This week a friend sent me this article by TV-villain-lawyer-looking Kenneth Rogoff about “keeping living standards on an upward trajectory.” (We like to exchange articles that we think will rile the other up, with some David Foster Wallace and articles about the bitcoin crash thrown in.)
Okay full disclosure: I took one look at this guy’s picture and immediately hated him. His 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics didn’t help. But while I didn’t go to Harvard, my humble opinion is that his assessment (admittedly just the tip of the iceberg, fit into a 1,000-or-so-word article) has some underlying assumptions that are deeply flawed.
Judging from his experiences and world-view (and face), he most likely does not understand what it’s like out there on a daily basis for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, who don’t go to elite universities and who don’t work for fancy international banks. So I guess I wonder if his version of a higher standard of living is slightly skewed. When he looks around, life must look pretty good. But when a Mexican farmer looks around (if he isn’t decapitated by vigilante drug lords), not so much. These rosy glasses let him write something like:
“By and large, most advanced economies have fulfilled this promise, with living standards rising over recent generations, despite setbacks from wars and financial crises.”
Which “advanced” economy is fulfilling this promise, exactly? I look around and see a national student loan debt bubble. I see Greece, Ireland, and Spain. I see no new major transit projects developed in my town or in any town. I see people with chronic stress and joint pain from being overweight, people with 1,000 Facebook friends but no real friends, people who will literally step on another creature, just to cross the street. I see no living wage, more part-time employees without health insurance, Wal-Mart having a food drive for its own employees. I see confusing, expensive (and arbitrary) medical costs. I see violence over shortages in The Ukraine, in Venezuela, and even at The University of California. I see Americans—AMERICANS, the least likely group to substantially protest anything that doesn’t involve clicking the “like” button—sitting in the streets, sitting in front of the White House, sitting in front of Wall Street, because they realize that they’re probably the first generation that won’t have it as good as their parents.
But don’t fret, Rogoff assures us:
“And, despite a disconcerting fall in labor’s share of income in recent decades, the long-run picture still defies Marx’s prediction that capitalism would prove immiserating for workers. Living standards around the world continue to rise.”
I’m no economist, but I don’t think you can just say that living standards are rising, based on numbers on a computer screen at Goldman Sachs. And if service-sector Americans (so, Americans), let alone the global community, can agree on one thing, it’s that capitalism is pretty fucking immiserating. Informal poll: how many people do you know who love their jobs? Corollary question: How many Asian pre-teens mining metals for cell phones like theirs? Here’s something you won’t read in any stock market report: in America, more people now die by committing suicide than they do in car accidents.
“A leading example is food supply – an area where technology has continually produced ever-more highly processed and genetically refined food that scientists are only beginning to assess. What is known so far is that childhood obesity has become an epidemic in many countries, with an alarming rise in rates of type 2 diabetes and coronary disease implying a significant negative impact on life expectancy in future generations.”
But wait, I thought things were getting better because of capitalism?
“Capitalist economies have been spectacularly efficient at enabling growing consumption of private goods, at least over the long run. When it comes to public goods – such as education, the environment, health care, and equal opportunity – the record is not quite as impressive, and the political obstacles to improvement have seemed to grow as capitalist economies have matured.”
So to produce cell phones, capitalism is A-Okay. But for everything that actually matters, like water, “the record is not quite as impressive.” No wonder this guy worked at the IMF.
Cf. this insipid bullshit from The Guardian, Technology has created a flat earth where we can participate as equals, which ends with—and I’m not making this up: “We are all particles in the wave of a future that is ours to make.” Oh, well then, what am I so worried about?