Friday, 1 February 2013

TO CONSERVATIVES: CAN'T WE ALL BE FRIENDS?

I have always been somewhat surprised that not everyone thinks like me...

Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration but I do think that the political differences between conservatives and liberals on things like the economy and deficits and what to do in a few 'typical' macro-economic situations ought to be fairly modest. After all, reality is reality. 

Allow me to develop this thought further...

 
Let's first start with the basic truth of W.S. Gilbert's poem that  "Nature always does contrive/that every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive/is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative" (for a bit more detail on the influence of genes on political outlook:  http://www.economist.com/node/21564191 ).

While true, I do believe that this genetic predisposition towards liberalism or conservatism is mostly geared towards reactions to social questions: Abortion, sexual mores, immigration, gun control & self defense, the role of religion and morals in public life, education etc, basically all these very contentious issues which form the basis of the 'culture wars' as the Americans are calling them.

On these subjects, I tend to be 'liberal' in the sense that I believe in individual freedom and collective responsibility i.e. it's my view that society should provide an easy and harmonious environment where anyone, as long as they do not threaten or burden others, can do as they pleased.

That very general principle being actually mind-boggling difficult to uphold in practice, I have no problem with different people coming up with different answers to the various practical social issues I mentioned above. Basically, on such social issues, I am willing to concede that a "right" answer may either not exist or not be unique i.e. the problem can be answered in multiple ways, all of them valid.

Thus, on social issues, I am willing to cut (reasonable) conservatives a lot of slack. They might be right and I might be wrong. Or, alternatively, nobody is right or wrong as it's a matter of weighting particular pros and cons differently.

On the economic side of this politico-socio-economic spectrum, though, I am a lot less inclined to such a tolerance for differences in opinion.

It's true that economics as a sciences is still in its infancy. There are many things we don't know, don't fully understand and, basically, we are still quite away from Keynes's dream of economists as dentists i.e. people you'd consult when you have a particular problem with the expectation that they'd sort it all out relatively fast and relatively painlessly (In his own words: "If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!")

But this caveat does not mean we either know nothing or that we do not have at least some knowledge about beliefs that are patently false.

Let's take some classic right-wing beliefs that are patently false:

1- Tax cuts pay for themselves. No, they do not. Even conservative economists refute this or acknowledge it's a myth. Yet right wing politicians keep peddling that lie and poisoning the minds of my conservative friends. For a lot of quotes from conservatives on this subject, go here: http://swordscrossed.org/node/1671

2- Austerity is necessary to re-establish confidence. This myth is a bit harder to kill outright, without going into a lengthier discussion. Confidence is clearly very important to future growth and governments can (and do) over-spend, which leads to all kinds of problems. But austerity is usually imposed at the worst possible times (i.e. pro-cyclically rather than contra-cyclically) and thus can easily turn a slow growth into painful recessions and painful recessions into outright depressions. For more discussions on the subject, try: http://www.businessinsider.com/rip-the-confidence-fairy-2013-1 and http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/austerity-vs-growth

3- The poor are poor because they're lazy and coddled. Quite a popular myth, that one. It did help cost Mitt Romney the presidency but that doesn't mean that many people, especially conservatives, are not prone to believing it.

I'll spend a bit of time on it because I suspect it's a very key belief for conservatives: Here, they are transferring a social belief in personal responsibility and a general 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' view of things into an economic belief. However, here is what a Christian guy, a presumably socially conservative guy, (and the World Bank) has to say: http://scottjhiggins.com/myths-about-poverty-myth-1-people-are-poor-because-theyre-lazy/

"A few years back the World Bank conducted a study of the experiences of people in developing countries who had escaped extreme poverty.It found two common factors – opportunity and initiative. The ‘poor are lazy’ argument assumes there is plenty of opportunity but that the poor lack initiative.

The reality is that people who are poor more often than not have plenty of initiative but lack opportunity. They live in economies that don’t generate sufficient jobs and where wealth is captured by an elite; experience poor health, infrastructure and education; are frequently the object of discrimination; and are often living in areas prone to conflict and disaster".


[emphasis mine]

I would argue that, while the situation in developed countries is obviously less dramatic, it is a difference of degree rather than substance i.e. while initiative might part of the problem for people often lacking education and positive role-models, the far more crucial problems these days are centered around lack of (decent paying or, at least, career developing) jobs and the fact that too much wealth is vacuumed upwards.

I could keep going through a lot of the conservative beliefs about economy and keep on proving most of them either totally false or at the very least badly overstating their case but the inescapable reality is that the economy is a complex system with lots of feedback loops and thus quite hard (or even maybe impossible) to fathom in any great details.

However, one consequence of the very fact that the economy is a complex system is that a conservative tendency to resume everything to personal responsibility, hard work, willpower and force of personality is inadequate to explain economic reality.

Much as we should all strive to exercise personal responsibility, work hard and attack problems with limitless mental fortitude in our own lives, this is not a recipe that translate into anything worthwhile at the macro-level.

Now, if my conservative friends (I do have a few, believe it or not) could just accept that, we'd be so much closer to solving this crap economy...