The Use Value of Marx Today

It's hard to see Karl Marx behind the legacy of the failure of Communism. Marx wrote a lot, and much of it in extremely tedious prose. His actual writings detailing how a socialist society should operate make up a small portion of his output, and what he did write wasn't especially helpful in managing revolutionary Russia, an oversight that meant his name would forever remain hyphenated with Lenin's. The bulk of his writing concerned issues that economists are confronting now: globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence.

Against the backdrop of the Czarist-Stalinist Putin reversing the old Soviet handoff of the Crimea to the Ukraine, the New York Times asked five economists the question, "Was Marx Right?"

Of course he wasn't right, they agree. But he wasn't completely wrong. Marx accurately predicted that one day the engine of global economic growth, those teeming middle-class consumers, would start to sputter as they reached the spending limits of their credit cards. The American Enterprise Institute's Michael R. Strain offers a surprisingly sympathetic reading of Marx. Yes, capitalism is susceptible to boom and bust cycles. And yes, the distribution of wealth these days is a teensy bit skewed toward the top end. But unlike Marx, who predicted capitalism would start ripping itself up under these conditions, Strain believes the churn can be managed intelligently to ensure social stability. He doesn't name any names about who might be able to do this.

The economist who seemed to me, a non-economist, to be the most off base in his response is Tyler Cowen. According to Cowen, all the ills from which we now suffer stem largely from low productivity in the health care and education sectors. Really? It's as simple as that? Or is Cowen just extrapolating from Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Surfdom? Exactly how does "the new NIMBY 'not in my backward' mentality" help cause the decline in productivity growth? If it would help, I could drop my plans to build a garden shed in my backyard and erect a coal plant instead. I don't suppose there's any way the "everything is mine" mentality of the top .01% contributes the slowdown in American economic growth for the middle classes. 

Economists aren't known for the pinpoint accuracy of their predictions, so it seems unfair to hold Marx accountable for our current economic conditions. Besides, Marx's enduring value arises from the terms he gave us, not the economic and political models he left us. More than any other economist besides Adam Smith, Marx changed the way people talk about economics. Without Marx capitalism would hold the entire world in its thrall, for there could be no way to see it from the outside. When a scholar from the AEI writes, "the flipside of communism is mistaken: The economy is not a holy, untouchable, object," then you know Marx has accomplished something. 

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