Monday, December 04, 2006

Don't Bother Milton, The World Hath No Need of Thee

he short burst of adulation at the death of Milton Friedman was overly polite, hardly mentioning his association with Chilean fascism. He’d been smart enough to send some of his boys to do the dirty work, though it was under Pinochet that some of his more stridently held views got a try out. The favorite of those among conservatives is the pension system. That it has not turned out to not provide the boon that it’s admirers here continue to pretend it does hasn’t gone unnoticed in, now democratic, Chile. You can read this piece in The Guardian, which shows that Friedman’s only lasting achievement in the real world was one he was deeply ashamed of, witholding taxes.

Failure in the real world isn’t, of course, any bar to the establishment’s hagiography industry. Here in the United States an academic who has told the rich and powerful what they wanted to hear, didn’t get into trouble with his more powerful colleagues and, especially, who was successfully sold in the pop media is assured a place in the grand pyramid of hype. Friedman will, officially, be a genius for quite a while to come.

A more interesting view of his Chicago School style is held in this piece by Christopher Hayes, describing his experience while taking an Intro to Econ. class in the Vatican of neo-classical economics. His description of what he learned there should force a change in name, this program of dogma and theology isn’t neoclassic, it’s neo-scholastic. Most interesting to me is the section in which he describes the appeal of the system.

As taught by Sanderson, economics is a satisfyingly neat machine: complicated enough to warrant curiosity and discovery, but not so complicated as to bewilder. Like a bicycle, input matches output (wind the crank and the wheel moves), and once you've got the basics of the model down, everything seems to make sense.

He goes on to say that so much of the money babble in the media became comprehensible to him because he had learned the patter of the system, the lingo of this branch of the trivium. Marketplace and the Wall Street Journal became understandable. You can imagine that the beginning student in Thomist Philosophy or even quasi-religious, official system experiencing a similar thrill as the scales fell away and they beheld the majesty of their ticket to the easy life as a cog in the machine. Not the key to the universe exactly, to the university. Or at least tenure. This next paragraph in Hayes’ article holds not just for economics but for most of the social sciences:

The simple models have an explanatory power that is thrilling. Once you've grasped the aggregate supply/aggregate demand model, you understand why stimulating demand may lead, in the short run, to growth, but will also produce inflation. But the content of that understanding turns out to be a bit thin. Inflation happens because, well, that's where the lines intersect. "A little economics can be a dangerous thing," a friend working on her Ph.D in public policy at the U. of C. told me. "An intro econ course is necessarily going to be superficial. You deal with highly stylized models that are robbed of context, that take place in a world unmediated by norms and institutions. Much of the most interesting work in economics right now calls into question the Econ 101 assumptions of rationality, individualism, maximizing behavior, etc. But, of course, if you don't go any further than Econ 101, you won't know that the textbook models are not the way the world really works, and that there are tons of empirical studies out there that demonstrate this."

The damned empirical world, always marring the beautiful and simple thing. But for most people Econ. 101 is farther than they'll ever go. For them a small collection of slogans. As in the most famous model, they can still believe the earth is the center of the solar system, the real world isn't allowed to filter into the more popular areas of the media or political speeches. If anyone has seen any evidence of the real world in the Bush II regime or the cabloid media, it’s just a mirage.

The problem isn’t that reality isn’t known, it’s that like any late stage empire, the system and it’s rotting foundations are what are really important to those who hope to plunder the ship as it beaches. The scribes and praise singers don’t really believe what they’re writing, they just want their efforts to pay the most. That’s why they do what they do. How long do you think “Market Place” would stay on public radio if they focused on the worsening position of most people under the system we have now? How many working class people do you know who are better off after deregulation and open markets? I don't know a single one, not one. No money, no influence.

And it isn't just the working class and the destitute that lose from the agreed to lie of conservative economics. As we watch the disaster of global warming, pollution and overpopulation becoming real around us, remember that Friedman was a total opponent to environmental regulation. Looks like he got out just in time, doesn’t it.

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