As the ballot counting in the Seattle City Council race shows Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant gaining a narrow lead over incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin, there is now a surge of national media attention on Kshama. This also includes the American media’s love of treating mainstream economics as gospel and creating a strawman of what socialism is.
Alex Berezow’s column “Why Is Seattle Socialist Kshama Sawant Allowed To Teach Economics?” typifies this. There are many things wrong with the column, both in terms of economics and in terms of journalism.
1. He admits that he doesn’t cover economics much. Given that he cites N. Gregory Mankiw, the author of the main survey course economics textbook, I assume he doesn’t have a formal background in it either.
2. He states that “people respond to incentives” and says it is basic and obvious. This is mostly to contrast to his conception of socialism, where there are “little (if any) incentives”. As anyone who reads the books and listens to the lectures of 21st century behavioral economists can tell you, incentives are complex and often depend on variables that aren’t obvious like money, time, or capital.
3. He fails to recognize that socialism has plenty of incentives, they are just different incentives than a normal market capitalist economy. To think that capitalist motives are inherent and self-evident, one would have to explain the many societies throughout the world and history that functioned well without the same view of value and worth.
4. He blithely ignores the respected place socialist theory has in academic disciplines, like philosophy, literature, political science and, yes, economics. He compares socialism in economics to AIDS denial in microbiology. Academic institutions do not keep teaching courses on socialism and its related branches because they just don’t get it. They do it because it’s a valuable part of the process and its critiques help people understand capitalism, consumerism, and the market in proper context.
5. He fails to understand the simple difference between unionizing Amazon and collectivizing Amazon. Here’s the nickel tour on that: what Sawant wishes to do is unionize companies like Amazon that have resorted to underhanded tactics to quash workers wishing to organize. She aims for workers to collectively bargain for pay and conditions, which they currently cannot. To collectivize it would mean to liquidate its private ownership and turn over all the capital, land, and money to the workers. These are radically different things.
6. He follows Mankiw once again on rent control, never once stating that while popular, Mankiw was an economic adviser during the George W. Bush administration, and has a strong conservative bias. In fact, he was in the news this week for a bogus comparison between having children and choosing a car. The large opposition to rent control in orthodox economics is countered in other social sciences and in people who have different values beyond economic efficiency.
This all creates this insidious argument of how dare a college think a socialist should teach economics. Berezow freely admits that she has a doctorate in economics, yet thinks that using that education to critique capitalism and market economics is somehow a wrong that should be righted. It reeks of attempts to silence academic freedom when teachers have unpopular ideas. But if you don’t let anyone with unpopular ideas teach, then there is no dissension, no debate. The social sciences and humanities cease to have any value. Marxist economist Richard D. Wolff often talks of how much pressure there is on colleges to deny tenure to economics professors who don’t think capitalism is a good system- after all, most big donations come from people who made (or inherited) their money through capitalism. Do you think Phil Knight, founder of Nike and a huge source of the University of Oregon’s buildings and programs, wants an economics professor pointing out the horrible system of child labor and dangerous factories that made him all his money?
So this is a piece by a journalist who took the lazy route to bash a socialist. Kshama Sawant has more education in economics, and more background in academia than Berezow. His attempts to make her ideas look stupid come off as childish and smug. The idea that there is a scientifically validated bloc of mainstream economists (of which Mankiw is the leader) pays a disservice to the discipline and all the credible people who offer criticism and alternatives.
And if people do respond to incentives, why did they show up in huge numbers to vote against capitalism as it stands? What is there incentive there?
7 thoughts on “Alex Berezow is a hack: good old fashioned Red hysteria”
Gregory Mankiw, like all good economists of the dominant Chicago and Austria schools, mistakes ideology for scholarship, service to capitalists for thinking. This dominant economics celebrates the wealthiest and most powerful acquiring ever more wealth and power, at the expense of everybody else. What a surprise capitalists promote and fund such ideology.
1. The Austrian school of economics is a relatively small group that is NOT particularly influential within mainstream economics. Maybe a bit more influential than Marxist economists, but not much more so. 2. The Chicago school has much more prominence, but would not describe the views of a majority of economists. Neither school can be accurately described as “dominant”.
My guess is that the modal view among economists is a moderate liberalism, with some anomalies (economists tend to be free traders and not enthusiastic about rent control). And economists are more interested in using market mechanisms to solve problems, such as taxing carbon emissions or using cap and trade to solve the carbon emissions problem.
As proof, every survey I’ve ever seen among economists shows that there are probably at least twice as many economists who are Democrats as Republicans. See this study reported by Chris Auld a few years ago: http://chrisauld.com/2011/10/15/myths-about-the-political-beliefs-of-economists/
This moderate liberal tendency of economists often surprises people. I know it surprised Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, who clearly expected economists to back McCain over Obama back in 2008. He found more support for Obama than for McCain not only among economists as a whole, but even among economists who professed to be political independents.
Re: #5. Goldy’s article on Kshama in The Stranger (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-case-for-kshama-sawant/Content?oid=17825832) does claim that “if you really push her on the subject, she’ll make a cogent economic argument for, say, collectivizing Amazon.” As one of the few articles about Kshama, his article is being cited by a number of right-wing sources. I suspect that Goldy confused ‘collectivizing’ with ‘collective bargaining,’ but if so, it’s his obligation to issue a retraction.
I think it’s not a simple typo, but rather that the Stranger is referring to a hypothetical argument that Sawant might make- but is not and has not been on her campaign platform. The actual platform calls for collective bargaining, not collectivization. Thus to say that she would collectivize Amazon if elected is a pretty bold and likely misleading statement.
Making cogent economic arguments is sort of the job of people with PhDs in the field.