Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World

17th August 2021

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World, by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell. In keeping with our enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages and our own previous personal experiences with Marxism, we couldn’t help but be tickled by Lawson and Powell’s enlightening tales of travel through socialist societies. As Bob and Ben note: “In this book … we’re aiming for a popular audience that will appreciate not just our economic insights but our down-to-earth honesty. We wrote this book because too many people seem to be dangerously ignorant of what socialism is, how it functions, and its historical track record. We also wanted to get drunk in Cuba, and this was a great way to write off our expenses.” This peek-behind-the-curtain book describes what’s really happening in socialist countries throughout the world—not just retelling blinkered academic theory. Plus… beer.

“Economics in Nouns and Verbs”

Since we’re talking economics, this recent, foundational paper by Santa Fe Institute scholar Brian Arthur, the father of complexity economics, reveals how algebraic mathematics restricts economic modelling to what can be expressed only in quantitative nouns, and which forces theory to leave out matters to do with process, formation, adjustment, creation and nonequilibrium. This also has profound implications in relation to linguistics.  Interestingly, Arthur notes: “…let me note that a body of theory with verbs already exists in economics—Austrian economics… I believe the Austrian approach deserves a more central place in economic theory.”

Teapots and Equity

Barb likes to collect teapots. Not just any teapots, but Yíxīng teapots, made from an extraordinary clay, sometimes of a purple color, from an area near Dīngshān, China.  It seems this area has been mined for teapot and utensil clay for over a thousand years. When used in teapots, Yíxīng clay absorbs tiny amounts of tea flavor with each brewing. This absorption also allows Yíxīng teapots to gradually develop a beautiful patina. One of the highlights of Barb’s life was visiting Dīngshān on the Yangtze River Delta to tour the teapot shops, especially Yíxīng Zǐshā Factory Number 1, with its extraordinary showroom.

Later, while visiting Hong Kong’s tea shops, Barb stumbled across and bought a very special Yíxīng “Revolution” teapot.  By contrast with Yíxīng teapots made during virtually every other era, the Revolution teapot is downright ugly—pretty much like a cowpie pooped from a defective stamping machine. Worse yet, this pitiful teapot dribbles when you try to pour, and the lid doesn’t fit.  There is nothing special about the Revolution teapot, aside from its ugliness. How could such teapots come into existence, in an area that had produced extraordinarily beautiful and creative teapots for over a millennium? 

It all goes back to equity and fairness.  During the Cultural Revolution, if you made a teapot that was creative, or beautiful, or that stood out in any way from other teapots, you were killed—one of the millions that are conservatively estimated to have died due to willful human action during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. (Actual data on the number of deaths is virtually impossible to obtain, since much has been hidden by the government.) 

Many of the murders and deaths, not to mention the crippling of creativity, were in the seemingly well-intentioned name of equity and fairness.  In pottery-making, for example, it was considered unfair to others if you showed talent or creativity. Worse yet, if you produced something that stood out for its beauty, it was clear you were deliberately trying to make others feel badly for their other, lesser talents. Off you would go, never to be seen again. If you were a potter, your best hope of staying alive was to keep your head down and make the worst pots you could. 

While translating in the Soviet Union during Cold War, Barb saw much the same social forces at play.  Anyone becoming too infected by pernicious ideas related to freedom of speech and thought could, overnight, disappear. This was not a joking matter—in fact, a throwaway quip at the wrong time, in front of the wrong person, could mean death. 

Here is an excerpt from Barb’s Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler, describing her interactions with her Soviet shipmates during the Cold War in the early 1980s.

 “Have you ever heard of Stalin?” [the officer’s stewardess] asked. 

“Of course.” I’d noticed a picture of him on the captain’s wall. 

“You have?”

“Yes.” I tugged at the tablecloth and continued. “Did you know Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty million people during his purges?” 

“Have you ever known anyone who lost somebody during those so­-called purges?” [the captain] scoffed. 

“Yes,” I said. “Most of my teachers lost at least one member of their family.” 

“Oh,” said the captain. He’d thought he had me. “Well, as you say, everybody makes mistakes.” 

“How can you believe that communism is a good system when such terrible things can happen under it?” I probed. 

The captain glanced at Irena, looking uncomfortable. “What we have now is not communism, it is socialism. That’s why we have problems. When the whole world is communist, there will be no problems.”

Equity in Education

One might think, oh, but here in the West, we would never start down such a horrific pathway, particularly when it comes to education!  But of course, all in the name of equity and fairness, we have.  This tremendous article by Maxwell Meyer, “The Two-Front War on Academic Standards,” gives a good overview of the unfolding educational approaches that cripple students’ abilities to learn and be creative in a standard school setting. Here are some key excerpts:

“…[T]here are several alarming trends in education policy that I believe constitute a serious threat to our country. It’s a Two-Front War on Academic Standards. 

“The first front is essentially an effort to rein in our best students, to make sure they aren’t getting any unfair advantages, or doing too much better than others. It takes many forms — eliminating test-based admission at magnet schools, doing away with advanced coursework, etc — but really comes down to one issue: in any system that rewards achievement, differentiated ability produces a gap between students, which is viewed as an inequity. Just like the ‘wealth gap’ or the ‘gender pay gap,’ the ‘achievement gap’ is the subject of almost myopic focus by political activists. And as we know, the solution to some students doing better than others (inequity) is to make all students do the same (equity).

“Of course, that’s not how any of this works. Pulling one student down the ladder doesn’t make it any easier for the students below to climb. But let’s suppose that the stated goal of equity is actually earnest. Wouldn’t we expect to see an effort to pull the lower students up – to give them a hand? Theoretically, yes. But in reality, there is no serious effort to raise standards at the bottom of the performance distribution. Instead, we reduce the standards or eliminate them entirely, giving these students the boot. If there are no standards, there can be no failure, nor can there be any blame for the failure. This is the second front in the war: ‘helping’ students who struggle by eliminating all expectations of them.”

Meyer’s article deserves a careful, full read by anyone interested in advancing genuine learning and creativity.

That’s all for this week. Have a thoughtful week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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