Cameron Murray: Unpopular Economic Opinions

Dave here. A touch of this is specific to Australia, but it’s mostly broadly applicable regardless of country of origin, and provocative nonetheless. Confess your unpopular economic opinions in the comments!

By Cameron Murray, a professional economist with a background in property development, environmental economics research and economic regulation. Cross posted from Fresh Economic Thinking

1. School is mostly about indoctrination into the national identity. It is also about child care, and for older children, about keeping them out of the labour force. If we were honest we could talk about education policy with this in mind, though no one does (okay, there are some exceptions).

2. Gossip is a fantastic coordination device, allowing us to find like-minded others by bitching about particular issues or other people. The underlying idea here is that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, so if someone wants to have a good bitch, they are likely to be similar to you. Could be one factor in homophily observed in social networks. Again, rarely discussed.

3. The tax debate is 99% about distribution, 1% about growth. Don’t let economists fool you with their models that they don’t even pretend capture real phenomena. When they say lower corporate taxes increase growth they are modelling a world without assets where all profits are devoted to new investments in capital equipment.

4. Microeconomics is no more scientific than macroeconomics, particular when it comes to theory. When people say there is progress in micro they mean in applied psychology, where experiments are widely used, and in empirical work where new data is helping to answer localised questions.

Most microeconomics though is still about markets, where aggregation of individuals is still a huge problem – it’s just a different level of macro.

5. Farmers are one of the wealthiest groups in the country and we shouldn’t prop up their businesses or lifestyles (see chart below) . They are not charities and will jack up prices when they can. We can protect food production as an industry by protecting the degradation of the land from incompatible and irreversible uses like mining, housing developments and so forth. But some farm businesses will go broke from time to time and that is not a problem. We also are a massive food exporter, so there is really no “Australian food security” argument.


6. Speaking of food security, we really overlook the main cause of malnourishment is poverty, not a lack of food production in the aggregate. Making poor people richer by taking from the top few percent of wealthiest and giving to the bottom 20% of the world would solve food security, amongst many other social ills.

7. Redistribution of global wealth is clearly the most obvious policy for a utilitarian. Bloody obvious.

8. Open borders to me seems like a way to pretend to be serious about global poverty and inequality. It allows supporters to pretend that the borders of private property within a nation are moral, yet the borders between nations are not. Somehow if I am denied, through accident of birth, to make a living from my share of the land in my own country, this is a radically different thing to Alex Tabarrok’s view, where he asks “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?”

As I have said before, even the wildest proponents of open borders agree that

“…open borders could not on its own eliminate poverty and that international migration could only help the relatively better off among the global poor”

Then what is it really for?

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. Plutoniumkun

    I agree with pretty much all of these, but I would note that (5) does not universally apply – in many countries the average farmer is still earning well below the national average. But what frequently happens (as in the UK and Ireland) is that the official farmers organisations become captured by large farmers, and start pursuing policies which benefit them. A few years ago it was noted that the Irish Farmers Association was pushing hard for changes to the farm support scheme which was actually quite damaging to the majority of their (small farm) members. But it benefited the large eastern dairy farmers who run the organisation, so they forced it through. In relation to this, I’d add that one of my ‘unpopular economic opinions’ is that ‘small farms are more efficient than big farms’.

    (8) is interesting – a lot of left wingers also support the Libertarian ideal of no-borders – I’ve read many arguments in favour, none of which I find in any way convincing. National borders are of course mostly arbitrary, but no more arbitrary than any other type of boundary or border. It has always seemed to me that the left has played into the rights hands in many ways by buying dubious notions about ‘rights’ in relation to immigration and cross-boundary movements. In this respect, I would say that one of my ‘unpopular economic opinions’ is that in most countries a pragmatic and relatively restrictive immigration policy is a necessity to maintain a national commitment to a fair welfare state and high minimum wages.

    1. EoinW

      It’s all about the nation state, which cannot exist without borders. The problem is that eventually citizens exist to serve the nation state, which takes top priority and just grows larger and more powerful. You’d think, in a country like Canada, sending citizens across the ocean to die in two world wars would be reason enough to question the true motives of the nation state. I guess when one is a member of the Anglo-American Empire it’s easy to enjoy being in the greatest club in the world.

      What I find bizarre is this need for human beings to be able to tell others where they can live. Immigration is simply a nation state power trip, controlling masses of people for its own benefit. Please don’t buy into the welfare state propaganda or the idea you must have a nation state in order to have decent and affordable health care. There’s no reason people cannot organise these things for themselves on a smaller scale. Eventually the corruption will become so bad we’ll have to go smaller scale or do without. However the nation state dictates the narrative. Thus it presents itself as indispensible. Like the global economy argument: arguing there is no alternative(meaning no free choice for the masses).

      The “accident of birth” point is excellent. We really are trying to imprison these people in their failed states.

      Personally, so long as they don’t end up in my spare bedroom or camping on my lawn, every Syrian can come to Canada. The terrorism issue is separate. if we were less willing to export our violence – or support the violence exported by others – then there would be no terrorist threat. Regarding the welfare state: no worries! Just get the Bank of Canada to fire up the printing press some more. We can’t pay for the welfare state we have now so why not double down and give some decent people a chance at a better life?

  2. equote

    The sole and proud origin of property is force. Anatile France in Penguin Island (p 53)
    (as is the border of nation states)

  3. Torsten

    Having spent too much of my life in school, I can’t help but agree with #1. However, the reference to the Frijters book proved a little disturbing. Here’s a fixed link to the book. It hasn’t yet appeared on Amazon, but there were a couple of web hits that provided a quick review. From this review,

    The love chapter is based on what they call “the love principle”, which they suggest is the one new theoretical contribution of the book (the novelty of the book otherwise being the way they bring together many other strands of thought). They state the love principle as follows:

    Love derives from the attempt of the unconscious mind to bargain with something that is believed to be capable of fulfilling desires and that is perceived to be too powerful to be possessed by direct means.

    Love (or loyalty) is the result of power relations. When someone has a desire, they assess whether someone (who may not necessarily by a physical entity) can provide it and whether it can be obtained from that entity by dominating it (greed). If not, this is where Frijters and Foster suggest love comes in. Love is a submission strategy, whereby the person unconsciously makes a “love bargain” and the individual starts to recategorise themselves to become one with the entity that they have submitted to.

    OK, I agree, I guess. Economics and most social sciences can be improved with a deeper understanding of primate behavior. But then in an online post, co-author Foster, self-described as “the product of an ivy league liberal arts education”, says this:

    The most successful education systems in the world not only train students’ conscious minds in what behaviours are expected in which situations, but also condition them into unconsciously aligning themselves with groups and ideologies.

    The conditioning of Australian children operates on many fronts.

    There is the distressing suggestion that indoctrination is the proper and primary function of education. Non serviam!

    1. fresno dan

      One other point
      “…Alex Tabarrok’s view, where he asks “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?”

      So Mr. Tabarrok would agree that the people in Ferguson are getting screwed? Soooo….where are they suppose to migrate to?
      It seems to me the whole point of migrants is simply to have more compliant people to exploit.

      (and hopefully everyone is aware of the poverty/oppression in northern US cities as well so I don’t think any argument about moving from Missouri to New York actually solves anything – so migration is essentially just a massive sweep your problems under the rug or run away from problems)

      1. Chris Geary

        Im guessing you havent actually seen the conditions of those brown poors trying to escape horrific conditions. RIght

        1. fresno dan

          So we are going to allow
          1.2 billion from India?
          1 billion from China?
          0.2 billion from Malaysia?
          0.18 billion from Pakistan?
          and here’s the entire list

          If you look at the brown people (you know there’s brown people in the United States – but I’m guessing you haven’t seen the conditions that live in…) in the United States, I’m thinking most of our new immigrants won’t get good jobs…or any jobs.

  4. Nicholas Cole

    I would modify #1 to include not just “older children” but young adults up to maybe even as far as their mid-twenties. That we now keep more and more people in the reserve army of labour through the mechanism of vastly expanded post-secondary enrollment while also piling them up with a debt is a sign of how wildly distorted our priorities as a society have become.

    I know this contention often raises accusations of being “anti-education” which is a fun way to announce to everyone that you’re not interested in thinking about the problem. It is our postsecondary institutions’ hugely bloated administrative arms, ludicrously overbuilt campuses, and dwindling numbers of quality, full-time faculty that are anti-education.

    1. Uahsenaa

      Maybe it’s high time for someone to simply adopt the curmudgeon mantle and make an ad educationem argument, be it long form essay or an entire book. It’s hard to critique education as it exists, though, without being immediately lumped in with people who are generally anti-intellectual and simply do not hold knowledge and understanding in high regard.

      1. Adam Noel

        I agree there is a lot of social inertia preventing people from having rational discussions about the value of education. I think, at this point, it is more likely for us to see actual criticism from conservatives than from progressives. Progressives, on average, have been convinced that the perverted entity called education today is something that must be preserved while more intellectual conservatives have less of a stake in that debate.

        One of the most saddening aspects of modern education (I’m thinking K to 12 here) is the increasing shift among teachers to educate students in how to game the system (as opposed to teaching the actual content itself). The primary focus seems (at least where I live) to be to teach students the best techniques for doing well on the standardized tests at the expense of the students learning anything at all.

        In the end, I do question whether there is much value in knowing what a quadratic function is for the average person but the primary focus of education (if education is to function as a tool for educating the population) would be teaching critical thinking skills. The answer to the question “Is this function quadratic?” is almost tangential to critical thinking. Unfortunately, we live in a world where these questions are the only ones on the test.

  5. financial matters

    I like the idea of linking open borders to private property in general.

    I think private property is another emotional term that is used for exploitation.

    I think it’s useful to distinguish one’s living space and personal items from those large concentrations of private capital that control markets. These were often acquired by force or by subsidies such as the rights to certain natural resources which would likely be better deployed if they were part of a public commons.

    Addressing issues like climate change and the refugee problems are going to take a more thoughtful use of these resources and aren’t going to be helped by continued violence.

    Michael Hoexter talks about the importance of mobilizing political support for these sort of objectives Locus of Control

    1. hunkerdown

      It clearly has not bade well for people to raise a generation or hundred of submissives who not only believe in but take orders from the imaginary friends onto which they project “the lies they live by” (one definition of culture).

      If mental handicaps are what it takes to tie large societies together, break them up.

  6. Chris Williams

    My two bob:

    First – number (1) – we hear it said, time and again from our political masters, that education, at least beyond secondary school, is a private good. One that must be paid for, in advance, by the student.

    Second – The other big lie from our political masters. We need taxes to pay for things like welfare, education and healthcare. Or we need to borrow the shortfall in taxes.

    Er no, that’s not how things should work.

  7. TG

    Very interesting. A few other random thoughts:

    1. This year India harvested a total of about 257 million tons of grain. With 1.2 billion people, per capita grain production is thus about 0.22 tons/person. The most wretched bare minimum of subsistence is about 0.3 tons of grain/person/year. Granted this does not count fish or fruits etc., but India’s problems are not about distribution. India’s problems are about production. The extreme inequality of Indian society is not the cause of poverty, rather poverty is the cause of inequality, as wealthy Indians profit from all that cheap labor, and meanwhile half the population is chronically malnourished… Sure, a few Indian billionaires build entire skyscrapers as private residences, but redistributing all their wealth would sink into a population of 1.2 billion as a drop of water in the Pacific ocean.

    If India had less population pressure, there would be more food, and market forces would increase the value of labor, thus driving rents down and wages up, and ensuring BOTH more per capita AND a more equitable distribution.

    I believe that there is a very high correlation between the amount of food that a country produces per capita, and food security. Who’d have thought?

    2. A world without borders will be a global commons, whose population and living standards will soon be set by places like Bangladesh.

    3. Macroeconomics IS a science, but it has been corrupted. Pre-1970, everyone including Keynes agreed that Malthus was right, and that demographics was a major if not the major factor in economics. However, this has been edited out of modern economics – because it is true! The issue is that an economic theory with real predictive power would likely be used to advance policies that would increase the standard of living of the average person, but limit the profits of the rentiers. Therefore economics has undergone a kind of feedback process wherein valid models and theories are driven out, and only those theories that have no predictive power (or relevance) are allowed.

  8. Synoia

    School is mostly about indoctrination into the national identity.

    Writes someone who obviously did not go to a private school.

    Catholic schools are about being catholic.

    Public Schools in the UK (not public at all) are also about Class.

    1. hunkerdown

      A class-conscious nation’s identity must necessarily admit of those classes as sub-identities within the national identity. Subjection to the local government is an important teaching in Paul’s epistles, notwithstanding the “in this world but not of it” clause, and Augustine’s just-war and other imperial apologetics are important in Catholicism. The key is that very few child warehouses that teach doctrine irreconcilable with the national identity are commonly held to be legitimate within those nations.

  9. hunkerdown

    Here’s mine: Collusion is usually more efficient than competition at producing broad outcomes over the long term per unit of total input.

  10. RBHoughton

    There is a point picked-up in Ilan Ziv’s recent film “Capitalisme” that resonated with me.

    When a bank loans money to a construction company to build houses, and then loans money to people to buy those houses, it funds both production and consumption.

    All debt is fictitious capital like the transaction mentioned – it is created out of nothing.

  11. tegnost

    My most unpopular economic opinion among acquaintances is that there is/was no need for complex eleventy solutionism absent reinstating glass-steagal, all that was needed was to prosecute the felons and auction their felonious businesses to better capitalized and run institutions (I like to use Union Bank as an example of a pretty well financed bank that could have taken a big player out) as made clear to me by Prof.Black. It’s very unpopular to say with the force of evidence that everything was there to do it and they didn’t.

  12. Mitch

    My unpopular opinion: college education should be low-cost or free. Every product that comes out, eventually becomes more and more affordable – but not education. My idea to reduce the cost of education: put it online. Pay professors to make videos of their lectures/powerpoints for online classes. Then allow anyone to log on, and take any course they wish. Then when it comes time for one to have their knowledge tested (take a mid-term/final exam), use a gymnasium or something of that nature to administer the exams. If you pass, it gets recorded that you passed that class and have attained the required knowledge.

    I just fail to see why people have to continue going to universities to pay large sums of money to the school, when they could receive the same education if classes were just offered online for little to no cost.

    This could be great for the economy. Instead of a student spending 100k towards a school, they could instead spend that 100k in the housing market or some other market – therefore stimulating said market. Instead of a school just blowing it on unnecessary things – brand new mac computers, printers, extensive landscaping, etc.

    But that’s just me.

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