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The CIS and social democracy

Summary:
Readers may be familiar with the concepts of “subtweeting” and “vaguebooking”, referring to social media posts which are clearly aimed at someone in particular who is, however, unnamed. (There’s nothing specifically “new media” in this – the Oz does it pretty regularly, for example.) I’ve just had the reverse experience. An article in the Guardian by Eugenie Joseph of the Centre for Independent Studies starts out by linking to my piece on a (partially) socialist utopia, also in the Guardian. I assumed, reasonably enough I thought, that Joseph would offer some kind of critique of my piece. Reading on, however, it became clear that far from offering a critique, she hadn’t even read it. That at least saves me from the trouble of writing a detailed response. I’ll just note a few

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Readers may be familiar with the concepts of “subtweeting” and “vaguebooking”, referring to social media posts which are clearly aimed at someone in particular who is, however, unnamed. (There’s nothing specifically “new media” in this – the Oz does it pretty regularly, for example.)

I’ve just had the reverse experience. An article in the Guardian by Eugenie Joseph of the Centre for Independent Studies starts out by linking to my piece on a (partially) socialist utopia, also in the Guardian. I assumed, reasonably enough I thought, that Joseph would offer some kind of critique of my piece.

Reading on, however, it became clear that far from offering a critique, she hadn’t even read it. That at least saves me from the trouble of writing a detailed response. I’ll just note a few of the weakest points, and leave it at that.

Most obviously, Joseph and the CIS want to have it both ways: when playing defence, she ascribes to capitalism all the good things that have occurred in the last 200 years, , even though social democratic governments and public institutions played a central role in many of them. But the rest of the time, the CIS interprets the term “capitalism” in terms of free markets and a minimal state. This kind of bait and switch has been christened, the Two-Step of Terrific Triviality by my Crooked Timber co-blogger John Holbo.

As an example, Joseph claims, that capitalism has given us “our mobile phones, the internet, vaccines, and antibiotics”. This is a quarter-truth. Capitalism can reasonably claim credit for mobile phones. But vaccines were around before capitalism, which has done a lousy job in supplying them because they are such low-profit items – who wants to sell a product that costs almost nothing and is only used once in a lifetime? The Internet was developed by the universities and the non-profit sector with seed funding from the US military. Its current messy state reflects the takeover by corporations like Google and Facebook, which have recreated the “walled gardens” of the Internet’s early competitors. Antibiotics were the other way around. Penicillin was first developed by publicly funded and non-profit researchers, then produced on an industrial scale by the War Production Board in the US.

After the obligatory swipe at Venezuela, Joseph cites only one example of successful capitalism – the Nordic countries, whose welfare states she mentions with approval. (When not addressing a mass audience, the CIS message is rather different “Mimicking European policies is the surest way to economic disaster.”)

Still, I’ll take agreement where I can find it. As Paul Krugman remarked in relation to my piece,

Quiggin’s scenario — it really is more of a super-Denmark than a true Utopia. But that’s kind of the point

So,   if Joseph and the CIS are happy to support an expanded welfare state, Scandinavian tax rates and a sharp cutback in the power and influence of the financial sector, I’m happy for them to keep on calling it “capitalism”.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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