Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, April 10th, 2009.


Leaving 20th Century Economics Behind

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big picture stuff, economy

Eric Hobsbawm writes in The Guardian about the economic realities of the 21st century.

The 20th century is well behind us, but we have not yet learned to live in the 21st, or at least to think in a way that fits it. That should not be as difficult as it seems, because the basic idea that dominated economics and politics in the last century has patently disappeared down the plughole of history. This was the way of thinking about modern industrial economies, or for that matter any economies, in terms of two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.

This is exactly right, I think, but until a majority of our politicians and what passes for public intellectuals grasp this, our policies will drag way behind realities.

We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy. The first broke down in the 1980s, and the European communist political systems with it. The second is breaking down before our eyes in the greatest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s.

The True Believers of both sides will argue no, no, no, pure Marxism/Free Market Capitalism has never been tried. But “pure” anything has never been tried. That’s the reality of our human condition. Any endeavor that requires human input is never pure. It will suffer some degree of corruption. Put together people, money, and power, and corruption is a certainty. That’s why any workable, sustainable model factors in corruption and makes some provision to keep it to a minimum.

That’s what the Marxists and the Ayn Rand culties cannot understand. Give all power to a central government planning authority, and you’re screwed. Give all power to an elite cabal of corporate heads, and you’re screwed. There has to be a way to reign in the power, to diffuse it, to oversee it and make it accountable to other power. That’s one reason the public and private sector need each other — to keep each other semi-honest.

The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.

From here, Hobsbawm talks about recent British history, New Labour and Thatcherism. But similar things go on here (is it the almost-common language?). Our Right has effectively taken itself out of the conversation (even though it won’t shut up) because it can’t let go of its old ideologies and aphorisms that don’t work any more. I’m not sure if what passes for a “Left” here is fully cognizant of the new reality, either.

But unlike the Right, the current Left has no one economic model that we all put on an altar and worship. At least some among us are looking hard at the current reality and thinking through solutions that might work in the real world, as opposed to solutions that make good sound bites and look good on a bumper sticker.

But a progressive policy needs more than just a bigger break with the economic and moral assumptions of the past 30 years. It needs a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end. The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people.

That’s something else that neither the Marxists nor the free-market Randbots ever understood.

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