Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal by Moshe Adler
BEAST Book Review by Michael Caigoy
Noam Chomsky is the Mick Jagger of sad mouthed intellectuals. He’s been churning out crowd pleasers since the sixties. Big auditorium anthems about massacres in the Southern Cone, US-Israeli suppression of the Palestinians and CIA-backed coups the world over. Like Bowie and Bing Crosby, will any of us forget his stirring duet with Foucault? Or his flirtatious Sonny and Cher banter with William F. Buckley? As with Jimmy Page and P. Diddy, he’s even lent street cred to young punks like Alan Dershowitz.
What’s this have to do with anything, you ask? Shut up. Don’t get ahead of me.
Sold out crowds of pale grad students, ineffectual do-gooders, and wonks from political parties so marginal the whole of their ranks could meet in a VW bug (and probably do), sit in rapt anticipation of the linguist/agitator’s words. Whisper thin men suppress their coughs and allergies, tightly wound women’s studies majors with “fuck your normativity” haircuts tremble at the suspense of his coy stammering.
After the show has reached its apex, the excitable audience graciously lavishes the anarcho-syndicalist rockstar with listless applause; it adjusts its collective sweater vest and agonizes over the question of whether getting Hegemony or Survival autographed would be tacky. As they wind out of the campus, conflicted over the carbon footprints and dubious manufacturing histories of their sensible imported sedans, a thought intrudes.
“I have no idea what to do about any of this! Everything he said plausibly describes the exploitative history of authority… but it actually seems like we’re just fucked! Forever!”
I’ll confess this has little to do with the review. Except for the last part. That impotent rage and total emotional devastation of knowing that the human experience has been a grim death march at the bayonet end of a sociopathic aristocracy for the majority of us sad fucks since the invention of trade. And that it will continue to be such, in perpetuity, until the selfsame majority is terminally ravaged by the tropical insects and diseases cultivated by global warming. The lucky few rabble will escape as servants, concubines, and organ banks on the spaceships and in the Bat Caves and sea-domes of the world’s most successful niche parasites: the elite.
I hate to ruin the ending for you; no, not of human history, but of this book. There are… no answers. Like my caricatured academic said, you are fucked. Like a, hey, what’s with all the little lightning bolts on the mooring masts, is that an iceberg, nice day for driving through Dallas in a convertible, kind of fucked. If you have any religious pretensions, I strongly suggest you try abandoning them in favor of vice and dissipation, because that’s all you got.
Unless you’re super wealthy. But if you were, you wouldn’t be reading this and certainly not something as challenging as Economics for the Rest of Us. You’d be reading campy YA doorstops for their life-changing epiphanies (learning to “Move your cheese!” as one billionaire suggested in a mass e-mail to his inferiors).
This is a quick-read, but provides an enduring dread with its illuminations of economic and wage theories. The first thing I learned was that my ability to comprehend graphs is extremely limited. Next, I learned that an early economic theory (i.e. the one that lost) didn’t emphasize the reptilian “efficiency” so loved, and so little comprehended today. The concept of Bentham Utilitarianism considered the benefits of an economic distribution to the society it supposedly served. If moving a unit of currency from one person to another helps the latter more than it hurts the former, then why not do that? Say I have $100. If I hand (or I’m forced kicking and screaming to hand) a ranting derelict $20 so he can do what he couldn’t before: get a bump from a popular dealer spot (e.g. W 5th St in Los Angeles, by the library), I have $80 left. So I can still get four rocks for myself. It’s win-win.
Then this button-eyed prototechnocrat, Vilfredo Pareto, had his own epiphany (presumably in the same theoretical vacuum inhabited by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan. Incidentally, Pareto also originated the much cited and also little comprehended “80/20 Rule”; a smug preppy meme as profound as “I’m Rick James, bitch!”). Paraphrasing the premise:
Well, what if it actually does hurt me more to give up the $20 so a dude can fix? What if my sole source of satisfaction is depriving other people of the things they enjoy or are vital to their survival? What if the only way I can get off anymore is by watching their miserable bellies bloat in the unrelenting sun? Chew on that, smartypants!
That Scrooge McDuck philosophy is pretty much how the book described Pareto Efficiency. To my “shock,” his theories form the basis of our laissez-faire utopia. A system that will definitely, any day now, stop mass murdering us with its class hostility, once socialist distortions like regulation are totally lifted. Corporations won’t just terrorize us like Somali warlords, no-siree. It’s self-regulating. Trickle down economics, like Reagan said. The gold of the upper crust will shower upon us.
Moving on to the theory of wages, the book tells us what anyone who’s ever had a boss already knows in their bones. The whole song and dance that salaries are based on productivity? Complete bullshit. Before Americans submitted themselves to be collectively spayed, neutered, sheared, and cowed into buying vapid autobiographies of Donald Trump and Jack Welch, our ancestors were acting like men and trading lead with the devious Pinkertons. Rather than lapse into a worshipful stupor, the unions knew that getting a fair wage (i.e. the kind that lets you feed each of your kids every day) came down to bargaining power. If you can inconvenience your employers enough, their fear of driving the same bimmer two days in a row will force them to the negotiation table (after a lot of workers have been clubbed to death).
There are more graphs I’m too American to understand. And then there are some purdy pictures. Like of Jeremy Bentham’s taxidermied corpse on display at University College London. An empty, withering symbol; a target of vandalism, like the promise of social mobility. There’s a charming cartoon of a Russian family trying to pull a giant turnip out of the ground, meant to illustrate an alternative theory of wages.
Like a good Chomsky lecture, Economics for the Rest of Us articulates and affirms my most cynical instincts about the world. And, like Chomsky, it offers a few perfunctory lines about how to change things, that are so vague and uninspiring you want to blow your brains out.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be at the library.