Pascal Lamy: “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger…”

Perhaps in the end the problem is that people want to pretend that they are filling a valuable role in the societal division of labor, and are receiving no more than they earn–than they contribute.

But that is not the case. The value–the societal dividend–is in the accumulated knowledge of humanity and in the painfully constructed networks that make up our value chains.

A “contribution” theory of what a proper distribution of income might be can only be made coherent if there are constant returns to scale in the scarce, priced, owned factors of production. Only then can you divide the pile of resources by giving to each the marginal societal product of their work and of the resources that they own.

That, however, is not the world we live in.

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work”, and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.

And this ties itself up with regional issues: regional decline can come very quickly whenever a region finds that its key industries have, for whatever reason, lost the market power that diverted its previously substantial share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend into the coffers of its firms. The resources cannot be simply redeployed in other industries unless those two have market power to control the direction of a share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend. And so communities decline and die. And the social contract–which was supposed to have given you a right to a healthy community–is broken.

As I have said before, humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.

It is, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being takers: that we are consuming more than we are contributing, and are in some way dependent on and recipients of the charity of others. It is also, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being saps: that others are laughing at us as they toil not yet consume what we have produced.

And it is on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor. We construct property and market exchange–what Adam Smith called our natural propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange” to set and regulate expectations of what the fair, non-cheater non-sap terms of gift-exchange over time are.

We devise money as an institution as a substitute for the trust needed in a gift-exchange relationship, and we thus construct a largely-peaceful global 7.4B-strong highly-productive societal division of labor, built on:

  • assigning things to owners—who thus have both the responsibility for stewardship and the incentive to be good stewards…
  • very large-scale webs of win-win exchange…
    mediated and regulated by market prices…

There are enormous benefits to arranging things this way. As soon as we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are. And as soon as we think about entering into a gift-exchange relationship with someone, we think better of them. Thus a large and extended division of labor mediated by the market version of gift-exchange is a ver powerful creator of social harmony.

This is what the wise Albert Hirschman called the doux commerce thesis. People, as economists conceive them, are not “Hobbesians” focusing on their narrow personal self-interest, but rather “Lockeians”: believers in live-and-let live, respecting others and their spheres of autonomy, and eager to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships—both one-offs mediated by cash alone and longer-run ones as well.

In an economist’s imagination, people do not enter a butcher’s shop only when armed cap-a-pie and only with armed guards. They do not fear that the butcher will knock him unconscious, take his money, slaughter him, smoke him, and sell him as long pig.

Rather, there is a presumed underlying order of property and ownership that is largely self-enforcing, that requires only a “night watchman” to keep it stable and secure.

Yet to keep the fiction that we are all fairly playing the reciprocal game of gift exchange in a 7.4 billion-strong social network–that we are neither cheaters nor saps–we need to ignore that we are coupon clippers living off of our societal inheritance.

And to do this, we need to do more than (a) set up a framework for the production of stuff, (b) set up a framework for the distribution of stuff, and so (c) create a very dense reciprocal network of interdependencies to create and reinforce our belief that we are all one society.

We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as saps–people who are systematically and persistently taken advantage of by others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not moochers–people who systematically persistently take advantage of others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do this in the presence of a vast increasing-returns in the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend and in spite of the low societal marginal product of any one of us.

Thus we need to do this via clever redistribution rather than via explicit wage supplements or basic incomes or social insurance that robs people of the illusion that what they receive is what they have earned and what they are worth through their work.

Now I think it is an open question whether it is harder to do the job via predistribution, or to do the job via changing human perceptions to get everybody to understand that:

  • no, none of us is worth what we are paid.
  • we are all living, to various extents, off of the dividends from our societal capital
  • those of us who are doing especially well are those of us who have managed to luck into situations in which we have market power–in which the resources we control are (a) scarce, (b) hard to replicate quickly, and (c) help produce things that rich people have a serious jones for right now.

All of the above is in some sense a prolegomon to a thoughtful, intelligent, and practical piece by Noah Smith:

Noah Smith: Four Ways to Help the Midwest: “When… Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they… roll[ed] the economic dice…

It’s not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy…

Note: given his hires, it is pretty clear that he has chosen not to. But let me let Noah go on:

It’s even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest…

Let me say that it is clear that they won’t: a stronger dollar from higher interest rates and more elite consumption from tax cuts for the rich are likely to produce another chorus of the song we heard in the 1980s under Reagan, which was a disaster for the midwest and for the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County. But let me let Noah go on…

His promises resonated…. The Midwest needs help…. “The largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois.”… [The] Democrats[‘]… targeted tax credits and minimum-wage hikes is nothing more than a Band-Aid [because]it ignores the importance of jobs, for dignity and respect, for mobility and independence, and for a feeling of personal value and freedom. Handouts ease the pain of poverty, but in the end, Midwesterners–like most people–want jobs, and they went with the candidate who promised them.

Nor should we simply encourage Midwesterners to move to more vibrant regions. As economist and writer Adam Ozimek has noted, many people can’t easily abandon the place where they grew up, where their friends and family are, and where they often own homes….

Conor Sen has a big idea that I like–a bailout of public-employee pension obligations in the Rust Belt…. But that’s just a first step. I propose four new pillars….

  1. Infrastructure: Sick economies and shrinking population have left Rust Belt states and cities unable to pay for infrastructure improvements. As a result, many cities look like disaster areas. The federal government should allocate funds to repair and improve the Midwest’s roads, bridges and trains, and to upgrade its broadband….

  2. Universities:…. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.), but more could be built, and existing universities could be expanded. Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. As things stand, Midwesterners tend to move away as soon as they graduate from college….

  3. Business Development: Some cities in Colorado have embraced a development policy it calls economic gardening. The program helps provide resources for locals to start their own businesses. It furnishes them with market research and connects them with needed resources….

  4. Urbanism: Tech hubs like San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are using development restrictions to keep their population densities in check. That gives Midwestern cities an opening to attract refugees from the high-rent metropolises of the two coasts. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland can work on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to the creative class, while allowing housing development to keep rents cheap. College towns like Ann Arbor can reduce their own development restrictions and allow themselves to become industrial hubs….

Governments — federal, state and local — can revitalize the long-suffering Rust Belt. Some locations have already begun this transformation — Pittsburgh, which is rebuilding a knowledge economy based around Carnegie Mellon University and undertaking various urban renewal projects, provides a great blueprint. Targeted regional development policy can prepare cities in the Midwest for the industries of the future, whatever those may turn out to be. And it can reassure the people living in these areas that their government hasn’t forgotten them.


Cf.: Musings on “Just Deserts” and the Opening of Plato’s Republic | Monday Smackdown: The Ongoing Flourishing of Behavioral Economics Makes My Position Here Look Considerably Better, No? | Inequality: Brown University Janus Forum | Noah Smith Eats Greg Mankiw’s Just Desserts