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Eminent UK academic doesn’t understand trade

A few days ago I had a bit of a rant about a UK-based academic, Danny Dorling, who among other things seems to be scathing about those academics who have the effrontery to challenge egalitarianism, at least of the sort enforced by the coercive power of the state. Dorling is that rather perplexing example of a certain intellectual: penetratingly sharp and illuminating on some issues (he is marvellous about population control characters and some of his statistics are very interesting) but flat-out bloody awful in his political economy. (He describes David Ricardo’s crucial Law of Comparative Advantage insight as “infamous”.)

As example of the latter, he writes about the implications of a decelerating population growth rate for retirement systems, such as tax-funded pensions and retirement ages:

“Retirement ages may have to rise, although if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others, retirement age need not be raised much, but we are going to have to learn to share better.” (Page 327).

When someone works to obtain something of value by providing something/service to another, it is called trade. Both sides are better off than they would otherwise be from doing this – they profit – since otherwise there would be no point in doing so. So, Professor Dorling writes a paragraph about “useful work” as if it is opposition to the notion of profit, not perhaps stopping to wonder whether the word “useful” is question-begging. Useful to whom? If I can write a news article, mend a fence, take packages to firms as a courier or work in a metal-bashing factory, all of these things might be useful to someone so much that they are willing to pay me enough to be worth my time and trouble, and profit me to that extent, and so on. It might be more useful for me, perhaps, to spend my time writing books about population, about how we should “share better”, and so on, but since these things might be thought of as totally bloody useless to others, I might have an issue in being able to make a living out of this unless I am lucky enough to not to have to earn a living with the free consent of my fellows. Luckily for Professor Dorling, who is paid a salary as an academic by the taxpayer, and who might also make a few quid selling his books and doing lecture circuits and so on, he can make a living, although we taxpayers might suggest that some of that money spent on supporting the lifestyles of this man might be more “usefully” employed on something else.

And that is the craziness of it. When a significant portion of the UK electorate is supported by the coercively funded payments of others who toil in the evil capitalist system, the former will contain people who, even if they happen to look and sound clever with their academic honorifics, be utterly ignorant of the most basic facts of economic life.

Discussion point: one of the Professor’s contentions is that highly unequal societies are far more environmentally destructive than egalitarian ones, although I find his reasoning a bit odd. (Correlation is also not causation). Surely, if you have a society where wealth is relatively evenly spread, but where people consume lots of stuff, that could be more destructive than a less equal one where people nevertheless had to be careful about the environmental costs of their actions. What Prof Dorling seems to be saying is that it is high levels of consumption that is the issue; some of his attacks on the mega-rich seem to be as much aesthetic as driven by environmental concerns. He also claims that unequal societies have higher birth rates than egalitarian ones – he may be right about that – but again, his contention begs the question as to why this is a bad thing so long as production is able to keep pace and if the standard of living of even the poorest person improves at a healthy clip. I cannot help but wonder whether Prof. Dorling is an egalitarian first and who wants to use the Green argument to bolster it. In other words, he is very much the face of the modern Left and different in many respects from old-style Marxists. What he has in common with such people is the unspoken – or even spoken – belief in the need for the supposed chaos and venality of the market to be replaced by the rule of people such as themselves.

23 comments to Eminent UK academic doesn’t understand trade

  • The headline implies this is something of a rarity.

    I’m not so sure.

  • Kevin B

    Miss! Miss! Can I have a go! Please Miss!

    “Retirement ages may have to rise, although if the moon was made of green cheese rather than navel fluff, retirement age need not be raised much, but we are going to have to learn to unicycle better.”

    “Thank you Kevin. Now sit down.”

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Rocco, well, I chose the headline in part just to make the point that this chap, who likes to put others down for their stupidity and ignorance (his book is full of such comments, by the way), is dumb as a stump on economics. The man is basically a geographer, but he is also a policy wonk who advises governments, so he is fair game, IMHO.

  • Jonathan. Totally. Fill your boots, dude.

    It’s curious that no matter what an academic specialises in, they’re always an expert in the field of politics.

  • What Prof Dorling seems to be saying is that it is high levels of consumption that is the issue; some of his attacks on the mega-rich seem to be as much aesthetic as driven by environmental concerns.

    I do not know whether the implication that the mega-rich consume more than others is in the article itself, but I would like to question it nonetheless: aren’t the mega-rich tend to be those who save and invest more, rather than consume more (and by extension pollute more)? And that, even if we take into account the fact that the wealth they saved and invested in the first place may have originally been acquired coercively by way of corporatism etc.?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Alisa, having read the book cover to cover (a masochistic urge of mine, maybe), I have been left with the general sense that the man is a hardline redistributionist who sees little harm in activity as grabbing the wealth of the rich.

  • Paul Marks

    Half Marxist and half not.

    The Marxist part is the “for the profits of others” stuff – the old Marxist (and communal “anarchist”) fallacy that private employment is “exploitation”.

    The non Marxist part is the idea that this is not “useful work”.

    This “Green” ideology is similar to elements of the German National Socialists (for example those associated with the head of the SS – Himmler).

    But it actually far older – going back to the “father of totalitarianism” (the hater of manufacturers and traders) Plato himself.

    Of course Dr Dorling would regard being compared to Plato as complement.

    Himmler (another anti Capitalist Green – like Dr Dorling) would have felt the same.

  • CaptDMO

    “Retirement ages may have to rise, although if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others…”
    SO he whole heartedly endorses the elimination of “the dole” then?

  • Laird

    “What he has in common with such people is the unspoken – or even spoken – belief in the need for the supposed chaos and venality of the market to be replaced by the rule of people such as themselves.”

    So he’s a classic watermelon. Pretty straightforward.

  • Rob

    It is the fallacy believed by many that because he is an expert on one thing, he is an expert on others.

    However, no-one would think that Britain’s most expert electrician was automatically an expert on Politics. So why should a “Social Geographer” be different?

  • Codebanger

    “useful work” : what he wants you to do.
    “working simply for the profit of a few others” (or not “useful work”): what you want to do.

  • Sigivald

    if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others

    The sadly baffling thing is that he thinks there’s a difference between “useful” and “profitable” (whether for oneself or others).

    Useful work is precisely (though not only*) that which people are willing to pay for.

    (* All manner of volunteer work may be quite useful, while nobody’s willing to pay for it; but all paid work is useful>/i> to the person paying for it, axiomatically.)

  • Jerry

    ‘….belief in the need for the supposed chaos and venality of the market to be replaced by the rule of people such as themselves.’

    This sounds to me like a new wrapper on the same old failed ideas of marx, engels et all. Was NEVER about equality and everyone working together
    That’s just how it was ‘sold’ to ‘the masses’. It was always and still is about power and control over as many as possible and the control and power is / will be wielded by the very people lying about, um, er, selling it !!

    ‘It is the fallacy believed by many that because he is an expert on one thing, he is an expert on others.’
    This is quite common, especially among people how have achieved ‘success’ and admiration in a particular field. The ego, having been stroked and polished to a high sheen begins to believe it’s own BS. ‘Hey, I’m a
    multi-gazillionaire and have led Cookies-R-Us from a single kitchen to a
    multinational / multibillion dollar company. OF COURSE I can run a steel
    company or an underwater exploration company !!!

    College profs are some of the worst at this. They live in a fantasy land where few if any of their brilliant ‘idea’s, eagerly lapped up naive hostages er, students, are ever challenged or tested. students are told, in so many words, these people/profs are brilliant and know everything – DO NOT challenge them on ANYTHING. After a while it seems, many of the profs REALLY DO BELIEVE that they have the answers to everything if people would simply follow their direction !!

  • Surellin

    “[P]eople who, even if they happen to look and sound clever with their academic honorifics, be utterly ignorant of the most basic facts of economic life.” When did the subject change to Barack?

  • My condolences, Jonathan.

  • Regional

    Alisa,
    What does a sadist say to a masochist?
    No!

  • Jake Haye

    This clown seems to have an unusually severe case of Leftist Derangement Syndrome.

    … if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others …

    Presumably Dorling sees himself as one of those doing ‘useful work’.

    I wonder what he spends his middle-class income on. My guess is it’s almost entirely stuff produced ‘for the profit of a few others’, and very little produced by people doing ‘useful work’ like the noble Dorling himself.

  • SC

    >who is paid a salary as an academic by the taxpayer

    A lot of his salary is likely to be paid indirectly by the taxpayer, sure, but you write as though it is paid directly by the government.

  • Jerry

    That’s because the whole idea of ‘the government is paying / pays for it’ needs to be changed in EVERY case, stated, written, transmitted by carrier pigeon etc. This misconception came about, over time, as taxpayers started paying more and more indirectly ( intentionally done ?? ), so that now, it seems, many people REALLY believe that government actually does pay for ‘things’ !!

    The taxpayers pay EVERYTHING that the ‘government’ takes credit for paying. If government, at ANY level, shells out money, it came, no matter how circuitously, ultimately from the taxpayers !!

  • Jerry

    Sorry but it’s a real sore point with me.
    Along with ‘here in the United States, we live in a democracy’ !!
    Sorry, no we don’t and never have.

  • SC

    In the case of University lecturers’ salaries, most of the money comes from student fees paid voluntarily, albeit routed via a stupid governmental loan system that due to its inefficiency and attractive rates provides a degree of taxpayer subsidy.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I think in the broadest terms, Professor Dorling can be seen as a hireling of the State. It may be that he could earn a nice living in a world of purely voluntary exchange. Who knows? My guess is that he would probably have to use his skills more commercially, but he sounds as if this would be very uncomfortable for him.