Friday, May 10, 2013

Lumps of Mulligan and the Specter of the Disembodied "Idea Behind"

It's nice to see that Casey Mulligan and Paul Krugman agree on something, even if it's only their shared unquestioning credulity toward a 233-year old zombie mind-reading hoax.

Dean Baker calls attention to an Economix blog post at the New York Times in which Mulligan discussed "What Job-Sharing Brings." Mulligan opens his remarks with a classic paraphrase of the lump-of-labor fallacy canard, omitting only the "lump-of-labor fallacy" brand name:
The idea behind work-sharing is that employers have a certain amount of work that needs to be done, and that the work can be divided by many employees working a few hours each or a few employees working many hours each. If hours per employee could be limited, by this logic employers would have to hire more employees to get the same amount of work done.
Let's make this as simple as possible. Professor Mulligan doesn't know what "the idea behind work-sharing is." He has no way of knowing. He presents no evidence of any advocate of work-sharing saying that is the idea behind it. This is a bogus assertion and everything that follows is null and void because when you make up things about what other people supposedly think, it doesn't much matter what reasons you give for showing that they are wrong. If people didn't say those things, you have no reason for supposing they thought them.

Let's make this just a bit a simpler. It's not just that Mulligan is reading minds, he doesn't even specify who's mind he's reading. The argument is that mind reading is hard enough to do when you know what mind you're reading. It's darn near preposterous when you can't even specify the mind. Is that clear?

Jonathan Chait said something in discussing opinion journalism a couple of weeks ago that bears repeating (over and over again):
If you’re arguing against an idea, you need to accurately describe the people who hold them. If at all possible, link to them and quote their argument. This is a discipline that forces opinion writers to prove that they’re debating an idea somebody actually holds.
Fancy that! An idea somebody actually holds! Does anyone actually hold Mulligan's "idea behind" work sharing? Not that Mulligan knows of. But let's not single out poor Mulligan for mindless mind-reading. Here's what his comrade in mind-reading arms, Paul Krugman wrote almost ten years ago:
Economists call it the "lump of labor fallacy." It's the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done in the world, so any increase in the amount each worker can produce reduces the number of available jobs. (A famous example: those dire warnings in the 1950's that automation would lead to mass unemployment.) As the derisive name suggests, it's an idea economists view with contempt, yet the fallacy makes a comeback whenever the economy is sluggish.
Notice "the idea"? Now see who had that idea? I didn't think so. This is scarier than zombies, folks! No telling what those disembodied ideas might do when they get a mind to it!

Look, I've refuted this foul piece of dog crap that passes for economic conventional wisdom over and over and I'm sick and tired of repeating myself. The prototype of the disembodied idea is Dorning Rasbotham's unattributed "say they" from his 1780 pamphlet, "Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture":
There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed. This used to be performed by hands, without machines, or with very little help from them. But if now machines perform a larger share than before, suppose one fourth part, so many hands as are necessary to work that fourth part, will be thrown out of work, or suffer in their wages.The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand.
Can you identify who "they" are? No, not even if you go back and read the whole fucking pamphlet. "They" is a figment of Rasbotham's rhetoric. A straw man. Got it? Every word after the word "they" is a lie because there is no "they" there.

But it gets worse, people. I've got a database of around 577 recitations of the lump of labor fallacy claim going back to the 1870s. How many of them do you think cite a particular individual or organization that actually holds "the idea behind work-sharing"? Want to take a guess?

Here are the names of some respected economists who have either refuted the fallacy claim or have presented cogent arguments for the ameliorative potential of work-time reduction on unemployment (or both): John R. Commons, Dorothy W. Douglas, John Maurice Clark, Sir Sydney J. Chapman, A. C. Pigou, Maurice Dobb, John Maynard Keynes, Luigi Pasinetti. How many of those names do you suppose have been cited by the Mulligans and Krugmans when they disparage "the idea behind" work sharing?

1 comment:

Sandwichman said...

What's the "idea behind"?

It's an orifice pundits pull "it" out of when they don't know what they're talking about.