The Paradise of the Real

That is the title of  an article by Kevin D Williamson at National Review Online that should be required reading for anyone who has ever had a discussion about economics with a liberal. I can’t even begin to express how informative this article is and can only provide a few excerpts. You really have to read it all.

Word Problem No. 1: It’s lunchtime for Mrs.Piketty’s second-grade class. Bobby has 20 GummiWorms, and Jenny has 20 SweeTarts. Bobby and Jenny both like Gummi Worms and SweeTarts, but both like SweeTarts a little bit more, so Jenny trades three of her SweeTarts for four of Bobby’s GummiWorms. Both are happy with this trade, so they do it again. Question: How many pieces of candy do the two students end up with for dessert?

Word Problem No. 2: Mrs. Piketty is unhappy with the inequality in her second-grade classroom. Jenny’s 20 SweeTarts are valued much more highly than are Bobby’s 20 Gummi Worms, trading at a rate of 3:4. To even things out, Mrs.Piketty gives Bobby a voucher for seven SweeTarts. Question: How many pieces of candy do the two students end up with for dessert?

Word Problem No. 3: Mrs. Piketty’sattempt to solve the problem of inequality in her classroom has yielded unsatisfactory results. Bobby has his 20 Gummi Worms, and Jenny has her 20 SweeTarts, and SweeTarts still trade for Gummi Worms at a rate of 3:4. So Mrs. Piketty enacts some new policies. First, she hires Bobby as a hall monitor and decrees that hall monitors receive a minimum income of at least ten SweeTarts or the equivalent value in Gummi Worms. Also, she decrees that the high price of SweeTarts — three of them cost four Gummi Worms — is oppressive, but she’s not an all-the-way-to-the-wall outright red, either, more of a social-democrat type with a subscription to The Nation, so she simply enacts some counteracting price supports for Gummi Worms, decreeing that they cannot be traded at a price less than 13/15th of a SweeTart. She enlists Mrs. Yellen from the next classroom over to provide zero-interest financing for the purchase of up to fiveSweeTarts per lunch period, increases Bobby’s voucher allowance to nineSweeTarts per lunch period, and offsets that on her budget with a “fairness” tax of two SweeTarts per lunch period on Jenny, who is the sole member of her tax bracket. Question: How many pieces of candy do the two students end up with for dessert?

Answers: (1.) 40; (2.) 40; (3.) 40. There are only 40 pieces of candy, and rules, vouchers, taxes, zero-interest loans, redistribution, and mandates do not magic more pieces of candy into existence. If Jenny does not like the trading price imposed by Mrs. Piketty, she can keep all of her SweeTarts, while Bobby gets none. If Mrs.Piketty sends out her second-grade tactical SWAT unit to seize Jenny’s SweeTartsand put some serious asset-forfeiture and social-by-God-justice up in her smug little1-percenter face, Jenny can still leave her SweeTarts at home, eating them before or after school, and maybe even save them up in the hopes that her third-grade teacher next year will not be a howling moonbat.

Forty is forty is forty, 10 times 4, 8 times 5, 6.32455532034 squared, 23 plus 17. You can set the trading ratio of apples to oranges however you like, but if you have 20 of each, you have 40 pieces of fruit at any price — and the only way to bring more of it into the world is to plant trees, cultivate them, and pick the fruit.

The whole of progressive economics, as well social policy is to deny that two plus two equals four. Naturally the person who insists that two and two make four is a racist, bigoted, homophobic, sexist hater.

Here is something for those concerned about  increasing income inequality.

Measured by money, things look relatively grim for the American middle class and the poor. Men’s inflation-adjusted average wages peaked in 1973, and inflation-adjusted household incomes for much of the middle class have shown little or no growth in some time. The incomes of those at the top of the distribution (which is not composed of a stable group of individuals, political rhetoric notwithstanding) continue to pull away from those in the middle and those at the bottom. The difference between a CEO’s compensation and the average worker’s compensation continues to grow.

But much of that is written into the code. If, for example, you measure inequality by comparing the number of dollars it takes to land at a certain income percentile, with a hard floor on the low end (that being $0.00 per year in wages) but no ceiling on the top end, and if you have growth in the economy, then it is a mathematical inevitability that incomes at the top will continue to pull away from incomes at the bottom, for the same reason that any point on the surface of a balloon will get farther and farther away from the imaginary fixed point at its center as the balloon is inflated. 

The rich are getting richer but the poor are also getting richer. What people are complaining about amounts to the fact that the rich are getting richer faster than the poor. That may be a concern but it is not true that the rich are getting richer by stealing from the poor. When the economy grows, everyone benefits, some more than others but I would be wary of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by pursuing policies of redistribution.

With economic models, we are a little like Neo in The Matrix, before he takes the red pill: We are not in the real world, but in a simulacrum of it, one that has rules, but rules that can be manipulated by those who understand the code. Economic models and analysis are very useful, but it’s worth taking the occasional red-pill tour, leaving behind the world of pure symbolism and taking a look at the physical economy.

That is an important point to remember.

The physical economy — the world of actual goods and services — looks radically different from the symbolic economy. Measured by practically any physical metric, from the quality of the food we eat to the health care we receive to the cars we drive and the houses we live in, Americans are not only wildly rich, but radically richer than we were 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 75 years ago. And so is much of the rest of the world. That such progress is largely invisible to us is part of the genius of capitalism — and it is intricately bound up with why, under the system based on selfishness, avarice, and greed, we do such a remarkably good job taking care of one another, while systems based on sharing and common property turn into miserable, hungry prison camps.

We treat the physical results of capitalism as though they were an inevitability. In 1955, no captain of industry, prince, or potentate could buy a car as good as a Toyota Camry, to say nothing of a 2014 Mustang, the quintessential American Everyman’s car. But who notices the marvel that is a Toyota Camry? In the 1980s, no chairman of the board, president, or prime minister could buy a computer as good as the cheapest one for sale today at Best Buy. In the 1950s, American millionaires did not have access to the quality and variety of food consumed by Americans of relatively modest means today, and the average middle-class household spent a much larger share of its income buying far inferior groceries. Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of an American house increased by more than 50 percent, even as the average number of people living in it declined. Things like swimming pools and air conditioning went from being extravagances for tycoons and movie stars to being common or near-universal. In his heyday, Howard Hughes didn’t have as good a television as you do, and the children of millionaires for generations died from diseases that for your children are at most an inconvenience. As the first 199,746 or so years of human history show, there is no force of nature ensuring that radical material progress happens as it has for the past 250 years. Technological progress does not drive capitalism; capitalism drives technological progress — and most other kinds of progress, too.

Read those last paragraphs over and over until you get it. We are living in an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. A lot of people have come to believe that this is the norm. It is not. The norm is poverty and misery. There is a lot more here on this but I will skip ahead a little.

For the conservative, people are anasset — in the coldest economic terms, a potentially productive unit of labor. For the progressive, people are aliability — a mouth to be fed, a problem in need of a solution. Understanding that difference of perspective renders understandable the sometimes wildly different views that conservatives and progressives have about things like employment policy. For the conservative, the value of a job is what the worker produces; for the progressive, the value of a job is what the worker is paid. Politicians on both sides frequently talk about jobs as though they were economic products rather than contributors to economic output, as though they were ends rather than means. The phrase “there aren’t enough jobs” is almost completely meaningless, but it is a common refrain.

Remember all the talk about overpopulation that was popular a couple of decades ago. The people who worry about that sort of thing see people only as blind consumers, stomachs that need to be fed. The truth is that a more people is a net asset since each person has two hands that can work and a brain that can think.

This next part is great.

For example, The Nation yesterday published a hilariously illiterate essay by Raúl Carrillo, who is a graduate student at Columbia, a Harvard graduate, and an organizer of something called the Modern Money Network, “an interdisciplinary educational initiative for understanding money, finance, law, and the economy.” All three of those institutions should be embarrassed. Mr. Carrillo is the sort of man who thinks that 40 pieces of candy can be divided and recombined in such a way as to arrive at a number greater than 40. His essay, “Your Government Owes You a Job,” argues that the federal government should create a guaranteed-job program, “becoming our employer of last resort.” Mr. Carrillo’s middle-school-quality prose must be read to be appreciated — “Would jobs for all skyrocket wages and prices, spurring inflation? Such unfounded belief holds the jobless hostage to hysteria” — but his thinking is positively elementary. It does, however, almost perfectly sum up the symbolism-over-literal-substance progressive worldview: “You need dollars to eat,” he writes, “and unless you steal the dollars, you generally have to earn them.”

But you do not need dollars to eat. You need food to eat. Experiment: Spend six months locked in room with nothing other than a very large pile of dollars; measure subsequent weight loss.

I sometimes hear commercials on the radio and on the internet stating that the economy is due to collapse and therefore I should buy gold. If we end up in a sort of Mad Max style post-apocalyptic society, gold is going to be completely useless. You can’t eat gold. A dollar bill is just a piece of green paper. It is the goods and services that the dollar can buy that is important. Don’t confuse wealth with money.

Mr. Carrillo’s intellectual failure is catastrophic, but it is basic to the progressive approach. Mr. Carrillo argues that a guaranteed-job program would “pay for itself,” mitigate deficits, empower women, strengthen communities, liberate us from Walmart and McDonald’s — I half expected him to claim that it would turn asandwich into a banquet. But the question he never quite gets his head around is: Jobs doing what? Americans in guaranteed government jobs “needn’t construct trains or solar panels,” he writes. Instead, they could be employed in “non-capital intensive” sectors such as “child-care, eldercare, and” — focus in here, kids — “community gardening.” Experiment: Offer for sale at a price of $250 a voucher entitling its bearer to one year’s worth of meals at McDonald’s, one year’s worth of groceries at Walmart, or one year’s worth of produce from your local community garden; compare sales figures.

Mr. Carrillo cites William F. Buckley Jr., who once recommended that welfare dependents be put to work tidying up parks. What Mr. Carrillo does not understand is that Mr. Buckley’s case was not an economic one but a moral one; he believed idleness to be a sin. (“I get satisfaction of three kinds,” he said. “One is creating something, one is being paid for it, and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.”) Mr. Carrillo’s argument is an explicitly economic one, and it is illiterate. The economic difference between paying a man to engage in “community gardening” and paying a man to sit on his ass all afternoon is negligible, as good as the spade in the soil might be for his soul. Our food does not come from community gardens for the same reason that we do not generate our own electricity at home or build automobiles in a million mom-and-pop shops across the fruited plains.

I think this is what Cliven Bundy was trying to express with his controversial remarks.

The more removed you are from actually producing anything, the more likely you are to be a progressive.

The farther away we move from the physical economy into the manipulation of symbols through public policy, the more progressive ideas make apparent sense. And symbolism is more comfortable for progressives in general, owing to a disinclination to literally get their hands dirty. There is, for example, no environmentally clean way to produce energy, and the really productive ways of producing energy — like fracking for gas in Pennsylvania — give them the fantods. There is no environmentally clean way to build a man a house, either, or provide him with clean drinking water, or to heat that house, or to grow a crop of wheat, or to make that wheat into bread. If you think you can have health care and electric cars without steel mills and oil refineries, you are mistaken. But actually expanding physical production within our own political boundaries, for instance by building more pipelines to connect petroleum producers with petroleum refiners, scandalizes the progressives. Every smokestack is another Barad-dûr to them — even as they bemoan the loss of “good factory jobs,” the largely mythical former prevalence of which provided their political forebears with a deep bucket of solutions to throw at the problem of potentially bumptious poor people. They detest the economic use of undeveloped lands, whether for energy or timber or grazing cattle — as though beef comes from Trader Joe’s. They refuse to understand that if you want more oranges and apples, you have to plant some trees — maybe even cutting down some other trees to make room for them, or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, harassing a tortoise in the process.


Though there are many exceptions, the closer a man’s occupation takes him to the physical economy, the more skeptical he is of progressive central-planning ambitions. You do not meet a great many left-wing corn farmers, copper-mine operators, oil drillers, or house builders. You do meet a fair number of progressives on Wall Street and Silicon Valley and on the campus of Harvard utterly failing to teach the likes of Mr. Carrillo the fundamentals of economics, prose composition, or anything else. Follow that road to its terminus and you end up at the place in which the secret to national prosperity appears, self-evidently, to be stimulating demand, as though the nation could grow wealthier by wanting more rather than by making more, as though we could consume that which has not been produced.

What can I say? Read the whole thing again and again, and remember that two plus two equals four. No politics can change that in the slightest. You cannot just legislate prosperity.



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