Let’s talk about money
Mayhem, drama, jealousy, envy, hate
(karma) Face–Let’s talk about face
What’s occurred in Egypt (!) is the result of corruption, poor governance, and long-standing, extremely complex historical beefs over slights both real and imagined (the real obviously figuring prominently). Shockingly, however, I’m not really here to talk about Egypt–though it did inspire the train of thought that is the crux of this post. I’m here instead to talk about money and face–face of the saving kind, that is; and the ways in which the distribution of money in a society can create the sort of volatile social dynamics that preclude large numbers of people from feeling like they can’t save face when self-respect is all they have going for them.
Obviously, screeds about wealth distribution and the dignity of human beings everywhere are nothing but Commie propaganda to be shunned accordingly. This says nothing, of course, regarding the lack of originality inherent in sowing the seeds of class conflict–how un-American of me. So let’s take a poop on economics as a whole instead and call it a day, right?
Economics as a field of study and the economists who preach the gospel of Friedman, Keynes, and (one would hope) Smith, have rightly been excoriated as a cabal of derivative-wielding bullshit peddlers engorging themselves at the public trough while leading policy makers and their constituents into a world of hurt. As satisfying as holding a Player Hater’s Ball for economists (Host: Larry Summers) would be, it wouldn’t address the issues at hand: why have they been so wrong? And if they’re wrong, why do they remain influential? One reason is psychological:
Mathematics, most especially in the study of economics, lends a sort of aura of prestige. It conveys (in my unsubstantiated, unresearched opinion) the message to those less mathematically inclined or unconcerned with minutiae that ‘I’m competent, I know what I’m doing, I can make Puff the Magic Dragon appear on the right side of an equal sign just by using the second derivative.’ Nobel Prize Winner™ Paul Krugman is about as guilty as anyone not named Larry Summers of talking poopimierda (especially when it comes to political economy); but when he sticks to economics he’s on far more credible territory. I happen to agree with his assertion that math in economics is a good thing–but only as an accoutrement. The conflation of economics and mathematics is not particularly new, but as modeling and the study of econometrics has accelerated with the power of computers to refine the language used to describe various phenomena, it’s increasingly difficult to disentangle the two.
In some ways, it’s not such a bad thing. The Gini coefficient, for example, uses some relatively advanced mathematics to create a simple to understand and useful (if somewhat flawed) measure of income inequality throughout the world. The broader problem–the meta- problem, to get all fancypants–is that this has led to a collective dis-remembrance of what economics as a field is attempting to accomplish. Simply put, it’s the study of one discrete aspect of human behavior. It is, in effect, a sub-field of psychology that’s blossomed into something bigger because human behavior with regards to trade and cost-benefit analysis is, let’s face it, really really important. I’m cool with this, and I think it allows sufficient leeway for economists to get it wrong sometimes and not look like asshats in the process. The behavior of homo economicus, even at its most refined, has at times been wildly irrational and completely self-detrimental. Assuming rationality, most especially when the mentality of the herd conquers all, is simply not a good idea.
So what does this have to do with human dignity? The Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a pretty solid baseline to use when one doesn’t parse too finely (whose happiness? define liberty; etc.). In Egypt, the security of one’s life has been circumscribed by an unchecked police state; liberty exists solely for those with the means and institutional connections necessary to live a life that is anything other than a hand-to-mouth struggle; and the pursuit of happiness is again, a trapping of the elite. The demographic boom Egypt has undergone since approximately 1980 (two-thirds of the population is under 30) complicates matters further, as there’s neither historical memory nor jobs to alleviate the pain of unemployment and constant humiliation. This, of course, is not Egypt’s problem alone–but it is most acute there, and it will serve as a case study to other nations facing similar problems with youth unemployment and wide-scale disenfranchisement.
All of this is to say: economics are important, and it’s important to remember why. With that, I leave you with a formula to consider: The Key To Life = $ (Power) (Respect)