The Moral Vacuum

I call your attention to a comment made in an excellent post on the website titled “Zenocrat” and written by Ewa Kuryluk. She notes, in speaking of Franz Kafka, that:

Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine.

While somewhat disquieting, this is brilliant sentence that captures the heart and soul of capitalism and the moral problems it raises. The notion that this efficient economic system operates “in a moral vacuum” is precisely why it has come under such close scrutiny by thinkers like Karl Marx and Robert Heilbroner.

Marx talked about “Constant Value” and “Variable Value” which are based on the cost of the means of production, salaries of all employees, including management and owners, deterioration of the physical plant, and the like. But over and above these, insists Marx, there is something he called “Surplus Value,” which is created ex nihilo, as it were, in that it does not correlate in any way to the human labor that went into the production of the commodity, and which (in the form of great wealth) somehow manages to end up in the pockets of the owners of the means of production. In today’s world this is reflected by the salaries of the CEOs of giant corporations in this country who make between 300 and 700 times what their average employee makes. This is usually “justified” on the grounds that the CEO must be paid a “competitive” salary (with benefits) for fear of losing them to another company. Or there is talk about the “risks” he or she takes in running such a giant corporation. But these are pathetically weak excuses in light of the huge disparity they attempt to cover up.

Not many years ago the N.F.L. Players Association struck professional football on the grounds that the players’ salaries should be based on the “take” from the total number of games they played in a season, billions of dollars. Granted, the players were already making huge sums of money — though paltry by today’s standards — but they felt it was only fair that the pie should be cut in such a way that the players got their fair share rather than the amount each individual could bargain for on his own. Interestingly, this is a thoroughly Marxian notion (though the players would be reluctant to admit that). The total pie in professional football, even at that time, was huge, and on Marxian principles the players should have been allotted their fair proportion, even granting that the owners’ shares might remain large.

Robert Heilbroner worried about many of the same things, particularly the moral vacuum of which Kuryluk speaks. In The Nature and Logic of Capitalism he notes that:

“[Capitalism] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last, and most important, because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all elicit activity from  any need to justify itself on other grounds. . . . The expansion of capital is aided and abetted by the declaration that moral and aesthetic criteria — the only dikes that might hold back the flood tide of capital’s expansion — are without relevance within the realm of economic activity.”

And it is precisely this lack of moral restraint, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as moral high ground — the notion that “all’s fair in love, war, and business — that provides the grounds for the concern about the “totalitarian death machine” of which Zuryluk speaks. There need to be moral dikes to stem the tide of greed and avarice endemic to capitalism. We have hints of this today in this country in light of a Federal Administration headed by a quasi-successful businessman who yearns to be a despot.

There is no question that Western men and women have benefitted in many ways from capitalism. Adam Smith thought this justified the lack of moral restraints that Heilbroner mentions and Kafka and Marx worried about. Of course, Smith was convinced that human beings had a natural sympathy for one another that would mitigate somewhat the raw forces of competitive capitalism and the subsequent bracketing of moral precepts. In any event, this may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear that we are better off because we now have two SUVs, a powerboat plus a skidoo, and a home on the lake (which require that both husband and wife work full-time) than we would be if we all lived in smaller homes where one spouse lived at home, perhaps with the grandparents living in as well, and where the family could spend time together and the children could get the discipline and structure that they surely miss.

In a word, it’s not at all clear that the benefits of capitalism outweigh the costs, whether the “moral vacuum” of which Kuryluk speaks will not eventually suffocate us.

Adam Smith on Sympathy

Adam Smith is well known for his Wealth of Nations which many regard as the first serious treatise on economics. As an economic treatise it has many flaws, chiefly its reliance on the “labor theory of value,” which Karl Marx also mistakingly embraced. Many like to quote Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” that is supposed to promote social improvement. In economics, as Smith saw it, if everyone pursues his or her self-interest the ensuing competition among all will raise the level of quality in the work and eventually, as though led by an “invisible hand” all will benefit, “an end which was no part of his original intention.” The key here, which many simply ignore, is the marriage of this theory with Smith’s notion the “moral sense.”

In a word,  before Adam Smith was an economist he was an ethical theorist. He wrote a treatise on the” Theory of Moral Sentiment,” which must be viewed as a part of his overall coherent system. In fact, his economic theory is couched within his moral sense theory: total economic competition with no sense of the importance of the other, no moral sympathy, would result in brutishness in Smith’s view. So while many on the political right embrace Smith’s view of “free self-interested activity” they ignore the vital element of moral sympathy which tempers his position considerably. Smith thought all humans have an innate moral sympathy brought out by their proximity of others.

One of the passages in his treatise on the Moral Sentiments is especially interesting and I will quote it at length:

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

What is interesting here is the stress on the importance of others and of society in general in helping to develop the moral sentiments which help build character and promote virtue. But if we read Smith carefully in the above passage we will realize that in describing the attitude of those raised outside of society he seems to be describing so many of those of us who are very much a part of society. It’s as if we have turned so much into ourselves that we act as though we are alone on this planet. It’s all about “me,” and I care not about you because I am not fully aware that you are there — unless you cross me somehow. Then, look out! By himself, Smith notes, a man lacks in character, propriety, a sense of demerit or the “beauty or deformity of his own mind.”

One does wonder if we have become so distanced from the others with whom we share this planet we are well on the way toward losing any sort of moral sensibility — a sensibility that requires that others are aware of us and we are aware of others and are concerned about them as well as ourselves. Instead, for us “the objects of our passions, the external bodies which either please or hurt us, occupy our whole attention.” We are “brought into society” but we seem to be lacking the mirror that will allow us to see ourselves as others see us. This results, according to Smith, in a reduced — if not absent — moral sensibility.


A recent news story tells us all we need to know (and then some) about what really matters in American higher education. Here’s how the story begins:

Proving it’s not only small, private, liberal-arts colleges that are susceptible to financial distress, Louisiana State University (LSU) announced that it’s in the midst of drawing up a financial exigency plan.

Bloomberg News, which reported the development, called the plan “equivalent to a college bankruptcy” and noted that it would let LSU fire tenured faculty and restructure its finances.

The Baton Rouge-based university with over 30,000 students is drafting the plan, in part, because the most recently proposed budgetary cuts by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal threaten to severely impact the higher-education system in the state. The governor’s plans would cut the budgets for Louisiana’s colleges and universities to the tune of 82%, according to Bloomberg.

The president and chancellor of LSU, F. King Alexander, stressed the bankruptcy plan was essential since there has been little movement in the state’s legislature to make updates to the budget.

“We don’t say that to scare people,” Alexander was quoted as saying in The Times-Picayune. “Basically, it is how we are going to survive.”

(Read more:

The economic struggles of small liberal arts colleges are well-known, but this is the first news regarding the financial struggles of a major university and the obvious fact that large universities have so much more fat to trim than do small colleges hardly needs to be mentioned. However, the news that L.S.U. may have to make draconian cut-backs, including the firing of tenured faculty, is a shocker. But it should be read in the context of several salient facts: Les Miles, the L.S.U. football coach makes $4.3 million a year and has 17 assistant coaches whose salaries are almost certainly higher than the tenured faculty who might be dismissed. In addition, like all other major Colleges, L.S.U. is allowed 85 “full-ride” athletic “scholarships.” Assuming that all of these are out-of-state students (which is a fair assumption) this amounts to $325,397.00 per year — just for football.

The “restructuring” may be a bluff on the part of the president, of course, to bring the legislature to heel. But a much bigger bluff would be the threat to drop L.S.U. football — or any of the sixteen sports teams. Now that would get their attention! But, come to think of it, the bluff almost certainly wouldn’t work: the legislators know that L.S.U. would never touch the athletic teams! Tenured faculty for sure, but don’t touch the coaches or the athletics program. They know what really matters in major American colleges and universities — and it’s not education.

Good Books

There is an ongoing quarrel in academia about whether or not a book can be called “great.” The postmodern critics who have taken control of the academy and now edit the journals and determine the curricula insist that so-called “great” books are simply books written by dead, white, European, males and as evidence of pervasive male hegemony the same books are continually selected to be read by captive college audiences of young people who don’t know any better, thereby assuring that they will think like those who went before them.  Since there is clearly a political agenda involved, it is said, let the agenda be one that is approved by the postmodernists themselves. So it goes. I have argued in print against this point of view and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn any more. I think it is tiresome, academic exercise and the result is that young people no longer read the classics.  In any event, perhaps we can at least agree that there are “good” books.

One such book is part of the “masterful tetralogy” The Sea of Fertility written by Yukio Mishima. In the second of these books, the hero, young Isao Iinuma, is an idealistic ultra-conservative in Japan prior to the Second World War at a time when Japan is in a depression and the hero is convinced the nation — and especially the Emperor — can only be saved by people like himself from the “barbarians” from the West who are busily imposing their materialism on Japan. He forms a group of like-minded young men and they target a number of leading figures who, Isao is convinced, are determined to bring Japan to ruin in the name of industrial capitalism and higher profits for themselves. As I read this bells were going off all over the place, and especially when I read Isao’s assessment of the man he regarded as enemy #1, Kurahara, an immensely wealthy capitalist who is described by the narrator as “”the unmistakable incarnation of a capitalism devoid of national allegiance. If one wanted to portray the frightening image of a man who loved nothing, there was no better model than Kurahara.”

I pondered the descriptive phrase “capitalism devoid of national interest” and thought of the many wealthy Americans who think only of themselves and not of their fellow citizens. Their attitude works its insidious way through society by way of those wealthy few who have bought themselves politicians who answer to their every whim. I have had a problem with capitalism ever since I read R.H. Tawney’s classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in college. I was struck by Tawney’s conviction that there is an inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity, and have for years wondered how on earth this country, which insists that it has its roots in Christianity could embrace free-market capitalism — an economic system that stresses selfishness finding a home in the bosom of a religion that stresses selflessness. But Mishima’s point does not focus on capitalism, per se, it focuses on “capitalism devoid of national interest.” That is, Isao’s target is a man who “loves nothing,” who embodies the ideal of capitalist selfishness, who has no interest whatever in the well-being of his country or the people who live there.

Is it only me, or does this ring bells with you as well?

Taking On Big Oil

I am just ornery enough to think if Lisa Jackson pissed off the dirty energy industry she must have been doing a terrific job as director of the EPA. However, she will be stepping down after four years of scrutiny, second guessing, and downright nastiness from people like the Koch brothers surrounding her attempts to put teeth into environmental protection. As a recent Yahoo news story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The past four years of U.S. environmental regulation was marked by a crackdown on emissions that angered coal miners and power companies. Over the next four, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency will have to decide whether to take on an even larger industry: Big Oil.

Following Lisa Jackson’s resignation on Wednesday, her successor will inherit the tricky task of regulating a drilling boom that has revolutionized the energy industry but raised fears over the possible contamination of water supplies.

The battle between the dirty energy industry and environmentalists has been going on for years and centers around the untenable dichotomy: either jobs or the environment. One gets tired of pointing out that we can protect the environment while at the same time we create jobs. But, while true, the statement falls on deaf ears, since when Big Oil says “jobs” it means “profits.” It is clear, however, that clean energy can provide thousands of jobs. It already does. Despite the lack of any solid support from the government, the solar industry, for example, already provides more jobs than the coal industry.

But Big Oil has poured billions into fracking in an attempt to extract cheap oil and gas from underground. It has a vested interest in continuing to exploit the earth and those jobs assuredly are at stake. The problem is that the fracking process contaminates millions of gallons of water — which is going to become increasingly precious — thereby rendering it useless for human or animal consumption. Jackson has said in public that the process can be made safe, but studies now underway will prove whether she was just saying what she was coached to say. In any event, Big Oil has put the screws on Jackson and waits to see who President Obama will nominate for the position she vacates to take a well-earned vacation.

Speculation is that Obama will be reluctant to nominate an environmental “hard-liner” because of the precarious condition of the economy and the fact that the energy industry is one of the few bright lights on the economic horizon, and oil is one of the few bargaining chips this country has to play in the international game of survival poker. But Jackson’s experience has shown that even a strong person may wilt under the constant attacks of the monied special interests who pull the strings in Washington. Compromise is possible if the person heading the EPA is tough enough to stand up to Big Oil with its bottomless pockets. A weak person in that position will almost certainly prove to be ineffective — and that  is something future generations will live to regret. This may prove to be another example of short-term thinking directing political decisions; money provides the fuel. It’s getting to be a tiresome story.

Trickle-Down Economics and Other B.S.

[You’ve probably seen the photograph. It shows Ronald Reagan with a group of his associates in their Armani suits, holding drinks in their hands and doubled over in laughter. The word “Reaganomics” appears below the photo and below that the caption “We told them the wealth would trickle down.”]

Candidate Romney has proposed a tax plan that would continue and even expand the current tax breaks for the infamous 1% and increase taxes on the rest of us. The plan, which is phase two of Reaganomics and the equally infamous “trickle-down” theory, is designed to encourage the wealthy to invest their money and thereby create more jobs for those currently unemployed, thus enabling them to carry the tax burden which the wealthy prefer to transfer to others. In case we didn’t know that this is bogus economics, a recent story reveals that

The 2012 Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America, from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group, finds that One Percenters are hoarding three times as much cash as they were two years ago. Their savings rate soared to 34 percent in the second quarter of 2012, up from 12 percent in 2007.

I couldn’t possibly improve on the careful and detailed analysis my blog-buddy did on the idiocy of Mitt Romney’s tax plan which pleases no one this side of the Tea Party (which may help explain Romney’s recent choice of a running mate).  But unless I am mistaken what this means is that the poor will get poorer and the rich will be more careful to protect their already obscene amounts of spare cash. We have already seen the gap between the rich and the poor widen annually since the Reagan presidency as the rich continue to hide behind their tax breaks and subsidies and the poor continue to struggle to put food on the table. The notion that the rich will expand their companies, invest, and create jobs is tissue paper-thin: it is a myth exploded by downsizing and outsourcing — and information like that in the article quoted above. Indeed, there are a number of myths out there in this election year — some coming at us from the right and others coming at us from the left. We must be on guard. But above all, we must think through all the empty promises and vapid bromides to the real truth that lies hidden beneath — if there is any.

Anyone who tells us that he has a “secret plan” to restore health to the economy should be suspect. We should want to know the details; we should demand to know the details. Otherwise we are buying a pig in a poke. And anyone who tells us that the current tax breaks for the wealthy are a good thing, that the very rich should not pay their fair share of the tax burden, is shooting the bull. I have written about the need to rethink our take on taxes, how they do a great deal of good and should not be seen as simply a burden. But however we perceive taxes, we should all be asked to pay them, the rich as well as the not-so-rich.

In the end, the unperceived problem here is that the middle class, on whom this country has come to depend for its economic stability, is rapidly disappearing in the widening gap between the very rich and the growing number of poor. So more than ever before, we need to be aware of the wind-eggs that are afloat, especially in this election year. That is to say, we should read what is printed and listen to what is spoken with a considerable amount of skepticism: the people running for public office are coached to tell us what their marketing experts have told them we want to hear. It’s not about telling us the truth; it’s about getting elected — that’s pretty much all they know how to do.