Economic Straw Men

A friend recently sent me one of those irritating articles purporting to lecture “liberals” about economic realities. This one was unusually smug. It was written by a self-styled “economist” and published by Forbes; titled “Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn,”   it mostly rebutted “straw man” positions that no one–liberal or not–actually takes.

I won’t go through the whole list, because you can read it for yourselves, and because we’ve all heard these “truths” before.

“Government cannot create jobs” is an oldie but goodie. Like many of the others, it is “true” only in a very limited sense; obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers, and when it invests properly in infrastructure, those investments also generate jobs.

What that flip formulation also misses is the essential role government plays in providing the infrastructures that make private enterprise and private job creation possible.

Several other “truths” on the list are equally wrongheaded: the author claims that low wages are not exploitative, for example–among other things, conveniently overlooking the fact that taxpayers are making up the (enormous) difference between low wages and living costs, and thus effectively subsidizing corporate profits.

I guess it depends upon what your definition of “exploitative” is.

But the “truth” that sent me over the edge was this one:

Education is not a public good. We provide publicly funded K-12 education to all (even to non-citizens), but the education provided produces human capital that is privately owned by each person. This human capital means more work skills, more developed talent, and more potential productivity. People with more human capital generally get paid more, collecting the returns from their education in the form of higher earnings. One common defense of education as a public good is worth refuting here. Yes, education helps people invent things that benefit society. However, they will expect to be paid for those inventions, not give them away for free in return for their education.

This betrays an appalling lack of understanding of both education and the public good.

READ MY LIPS: Education is not synonymous with job training. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s essential–but a genuine education is far more than a skill set that makes someone marketable in the dystopic society idealized by the (presumably trained but clearly uneducated) twit who wrote this.

Job training produces people who produce things. Education produces people who create art and music and literature, who develop philosophies and political systems, who innovate and imagine and beautify cities and civic environments.

Job training allows people to be productive economic units. Education allows people to be responsible citizens.

If a polity consisting of thoughtful and informed and genuinely educated citizens isn’t a public good, I don’t know what is.


  1. Do the Forbes subscribers not understand that those people who “expect to be paid for their inventions” are themselves? This is the very upside down thinking that has destroyed the middle class and driven so many into poverty.

  2. Education produces people who can think. People that can see through false arguments. People that can reason, and use facts to make their own choices as to what is good for them. The far right wants to tell everyone what should be done with no questions asked about who it benefits. So of course an education would not be a common good for what they wish to obtain, a country that blindly follows policies that are good for the very rich and no one else.

  3. Education taught me how to type and file; on the job training taught me how to use those skills. Every office has it’s own system so my basic education resulted in further eduation via on the job training and the many systems of office procedures educted me further. Without the initial education I would not have know how to make use of job training to advance into a slightly higher position and (very) slight pay increases. It all began with education and led to job training; both are necessary in the work field. There are millions more blue collar, job trained workers than there are CEOs; the CEOs usually have higher levels of formal education but without the job trained workers, nothing would get done.

  4. Education has a few components. One part is learning the basics reading, writing and math. Another part is learning to take these skills and use critical thinking. The early stages of education is rote memorization, such as 2 x 2 = 4, how certain letters sound when spoken, how to spell, etc. At some point education must transition from sheer rote learning to critical thinking.

    It is easy to teach some creation myth like Genesis, it is also easy to accept. Teaching evolution, a helio-centric solar system, or the Big Bang is more complex as several scientific disciplines must be understood. The same is true when studying history. As a Baby Boomer the history I was taught, was Columbus “discovered” the Americas, encountered Native Americans. We have the arrival of European Colonists. All the broken treaties and brutalities committed against Native Americans was not taught. Years later I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and learned the real story so to speak.

    I have read Howard Zinn, and learned there has been savage social struggle that has been ongoing since Columbus arrived in the Americas. Some states and school districts seem to want to take the Mitch Daniels approach that is do not expose students to Howard Zinn or other authors critical of America.

    My take away in sense from this author of Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn, is that it is a waste of time to be educated in subjects that do not benefit your job skills you bring to your employer.

  5. “obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers”

    Obviously, not. Government is not “creating” any job with its roster of agents. A government job is merely a transfer payment, using the barrel of a gun to force some people to pay an income to others.

  6. All I can tell Forbes is, don’t get old, because if you do, and you succeed in turning us back to Dickensonian England, hope that the person wiping the drool off your chin, who has total control over you can read the directions on your prescription bottle, and doesn’t take personally the opportunities he missed because of your short sightedness.

  7. Here’s a letter that I just got published in the local paper.

    “In her recent editorial Star Parker wrote that she likes Marco Rubio because he said “poverty does not create our social problems; our social problems create our poverty.” Neither he nor she offered evidence that his statement was correct.”

    “I think that blaming culture for the limitations of business doesn’t make sense.”

    “Poverty is a function of a shortage of employment opportunities. Employment opportunities are created by businesses finding innovations that allow labor to create products more valuable than their costs and thereby allowing workers to afford the results of their effort.”

    “I believe that not understanding that tends to disqualify both Rubio and Star from public office as they are short on understanding cause and effect, solutions solving problems.”

    Our economy is about 1/3 socialist and 2/3 capitalist. The social spending portion tends to be long term infrastructural support for the capitalist portion. Enablers.

    The capitalist portion, which owns the employment responsibility, does so variably depending on innovation. Sometimes inventors come through and demand is high and unemployment low, sometimes not so much. Consider the end of the Bush era.

    Conservatives are pessimistic people and especially so vis a vis capitalism and innovation so assume that social spending ought to be declining in anticipation of capitalism’s impending failure.

    Liberals being more optimistic generally assume that if we maintain social spending capitalism will catch up and sometimes pass and other times fall behind but only if we maintain the infrastructure capitalism depends on.

    I have opined that coming up will be a post modern enhancement of capitalism through two innovations. One is a performance measure of it vastly more accurate than GDP. Ones that gets to human satisfaction as much more complex than money.

    The other innovation will be our freedom from entertainment induced advertising as a wave of awakening occurs among us as to the real cost of our past and present addiction to it.

    Good times will come and maintaining our infrastructure is a necessary prerequisite for those times. Solid liberal faith.

  8. If I rob Sheila of $100,000, is it a defense to the crime if I tell the court that the money allows me the ability to walk around the city for the next year, looking in on businesses, and reporting violations of the City Code?

  9. I’m not sure of your point Gopper.

    Are you saying that robbery as defined by our current laws should not be a crime?

    Are you saying that violations of the City Code designed to make sure that people can count on businesses adhering to certain minimum standards so customers can count on certain minimum value and safety should not be prosecuted?

    Are you saying that we don’t need to pay people for law enforcement?

    Can you be more specific?

  10. No, Pete. You need to start doing your own learning, since teaching you is a waste of time, and your questions reveal an inability to grasp the gravamen.

    Not even an hour passed between my post and your response, much less the two weeks or a month you should apply to deliberation and understanding before you respond.

  11. JoAnn I think that engaging Gopper is a much more useful strategy. He’s obviously honest in his/her beliefs and while I disagree with most of them I wonder deeply what the flaws are in the cognition that leads to them or mine. The logical path to my beliefs compared to the logical path to hers.

    There is value in determine/learning that.

    As a tiny example: today and most days he avoids answering questions that require analysis of his thought process. That’s a clue to them being faith based as compared to logic based. Assumptions made about what is not known factually to him as compared to fact (evidence) based.

    That’s certainly the way that many beliefs are founded and useful to know when involved in debates with people like her.

  12. Pete; in these engagements you have the decided advantage, I don’t believe you will find a logical path to his/her beliefs. The discussion reminded me of a favorite line from the movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”; “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight”…you are better armed in this discussion.

  13. I am also reminded of that unforgettable line by Stother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke”. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” which could be a better fit in this exchange.

  14. Failures to communicate can all be temporary. Not easily though.

    I like this forum because so many perspectives come out. That makes participation a rich learning experience to me.

    I think yours is certainly somewhat unique here as are most others.

    That’s a good thing.

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