I think Jeff says it all with his evaluation of Social Murder and Other Shortcomings of Conservative Economics:
The most compelling of these case-studies are analyses of macroeconomic behaviour, corporate misleading of the public, and the economic determinants of public health. For example, the authors provide numerous examples of how corporations – acting in their own self-interest, as conservative economics dictates – actively attempt to mislead the public when flaws in their goods are found. Citing examples as common as tobacco companies counter-arguing that cigarettes do not contribute to cancer, as well as the deliberate attempts to refute the fact that the Ford Pinto – a lovely automobile – was prone to exploding due to a manufacturing flaw involving the gasoline tank, the authors demonstrate how corporations have consistently attempted to mislead the public based on junk science and public relations ploys, rather than responding to public criticism. As the authors note, conservative economics suggests that if a firm makes a faulty product, they will be reasonably punished by consumers who demand something superior, and therefore each firm has an incentive to ensure that adequate safety and transparency exists in their product construction. However, the examples provided indicate that companies deliberately attempt to use information asymmetries to mislead the public, and therefore avoid painful economic losses.
Furthermore, the authors provide a number of compelling arguments demonstrating the economic determinants of public health, suggesting that those at the poorest end of the market system are also the most prone to disease and sickness, which can have a further destabilizing impact on social good. For example, the authors refute the fact that living standards have increased substantially over the course of the past century, suggesting that instead industrial development has merely shifted the disease burden from airborne diseases to more chronic disease, which is an exact reflection of work environments and associated stresses. As such, the authors suggest that advanced capitalism has created a substantial new set of public disease, which predominantly affects those with the least beneficial jobs – labourers, cleaners, miners, etc. – having adverse impacts on societies as a whole. Thus, far from promoting the public good through continued economic development, modern day capitalism is rife with a new set of disease – one which conservative economics fails to adequately address.
The authors provide a number of other case-studies such as discussions regarding income distribution, government as a tool of innovation, and foreign policy, all of which are less compelling than the aforementioned cases. For example, the discussion around government as a possible force of innovation does indeed provide a number of cases of profound technological improvements achieved by government scientists and thinkers, though the underlying motivation for such achievements seems to contradict some of the other arguments made in the book. For example, the internet is cited as a profound example of technological progress made by government employees, though the authors do note that the primary uses of the internet was to provide greater communications for military operations – a case-study discussed by the authors later on in the book. Therefore, government can indeed be a profound agent of change, but the authors would have been better suited to address how government can be an agent of change, and what is generally driving these motivations. In cases where bureaucracies are attempting to solve social ills the track-record might be less compelling.
Similarly, the case-study of US foreign policy is perhaps the weakest of the book, as it seems to lack a fundamental basis in the political motivations of US foreign policy over the last number of decades, rather than simply the economic motivations. While the authors arguments are by no means new – Trotsky long ago decried capitalism’s expansionary and imperialist tendencies – such arguments are strengthened when authors provide political context as well. While the authors have several examples of the United States overthrowing democratically-elected socialist governments in favour of capitalist despots, these moves were not always done merely to support capitalist growth, but also to stave off the considerable threat of communism, which helps explain the non-random approach of US intervention during the Cold War, and the focus on socialist leaders.
On the whole however, the books most substantial points, as well as greatest flaws, revolve around the so-called “TINA” (there is no alternative) thesis. While the book provides numerous examples of conservative economic failure, it rarely provides an alternative blueprint, contributing a narrative of cynicism, rather than optimism. On the other hand however, the book provides a number of concrete examples of conservative economic failure, and marries this with a straightforward analysis of how these failures manifest themselves, providing a list of counter-arguments for any first year political science student eager to challenge their conservative colleagues on campus. However, the failure to provide any sort of alternative vision of political economy leaves the reader in a somewhat ambivalent state, undecided about whether the authors might suggest full-fledged socialism as the alternative, or where one draws the line between a mixed-market state and an acceptance of capitalist economics.
Finally, a major drawback of the book is that even though it was written by two scholars at the University of Manitoba, there is a substantial lack of Canadian examples. As such, the fixation with statistics from the United States leads the reader to have a false-sense of security to think that such situations of economic dislocation are an American phenomenon, as friendly Canadians surely wouldn’t let similar outcomes happen here. A greater expansion of Canadian data and experiences might provide the reader with a greater sense of how even in Canada economic inequality is growing, and how the story of social murder is by no means restricted to the dogmatic capitalists in the US.
On the whole however, the book is a powerful tool for any critical thinker of political economy, eager for concrete examples and sharp comebacks. While the book only scratches the surface of the “shortcomings of conservative economics,” the authors certainly provide a positive contribution to the political economy literature, and should be mandatory reading for any first year undergraduate, regardless of position on the ideological scale.
* 4 stars *
- Extra Info:
- Arbeiter Ring Publishing | Chapters.ca | Amazon.com
- ISBN-10: 1894037316
- ISBN-13: 978-1894037310