Tag Archives: Marx

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

This is your brain on money: Why America’s rich think differently than the rest of us

Consider the following recent headlines:

The Internet is replete with apologias for the rich. They are thinly sourced and even less well thought. The goal is simple: to justify the unjustifiable chasm between the rich and poor, globally and within our nation. But the irony is that, rather than being better than the rest of us, in many ways the rich are worse.

Paul Piff and his co-authors, who have done extended research on the behaviors of the wealthy, find that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than upper class individuals. In another study, they find individuals with expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians. Further, in laboratory experiments, wealthy participants were more likely to take valued goods, cheat, lie and endorse such behavior. These studies have support from other sources. For instance, the wealthy actually donate less to charity as a share of their income than the middle class. Their giving is more dependent on the economic climate than the middle class. It is unsurprising that Christ warned, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The rich tend to behave badly, but their bad behaviors are often socially accepted; a behavior that would be seen as inappropriate by a poor person is seen as a minor offense by the rich. (See: casual drug use.) The reason is simple: in a society that worships wealth, those with wealth are worshipped as well. A young economist wrote in 1844,

“The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers… I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the realbrain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless?”

Economist Chris Dillow cites research by Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion, showing that overconfident individuals are seen by others as more competent. He argues that, “overconfident people are more likely to be promoted. And this could have positive feedback effects. Higher status will itself breed even more overconfidence. (E.g. “I got the job so I must be good.”) And if bosses employ like-minded subordinates, the result could be entire layers of management which are both over-confident and engaged in groupthink.”

This effect is reinforced further by the “just-world” bias, which leads us to believe that the rich and powerful deserve their positions. In a famous study, Melvin Lerner found that when students were informed that another student had randomly won a prize, they attributed positive characteristics to the student who had won. Studies have also shownthat people attribute negative characteristics to victims — from Kent State students shot by the National Guard, to young black men shot by police, to low-wage workers.

A more recent study by Justus Heuer, Christoph Merkle and Martin Weber finds rather the same thing: Investors are fooled into believing risk-taking is based in skill, rather than chance. Like the students in the experiment, investors believe managers who are simply reaping returns from risky bets are, in fact, oracles. Another study by Arvid Hoffmann and Thomas Post finds that “the higher the returns in a previous period are, the more investors agree with a statement claiming that their recent performance accurately reflects their investment skills (and vice versa).” Research by Charles O’Reilly and others finds that narcissistic CEOs are better paid than other CEOs. Another study finds that employees that spend more time grooming make more than workers who do not. (The effect is particularly strong for men of color.) All of this should leave us skeptical of the idea, promoted by many free-market fundamentalists, that compensation is set by objective market factors. As Christopher Lasch notes, “Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.”

Many defenders of the rich argue that the rich are special and therefore merit special treatment. (Charles Murray has gone as far as to argue that the rich should preach their virtues to the poor.) Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy have individually earned their place in society. But this is unlikely. Numerous studies find that financiers are vastly overpaid, and hedge fund managers, even the best, rarely beat the market. CEOs are also vastly overpaid, and largely benefit from a shift in tax policy that allows rent-seeking to flourish.

A famous economist once wrote,

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

The economist was not Marx, but Adam Smith.

In “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that wealth can persist for 10 or more generations. But biases, like the self-serving bias and optimism bias, lead the wealthy to attribute to themselves what is actually caused by factors beyond their control. Lucky people are seen as skillful, and are constantly worshiped for their success. Eventually they begin to believe what others say, leading to a narcissistic personality — or as Paul Piff says, “characteristics we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

There’s an apocryphal story in which F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “The rich are different from you and me,” and Ernest Hemingway retorts,“Yes, they have more money.” In his story, “Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald writes of the wealthy: “They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

All humans all delusional. It is only the rich who have that delusion fostered. All humans are, to some extent, assholes. But only rich people can get away with it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the right: “Cosmos,” Christians, and the battle for American science

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism — the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values. Religious conservatives have selectively adopted the legacy of liberal Enlightenment, from free speech to science, and jettisoned it when it does not suit their narrow ideological aims.

There is a nasty tendency for those arguing for their case to adopt a stance of enlightened empiricism on one issue to devolve into empirical nihilism on another. There is also the habit of shifting from a high praise of liberal values on one issue to utter contempt on another. Of course, our various liberal values will come into conflict frequently and must be weighed, but we must be disturbed at how quickly some, particularly on the religious right, are willing to twist these traditions for their own gain.

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

In truth, we cannot get fundamentalism without the scientific revolution. Fundamentalism does not exist independently, but rather defines itself in relationship to post-Enlightenment values. It is the odd melding of science and religion that creates fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is ultimately both a scientific and religious text. Fundamentalists, like the conspiracy theorists they resemble, will build up reams of evidence creating the case for something that can be disproven with a simple logical proposition. Few thinkers have built such an impressive edifice of logic and evidence upon such a thin foundation of speculation.

Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion — he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible’s explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims:

When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? because, in a way, it wasn’t just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, “No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe.”

But this rhetorical flourish is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the creation narrative, and religion in general. Religion, ultimately, aims at truths deeper than science and trying to apply religious reasoning to the natural world is absurd. Augustine warned as much, telling Christians in “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” to avoid, “talking nonsense on these topics.”

More worryingly, the idea that a rather tenuous reading of a literary work holds the same weight as centuries of scientific evidence is more than a little absurd. D’Souza is trying to selectively apply science, but without its foundation — empirical, testable, repeatable propositions.

We see here the fundamentalist flaw: a mass of rhetoric, reason and evidence built on the utterly insane proposition that the Old Testament is meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe.

The reason any somewhat knowledgeable Christian is frustrated by these debates is that they simply pit one fundamentalist against another. One tries to use science to disprove religion, the other to prove it — both apparently unaware that belief is something that cannot be “proven.” That’s the entire point! Too often, religious excursions into science resemble the thinking of the suicidal people described by Anne Sexton, “They ask only what tool, they never ask why build?” Fundamentalism at its core is the misunderstanding of the proper relationship between science and religion — one practiced just as frequently by atheists as Christians.

Another form of this trend is the co-option of liberal values. The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values — much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds.

One recent example of this illiberalism was the quickness with which Catholics decried a “Black Mass” at Harvard. The “Black Mass” is merely a satanic parody of the Catholic mass — which, while it may be offensive to some Catholics, is totally harmless in practice. Of course, the idea of Catholics demanding special privileges is not rare, but to be expected; one wonders if Satanist child abusers could claim that their church would deal with the matter internally.

Liberal values are not weighed in a vacuum, but this weighing appears to be something many religious conservatives are incapable of doing. During the Black Mass controversy, Father James Martin appeared on MSNBC and said, “I think to put it in perspective, we could say, how would we feel if they said, ‘we’re going to do a little cultural thing, we’re going to do something that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, just as a cultural experiment, we’re going to set up the reenactment of a lynching …’” Father Martin claims to put the event in perspective, and then does the opposite, equating the merely offensive with an act of white supremacy.

Lynchings were intimately tied to white supremacy in the post-Civil War South — their intention was to establish white hegemony and create a permanent underclass. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of crosses were either overtly violent or symbolically violent. The reenactment of a lynching would not be acceptable at a liberal university because it would amount to the direct threat of violence to minorities on campus. It would be aimed at suppressing their rights to expression.

One wonders how Father Martin has lived his entire life in the United States and is still capable of making such an odious comparison. The distinction between the merely offensive and what amounts to group libel or defamation is hard to make, but the Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that some speech may be more than just offensive, and can therefore be regulated. As Clarence Thomas noted in his correct dissent in Virginia v. Black,“just as one cannot burn down someone’s house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.” Father Martin seems to miss this distinction and believes that he should be protected from ever being criticized or offended.

Hobby Lobby provides another example of the selective use of the liberal tradition. One might find it ironic that Catholics aim to carve out an exception for themselves from laws of general applicability when denying other religions that privilege. But sadly, religious majorities have a long history of understanding the First Amendment diametrically wrong, as a protection of powerful religions rather than weak ones. It is the latter the Founders knew would need special protection (see: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), not the former.

To both of these claims — that many on the religious right have entirely abandoned the post-WWI liberal consensus of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment values — there are those who would like to say the same about the left. The Economist is quick to point to GMOs as the left’s version of anti-scientific inquiry. Such claims are entirely overblown. More recently, there have been claims that the left is showing the same illiberal tendencies as the right, most notably Michelle Goldberg of the NationShe argues we are “entering a new era of political correctness,” which she calls “left-wing anti-liberalism.”

While she cites some rather damning movements, they are all fringe movements that have produced pixels but will not bring about change. As Marx once wrote of Communism, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” We might note that the idea of illiberalism is something liberalism must countenance, even though it must be prevented from ever being existent.

And here the threat from the right is far stronger: We have seen free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and rights of due process come under scrutiny at all levels. Workers are being denied even the semblance of control over their labor and women over their bodies. Money is making a mockery of democracy.

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922:

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

His words are still more important today. We live in an increasingly connected and multicultural world, and yet many major religions refuse to recognize marginal ones. We also live in a world threatened by global warming, and yet some Christians deny it, even though it has long been a tenet of religion to live in harmony with nature.

Originally published on Salon.

The Piketty pontiff: How Pope Francis is bringing Catholicism back to its anti-inequality roots

Pope Francis sent conservatives into a rage on Friday when — in a comment that had shades of Thomas Piketty — he called for a global movement toward ”equitable economic and social progress,” to be achieved in part by “the legitimate redistribution of  economic benefits by the state.”

Americans are perhaps more accustomed to the “conservative-tinged activism” that has defined the church’s stateside leadership in recent years. However, Francis’ statement on “legitimate redistribution” shouldn’t come as a total shock, even if we ignore the pivot toward economic justice he has already signaled in the year since his election.

In truth, the Pope’s focus on inequality is consistent with a long history of Catholic social justice teaching. In one of the church’s most important encyclicals on the question of economics, “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Pope Leo XIII wrote,

Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

Leo XIII also advocated government assistance to the needy, the right to form unions and the right to a livable wage.

Social justice activism also appears in the church much more recently. When Reagan sent goons to South America to crush the leftist uprisings, they weren’t just killing young socialists — they were gunning down nuns.



Even more conservative Catholic thinkers, like the writer G.K. Chesterton, would not be seduced by the idea the wealthy were somehow virtuous (and the poor feckless). In“Orthodoxy,” he writes,

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussion about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is rich.

Obviously, things have changed. American Catholicism has in recent years focused more on conservative political causes. Calls for social justice, meanwhile, have receded into the background — and in some cases even found themselves opposed by prominent Catholics.

Take for example Rick Santorum, one of the most prominent Catholic politicians, who said in 2011,

If you’re low-income … in many states you can qualify for Medicaid, you can qualify for food stamps, you can qualify for housing assistance, and that’s not if you’re in poverty. That’s if you’re above the poverty line. And so you have all of the children growing up in an environment where government is paying you, and then we wonder why do these kids feel they’re entitled to so much?

That is not a healthy thing for children, it’s not a healthy thing for society … Suffering, if you’re a Christian, suffering is a part of life. And it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life … There are all different ways to suffer. One way to suffer is through lack of food and shelter and there’s another way to suffer which is lack of dignity and hope and there’s all sorts of ways that people suffer and it’s not just tangible, it’s also intangible and we have to consider both.

Contrast that to Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in “Rerum Novurm” that,

Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

Although Santorum’s sentiments certainly don’t constitute the views of all American Catholics, one does wonder what would happen if someone held opinions on abortion this out of line with the church’s position. Would they be run out of town? We know they would.

For a long time it seemed as if someone could be a perfectly respectable Catholic thinker and also believe odious things about poverty and race. (See: Rick Santorum, and also Paul Ryan.) The Church seemed far more interested in abortion, homosexuality and contraception than the plight of the poor. A 2010 Pew study finds many Americans draw their views on same-sex marriage and abortion from the church but few draw their views on government assistance to the poor from the church.

A change in emphasis from the culture wars to poverty would be welcome, and certainly not unprecedented. In a way, Pope Francis can be seen as putting the reforms of theSecond Vatican Council of 1965 back on track after decades of derailment by conservative popes. (As Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, said in 2012, the goal of Vatican II was “to engage, not condemn.”)

Broadly speaking, the Catholic church’s teachings are socially conservative and economically liberal, although over the last four decades, there has been a strong emphasis on the social conservatism. If Francis shifts the conversation to economic issues, might it actually galvanize change?

If nothing else, it will make Christians confront the fact the Christ was no friend of the rich and powerful. In the New Testament, the only person Jesus ever describes as occupying Gehenna (often translated as “hell”) is a rich man who “dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury,” but nonetheless ignored the beggar Lazarus.

Jesus also once told his followers that, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

There’s a long history of concern in religion — as in the work of Karl Marx — that market systems corrupt virtue and degrade humanity. Pope Francis himself voices this fear. In May of last year, Francis tweeted that,“My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost.” He noted further that, “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture, no! We get dignity from work.” When discussing the collapse of Bangladesh factories he worried that that many political and economic systems “have made choices that mean exploiting people.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangeli Gaudium,” Pope Francis writes,

Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

Although the Catholic Church may not have the influence it once did, religion still holds power in both the international and American political discussion. In his recent Brookings Report, “Faith in Equality,” E.J. Dionne argues that a religious left may be a powerful force fighting for economic justice:

The edge that religious progressives have among the young also presents an opportunity to our religious traditions: a focus on social justice and inclusion offers a more promising path to engaging the energies and allegiances of the new generation than does a continuation of the culture wars. Pope Francis is one religious leader who seems to have noticed this.

The intellectual terrain that the Catholic Church now navigates is far different from now than it was even a few short years ago. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” is on the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists, and Francis is on his way to becoming one of the most popular popes in history. Some people have dismissed Obama declaration that inequality the “defining issue of our era.” Pope Piketty begs to differ.

Originally published on Salon.

Welcome to the Piketty revolution: “Capital in the 21st Century” is a game-changer (even if you never read it)

Anyone who’s anyone (and many more who aren’t) has written something this week about “Capital in the 21st Century,” the new treatise on income inequality by French economist Thomas Piketty.

The book was actually published early last month by Harvard University Press, but arrived to fanfare only within the insular, if august, community of economic policy researchers. So, on arrival, it might have seemed like the 700-page tome, with its academic tone and laboriously documented historical analyses, was destined to a life of obscurity. But then something strange happened. People — regular people — started to buy it in droves. By the time “Capital” surged to the top of the charts this week — so many physical copies of the book were sold that Amazon actually ran out of inventory — Thomas Piketty had become the most famous economist this side of Paul Krugman, celebrated on the left and reviled on the right.

At this point, a review or discussion of “Capital” is almost a rite of passage for an aspiring wonk. (You can read this writer’s here.) But the one question that hangs over Piketty’s meteoric rise is, in a way, the most obvious one: What does any of this actually mean?



First off, Piketty is a symbol of the increasing consensus among academic economists and political scientists about inequality and democracy. This consensus, which has been demonstrated in innumerable studiesreports and books already, establishes a few propositions: Inequality has been increasing in the United States over the past three decades. This inequality has been defined particularly by an explosion among the very top, be it the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent (or even the .01 percent). This concentration of economic power has coincided with an increase in political power for the wealthiest Americans. There are still some ideologues who dispute these points, but there are ideologues who still disputeevolution and global warming — best to move along.

Second, Piketty puts conservatives in a rather awkward position. Conservative values, like “opportunity,” “family” and “tradition” — which are broadly supported by Americans — were once the backbone of the Republican Party. Today, that tradition has been jettisoned by the GOP in favor of becoming a subservient vessel for the richest of the rich. Some conservatives have argued that inequality isn’t a problem because government transfer programs — Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare — reduce inequality. This is certainly true, but these are the same transfer programs conservatives are so eager to cut! So if conservatives wish to make this argument, they must implicitly accept that transfer programs work to alleviate inequality, and therefore that cutting them will increase inequality.

Other conservatives, like Kevin Hassett at the American Enterprise Institute, have arguedthat the increase in income inequality has not led to increase in consumption inequality. That is, while incomes have diverged, because the wealthy save more, the poor and middle class can still afford to keep up in purchasing consumer goods. This isn’t true: Numerous studiesfind that consumption inequality has increased along with inequality. However, if the poor have been able to buy goods, they are only able to do so by increasing their debt-loads, which means that wealth inequality will increase concomitantly. (There was a day when conservatives would fear an increase in debt and a large propertyless class. Today, they cheer it on!) In both of the aforementioned conservative arguments, the right reveals the depths to which it will happily sink to gain the patronage of the wealthy.

Third, Piketty points us again to the most important facet of inequality — the inequality of capital. Capital — the ownership of assets that allows individuals to attain wealth and exploit labor — was what Marx worried about. As he wrote in “The Communist Manifesto” of the members of bourgeois society: “Those of its member who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.” Today, the debate over income inequality is framed often as the distinction between the salaries of mega-CEOs and minimum-wage workers. This inequality is certainly disturbing; a recent Demos report finds that the compensation of fast food CEOs was more than 1,200 times the earnings of the average fast food worker. But salary is only one part of compensation. Piketty reminds us that a far more potent driver of inequality is the passive accumulation of capital that is only exacerbated through inheritance (see chart below, from Piketty).

This distinction is important, because it reveals the true depth of Republican hypocrisy. While they talk of the value of hard work, they cut taxes on the various parasites whose only source of wealth is the labor of others. They wish to reduce income taxes to 25 percent and, more disturbingly, eliminate capital-gains taxes altogether. That means more wealth inequality, because the percentage of Americans who owns stocks is decreasing(and capital is even more unequally distributed than labor). When their policies are examined objectively, they help not even the 1 percent, but a much smaller portion of society — the 0.01 percent that make their money through capital accumulation and exploitation, rather than of honest labor.

* * *

Is Piketty’s book more likely to be purchased and sat on a coffee table than read? Certainly. The same can be said of “Das Kapital,” though no one would attempt to deny its immense political impact. Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment” — the ur-text of modern economic policy — also wasn’t widely read by the masses, but no book has had a more potent or prolonged influence on the world economic program. The idea of a dense, academic tome setting the public alight is not extraordinary, but rather quite ordinary. The list can certainly be expanded. It’s unlikely that public fully understood the “Origin of the Species,” the Pentagon Papers, “Silent Spring,” “The Kinsey Report,” “Democracy and Education” or “The Course of Positive Philosophy” at the time of their publications, but their impact on society, because of the movements they either fomented or supplemented, is undeniable.

“Capital in the 21st Century” is such a book. For decades, Americans have been aware of the fact that “growth” was no longer benefiting them and their children. We have noticed that the benefits of new technology and of our labor have been flowing to a very few, and that those same people then dictate policies to consolidate their wealth even further. Our voices are not heard, as both political parties, to differing extents, have become subservient to those with wealth.

If nothing else, “Capital” will finally bring questions of “who gets what” back to the center of economics. Economists will no longer be able to couch tax cuts for the rich behind a veil of jargon, disguising power relations as mere economic efficiencies. We forget, if we ever knew, that the earliest economists were philosophers and historians first — and that economics was always considered to be a question of politics.

The Founding Fathers feared that inequality and the conflict between capital and labor would undermine the nascent American government: John Adams, for example, wrote that “property monopolized or in the possession of a few is a curse to mankind.” And even Adam Smith — he of the “invisible hand” — worried of men who “monopolize economic power and undermine the government.” The solution proposed by America’s founders was widespread capital ownership. As Adams writes, “The only possible way then of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society.” Later, Abraham Lincoln said, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Lincoln and the Founders would have been disturbed to learn that one family, the Waltons, now owns more wealth than the bottom 48 million families in America combined; and that wealth inequality is again back to the levels last seen in the days of “The Great Gatsby.” (See chart below, from Saez and Zucman.)

Piketty supplies us with the basis for a new narrative. In this narrative, the postwar period — in which rapid growth produced broad-based, equally shared growth — is unique, not an inevitable product of capitalism. Piketty believes this postwar lull in violent inequality to be an inevitable coalescence of population and war. I believe it was brought about by a powerful labor movement and an epochal crisis of capitalism, coupled with wartime solidarity. Either way, such equality will not come again without action (and it’s unlikely we could grow our way to equality). Money will not remove itself from politics. Power cedes nothing without demand.

The owners of this country, those who profit off of lung cancer, environmental degradation and political capture, are very worried that we learn their tricks. They did not create wealth, they stole it, and continue to accumulate it. As Marx noted, the default position of capitalist societies is ever more inequality and accumulation. Although he is far from a Marxist, Piketty has reaffirmed this truth. The only question that remains is the question Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked in 1863, “What is to be done?”

Originally published on Salon.

Young people are rising up around the world, but not in America

Last weekend, a Maybach limousine pulled up to the Venetian casino and resort in Las Vegas. Out stepped Sheldon Adelson, billionaire Republican donor, for his four-day Republican convention. Donors and politicians, from Chris Christie to Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, shook hands and exchanged promises among the gleaming lights of the most gaudy city in America.

It’s a story that we’ve heard so often it’s beaten us into a stupor: wealthy businessmen sliding their arms around our politicians and co-opting the political process. It’s not even surprising anymore. But it should be; it should piss us off.

Already long gone are the heady days when thousands gathered in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and around the country. The leaves have since settled and in a lot of ways things are back to normal. We have crushing student debt at the tune of $1 trillion, education is unaffordable, there is a lot of work to do but (paradoxically) few jobs and new policies that could help our generation are languishing in Congress. Myopic politicians are more concerned with the next election than doing what’s right for our futures.

“Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

So ended one of the most revolutionary political documents ever penned. And while the world has seen myriad revolutions — most recently in Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine — revolutionary activity in Western Europe and the United States has never been sustained. So where is the revolution to enact change and usher our generation into a better tomorrow? Where is the battle cry to secure our future?

Jesse Yeh looks out across the UC Berkeley campus. He does just about anything to avoid debt, using the university’s library instead of buying textbooks, scrounging for free food at campus events and occasionally skipping meals. Image Credit: AP

If complaints were kindling, our generation would have a bonfire going. We will likely see slower economic growth, more unemployment and greater inequality than our parents. For all the social progress, retrograde attitudes remain powerful. The government feels more and more an extension of the free market, rather than a bulwark against it. And global warming, still denied by large swaths of the population, threatens not just economic growth, but also ecological collapse. Our current course could cause the earth to warm by as many as six degrees Celsius, which would create millions of refugees, stir up conflict and dramatically increase the incidence of natural disasters.

Why, then, have we not launched a sustained, revolutionary movement to wrest back control and set us on a better course? The most prominent movement, Occupy Wall Street, produced much in the way of slogans. But compared with the Tea Party or the leftist movements of the ’40s and ’60s, it has done little to change policy.

Here are three reasons we have not seen a revolution, even though it’s sorely needed:

Money has become political power.

One important factor is that economic power increasingly influences the political sphere. A recent Demos report, Stacked Deck, finds that Adelson and his wife gave more money in 2012 to influence elections than the combined contributions of the residents of 12 states.

Research by Larry Bartels finds that individuals with higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes than the poor and middle class. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings — in politics, money talks. A recent study finds that, sure enough, members of Congress are far more likely to meet with donors than constituents.

Sheldon Adelson listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Saturday in Las Vegas. Several possible GOP presidential candidates gathered as Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, looks for a new favorite to help in the 2016 race for the White House. Image Credit: AP

When money talks, it doesn’t speak for us.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the wealthy don’t have the same priorities as the rest of us. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright find that the very wealthy are far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing or shelter,” and that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

These divergences, combined with the fact that the wealthy are far more likely to be politically active because they are more likely to see results, tilts the economy toward the interests of the wealthy.

The quintessential example is the minimum wage, which 78% of Americans believe should be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line.” However, only 40% of the wealthy agree — and the minimum remains stubbornly below the poverty line.

The wrong narrative has taken hold.

Money also shapes narratives and ideology. Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, argued that “those who believe that a people … can be induced to live by reason alone … are dreaming of a fairy tale.”

We see the world through our ideology and what’s taken hold is the idea that the free market will give us what we deserve and that’s fair. But it’s not fair. This ideology often does not reflect the interests of the poor, but rather those who shape the narrative: those with money and power. A young economist, also known as Karl Marx, noted in 1848, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” If we’re not here to help create an equal and fair society, then what the hell are we doing?

To see the power of wealth in shaping perspectives, we can turn to new research by Andrew J. Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee. Compared with those who did not win the lottery, the researchers find that lottery winners in the U.K. are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right after winning and believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. The rich are biased toward believing that the current society is just (called the “just world hypothesis”).

To take one example of how much our narratives have changed, it’s worth remembering that Americans once believed in high taxes on estates to ensure high levels of opportunity and competition. Americans did not want to live in a Jane Austen society of wealthy and snooty aristocrats and prided itself on the fact that the wealthy had earned their wealth.

Lamenting on the death of this model, Richard Hofstadter wrote, “Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.” The Waltons and Kochs, parasites living off their parent’s work rather than creating their own fortunes, are examples of how the old story of the “self-made man” is increasingly out of date. Yet it sticks around because politicians keep repeating it, members of the media keep broadcasting it and suddenly we’re all talking as if a tale worthy of Hollywood is somehow fact.

There’s another disturbing narrative that’s closely linked to the others: economic growth comes from the wealthy (“job creators”) and growth is the palliative for inequality. While the former was always dubious, there was a time when economic growth was broadly shared (see chart). However, the ’90s and 2000s produced ample growth that accrued largely to the richest members of society. The wealthiest 1% have also accrued 95% of the benefits of the current recovery. These benefits aren’t serving the wealthy because they work harder, but rather because they own assets (like stocks) and the Bush tax cuts dramatically increased the returns to such assets. There was a time when the old story that economic growth benefited everyone was true, but it no longer reflects reality.

It’s time for a new story.

How we’re going to get there.

Sadly, until recently there has been no real resistance to the power of money and false narratives. Democrats and Republicans have generally adhered to a neo-liberal consensus that government is bad and markets are good. It was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who declared the “end of big government.”

Few politicians are willing to argue that government is good, that the social safety net needs to be expanded, not contracted, and that “freer markets” may not solve our most grievous social ills. Since the rise of “New Democrats,” who are happy to shred social security and Medicare in the name of deficits and are unwilling to take a stand on climate change, there has been no real “left” in the country.

Traditional bastions of leftist resistance, like unions, found little support from the Carter and Clinton White House. Regulations in the public interest, like those enacted to prevent another Great Depression or protect the environment, were rolled back with equal fervor by Democratic and Republican administrations. Young people realize this, and Pew Data show we are far more skeptical of the idea that there are major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.

We are disenchanted with concentrated economic and political power and feel, rightly, that alone, they can do nothing. We find few politicians representing our interests, and almost none outside the grip of economic elites. We are bombarded with false narratives, but have yet to see a new one take hold. This very alienation from the channels of power only makes our movements more ineffectual — we have many Sartres, but few Debses or Naders actually fighting for change.

Image Credit: AP

It’s time for a different narrative.

The story we’re going to build and spread using the world’s greatest communications platform questions the idea that we can have unlimited growth in a finite world. This story will remind us that the engine of economic growth has always been a strong and open middle class. This story will reject racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia in favor of an open and tolerant society. This story is a uniquely Millennial story.

It is our story. It is the story of a generation that will be worse than its parents. It is the story of a generation looking for jobs where few exist. It is the story of a generation burdened by debts we did not create. It is the story of a generation on the verge of taking over. This here is planting season.

We will have to fight to make our story heard. We will have to mobilize to make it happen. We have occupied parks; let us occupy statehouses, campuses and the media. For too long we have, in the words of John Mayer, waited on the world to change. But, as Frederick Douglass noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We cannot simply imagine a better world, we must make it happen.

It begins with a new story.

Originally published on Policymic.

Conservatives defend inequality out of self-interest — nothing more

Conservatives have justified inequality for decades, arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism and broadly beneficial. This intellectual edifice has begun to collapse.

Supply-side economics rest on the assumption that the wealthy drive economic growth, and that by reducing taxes on them, we can unleash latent economic potential. In fact, however, investment is driven by demand, not supply (a point acknowledged by the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein). If there are viable investments, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two top economists on inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

Recently, two IMF papers confirmed what Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand. This stunted demand means fewer opportunities for investment, stunting growth.

Add to this growing body of research the fact that a robust defense of inequality is increasingly difficult to muster when every other OECD country has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent was widely decried, because a large swath of research shows that the rise of the 1 percent did not come from natural economic forces, but rather rent-seeking.

The evidence is clear: The economic benefits of inequality have been massively oversold. Inequality is, in fact, a detriment to growth. So why has the right not conceded the argument?

The answer is class interest.

“Class interest” does not mean that the wealthy are nefarious schemers. Instead, it means there are various cognitive biases that lead them to justify and perpetuate inequality. For instance, Kris-Stella Trump conducted experiments in which participants were asked to solve anagrams in a high inequality scenario (the winner received $9 and the loser $1) and a low inequality scenario (the winner got $6 and the loser $4). When asked what a fair distribution would look like, the high inequality group preferred an inequality of $5.54 ($7.77-$2.23) while the low inequality group preferred inequality of $2.30 ($6.15-$3.85). She concludes: “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality.” Inequality perpetuates inequality.

Paul Piff finds that the wealthy feel more entitled to their earnings and are more likely to show personality traits typically associated with narcissism. Recent research by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthavee finds that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right, and also more likely to believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. As people get richer, they think that tax policies favoring the rich are fair — not because of the macro-economic benefits, but because of how they benefit me.

These cognitive biases, rooted in class distinctions, have deep implications. As a young economist argued in 1846, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright examined the policy preferences of the very wealthy and found that they generally fall in line with their class interests. The wealthy were far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter,” or that minimum wage must be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line,” or that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not meant to demean the policy preferences of the wealthy — only to examine the motives. For too long, the wealthy have couched their economic ideas as being broadly good for the country, but in fact, de-unionization, capital market liberalization, and austerity benefit themwhile leaving the rest of us far worse off. It’s time that we were all honest about why we support the policies we support.

Now of course, not everyone who supports conservative economic policy is wealthy. Indeed, there is a large literature devoted to the question why the working class supports policies against their own interests. Engles calls this phenomenon “false consciousness,” writing to Franz Mehring, “the real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” Thomas Frank proposes that working-class conservatives are swayed by social issues. Ian Haney Lopez argues that racial animus still plays a role. Rick Perlstein notes the power of identity politics. The American ethos of upward mobility certainly plays a role; truck drivers in Tallahassee vote for tax breaks on Wall Street believing that they may someday posses enough wealth that an estate tax might affect them. John Steinbeck noted the power of aspiration, writing, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

But when it comes to wealthy conservatives who favor economic policies that hurt many Americans: Bartels’ previous investigation of economic and political power finds, unsurprisingly, that those with a higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings. It seems obvious, but it is important to connect these dots: Not only do the wealthy have interests divorced from the broader interests of society, but they also have the political heft to turn those interests into policy.

It is considered rather gauche to discuss class today, and the inequality debate is therefore situated in a purely theoretical realm. Liberals are constantly confused and aggravated about why the preponderance of evidence that austerity doesn’t work (while stimulus does) and that inequality harms society is lost on a large portion of conservatives.

Well, let’s face it: Those who support austerity and inequality are not really about “trickle-down” economics or “efficiency and equity.” They are protecting the interests of the upper class.

As Jonathan Swift warned, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Originally published on The Week. 

Live-blogging a response to my Marx piece

I’ve been tweeted this video more than a few times, so I figured I’d use this President’s day to put down some thoughts (I wrote this up on Monday, just got around to publishing it).

1:00 – Sean doesn’t define capitalism

It’s a 1,000 word piece, I can’t define everything.

1:21 – Molyneux defines capitalism as “respect for private property” and the “non-initiation of force.”

These are contradictory. There is no way to enforce property rights without violence (i.e. the state).

2:14 – Communism when implemented resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people

I’m defending some of Marx’s predictions, not Stalinism or Leninism. Marx and Engels, of course, believed that democracy, not totalitarianism, represented the road to socialism (a revolution of the working class, not a vanguard party).

2:23 – Marx was wrong about the labor theory of value.

I’m daily amazed that the same people who champion Adam Smith will then pillory Marx for accepting the labor theory of value that the former developed.

2:52 – Millions died in agony

Again, because of totalitarianism. Also, I’m not interested in the vulgar parlor game of counting bodies (too common to debates about religion and Marx) but the slave trade and the Belgian occupation of Congo were both wholly “capitalist.”

3:00 – I’m over-afflicted with compassion for the endless victims

Very selective and politically beneficial compassion, but compassion nonetheless. It may be more useful to aim the frustration at Stalin, Lenin and Mao, rather than Marx, though.

3:37 – Cambodia

Perfect example here. Marx spent very little time on how socialism would come about and what it would look like (Capital was supposed to be 12 volumes, only three -four if you include the partial publication of Volume IV by Kautsky – were published). In the manifesto, Marx notes that the distinction between town and country should be eliminated, the KR did so by a violent forced relocation of the people in the city to the town. It strikes me that there is a more humane way to do this. I never really see a logical way to get from Marx’s work to the violence committed in his name (I would countenance one on the teleological view of history, but then Hegel is the problem. Also, my piece is specifically on marxian economics, not his theory of politics or morality).

5:00 – 11:00 – A list of ways that the U.S. is now socialist

I note that the progressive income tax was something Marx proposed, and it was something that did not exist before he advocated it.

Of course, what is so odd about libertarians is that they would almost certainly agree with Marx’s conception of government as a means for the bourgeoisie class to exert power.

It is odd that in a rebuttal of my argument that Marx predicted 2014, Molyneux literally goes through and shows how to varying levels the ten planks of the manifesto have been implemented. It’s incredibly conspiratorial, and would disagree on many, but it seems to prove my point (and appears to come from here).

11:44 – Capitalism means the government doesn’t interfere in private property rights

Here it is again. Always confused when libertarians make this argument. Without the government, you can have no private property, anyone bigger and stronger will just take your shit. Read Hobbes.

11:51 – Government can’t create currency in a capitalist system

Wow, this is getting very crazy.

12:00 – Children are indoctrinated in government schools

Okay, so we’re talking like, an Alex Jones type of character here.

12:45 – Governments create bubbles

Right, because they never happened before the federal reserve

13:00 – Sean is deluded.

Well, he might be right there

13:30 – The federal reserve caused WW2

I pass this assertion to you, dear reader, without comment. Okay, okay, I’ll comment. Milton Friedman, no friend of Marx, argued that the federal reserve’s folly in the aftermath of the Great Depression is that it did not act enough. So…

14:45 – Asserts that I have never exposed myself to opposing views

I interned at the Reason Foundation and the Fox Business Network and described myself as a libertarian from the age of 13 to about 18.

15:00 – Government causes recessions via monetary policy

Google Dutch Tulip Bubble. Very humorous to hear me described as a fundamentalist by a person who ascribes all evil in the world to governments.

15:34 – War on Drugs!

The war on drugs is a terrible policy. But this is an odd segue.

18:15 – Federal reserve is fascist!

Again… No comment

18:39 – The housing market crashed because of government (Community Reinvestment Act)

Not supported by the most comprehensive study of the financial crisis.

19:52 – Government shouldn’t take on debt, because that is a violation of private property

Really?

20:29 – Choke back anuerism when struck by [Sean’s] rank insanity

Lots of rhetoric, little argument.

23:38 – Globalization was greater one hundred years ago because you didn’t need a passport, labor was more mobile

I assume he’s talking about immigration controls, not travel. I don’t know the data here. I do know that the mobility of capital and goods has increased dramatically, and I suspect the same is true of labor. Anyone who knows history knows that immigration quotas have been a feature of American society for centuries.

24:00 – Sean lives in cliche

Pull out the plank in thy own eye before examining the mite in thy neighbor’s

25:00 – He views business as a jackal constantly eating up resources

As did Smith, Malthus and Ricardo. Most classical economists felt that imperialism was the invetible result of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

25:15 – Sean has never run a business and nor have most economists

I hear this one a lot. It’s a very silly argument rooted in an anti-intellectual mindset.

26:00 – Businesses satisfy consumer demand

Sometimes. I like what I get does not mean I get what I like.

26:40 – The idea that businesses destroy stuff is absurd

Google ozone layer, smoker’s lungs and Amazon rainforest

27:00 – “I don’t know what that means”

Yeah, I know

27:05 – Businesses don’t eat each other, they compete

Google Comcast and Time Warner.

28:41 – Small businesses are good, but unstable

True, and yes, he is proving my point.

29:45 – Walmart more satisfies people and is environmentally friendly

I like what I get, but do I get what I like? Also, Walmart is hardly a paragon of environmental virtue. Studies show it also depresses local economies when it comes around.

30:00 – Walmart reduces inflation

…By keeping wages low

31:21 – Big banks replace small banks because of politics

Always weird how much libertarians essentially parrot Marx’s theory about the bourgeois overtaking the economy and give him no credit for the idea. Also, again, he’s conceding my point.

32:48 – IPR is bad

Yeah, I know, I’ve written about it. Pretty big red herring though.

36:40 – In a free market if there is an excess of labor, the price of labor will go down, or people will become entrepreneurs

Yes to the first part. The second part is only true if there is enough demand.

37:00 – The progressive income tax does not fight inequality

See Thomas Piketty

To sum up:

This guy mainly just shits on the federal reserve for 30 minutes and occasionally references my article. He does know a lot of multi-syllabic words, which I’m sure will impress many, viewers more interested in style than substance.

I’ve been struck through-out this video of how well my prose stands up. Essentially, this is just a denunciation of the straw man I called elsewhere “vulgar Marxism.”

 

Five suprising things Marx got right

There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.

Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago:

1. The Great Recession (Capitalism’s Chaotic Nature)

The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism was a key part of Marx’s writings. He argued that the relentless drive for profits would lead companies to mechanize their workplaces, producing more and more goods while squeezing workers’ wages until they could no longer purchase the products they created. Sure enough, modern historical events from the Great Depression to the dot-com bubble can be traced back to what Marx termed “fictitious capital” – financial instruments like stocks and credit-default swaps. We produce and produce until there is simply no one left to purchase our goods, no new markets, no new debts. The cycle is still playing out before our eyes: Broadly speaking, it’s what made the housing market crash in 2008. Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.

2. The iPhone 5S (Imaginary Appetites)

Marx warned that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on essentially arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called “a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” It’s a harsh but accurate way of describing contemporary America, where we enjoy incredible luxury and yet are driven by a constant need for more and more stuff to buy. Consider the iPhone 5S you may own. Is it really that much better than the iPhone 5 you had last year, or the iPhone 4S a year before that? Is it a real need, or an invented one? While Chinese families fall sick with cancer from our e-waste, megacorporations are creating entire advertising campaigns around the idea that we should destroy perfectly good products for no reason. If Marx could see this kind of thing, he’d nod in recognition.

3. The IMF (The Globalization of Capitalism)

Marx’s ideas about overproduction led him to predict what is now called globalization – the spread of capitalism across the planet in search of new markets. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” he wrote. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” While this may seem like an obvious point now, Marx wrote those words in 1848, when globalization was over a century away. And he wasn’t just right about what ended up happening in the late 20th century – he was right about why it happened: The relentless search for new markets and cheap labor, as well as the incessant demand for more natural resources, are beasts that demand constant feeding.

4. Walmart (Monopoly)

The classical theory of economics assumed that competition was natural and therefore self-sustaining. Marx, however, argued that market power would actually be centralized in large monopoly firms as businesses increasingly preyed upon each other. This might have struck his 19th-century readers as odd: As Richard Hofstadter writes, “Americans came to take it for granted that property would be widely diffused, that economic and political power would decentralized.” It was only later, in the 20th century, that the trend Marx foresaw began to accelerate. Today, mom-and-pop shops have been replaced by monolithic big-box stores like Walmart, small community banks have been replaced by global banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and small famers have been replaced by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland. The tech world, too, is already becoming centralized, with big corporations sucking up start-ups as fast as they can. Politicians give lip service to what minimal small-business lobby remains and prosecute the most violent of antitrust abuses – but for the most part, we know big business is here to stay.

5. Low Wages, Big Profits (The Reserve Army of Industrial Labor)

Marx believed that wages would be held down by a “reserve army of labor,” which he explained simply using classical economic techniques: Capitalists wish to pay as little as possible for labor, and this is easiest to do when there are too many workers floating around. Thus, after a recession, using a Marxist analysis, we would predict that high unemployment would keep wages stagnant as profits soared, because workers are too scared of unemployment to quit their terrible, exploitative jobs. And what do you know? No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal warns, “Lately, the U.S. recovery has been displaying some Marxian traits. Corporate profits are on a tear, and rising productivity has allowed companies to grow without doing much to reduce the vast ranks of the unemployed.” That’s because workers are terrified to leave their jobs and therefore lack bargaining power. It’s no surprise that the best time for equitable growth is during times of “full employment,” when unemployment is low and workers can threaten to take another job.

In Conclusion:

Marx was wrong about many things. Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with – which left it open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century. But his work still shapes our world in a positive way as well. When he argued for a progressive income tax in the Communist Manifesto, no country had one. Now, there is scarcely a country without a progressive income tax, and it’s one small way that the U.S. tries to fight income inequality. Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and his keen insights into its inner workings and historical context are still worth paying attention to. As Robert L. Heilbroner writes, “We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable.” Today, in a world of both unheard-of wealth and abject poverty, where the richest 85 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, the famous cry, “Workers of the world uniteyou have nothing to lose but your chains,” has yet to lose its potency.

 

This piece first appeared on The Rolling Stone.

Why Are Conservatives in Love With a Marxist Sponge?

Photo Credit: Conner Kennedy

SpongeBob SquarePants was once loathed by conservatives because he supposedly promoted the “homosexual agenda” and warned children about the dangers of global warming. But now he is one of the few Hollywood types conservatives can stand.

The Hollywood Reporter summarizes a “SpongeBob” episode that aired on Monday and has conservatives cheering:

One day [after being fired], SpongeBob is already a disheveled, wrinkled, unshaven beggar, and his friend Patrick is determined to show him the ways of “glorious unemployment,” which includes free stuff and lots of spare time.

“Being unemployed is the best gig I know,” Patrick tells SpongeBob. But at a no-charge, all-you-can eat meal, SpongeBob has an epiphany: “Unemployment may be fun for you, but I need to get a job,” he tells Patrick. At that moment, he’s instantly transformed into a sparkly clean, enthusiastic and energetic sponge again.

Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Times and the New York Post see this as a denunciation of the welfare state;  Andrea Morabito writes in the Post, “Lest he sit around idly, mooching off the social services of Bikini Bottom, a depressed SpongeBob sets out to return to gainful employment wherever he can find it.” Fox News et al. based their analysis on this short clip, but if you watch the full episode (available on Amazon), a different story emerges.

SpongeBob arrives at work one day to discover he’s been fired from the Krusty Krab so that Mr. Krabs can save a nickel. “I love you like a son,” Mr. Krabs tells SpongeBob, “but you can’t argue with a nickel.” After being fired, SpongeBob does meet Patrick for “funemployment,” but the two don’t lounge on government benefits. First they anger Squidward who throws food at them — their breakfast. Then they participate in an experiment for Sandy that involves eating toxic (but free!) food. SpongeBob decides he needs a job, but, much like the long-term unemployed, finds his skills are no longer in demand. He tries to find employment at the Weenie Hut, the Pizza Piehole, the Taco Sombrero and the Wet Noodle, but he can only make patties. After being fired from each establishment he returns home dejected only to find he has no “Snailpo” to feed Gary. He cooks his own dinner, which both Gary and Patrick devour. Having realized that he should never have passed up SpongeBob, the owner of the Weenie Hut kidnaps him and forces him to work. Then the owners of the other restaurants fight to force SpongeBob to work for them. Finally Squidward begs SpongeBob to return because Mr. Krabs is a dreadful cook. SpongeBob rejoins the Krusty Krab and Mr. Krabs earns his nickel by installing a pay toilet.

The full episode has a different moral than conservatives imply. The fact that Mr. Krabs fires SpongeBob to make a nickel hardly constitutes a resounding endorsement of capitalism and the ethics of businessmen. And SpongeBob’s dilemma is reminiscent of the days before unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare, when the unemployed had to depend on the unreliable compassion of strangers. Similarly, his struggle to find gainful unemployment is exacerbated by his unique skill set, which doesn’t translate easily to other jobs, emphasizing the importance of worker retraining. His kidnapping by the Weenie Hut warns viewers of the often exploitative nature of fast food companies. Given that the episode was released during the retail and fast food strikes, it could easily be interpreted as a sign of solidarity with the underpaid, overworked and insecure minimum-wage workers in the fast food industry.

How did conservative viewers get it so wrong? They have watched only one short clip of SpongeBob SquarePants. I’ve watched every episode numerous times, and have come to the opposite conclusion: SpongeBob is a Marxist. Here’s the evidence:

While classical and Austrian economists view the capitalist system as inherently competitive, Marx saw it as entirely uncompetitive. Bikini Bottom clearly resembles the latter. Competition doesn’t lead to innovation; there is no creative destruction, rather there is one monopoly firm (the Krusty Krab) and another firm (the Chum Bucket), constantly trying to siphon customers, not with a better product but by theft and through political manipulation. SpongeBob shows the capitalist mode of production, with its fealty to “competition,” to be entirely farcical. In Marxist economics, competition eventually leads to one monopolistic firm that exploits workers and customers. Sound familiar?

Speaking of exploitation, in SpongeBob’s world, production follows the labor theory of value that Marx predicts, rather than the marginal theory of value predicted by Austrian economists. SpongeBob is the greatest fry cook in the universe, yet he is paid almost nothing! The marginal theory of value predicts that a worker will be paid according to the value they add to the good. But SpongeBob, who can cook like a god, is paid less than minimum wage. His only attempt to obtain a raise ends in failure. This is what Marx’s labor theory of value predicts: Workers will be squeezed, they will never reap the full value of their contribution to the final product. Since the capitalist and the landlord input nothing, all their profits must come at the expense of the worker, and further, the more product the worker produces, the less value he has. Mr. Krabs definitely has enough money to pay SpongeBob more –  he’s a millionaire who at one point buys a massive hotel — yet he refuses to properly compensate his workers and regularly runs afoul of labor standards, like the 1920s robber barons and today’s megacorporations.

SpongeBob seems to inhabit an Oscar Wildean post-capitalist utopia. SpongeBob exemplifies  the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”: He loves his job and prefers cooperation to competition. He eschews a life of labor for a life of art, his “job” isn’t drudgery, but ratherbrings him joy. Rather than continuing to accumulate “long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy,” SpongeBob takes a job he loves and pursues a life of friendship, cooperation and love. This manifests itself in SpongeBob’s uncanny knack for art, which is juxtaposed with Squidward’s inability to produce art, presumably because his job is so draining.  In contrast to SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs is devoted entirely to the acquisition of money, to the point that he is willing to sacrifice his life and the lives of his customers for a cent.

SpongeBob is Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein and Eugene Debs rolled into one. In one episode, SpongeBob laments that corporate control of the Krusty Krab has led to a decline in the quality of service because the patties are made by machine, leading SpongeBob to wonder,“Where’s the love?”In another, SpongeBob protests a superhighway that will destroy jellyfish fields. The episode critiques the way corporations manipulate the political process (the plans are made in secret by Plankton to destroy the Krusty Krab), voter apathy (citizens were entirely unaware of the implications of the project, even Mr. Krabs votes aye) and the role of police in squashing dissidence (the police arrest SpongeBob numerous times on false pretenses when he tries to protest). SpongeBob makes a quixotic stand against corporate power: “Well all I have to say is that um, well, STOP THE MADNESS! We need to get Jellyfish Fields back to the jellyfish, which will restore their natural habitat so they will be in peace. So what do you say everybody, will you help me?” The crowd initially hesitates, then joins SpongeBob to prevent a tractor from destroying Jellyfish Fields. SpongeBob also dabbles in organized labor, joining Squidward on strike. The strike is largely ignored when Mr. Krabs brings in scabs, leading Squidward to note, “Nobody gives a care about the fate of labor as long as they can get their instant gratification.”

Nor is the show’s treatment of labor issues its only progressive element. SpongeBob’s inability to drive means he protects the environment by walking to work. Sandy Cheeks doesn’t stay home and cook for the kids, she defies gender stereotypes by being really, really good at science (she came to Bikini Bottom to study sea life). Patrick, by far the poorest member of Bikini Bottom, lives securely, yet has never been incredibly successful at holding a job. Conservatives should think twice before they make a kindhearted hippie-sponge their hero. Bikini Bottom is a liberal utopia where public transportation is the norm, women are free of ugly stereotypes and society adheres to the motto “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”