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Marxism as anti-ideology

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Sam Bowles has a nice piece in the FT on the case for pluralism in economics by integration – “marshalling the insights of differing schools of thought and academic disciplines into a common paradigm.” I’d add only that the points at which the marshalling should occur must be determined by the facts. We learn about economics from the real world, not just from schools of thought.

I want to suggest something that some of you might think paradoxical – that Marxists are well-placed to do this because we are, in a sense, less ideological than others.

Take, for example, the question: do higher minimum wages destroy lots of jobs? As a Marxist, I can accept either answer. If they do, we have (more?) evidence that actually-existing capitalism is incompatible with decent living standards. If they don’t then we have a way of making workers better off. Either way, I’m happy. I can allow myself to be guided by the evidence in a way that either free marketeers or their social democratic opponents might not be.

Or another example: could fiscal policy not just stabilize aggregate demand but increase trend growth? If it does, then fine: we’ve a way of making people better off. If not, then my prior that capitalism is prone to stagnation and crisis is strengthened.

Here’s a third example. Are financial markets informationally efficient or not? I can accept either answer. If they’re efficient, then fund managers are ripping people off and we have another example of the exploitative nature of capitalism. If they’re inefficient then we have another mechanism whereby capitalism can generate instability. (In fact, both might be true, as markets might well be micro efficient but macro inefficient). Being a Marxist has, I suspect, made me less bad at my day job than I otherwise would be.

A fourth example is Brexit. Being in or out of the EU is orthogonal to my Marxism. Again, therefore, I’m happy to be guided by the evidence on whether Brexit will make us better off or not.

There’s another thing here. As a Marxist, I haven’t invested my human capital in only one paradigm. Marxist economists must be pluralists simply because we must run our Marxism alongside the orthodox/mainstream/whatever economics we learn at university and in my day job. Integrating different perspectives – which might of course mean ditching large parts of some – does not therefore threaten the destruction of my human capital as much as it does specialists in one paradigm.

On a lot of issues, then, we Marxists can be intellectually flexible simply because there are a lot of fights in which we have no dog.

But, you might ask, if this is the case, isn’t your Marxism just an unfalsifiable pseudo-science?

No. There are some claims which – if true – would weaken my Marxism perhaps to the point of refutation, for example: if capitalism could deliver sustained full employment with good working conditions and satisfying jobs; if it could be shown that capitalism were non-exploitative; if the capitalist state were genuinely neutral; or if capitalistic relations of production were never fetters upon growth. These claims, however, have not been satisfactorily established.

I’ll turn the question around to centrists, Tories, libertarians or social democrats. What equivalent claims (if they could be established) would falsify your political position?

What I’m trying to do here is weaken the prior of many anti-Marxists. Many of you have traditionally seen Marxism as a fanatical ideology opposed to the cool-headed rationality of mainstream politics.

I’ll concede that there might be something in this: the worst advert for Marxism has often been those who profess to be Marxists.

For me, though, the opposite is the case: in some respects, Marxism takes the ideology and fanaticism out of some debates.

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ahofer
1 day ago
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"I want to suggest something that some of you might think paradoxical – that Marxists are well-placed to do this because we are, in a sense, less ideological than others." Indeed, very hard to swallow. I accept some components of this argument but not the whole. Marxists have 'no dog' in some fights, but this is true of any belief system or set of priors. There are as many other examples where Marxist ideology clouds his thinking. In fact, there is evidence in this very article - I paraphrase the conclusion to each of his points: "either answer is fine because they both point out the shortcomings of capitalism". Does he not see that?
Princeton, NJ or NYC
freeAgent
23 hours ago
This post did a great job at convincing me that the Marxist who wrote it is definitely not as impartial as he thinks he is.
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Transparent and Visible Cross-Subsidy: Unethical; Invisible Legally-Mandated Cross-Subsidy at the Behest of a Special Interest: A-OK

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From Engadget, apparently the EU has banned retailers for adding a surcharge on credit card purchases.  Since it is an absolute fact that credit card sales cost retailers at least 3% more (due to merchant processing fees) than cash sales, I likely would have written about this story something like "EU knuckles under special interest lobbying from credit card processors and forces non-customers (ie those paying in cash) to subsidize credit card purchases."  Of course, given the consistent and predictable economic ignorance of Engadget, that is not how the story actually was written:

Thanks to new EU regulations, you won't have to put up with irritating card surcharges for much longer. Unfortunately, minimum card spends you come across in small shops and such will stick around, but from January 13th, the Payment Services Directive comes into play. This stops retailers from charging you more for, say, using a credit card than a debit card, or generally just passing the transaction fee onto the customer. It won't, however, make your Just Eat delivery any cheaper. That's because yesterday, ahead of the new EU rules being implemented, Just Eat did away with its 50p fee for paying by card, and instead created a new 50p "service charge" that applies to all orders.

What's particularly cheeky is pay-by-cash customers now also have to fish between the sofa cushions for an extra coin -- a move Just Eat calls "fairness for all" (lol) -- meaning it's making even more moolah while sticking a middle finger up to the spirit of the EU directive. Just Eat told the BBC it had previously thought about tweaking charges, while also totally confessing that "the change to legislation did play a part in prompting the review." A spokesperson also said, predictably, that it'll enable the company to keep providing its stellar services: "The 50p charge simply means that along with our restaurant partners, we can continue to deliver the best possible takeaway experience."

The law essentially forces cash customers to subsidize credit card customers.  I know what retail profits look like (think small single digits) and the lost surcharge is not coming out of profits, it is going to be covered by establishments in generally higher prices paid by everyone, including cash customers.  In my mind, this retailer is a hero, by actually making this legally-mandated cross subsidy transparent.

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ahofer
2 days ago
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The law essentially forces cash customers to subsidize credit card customers." optics always win.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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TRUMP’S HITLER! LET’S EXPAND HIS POWER! Liberals accuse Trump of being a dictator, then promptly v…

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TRUMP’S HITLER! LET’S EXPAND HIS POWER! Liberals accuse Trump of being a dictator, then promptly vote to give Trump more power.

Since Inauguration Day, liberals have fear-mongered in order to swell the ranks of their #Resistance. While they said Ronald Reagan was senile and George W. Bush was stupid, they now accuse Trump of being an evil authoritarian. Pieces in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, for instance, declared 1984 a must-read at the start of 2017. In the same spirit, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even accused Trump of attempting “word and thought control.”

If any of this was legitimate, liberals would suddenly become the biggest advocates of limited government, or at least limited executive power. And for a while, there was even hope that checks and balances would come back in vogue. Reasonable people like columnist Ryan Cooper could be forgiven for naively expecting “Democrats to see at least some of the problems with unchecked surveillance powers.” But they didn’t.

When given an opportunity to limit the authority of a man they said was unsafe for democracy, Democrats joined with Republicans to put the keys to the surveillance state back into the pocket of the president. The House voted down an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have forced the government to get a warrant before spying on citizens. The combined vote was 233 against with 183 in favor.

What the Deep State wants, the Deep State usually gets.

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ahofer
3 days ago
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"When given an opportunity to limit the authority of a man they said was unsafe for democracy, Democrats joined with Republicans to put the keys to the surveillance state back into the pocket of the president. The House voted down an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have forced the government to get a warrant before spying on citizens. The combined vote was 233 against with 183 in favor." Too obsessed with doing Google's bidding on 'net neutrality'
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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The Real Reason Walmart Raised Its Minimum Wage

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An employee moves a TCL Corp. television in shopping cart at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Burbank, California, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. BlackFriday, the day after Thanksgiving, marks the traditional start to the U.S. holiday shopping season. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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ahofer
4 days ago
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"For if companies really have nothing better to do with the money than give an unnecessary bonus to current workers, that means that companies don’t see great opportunities to use it to expand their current operations, or invest in exciting new inventions and markets. Instead they’re just going to split it with workers and shareholders."
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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AUTHOR OF ANONYMOUS LIST THAT RUINED CAREERS now worried that losing anonymity might ruin her career…

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AUTHOR OF ANONYMOUS LIST THAT RUINED CAREERS now worried that losing anonymity might ruin her career.

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ahofer
8 days ago
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I have mixed feelings about this. Informal channels of communication are good. Some of the problems with it arise from the way the information is handled, not that it was shared.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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A blind spot at the New York Times, by Scott Sumner

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The New York Times recently published a very strange story on New Jersey, discussing the Garden State's ban on self-service gasoline. The article discussed a recent proposal to lift the ban (all other states allow self-service), as well as local opposition to ending the ban. So what makes the article so strange?

It turns out that none of the information in the article has any bearing at all on the policy issue being considered. The author (Jonah Engel Bromwich) wrote the article as if the proposed policy was a complete ban on full service gas pumps. Here's a typical example:

[T]he university found that 63 percent of voters supported the law [banning self service] and only 23 percent opposed it, with a similarly exaggerated gender gap.

Ms. Jenkins grew up in Southern California, and pumped her own gas.

"But," she said, "in the dead of winter when you don't have to get out of your car, it's a lovely feature of living in the state."


When I lived in Massachusetts, I typically used self-service in the summer, but enjoyed the "lovely feature" of going to one of the dozen or so full service stations near my home during the winter. Ms. Jenkins seems to share the NYT reporter's misapprehension that New Jersey is proposing that full service stations be banned. I don't know of any state that bans full service.

Some conservatives will invariably grumble that the NYT is a lousy newspaper, full of fake news. I'm afraid it's far worse than that. The NYT is a great newspaper, one of the best in the world. The fact that a story like this could appear in such a high quality paper speaks volumes about the way that they look at the world. I'm pretty sure that about 99.9% of libertarians would have immediately seen the point I am making in this post. Why didn't the NYT's excellent editors immediately see the problem? What sort of a blind spot do they have, when it comes to giving people the freedom to choose how to run their lives?

PS. Just to be clear, the question of whether self-service gas should be banned is not the subject of this post, so please don't offer your opinion on that subject in the comment section.

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ahofer
9 days ago
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I made Sumner's exact point on Twitter a few days ago. Weird how allowing self-serve apparently eliminated full serve.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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2 public comments
zippy72
8 days ago
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In Europe everywhere is self service, has been since pretty much forever. That’s market forces for you I guess.
FourSquare, qv
freeAgent
10 days ago
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I remember there were full service pumps in Northern VA when I was growing up, but I never used them. I don't know if they're still around. These days I buy all my gas from Costco...
Los Angeles, CA
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