Population Control

I recently returned from a brief sojourn to the North Shore of Minnesota where the sun is always shining and the temperatures are pleasant. It is truly beautiful. We met my wife’s brother in St. Cloud and drove up together to spend a few days hiking and visiting. It was delightful — though the return to home base with the temperatures in the 90s, the humidity off the charts, and the lawn burned out from the prolonged drought was a bit of a shock.

In any event, on the return trip we had to wait a while in St. Cloud for the train to arrive to take my brother-in-law back to hot and steamy Montana and we turned on the television in the motel room and watched a National Geographic special that touched on a timely topic: world population.

Now I have blogged on this in the past and have made my position clear: exploding human population is in my view the major problem facing the future of this planet — especially if, as expected, food production is adversely affected by global warming. But this program revealed an apparent truth I was unaware of, and that is that population in “developed nations” has dropped and is predicted to drop even further. The program focused on Japan where the country has taken it upon itself an effort to induce young Japanese couples to marry and procreate. It was mentioned that in Russia a young couple is given a refrigerator by the State if they have a child! In any event, there is concern among a number of those countries that their populations are dropping off and that this is a trend that will continue.

One would think this is very good news indeed — declining human populations are a good thing, surely! But it raises a provocative question: why would the countries by worried and making various attempts to provide incentives to young people to have more children? The answer is glaringly obvious once you think about the problem a bit: it’s all about the economy. These countries want bodies that will work, earn money, pay taxes, and buy things they don’t need. Fewer people endanger an economy that requires people to earn and spend.

Joseph Schumpeter, whom I have referenced in earlier blogs, predicted in the 1940s that capitalism would fail not because of the rise of the Proletariat as Marx predicted, but from its own successes. In a word, as young people become more affluent and more self-absorbed they would become more and more calculating (“rationalizing” was his word) in their approach to life and would decide that children would only be a deterrent to the satisfaction of their desires and they would wait to get married and have fewer and fewer children — if they had any at all.

As Schumpeter himself put it, young people

 “. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.” Moreover, they would think, “why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

As a result, Schimpeter predicted, population in those countries that depended on capitalism would see a decline in population and this would eventually cripple the economy. This, of course, explains why the “developed” countries are worried about the decline in human populations in their countries. It’s all about the money.

In sum, it would appear that reduced human populations would be a blessing as far as the preservation of the planet and the reduction of a great many of the global problems humans face at present, but if it hurts the pocketbook then it must be discouraged.

 

Advertisements

Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

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.

Regulations

We live in a time of ferocious de-regulation as the Republican majority in both houses of government in the United States is in positive tizzy to rid the country of those nasty regulations that have been interfering with the increase of profits for the very few. But there are regulations and there are regulations. Some are in the spirit of “mercantilism” that is intended to increase a nation’s wealth by regulating all of the nation’s commercial interests. Those are the regulations people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they argued for a system of “free enterprise” that would increase human liberty and contribute to the common good. That was in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment.

But there are regulations today that are designed to protect citizens from the dangers following upon the blind pursuit of profit that threaten the health and well-being of us all. Smith fought against “mercantilism” because the government at that time was intent on decreasing wages and expanding the pool of needy workers that would then be available to the wealthy who owned the factories. Smith argued vociferously for raising the wages of the working classes. The attacks of Karl Marx were also against the same propertied class in the name of the “workers of the world.” Today’s regulations that are designed to protect citizens from corporate abuse, not to mention the destruction of the planet that sustains us all, are of a different order and would most certainly not have been opposed by Adam Smith. One wonders about Edmund Burke who, while a student of Adam Smith, was also a more ferocious defender of the rights of the propertied classes —  though he had some rough words for the “sophists, economists, and calculators” who pervert the true principles of economy by promoting policies that were inimical to the welfare of the country.

In any event, those who might refer to Smith or to Burke in pursuing the elimination of regulations might want to reflect on the intention of the two thinkers., Both were concerned about the liberty of all citizens, though Smith was primarily concerned about the liberty of the ordinary workers who were busily being exploited in his day by the mercantile classes, the owners of the means of production, as Marx would have it a century later. Smith was a compassionate thinker, a pillar of the British Enlightenment and firmly at the center of the Scottish Moral Sense School of philosophy who was convinced that men would, left to themselves, do the right thing. His famous comment, often invoked in defense of free-enterprise capitalism should be taken in the context of his entire thesis and in his earlier work in moral philosophy. When he says that

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”

we must pause and reflect that this is the man who regards human sympathy and benevolence as fundamental traits in the human soul. The pursuit of self-interest, in Smith’s view, would not conflict with benevolence or the well-being of others, because we are all, Smith thought, concerned not only about our own good but also the good of our fellow human beings. By pursuing self-interest we are at the same time pursuing the best interest of others. There is no conflict, in Smith’s view, because all humans want all other humans to be happy and well off. All, that is, but those who own the factories that employ humans at starvation levels. Smith fought hard to demand that the government, if it interfere at all, fund public education and work to promote policies that raise the wages of the working men and women rather than to reduce them as many would do in his name today. The mercantile system that Smith criticized sought to direct the economy in the interests of national wealth and power, not in the direction of the ordinary worker. Thus, when he advocates free enterprise it was because he was convinced that left to themselves workers would care for one another and help the economy at the same time. He was convinced, for example, that educating the workers and raising their wages would increase productivity, improve worker morale, and increase profits, while at the same time making it possible for the workers to live fuller, richer lives. This is the free-enterprise system he advocated.

Smith would not have fought against the sorts of regulations that protect citizens today against the abuses of the large corporations that would poison the air and water. Nor would he defend the supposed “right” of mega-corporations to be deregulated in the name of increased profits. Certainly not if those actions were undertaken at the cost of increasing poverty for increasing numbers of men and women and direct threats to their health and the preservation of the planet on which we all depend, which they most assuredly are. Smith would never condone, for example, the sort of attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen of late. So those who invoke his name in defense of their attacks on regulations might to do well to actually read Adam Smith’s book and pause to reflect on the long-term costs of their short-term thinking.  It’s not all about profits. It’s all about the common good. It was in Smith’s time and it still is in our’s.

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.

Christmas Time

 

Hark the Herald Tribune sings

advertising wondrous things….

(Tom Lehrer)

It is that time again when we all wonder what those bright packages under the tree hold in store for us. Because, let’s face it, Christmas has become an orgy of gifts and greed, and it all starts at Halloween. The fiction that it is about giving and not about receiving is exposed in the TV advertisements showing the kids exploding with delight as they open the largest and most promising of packages or shrieking ecstatically as they discover the latest in electronic toys. Thus, it would appear, it is time to think about industrial capitalism and what it has meant to the growth, or diminution, of the human spirit.

To begin with, there’s no question that capitalism has improved the lot of the average human in capitalistic countries, if we measure in terms of “things” and allow that happiness is equated with standard of living. The average Westerner lives better than a medieval king. But if we take a deeper look, together with Robert Heilbroner, who wrote the book on capitalism (well, Karl Marx wrote THE book, but Heilbroner’s book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is worthy of serious thought) we find this:

“. . .the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”

More to the point, however, is this observation about the possible costs of judging all success and happiness by how many toys we can accumulate in our lifetime, a cost that involves replacing of moral values with commercial values:

“The de-moralization of economic activity removed any need to justify the logic of capitalism, provided that it did not directly violate the law or outrage the deepest moral convictions of society, but it made meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? Is it possible to condemn on moral grounds legal and profitable actions, such as the decision to relocate a plant at the cost of community disruption? . . .

[Capitalist ideology] 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 licit activity from any need to justify itself on moral grounds.”

Note the displacement here of moral virtues with what we might call “practical” values. Ethics is displaced by civil law, for one thing; “goodness” is equivalent to private happiness. If an action breaks no laws, makes someone happy, and results in profit, there is no need of further inquiry. The end of profit does, in fact, justify any means to that end. This is the new ethic which has displaced the old ethic that demanded justification and moral grounding for any action involving other persons, especially possible harm to others. An anecdote might help illustrate this point.

I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus at the university where I taught as a part of a lecture series that dealt with ethics in business. We invited the “ethics officer” at a large and successful company in Minneapolis to address the issue; she turned out to be a lawyer whose job was to see to it that her company did nothing that might end them up in court. “Ethical” became equivalent to “legal.” But, as Heilbroner suggests, they are not the same.

Again, some years ago I recall teaching a graduate course in Business Ethics and reading a book by a sociologist who examined in great detail the behavior of a number of employees who worked for several large corporations on the East Coast. What he found in common was the tendency to separate their actions on the job from their actions off the job. In the former case they could “live with anything” required of them to do their jobs — even to the point of burying toxic waste. In the latter case they insisted that they needed to look themselves in the mirror every morning and treat their families and friends with respect. In a word, they lived two lives. One life was centered around a loose grasp of traditional ethical and Christian values, the other centered around expediency, what was necessary to keep their job and please their bosses. Now, given that the workaday world has become the center of a great many lives in our nation, there would appear to be less and less concern about what one sees in the looking-glass while shaving or brushing one’s teeth, sad to say.

This has a direct bearing with today’s topic, of course, because it suggests that, in fact, we have become a society that has, as Heilbroner suggests, replaced traditional ethical concepts with commercial values and avoids altogether asking tough questions about our everyday activities if they might border on the unethical. Material gain has indeed placed itself at the center of so many of our lives as the most important thing. When we no longer seek the moral high ground because we seek instead the promotion, the new car, or are busily reaching for the package under the tree with our name on it, it is a sure sign that the human spirit has shrunk; as a nation we are at risk of losing our collective soul. Thomas Jefferson worried about this in 1788:

“What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

Christmas is merely the reductio ad absurdum of the displacement of ethical values, replacing the true meaning of a Holy Day with out-and-out greed. Peace On Earth and love of our fellow humans have been replaced by pleasure and self-indulgence. Right and wrong have been replaced by what feels good.

 Christmas time is here by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cups and don’t say when……

(Tom Lehrer)

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

Truth In Fiction

As a trained philosopher who also happens to love reading what used to be called “Great Books” — but which are lately dismissed by much of the academic community as the works of “Dead, White, European Males” — I would like to make the case for reading works of fiction written by exceptional writers, such as Barbara Kingsolver (who is not D.,E., or M.). I have mentioned her before because she has the ability to write fascinating stories that have deep and important messages beneath the surface. Thus, they are not just tales, they are also food for serious thought. I have mentioned her name before and dare say I will mention it again, but at this time I would like to focus attention on a brief exchange between the writer-hero of her brilliant novel The Lacuna and his lawyer as the F.B.I. hovers in the background ready to arrest the writer for subversion. The time period follows the second world war when Stalin went from being our ally to being Satan incarnate, the “Cold War,” the period of the so-called “House Un-American Committee.” The year is 1948 and our hero’s lawyer is speaking:

“What these men are doing could become permanent.”

“What do you mean?”

Suddenly he looked weary. “You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to menition it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified. . . . .”

“I’m an old man, I’ve seen a lot. But what these men are doing is putting poison on the grass. It kills the crabgrass all right, and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe forever.”

Now, of course, the lawyer is speaking of folks like Martin Dies, J. Parnell Thomas, and later Joe McCarthy who many of us have forgotten or would like to have forgotten, men who assaulted Civil Rights and the First Amendment in the name of “Anti-Communism.” But events did evolve as the lawyer says, precisely, ” . . . . a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time.” Countless decent men and women were brought to heel by frightened, small-minded, ambitious men in positions of power who were convinced that anyone who ever had shown any interest in, much less sympathy for, Communism or who spoke out for, say, Negro rights, or women’s rights, or may have read Karl Marx, were ipso facto Communists. And, despite the fact that no one really knew what Communism really was, thousands were scared silly — many of whom were literally destroyed by what was, in effect, a witch hunt.

Those days are over, one would think. But what about the other insidious elements in our culture that are designed to silence criticism and label the dissenter as an enemy, who fear words like “socialism” or “Muslim”? Those elements are more subtle in their tactics, but, at the risk of sounding somewhat paranoid, they are nearly as effective as the House Un-American Committee at silencing critics. In 1950 a writer dare not write anything favorable about Communism or the Soviet Union; today a writer dare not write anything that is not politically correct or pro-America. In either case, the written (and spoken) word is censored.

There seems to me to be a good deal of “poisoning of the grass” going on all around us. Does anyone seriously deny, for example, that the propaganda machine has gone into high gear as the DOD pays sports teams millions of our tax dollars to convince us that those among us wearing camouflage (and not at the moment hunting deer) are all, without exception, “heroes”? Does anyone in this culture today dare to suggest publicly that the wars these people are fighting are concocted by the government to protect monied interests? Does anyone dare to suggest the possibility that by invading Iraq for no good reason our nation gave powerful impetus to IS? Does anyone dare to suggest (other than on blogs that no one reads) that our democracy is “broken”and that the monied interests in this country will henceforth be calling all the shots? Recall the words of Voltaire: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Are we not, slowly and quietly, being “forced to stop asking questions”?

Let’s hope I exaggerate. But let us never stop asking questions — or reading thought-provoking fiction that has at its center profound truth.

 

Democracy and Socialism

Karl Marx, being a Hegelian, was convinced that capitalism was inherently contradictory and would therefore implode and in the process it would become transformed into socialism. The state would take over the means of production after the workers revolted against the owners who were exploiting them by paying them less than their labor was worth. The problem, as Marx saw it, was that in a capitalist economy workers are forced by circumstances to sell their labor as a commodity to a factory owner and this in itself is a contradiction — since labor is not a commodity. When, say, the carpenter who makes furniture in his small shop with an apprentice or two finds he cannot compete with the factory down the road that turns out furniture at a faster rate he must go to work for the owner of that factory in order to survive. The factory owner pays him a minimum wage (?) that has no relation whatever to the value of the objects the carpenter is now helping to produce. This is another contradiction. The real problem arises because the furniture he now helps to produce for the owner of the factory creates what Marx called “surplus value,” that is, value in excess of the value of the labor that went into the production of the furniture, including a reasonable profit for the owner. The owner keeps that surplus value himself in the form of excessive profits and therein lies another contradiction: the value that ought to accrue to the worker (because he helps to create it) goes to the factory owner. When the N.F.L. struck several years ago, the players wanted their income to be predicated on the amount of money the owners were taking in from TV revenue and at the gate. They didn’t know it, but the players’ stand was thoroughly Marxist.

In any event, because of these inherent contradictions within capitalism, Marx thought the government would inevitably take over the means of production in order to protect the workers and capitalism would be replaced by socialism which would almost certainly be coupled with a democratic political system — and history has borne out that coupling, for the most part. While there are obvious exceptions, such as the former U.S.S.R., not only is our democracy itself a peculiar mixture of capitalism and socialism, but there are a number of  nations that have found socialism fits nicely within the bosom of democracy — England, for one, and even more so the Scandinavian countries where, we are told, some of the happiest people on earth live and work.

It is amusing that a great many people in this country fear socialism the way folks in the middle ages feared leprosy — even though measures have been taken to make our economy more socialistic since at least the time of Franklin Roosevelt, and the government has always meddled in the economy. There has never been such a thing in this country as “free enterprise capitalism.” In the beginning the economies of the various colonies took the form of mercantile capitalism in which the colonial governments maintained considerable control in order to reduce the possibility of inordinate wealth in the hands of a few — fearing that it might develop into aristocracy, or fearing wealthy American colonists who might become a threat to Mother England. Most of the colonies also had laws prohibiting primogeniture as well, in order to spread the wealth. Despite these measures, a small group of wealthy Americans was able to help fund the revolution that eventually freed the colonies.

Many people mistakenly identify democracy and capitalism even though, while it is certainly the case that they evolved together historically, one is a political system and the other an economic one and the two are at times incompatible. Out-of-control capitalism, as we are seeing, results in incredible wealth in the hands of very few and a powerless electorate, which cripples democracy. At the same time, many people also fear things such as the Affordable Care Act because it smells of socialism and must therefore be “undemocratic” or “un-American,” whereas it does not conflict in any way with the democratic process. Folks frequently fear what they do not understand. These people need to be reminded of the fact that this country, which is ostensibly a democratic one, has been slowly but steadily moving in the direction of greater state involvement if not since the very beginning then at least since the 1930s and that a number of federal policies and agencies have sprung up since that time to avoid monopolies and to temper individual enthusiasm — largely because that enthusiasm in pursuit of profit has often shown complete disregard for the health and well-being of our citizens.

At any rate, capitalism is not to be confused with democracy and socialism is in many ways more compatible with democracy than is capitalism, especially our particular form of capitalism in which a few wealthy folks seem to have all the power and the rest of us simply go through the motions. A democracy is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, but when the corporations and a few very wealthy families control the reins of power the political system cannot be said to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of that term. In a socialistic economy, on the other hand, in which the possibility of a few gaining the vast majority of the wealth and power is thwarted by the intervention of state and federal agencies and the courts, the people have more power and the political process is more likely to be one that is amenable to the will of the people as a whole. In other words, democracy often joins more comfortably with socialism than it does with capitalism because more of the citizens are likely to be in a position to play an effective role in self-government when the wealth and power are not allowed to collect in the banks or off-shore accounts of a very few — and the highest courts are not declaring that corporations are “persons,” thereby allowing them to unduly influence the outcome of political elections. I don’t advocate the elimination of private ownership, since I am aware of the advantages of a competitive economy, but I do wonder why so many of our citizens are frightened of an economic system that, it turns out, is quite compatible with democracy and which almost certainly gives them more power and freedom in the end.