Review Of Michael
Shermer’s The Mind Of The Market
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/22/07
Michael Shermer has a new book coming out in early 2008, titled The Mind Of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, And Other Tales From Evolutionary Economics. Shermer is perhaps the foremost skeptic in the land, and founded Skeptic magazine. He has written a number of excellent books in the past- Why Darwin Matters, Denying History, and Why People Believe Weird Things, to name a few. The Mind Of The Market is also a well-written book, but it is not in a league with the others, because of its biased thought and lack of critical thinking within.
However, here I will do something utterly remarkable in modern criticism. I will still highly recommend the book, despite my knowledge that a large portion of the book is as filled with bunkum as the many sorts of work put forth by religiots, paranormalists, and racists whose ideas Shermer has spent decades debunking. This is because my personal distaste for the book’s politics- and, despite its claim to be a book on economics, politics kyboshes too many of the biased claims Shermer makes, for it is a political book, first and foremost- my emotive response has nothing to do with a clear view on how well or not Shermer marshals his arguments- flawed or sound.
In this regard, The Mind Of The Market is a weird amalgam of Libertarian canards (Shermer’s political bias and shilling was evident before page 5, although it took page 90, or a third into his 261 page book to admit the manifest) and bleeding heart fallacies, a sort of pseudo-philosophy, not pseudo-science, although one might term it a quasi-scientific book. And, one need only look at some of the precepts of modern, capital L Libertarianism to recognize it is yet another form of political extremism vs. small l libertarianism’s often sensible and moderate approach to matters. Yet, that quasi-scientific substance is balanced throughout by such claims as this, on page 165, which obviate all claims that this book is in any way a scientific treatise: ‘Evolution created in us a basic drive of purpose, but higher moral purposes are learned. To reach the highest levels of the Moral Evolutionary Pyramid that are concerned with society, the species, and the biosphere, and especially with people who are not related to us, are not in our social group, or belong to other groups on other continents whom we shall never meet, requires volitional action and a social conscience. This chapter- indeed, this entire book- is not just descriptive of the way the world works, but it is also proscriptive of the way the world should work. That is, this is an exercise in raising our consciousness to higher levels of the Moral Evolutionary Pyramid.’
Now, let that sink in. Really! This is a de facto abdication of all objectivity. I would also like to see Shermer empirically test out the drive for purpose that evolution created, but that would require a way to test the subjective purposivenesses of individuals. And I’m thinking of entering next year’s Miss America beauty pageant. Then, the Moral Evolutionary Pyramid? Has he been watching too many Tony Robbins, Marianne Williamson, or Wayne Dyer video cons? And this from the premier debunker of hokum in our time? This reads far more like the divinations of believers in that other Pyramid based theory- Pyramid Power! At least, almost two thirds of the way into the book, Shermer has the decency to admit what this book’s real purpose is. Unfortunately, it also wholly removes the book from any scientific underpinning, as if his economics-based ideas had not already given the astute reader a clue. What The Mind Of The Market is, in reality, is a secular humanist manifesto that bizarrely tries to wrangle that idea onto a foundation of economic sophistry. Why? That’s not the purview of a critic; only how successful the writer is in that exercise has any bearing.
Yet, while a humanist manifesto, it is also, at its center, a screed, in the positive- a lengthy discourse, and negative- a rant, senses of the term, and, as such, perhaps the most effective and provocative screed since The Bell Curve’s defense of racism, in that both were designed to foment argument, and this does it well enough to be recommended as a read, even if substantively, it’s mediocre philosophy, and about as convincing as Whitley Streiber’s Communion books are in making sane readers believe millions of humans are being kidnapped by extraterrestrials. While Shermer does not drop the last vestige of his slow ideological striptease until page 165, technically, the book summarizes its virtues and flaws in its prologue, which highlights Shermer’s manifest writerly skill and the book’s immanent dialectic weakness. In many ways, the book was as enjoyable and exciting as Steven Pinker’s recent The Stuff Of Thought, although Shermer is not as good a wordsmith as Pinker, and (at least in this book) not the thinker. This is because the book’s subject matter is clearly out of Shermer’s field and element, although he furiously tries to link economics to the sciences, and fails repeatedly, often revealing himself to have more than a touch of the isolated Academic within.
As example, when making a point, Shermer too often falls back on naked statistics- a dangerous tack since any accountant will tell you that numbers are easier to train than dogs. This is why, especially in the blogosphere, one sees so many sciolists linking to studies whose supposedly ‘hard’ numbers support their view, even if the linkers’ numbers are both true and oppositional. Shermer also falls back on too many logical fallacies, the most abundant of which is the Appeal To Authority. Even more so than relying on statistics, when one cannot rationally cohere an argument in one’s own words, you know the argument is in trouble. Furthermore, many of the examples Shermer cites are based upon Academic presuppositions and not real world verities.
All of these reduce Shermer to the role of one of the Seven Blind Men in the presence of an elephant. Yes, he knows for certain that this creature is like a fan, for the ear proves it, beyond a doubt. Yet, his lack of wanting to even search for a tusk, or tail, or other part of the pachydermic form, explains why the book implodes argumentatively. Or, to use a more modern and American metaphor, Shermer is like a Sabermetric baseball numbers freak hooked on dubious stats like saves, holds, and OPS, instead of the harder numbers of old, as the intangibles of the game, which make baseball so fascinating, utterly elude him. He might never understand, as example, how the 1960s World Series, won by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees, in seven games, could have happened, since the Yankees dominated the series in every category, except wins.
And while the book zips along in its first half, Shermer uses far too many of these examples, as the second half of the book gets redundant, too digressive from the central thesis, and bogged down in minutia (personal and superfluous) which, while compellingly wrought, add nothing to his main points, so forcefully exhibited in the first hundred pages. A good editor should have balanced these pro and con points and tightened this book to under 200 pages, minimum, for the excess only detracts. Of course, in these days where editing is a lost art….oh, hell, I won’t go there. But, I did mention The Bell Curve and Steven Pinker’s last book, so let me also mention some other books this one reminded me of. As a treatise on human behavior, it reminded me of Curtis White’s The Middle Mind; as a book that uses poor examples to support a shaky thesis it reminded me of Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained; and as a head-shaking quasi-scientific polemic, it reminded me of John Horgan’s ridiculously silly The End Of Science and Leonard Shlain’s astoundingly bad Sex, Time And Power (which incredibly came from the same man who wrote Art And Physics, one of the seminal art books of the last fifty years), although Shermer is a better writer than all four aforementioned authors.
That’s enough preamble. Let me now get specific on how the book succeeds stylisitically, yet fails substantively by exemplifying many of the uncritical traits that Shermer’s spent a career debunking when exhibited by others; be it on bigotry, beliefs in the paranormal or deities, and cults, etc.- which only reveals his humanity, since he cannot recognize his own blind spots (foreshadow alert). To start with, Shermer makes two costly dialectic errors right off the bat. The first is his constant invocation of morality in economic choices. This is especially troubling coming from a well known atheist, as colloquially speaking, morality is a set of rules derived from a ‘higher authority,’ whereas secular ethics emanate from within an individual. Think about it: no ethic will condone murder, but there are religious morals that think it perfectly ok to murder an infidel, the Other. Thus, trying to connect a term like morality to a secular endeavor like economics raises questions, not the least of which is what bias is Shermer operating from? This is a tipoff that more emotion and less logic are forthcoming.
The second flaw comes on page 5 of the prologue when Shermer tries to conflate economics into a real world hard ‘science.’ In short, this has been tried before, with economics, history, and other fields, but always fails because subjectivity and lack of empirical proofs abound, therefore it is not testable, the way gravity, plate tectonics, or chemical reactions are, because legitimate statistics from many sides of a question can have equal truth, if not equal cogency. And I’m not even including the oft-derided anecdotal evidence- the intangibles that simple statistical evidence cannot refute nor support. This bastardization of language is not merely confined to those claims of soft sciences- after all, look at all the faux ‘diseases,’ such as alcoholism, but it makes it none the less vexing to see such twists of logic, especially from someone whose career is as grounded, provisionally, upon a fealty to the concept. In short, Shermer should know better. Thankfully, he does not try to convince readers that an ability to stock and catalog books is also a science (library).
Yet, Shermer reveals his Libertarian bona fides by trying to define economics as ‘a self-organized emergent property of millions of people pursuing their own self-interests without any awareness of the larger complex system in which they work.’ This is definitionally false because while millions of individuals participate in an economy, not all pursue their self-interests, and almost all have an awareness of the larger economy- lest, why do people wait until interests rates are favorable to build a home, take out a mortgage, apply for aid of one sort or another? Then there is the manifest, that ALL economies are controlled- be it by the old time Buddhas of the Kremlin, or the wags on Wall Street. Only the degree and success of control differs, and certainly the Chairman of the Fed has almost infinitely greater power to control not only the American economy, but the world economy than I, Shermer, or any reader of this review has. Shermer’s definition is simply demonstrably false intellectually, as well as really.
A third minor annoyance, not a flaw, is Shermer’s tired neologism of man as homo economicus. Really, can men of science ever write of their own species without trying to out-cutesy one another? And, I’ve not the time nor place to even get into the fallacy of American mobility, since those believers in it will always point to the less than one percent of people who form the exception that can be found worldwide, in all economies, and conveniently ignore the 99+% who form the rule. Shermer then discourses on the virtues of capitalism and the Free Market over Communism, and few can disagree, save for the fact that Shermer does not distinguish between the virtues of small localized economies and the flaws of larger economies. Not all free markets produce the same results, and the importance of scale gets no mention.
By page 12, Shermer is back on the morality kick, and while his book tries debunking many wrongheaded nostra, he supplies quite a few of his own, such as this gem, straight from an Oprah Winfrey show: ‘For every random act of violence that makes the evening news, there are ten thousand non random acts of kindness that go unrecorded every day. Markets are moral, and modern economies are founded on our virtuous nature. If this was not the case, market capitalism would have imploded long ago.’ Wow! Great hyperbole, ridiculous claims. First off, for an avid debunker, Shermer does not even supply any proof of his 10,000 to 1 claim. Clearly, he sees violence as only that reported. Well, a) there are manifold more violent acts that occur than are reported, b) violence is not simply a criminal thing- it is violent when a dirty cop writes a bogus parking ticket to fulfill a desk sergeant’s daily ticket quota, or when a boss gets pleasure in embarrassing an employee he disdains, etc., and c) given their unreported nature, there is no way to make a proper correlation. However, I would guess that the bad aspects dwarf the good- given my existence and that of the thousands of people I’ve ever conversed and/or ruminated with; but even more importantly is that Shermer utterly misses the thing that constitutes the largest proportion of acts that affect humans- those which are wholly indifferent. Perhaps this is not so in Academia, but in the real blue collar, working class world, most folk I have known tend to agree with my own, admittedly, non-scientific ratio of 90% of life is indifferent, 9% is bad, and 1% is good. Thus, one can claim that the bad outweighs the good, but the non-bad dwarfs the bad, as well, with no logical contradiction. I ask you reader: which ratio relates more realistically to your life?
The very fact that Shermer elides over such a fine gradation as indifference is not isolated to this example. Shermer sees economics as almost wholly a black and white thing. This is how he can claim markets are ‘moral’ when the vast majority of the human population lives in poverty, disease, famine, and squalor- most of which is directly related to human actions, not natural facts. Binary cogitation is a key giveaway that one is dealing with an evangelist in a screed. And that is certainly what Shermer is- a Free Market Evangelist, every bit as blindly convinced of his rectitude as any Fundamentalist preacher or believer in the Roswell Conspiracy.
Let me now address that last sentence of Shermer’s: ‘If this was not the case, market capitalism would have imploded long ago.’ Here is a perfect example of where Shermer misses the boat again. Later, he waxes on the manifest failings of Communism. Yet, he is utterly ignorant of the fact that pure market capitalism utterly and totally failed six decades before communism did. It was a little catastrophe known as The Great Depression- that Gilded Age reckoning that was postponed for a decade or so by the First World War. Since then, the U.S. has been a quasi-capitalistic state, with increasing safety nets some decry as Socialism, as if this was still the 1950s! In fact, the bulk of the world resides in the real, moderate world of socialapitalism- even ‘Communist’ nations like China and Vietnam. Only North Korea and Cuba reject this middle ground, and their nations are economic sewers. By any objective apolitical standard, socialapitalist programs like Social Security, Welfare, and Medicare have been nothing less than spectacular successes- improving the lives of millions of Americans, who lead longer, healthier, and happier existences because of them.
I always find it amusing how Free Market theists, like all fundamentalists, conveniently ignore contrary evidence. World economics, as shown since World War Two, requires true moderation to succeed, because the extremes appeal to the worst in the human animal- Capitalism to greed and myopia (see global warming), and Communism to laziness (see they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work). But Shermer, the Free Market Evangelist, does not see this, and while trumpeting rising ‘real’ incomes over the last century and a half, ignores the losses in the last 25 years in the buying power of the average American worker and family. Of course, the many stats that support this assertion would likely be dismissed by Shermer, but, frankly, many of the claims that Shermer declaims as empirical have been debunked by other people as apparently disconnected from the real world as Shermer, and just as rapt by the dullor of such pursuits. But, this is the trick- one must read all the stats and claims, then parallax a bevy of them, otherwise one gets only a one dimensional view of whatever is being studied. And, even if one were to accept Shermer’s economic claims- which I mostly do, he seems to attribute them all to market forces rather than that plus myriad other factors, all acting in concert, such as the rise, in the last 150 years, of the American Labor Movement- that thing which brought the average worker ‘the weekend’ and 40 hour work weeks. In Shermer’s world and book, however, the word and idea of unionism seems to not have any place.
By page 19, Shermer is done with counter-evidence and reliant on the Appeal to Authority fallacy, declaiming, ‘If Adam Smith’s theory of economics is so profound and proven, why do some people reject it, as others reject the theory of evolution?’ He then conflates natural selection with the invisible hand. Well, in answer to the query, the reason many reject Smith’s claims is because they realize that there is, as mentioned, always a group of people with a far greater ability to control economies than Free Market theists will admit. Not only that, but often there are factors that show the utter necessity to have a visible hand- i.e.- government reins. Economies do things on the cheap- they foster exploitation of labor, the environment, legal rights, health, and safety. Moreso, economies invest little in research. If something is ‘good enough’ and maintains market share, there is no incentive to improve it. This is fine in soft drinks, perhaps, but not in techy stuff. Most scientific breakthroughs have come not from free enterprise, but under taxpayer-sponsored research. The Internet (then Arpanet) was a government invoked medium, as were countless other products developed in war and peace. The free market also encourages discrimination- the most apt example being real estate redlining. If my house will devalue if a Puerto Rican moves into the neighborhood, keep the bastards out! Is that a ‘moral’ economy?
Shermer makes many sweeping statements that are easily deflated, and I have to say I found it a bit shocking, given his cold precision in other areas he writes of. Then again, clearly this book is based in emotion and wish fulfillment, not reality. Economics is not gravity, and not a science. Shermer is either deceptively and hypocritically using the same dialectic fallacies the true believers in other causes, that he debunks, use, or he is simply blinded to his own pseudoscientific efforts in the name of being a ‘true believer.’ Furthermore, since Shermer invokes the Right Wing economic poster boy, Adam Smith, let me appeal to another authority, and let the reader decide which authority better approximates economic reality as we know it. That would be John Maynard Keynes, who advocated what can only be called regulation on the market. Not the smothering palm of Communism, but also not the swinging fist of pure Capitalism. Every time the Fed lowers or raises interest rates to stem inflation or spur job growth, Keynes is vindicated in his approach to managing economics versus Smith’s hands off ideology. Despite his stated worship of Smith and disdain for Keynes, the lauded ex-Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, Alan Greenspan, was a devout Keynesian in his active role as arbiter of America’s interest rates, for Smith and company are against such interferences, and thus seem as Luddite as Gold Standard true believers. The Great Depression was the final straw that allowed sane economists to realize the limits and fallacies of Smithian economics. To compare Smith to Keynes is akin to, in poetry, comparing simple folk ballads to the raptures of Hart Crane. In short, government control of money supply- printing it or not, has made the chances of a repeat of the Smithian collapse of the 1930s almost impossible, whereas depressions were a staple of the American and world economy for centuries before the Great Depression.
Proof? Just look at 1987’s stock market crash, and the ‘recession’ of five years that followed it. While not ‘empirical,’ it is convincing. The Fed quickly expanded the money supply, and while it took a few years to recover from the disastrous Reagan trickle down Voodoo Economics, the economic blues were nowhere as bad nor long lasting as in the 1930s, even if most, outside the upper 5% of the economy, a quarter century on, are still ‘waiting for the rain.’ Such Keynesian governmental ability to control and regulate is a powerful tool against job loss and inflation that Smithian economics disallows. And for those who would claim there was not even a ‘real’ recession post-1987, I would add that the last few decades have proven that numbers are increasingly disconnected from the economic realities of most people. Depressions (or recessions- that Nixonian weasel word) are no longer macro-, thus affecting all, but targeted overwhelmingly to lower income groups, due to the widening disparity between top and bottom. Thus, 90+% of people can be in a recession or worse, but the mindblowing gains at the top of the economic food chain can skew the numbers so greatly as to hide all sorts of sins.
But, instead of focusing on these finer shadings, Shermer resorts to quips by Free Market theists, and dismisses the regulatory necessities that economies need. Just look at the recent spate of dangerous toys made in China, faux drugs being sold online, or grocery stores that routinely ignore dated product, and regrind old meat, etc. And, perhaps the worst example of free market theory run amok happened in the 1980s, when the PATCO firings by Reagan and deregulation led to the mess of the airlines system today, even pre-9/11. Similarly, the deregulation of telecommunications has led to innovations in the market, but done little to foster real competition, much less provide an array of reliable and competitive alternatives- just compare the cell phone plans of the five or six top carriers.
Later, Shermer defends predatory pricing in the marketplace and cites the early 20th Century example of Alcoa and late 20th Century example of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Shermer claims Alcoa was brought to court for supplying consumer demands, meeting market needs, and embracing new opportunities with a skilled workforce. Thus, its predatory pricing was ‘moral.’ This is yet another perfect example of out of touch Academiaspeak, and of missing the obvious a real world inhabitant gets. Alcoa lowered prices below its competitors so they would be forced out of business, so that Alcoa could have a monopoly and gouge its customers. This is Economics 101. Ask anyone with cable tv about monopolies’ tendencies to gouge. Better yet, ask any drug dealer why he’ll try to hook a future consumer with free samples, and once hooked, gouge them through the nose (sometimes literally). However, even were one to accept Shermer’s one sided and naïve view of Alcoa, history shows they would be the exceptional kindhearted business, and not the rule. The usage of exceptional examples, rather than rules, is yet another technique that Shermer rightly debunks when the folks using that technique are on the other side of the argument from him. Again, is he simply irrationally unaware of his folly, or being disingenuous? Having worked in corporate America for decades I can cite a laundry list of crimes that my former employers committed, and on such a routine basis- from cooking the books to forging signatures and documents to ignoring safety guidelines to bribing public officials, that they would likely claim blissful unawareness of- except for the fact that they would always do those things ‘on the sly,’ belying such claims.
As for Microsoft? Shermer again defends predatory pricing, in their practice for Internet Explorer, which was the basis for the famed judgment against them. His rationale is that IE improved web browsing and made it cheaper. What he does not state is that the notoriously bad Microsoft problems (and IE’s are legend) were the basis for why the company predatorily undercut the price Netscape and other browsers were charging, because they could not compete in terms of technological quality, and could only leverage their dominance in other areas to compete and crush competitors. Don’t believe me? Ask any user of Mozilla Firefox which browser is better- and Firefox is the dominant choice for new Internet users. And without the 1999 judgment against Microsoft, Mozilla would not have had a chance, despite having a far superior product, in terms of usability and resistance to exterior threats.
Shermer then claims that economies are not zero sum. But, if that were not so, why are so many people rich, poor, with a shrinking middle class, and so few people at the average wage, or any other middle measure of wealth? Only the degree to which an economy is zero sum is arguable, not that economies are not zero sum. Similarly, and predictably, Shermer argues that Wal-Mart has been a boon to the American economy, despite making Microsoft seem a rank amateur in terms of predatory pricing. This canard has been so roundly debunked, by so many others, that I will suffice by stating Wal-Mart destroys small town capitalistic investment and innovation, stifles competition, treats its workers little better than sweat shops do, vamps off the impoverished and indentured workforce of China and other Third World nations, and has ruinous effects on the environment. Were the Mafia, or a drug cartel, doing what that company is doing the federal government would be all over them with RICOH violations and anti-trust lawsuits, but they have one thing the mobsters and drug lords don’t- lobbyists; although that’s a topic for another time.
Later, Shermer tries to refute the concept of path dependence, which he oddly calls path dependency, with the well-worn QWERTY typewriter and VHS-Beta tales, even though he earlier provides a great example of the same with the IE tale, for there is no way that IE would still be the dominant browser were it not for the human tendency to resist change. Ask anyone who’s worked in the retail market about customer brand loyalty, and Ivy Towered Academic refutations of such manifest truths can produce only chuckles. Midway through the book Shermer discourses on the fact that even the poor, today, are better off, in real terms, to their counterparts years ago, yet again ignores the widening income disparity. Thus, while absolutely all levels are better off versus their socioeconomic counterparts at a given time in the past, no one compares their wealth to their grandparents’, but to their neighbors’, which is why the greater overall wealth disparity makes many feel they are less well off, and more ‘unhappy’- a point Shermer ruminates on with perplexity. But, is this really that difficult a concept to understand?
Shermer eventually gets to ruminating on the nature of evil (quite a distance from economics, science, or economics as science), and the famed experiments performed by Philip Zimbardo (the Stanford Prison Experiment) and Stanley Milgram (the Shock Obedience Tests)- although this relentless appeal to authorities tends to obfuscate rather than focus his claims upon cogencies, and his theses bog down in a near compulsion to emotionally overwhelm readers of his rightness, rather than logically convince them. Then he digresses to assert that corporations are moral and the fictive Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is good’ creed is false. Yet, oddly, he posits that when some bad corporate apples (Enron, Worldcom, etc.) get caught, they are example of bad ‘moral path dependency.’ Earlier in the book he tried to debunk market path dependency when it suited his argument, but here he embraces path dependency when it seems to work for his argument. Of course, this sort of tactic is further evidence of emotional screeding, not logical argumentation. And, again, he resorts to appeals to authority and exhibits an out of touch Academic version of reality. As someone well versed in the ins and outs of corporate philosophy, all of them run on the 99% Push Theory- i.e.- they will try to get away with as much unethical, criminal, and harmful behavior as they can, and push it right to the brink of getting caught (99% of the way to the edge). The best corporations, however, know to pull back just short of the precipice, so that they can have another run of 99% pushing, rather than self-destructing. The Enrons and Worldcoms did not pull back- that’s all, and it was their arrogance and stupidity that separated them from the corporations that did not get caught, not their bad moral path dependency. And don’t even get me started on the myth that corporations are efficient. The only thing more wasteful than Big Government is Big Business- been there, seen that.
Yet, Shermer does love to appeal to his authorities. By page 241 he goes into overdrive, in attacking government, by citing French economist Frederic Bastiat, playwright George Bernard Shaw, and then two lesser lights- G. Gordon Liddy and P.J . O’Rourke, whose quip is, ‘Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.’ Well, let me trump Mt. Shermer, with a better and more realistic quote attacking corporations, from the sublime Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary:
An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
To digress for a moment, it is a curious thing, why people like Shermer so trust in corporations, and believe the market will force them to do the right thing, when disasters are routine whenever industries are deregulated. Their attacks on government are also very simple-minded. Yes, I believe government should do less than it often does, and certainly more effectively. But, again, to point to Big Business as a model of efficiency is silly. And not all government programs are wasteful. Medicare, as noted quite often, is the most efficacious medical insurance program in the nation, by a wide margin.
But, let me return to corporations. Shermer, like most Libertarians- who often forget the silent ‘civil’ before the term, and resort to shilling for corporations over individuals, seems blithely oblivious of such a thing as the public commons- i.e.- those things that we all through the government own and control. These are the things and services that no individual, and even no corporation, can provide for itself. This means infrastructure- roads and rails, laws and regulations to ensure safety, etc. Without the public commons, we would all have to drill for water, haul our own garbage away, etc. This concept also allows for the creation of corporations as vehicles to engage in larger scale business enterprises that no small group of partners could likely pull off. Even the term ‘corporation’ gives away its faux individual status, as it literally means a legal ‘embodiment.’ Thus, they are a legal fiction, created and sanctioned by the state (i.e.- the people) to provide jobs for citizens, and a tax base to support the government. They can only exist because of the state, therefore the state sets all the rules for them to make profit. The civil libertarian arguments about taxation are thus not applicable to a legal fiction, for the government is literally the Dr. Frankenstein to the corporate Monster, and wholly responsible for the framework it creates to allow corporations to exist. They are also wholly dependent upon the public commons to exist. Even a behemoth like Wal-Mart needs the roads that the public commons provides- for its own shipping of products, and for the customers it hopes to sell to. Therefore, any corporation has an obligation to the state to help provide for the commonweal of the very entity that created it and allows it to operate. If not, the government has every right to revoke its legal status, if the corporation violates that other tenet of the public commons- the regulations for safety and competitive balance, even if it legally requires a corporation to provide free and public information to its investors, state sanctioned minimum wages, or even health insurance to employees.
Libertarians always forget one crucial fact about corporations; well, many, but this one is cogent to the matter at hand. Corporations are not individuals, and not natural free market phenomena. The first corporations, in fact, were state chartered enterprises. Only later did governments allow individuals and groups to create their own corporations, provided they play within a given set of rules, and be answerable to the government via regulating agencies. These rules- part of the public commons, are put in place so that the folks running these legal fictions do not run roughshod over smaller non-corporate businesses with monopolistic and predatory business practices which their very size- created, allowed and sanctioned by the state, allows them to attain, well beyond the limits of any individual or partnership. Without the state, Sam Walton could never have created Wal-Mart- for good or ill, John D. Rockefeller could never have forged the modern oil industry, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie could never have created U.S. Steel, and Bill Gates could never have made the Internet accessible to the masses via Windows and Internet Explorer. In short, Libertarians make a false distinction when they credit ‘private enterprise’ with innovation and government with stifling it. Most advances in the free market come through the government- only one step removed, via their sanctioned Golems- the ‘public corporations,’ and not from a bunch of Thomas Edisons backed by a few investors. Corporations are in no sense an example of the free market, but a perfect (or imperfect) realization of the state’s indirect intervention in the so-called ‘free market.’ Thank you, Mr. Keynes.
Two final points on the book, as it drew to a close, and both of them highlight intellectual flaws in the work that do not relate to any pro nor con position on the substance of the book, but on the dialectic tactics it employs. From pages 221-227 Shermer trumpets the Google corporation and its infamous ‘Don’t be evil’ ethic, even though he admits several major ethical lapses that the company has made, such as its conceding to China’s demand to censor information and the Google Print Library Project- to scan in all the world’s books and make them available online, without the consent of living authors, nor any royalty payments. Shermer basically sidesteps the former matter and dismisses the latter because he believes few will ever read books online. Well, bully for him, but that is not the real point regarding intellectual property. But, as to my point about the dialectic weakness, here is how Shermer summarizes Google’s complicity with authoritarianism and disdain for recompensing intellectual property: ‘Controversies of this nature, of course, are inevitable for any company that grows as rapidly as Google has, and no matter how lofty a company philosophy may be, perfection will always be an unattainable goal.’ I.e.- realpolitikspeak that dismisses the rhetoric while seeking to sidestep real responsibility. In short, there is no defense, and Shermer offers none. This is a dialectic trick that evidences a screed, and not a well-balanced argument. There are other such ‘no defense’ defenses in the book, as well as a few too many ‘Adam Smith (or some other appealed to authority) settled that’ sort of moments, even if the reality is, ‘Well, no he didn’t.’
But, while someone like Adam Smith, right or wrong, is a reputable ‘authority,’ Shermer too often invokes less scrupulous authorities, if not outright charalatans. Near the end of the book he touts the <ahem> ‘political scientist’ Rudolph Rummel, whom Shermer misnames as Rudolf- one of quite a few misspellings and misattributions in my review copy, which I hope will be weeded out in the published version of the book. The problem with the touting of Rummel’s claim of the ‘democratic peace theory’- that democracies do not make war upon each other is that, well, it’s demonstrably false, and has been well debunked for some time. The claim was first propounded by anti-Communists in their zeal to rightly reveal the horrors that folk like Stalin and Mao wrought upon their peoples. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the list of wars that supposedly do not include two democracies elicits a strained ‘moving of the goalpost’ sort of definition, both before and after the wars. The American Civil War (at least half the nation considered itself a separate entity), the Spanish-American War, and even World War One, are vivid examples of where democracies fought bitterly. Some were limited democracies, but one could argue that America was not a true democracy until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Plus, aside from the three big American-involved conflicts, there are many lesser known wars about the globe that debunk the claim.
Even worse though, is Rummel’s backhanded coinage of the term ‘democide’- a faux neologism that most reject because it is so closely related to ‘genocide’ that there really is no valid reason for Rummel’s term, save for his own ego in wanting to be thought of in a league with Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of genocide, and many other genocide scholars whose work Rummel’s parasitically feeds off of. While this is certainly not on par with literary plagiarism, for Rummel’s statistics are often his own odd brew, sometimes wildly at odds with better researched information, nonetheless there is an unpleasant taint associated with such actions, and this evinces why Rummel is to ‘political science’ what Immanuel Velikovsky was to astronomy. It should also be noted that Rummel also long and falsely publicly claimed he was considered for a Nobel Peace Prize, then retracted the claim. Rummel, however, is not the only dubious figure the book references, albeit he is the most troubling. The press kit for the book also contains a blurb from the Deepak Chopra of ‘political science,’ Dinesh D’Souza, as well as plaudits for that seventh rate William F. Buckley knockoff, George Will.
The book ends on a triumphalist note about the power of free markets, even as it is based on yet another fallacy- that of uninterrupted trends, which makes its conclusion more a desideratum than an explication of reality. It also never fully lives up to its title, The Mind Of The Market, for if one changed the title to The Ways Of The Market there would be no cognitive dissonance about the content, for the mind barely figures into Shermer’s thesis, regardless of a pro or con take on said claims. Thus, the title evidences a ‘marketing’ decision rather than one based upon the contents. Too often there are lapses of a priori conclusions and justifications, as well as blog level sophistry of the opposite sort from those of a Communistic bent, who claim, ‘capitalism knows the price of everything and value of nothing,’ and see things with no finer grain.
It also begs the question of why a book on economics would be published by a person clearly outside his fields of expertise? The market answer, of course, is that Shermer is a celebrity, and such books sell. But, as a poet, and ‘expert’ on literature, the arts, and ‘pattern seeking’, I cannot conceive of a reason why I would want to write, much less a publishing house would want to publish, a book by me on the state of 18th Century Romanian politics or the mating habits of Sri Lankan bees. Of course, this has not deterred Hollywood celebrities like Carrie Fischer from thinking they are novelists, pro wrestlers like The Ultimate Warrior from publishing a book on politics, much less anomic celebrity sciolists like ex-Vice President Al Gore from pontificating on geometeorology and global warming. So, on a purely rational reason, there is no reason for a book like this, and it is utterly emblemic of publishing’s sad state today- a quick dip to sell books rather than publish a book with a significant long term contribution to whatever field.
Yet, despite all that, I still recommend this book, and highly. Why? Because I can rise above my disdain, and sometimes anger, at its claims. Why? Because it is well written, and excellently serves as a screed and polemic, to get people thinking, which may have been Shermer’s real goal, although his motives mean naught to the reader. My appreciation and admiration for the book mirrors that I feel for the aforementioned Buckley, with whom I politically disagree with on 90% or so of matters, for his ability to, let’s face it, flat out bullshit and sucker an opponent, is nonpareil. It also allows me to amply demonstrate what a good critic should and should not do; while I disagree with the substance of a work, as a critic, I have to appreciate the skill of the writing and argument. All in all, The Mind Of The Market is a good book, well written, and I strongly recommend it, even if it unwittingly provides more fodder for the other side than it does Shermer’s side, for his reliance on often long debunked canards.
Perhaps the only two Libertarian/Right Wing canards that Shermer did not purloin for his thesis are a) the school choice issue- as if education was a free market commodity, and taxpayers should pay doubly to send kids to public and private schools, while ignoring the fact that the deck is stacked against public schools, because only the private schools can pick and choose the best kids while excluding the rest, and b) the claim that Social Security should be privatized because the free market outperforms savings accounts over X amount of years. While true, that fact ignores the steep valleys that can absolutely kill small time investors, for the market is ‘safe’ only for the superrich, who can weather the valleys and afford losses over a year or two, while most would be wiped clean. Such detailed gradations, however, are the sorts that Evangelists of all stripes ignore, as Shermer rightly knows in his ceaseless arguments with religious Fundamentalists over Intelligent Design and Creationism, yet he has no compunction in employing them when he is squarely in the role of zealot.
If I’m starting to sound animated, this is just further testament to
Shermer’s skill as a political provocateur. But, that and his controlled prose
are not the only things which make this, despite my philosophic and factual
objections, a damned good book. Shermer, like any good writer, weaves in tidbits
from his own life and ideas to form a compelling tapestry (even if they are a
bit too many for a book its length)- points on his own days as an entrepreneur,
even pre-magazine publishing, as well as his past as a Fundy believer in the
wacky things he routinely debunks. On a side note, this revelation came as no
shock because his utter zeal as a debunker has all the hallmarks of an
enthusiastic true believer, even if his conversion was away from most
‘faiths,’ save his free marketeering dogma. Then there are numerous, little
historic asides, such as one of the best political portraits of a known figure
I’ve read- his take on the Pyotr Kropotkin, whom Shermer reveals as being
quite a bit more rational than the loony anarchist of legend.
Thus, I’m left to analyze one of the most interesting and compelling but exasperating pseudo-scientific books I’ve ever read; one which has little rational coherence on its claimed subject or its title, but one which wrenches a powerful blend of intellectual and emotional response that cannot be denied. After all, this essay is well over 7500 words long, and is only such length because of the skill with which Shermer argues his claims, even if untenable, for they beg response, if not this full blown smackdown. To rile me to such a degree is proof of its power. Furthermore, the book will cause others to lay the smack down, as well, even though those other critics will, because of their intellectual criticisms, damn the book and ignore its polemical verve. To me, however, it gives an ample demonstration of how all pushers hawk their wares- be they drugs, religions, or ideas, and is especially interesting since Shermer seems to have absorbed the dialectic and evangelical techniques of many of those he’s debunked, and transfigured them for his own pet ideas. That said, let me let in a last word from Shermer, and you tell me if a Looking-Glass game is afoot (from page 71): ‘Have you ever noticed how blind other people are to their own biases, but how you almost always seem to catch yourself before falling for your own?’
Goodnight, Mary Ellen.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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