “Humans act do satisfy their most urgently felt needs. Humans generally prefer larger benefits to smaller benefits. Humans generally prefer to receive benefits sooner rather than later.”

    And I’m not sure. I’m not convinced people always — or even usually — know what they want. Humans act to satisfy their most urgently felt needs — except in all of those instances in which they self-sabotage. Humans prefer larger benefits to smaller benefits and prefer them sooner rather than later — assuming benefits can be quantified, which I won’t simply grant. And besides, if these claims were true, not only would capitalism have been overthrown already, but feminist movements, anti-slavery and black rights movements, and more would have begun much sooner than they did. Hell, to pick an example you might rather like, if all of that were true, how did feudalism even maintain itself? Wouldn’t peasants have rebelled against the lords? Why do people put up with less for such long times? Why isn’t there more theft? All of your claims about human nature seem very questionable to me.

    This is nitpicking. The truth is, I remain to be convinced on the larger point, that anyone can identify human nature as something fixed for all time; my inclination is to disbelieve human nature.. “The idea of a science of human nature,” said R.G. Collingwood, a British philosopher I rather like, “belonged to a time [the 18th century, to be specific] when it was still believed that the human species, like every other, was a special creation with unalterable characteristics.” But as I see it, following historicists like Marx and Colingwood, humans become what they are in interaction with the conditions in which they live. Conditions they inherit from history.

    A fixed human nature is not necessary to make inferences about how humans will act in certain situations. I will not say “any” situation, because I am not sure that it is possible to predict how humans will act all of the time — that would allow me to predict the future, no? But tell me a man’s history, and you have told me quite a bit; enough, perhaps, to make some predictions about how he might act in some situations.

    XII. Incentives, incentives, incentives. Yes, you asked me a question I have been asked many times before. I have a stock answer prepared for you.

    There are many different kinds of incentives — even in the capitalist world (or, from your point of view, the quasi-capitalist world) we live in. The incentive for many people to volunteer is that they want to be — or be perceived as — “good people.” The incentive for many artists to create is self-expression. The incentive for many scholars to research and write is the pursuit of truth. The incentive for some people to join the army is a sense of honor. The incentive for some people to work is not only money — it’s that they enjoy the validation they get from their co-workers. Others work just to keep themselves busy.

    See, from my perspective, incentive is multiple. It isn’t just a matter of bribing people with stuff in order to convince them that it would be good for them to make some more stuff — which isn’t to say that some stuff, i.e. food and shelter, isn’t especially important. But this multiple aspect of incentive is downplayed by neoclassical economics and decision theory, obsessed with the rational subject and his utils as they are.

    In capitalism, the problem of incentives comes up because people don’t seem to want to work. If we didn’t have money to bribe people to work in factories, supermarkets, offices, airports, bus systems, engineering firms, etc., etc., it doesn’t seem clear how — or, more importantly, that — the work would be done. I see this.

    For my part, I believe that many people dislike work because they don’t have say in what they do; as the labor market precedes them, the specific labor they do, if they are lucky to find something in the market, precedes them, too. It is freely chosen, but out of a limited pool. They also do work whose benefit to society is not always clear to them, and which they don’t have a definite say in determining. Moreover, once they have a job, they do that job, again and again, for extended periods of time — for months and years some do a single task — which can get very dull. And lastly, as I have said, I believe people work more than is necessary.

    Technology has advanced to an extent that, by my estimation, if we were able to agree to cut some excesses, we could work less and still be more or less modern. Through a democratic process, we would have to determine what is excess, and what is not; as well as who does what jobs, and for how long. That it would happen through a democratic process would, among other things, increase the sense that people were working for a reason — that is, their social purpose would be clearer. I won’t be much more specific, since I don’t have specifics.

    This lack of specificity may disappoint you, but it’s all I have. Our tasks are different, at once easier and harder than the other. You must defend an already existing system. Therefore, its benefits are already evident. You can show them. On the other hand, you have to argue that the existing system is not only good, but the best — for now and forever. This is one of the reasons why a notion of human nature can be so helpful for you. Mine is easier because I only need to expose problems. To criticize. And even without having solutions, I can rely on the abstract possibility that humankind can do better than it has with capitalism. I don’t need the absolutist confidence in communism.

    My position is harder, though, because our culture does not value negative thinking. If you’re going to say that something is wrong, give a solution! Tell us how to fix it! I don’t think matters are that simple, I don’t think solutions are developed that way — or that easy to come by — and I pay the price for this opinion.

    Additionally, my position is harder, because when the solution question does come up, it will be difficult to answer. Tough, because it involves the creation of something completely new. Because it makes us enemies of the status quo — and a powerful status quo at that. Hence why I cannot give these answers alone, except abstractly.

  4. Shaun says:

    I want to make just a little clearer one of the last things I said. I brought up the multiplicity of incentive because I think that, in addition to solving some of the incentive problems engendered by conditions of labor in capitalism that I mentioned, I believe that we could mobilize different kind of incentives to get work done. Doctors, teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers don’t just work for money — they work because their work has a certain status in society. That type of incentivizing, in addition to others, could be put to use to ensure that the work that we need to get done gets done.

  5. autofyrsto says:

    This is really good stuff. I’m pleased that we seem to agree more than we disagree. When I listen to Richard Wolff on Economic Update, or to Michael Ratner on Law and Disorder, I hear a kind of scorn in their voice when they utter the word capitalism that I do not hear in yours. I want to acknowledge that. I think I can make some of these responses pretty short. Here we go. You write:

    I do not have a reason to use a different term. Of course, there are differences between the “ideal” and the “real”; they are not especially significant to my argument here, as far as I can tell.

    But they are especially significant to my argument, here. Of course I am aware that present day, American-style managed markets do not meet everyone’s needs. I have suggestions for some ways to improve the system, and they generally involve moving from American-style managed “markets” to “capitalist” free markets. This is a big deal for me. I think the gains to be made are significant enough to warrant the use of a different word. Those who use the same word to describe the managed “markets” and free markets come across to me as incognizant to the large and numerous roadblocks to proper market function. Government intervention is pervasive. I often marvel that anything ever gets done at all. Continuing:

    That Man must labor in order to survive is a fact of life. It is, I might say, a kind of slavery imposed by Nature herself;

    This is very well said and very important to me. My first response to the villainization of greedy bourgeois capitalists is that Mother Nature is the real enemy. Continuing:

    Problem of Relations of Production #1: Technologies that reduce necessary labor time do not result in humans laboring less … .

    You sort of refuted yourself in the one note you added after this statement. Let me clarify: If increases in technology caused a three-fold increase in labor time to produce a twelve-fold rise in living standards (however that is supposed to be quantified), then I would argue that increasing efficiency in technology does, indeed, “cash out” in terms of a reduction in labor time, for in the absence of such technological improvements, a twelve-fold increase in labor time might have been required to acheive the same rise living standard. Of course, I’m just making up these numbers. I don’t know what the real numbers could be, if they could even be measured at all. But don’t assume that the extra labor isn’t worth it. Caveman life was hard, so I hear.

    I’m not quite sure why the issue of workplace democratization falls under this heading. Is this one of the rules of capitalism that you would change? Would you enforce workplace democracy? If so, how?

    Problem of Relations of Production #2: Capitalism does not provide a sense of security to those within it; in fact, it requires a certain amount of insecurity. … Capitalism eliminates the need for such insecurity; given the technology available, there is no real reason for us to wonder whether we will be fed, not in the same way that hunter and gatherers wondered this.

    You still take the food supply for granted in your language. We’ll return to this later on.

    Yet capitalism retains insecurity in order to blackmail people into doing undesirable jobs.

    This is a little bit much for me to assimilate. I had said earlier that I don’t like to use the word capitalism. It respresents a fairly vague cloud of human activity, IMO, so its meaning is malleable. I was hoping that the cloud would evanesce in the morning sun, but I see it has instead sprouted arms, legs, and a bad attitude, and is now sauntering around town sabotaging and blackmailing people. Whatever shall we do with this menace?

    Of course, I can tell you an alternative fable: Capitalism is really an amazing guy. He’s like the conductor of a global orchestra. With the price system as his baton, he signals producers when it is time to produce more of one item and less of another, and he signals consumers when it is time to stop buying one item or start buying another. Through innovation and competition, he tries very hard to meet everyone’s basic needs. He’s done well at that so far, having reduced the poverty rate from 85% to 18% over the past two centuries, and he probably would have done even better if governments weren’t so busy jamming his signals and interfering with competition. Prosperity will spread even further once governments stop sabotaging our dear friend, Capitalism.

    So … have either of us convinced the other?

    Now, I am not sure if I am more shocked as to your reasoning or to the fact that you thought that I, working under different premises, would find it at all convincing. Did you really expect you’d convince me by telling me how hard capitalists and entrepreneurs work? And of what did you expect to convince me?

    At this stage, I am not trying to convince you of anything. I am lobbying only for a change in your language in the hope that a change in your thinking might follow. You have this rather uncouth habit of disappearing the producers of bounty. It makes talking about the issues that are important to me more difficult. My purpose for linking you over to the Tom Smith’s Incredible Bread Machine video was to humanize producers by giving them a name. So now, rather than saying “there’s enough stuff for all of us,” you can say “Tom Smith has made enough stuff for all of us.” Rather than syaing, “there’s enough stuff to go around,” you can say, Tom Smith has made enough stuff to go around.” Rather than saying “there is no real reason for us to wonder whether we will be fed,” you can say “there’s no real reason to wonder whether Tom Smith will continue to feed us.” Regardless of the economic system in place, and so long as there is food out there to be eaten, there will be Tom Smiths out there in the world making that food. These Tom Smiths are going to claim certain rights relative to their labor, and I believe they are entitled to a hearing. It’s easier for you to deny Tom the hearing he deserves when you habitually cleanse the discussion of his existence. I want you to stop doing that. Will you? It’s the least you can do for Tom.

    You know, Tim, I really resent your suggestion that I am appealing to emotion rather than reason.

    I don’t want to get bogged down with this. I think I may have finally learned a lesson on not pointing this stuff out. It just clicked, because the standard response is always for my interlocutors to recoil with indignance, defend their honor, and reassert the validity of their emotional pleas with greater vigor. Always. Nobody has ever said to me anything like: “You know what? You’re right. Calling your statement ‘cruel’ really was more prejudicial than probative in light of the sound economic points you’ve made.” Nobody. Never. I’m really just tired of the dog and pony show that I invite when I invoke this line of criticism. I’m finally ready to give it up and respond to unresponsiveness in other ways.

    Feel free to speak emotionally. That’s fine. I do it too. We all do. Just try to fit a direct response to my claims in there somewhere. If you want to insert your opinion that I’ve been cruel and unempathetic, go ahead. I’m not trying to disregard that argument. I’m just pleading no contest because I don’t see those charges as affecting either the truth or falsity of what I said, which is that supermarket raids are no solution to this economic problem. I believe this issue is of ultimate importance, not only to myself, but also to anyone interested in keeping supermarket shelves well stocked.

    As for your stock answer to the question of incentives:

    In capitalism, the problem of incentives comes up because people don’t seem to want to work. If we didn’t have money to bribe people to work in factories, supermarkets, offices, airports, bus systems, engineering firms, etc., etc., it doesn’t seem clear how — or, more importantly, that — the work would be done. I see this. For my part, I believe that many people dislike work because they don’t have say in what they do…

    This analysis of incentives is limited specifically to why people choose to get jobs. I don’t see how it applies to my little tornado hypo. That hypo involved the incentives that influence the personal decision to prepare for the future. Some of what you said carries over. Just as people don’t like to do work, I posit that they also don’t like to prepare. One could perhaps say that a way to get people to prepare is to “bribe” them with a societal expectation of a future benefit deriving from their preparation. That’s quite a stretch, though, for who is doing the bribing? I don’t think one could rightly argue that people don’t have a say in how they prepare for their own futures, either.

    So, from the Marxist or anticapitalist view of incentive, do people like to prepare for the future? Why or why not? Do you suppose you could generalize your ideas on incentive to answer questions about human behavior beyond “Why would anybody go to work in the morning?”

    I believe that removing the guarantee that people may benefit from their own personal preparation will reduce the incentive to prepare. Do you agree?

    I’ll wrap up with a couple quick points that I missed earlier. First:

    I wonder, and it is not idle wondering: What would you do with those who had not prepared? Who had nothing left of or from their homes to barter?

    Imainge the state of the community if nobody had bothered to prepare. I would treat the remainder of the community as I would have treated them if nobody among them had prepared, plus in light of the efforts of the one guy who did prepare, I would recognize that they now have a potential bonus option of exchange, perhaps for labor if nothing else, with the one guy who did prepare. The guy who prepared does not leave his neighbors in a worse state by declining to trade with them. He leaves them as he found them. Finally:

    I won’t accept a simple parallel between those who saved up extra food in case of a storm and capitalists and the entrepreneurs that develop their technologies.

    This is very fair. One must accept the ligitimacy of a few additional social conventions, i.e. freedom of association and the giving of gifts, before one can properly build that analogy. I believe the edifice will stand once constructed.

  6. Shaun says:

    I.

    I hear a kind of scorn in their voice when they utter the word capitalism that I do not hear in yours. I want to acknowledge that.

    Thank you. The truth is, historically speaking, Marxist types, for all of their disdain for capitalism’s evils, believe it served an important role in developing technologies, making production more social, and destroying traditional economies. The first two beliefs are common to almost all Marxists, whether or not they are saying it at the moment or not. Even Wolff probably says something like that in one of his books. Recall the old Marxist line about capitalism being one stage, socialism the next, then communism. It’s not a line I particularly like, but it’s standard. On the last, about the destruction of traditional economies, they often get into trouble with post-colonial types — and for good reason, in my view — so many have dropped that point.

    II.

    On the use of the term “capitalism”:

    I am aware that the terms “managed markets” and “free markets” are “especially significant” to your general system, if I can call it that. In this conversation, however, the difference between them has not been a stated premise of any of your arguments, as far as I can tell. You are just unsure of whether we are talking abut the same thing; I think we are.

    From my perspective, I might say that the difference between the references of the two terms you’re trying to get me to use is quantitative and not qualitative. That is, for me, it is merely the difference between two types of capitalism. How they are the same is what is important. That said, in order for me to say that these are the same, I need to be working with very general terms; that I am aware of.

    What is crucial is that production is determined by the pursuit of profit. I’m using the simple terms of a political economist I like, David P. Levine, who puts it this way: “In a capitalist economy, things are produced only if it is profitable to do so; and the amount produced depends on expected profitability.”

    And there’s no reason for me to be hardline about this. I am perfectly willing to consider that, for instance, when the government decides to run education, or health care, it may be running against the grain of capitalism itself. I use hypothetical language here because that same political economist, Levine, who is at the end of the day a social democrat, is persuasive on the profitability of the government ensuring baseline standards of education and healthcare. Either way, I am wary of where the consequences of my arguments land, and especially so at the height of abstraction: if I say that capitalism does something, this is because I believe will hold under American “managed markets” or “free markets” — under any economy in which “things are produced only if it is profitable to do so.” Or, at least, most things.

    III.

    My first response to the villainization of greedy bourgeois capitalists is that Mother Nature is the real enemy.

    I cannot give up this opportunity to give a nod to Marx himself; for I am being fairly orthodox, not heterodox. While there are good reasons to believe that Marx’s thoughts about nature were complex, not to mention of considerable interest to ecologists, he believed that it was part of Man’s nature to make use of Nature, since that is Man lives. He said:

    “Man lives on nature — [this] means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.”

    Loosening Nature’s hold over Man was the accomplishment of modern industry, Marx thought. Thus freed, Man can do what makes him truly distinct: he can labor freely, for the purpose of enjoyment. We might think of this latter along the lines of artistic creation. I said before that Marx dismissed the notion of human nature — that was only half true. In his early writings, unpublished during his lifetime, he delineated what set Man apart, namely, the aforementioned capacity to labor for enjoyment rather than for need.

    The production of free time and its use are two sides of the same coin, since once one has time one must do something with it. What I am trying to say at this juncture is: that we had extra time in which to do anything Marx found profound. And he thought we got this because we separated ourselves from Nature, de-mystified her, reduced her to object — properly speaking, to an It rather than a She — and made use of It.

    There is another side to this story, but this is the one that’s relevant now.

    IV.

    If increases in technology caused a three-fold increase in labor time to produce a twelve-fold rise in living standards (however that is supposed to be quantified), then I would argue that increasing efficiency in technology does, indeed, “cash out” in terms of a reduction in labor time, for in the absence of such technological improvements, a twelve-fold increase in labor time might have been required to acheive the same rise living standard.

    Yes, you are correct, and I believe that this is in line with what I was saying. Since I may have been muddled, however, I’ll restate: the improved technology decreases what Marx would call the socially necessary quantity of labor required to produce an item, a quantity that we can measure only in time. Marx used the qualification “socially” because the amount of time that is necessary to produce can be identified only by comparing alternative methods of production which exist at a specific moment in time and within the specific context within which economic exchange is taking place.

    In capitalism, technologies reduce the socially necessary amount of labor required to produce commodities — that is their function. What I want to highlight is that this does not translate into a reduction of total time spent laboring.

    V.

    I’m not quite sure why the issue of workplace democratization falls under this heading. Is this one of the rules of capitalism that you would change? Would you enforce workplace democracy? If so, how?

    You said yourself that I may have refuted my argument about labor time. The democratization of the production process came as a counter-argument to what you perceived as a self-refutation. Let me present the latter again, and then try to get at where democratization comes in.

    The gist of what you took as my self-refutation went something like this:

    Very well, Shaun. The decrease in socially necessary labor time required to produce commodities goes down drastically, yet does not result in a decrease in labor time — that is, there is no increase in free time. However, workers get their due for their time laboring. They get commodities at a cheap price — and not just food and shelter! They get iPods! TVs! Laptops! And the tendency is for prices to go down and for technologies to get better! And cheaper!

    My response, in which the democratization of the production process will play a role:

    To bring us to a matter I am undecided on, given the power of propaganda I suppose that people are free to do what they please: if they freely decide that they fare better under capitalism, so be it. Likewise, if they freely decide to be socialists. Or communists. Or whatever. Even if we interpret one of these options as a kind of unfreedom, it seems uncontroversial to say that people could freely choose such a fate. You will note that this is more Roussea-esque than Marxist.

    Now, to return to my alleged self-refutation, I do not believe that there is a direct equivalence between the availability of these commodities and time spent laboring. But this is incidental to the fact that there is considerable truth to this argument, and one ignores it at one’s peril. However, I nonetheless believe that we could conceivably work much less than we do and still live quite decent lives — that is how far technology has taken us. I think people might like to organize themselves a little differently, and that we have closed ourselves off from considering worthwhile possibilities. I’m not sure it even registers for people that these advances in technology could cash out in terms of reduced time spent laboring.

    I mention some kind of democracy apropos the question of production because that seems to me to be what we call any kind of serious discussion over how we do things. Discussing what kind of world we want to live in, and then acting on our decisions — that is democracy. I want to democratize the production process. I want us to start to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in, and whether capitalism will get us there. I want to see if we will freely choose capitalism — or something else.

    That we take for granted private ownership of the means of production, and their concomitant use to generate profit — this stops us from asking these questions, as all taking for granted does. It is worth asking ourselves whether it would be possible to organize production so that we could work less, taking advantage in a new way of advances in technology.

    This very line of questioning presupposes that we already have a form of collective ownership of property; it presupposes the power, collectively, to choose a new way of living together, because it presupposes that, in the first place, we collectively decided to have privately owned means of production, to be used by their owners to make profit. Private property is, after all, socially guaranteed. Another Rousseau-esque line. I rather like this way of putting things, yet I’m not sure it is essential to make my point.

    What is a different way we could organize production? I have my reasons for not offering concrete solutions: I am not at a stage where that is relevant, and I don’t believe in answering practical questions outside of a practical context. However, I believe in carrying democracy down to every level: How do we want to work together? How will we decide who’s boss? Maybe we won’t have bosses; maybe we will. Since these questions would be answered by a group, I cannot answer them myself now. The point is the asking, and the deciding, together. My goal is to make capitalism seem less metaphysically necessary, as contemporary ideology would have it. Only then can there be such questions at all.

    VI.

    On good and bad capitalism:

    I know good capitalism very well. It is not separate from the bad side.

    The bad side is related to the incentives problem you pose. I interpret the incentives problem as going along the lines of, If people are guaranteed what they need to survive, then they won’t work.

    In more complex terms in my last post, I responded, Exactly. That’s what I don’t like about capitalism. It poses that blackmail: work or die. I find that distasteful.

    I qualified myself further in my last post, but that may have obscured my main point, so I won’t pursue this point further; I’ll refer you to my argument there.

    VII.

    You know, I’m taking on your claim that I deny the significance of what Tom Smith does. I have said again and again the value of the technology developed under capitalism; moreover, I have deduced this development, explained how it is an inherent part of the private ownership of the means of production and their use to generate profit. I don’t understand the idea that I’ve disappeared such fellows, in light of the fact that they have played an absolutely essential role in my main argument.

    On the other hand, I genuinely believe that you have disappeared some people from the picture. And it’s ironic to me that you should use the word “producer” for Tom Smith, whom you think I have disappeared, when my claim now is that it is you who has disappeared one side of the production process, and the one that consists of the most people: the people who work at Tom Smith’s factory — as well as all of the other capitalist’s factories — for God knows how much an hour.

    Here’s the other side of the tale: Tom Smith should be grateful that there are people who would for all intents and purposes — I explained this more thoroughly in my last post — die unless they worked for factories like his to earn small wages. Without their labor, the factory wouldn’t function; and without their state of privation, they wouldn’t labor there; and all of this leads to a world where Tom Smith is profit-less.

    In order for you to say that capitalism is a system that rewards people for their work, and that it is therefore fair, you’d need to be starting with a blank slate — every generation. People don’t choose their starting points; they don’t choose to be born into situations where they could not come to have the tools to contribute as Tom Smith did. If I am correct in saying this, then the rewards system, if rewards system it be, isn’t so fair. I’m sure you hear this from social democrats, too.

    But I’m not sure I want to even go down this path of argument — I only want to gesture towards it — since my indictment of capitalism is not that it fails to be a perfect meritocracy. However, I would like to scope out with my binoculars a thorn bush or two down that road.

    First, we should follow Schumpeter in distinguishing between the role of the entrepreneur, that is, the inventor, and the role of the capitalist, the funder. You have chosen a special example because they happen to be the same person, but usually they are not; often the capitalist merely buys the entrepreneur’s ideas, or hires him at a high price to come up with ideas. Therefore, you cannot argue that capitalists have a right to their profit on the basis of the work that entrepreneurs do; or, in this case, you cannot argue for Tom Smith’s compensation as capitalist on the basis of his role as entrepreneur. That would be to sneak in a rather bizarre argument in which one’s entrepreneurship justifies one becoming a capitalist: Some people come up with good ideas to improve production processes; therefore, they have a right to privately own the means of production, using them to get more out in terms of output than they put in in terms of input, reinvesting quite a bit and shaving some off at the top for themselves. It’s a non-sequitor. And it certainly isn’t generalizable into an argument for capitalism, since you presuppose, rather than justify, capitalism, by which I mean (and I must sound rather boring by now) the private ownership of the means of production and their use to generate profit. Just as you cannot argue that Tom Smith’s entrepreneurialism justifies compensation in terms of profit, neither can you argue that the existence of people who come up with good ideas about how to change the production process justifies capitalism as an economic system.

    Then again, you could argue solely for Tom Smith’s compensation as a capitalist without making reference to the fact that he is also an entrepreneur — but then you have a circular argument. A capitalist is someone who privately owns some means of production and uses them in order to make profit. He’s trying to maximize profit. He reinvests much of it in order to improve his business, and he keeps some for himself. You’re saying that the capitalist deserves compensation for this — a lot of compensation — because he performs a valuable function. What is this valuable function? He improves his business, his pursuit of profit leads technology to improve generally, etc. I’ve written about it at length. But I’ve written about it as a part of an economic system. In capitalism, the existence of competition forces capitalists to reinvest their profits to improve their businesses — or they will cease to be capitalists because the profits will drain up and they will close shop. (This is a complex process I am alluding to, but not really describing; I am assuming you are on board with it, since it’s general market stuff.) The capitalist’s will to efficiency, if you want to call it that, is socially enforced by the reality of competition. It’s what drives creative destruction; it’s why we get technological development. And to say it is socially enforced is just to say that it is what you get when you have capitalism, that is, when you allow the means of production to be privately owned and used to generate profit — by individuals (or firms of individuals) I call capitalists. So when you say that they should get compensated for reinvesting their profits, or for having any sort of role in technological development, what you’re saying is that they should get some sort of compensation for being capitalists. Capitalists deserve compensation for being capitalists.

    Now, the social value of having privately owned means of production which are used to make profit is precisely what I’m questioning — even as I nod towards the good it does. Since I believe we could live differently — it is not logically impossible, at least — and I moreover believe we should live differently, to speak as if we could not survive without Tom Smith does not make sense to me. That is precisely my point: we could. Moreover, to the extent that we have benefited from Tom Smith, it is important to emphasize that he is a historical and social product — and not only in the traditional sense that even your social democrats emphasize, perhaps saying that Tom Smith, to stick with an example, had a better upbringing them some, perhaps had parents with money, didn’t have enslaved ancestors; he is also a historical and social product in the sense that his inventiveness was promoted by capitalism itself. As for the latter, I discussed previously my views on how capitalism spurs technological development. Tom Smith didn’t create the conditions in which he worked.

    VIII.

    I felt as if my analysis of incentives would be useful for our conversation. Perhaps I misunderstood your intentions in asking me about incentives. Most people of persuasions close to yourself worry about incentives because they feel that without withholding people’s house and dinner from them, insisting that they work before they get it, nothing would get done. It is assumed that need is the only incentive to labor. The context of this conversation — that is, a conversation about the incentives to work — is the only one in which the incentives talk has ever come up for me, and I was simply trying to show that people labor for all sorts of other reasons, in order to challenge the assumption that society must fall apart without using need as a motivator. What matters the tornado thought experiment when this is the real problem that confronts us? What does the detour to the hypothetical get us in this instance?

    The tornado example has far outlived it’s usefulness as far as I’m concerned. I worry it is a distraction. I am highly suspicious of attempts to deduce general truths from exceptional circumstances for the same reasons I am hesitant to answer practical questions outside of practical contexts. That this method is amenable to you, in addition your assumption of a fixed human nature, puts us far apart in many ways. When you ask,

    Do you suppose you could generalize your ideas on incentive to answer questions about human behavior beyond “Why would anybody go to work in the morning?”

    you make me think that you are the aspiring philosopher, not I. For that is a question that would require empirical research and — here’s where Marx comes in — a look at specific situations people live in. Historical analysis, of one kind or another. Probably individual and social. We’d need more than generalization.

    I am not sure what it means to say, “People don’t like to prepare.” For what don’t they like to prepare? For tornados? Floods? Hurricane? Economic crises? Well, those last are internal to capitalism, but…

    I really have no idea what the purpose of this tornado example is. I am not sure how you will get from here to a defense of capitalism. Furthermore, I am not sure what the purpose of your questions is, unless you are just really curious what Marxist types do with tornados. Why is this important?

    Leaving my problems aside, I noticed something you snuck in with this tornado example. You have assumed that preparation must be a private matter, undertaken by individuals (and one would guess their families) alone. Only thus are you able to make an issue out of some people preparing and some people not. But this assumption is by no means an impossible to doubt one; in fact, it is exactly the one that I would doubt. We could very well imagine collective preparation for the storm — churches do it, community centers do it, anarchist groups do it, tribes do it. A commune could do it, as could a socialist state. There’s no reason why tornados have to bring on the hunger games. And there’s no reason to assume that the hunger games pre-exists the tornado.

    You are either presupposing capitalist arrangements before the tornado and judging the aftermath of the tornado from that starting point, or you are positing a mythical state of nature whose relationship to capitalism is as of yet undetermined.

  7. Shaun says:

    Or, you are assuming that capitalism is the natural result of a fixed human nature that reveals itself after the tornado.

  8. autofyrsto says:

    On the definition of capitalism, you write:

    What is crucial is that production is determined by the pursuit of profit.

    You mentioned later on that I tend to “presuppose, rather than justify, capitalism”. You’re probably more right than you realize. For us capitalists, to profit is nothing more than to better one’s self. Surely people will strive to better themselves in all economic systems, even if they believe that the best way to do so is through some sort of public system of ownership and distribution. If profit is the defining characteristic of capitalism, then every system that I can imagine is capitalist, and each varies from the others only by degree and type of limitations on bettering one’s self.

    I think you should rather say that, “What is crucial is that production is determined by a certain method of pursuing profit,” such as profit by one-on-one exchange upon the consent of both parties, or something of the like.

    On workplace democratization, you write:

    I think people might like to organize themselves a little differently, and that we have closed ourselves off from considering worthwhile possibilities. … This very line of questioning presupposes that we already have a form of collective ownership of property; it presupposes the power, collectively, to choose a new way of living together

    It would depend on a unanimity requirement, I think. Some people might like to organize themselves in one way. Others might like to organizae themselves another way. I believe the majority hasn’t the right to force the minority into another way of living, but if the decision were unanimous, there’d be no problem.

    Private property is, after all, socially guaranteed.

    Now here is an interesting thought that I’d much like to ponder further. On the various Mr. Smiths:

    You know, I’m taking on your claim that I deny the significance of what Tom Smith does.

    Very well. I’m glad you have shifted focus over to him/them.

    First, we should follow Schumpeter in distinguishing between the role of the entrepreneur, that is, the inventor, and the role of the capitalist, the funder. … Therefore, you cannot argue that capitalists have a right to their profit on the basis of the work that entrepreneurs do; or, in this case, you cannot argue for Tom Smith’s compensation as capitalist on the basis of his role as entrepreneur. … And it certainly isn’t generalizable … . Just as you cannot argue … neither can you argue … . Then again, you could argue solely for … but then you have a circular argument. … You’re saying that the capitalist deserves … I am assuming you are on board with … . So when you say that they should get compensated … . … …

    I’m sorry. I don’t recall arguing any of that stuff, and I’m not sure that I necessarily would. It looks like you’ve gone off on your own. Let me reel you back in: All I would argue on Tom Smith’s behalf at this point–and this goes equally for Tom Smith the entreperneur, Tom Smith the investor, and Tom Smith the factory worker–is 1) that each is entitled to keep whatever benefits are given to him, provided that each satisfies the conditions set by those giving the benefits, and 2) that each is entitled to condition his own performace on the receipt of that benefit, and each is entitled to withhold performance if he does not expect that benefit to be forthcoming. Do you agree?

    Now, the social value of having privately owned means of production which are used to make profit is precisely what I’m questioning — even as I nod towards the good it does. Since I believe we could live differently — it is not logically impossible, at least — and I moreover believe we should live differently, to speak as if we could not survive without Tom Smith does not make sense to me. That is precisely my point: we could.

    Tom Smith is my symbol for the producers of any type of material wealth in any type of economic system. I hope we can agree that bread can not come into existence without the productive efforts of human beings. I don’t think we would survive if nobody were productive. These productive people are bound to make certain claims concerning their labor and the disposition of the products of that labor. People operating in a capitalist system honor a certain set of claims, such as traditional Lockean claims to private property and the freedom to exchange such property and labor upon mutual consent. Those who advocate a move to a different system must believe that some of these claims are open to negotiation. I’m trying to figure out, from the anti-capitalist’s perspective, which claims these are, and what alternative claims they’d recommend. You’ve contributed these ideas: first workplace democratization, and now, potentially, a move away from the private ownership of the means of production. As one who believes that the free market system is probably best, I must express reservation.

    I would like for those who advocate a move away from the private ownership of the means of production to explain in greater detail exactly what they have in mind. For example, what, exactly, constitutes ‘the means of production’? I think we can agree that factory equipment constitues a ‘means of production’, and that something like, say, a rug does not. But what about something like a frying pan? Perhaps it is not if I make an egg sandwich for my own entertainment and enjoyment, but does it become a ‘means of production’ once I use it to make egg sandwiches for others (in exchange for cash)? If so, what rights could the general public, as owners, claim over the pan? I imagine that this type of economic system would require a fairly large army of busybodies to prevent private property from being used used productively. Do you see this as a difficulty?

    Now, I’m not just a Negative Nancy, shooting down other people’s ideas. I have my own ideas about how to improve conditions for people, most of which involve ending government intervention into people’s private affairs. I reckon that my ideas will not receive their due consideration among anti-capitalists because they do not tend to thwart the profit motive, which I see as an inherent feature of human action.

    The tornado example has far outlived it’s usefulness as far as I’m concerned. I worry it is a distraction. … I really have no idea what the purpose of this tornado example is. I am not sure how you will get from here to a defense of capitalism.

    This is fine. I first devised the tornado scenario as an analogy to food speculation. It was intended to be a defense of that specific behavior, which Richard Wolff had panned without qualification. I think the analogy applies to any sort of capital gains situation in which a person acquires something mainly in the hope of benefitting from it later on. My hope was to convince those who doubt the social utility of speculating to see a potential social benefit to collecting goods for later use and benefit, but I was apparently unsuccessful at that. One could still argue that the immediate price increase does the poor no favors, but one should not ignore the longer term benefits, such as the smoothing over of supply shocks and the transfer of risk from farmers to speculators.

    I am not sure what it means to say, “People don’t like to prepare.” For what don’t they like to prepare? For tornados? Floods? Hurricane? Economic crises? Well, those last are internal to capitalism, but…

    The gist of it is that people will generally prefer to consume in the present rather than prepare for the future, and some people are better than others at resisting that temptation. Furthermore, some sort of carrot, such as the guarantee of a future benefit deriving from the preparation, will encourage people not already inclined to prepare to do so. Capitalism offers these sorts of carrots to people as a reward for engaging in these socially beneficial behaviors. These socially benefical behaviors go beyond simply doing work, and extend also to other behaviors such as preparation and thrift. (You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure.)

    Let me ask you: How, if at all, do you label your worlview? Anti-capitalist? Marxist? Mutualist? Socialist? Communist? None of the above?

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