Redefining Prosperity

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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49 Responses

  1. Chris Dierkes says:

    excellent piece bro. Bonus Scrabble points for the use of Larisonization. Given that I’m currently (re)reading Small is Beautiful, a lot of this hits home for me.Report

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    Thanks, Chris, I need all the scrabble points I can get!Report

  3. Dan Miller says:

    As long as we’re being idealistic, I’m not sure why you see virtue in protecting American manufacturing jobs, while not allowing foreigners to get jobs manufacturing things for the US market. Why should we be concerned about the factory worker in Dearborn who’s worried about losing his job, but not the farmer in rural China who wants a better one?Report

  4. E.D. Kain says:


    Why should we be concerned about the factory worker in Dearborn who’s worried about losing his job, but not the farmer in rural China who wants a better one?

    For the same reason our soldiers should care more about defending Americans than they should about defending Chinese. The Chinese can look out for themselves (and do) and we can look out for ourselves. Obviously I’m not advocating the end of trade, but if I could prevent the flood of cheap, crappy goods into America from China (in favor of more expensive crappy goods that Americans could compete with) I certainly would. I am an American and I care more for American jobs than Chinese jobs. Not ironically, the Chinese care more for Chinese jobs than American jobs. This is the naivete of globalism, that we should care equally for all people, and that it is somehow wrong to put your own country first.Report

  5. Rortybomb says:

    What’s your take on “Shop Craft as Soulcraft”? Perhaps an OG reading group when it comes out? (I would be in!)

    He quotes, from the initial piece, from Sennet’s The Culture of the New Capitalism, and I like his description of the new (last?) man:

    “Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary institutions: the culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience.”

    Independent of how good or bad your tv’s or toys are, there’s something about the personalities the 21st century workforce creates…Report

  6. E.D. Kain says:

    Rorty – do you mean Shop Class as Soulcraft? I haven’t read it, but I will…

    And you raise a good point. The American self-made man (and woman) is not a communal being. Disdain for community and for the help we receive from our communities is the status quo.Report

  7. Dan Miller says:

    Quite frankly, that seems too arbitrary for me, and it asks far too little of humanity to boot. If American prosperity is more important than foreign prosperity, what exactly stops us from invading Guam and appropriating their assets? Presumably you would say that the Guamians (?) have a right not to be invaded, but it seems hard to draw a line that protects people from invasion and yet denies them the right to compete on the same terms as American workers. Protectionist trade policies are an act of aggression against the foreign workers who would otherwise out-compete us, just as surely as seizing their goods would be. It’s a difference of degree.

    I’m not saying that there’s no place for nationalism or “local spirit” or what have you; I love this country, root for the US in the Olympics, etc etc. But it only seems fair to give foreign workers the same shot as domestic workers.

    Bear in mind, I am not in any sense a libertarian–I favor a strong safety net, progressive taxation, all your usual left-liberal stances. But it’s not good enough to simply say “I care more for Americans, because I am one”–you have to justify it.

    (Or you don’t; this is the Internet after all. But you won’t convince me if you don’t ;).Report

  8. pb says:

    Bear in mind, I am not in any sense a libertarian–I favor a strong safety net, progressive taxation, all your usual left-liberal stances. But it’s not good enough to simply say “I care more for Americans, because I am one”–you have to justify it.

    But you are a classical liberal.Report

  9. E.D. Kain says:

    Dan that’s wrong on so many levels. I’ve heard the whole “protectionism is aggression” deal before, but that’s just silly. If all countries decided to protect their own workers and industries they would all effectively be taking defensive postures, not offensive ones. Before the advent of free trade purism nobody would have ever thought this to be an aggressive stance. This is about as non-interventionist as possible. Nobody is out to punish anyone.

    Then, conflating the idea that protecting work is so abstract that the logical conclusion would be an open door to invade and plunder – well, first of all, that really does seem to be the policy under free trade globalists who invade either economically or militarily to secure foreign sources of energy. But I really fail to see how “America first” could ever be coupled with this notion of expansion and militarism. America first has been the loudest voice against foreign wars, arguing that the cost is much too high, that this sort of war and plunder mentality is far too costly and complicated to truly benefit America. There is nothing abstract about this.Report

  10. I’m going to try to put together a longer response to both this and the whole discussion on protectionism, but the short, short version is this: individualists, a group that includes myself, do not deny the value of community – to the contrary, we embrace it. However, to me, the value of community extends only insofar as it is a voluntary community; if people are forced towards localism, then localism and community are stripped of much of their value.

    You acknowledge this to a certain extent by saying that this is more a cultural than a political challenge; my difference with you is that I would argue it is solely a cultural challenge.

    If the issue is treated as a political one, my concern is that protectionism and anti-globalization policies are one-size-fits-all measures that do by force what would be better achieved by culture. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that there is no morally acceptable way of achieving this other than by culture.

    Doing it politically, ie, via protectionist measures of various sorts, must inevitably increase the costs not only of modern luxury items, but also of food, clothing, and other basic necessities of life. While these increased costs will have little effect on upper middle class and wealthier Americans, they will have really big effects on lower middle class and poor Americans, who will experience massive inflation on basic necessity items. Obviously, the only solution then becomes a bigger social safety net. So you wind up with more regulation due to the protectionism, a bigger social safety net, and less economic growth to fund the safety net, which means you don’t really solve the problems you set out to solve while still getting the downside of protectionism. One possible response, I guess, is that the social safety net could be more community-based; the problem with this, though, is that it improperly assumes the effects of inflation to be shared equally across all communities, such that all communities are well-equipped to care for their own victims of inflation.

    The other problem is that this winds up crowding out a nascent movement towards doing a lot of this stuff culturally, so that the classes most capable of “buying local” do buy local, while the classes least capable of affording the increased costs are able to continue getting cheaper necessities. The best move, I think, is simply to support the cultural movements that seek to achieve these results.Report

  11. E.D. Kain says:

    Add to this, I am not merely saying “I am for Americans because I am one.” I am saying that societal stability relies upon an attitude of “us first” all across the globe. Countries need to act in their own best interests, not just individuals, because we have nations in the first place in order to survive. We are not meant to survive as individuals, nor can we.Report

  12. E.D. Kain says:


    However, to me, the value of community extends only insofar as it is a voluntary community; if people are forced towards localism, then localism and community are stripped of much of their value.

    This is very true, but one other way I think we can achieve a better sense of community (politically to some degree) is to promote new urbanist infrastructure development and to take pains to preserve natural and man-made aesthetic qualities, beauty, walkability, etc.

    Beyond this you raise some very good points, and I look forward to your response article…Report

  13. Hmm…I hadn’t thought about the whole infrastructure/new urbanism issue in all this. I’ll admit, it’s not something that I know much about, but infrastructure more generally is something that really can only be handled by the government, at least usually.Report

  14. Dan Miller says:

    “. If all countries decided to protect their own workers and industries they would all effectively be taking defensive postures, not offensive ones. .. This is about as non-interventionist as possible.”

    How is this non-interventionist? I want to buy (plastic toys/TVs/cars) and a guy in Taiwan wants to sell them to me. Barring intervention from either the Taiwanese or American government, the deal will go through.

    I just don’t understand why in your view foreigners have a right to not be invaded (i.e. it would be wrong to pillage), but no right to not be prevented from working because they happen to live in a different geographical area than me.Report

  15. E.D. Kain says:

    This, as a “rights” issue becomes overly complex. Yes the Taiwan manufacturer has a right to produce the toys and sell them to Americans. But Americans should have a right to put a tariff on those goods to make their own toy manufacturer competitive as well. Likewise Taiwanese can be protected against American food exports if they place tariffs on them, in order to protect local growers.Report

  16. E.D. Kain says:

    In any case, much of this comes back to how we define prosperity, and in terms of “human rights” this becomes a very gray area. I mean, one could say that the right of the worker getting laid off here is violated by free trade; or that the coat factory in Eastern Europe that closed the American factory down is suffering a rights violation when it, in turn, is closed down by the cheaper Chinese labor that replaces it and so on, and so forth.

    In any case, I think this financial collapse is a reckoning. We have become too reliant on the global economy and we don’t know how to sustain this outside the theoretical. Much of our perceived wealth and gains in living standards are illusory…Report

  17. Danby says:

    One factor is left out of your equation. True, protecting markets means higher prices. However higher prices do not, of necessity, mean harm to the poor. If the poorer classes have greater access to well paying jobs, and their families and communities have more member who are solidly middle-class than is currently the case, they will have both more money to pay the higher prices, and more support systems to fall back on.

    Think of the hundreds of thousands working in the US auto industry. If we were to institute a tariff of imported autos, to protect those jobs, yes, it would increase the price of cars. It would also ensure that hundreds of thousands of middle-class industrial workers would not have to move from $15-20/hour jobs to minimum wage jobs or welfare or even crime to support heir families. It’s hard to see how this would be a bad thing overall.

    The globalist myth is founded on the idea that somehow the lower prices of Chinese goods makes up for the loss of American manufacturing jobs. Not only has this never been proven, but it seems prima facie unreasonable to many.Report

  18. E.D. Kain says:

    Excellent point, Danby. I said this over at Outside the Beltway, and will reproduce my comment here:

    ‘ve seen the effects of a good manufacturing base on local communities that would otherwise exist in two extremes: The service jobs that you describe, i.e. doctors, lawyers, etc. on the one hand, and the lower class service jobs on the other: fast food workers, waiters, clerks. (once upon a time a retail clerk could make living, but now that competition is so fierce and prices have to remain so low, this is no longer possible).

    In any case, I think there is a balance to strike, and I don’t think we’ve achieved that balance yet…

    The service economy is all well and good for those in the good service jobs, but for them to continue living the good life, they need a great deal more people working the bad service jobs. That is not a sustainable situation.Report

  19. Danby says:

    Dan Miller,
    Great straw man there. You can keep setting him up and knocking him down forever, but it really has nothing to do with the question.

    Protecting one’s markets is not, and cannot be cast as an act of aggression. It is not the same as invading another country militarily, and the two acts cannot be equated. It’s as if you were to say that declining a woman’s sexual advances were equivalent to forcing her to have an abortion. The two acts are not only not equivalent, they are of different types and only linked tendentiously.

    If you are claiming that the Chinese manufacturer has a right to bring goods into the US market and sell them on an equivalent basis with local manufacturers, that is fine, say it and se can argue the contention. To then claim that failing to enforce this right, which you have so far only asserted, is equivalent to invading his home and killing his children is both disingenuous and irrational.Report

  20. Dan Miller says:

    We’re coming from inherently different positions here–I believe (in very broad terms, and speaking idealistically) that all men are created equal, American, Indian or French, and that govt. policy should treat them as such. You appear to disagree–that I as an American have every right to trade with other Americans, but not with Japanese people (or at least, I’m not entitled to sell to a Japanese person on equal footing with another Japanese person). That is, you think that if the Japanese government stops me from selling to their citizens, for no other reason than my nationality, I have suffered no unjustified harm. I just don’t understand why you think that.Report

  21. Dan Miller says:

    Danby–if you want to sell something and I want to buy it, and the government stops the transaction for no reason besides the fact that one of us happens to live in a different country, how is that not an act of aggression? There may be good reasons to limit trade (for example, a tariff on a country that still practiced slavery would be more than justified) but assuming there’s no egregious reason to prevent the transaction, why should we?Report

  22. Jim says:

    “Danby–if you want to sell something and I want to buy it, and the government stops the transaction for no reason besides the fact that one of us happens to live in a different country, how is that not an act of aggression? ”

    Aggression by whom and against whom? How can it be aggression aginast the foreign worker – what right does anyone concede him to intrude his products into someone lese’s country? Is it aggression by your government against you? Maybe. Then it comes down to how much of your conduct your government can rightfully control. Most people agree to quite a lot of controlReport

  23. Danby says:

    Mr. Miller,
    Because I have a duty to you, and you have a duty to me, as citizens of the same polity. As members of the same tribe. As neighbors. Your view of humanity seems to be that of a deracinated, atomized mass, in which each is related to every other in the same way and to the same degree, and none has any more call on your sympathies or assistance than any other.

    I would contend that that view of humanity is not in accord with reality. We are each born into a family, a community and a nation. Our responsibilities to these natural communities are pre-existing and not of our choosing. To insist that they be respected is not an act of aggression.

    It is true that a great many in the modern world have cast off these responsibilities, finding them annoying or even onerous. Indeed, that is the final end of the Liberal project. Perhaps you have accomplished this decoupling for yourself, and could just as easily sue your mother for failure to pay rent as you would sue a Chinese toy manufacturer for failure to deliver goods on time.

    There is a very real downside to this attempt to atomize society though. Since these local connections are all that there is that could possibly protect you from the naked power of the State, the Liberal project is fated to end in totalitarianism. Indeed, we are on the cusp of that transition now, as our federal government takes over greater and greater portions of the economy, and further surrender of our traditional freedoms, to protect us both from anarchy and from those who would conquer us. Police states are clamored for, not imposed.Report

  24. Cascadian says:

    I have no problems with very heavy handed governmental protectionism. I prefer more subtle measures. Ending illegal immigration would do wonders to protect and empower our own working class. Maintaining agricultural lands near urban centers through land use permits will help keep local farmers and agriculture competitive. These mixed with the social advantages of new-urbanism would do most of the work. The other side of protectionism for me would be exports. I would tax commodities that had little to no value added locally. Exporting water would be completely verboten.Report

  25. Danby – I will try to address that issue in my response later. Part of the problem is that I don’t accept your empirical claim that globalization forces more people from decent paying jobs to low-paying jobs than vice versa. Unfortunately, while this is an empirical claim, it is one that is near-impossible to prove one way or another – depending on the statistics you use, you come up with different results, because there’s no way to control for all the possible variables. But I will try to address the argument to the extent I can.Report

  26. Dan Miller says:

    Danby–I would say that it’s your view of tribalism that’s not in touch with reality. As a resident of DC, I’m closer culturally and physically to Montreal than I am to Utah. Simply put, your vision of an America that is a fractalized set of interlocking communities does not work unless everyone subscribes (or at least the vast majority). Since many don’t, it makes more sense to treat people as individuals, no?Report

  27. Danby says:

    Dan Miller said:

    Simply put, your vision of an America that is a fractalized set of interlocking communities does not work unless everyone subscribes (or at least the vast majority). Since many don’t, it makes more sense to treat people as individuals, no?

    Let me paraphrase; “Since I have won the argument, I am therefore more reasonable, no?”

    Okay, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. To address the argument you present I would have to rephrase it thus:
    “A shared culture which many reject is not truly shared, and is therefore not a good basis for action.” I hope I have not misstated your argument.

    My response would be that there can be no other basis for political action within a democratic framework. All political actions are cultural in nature. When one tries to begin from an acultural basis and make all decisions on a so-called rational basis, one has to make assumptions about what is reasonable and what is not. Thus we get the entire gay marriage debate, in which our cultural elite is attempting to force gay marriage on a population that manifestly does not want it. The arguments for and against are all entirely cultural, but one side, having rejected its native culture, dresses up it’s new cultural assumptions as if they were entirely the result of reason. It has then set about imposing it’s cultural assumptions on the rest, attempting to remake that culture to match their own.

    That’s the funny thing about tribalism. As soon as you reject your own tribe, you immediately adopt another, in this case the tribe of deracinated, atomized, trans-national rationalists. Yet you can still claim you have rejected tribal allegiance.

    And no, you are not closer to someone in Montreal than to someone in Utah, unless you mean only geographically. You share with a Utahan a history and a framework of legal and cultural assumptions that you do not share with Canadians. Unless, of course, both you and the Canadian have rejected the culture and history of your upbringing, to adopt some other trans-national identity. But then, since you have rejected that culture and your own nationality, why should the rest of us listen to you?Report

  28. Mayken says:

    Brilliant post.
    Devil’s advocate for a moment if you will allow me. My mother’s so-called “family” abused her throughout her childhood and then abandoned her when she had the temerity to marry a man who was not white and her “community” at best looked on and at worst actively encouraged that behavior. It was only her rugged individualism that allowed her to get a reasonable education and find a meaningful career (mind you never one that was “prosperous” in the modern sense.) My father’s family was better but when he came to America, much of it was thousands of miles away and the community around him at that point was racist and less than supportive of him. For him, it was the Big Government, coupled with his own personal strength, that helped him to succeed – he joined the Air Force which at the time was, relatively, progressive on race. So I guess what I am saying is that individualism is not all bad – it has brought a lot of people out of the tyranny of family and community to successful lives. And Government is not all bad either – it too has been the boost up many a disadvantaged person would never find within their family/community. Family and community are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be.
    I believe all four pieces, individual, family, community and government are important components in complex dance that can lead us to a real prosperity, not the false consumerist prosperity, nor the soul crushing communist prosperity, but one in which people flourish physically, mentally and spiritually. And in which we can all take care of our families, members of their community and of the stranger who has no other recourse but government.Report

  29. E.D. Kain says:

    Good point, Mayken. Certainly not all family is good, nor all communities. Then again, part of the problem with the modern world is that because our communities are not close it makes domestic violence and other inter-family horrors very hard to dig up. When society is close-knit these things are more obvious. But obviously there are problems that family and community cannot solve, and also, naturally the importance of individualism and personal strength is very real. I simply think that placing emphasis on community will in fact strengthen in better ways the individuals within that community….Report

  30. Dan Miller says:

    I think we’re sort of talking past each other by this point…I’m going to give our illustrious hosts a chance to weigh in before I get back into this (although I will quibble with your choice of the word “manifestly”. Give us a while 😉Report

  31. E.D. Kain says:

    I am in favor of same sex marriage though I’ve done my best to frame my arguments as cultural (or civilizational) rather than through the lens of reason.

    And I also think that it’s important to tackle SSM culturally before it’s pushed politically…Report

  32. Mayken’s post reminded me of this:

    That’s not by any means to say that community is bad – far from it. Instead, it’s just to drive home the point that the value of community comes from its voluntariness.Report

  33. E.D. Kain says:

    I understand the “voluntarily” nature of community, but one has to ask – have we built our cities in ways that are actually harmful to our sense of community? Have we developed technology so rapidly that we have unintentionally sapped our will to be a part of a community? Do we really have a choice if certain conditions are not met – can we connect with our neighbors meaningfully if we drive everywhere and never go outside? There are things we can do to make the circumstances of our existence more amenable to even wanting to be a part of our towns and neighborhoods. This is intentional, and can have long-term effects on how people view their community in the first place. Economics play a huge role in this as well.Report

  34. E.D. – no doubt, the issue of how our cities have been built is a relevant one, and one to which my arguments really don’t apply. Like I said above, infrastructure is one area where even all but the most ardent anarcho-capitalist would agree that government intervention is necessary.

    Zoning laws are another matter, I suppose; if I was in a particularly doctrinaire mood, I could probably go so far as to argue that the lost sense of community in urban environments is a direct result of city planning and zoning, which does to city neighborhoods what Europe did to Africa at the 1884 Berlin Conference (something which, I might add, is directly responsible for many of Africa’s modern problems). But I’m not a particularly doctrinaire sort, and that argument is obviously overly simplistic. Regardless, the reality is that zoning laws of some form of another are probably unavoidable if property rights are to have any real meaning.

    All of which is to say that while zoning laws and city planning are often an abject lesson in the problems of central planning more generally, they can certainly be made less so even if they are unavoidable.Report

  35. Mayken says:

    “And I also think that it’s important to tackle SSM culturally before it’s pushed politically…”
    I disagree. It needs to be both but laws and judicial rulings often proceed cultural change. Think about the civil rights movement. Court decisions and legislation for equality for non-whites was often light-years ahead of cultural acceptance of the ideas (certainly in the places that these decisions and legislation were most necessary.) Again, from personal experience: if my parents had waited to get married until it was culturally acceptable (in this country anyway) I and my siblings would never have been born. (As it is, the Loving decision came down 6 months after they married, legally, in the state of Washington.)Report

  36. Mayken says:

    @Mark Thanks for the link. Obviously an extreme situation but pretty much what I was getting at. Community is a wonderful thing and being the social creatures we are, it isn’t going away really. But it can also be stifling or abusive or judgmental in a way that is not constructive for the growth of the individual. I do agree with E.D that we need to strengthen communities rather than just focus on the individual. There needs to be a balance between the good of the many and the good of the few. Or the one.Report

  37. Bob says:

    E.D. I enjoyed reading your Jeremiad, I’m not being snarky. But you really seem conflicted on many issues. Again not a criticism, you are discussing, it seems to me, the nature of man in a very fragmented and technologically centered world. In many ways a real, dramatic, break with all recorded history. I think any rational person contemplating contemporary society will be equally conflicted. You gave it a good go!

    BTW, I wanted to make sure I was not misusing Jeremiad, here is what I found compliments of Wikipedia,
    “A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in poetry, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.”Report

  38. James says:

    “I’m as troubled as the next by this massive spending, but then again, massive spending has been the status quo for years. Only, instead of spending trillions on health care reform, we’ve spent it on wars in far off lands. ”

    Sharp. Something I’ve mulled over many a time. Alleged “nationalists” spending money to “save” Iraqis when their own people suffer from plagues unassisted. Most peculiar.Report