Bourgeois IV: The Economics of difference

Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo studied the root causes of flawed decision making in their book Poor Economics. While much of the book is an applied economics redux of Ludwig von Mises’ more cerebral Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, there were several points that are particularly applicable in an examination on the difference between the bourgeois and the middle-class as defined only by income. The most important point is Banerjee and Duflo’s concept of the S-curve. According to this model, social mobility is not a sequence of steps or a diagonal line; it is shaped like the letter S, and each of the curves represents a significant hurdle on the path from the bottom left edge to the right top one. The first curve (obstacle) is a love of pointless material display, and the second is a desire for security and stability.

In Poor Economics, a crucial part is understanding the extent to which family plays in the equation. Banerjee and Duflo discovered that on the S-curve only the very top and the very bottom had more children than was the national average. The parents on both ends were more solicitous of their children’s educations and futures than those in the middle. In fact, having fewer children in the case of the middle which was recently elevated from the lower portion had an adverse effect on parental spending on education and opportunity, with the result that the middle became a place of stagnation. The economists explained that to some extent in cultures where having children is the retirement plan, middle parents felt as though they had less to spend because they had fewer children. But this did not explain similar gaps in cultures where reliance on grown children was not normative. 

Across the board, though, the top and bottom segments expressed the sentiment that they couldn’t afford to not invest in the very best for their children. For the top, the feeling was related to understanding that maintaining their position was contingent upon vast investment in the next generation; for the bottom, the only way having an above average number of children was worth the time and effort was for all of them to become highly successful. In other words, on both ends, the prevailing attitude was “can’t afford to fail.” Conversely, those in the middle of the S-curve aspired to security, rather than success, and the parents were only willing to spend as much as necessary to obtain that – it varied among the different countries studied, but no more than high school and a local college were quite common – even if the parents could afford much more and the children were capable of pursuing more. The correlation between more children and advanced, better quality education regardless of official social class was a shock to the researchers because it defied popular wisdom, which mandates that fewer children equals more opportunity and better education for them. Based on Banerjee and Duflo’s findings, parental indifference is more or less the root cause of modern “stagnation” and “inequality.”   

Given that today there is quite a bit of complaining in the developed world, particularly the US, about the “shrinking middle-class” and the ills, mostly portrayed as economic, associated with it. It is worth considering based on the data from Poor Economics that the middle-class is shrinking in a literal demographic sense, as well as a social one. The researchers found that it is common for families on the bottom half of the S to have, on average, four to five children (with as many as nine or twelve being usual in cultures with strong intergenerational dependency dynamics) and those at the top to have between three and four; middle families never had more than two. The image is that of an hourglass, with the “middle-class” being perceived as squeezed by virtue of the larger groups on the top and bottom. 

In July 2018, Brookings published a study on the subject of the “decline in social mobility,” with the surprise twist being that it was a downward drop from the American professional classes, rather than from an income-based general category:

As Aparna Mathur and Cody Kallen of AEI wrote in “Poor rich kids?”; “[P]erhaps the most puzzling – and least commented upon – finding is the large positive correlation between the parent’s income and the decline in absolute mobility over the years. Put more simply, the richer the parents, the larger has been the decline in mobility for their kids.”

While the “poor rich kids” phenomenon might be upsetting from the American mythos perspective, from the data collected by Banerjee and Duflo, it is completely to be expected. The researchers established that middle-S families experience diminishing returns over the course of multiple generations as a direct result of their priorities. For example, in India, one of the main countries studied, government bureaucratic jobs have been the favored, hereditary domain of middle-S families because of their security but over the course of the last-third of the 20thcentury and into the 21st these jobs have experienced wage stagnation, saturated markets, and, with the first two, declining social capital; in other words, they lose social mobility. However, middle-S families continue to persist in their established behavioral routines. Hence, Banerjee and Duflo diagnosed love of security as the second ill, the (almost) insurmountable “hump” in the quest for social mobility. 

According to the Brookings study, the fallen American middle-class has experienced all of these symptoms as well, and certainly the demagogues have happily adopted rhetoric relating to claiming a disappearance of the “middle-class.” Although, as the AEI study cited by Brookings cautioned, income is not a particularly good indicator of mobility, there is no doubt that there is a sharp decrease in perceived well-being among the children of the American “middle-class:”

The reason this is interesting is that it matches Banjeree and Duflo’s findings regarding the middle-S groups of all the countries they studied, which indicates that their research is applicable to developed and underdeveloped countries alike. 

But the loss of manufacturing jobs cannot explain what happened to the near-rich and the top 1%. Naturally, it may be difficult to surpass highly successful parents, but that does not explain why mobility rates have declined so sharply at the top income levels, especially if wealth and incomes are becoming more concentrated. Moreover, average incomes for the top 1% have remained at about 4 times the median income over these years. Yet, for the 95th percentile, absolute mobility fell from 84 percent for those born in 1940 to 20 percent for those born in 1984. And for those born in 1984, coming from a top 1% family essentially guarantees earning less than one’s parents, with a mobility rate of 1.2 percent.  

While there are some cultural differences that serve to obscure similarities, if one looks at American educational expenditure, for example, one sees that the average middle-American family spends more on semi-educational activities than other families in comparable situations in other cultures. However, viewed critically, very little of that expenditure is on efforts that advance career prospects, or even on pursuits that hold genuine cultural and intellectual value. This was the issue with the Abigail Fisher vs. University of Texas case. For those who might not be aware of the case, Fisher sued UT-Austin, claiming that the institution had racially discriminated against her using affirmative action; UT-Austin said that race hadn’t factored into its decision in regard to her because she simply wasn’t candidate material. After two hearings by the Supreme Court, the judges ruled in favor of the university. Ultimately, though, the case had little to do with affirmative action and everything to do with that all the extracurricular activities she cited as proof of extenuating circumstances for mediocre academic performance, e.g. involvement with Habitat for Humanity, were ultimately worthless. Cutting through the legalese, the lawyers for UT-Austin essentially explained that her “achievements” were not remarkable literally because every applicant put down something similar on his/her CV. It was a simple case of supply and demand.

From a Poor Economics perspective, the case fell within the bounds of middle-S behavior, the pursuit of security represented by conforming to “everyone else;” from a historical bourgeois view, it is proof that activities, or busyness, are not a replacement for true achievement and accomplishment. It is a classic example of value not always equaling cost with the twist that the cost of the cited extracurricular activities was not equal to their value. To map this firmly to the S-curve and the “squeezing” of the middle-class, it doesn’t matter if the refusal to invest is direct, as in middle-S parents interviewed by Banerjee and Duflo in developing countries, or insistence that average activities are equivalent to achievement, as in the Fisher case, the effect is the same: the ersatz middle-class with its aspirations to and mimicry of the bourgeois is revealed as simply inadequate, and it is so as a result of its choices.   

If there is one thing economist Tyler Cowen has been warning the country of for the last two decades, it is that many of the declines and discontents we face today stem squarely from a mania for stability that afflicted American post-War society. In the same vein, there was Kevin D. Williamson’s infamous, although completely justified, U-Haul article from right before the 2016 presidential election, which elicited anger because his prescription supposedly required people to “abandon their roots,” to reject something integral to themselves. 

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom from classical antiquity is that mimesis will ultimately fail; conversely, metamorphoses will ultimately succeed. Rising along the S-curve requires rejection, demolition of perceptions and of, possibly, mental values. It demands metamorphoses, not merely imitation. In The Anti-capitalistic Mentality, von Mises remarked that the resentment directed at multi-generational, hereditary prosperity and privilege overlooked that everyone involved went out and recaptured “every day” the ingredients for their own success. Their nice cars, big houses, fine clothes, etc. were simply the reward for their constant, invisible toil, one which Mises pointed out very specifically embraced the concept of sic transit gloria mundi. It is not an accident that the two hurdles of the S-curve are points of mimesis: the material and the perceived, which does not even exist. The question that people must ask is: Are we content to pretend, to wrap ourselves in the apparel of success and achievement, or do we wish to become?

Back in Brazil: more impressions

Another thing that calls my attention in Brazil (or rather, in Rio de Janeiro) are the crazy traffic jams. All day long, traffic moves painfully slowly. Really. There is no rush hour. Every hour is rush. The reason is not hard to understand: there are way too many buildings for too few streets and poor options in mass transportation.

Thinking about this, I came across this excellent text. It is in Portuguese, so for those who can’t read it, I’ll summarize. Basically, zoning laws in Rio de Janeiro through the 20th century were completely crazy, following a very nasty relationship between politicians and real state companies. A company wanted to build taller buildings and profit, the city hall would not oppose, especially when a luxurious apartment was waiting for the mayor. The result is that old neighborhoods like Tijuca and Botafogo simply have no space on the streets for so many cars.

But what is the problem with many tall buildings? That’s what New York is all about, and I simply love the Big Apple! Well, that’s true, but NY has something that Rio doesn’t: a great mass transit system. Rio has four subway lines. Or three. Wait, maybe it’s just one. Here is the thing: on paper, Rio has four subway lines, which already makes no sense, since it only has lines 1, 2 and 4. Line 3 was planned but never built. Line 4 is just an extension of line 1, and line 2 trains enter line 1 (!). Although the system was privatized in the 1990s, it is very clear that it maintains a very suspicious connection with the state government. Sergio Cabral, Rio’s former governor, and presently in jail, was married to a lawyer who defended the Metro company. It is also clear that bus companies subsidize politicians who maintain their interests. In sum, Cariocas are hostages to a terrible public transport system that favors a criminous relationship between big companies and politicians.

Rio ends up representing very well a problem we see all over Brazil: people believe this is capitalism. Because of that, they vote for socialist parties. It should be painfully obvious from the examples of USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and so many others that socialism simply doesn’t work. But here is the thing: people in Rio (and actually in Brazil and Latin America in general) suffered and suffer so much under crony capitalists that they can’t help but thinking that socialism might be the answer.

Hear, World! Socialism failed, just like Mises predicted. But as long as people suffer under crony capitalists, it will still be appealing, be it in a poor neighborhood or a college campus in the US, be it in a poor country in Latin America. The job is not done. Freedom isn’t free. We still have a long way to go freeing people from evil.

How the populists came to power

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.

Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.

However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.

Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.

And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.

A Brazilian view on the French Protests

Paris has been taken by a great number of protesters complaining about (yet another) tax, this time on fuel and with the justification of “combating climate change”.

Five years ago, in 2013, several cities in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro among them) were taken by protesters. They were initially complaining about a rise in the bus tariffs. A small rise, if examined by itself, but apparently the last drop among a number of reasons to be discontent.

The Brazilian protests of 2013 were very ironic. Lula da Silva, a socialist, was elected president in 2002. He was reelected four years later, despite major indications that he was involved in corruption scandals. Lula left office very popular, actually, so popular that he was able to make a successor, Dilma Rousseff, elected president in 2012. It was during Dilma’s presidency that the protests took place. They were initially led by far-left groups who demanded free public transportation. So here is the irony: a far-left group, with a far-left demand (free public transportation), was protesting against a (not so far) left government. The situation became even more ironic because millions of Brazilians, who didn’t identify as socialists, also went to the protests, not because they wanted free public transportation (most people are intelligent enough to understand, even if instinctively, that such a thing cannot exist), but because they were fed up with the socialists government at one point or another.

The lesson is: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” The 2013 protests culminated this year, with Bolsonaro’s election. Mises observed very acutely that socialism simply cannot work. What he observed on paper, reality has confirmed again and again. France is just the latest example.

Why Hayek was Wrong About American and European Conservatism I

The title of this post refers to F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’, which can be found as an appendix to his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty. What this post is really about is the deficiencies of American conservatism and the general idea of liberal conservatism or a natural alliance between classical liberals and conservatives. However, first a few words about Hayek’s essay as Hayek is an important figure for liberty advocates. The essay in question is well known and particularly easy to find online.

Hayek’s criticism of conservatism overestimates the extent to which it is just a limiting position, slowing down change. The relation of conservatism to tradition is seem too much as conservatism being too slow to accept changes to tradition. Traditionalist conservatism, however, has been a much more active and dangerous force than that. ‘Traditionalism’ as far as I know is a 20th century term used particularly in France (René Guénon) and Italy (Julius Evola) to refer to a spiritual based for politics of an extreme conservative kind which found natural alliance with fascism. It seems clear enough that it has precedents in late 18th and 19th century conservative monarchist thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donosó Cortes.

Carl Schmitt, who was maybe the greatest 20th century admirer of those thinkers, joined the Nazi Party in 1933, though found himself purged as not properly Nazi from his post as head of a jurists’ association in 1936. Not only did Schmitt admire the French and Spanish thinkers mentioned, he was a great admirer of Edmund Burke. Burke is a favourite of those claiming a conservative-liberty affinity. It would be unfair to suggest that Burke would have welcomed National Socialism (though the same applies to de Bonald, de Maiste, and Donosó Cortes).

It is a fact that a large part of conservative thinking of the time of the rise of Fascism, and allied forms of illiberal government such as corporatism, regarded it as a legitimate counter to Bolshevism and disorder. Even Ludwig von Mises defiled his own 1927 book Liberalism with generous words about Fascism as a counter to Bolshevism. The reality is that at the time such regimes came to power there was no immediate risk of Communist take over and this is a horrifying position, which cannot be justified by suggesting that Mises was writing in the heat of the moment as Bolsheviks stalked power in any particular country. Winston Churchill welcomed Fascism in Italy and even initially welcomed Hitler’s rise in Germany, before becoming acquainted with the reality of his regime. It is of course the case that Fascism and National Socialism had socialist roots as well as traditionalist conservative roots, but then a liaison between socialism and traditionalist conservatism as a counter to liberal individualism has a history going well back into the 19th century.

We can see right now in Europe the growing force of conservatism with a populist-nationalist emphasis targeting abnormals (as in everyone who does not fit their assumptions of a normal person in their country). This is not some new addition to the repertoire of the right. The strong man of the Northern League in Italy, Metteo Salvini, has aligned himself with Mussolini recently by tweeting a variation of Mussolini’s slogan ‘many enemies, much honour’ on Mussolini’s birthday. The Hungarian equivalent of Salvini, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has rehabilitated the pre-war authoritarian leader Miklós Horthy. The Legue, Orbán’s Fidesz party, the Bannonite wing of the Republican Party and the like are stuffed with Vladimir Putin apologists, or at least as in Bannon’s case slippery arguments according to which he does not like Putin, but we should ally with him. In any case, Bannon is very active supporting the pro-Putin parties in Europe.

These parties draw on long traditions of conservative populism, monarchist anti-liberalism, and the like. The appeal to conservative love of monarchy, state church, and social conformity was a major weapon of monarchist conservative forces after the 1848 Springtime of the Peoples in Europe, helped by violent Russian intervention in the Austrian Empire to ‘restore order’. We see something like this now in the growing strength of a brand of conservatism which does not just limit change but fosters change in the direction of illiberalism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, Christian identity, free trade, liberal protections of the individual from state power, the rights of civil society organisations to stand up to the state, and economic protection, seeking inspiration from the kleptomaniac nationalist authoritarian regime in Russia.

Enthusiasm for Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan is less obvious, but Orbán has put him on his list of ‘illiberal democracy’ heroes, and we can reasonably say that the rhetoric and methods of Erdoğan have been an inspiration for the populist right throughout Europe, even as, like Órban, it puts Islamophobia at the centre.

The role of Donald Trump and Steven Bannon as friends of, and models for, European populists should give reason to wonder whether Hayek misunderstood US conservatism. More on this in the next post.

Communism / socialism is rubbish – both in theory and in practice.

I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.

On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.