Will globalization make us meet in the middle?

2012-01-31 (Tuesday) § 2 Comments

When goods and information can move quickly, cheaply and easily from any part of the world to any other, is it possible for the labor classes of different countries to indefinitely enjoy very different standards of living?

Right now we do.  Nominal currency amounts aside, working people of average means in the US, Canada or western Europe can afford goods and services of both higher quantity and quality than working people of average means in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, or South America.

Famously, this contributes to a lower cost of labor in the latter places, and when that labor is sufficiently qualified compared to its more expensive alternatives in the developed world, employers fire the Americans or Canadians and move shop to China or the Philippines.  This is an old phenomenon by now.

Is there a way this kind of movement can go on indefinitely without standard of living rising for the cheap workers and falling for the expensive workers?  It seems anecdotally like this is already happening.  I read that Chinese factory labor is getting more expensive (or to talk about people as if they were people, Chinese people who work in factories are getting better wages and ancillary benefits).  I also hear constant talk in the United States about how job security and limited work hours are luxuries that will slowly bankrupt us nationally if we try to maintain them.

If the gradual convergence of standards of living between the working classes of different countries is an inevitable consequence of easy global trade flows, is there a way we can see that as a good thing for the richer working classes?  If it’s not, should we get mad and vote for protectionist trade policies?  Or should we just sigh and take it?

If economists are already arguing over these specific questions, I’d love to be directed to where I can follow the arguments.

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What’s the point of an economy?

2012-01-31 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

In media and in ordinary conversation I sometimes hear people talk about whether something is good for the economy.  Everybody seems to already know what “good for the economy” means, and further, what the economy is good for.

As with my attempts at analytic philosophy on this blog, I’m approaching economics as an amateur.  I’m hoping to understand it better by putting my current views forward and then responding to problems and alternative angles that people point out to me.

I’ve been reading The Worldly Philosophers, a survey of the views and lives of a sequence of European and American men who made important contributions to economics.  It may be because I’m getting their views at secondhand and in summary, but it seems to me that none of them looked directly at the question of what an economy is for.  (Maybe that’s because they already had it figured out.  But I don’t.)  They looked at more specific and less fundamental questions:  Why are there poor people and rich people?  Is everybody better off if everybody owns everything (communism), or if most things are owned by somebody in particular (private property)?  In a market economy, is it inevitable that the amount of goods and services being produced and sold will occasionally fall and leave a lot of people with a lot less access to goods and services (recession)?  Important questions, but they assume we already know what we want the economy to do.  So what is that?

One possible answer is that we want the economy to make supply match demand as closely as possible.  In other words, given that people want certain things, the point of an economy is to get as many of those things as possible produced and distributed to those people, while getting as few things as possible produced that nobody wants, and getting as few things as possible distributed to people who don’t want them.  Money, prices, and liberty of exchange are just ways of trying to make that happen in a market economy.

Right now in the United States the thing that the broader public wants most from the economy, and what elites claim to want most, is jobs.  Does that mean the point of an economy for us is to give people useful things to do with their time?  Clearly not, or at least not exclusively.  What people mean is jobs that pay a living wage.  Otherwise they (we) would be happy doing volunteer work all the time and consider that a successful economic outcome.  But a sufficient income + work aren’t enough simply added together.  Most people want a sufficient income that feels like a reward for their labor contribution.  Otherwise they would be happy living on reliable charity and doing volunteer work.  Anecdotally my sense is that most Americans wouldn’t be happy with that indefinitely.

So the point of our economy in the United States isn’t just to match supply with demand.  It’s to make supply match demand AND make the demanders feel like they earned the supply.

Tell me what I’m missing.

Expressivist view of normative statements

2012-01-30 (Monday) § 5 Comments

Do you feel like this is a coherent statement?  “Personally I don’t approve of wealth redistribution, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”

I’m asking because I want to get a sample of people’s intuitions about whether normative statements (statements involving words like “ought”, “should”, “right”, “wrong”, “good”) are correctly explained as expressions of approving/disapproving attitudes, rather than statements of any kind of objective fact.  If the statement above strikes you as coherent, then normative statements for you don’t even contain expressions of attitudes, let alone nothing but those expressions.

A plan to modify my own behavior

2012-01-21 (Saturday) § 3 Comments

I have all kinds of plans for productive use of my free time. A lot of the time I crap out and instead spend the time doing things that are fun but leave me no closer to the goals I had intended to approach. (I have a feeling I’m like the majority of humanity in this respect.) “Just do it” has so far been a losing strategy for beating this problem. Here’s a better one

WINCS: A difficult consequence

2012-01-18 (Wednesday) § Leave a comment

Something just occurred to me that may force me to abandon the idea of using suffering as my sole moral metric.  It seems obvious now that I’ve thought of it.  If the morally better of any two situations is the one where the conscious being suffering most in that situation is suffering less than the being that occupies that position in the other situation, then the morally optimal situation is one where no one is suffering at all.  So far so good.  But if every being capable of suffering actually is suffering to some extent (even if just a tiny bit), then I should favor, if it’s available, an instant euthanasia of all suffering-capable beings, in preference to any situation in which any being is suffering at all.  (I say “suffering-capable” in order to eliminate the possibility of causing survivors’ suffering to beings that have zero suffering now but might suffer as a result of all the other beings being dead.)

That euthanasia isn’t available, but I’m not sure if I can accept that it’s desirable in principle.  Maybe I can.  I’ll have to let that question swirl around for a while and see what my intuitions produce.

Occupy Oakland: Photos from Oct 31, 2011

2012-01-16 (Monday) § Leave a comment

These are from before the second and final police clearance of Frank Ogawa Plaza, which happened two weeks later on November 14.

Get it right or pay the price

2012-01-15 (Sunday) § Leave a comment

I’m reading The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner, a summary of the lives and ideas of a sequence of European and American men who had a big influence on economics.  Right now I’m on the part about Karl Marx.  I’ve never attempted his epic tome, Capital, but the excerpts and summary that Heilbroner gives make the dude sound like kind of a bad thinker in some ways.  Not in his attention to detail or his efforts at a thorough examination of consequences, but in his lack of zeal in correcting his own blind spots and looking for where he might have been wrong.  I’m almost ready to say that those intellectual virtues are more important than the detail and thoroughness.  As long as we can take correction from each other, we can cover each other’s areas of ignorance.  A brilliant thinker can still be wrong and can even be wrong where a less brilliant thinker is right.  It’s less likely than the reverse, but we’re all fallible enough that anybody who’s unenthusiastic about being shown to be wrong is asking to make serious mistakes.  I don’t know if the USSR, the PRC, Hoxha’s regime in Albania, etc. would have arisen even if Marx had never written any of what he wrote, but if his intellectual career really was a necessary cause of those regimes, and if the leaders of those regimes were acting out of a sincere conviction of Marx’s ideas, then his intellectual mistakes can be credited with the terrible suffering of millions of people.  And he was no lord or statesman with political power to push his ideas – he was a random German dude who published some indie rags.  Ideas matter.

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