Riots, righteousness and the Right

Academics almost always come late to whatever game is being played, and I certainly won’t disappoint on that count.  It’s been over a week since the UK riots petered out (beginning in Tottenham outside London, and spreading to a number of predominantly northern cities), along with a string of apparent “contagion riots” in Philly, Milwaukee and Cleveland.  And in this perverse political climate, in which it has somehow become acceptable for the increasingly disproportionately wealthy to blame the poor for the threat posed by debt crises to the world’s leading economies (notwithstanding a few good men), I suppose it should also come as no surprise that a chorus of ostensibly educated voices has managed to pin the blame for the riots right where it belongs: on the lazy, violent, welfare-grubbing underclass.

Such sage pundits can’t stop at saying that unemployed youth can’t get good jobs because they are uneducated because that would somehow place the responsibility back on the welfare state.   Instead, they must make the case that everything is already provided for these wrecks, but that they’re just too incorrigibly and thoroughly venal to be made into decent, hardworking members of society.  Theodore Dalrymple recently excoriated the “Barbarians Inside Britain’s Gates” in such terms, noting that they “have nothing”…

nothing, that is, except an education that has cost $80,000, a roof over their head, clothes on their back and shoes on their feet, food in their stomachs, a cellphone, a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, an electric stove, heating and lighting, hot and cold running water, a guaranteed income, free medical care, and all of the same for any of the children that they might care to propagate.

(And yes, he really did just choose to use the word “propagate,” recalling the great eugenicists of old.)

The sentiment is strikingly similar to a recent interview with the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector (replayed on the Daily Show), citing a string of ridiculous statistics (99.6% of “poor” households have a refrigerator, 25% have a dishwasher, etc.) that seem to suggest that the poor just should shut up and be grateful for what they – undeservingly – have already.  We hear the word “moral” bandied about a lot: “moral decay,” “(no) moral compass,” “moral decadence,” and even on occasion “moral hazard.”

What these pundits usually (willfully, it seems) ignore is a little thing I like to call… (wait for it)… “Economics.”  The latter is an often-wrong-headed social science that nevertheless sometimes produces good ideas and which stumbled on a truly revolutionary one in Marginalism.  For the present purposes, let’s just say that possessing a refrigerator or a dishwasher is not really what matters when it comes to individual decisions to participate or not in riots; a much more salient factor is the declining economic mobility for the poor across the “developed world.”  It doesn’t take Grossman’s formal model to make an intuitive guess that the relatively poor will have greater incentive to erode property rights when inequality – and especially inequality between social groups – is high.

Nor am I being hyperbolic or oxymoronic when I pit cultural bigots  and plutocrats against economists – though popular culture tends to conflate “economics” with “finance” and, by extension, “Wall Street.”  It was the Scot Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase “the Dismal Science” to describe Economics – not in order to deride Malthus’ gloomy predictions of population collapse (as is often thought), but rather to deplore the new utilitarianism that was increasingly tied (notably by J.S. Mill) to the notion of universal human equality.  Levy and Peart, in an excellent essay on this subject, discuss the Carlyle’s disdain for what he believed was the inveterate laziness of the Irish.  It was this same idea – that some “types” of people are too primitive or depraved to respond rationally to economic incentives – that birthed the idea of the backwards-bending labor supply curve and essentially justified such brutal imperial economic policies as forced labor and the rural taxes that drove African peasants off their lands and into mines.  Levy and Peart also note that 19th century cultural critic John Ruskin published a little volume ridiculing the evils of capitalism with the following cover depicting Ruskin himself jousting (?) with an “uppity” man of non-European genetic makeup who happens to be carrying a bag of money and a book entitled “The Dismal Science.”

Unfortunately, even economists sometimes forget their origins and lapse into the same morally charged language.  Paul Collier, for instance, who has done more to bring the plight of “The Bottom Billion” to the attention of policymakers than anyone, argues that rebels in African civil wars are motivated by “greed” and not “grievances.”  These moralistic terms are bizarre coming from a dyed-in-the-wool economist: shouldn’t he assume that rational people everywhere act based on their calculations of payoff and risk, and not on sunk costs (since “sunk costs” are what most grievances boil down to for an economist)?  Why accentuate rebel “greed” rather than the economic systems that implicitly reward  violence by not providing any meaningful or productive alternatives?

Ed Glaeser, an urban economist, co-wrote an article back in the day (1998) on urban riots, and determined they were poorly predicted by poverty, but were well-predicted by the opportunity costs of time (i.e., whether or not people have jobs) and the potential costs of punishment (i.e., the likelihood of getting caught by the police).  This would imply that if Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, is right and riots are more likely to occur when government cutbacks are taking effect, it is either because (a) the government is no longer helping people get jobs that exist, (b) the government is no longer helping the economy create jobs that don’t, or (c) the government is not whacking delinquents with big enough sticks.  The moralistas would love us to focus on possibility (c) exclusively, and in fact often invoke Hayek’s name in denying the feasibility of (b) at all.  The overall effect is a bit like saying that the punishments will continue until morale improves.

A final note on strange interconnections: Ed Glaeser sits, for some reason that I cannot comprehend unless he is unaware of it himself, on the Editorial Board of the City Journal… along with the aforementioned Theodore Dalrymple, of Wall Street Journal Op-Ed fame.  The City Journal is a strident and sanctimoniously right-leaning political rag which recently specializes in publishing articles on the riots like “Lock People Up? Not in Britain!”  and “Government-Sponsored Looting.”  The journal also happened to run an article called “The Peace Racket” back in 2007 which rather inanely accused Peace Studies adherents of being anti-American, freedom-hating communists (which is particularly ironic in light of the above history of “social conservatism” (i.e., racism) waging a rhetorical war on capitalism).  And I sit on the faculty of a School of Peace Studies, so I guess that’s full circle.

Pinko out.

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Filed under Economics/ Economic Development, Politics/ Political Economy, Urban Studies

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