“Five myths about socialism,” response

On March 1, 2019, Sheri Berman of Barnard College published a column entitled “Five Myths about Socialism” at the Washington Post. This is my response:

Socialism is making a comeback in recent thought. There is a multiplicity of causes for this; some of which being the seeming rise in relative wealth inequality, the forgotten knowledge of previous generations, and a way to overcompensate for strong voices originating in the political far right.

The five myths purported by Berman are as follows: 1) Socialism is a single coherent ideology. 2) Socialism and democracy are incompatible. 3) All socialists want to abolish markets and private property. 4) When socialism is tried, it collapses. 5) Socialism offers a ready-made solution to numerous current problems. None of these myths are technically false, but technicalities do not always pass muster.

The first myth is an attempt to differentiate various strains of socialism so that if one has failed in the past, is currently failing, or may fail in the future, the author and all other socialists can stand on a platform as they decry the fallen economic system, claiming that it was never true socialism. Given their ardent cognitive dissonance, they have nothing to fear from the failures of others claiming to be socialists. This further aides them in future potential failures: “If the system fails, it was because we didn’t get X correct; therefore, this couldn’t have been a true test of socialism. The ideal form of socialism still prevails and we will succeed next time.”

Often times, supporters of socialism engage in the “No true Scotsman” fallacy as way to continue their ideology without coming into direct contact with any of the logical flaws that might persist underneath. It still stands to reason that the purest form of socialism ever attempted by an economic system, War Communism. The top goals of this regime were as follows:

  1. Nationalization and centralization of all industries
  2. State control of foreign trade
  3. Control over labor
  4. Forced labor of citizens
  5. Prodrazvyorstka
  6. Rationing of goods, complete with centralized distribution centers.
  7. The abolition of free markets and enterprise
  8. State control of intranational transportation

In many of these goals, the Soviet Socialist government succeeded, but at what cost? according to multiple sources, the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), including the time of War Communism (1918-1921), resulted in between 9 and 20 million casualties. Only a relatively small percentage of these were due to combat; the overwhelming majority were due to famine and disease. Berman’s critique that the division of Democratic-leaning socialism and Bolshevik-style communism shows that socialism stays true to a democratic form of governance is another example of her allowing room to decry these experiments as being untrue forms of socialism.

Perhaps the abolition of markets and private property is not explicit in all forms of socialism, but underlying the expanse of socialist ideology is the implicit knowledge that such forms of market governance and institutions will be overturned in the name of the “greater good.” She points to redistribution as a virtue in that it does not abolish the market; though, she fails to posit that redistribution by definition entails the destruction of property rights for some and the creation of new rights for others. Intuitively, this changes the market mechanisms and causes the potential destruction for some markets.

Berman points to the Scandinavian countries as lights upon a hill for socialism; however, a quick look at their histories show that many of these nations are more capitalist than socialist. Furthermore, they built up their capital and institutions far before “socially-democratic” words were being slung at them. It is not hard to find perspectives that mesh with one’s priors in the information age. Yet, we haven’t seen the long term outcomes for many of these systems; nor do we know what additional issues other countries not being as homogenous would have to resolve. Furthermore, one cannot merely transplant the institutions from one country to that of another. There exists no anti-immune pills for economic systems.

Her final myth is the truest of all. Though it might be purported by its proponents, socialism fails to offer a panacea for all the world’s problems. Given its history, socialism might offer short-term solutions that remedy a few economic ailments, but the final cost of these solutions might outweigh the losses from the initial problems.



The Efficacy of Groups, Group Selection, and an Ecology of Plans

Richard Wagner posits that the macroeconomy is made up of an ecology of plans; I am sympathetic to his views because this allows for a framework of the economy to be seen as more than just the sum of its parts. This is because macroeconomic action is not just an aggregate of microeconomic action. The exception to this is at the very first encounters where the macro level interactions have yet to be formed (there are no institutions, formal or informal, that dictate behavior). After these are established, the micro transactions rely on the macro economy to enable them while the macro economy can only be perpetuated by the continuance of micro-level human action. One cannot exist without the other once the cycle has been initiated. Though, it is very possible that either one of these may wane in presence of the other.

The mediator between micro and macro action is that of the meso-level. Agents form themselves into groups; in fact, many agents will self-select or be selected into several groups. Families are one such type of these groups, while political parties, friendships, civic organizations, and religious congregations are all examples of groups in which any one agent can simultaneously take part. In both the public and private sphere, what causes these groups to survive throughout more than just one generation? What about an even smaller time scale, like more than a few meetings? What about Black Swan groups like the Bolsheviks? What are the behavioral mechanisms that ensure their continued survival? How does this compare to those who do not propagate for more than one life cycle?

I do believe that in the case of many of these sets, there exists a form of group selection similar to that in the evo-bio literature. Groups evolve a specific set of geno/phenotypic traits that occur at the group level instead of at the individual level. There is some argument in the evo-bio literature, but given that social systems can exhibit increasing returns to scale because of institutions or technology, I intend to sidestep their disagreements until another time. This means that a social system (a collection of groups into a very large group) is able to evolve certain traits that are different from those of another social system. I’ve argued in short essays that these traits may be readily copied by another group because knowledge is non-excludable and nonrival in nature. It has been pointed out to me that this means very little because it depends not on transference of knowledge but on the use of knowledge. I can’t agree more given that most people today have access to the entirety of human knowledge via a device in their pockets, but instead of using it for the advancement of our species, many play video games or feed a dopamine addiction. (This is pot calling the kettle black; I guilty of both of these.)

What I propose is an extension of Dr. Wagner’s hypothesis: the ecology of plans matters at the meso-level as well. Groups have plans. They are a way to lower the transaction costs of many people into a singular goal. Some of these groups seek domination of an entire economic system, others simply want to enjoy the fellowship of their members. I think I’ve mentioned Ostrom’s rules on common pool resources; these extend to efficacy of groups. In future posts, I hope to work out some agent based modelling of this.

Sidebar for myself: Demand will eventually create a supply through a variety of mechanisms and processes that necessitate the actions of entrepreneurial agents, but the converse is not true.

Ostrom, CPRs, and the Efficacy of Groups

Elinor Ostrom’s work in her study of common pool resources is paramount to my ideas. Ostrom defined the conditions in the form of eight core design principles:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  3. Collective choice arrangements
  4. Monitoring
  5. Graduated sanctions
  6. Fast and fair conflict resolution
  7. Local autonomy
  8. Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority

These design principles are what is necessary for group survival and success to take place. Ostrom also defines success, for institutions: institutions are successful when they enable agents within the system to engage in productive outcomes despite the ever-present temptations of shirking and free-riding. I think this focus on “productive outcomes” could lay the basis of future system effectiveness/ efficiency, but that still leaves and immense amount of gray area to be resolved.

Using the CPR framework, the Soviet Union was destined to fail because its scores on conditions 2, 3, 6,7, and 8 were subpar. I would further claim that the USSR was doomed to failure (by productive outcomes) because it failed to meet certain criteria applied to socio-ecological systems. Namely, it failed to create a coherent system that allowed for interaction in a resilient and sustained manner. Furthermore, it failed to allow for a dynamic economy that allowed for continuous adaptation. Central planning and mono-centricity are anathema to adaptivity at the micro and meso levels.

[1] Wilson, Ostrom, and Cox. “Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90S (2013) S21–S32. 2012.

[2] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge, 2018.

Krugman (gasp!) talks on evolutionary economics and biology

Okay, okay, okay… It was at the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy in November of 1996 (which is before the blogging Krugman we all know and love). In this talk, Krugman offers some bridges in between the two fields, finds common ground, and even suggests that we use the same methodologies to accomplish our studies. Which I think is appropriate given that the variables studied in both of our fields are not as concrete as physics but can be infinitely more complex (and thus, according to Michael Shermer, more difficult).

Here are some notes:

Krugman offers a four-part approach to economics:

  1. Economics is about what individuals do.
  2. Individuals are self-interested.
  3. The individuals are intelligent.
  4. The primary focus of these individuals is their interactions.

The primary difference between evo-bios and econs is that evo-bios don’t assume requirement number (3). Agents in evo-bios can be myopic. My own interjection here is that agents need not seem rational to the outside observer, only that they are rational insofar as their rationality is bounded.

Reading John Maynard Smith’s (not Keynes’) “Evolutionary Genetics” is probably a good start to recognizing the parallels between the fields.

The differences between evo-econs and neoclassicals is that evo-econs want to get away from maximization and equilibria. I think the latter is a recurring theme in heterodox economics, especially that of Austrian which lends some bias into my formal training. Nonetheless, I often argue that the economy is always trending towards an ever-changing equilibrium; therefore, it is always in disequilibrium. If we ever reached equilibrium, either communism has succeeded or the human race is extinct… possibly both.

Krugman points to Leslie Orgel’s Second Law: “Evolution is smarter than you are.” Maybe so, if only in that evolution is an organic process and there is no way that any one person can predict the eventual outcomes of these marginal changes over time. We can’t necessarily know a priori what is and is not efficient. Often we assume whatever outcome is reached is inherently efficient. Also, evo-bios look at evolution from a stationary perspective, and not in a dynamic shift that is presently occurring. This is not so much unlike certain models in economic growth theory.

The most useful concept in this talk is that of “Evolutionary Stable Strategies.” These are the strategies that any one agent should follow given the strategies everyone else is following. Krugman points to equilibrium, but I think more towards game theory (both have equilibria, but game theory allows for probability of repeated games).

In conclusion, Krugman offers sage advice on what econs can learn from evo-bios: “that models are metaphors, and that we should use them, not the other way around.” Many economists fully believe in their mechanisms versus acknowledging them for what they are, merely useful fictions that allow us to simplify the complexity that is human action.


Towards a new kind of macroeconomics

For much of my undergraduate and early graduate career, I considered macroeconomics to be an imaginary field of study. After all, macro is just a scaled up version of micro economic action, right? In fact, this is often remarked as truth by many of my peers and professors. Macro is make-believe. How could it not be after the 2007-09 financial crisis? Everything we had learned prior to that point seemed to go out the window.

Since that time, there has been a resurgence in the study of graduate level economics. I think this is probably a net positive, more eyes to acres as Wendell Berry would say. But with growth in economists also comes more variety in ideas. While studying for my macro qualifying exams last summer, I began early and devoted 20+ hours each week to studying. The macro portion was by far the more difficult of our exams. During this time, two things happened: 1) I saw how the models and ideas of macro theory met at various intersections and 2) I read Richard Wagner’s pieces on macro as an ecology of plans and Viennese Kaleidics. I wont reiterate these papers here, but it gave me a perspective on macroeconomics which I had yet to see.

Macro is more than the sum of its parts. It is not simply an aggregation of micro actions, but those micro actions affect the macro environment which in turn affects the micro actions. This is a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Unlike all of the early growth models, everything in the macro economy is endogenous (except for the a priori system parameters).

We’re on the cusp of a brave new world of macro theory. Where this goes depends much on the current generation of economists. I am looking to follow a system theoretic and make use of agent modelling. My colleagues have suggested OEE and other forms of advanced techniques; I haven’t settled on one yet, but I’ve spent some time looking into the various programs and software.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this quote from Andrew G. Haldane at his 2016 GLS Shackle address:

“Although (the recent) crisis in economics is a threat for some, for others it is an opportunity — an opportunity to make a great leap forward, as Keynes did in the 1930s. For the students in this room, there is the chance to rethink economics with as clean a sheet of paper as you are ever likely to find. That is perhaps why the numbers of students applying to study economics has shot up over recent years. This is one of the silver linings of the crisis. No discipline could ask for a better endowment. But seizing this opportunity requires a re-examination of the contours of economics and an exploration of some new pathways.”