Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Review: The Complacent Class

Don't get me wrong--I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tyler Cowen's recent book, The Complacent Class. It's full of facts, figures, recent trends, and conversation that is all food for thought, presented in a lively and entertaining style. As usual, Mr. Cowen takes a relatively pessimistic view of our current circumstance, but unlike with some of his previous books, I am more willing to accept it.

Still, I got issues, the first being the title. The word class (especially coming from an economist) implies some kind of socioeconomic status, or perhaps one of the poles in a dialectical struggle. David Brooks, in his classic Bobos in Paradise, describes just such a group, bourgeois bohemians, whom he could have dubbed complacent if he'd wanted to.

But not so in Mr. Cowen's book. Never does he define who belongs to this class, nor do we meet any doughty dynamicists who stand in opposition. We're all more or less happy with the status quo, regardless of social position. It's not so much a class that he's talking about, but more an era or a zeitgeist. I'll happily concede that The Complacent Zeitgeist doesn't trip off the tongue, so I don't totally blame Mr. Cowen for his moniker. But let's be clear: it's a literary conceit, and not a term or category to be taken seriously.

Another (unwieldy) title Mr. Cowen could have chosen is The Herrnstein Centrifuge Goes Into Overdrive. For his book describes more or less precisely what Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray predicted back in 1994 in The Bell Curve. Mr. Herrnstein forecast that people with high IQs would marry other people with high IQs, they would have really smart children and then segregate themselves into neighborhoods with other people with really smart children. This is what has happened, as documented by Mr. Cowen, and also by Charles Murray himself in Coming Apart.

Arguably The Bell Curve oversimplified things a bit by emphasizing only IQ. In reality, social segregation depends on lots of personality traits, not just IQ. As Mr. Cowen says,
For instance, intelligence, ambition, conscientiousness, and some personality traits all seem to possess some degree of heritability or at least intergenerational transmission. We have perhaps the best estimates for intelligence, and there the degree of heritability seems to run in the range of 40 to 60 percent, depending on which studies you consult.
Mr. Cowen takes Herrnstein's idea and generalizes it into what he calls matching. The Internet allows us much greater choice, not just in marriage partners, but in all sorts of other things--where to live, schools, restaurant choices, even pets. The net result is that people are more segregated than ever, with ever more power to select their friends, neighbors, and lifestyles--the centrifuge on steroids.

He has some new (to me) things to say about matching. It is well known that measured total factor productivity has declined markedly since 1970. Why? Mr. Cowen treats matching not just as a social phenomenon, but also as an economic one. He cites the usual litany of improvements in our lives that the statistics may not capture, e.g., the ready availability of free search engines. But then he suggests that the ability to match is much more important than anything on that usual list. If there really is an improvement in productivity, it likely shows up in better matching as much as anyplace else.

I think this is an important point. Thus a very important new aspect to our lives--arguably the most important new aspect to our lives--contributes nothing to GDP. So economic statistics don't catch the important consequences of the IT revolution.

But perhaps Mr. Cowen doesn't take his insight as far as he could. For example, Google-Waze technology has noticeably improved my life by sparing me many hours sitting in traffic jams. I pay (nearly) nothing for this service. But by participating in Waze, my data is used to to help other people match their travel to available roadways--I'm trading my information (my location and speed in traffic) for their information (fastest possible route to my destination). So this is in effect a direct consumer to consumer exchange, albeit with no money changing hands. It is a form of barter.

Similar statements can be made about Yelp, TripAdvisor, and even All of these are direct economic trades from one consumer to another, unmediated by money. We pay only a small amount to support the platform, which is the only bit that shows up in the statistics. The value of these trades must be enormous, which implies that productivity statistics are woefully short of the mark.

I'm not sure complacent is the appropriate adjective for this. Revolutionary might be a better description. I'm grateful to Mr. Cowen for the insight.

Mr. Cowen maintains that however much we may enjoy good matches as individuals, there is net harm to society as a whole in the form of Herrnstein's centrifuge. Call this a market failure. No doubt there are winners and losers from the centrifuge. The poor are losers precisely because they get centrifuged out. But then the poor can't buy Mercedes-Benz cars either, and nobody calls that a market failure. I'm not at all convinced that society as a whole is worse off. Matching makes (most) people both happier and richer, and less reason for the government to come in and regulate it. (Which is no reason not to help the poor.)

The weakest chapter in the book is “Why Americans Stopped Rioting and Legalized Marijuana.” The obvious problem is that the word marijuana is never mentioned in the chapter at all besides the title. So it doesn’t deliver. I would have enjoyed learning about Mr. Cowen’s take on the opioid epidemic--surely as complacent a drug as can be imagined.

Then he attributes the stunning decline in the crime rate since 1970 to "complacency," suggesting that other explanations (incarceration, better policing, eliminating lead from the consumer environment, etc.) can’t explain the phenomenon. I’m not sure I believe him--I don’t know how one can measure the magnitude of a hypothetical with any precision. Then later in the book he refutes his own argument, suggesting that crime isn’t down as much as it has changed. Today we’re afflicted with cybercrime instead of street crime.

Another point he could have made is that street crime is less lucrative today--neither people nor stores carry as much cash as they used to. I think in this chapter he carries his complacency theme a bit too far.

The most compelling section of the book comes at the end, on the topic of global affairs. I’ll rephrase his point in my own words:

We, being complacent and rich, have absolutely no desire to go to war. After all we have the most to lose. North Korea has nearly nothing to lose--it would be hard to knock out their non-existent electricity system. So psychopath Kim Jong-un is using that asymmetry to blackmail us, knowing full well that all-out war will hurt us far more than it would hurt him (assuming he can save his own skin).

Our very complacency is leading us (nearly) inevitably toward war.

Nothing I say here should deter you from reading Mr. Cowen’s book. It’s a wonderful read, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll probably reach different conclusions from me. Enjoy.

Further Reading:

Thursday, May 18, 2017

North Korea

Image result for north korea from space

North Korea appears as a black expanse of sea between neighbouring China (left) and South Korea (right) NASA/Reuters (The Independent, 2015)
The A-bombs—the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—were soon supplanted by hydrogen or H-bombs, whose destructive power was 5000 times greater. Scientists at that time warned that 10 such bombs dropped in key urban areas across the U.S. could obliterate much of the U.S, population, while reducing the country to an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare.
So writes Jeff Mackler in a Socialist Action (SA) article entitled Nuclear insanity: US threatens North Korea. Odd then that he's not bothered by North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

But he's not. Instead the nuclear villain is the United States.
Yet this insanity is routinely contemplated by U.S. imperialism’s chief representatives, whether they be Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump—none of whom has declared that the use of these doomsday weapons is unthinkable. To the contrary, President Obama authorized the development and production of a “modernized” nuclear weapons program at a cost of $1 trillion over the course of the next 30 years.
Nowhere does Mr. Mackler even mention North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program, which are obviously intended as offensive weapons. The US is certainly not going to reduce its own cities to "an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare." But Kim Jong-un has explicitly threatened that outcome on numerous occasions. For the moment he lacks the capability, but he is certainly working on fast acquiring it.

The Norks already have the power to reduce metropolitan Seoul (24 million people) to rubble. One supposes Mr. Mackler thinks that's a good thing.

He devotes only one paragraph to describing North Korea.
North Korea is once again in U.S. gunsights, including endless caricatures of the “boy dictator” head of state, Kim Jong-un, not to mention the never-denied U.S. cyberwar directed at North Korean military installations. (North Korea is ruled by a repressive Stalinist regime that oversees a fundamentally capitalist economy with the military bureaucracy at its center, but it is the task of the Korean people, not the United States, to overthrow it.)
The parenthetical comment is bizarre, to say the least. By what strange definition is North Korea a "fundamentally capitalist economy?" And were that true then why is Mr. Mackler and his ilk so strongly rising to its defense? However weird, that one sentence is the sole place in the entire piece remotely critical of the Kim regime.

Most of the article is a litany of American sins, beginning with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We're apparently exclusively responsible for ("Princeton educated") Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first postwar dictator, along with whatever massacres he committed. Then the Korean War was entirely our fault.
The insightful Washington, D.C. journalist I.F. Stone authored a valuable book, “The Hidden History of the Korean War 1950-51,” that refutes the U.S. McCarthy-era pretext that the Korean War began only with the invasion of 50,000 North Korean troops. Actually, the attempt by Northern forces to re-unify the country had great popular support in the South.
Of course the South Korean masses wanted nothing more than to be ruled by a bunch of psychopathic dictators. Only the USA prevented that utopian outcome from occurring.

The litany continues, with evil US imperialism spreading darkness over India, Guatemala, Philippines, Syria, and (of course) "the racist, colonial settler state of Zionist Israel." Nothing like a little antisemitism to spice up an article about Korea.

The Militant (published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) ) takes a very similar position on North Korea (albeit minus the antisemitism). Mary Martin, SWP candidate for mayor of Seattle (which position undoubtedly includes a North Korea portfolio) states the case plainly in the lede paragraph of her campaign statement.
The Socialist Workers Party calls for an immediate end to Washington’s economic and financial sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We demand that the U.S. government withdraw its more than 28,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula, and U.S. planes and ships from Korea’s skies and waters. We stand in solidarity with the more than 70-year-long struggle to reunify Korea, ripped apart by U.S. imperialism at the end of World War II, as well as the Korean people’s aspirations for a nuclear free Korean Peninsula and Pacific.
Then follows a brief recount of the litany described above, which concludes with this paragraph.
Washington’s campaign that North Korea get rid of nuclear weapons, and insistence that Tehran renounce them, is both cynical and hypocritical, to say the least. But the development of nuclear arms and delivery systems by these governments weakens the defense of the Korean and Iranian people against Washington. It saps the fighting capacities of the toilers in face of imperialism’s dictates, depriving them of the political and moral high ground in the eyes of working people worldwide. The leadership of Cuba’s socialist revolution provides an example to emulate.
Unlike SA's piece, this at least mentions the Nork's weapons program, and critically, too. Still, in any showdown between the US and North Korea it is pretty clear where the SWP will stand: Pyongyang.

Steve Clark wrote a 3-part series on Korean history originally published in 2013, and reprinted here. Unlike Mr. Mackler, he at least provides some source references for his conclusions, which means one can have a civilized discussion. But the litany is much the same--the US is singlehandedly and unequivocally at fault for any bad things that ever happened in Korean history since 1945. In his view the true history of the Korean peninsula has been kept carefully under wraps by the bourgeoisie and is only gradually coming to light. Indeed...
Aside from the pages of the Militant, one of the few places factual information could be found in those years, much of the truth about what had happened in Korea only began to come out under the impact of the fight for national reunification by the Vietnamese people in the 1960s and 1970s, and the worldwide movement against the U.S. war there.
Of course all this history is irrelevant. Most of it ends by 1960, with only a few riots and murders extending in the 1980s. But my Trotskyist friends are strong believers in by any means necessary, also known as the end justifies the means. By this measure we only need to look at what exists now, namely the picture at the top of this article.

Can any of my Trotskyist friends look at that picture and say, with a straight face, that the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea represents a path to human happiness and well-being?

Of course not! So that begs the question--why do they keep claiming that when it's so impossible to believe?

I think it's a very weird form of virtue-signalling. Both the SA and SWP proclaim themselves as radicals, and radicals necessarily must take radical positions. Their positions have nothing to do with happiness for the Korean people, but are entirely about reinforcing their self-image as bad-assed revolutionaries.

And as long as Kim Jong-un remains a remote figure in a hermit kingdom far away, they can get away with that. But if--may heaven forbid--there really is a war between the US and North Korea, and Seoul or even an American city is reduced to "an uninhabitable radioactive nightmare," then the political calculus becomes much different.

After all, nuclear destruction falls on the just and unjust alike--both bourgeois and proletarian.

I don't think the American people will look very favorably on grouplets that advocate mass murder of American citizens and the wholesale destruction of American cities.

Further Reading: