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?