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Reparations [5]: Moral Compulsion

Reparations for American slavery require a sense of moral compulsion. Moral compulsion requires humility. Are we capable of it?

There is no hope for reparations if the topic is left to business and politics as usual – to the customary manner in which decisions are made, national affairs are conducted, pundits and media outlets clamor for sensationalism, social media serves up clickbait, religion and social science and academia offer their apologetics to an unappreciative public, and the elected and electorate alike close their minds to any opinion other than the one they already hold.

Reparations have no place in a culture given over to polarization, rage, and post-truth subjectivity.

The case for reparations cannot be heard by a society deafened with the noise of the daily outrage and distracted with the madness du jour.

The case for reparations cannot reach a national identity hijacked by endless competing and ever-shapeshifting agendas, histrionic accusations, and the exigencies of life ever more difficult and dystopian.

Reparations have no place where populists fan the fires of rage, and the enraged populace persists in voting against its own self-interest.

Reparations have no chance to gain the support of people long-starved of commitment to their communal welfare, unaware that their own beliefs and truths have done this to them, have dumbed them down with despair and chained them to the incessant grinding of life with no cushion against their misfortunes or safety net to catch them when they fall.

Reparations cannot capture the imagination of a nation that denies its people leisure time for renewal and reflection, that accepts as logical, normal, and virtuous that they should be compelled to labor in a state of total work without respite or gain or opportunity for improvement.

Reparations will not find a way in a nominally democratic country where the practice of democracy languishes under polarized ideologies, where systemic inequalities and social Darwinism are not merely accepted but revered as true and right and just and godly proof of their nation’s superiority.

That, and more, is why reparations don’t have a chance in contemporary America. Is there any countervailing force strong enough to pave the way for them?

Yes there is:  it is moral compulsion.

Moral compulsion is an urgency to set things to right, an overweening determination to be cleansed of an enduring ugliness, to be freed from the burden of national shame, a commitment to individual, cultural, and national transformation, an uncompromising will to transcend the mistakes of the past and meet the unprecedented challenges of today.

Moral compulsion would provide an irrepressible energy to displace the inevitable failure of reparations with robust action to ensure their implementation.

But what place does moral compulsion have in American policy-making at this time? Moral compulsion does not make the agenda of an administration devoted to consolidating its power by fomenting division and perverting the rule of law into a “law and order presidency.” Moral compulsion is also missing from the agenda of an opposition party incapable of anything other than the pathetic hope that if they stay still they will not be seen, if they remain silent they will not be singled out. Reparations have no chance when moral compulsion is unknown on one side of the aisle and a terror on the other. No conversation and compromise will ever be reached when even the least of moral consensus – common decency – cannot find common ground.

America’s current moral vacuum was not always the case.

“In the past, America has played a critical role on the global stage as a model for developing democracies, a crusader for human rights and a bulwark against the spread of authoritarian regimes. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called America “the indispensable nation” for its moral leadership. But unlike ever before, scholars say, America’s commitment to democracy is flagging…. The risk, [Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond] says, is a century defined by the rise of the autocrat.”[1]

That was then.

What is now?

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it was that America had grown tired of its role as the world’s “moral leader.

Moral leadership had become tiresome, our efforts not worth the return. The catastrophes of recent decades of international policy and a lost taste for globalization suggested we were not as suited to the job of worldwide betterment as we once thought. We could pick a fight anywhere in the world and win it, therefore our strategy for bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been to impose our moral will by military force, covertly supported with the covert support of right-wing strongmen through corruption, bribery, torture, and other forms of governmental criminality. Our moral duplicitously was exposed when a raft of domestic and international whistleblowers and secret-leakers disgorged our tactics into public awareness, turning our times and technologies into apocalyptic revelation. They pulled back the facades of our imperial pridefulness, revealed the behind and beneath, ushered in a Great Revealing of ourselves to ourselves. Our secret vaults were opened, our private and vulnerable selves made known, all motives revealed, alliances betrayed, files ransacked, classified access breeched, proprietary information violated, everything hacked and made Open Source, seals all broken, all safes cracked, all containers emptied and their contents strewn across a million conference tables and chronicled in the tabloids.

By 2016, we had lost the stomach for it. Moral leadership had become a “loser.”

There was a moral lesson in all this that we could have learned, and new national self-awareness we could have gained.

    • What we will see, and what we won’t. The lenses we wear. The silos we construct.
    • What we block, recoil from. The shadows in our souls. The things we fear. The parts of us that threaten our own being.
    • Our biases, assumptions, prejudices, projections and deceptions. The cases we build to advantage ourselves, and the lengths we’ll go to cling to them.
    • The order we have imposed on life and the people in it. Rank, pecking order, winners and losers. Who we’ll talk to, friend, like, follow, ally with, and who we won’t. And why.
    • What we consider reasonable, viable, proper, possible… and their opposites.
    • What we will say, and what we won’t.
    • What we will hear, and what we won’t.
    • The secrets we carry, that we are confident will never be known by anyone but ourselves.
    • The cultivated appearances we can no longer keep up.
    • Our selective memories, choices, regrets. And resentments. Alliances betrayed and relationships broken. Forgiveness neither extended nor received.

The new, unflattering self-awareness we might have gained from these revelations could have helped us regain a newly realigned perspective on who we had become. But we didn’t want to hear it, so we didn’t learn it. There were some rare feints at remorse:  press conference confessions saying we were sorry while the betrayed stood stoically by. No one was fooled:  we weren’t sorry we did it, we were sorry we got caught.

What have you gathered to report to your progenitors?
Are your excuses any better than your senator’s?
He held a conference and his wife was standing by his side
He did her dirty but no-one died

What are you waiting for, a kiss or an apology?
You think by now you’d have an A in toxicology
It’s hard to pack the car when all you do is shame us
It’s even harder when the dirtbag’s famous

          The Killers, Run For Cover

Mostly, we stormed and swore vengeance against the prophets of our moral recrimination. We labelled them as traitors and enemies, blew their legal cover, strong-armed foreign governments to give them up to our salivating justice. We were defensive because the truth hurt. American was not as blameless as we wanted to think.

It could have been a moral reckoning, but it wasn’t.

The disorienting truth could have reoriented us as a nation, could have shown us how we had shunned and discarded our ideals to make room for the twin pillars of our foreign policy:  capitalism and militarism, We could have become freshly aware of what we had built while no one was looking and we weren’t paying attention. We could have, but we didn’t. We couldn’t separate ourselves from our need to feel good about ourselves, from our national belief — that we breathe in from childhood and begin learning before preschool — that our nation is the apex of civilization — morally, spiritually, militarily, and economically. If we were appalled at all by what we had become, it was not because of what we might have learned about ourselves but because we were terrified to see our shadow selves dredged up from our  own hidden vaults, now walking the streets; haunting and pursuing , calling us out. We completed our denial and purposeful self-deception by concluding that surely some enemy had done this, had sown tares in our heartland wheat. They had done it. And now we were on to Them, newly justified in our judgment and pure in our hatred of Them.

We had been called to reckon, but we didn’t. We still haven’t. We denied and fled – away from Them and into ourselves. Globalization became a dirty word. Among its many faults was that it had made the world too small. We had too many neighbors too close, too unlike us. We needed our open spaces back, needed to feel again our rugged individualism, the spirit that tamed the Wild West.

“Globalization may be partly to blame [for America’s flagging commitment to democracy]: In an increasingly interconnected world, governing has gotten trickier. ‘If you have a constant flow of capital, people and trade goods, it’s harder to figure out what to do in your own country,’ says political science professor Anna Grzymala-Busse, who directs the Global Populisms Project at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The increasing interdependence of the world’s economies also limits the impact of any one nation’s policies. As mainstream politicians struggle to solve ‘national’ problems that are, in actuality, intertwined with the actions and economies of other countries, voters can start to view them as inept.

“Globalization has stoked nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment among citizens who fear not only the economic but also the cultural changes that can accompany such shifts. There again, Grzymala-Busse says, populists have stepped in, defining ‘the people’ of a country narrowly and subjugating minority interests. ‘Populist movements have this very corrosive impact on democracy,’ she says.”[2]

We abandoned the global village and rushed home to ourselves –the people we wanted to believe we had once been and still were. We put those people and their country first. We demonized and expelled outsiders, built walls against Them, withdrew trade, made capital calls, foreclosed on collateral, imposed tariffs. We imprisoned them, banned their travel, rejected them. It was our turn, our time, and we would make the best of it.

And none of that helped assuaged our national conscience, rooted as it was in the lies of lost utopia.

Lashed on by those who stood to gain the most from our disorientation, we stormed the gates of the lost Garden in hyped-up agitation, and the more we ranted, the more we became addicted, drugged with the madness of a mob that promised a return to the unjustified and unaccountable superiority we had granted to our idealized and delusional past. We reconstituted our fictional past into a delirious present, created in the image of every broken promise we had ever made.

We doubled down on a bluff, and when the other worldwide players laughed at our bravado, our national resentment turned spiteful and toxic. We turned our rage not only against Them but against ourselves. We banned the notion of the public welfare and communal good. We forfeited our rights to a living wage, to healthcare and education, to security in retirement, to home ownership, to security against our own human frailty and life cycles. We derided the notion of public welfare as weak and pitiful, and converted all of life and culture, law and economics, government and socio-economic policy over to hyper-competition. We traded moral and societal good for law and order, the triumph of power, and the ascension of socio-economic elitism. We drowned out doomsayers with chanted mythologies that placed humans, and particularly Caucasians, at the apex of Creation, crowned with the divine right to subdue it to our own ruin. We jettisoned science, objective truth, and reasonable discourse in favor of an unbridled right to mangle our own truth until it made us gods, force-feeding our starving souls with “reality” that wasn’t.

And now, into our failed and rejected moral leadership and policies of communal hatred comes the idea of reparations for slavery.

Which is why reparations don’t have a chance under America’s populist overlords and their domestic armies. The moral compulsion reparations require has been crushed in the void of our national implosion.

Reparations offer us a way out – a way to restore ourselves and our nation, to push back the night, to draw ourselves back from the brink of our final self-destruction. Paying the moral debt of slavery offers the salving of our collective conscience through restoring and recreating, repairing and remediating the stain of our beginnings and our stumbling path through our own history. It offers to fill the unfathomable moral trough excavated by the systematic brutalization of an entire class of fellow humans in ways that none, nobody, not one of the rest of us would ever. never, not ever accept for ourselves, not in a million years, but that our ancestors carried out in untroubled allegiance to what for them was normal, legal, and their divine right – an ideological tradition the nation has carried on ever since the ultimately empty “victory” of the Civil War, which officially abolished slavery but left untouched its de facto existence.

In our current moral vacuum, reparations for slavery are not just difficult and troublesome and unlikely, they are impossible – irrevocably not-on-my-watch, over-my-dead-body impossible. They have only one hope:

Reparations will be made only when
they are no longer reparations for slavery.

Not even if they are made for racism.

But when they are made for our lost humanity.

The essence of moral compulsion is humility.

America would need to do as Germany did after the Holocaust — publicly relinquish belief in the superiority of white European ancestry. Germans had to abandon the “Teutonic national myth.” Americans would need to abandon the myth of manifest destiny. Humbling ourselves in that way would be heroic.

If Germany’s example plays out in America, there would be violent opposition. And, as Germany’s example also teaches us, humility is a two-way street:  both those making reparations and those benefiting from them must humble themselves to each other and before the eyes of the watching world. Humility will not be easy on either side:

“Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve;
nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.”

T.S. Eliot

We will look more at Germany’s example next time, also at the international mechanism created after WWWII that could help us with the difficult task of humbling ourselves – a mechanism  that America’s government has rejected.

[1] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[2] Ibid.

Reparations [4]:  The Essential Doubt

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true

I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

Kathy’s Song[1]
Paul Simon

We saw last time that the U.S. government could waive its legal defense of sovereign immunity to pave the way for slavery reparations. It would take more than a legal reckoning for that to happen. Law lies on the surface of society, readily visible, but it has deep roots in history and ideology, national identity and mission, values and beliefs, ways of looking at the world and how life works.[2] These ancient root systems invoke fierce allegiances deeply embedded in human psyche and culture. Because the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity is grounded in Biblical doctrine,[3] laying it aside requires doubt and dissent of the highest order – national treason and religious apostasy in a single act.

Doubt of that magnitude is rare beyond description but not without precedent. Consider, for example, Germany’s reparations for World War II, which required not only the international banishment of Nazism, but also the German people’s moral renunciation of Nazism’s philosophical and political roots stretching back to the 19th Century.[4]; In comparison, the USA”s roots of slavery (and hence racism) extend back to the earliest New World settlements, which imported English common law, including the divine right of kings and its nationalistic version, sovereign immunity. Renouncing the latter to pave the way for slavery reparations would require a similar American moral renunciation of centuries of related social, economic, and political ideology and set new terms for a post-racism American state.

That, in turn, would require a reckoning with the “first cause” roots of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity.

The First Cause Roots of Sovereign Immunity

A “first cause” satisfies the human desire for life to make sense by assigning a cause to every effect. Trouble is, as you trace the cause and effect chain to its remotest origins, you eventually run out of causes, leaving you with only effects. That’s when a first cause comes to the rescue. A first cause has no prior cause – it is so primary that nothing came before it but everything came after it. Since knowledge can’t reach that far back, a first cause is a matter of belief:  you take it on faith, declare the beginning into existence, and go from there.

Western civilization’s worldview historically identified God as the ultimate first cause.

“The classic Christian formulation of this argument came from the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas argued that the observable order of causation is not self-explanatory. It can only be accounted for by the existence of a first cause; this first cause, however, must not be considered simply as the first in a series of continuing causes, but rather as first cause in the sense of being the cause for the whole series of observable causes.

“The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant rejected the argument from causality because, according to one of his central theses, causality cannot legitimately be applied beyond the realm of possible experience to a transcendent cause.

“Protestantism generally has rejected the validity of the first-cause argument; nevertheless, for most Christians it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists. The person who conceives of God in this way is apt to look upon the observable world as contingent—i.e., as something that could not exist by itself.”[5]

God is the ultimate Sovereign from which all lesser sovereigns – the king, the national government — derive their existence and legitimacy. God’s first cause Sovereignty justifies God’s right to rule as God sees fit. The king and the state, having been set into place by God, derive a comparable right of domination from God. The king and the national government are to the people what God is to them.

The Divine Right of Kings

When kings ruled countries, their divine line of authority took legal form as the Divine Right of Kings.

“The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It stems from a specific metaphysical framework in which the king (or queen) is pre-selected as an heir prior to their birth. By pre-selecting the king’s physical manifestation, the governed populace actively (rather than merely passively) hands the metaphysical selection of the king’s soul – which will inhabit the body and thereby rule them – over to God. In this way, the ‘divine right’ originates as a metaphysical act of humility or submission towards the Godhead.

“Consequentially, it asserts that a monarch (e.g. a king) is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from divine authority, like the monotheist will of God. The monarch is thus not subject to the will of his people, of the aristocracy, or of any other estate of the realm. It implies that only divine authority can judge an unjust monarch and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict their powers runs contrary to God’s will and may constitute a sacrilegious act.”[6]

The Divine Right of Kings was a favorite doctrine of the first King James of England, who commissioned what would become the King James Version of the Bible partly in response to Puritan challenges to the Church of England’s doctrine of an ordained clergy that could trace its lineage to the original Apostles.

Divine right of kings, in European history, a political doctrine in defense of monarchical ‘absolutism,’ which asserted that kings derived their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament. Originating in Europe, the divine-right theory can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the new national monarchs were asserting their authority in matters of both church and state. King James I of England (reigned 1603–25) was the foremost exponent of the divine right of king….”[7]

“While throughout much of world history, deified potentates have been the rule, in England, absolute monarchy never got a solid foothold, but there certainly was the attempt. Elements of British political theory and practice encouraged absolutism—the idea and practice that the king is the absolute law and that there is no appeal beyond him. Several movements and ideas hurried along the idea of absolute monarchy in England. One of those ideas was the divine right of kings,

“In England, the idea of the divine right of kings will enter England with James VI of Scotland who will come and rule over both England and Scotland as James I in 1603 and will commence the line of several ‘Stuart’ monarchs. James had definite ideas about his role as monarch, and those ideas included the divine right of kings. Here are just a few of James’ statements that reflect his view that he ruled by divine right:

      • Kings are like gods— “…kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”
      • Kings are not to be disputed— “… That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
      • Governing is the business of the king, not the business of the subjects— “you do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft . . . to meddle with that were to lesson me . . . I must not be taught my office.”
      • Kings govern by ancient rights that are his to claim— “I would not have you meddle with such ancient rights of mine as I have received from my predecessors . . . .”
      • Kings should not be bothered with requests to change settled law— “…I pray you beware to exhibit for grievance anything that is established by a settled law…”
      • Don’t make a request of a king if you are confident he will say “no.”— “… for it is an undutiful part in subjects to press their king, wherein they know beforehand he will refuse them.”

“James’ views sound egotistical to us today, but he was not the only one that held them. These views were held by others, even some philosophers. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a work called Leviathan in 1651 in which he said that men must surrender their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. While Hobbes’ was not promoting the divine right of kings per se, he was providing a philosophy to justify a very strong absolute ruler, the kind that the divine right of kings prescribes. Sir Robert Filmer was a facilitator of the divine right of kings and wrote a book about it called Patriarcha (1660) in which he said that the state is like a family and that the king is a father to his people. Filmer also says that the first king was Adam and that Adam’s sons rule the nations of the world today. So, the King of England would be considered the eldest son of Adam in England or the King of France would be Adam’s eldest son in France.”[8]

King James, Witch Hunter

King James had no impartial academic interest in a Bible translation that supported his divine right:  during his reign, the “Cradle King” accumulated a long list of covered offenses that included mass murder, torture, injustice, tracheary, cruelty, and misogyny.

“The witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750 were among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history – holocausts of their times. Historians have long attempted to explain why and how they took such rapid and enduring hold in communities as disparate and distant from one another as Navarre and Copenhagen. They resulted in the trial of around 100,000 people (most of them women), a little under half of whom were 
put to death.

“One of the most active centres of witch-hunting was Scotland, where perhaps 
4,000 people were consigned to the flames – 
a striking number for such a small country, 
and more than double the execution rate in England. The ferocity of these persecutions can be attributed to the most notorious royal witch-hunter: King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England.

“Most of the suspects soon confessed – under torture – to concocting a host of bizarre and gruesome spells and rituals in order to whip up the storm.… James was so appalled when he heard such tales that he decided to personally superintend the interrogations… while the king looked on with ‘great delight’.

“James’s beliefs had a dangerously misogynistic core. He grew up to scorn – even revile – women. Though he was by no means alone in his view of the natural weakness and inferiority of women, his aversion towards them was unusually intense. He took every opportunity to propound the view that they were far more likely than men to succumb to witchcraft…. He would later commission a new version of the Bible in which all references to witches were rewritten in the female gender.

“Most witchcraft trials constituted grave miscarriages of justice…. If the actual facts of a case were unsatisfactory, or did not teach a clear enough moral lesson, then they were enhanced, added to or simply changed.”[9]

When the new King James Bible substantiated the King’s divine right to carry on these activities, and when the USA imported the king’s divine right into its legal system as sovereign immunity, both acknowledged God as the first cause of these legal doctrines. Like the King, the U.S. government also has a long list of covered offenses:  the treatment of slaves during the reign of legal slavery mirrors King James’ obsession with brutalizing, lynching, and murdering witches.

In the U.S., where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of Americans believe in God  (depending on how the question was asked), there remain many ”Christians [for whom] it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists.[10] As a result, we see in the USA’s current social and political climate both explicit and implicit affirmation of the following Bible passages (which the online source appropriately expresses in the King James version) to substantiate the ability of national leaders to avoid accountability for acts of governance that sponsor this kind of horrifying treatment of citizens.[11]:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Romans 13:1-5, KJV

“Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” Psalms 75:5-7, KJV

“Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:” Daniel 2:20-21, KJV

“This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” Daniel 4:17, KJV

“I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me.” Jeremiah 27:5, KJV

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Proverbs 21:1, KJV

“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” 1 Samuel 15:23-26, KJV

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Acts 12:21-23, KJV

The Ultimate Focus of Doubt:  God

In “Abrahamic” cultures — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – the Biblical God is the first cause of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity. The full force of patriotic nationalism and religious zeal therefore originates with God – which explains why a surprising number of European nations had blasphemy laws on the books until not that long ago, and why some nations still do.[12]

“Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, or sacred objects, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.”[13]

God, it seems, like kings and sovereign nations, has much to be excused from. Aside from the Biblical God’s sponsorship of war, genocide, mass murder, rape, torture, and brutality to humans and animals, a list of modern labels would include misogynist, homophobe, and xenophobe. But of course you don’t think that way if you’re a believer, because that would be blasphemy, often punishable by death, often after the infliction of the kind of cruel and unusual punishment reserved for the faithful and unfaithful alike. As for the latter, the Bible makes it a badge of honor for the faithful to suffer in the name of God:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” Hebrews 11:  35-39.ESV

Transformation Made Possible by Doubt

Nonbelievers not vexed with these kinds of rights of the sovereign and duties of the governed are free to doubt God’s first cause status and its derivative doctrines, laws, and policies. In the USA, doubt embraced on that level would open the door to any number of contrary beliefs – for example:

    • The state does not enjoy superior status — historically, legally, morally, or otherwise – that gives it a right to act without consequence.
    • The people governed are therefore not bound – theologically, morally, or otherwise – to submit to government that is not responsible for its actions.

Once you’re no longer worried about breaking faith with God as the first cause of your national institutional structure, a while new “social contract” (also discussed last time) between government and the people becomes possible – a contract that would, in effect, not be satisfied with paying only descendants of slaves “damages” for past harm, but would look to establish a fresh national vision of the duties of those who govern and the rights and freedoms of the governed. The result, it would seem, is the possibility of ending the USA’s institutionalized racism for good.

[1] Who was Paul Simon’s Kathy? And whatever happened to her? See this article from The Guardian.

[2] See the Belief Systems and Culture category of posts in my Iconoclast.blog.

[3] The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, Andrew L. Seidel (2019). Although the USA was not founded as a Christian nation, its core values and beliefs, like those of other Western countries, are Classical and Biblical in origin.

[4]  See Alpha History and The Mises Institute on the historical origins of Nazism.

[5]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[6] Wikipedia – The Divine Right of Kings.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.. See also the New World Encyclopedia

[8] Owlcation

[9] Borman, Tracy, James VI And I: The King Who Hunted Witches,  History Extra (BBC Historical Magazine)  (March 27, 2019)

[10]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[11]Bill’s Bible Basics.”

[12]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy law.

[13]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy.

Reparations [3]: The Airtight Legal Case Against Them, and the Moonshot That Would Make Them Possible

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win….”

JFK, Sept. 12, 1962[1]

It was 1962 and the Cold War was raging. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his “we will bury you” speech to 1956[2] and his shoe-banging speech in 1960[3]. Meanwhile, the competition had turned skyward[4], and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up.

“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.

“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”[5]

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compares Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:

“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess: twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’

“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”[6]

JFK announced the USA’s comeback with his “we choose to go to the moon” speech[7] to 40,000 people packed into the stadium at Rice University.[8] It was visionary in concept and triumphant in tone. The USA wasn’t going to go to the moon just because the Soviets were trying to beat us there, not just to win a celestial derby for a grand prize of bragging rights, and not just to gain the ultimate battlefield high ground. We were going to do it to further America’s mission of bringing peace to the nations, including the new frontier of outer space.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

The speech didn’t focus on the bad guys, didn’t accuse or blame them, didn’t spout media-speak about protecting our national interests. Instead, it was aspirational. It seized the high ground. We were going to the moon because that’s the kind of thing Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges because that’s who we are. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

It’s hard to imagine someone making a speech like that today. It feels hokey in the unforgiving hindsight of all that’s transpired in the past 60 years, and especially recently. No, I’m not nostalgic for the 60’s — those were not “the best days of my life.”[9] And no, I’m not beatifying JFK or waving the flag of American superiority – a myth I’ve long since had disillusioned out of me. It’s just that I miss living in a culture, nation, and world where leaders think and act and talk like that. And in particular, if we’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, we need to do so with the kind of attitude and outlook that permeated JFK’s speech. Otherwise, the legal technicalities will shut it down.

The Open-and-Shut Case Against Reparations

Here is the insurmountable legal case against reparations:

  • Slavery wasn’t illegal. There are and never have been criminal penalties or civil remedies against those who carried it out — all of whom are long since dead anyway.
  • The only possible responsible party is the government itself, which sponsored slavery in the first place.
  • But even if there were legal grounds to prosecute or sue the government (there aren’t) you can’t do it anyway. That’s because the government is protected by the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which means it can’t be held to account for administering its own law.
  • The only tribunal with authority to override the doctrine of sovereign immunity is international law, but submitting to international law is voluntary, a matter of each nation’s willingness to give up some of its sovereignty to its national peers, and that is a choice the U.S. has not made.

“Law and order” adherence to the legal case against reparations instantly shuts down the idea. The legal case against reparations is exemplified in what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said about the topic:

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War and passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, because it’s pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”[10]

McConnel’s comments make it clear that he views reparations in the conventional way of suing for “damages”– money –to recompense a victimized party for past losses.

I wasn’t there. Nobody who’s alive now was there. Everybody who was there is dead now. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. The law doesn’t hold anybody accountable.

He was right about all that. The rest of what he said was legally unnecessary, a resort to the kinds of rationalization and platitudes we reach for when what we really mean is “over my dead body.”

Slavery was bad, but why dwell on the past? We’ve been trying to move on, put it behind us. We’re a work in progress. We need to let bygones be bygones.

He didn’t need platitudes. He could have gone straight to the ultimate legal defense:

The Ultimate Defense: Sovereign Immunity

“Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine whereby a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”[11]

Sovereign immunity came over on the boat with the rest of English common law.

“Sovereign immunity finds its origins in English common law and the king’s position at the ‘apex of the feudal pyramid.’ In that pyramid, lords could not be sued in their own courts, ‘not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.’ Thus, lords could only be sued in the courts of their superiors, but, for the king, ‘there was no higher court in which he could be sued.’” [12]

Where Sovereign Immunity Came From: The Divine Right of Kings

Sovereign immunity is a carryover from the “Divine Right of Kings” – a legal doctrine formulated in the days when monarchies were more than ceremonial. The doctrine was derived from the Biblical worldview that underlies law and culture in America, Europe, and the U.K.

“The theory of the divine right of kings lent support to the proposition that the king was above the law-that he was in fact the law-giver appointed by God, and therefore could not be subjected to the indignity of suit by his subjects…. To Bracton the maxim ‘the king can do no wrong’ meant simply that the king was not privileged to do wrong, but to Blackstone the phrase was not so restricted, and in his Commentaries the following is to be found: ‘Besides the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king in his political capacity absolute perfection… The king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.’”[13]

The divine right of kings and non-monarchical sovereign immunity both mean that government –i.e., the people in it who determine and enforce its laws — get the same hands-off treatment as God. God can do no wrong — neither can the king or the President or their emissaries.

I still recall sitting in a law school class when I learned about this. How could it be, that government would not be held accountable for how it treats the governed? “Government needs to be free to govern,” my law professor explained.

There is, however, one powerful way through this legal barrier:

Sovereign Immunity Can be Waived.[14]

The government can volunteer to make things right – it can waive its own sovereign immunity. (It has in fact done so on other occasions, which we will also look at another time.)

Viewed solely as a legal act, a waiver of sovereign immunity would require the commitment and action of all three branches of U.S. government: an act of Congress, signed into law by the President, and upheld as Constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Beyond legalities, reparations would require a break from centuries-old notions of the right of government to govern as it sees fit. Such a break would require a new “social contract.” As one history teacher explains:

“The Divine Right of Kings represents a ‘Top Down’ approach to government, in contrast with the ‘Bottom Up’ approach of social contract theory, which claims that the people create governments for their own protection and that those governments serve the people who created them.”[15]

A New Social Contract

According to Rousseau, a social contract is the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. As Thomas Hobbes famously said, lack of that tradeoff is what makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[16] Or, as a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.”[17] A social contract suggests we can do better. As Hobbes said:

“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”[18]

The USA was created out of the colonists’ desire for a new social contract when their deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom. In response, the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence[19], the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That original social contract + revisions and amendments over the course of 250 years of history = the USA as we know it today.

Mitch McConnell was right: our nation’s history is always a work in progress – we are constantly revisiting and readjusting our social contract.

For reparations to happen, we need a new social contract that would enable a waiver of sovereign immunity. And for that to happen, the new social contract needs to explicitly reject a racial perspective articulated by none other than John Wilkes Booth:

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. “And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”[20]

Reparations Would Require Another Moon Shot

A new social contract is an idea of monumental proportions. People don’t rally behind small ideas. National transformation requires big, bold, decisive initiative — ideas like that are hard, impossible by current standards, that require voyages into uncharted territory and commitment to solve unprecedented problems. The USA would make reparations for slavery because that’s what Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges. That’s who we are. We don’t make ourselves the good guys and everyone else the bad. We don’t blame them, don’t spout media-speak about national interests, don’t hide behind legal technicalities. We do the aspirational. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

If the USA is going to make reparations for slavery, we need a new moonshot.

 

[1] Here’s the full text. See also Wikipedia.

[2] See a previously classified CIA report on that speech here.

[3] See Wikipedia.

[4] See this timeline for the Space Race.

[5] NASA.

[6] Tyson, Neil deGrasse and Lang, Avis, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,

[7] Here’s the full text.

[8] Wikipedia.

[9] Bryan Adams, Summer of ’69.

[10] Axios.com.

[11] Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States.

[12] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both. See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity” “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”.

[13] Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[14] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity” and Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States

[15] TomRichey.net.

[16] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan.

[17] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016),

[18] Hobbes, op cit.

[19] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as the ideals of one contract conflict with those of another.

[20] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).

Reparations [2]: Slavery, Human Capital, Le Déluge, and Paying the Piper

Après moi, le déluge.
(After me, the deluge.)
— King Louis XV of France

Proposed reparations for the USA’s racial history raise complex legal, economic, and other issues. We’re familiar with these – they’ve been well-rehearsed in op-eds and speeches by politicians and pundits, activists and the media.

Less familiar are issues more subjective than objective, reflective than combative, instinctual than intellectual. These are the province of shared human experience and sensibility, particularly of virtue — a nearly obsolete concept these days. Virtue prompts change not from the outside, not institutionally, but from a transformation in shared human consciousness, a cultural change of heart, We learn its lessons not from economic models and legal briefs, but principally from truth expressed in fiction –myths and legends, fables and feature films — Aesop’s Fables for adults. As one of Aesop’s contemporaries said about him:

“… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”.[1]

As we’ll see below, virtue asks more than legal compliance, it demands that we pay the piper.

In this series, we will look at both kinds of issues in detail.

History Lesson: The French Revolution

“After me, the deluge” is sometimes attributed to the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as “After us, the deluge.” Either way – King or mistress, me or us – the quote is usually taken as a prophesy of the French Revolution, delivered with an attitude of elite indifference that ranks right in there with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” (Which she probably never said.[2]) “We’re getting away with it now, but all hell is going to break loose once we’re gone.” And indeed it did, when King Louis XVI was guillotined a generation later, under the name Citizen Louis Capet. [3]

From that historical context, après moi, le déluge has come to represent an awareness of coming doom, a feeling that we can’t get away with this forever. Things are good now, but watch out, they won’t last. People thought life was good back in Noah’s time, but look what happened to them. We keep this up, we might get our own version of the Flood.

Contemporary Lesson: Economic Inequality

Plutocrat Nick Hanauer offers a modern version of the saying in his TED talk. According to his TED bio, Hanauer is a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” and founder of 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He unabashedly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for his own future, and the futures of his fellow plutocrats, if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

Whether French Revolution or today, the issue is “paying the piper.”

The Moral of the Story: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Victorian poet Robert Browning brought us the “paying the piper” idiom in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. [4] Here’s a synopsis to refresh our memories:

“‘Pay the piper’ comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.

“Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.

“Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.

“At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.

“When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.

“The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.

“Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.

“At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.”

After me, the deluge + Pay the piper = Pay the piper or risk the deluge

Virtue says don’t get greedy. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be a fraud. Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t be too smart for your own good. Don’t try to get away with it. You’re better than that. Fess up, take responsibility. Don’t invite the deluge – the sudden and terrible twist of fate, the movement of greater mysteries, the imposition of higher justice.

The rats you get rid of won’t be worth the children you lose.

The mayor and citizens of Hamelin defrauded the Piper at the cost of their own children. Justice was absolute — the mountain vault was sealed. The Piper was fully, awfully paid.

Reparations for American slavery are a proposed remedy – a way to pay the piper — for the lost humanity of slaves, stolen from them by a legal and economic framework that assigned slaves economic but not human value. Slaves were dehumanized, and virtue will not tolerate it.

Exploitation of Human Capital

Exploitation of capital assets is expected in a capitalist economy. Human labor is a capital asset, and will also be exploited — everyone who’s ever worked for someone else figures that out the first day on the job. But slavery took exploitation too far: slaves were not people, they were capital assets and nothing more. They were no longer human.

“Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were ex ante. What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair.

“It is relatively easy to come up with intuitively compelling cases of unfair, exploitative behavior. Providing a philosophical analysis to support and develop those intuitions, however, has proven more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is specifying the conditions under which a transaction or institution may be said to be unfair.

“Does the unfairness involved in exploitation necessarily involve some kind of harm to its victim? Or a violation of her moral rights? Is the unfairness involved in exploitation a matter of procedure, substance, or both? And how, if at all, are facts about the history of the agents involved or the background conditions against which they operate relevant to assessing charges of exploitation?”[5]

Slavery harmed its victims, exploited them both procedurally and substantively. And “the facts about the history” of slavery’s purveyors and “the background conditions against which they operate[d]” are most definitely “relevant to assessing charges of exploitation.” Today, 165 years after the nominal end of slavery, those charges remain unanswered, and unpaid.

Slavery and Human Capital

19th Century economist John Elliot Cairnes was “an ardent disciple and friend of John Stuart Mill” and “was often regarded as ‘the last of the Classical economists.’”[6] Writing during the American Civil War, Cairnes analyzed the impact of slavery on both human and other forms of capital in his book The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.[7]

“Cairnes’s shining hour was his widely-discussed 1862 treatise Slave Power.  Cairnes analyzed the consequences of slavery for economic development, in particular how it speeded up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally. Written during the American Civil War, Cairnes warned British policymakers to think twice about backing the economically-unviable Confederacy.  Cairnes book was instrumental in turning the tide of popular English opinion against the rebels.”

Writing about slaves as human capital, Cairnes said this:

“The rice-grounds of Georgia, or the swamps of the Mississippi may be fatally injurious to the human constitution; but the waste of human life which the cultivation of these districts necessitates, is not so great that it cannot be repaired from the teeming preserves of Virginia and Kentucky.

“Considerations of economy, moreover, which, under a natural system, afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master’s interest with the slave’s preservation, when once trading in slaves is practiced, become reasons for racking to the uttermost the toil of the slave; for, when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts.

“It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race. It is in Cuba, at this day, whose revenues are reckoned by millions, and whose planters are princes, that we see in the servile class, the coarsest fare, the most exhausting and unremitting toil, and even the absolute destruction of a portion of its numbers every year.”[8]

Five years after Cairnes wrote that, Karl Marx cited the above passage in Das Kapital[9] in his own analysis of slave labor as capital:

“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.

“‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?

Marx believed that the ultimate culprit was not the individual slave owners, but the capitalist economic system which sponsored the exploitation of all capital – including human capital – to achieve its competitive goal of profitability:

“But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Under the reign of capitalism, Marx argued, workers would be exploited – slaves and free alike — and this would be both an economic and cultural norm. This practice would become so entrenched that it could only be broken by a contrary “compulsion from society.”

The Deluge:  Civil War

“The deluge” is a form of “compulsion from society,” and civil war is a form of both.

The American Civil War was the deluge. The war ended almost exactly four years after it began, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, uncounted non-fatal casualties, and incalculable damage to the rest of American citizenry, human property, and nature.

“Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Both men fought for the Union. Their estimate is derived from an exhaustive study of the combat and casualty records generated by the armies over five years of fighting.  A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts.  It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.”[10]

Tragically, the course of American racial history would question if all those deaths had been in vain. War – the deluge, the compulsion of society – had its day, but it didn’t change cultural attitudes — the same ones that supported Antebellum slavery only became more belligerently expressed.

In France, Louis XV saw the deluge coming, Louis XVI suffered from it, but eleven years later Napoleon was Emperor.

The piper was never paid.

In the USA, war gorged itself on the American land and population, but the Union’s victory foundered on the failings of the Reconstruction.

The Piper was never paid.

The law concerning slavery was changed, but de facto[11] slavery lived on. Before the Civil War, slavery had been, like war itself, a legal crime against humanity, justified under the law of the land. After the Civil War, slavery was simply a crime, illegal as all other crimes, but propagated by a reign of terror that eventually gained its own legal justification that would once again have to be dismantled by another compulsion from society 100 years later.

After the war, you couldn’t own slaves anymore, couldn’t buy and sell them, but you could treat legally freed former slaves just as you once treated their legally enslaved predecessors. In fact, it was much worse. Before the war, the ownership and treatment of slaves was by legal right. After the war, de facto slavery relied on a reign of terror grounded in cultural indifference and brutality. Cruel and unusual punishment had been banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but de facto slavery relied on it to terrorize society into submission.

The Piper was never paid.

The U.S. Labor Movement and Human Capital

The American labor movement’s 400-year history is a chronicle of shifting economic theories and new labor laws brought about by periodic challenges – compulsions from society – to the capitalist norm of the exploitation of human capital.[12] Changing times generated changing attitudes, and American culture demanded accommodations in often violent ways.

And now, in the middle of another deluge – this time a plague, the Covid-19 virus – we have seen the most recent and striking societal shift in the form of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination.[13] Few would claim that the 56-year old Civil Rights Act specifically had today’s gender sensibilities in mind, but the law shifts with cultural attitudes when compelled to do so.

The labor movement will continue to change with the times. Issues of sexism remain, and technology – especially robotics, AI, and machine learning – are threatening human labor in ever-accelerating, unprecedented ways. There will be more deluge, more societal compulsion.

The Piper was never paid.

The Racist Roots of Police Brutality

Finally – for today, at least – the Coronavirus deluge has also recharged the force of societal compulsion currently taking on mass incarceration and police brutality, both of which have historical roots in the Reconstruction’s unresolved racism.[14]

The Piper was never paid.

We have much more to talk about. We’ll continue next time.

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14. From Wikipedia.

[2] See Solosophie.com and Phrases.org.

[3] For more about what the saying might mean, see this is from Wikipedia: “The most famous remark attributed to Louis XV (or sometimes to Madame de Pompadour) is Après nous, le déluge (“After us, the deluge”). It is commonly explained as his indifference to financial excesses, and a prediction of the French Revolution to come. The remark is usually taken out of its original context. It was made in 1757, a year which saw the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians at the Battle of Rossbach and the assassination attempt on the King. The “Deluge” the King referred to was not a revolution, but the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was predicted to pass by the earth in 1757, and which was commonly blamed for having caused the flood described in the Bible, with predictions of a new deluge when it returned. The King was a proficient amateur astronomer, who collaborated with the best French astronomers. Biographer Michel Antoine wrote that the King’s remark “was a manner of evoking, with his scientific culture and a good dose of black humor, this sinister year beginning with the assassination attempt by Damiens and ending with the Prussian victory”. Halley’s Comet finally passed the earth in April 1759, and caused enormous public attention and anxiety, but no floods.

[4]   Idioms.online.

[5] Exploitation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published Thu Dec 20, 2001; substantive revision Tue Aug 16, 2016).

[6] The History of Economic Thought.

[7] Cairnes, John Eliot, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (1862).

[8] Cairnes, Slave Power, op cit.

[9] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5).

[10] American Battlefield Trust.

[11] “In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.” Wikipedia

[12] See this timeline, which runs from 1607-1999, beginning with complaints about labor shortages in Jamestown in 1607, addressed by the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves stolen from Africa.

[13] Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times (June 16, 2020).

[14] See, for example, The Racist Roots Of American Policing: From Slave Patrols To Traffic Stops, The Conversation (June 4, 2019) and George Floyd’s Death Reflects The Racist Roots Of American Policing, The Conversation (June 2, 2020).

Reparations [1]: Economics and a Whole Lot More

The current civil rights movement has reopened the discussion about reparations for American slavery[1]:

“As protests continue to convulse cities across America, many wonder where we go from here. It’s impossible to know the future. But if efforts do not include meaningful reparations for African Americans, the omnipresent injustices we face will not be resolved.

“For a long time, the word ‘reparations’ was a non-starter, but it is finally losing its taboo. The movement to provide financial redress to African Americans for centuries of subjugation and racial terror was already growing last year. HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and develop reparations proposals to Congress, is enjoying a surge in support. Groundbreaking reparations legislation has been approved in Evanston, Ill. And a bill has been introduced in the California Assembly that would create a task force to study the impact of slavery and offer proposals for reparations for African-Americans in the state.

“The outpouring of anger in every corner of this country in recent days — more than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in America — could finally put reparative justice within reach.”

The day after the above appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oprah Whitney ran a special that contained a segment on reparations. The day after that, the following appeared in the Washington Examiner[2]:

“It was only a matter of time before ‘Justice for George Floyd’ became ‘And while we’re at it, here are a few other things we’d like you to take care of with no questions asked.’

“That’s invariably what happens when the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party get involved.

“What started out as an issue over excessive force used by police against minorities has quickly devolved into a jackpot for the social justice people who see oppression, grievance, and victimhood in every aspect of their lives.

“[Bringing up the topic of reparations for slavery] lost the attention of nearly every white person who might have been watching.”

Thus the issue was reframed as a political blasting cap.

We can do better.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve collected a research file on reparations of over two dozen pages of resources and citations that make the topic much larger than who’s for it and who’s against it, who would get paid how much and when and how, how the government would finance it, etc. Instead, my research pulls back to a wide shot that starts with economics and law but then encompasses everything from individual and institutional belief systems, religious and secular notions of morality and ethics, national and cultural identity and worldview, and a whole lot more. I found all of that in the 400 years of American history I never knew, including the history made in my own time. I suggest we start with the latter as a first step toward moving ourselves past polarization paralysis.

Coming of Age in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement

My hometown was a rural community in the western plains of Minnesota, populated with Scandinavian Lutherans living on Homestead Act farms in family groups where the grandparents still spoke Norwegian. There were also enough German Catholics to support a parish with a K-8 school staffed by nuns. The rest of us – the minorities — were identified mostly by reference to the small Protestant churches where our parents took us on Sundays.

None of us had any reason to be racist, but we were, although we would have been surprised and insulted if somebody had pointed that out, which of course nobody did. Racial slurs were part of the vocabulary: my childhood friends tossed around the N-word as casually as they traded baseball cards, and talked about “putting them on the boat and shipping them back.”[3] Nothing personal, that kind of talk was just… normal. I always felt ashamed to hear it. I didn’t know why. And you didn’t talk that way in my house. The N-word we used was “negro” – blacks weren’t called blacks yet.

In 1954, the year after I was born, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” violated the Constitution. A few years later – I was four, maybe — I saw a black man for the first time.

Our home was up the hill from the railroad tracks, and the “bums” who rode the rails sometimes camped in a ravine between the tracks and our house, and would come begging. I came downstairs to breakfast one morning to see my mother talking through the back screen door to a black man standing in the middle of our backyard, well away from the house. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and baggy gray trousers held up with suspenders, and was holding his hat with both hands at this chest, head slightly bowed. “I would be so very much obliged, ma’am,” he was saying. Mom turned away from the door and started frying eggs, making toast, and pouring coffee. Her face had that hard, determined look you didn’t cross. I asked who he was, and what he wanted. “He’s a bum,” she said, “and he’s hungry.” My own breakfast was going to wait, so I went up to my room to play. When I came back he was gone.

My dad had the International Harvester farm implements franchise, and now and then he won a sales contest that earned him a trip to a company function. One of those was in the South, with a stop to visit his dad, who had retired to Sarasota. Our family didn’t talk much at meals — mostly sat, ate, and left — but at “supper” (not “dinner” like the city people on TV) on his first night back home he sat looking stunned all the way through pie and ice cream and coffee as he described what he’d seen: a “No Colored” sign over a water fountain, a “Colored” entrance at a restaurant…. We were all stunned with him, that such things existed. We had no idea.

A few years later, LBJ’s Great Society[4] brought Lady Bird Johnson to town for a ribbon-cutting commemoration of a renovation to Main Street. It’s only now that I wonder if a few benches, flower planters, and garish turquoise mushroom-shaped fiberglass shelters were what LBJ and the Congress had in mind when they passed a law promoting urban renewal. Schools closed for the parade, there were speeches and reporters from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and we made the 6:00 o’clock news from the NBC affiliate we picked up with an antenna on the roof.

About then I started drawing pictures of black athletes on my tablet during recess — Lew Alcindor, Cassius Clay, Dr. J…. Kids would gather around to watch. One day one of them snorted, “Nigra,” and walked away. I liked the sound of the word. It wasn’t the usual N-word, and it seemed defiant somehow. I drew another picture of a Black Everyman with an afro, and wrote “Nigra” underneath it. I’ll bet I could still draw it today.

Middle school summers at the lake (you took refuge from the baking humidity at a “cottage at the lake”) were played out to a soundtrack liberally laced with Motown, and two weeks at Boy Scout camp brought letters from home with news of riots. Detroit was burning. L.A. was burning. “Ghetto” entered the national lexicon, and even Boy Scouts in the north woods knew where Watts was.

In high school, my girlfriend went with her Lutheran Youth Group to a civil rights event in the Twin Cities that included a speech from a local Black Panther leader. In those days you didn’t say the F-word even if you were telling a story about somebody who used it, but somehow she communicated that the speaker had used that word a whole lot. I wondered why.

In 1968, USA runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal podium, joined by silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner.

“As the American athletes raised their fists, the stadium hushed, then burst into racist sneers and angry insults. Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement. They went home to the United States, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.

“However, Carlos and Smith were both gradually re-accepted into the Olympic fold, and went on to careers in professional football before retiring. Norman, meanwhile, was punished severely by the Australian sports establishment. Though he qualified for the Olympic team over and over again, posting the fastest times by far in Australia, he was snubbed by the team in 1972. Rather than allow Norman to compete, the Australians did not send a sprinter at all.”[5]

In 1971, six months before I graduated from high school, Sports Illustrated ran its “Black is Best” article.[6]

“It is clear that the black community in the U.S. is not just contributing more than its share of participants to sport. It is contributing immensely more than its share of stars. Black athletes accounted for all eight Olympic records set by U.S. runners at Mexico City in 1968, which led a European coach to observe: ‘If not for the blacks, the U.S. team would finish somewhere behind Ecuador.’”

I was an athlete. Those events and stories meant a lot to me.

Off at college, my R.A. was black (no longer a negro), and two other black guys shared a room two doors down from mine. With them in my life, I felt like I had arrived. Kelly had a springy, athletic way of moving, a short afro and a ready smile. Miles was tall and stooped, had a giant afro, always seemed mad, and never spoke. I wondered why.

I became a Jesus Freak during a gap year, and a Lutheran youth pastor (he had long hair, wore a big wooden cross, and drank beer at Kenny’s Tavern) struck a blow for ecumenicism and invited me along as a counselor on a trip with his youth group to a conference in Houston. Our first day at the convention center, a procession of blacks in bright blue robes marched two-by-two through the crowd, dipping and bobbing, two steps forward one step back, singing and -chanting, “Y-E-S, oh yes, Y-E-S, oh yes….” We followed them to the Y.E.S. Soul Choir’s gospel music concert. That night’s general session featured Andre Crouch and the Disciples rocking the house. I had one of their records back home. My new life as a Jesus Freak didn’t get any better than this.

Back at school, I heard about the annual welcome picnic for black students and decided to go. I was the only white guy there, didn’t know anybody and couldn’t think of what to do, so I volunteered for the serving line. A black guy and girl from Houston joined the campus Christian fellowship that fall, and the three of us started a Bible study with their friends in Black House. That winter a movie came out about Corrie ten Boom – the Nazis sent her and her family to concentration camps for aiding Jews — and fifteen black urban kids and one white town kid piled into a couple college vans and drove to a nearby town for pizza and the movie. The silences that met our arrivals were… thunderous. Not hostile, not threatening, mostly just… pointed. We were something you didn’t see every day. We were the new normal, and it was taking some getting used to.

That spring, we brought my co-leader’s pastor up from her church in Houston. For three days I followed him around, sat next to him at meals and in small groups, watched him — tall, erect, muscular in tailored three-piece suits and gleaming white shirts with cufflinks — as he parted the waters of shabby tie-dyed holey-jeaned flower children, laying down the gospel in a voice that rumbled.

The more I go on, the more I could go on — the memories pour in, scenes from a decade far more turbulent than the worst flight you’ve ever been on, racing across my mind’s theater screen in a blurry fast forward, leaving behind the indelible feel of those times. Incredibly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the only one bringing radical cultural change, but only one of many in a Revolution that was everywhere. The times were as thick and pungent with change as the marijuana haze that filled the quad, filled the dorms. The world was changing, and we were changing it. No, we had changed it. One night I attended a guest lecture where a visiting astrophysicist described a new cosmological theory called the Big Bang — the entire universe blasted into existence from an inconceivably compressed pre-temporal mass. It made sense. We could relate. We were living our own Big Bang.

Deep Ignorance and Long Memories

Then it was the 1970’s, and the Revolution staggered along, still tripping but starting to come out of it, Soon every commercial had at least one black person in it, like that was normal. Okay, so maybe it was tokenism, but we didn’t care, it would be normal soon enough. With that attitude, we were making the same mistake every generation seems to make: we assumed we were the enlightened ones, we’d gotten it right in ways our parents hadn’t, and they would have to deal with life on our new terms, and our terms were that “prejudice” (it wasn’t called “racism” yet) was over. The Beast was dead. The stain of slavery had been expunged. Equality was fixed in place, a given, a reality solidly grounded.

Or so we thought.

The first Black History month was observed in 1970 at an iconic location – the Kent State campus, ground zero of our opposition to the Vietnam War. I heard about it, as I’ve heard about it annually for the past fifty years, but I’ve never participated, never attended because… well, why would I? There was no point in it: the new normal was that the races were now equal. We wouldn’t have a White History Month, so why a would we have a Black one?

Or so I thought.

I managed to hold those beliefs, that judgment of history, all the way into this century, even as the justice system carried out its policies of mass incarceration, even as the news increasingly included body cam and cell phone videos of the police beating and murdering black people.

The new Civil Rights Movement has finally awakened me to just how shockingly wrong and blind I was and have been. And not just me, but how wrong and blind many in my generation were and have been. We never grew up, remained children full of ourselves. We made false assumptions, stopped learning from the times that came after ours, and never bothered to learn from the times that came before our own. That level of misjudgment generated the deepest kind of ignorance – not merely a personal failure to know, but the shared ignorance of an entire generation, a massive communal failure to know that history is not a dead letter but an active force still alive in us, still powering us in hidden, subconscious ways, still shaping our attitudes, initiatives, and responses in ways we would vehemently deny if confronted with them, just as my hometown would have denied its racism back in the day. We soak up our history from our surroundings, breathe it in, are immersed in it… and we don’t even know it. That kind of ignorance and arrogance has enabled the systemic racism that today’s protests are now broadcasting to the world.

It seems fitting, then that my personal reckoning should begin with a century-old cultural memory that, until my research on this article, was part of my massive, hidden Black History file of stupefying ignorance. The 1921 Greenwood Massacre is a particularly pertinent place to begin writing about reparations: it was undeniably a major economic event, but it was also much, much more, and the long-suppressed memory of it has now found its way out, and into the streets.

The Greenwood Massacre

Greenwood massacre

Photo:  Tulsa Historical Society

We heard earlier from Damario Solomon Simmons, a civil rights attorney and adjunct professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. He wrote this in his L.A. Times article cited earlier:

“The aversion to making amends for systemic racism is perhaps most evident in my hometown of Tulsa, Okla., which last week commemorated the 99th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre.

“On May 31, 1921, thousands of white Tulsans, 2,000 of whom were deputized by the police, stormed the Greenwood neighborhood, a community known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ In one day and night, the nation’s most prosperous black community was reduced to rubble. Hundreds were killed, and more than 10,000 black Tulsans were left injured, homeless and destitute.

“For decades, Greenwood managed to flourish despite racist Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma. In a matter of hours, millions of dollars in hard-fought wealth — property, homes, businesses, investments — burned to ashes. About 35 square blocks, including 1,200 homes and scores of businesses, were destroyed. Tulsa has not been the same since.”[7]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote in 2014 what remains as the definitive piece on slavery reparations.[8] There, he wrote this about the Greenwood Massacre:

“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. ‘The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,’ Clyde Ross told me. ‘It’s because of then.’ In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated ‘Black Wall Street.’ The past was not the past to them. ‘It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,’ Ogletree told me. ‘I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”

“A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

“John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Bottom line: today’s Civil Rights Movement is asking me, asking us, to grow up to our own history.

More next time.

[1] Simmons, Damario Solomon, Reparations Are The Answer To Protesters’ Demands For Racial Justice, Los Angeles Times (June 8, 2020).

[2] Scarry, Eddie, George Floyd Protests Hijacked For Reparations And Other Pet Projects,, Washington Examiner (June 10, 2020).

[3] See A History of Hate Rock From Johnny Rebel to Dylann Roof, The Nation, June 23, 2015.

[4] See the story in History,com.

[5] See the story in History.com.

[6] Sports Illustrated, January 18, 1971.

[7] Simmons, op cit.

[8] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).

America’s National Character, Revealed in its COVID-19 Response

“The entire man is… to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back… we should discover… the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

“Begin as you would continue,” my new mother-in-law told my bride and me. Her advice was good beyond gold – a standard we return to in every new beginning, of which there’ve been many in 40+ years.

Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t offer the principle as advice, he recognized its operation in the America he famously toured and wrote about – a nation shaping itself around its founding principles – its “primal cause.” A country’s “national character,” he said, is revealed in the “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the government and the people. The specifics may shift over time as certain founding values prevail over others due to political tradeoffs and changing circumstances, but in the long haul the country stays true to its origins. Countries, like marriages, continue as they began.

The same dynamics that apply to individuals and nations also apply to institutions, for example societal institutions of law, economics, academics, and commercial enterprise. And for all of them, there’s no such thing as a single beginning to be sustained forever. Personal, national, and institutional histories are shaped around many beginnings and endings. With every new beginning comes an invitation to return to “primal causes” and accept the transformation of historical into contemporary; i.e., each path forward requires a fresh look at how the past’s wisdom can help navigate today’s unprecedented challenges. Trouble is, transformation is perhaps the most difficult thing asked of a person, relationship, institution, nation. The opportunity to transform is therefore rarely recognized, much less embraced, but without it there will be hardening into what was but no longer is, and soon the person or entity under stress will fray under the strain of forcing the fluidity of today into the memory of yesterday.

The Covid-19 Policy-Making Triumvirate

Covid-19 has brought the entire world to an inescapable threshold of new beginning, with its commensurate invitation to transformation. America’s response reveals no embrace of the invitation, but rather a doubling down on the pre-pandemic version of a currently predominant ideological triumvirate of values.[1] Other “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the “national character” are clearly evident in the nation’s response as well, but I chose to write about this triumvirate because I’ve previously done so here and in my other blog.[2]. The three prongs of the triumvirate we’ll look at today are as follows:

  1. Freemarketism: a hyper-competitive and hyper-privatized version of capitalism that enthrones individual and corporate agency over the centralized promotion of the public good.

Freemarketism is grounded in a belief that marketplace competition will not only prosper capitalists but also promote individual and communal welfare in all social and economic strata. Its essential prejudices and practices are rooted in the transmutation of the western, mostly Biblical worldview into the Protestant work ethic, which judges individual good character and communal virtue by individual initiative and success in “working for a living” and the ability to climb the upward mobility ladder. The state’s highest good is to sponsor a competitive market in which capitalists, freed from governmental regulation and taxation, will build vibrant businesses, generate wealth for themselves as a reward, and activate corollary ”trickle down” benefits to all. Granting the public good an independent seat at the policy-making table is considered detrimental to the market’s freedom.

Freemarketism skews Covid-19 relief toward business and charges the state with a duty to restore “business as usual” as quickly as possible. Direct benefit to citizens is considered only grudgingly, since it would encourage bad character and bad behavior among the masses. Particularly, it would destroy their incentive and willingness to work for a living. The employable populace must be kept hungry, on-edge, primed to get back to work in service to the capitalist engine that fuels the greater good of all.

  1. Beliefism: The denigration of science and intellect in favor of a form of secular post-truth fundamentalism.

Freemarketism is a belief system that emerged in the 1980’s, after the first three decades of post-WWII economic recovery played out in the 1970’s. Freemarketism addressed the economic malaise with its utopian promise of universal benefit, and its founders promoted it with religious zeal as a new economic science – the rationale being that it had been “proven” in ingenious, complex mathematical models. But math is not science, and however elegant its proofs of Freemarketism theory might have been, they were not the same as empirical testing . Freemarketism was therefore a new economic belief system — something you either believed or didn’t.

To gain widespread political and social acceptance, Freemarketism would need to displace the Keynesian economics that had pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s by massive federal investment in infrastructure, the creation of new social safety nets, and the regulation of securities markets. During the post-WWII recovery, neoliberal economic policy had struck its own balance between private enterprise and government intervention, creating both new commercial monoliths and a vibrant middle class. Freemarketism would eventually swing this balance entirely to the side of private enterprise. It did so thanks in part to auspicious good timing. At the dawn of the 1980’s, after a decade of Watergate, the oil embargo and energy crisis, runaway inflation, and the Iran hostage crisis, America was ripe for something to believe in. Its morale was suddenly boosted by the USA’s stunning Olympic hockey gold medal, Then, at the end of the decade, came the equally stunning collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These two bookend events ensured that Freemarketism had made a beginning that politicians and the populace wished to continue.

By then, Soviet-style Communism had been fully exposed as a horrific, dystopian, failed system. It had begun with Karl Marx’s angry empathy for the plight of the working stiff, but a century and a half later had morphed into a tyranny of fear, mind control, and brutality that turned its nominal beneficiaries into its victims, administered by a privileged, unthinking, corrupt, emotionally and morally paralyzed class of party bosses. When the failed system met its just desserts, the West’s storyline trumpeted that capitalism had won the Cold War. Freemarketism stepped up to receive the accolades, and its political devotees set about dismantling the social structures Keynesian economics had built before WWII.

From that point, as Freemarketism gained acceptance, it stomped the throttle toward fundamentalism, which is where every belief system, whether religious or secular, must inevitably end up. Belief by its very nature demands its own purification – the rooting out of doubt. To endure, belief must become irrefutable, must become certain to the point where doubt and discourse are demonized, conformity becomes the greatest social good, and ideological myths become determinants of patriotic duty and moral status. Accordingly, as Freemarketism evangelists increasingly installed their privatized solutions, any system of government based on state-sponsored promotion of the common good was quickly characterized as a threat of a resurgence of Communism. In the minds of Freemarketers – both priests and proles – the European social democracies were thrown into the same toxic waste dump as Communism, because the state could never again be trusted to know what is good for its citizens, or be given the power to carry out its agenda.

Freemarketism’s blind spot is now obvious: for all its demonization of government policy, it needed precisely that to create the conditions it needed to operate. Politicians from the 1990’s forward were happy to comply. Thus empowered, in the four decades since its inception, Freemarketism has ironically failed in the same manner as Soviet Communism, gutting the public good of the working masses and protectively sequestering the wealthy capitalist classes. Along the way, Beliefism as the cultural norm has displaced scientific rationalism with moment-by-moment inanity, expressed in the Covid-19 crisis by everything from drinking bleach to mask and supply shortages, lockdown protests and defiance of mask-wearing, terminating support of the World Health Organization, confusion and skepticism about statistics of infection rates and the value of mass testing, the public undercutting of medical authorities, and much more.

The post-truth flourishing of Beliefism is in turn held in place by the third prong of the triumvirate:

  1. Militarism: The American infatuation with military might and private armaments, and a proclivity towards resolving disputes and achieving policy outcomes through bullying, violence, and warfare.

Militarism is the enforcer for the other two prongs of the triumvirate. Its status as a pillar of the national character is on the one hand entirely understandable, given that the USA was formed because the colonists won their war, but on the other hand perhaps the most ideologically inexplicable when measured against the Founders’ rejection of a standing military in favor of a right to mobilize an armed militia as needed. The displacement of the latter with the former was fully complete only after WWII, grudgingly acknowledged by the General who masterminded .he D-Day invasion: “In the councils of government,” President Eisenhower said on the eve of leaving office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex,” He further warned that, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The extent to which General Eisenhower’s warnings fell on deaf ears is by now obvious. Meanwhile, the Founders’ concept of the right to bear arms has metastasized into an absolute right to private armaments. The American national character now rests secure in its confidence that it has a big enough stick to forever defend its libertarian version of individual freedoms – including the freedoms of the marketplace – against all opposing beliefs, Communist or otherwise.

Militarism is evident in developments both expressly directed at the pandemic and coinciding with it, spanning both macro and micro responses from saber-rattling against Iran (against whom we apparently still we feel we have a score to settle), blame-shifting against China accompanied with rhetoric that has quickly escalated to the level of a new Cold War, Congress’s self-congratulatory passage of another record-setting new defense budget, and armed militias rallying against the lockdown and supporting protestors in their belligerent non-compliance.

In its Covid-19 response, America put its money where its mouth (ideology) is.

This ideological triumvirate is evident in the spending priorities of the USA’s legislative allocation of government speaking during the lockdown, as indicated in the following two graphs, which reveal that:

  1. The amount directed to business – mostly big business – was twice again as much as the defense budget;
  2. The amount directed to healthcare – during a pandemic – was least of all – half the amount directed to individuals;
  3. The 2020 defense budget approved during the lockdown was twice the size of the amount directed to individual citizens under the CARES relief act; and
  4. Meanwhile, defense spending dwarfs that of our seven nearest national “competitors.”

The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill[3]

CARES Act

U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries[4]

Defense Spending

Character Over Time

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”[5]

Pressure of the magnitude brought on by the pandemic catches national response off guard. It freezes time, demands instant responses to unprecedented demands. Pretense falls off, values and priorities leap from foundational to forefront. There is no time for analysis or spin, only the unguarded release of words and actions in the pressing moment. The result is national character, fully revealed.

The way out of this dizzying spiral is to embrace the invitation to character transformation, which begins in the awareness that something essential to maintaining the status quo has been lost, life has irreversibly changed, an ending has been reached. Every ending requires a new beginning, every new beginning requires a vision for how to continue, and every vision for continuing requires the perspective of newly-transformed character. If there is going to be systemic change, character must be the one to make concessions. The nation’s policy-makers made no such concession in their Covid-19 response.

Response Without Transformation

We’ve spent a few years in this forum discovering the triumvirate’s development and contemporary dominance of government policy-making, which in turn has been supported by enough of the electorate to keep the system in place. Now, the pandemic has put our “more perfect union” under extraordinary stress.

Given the recent racial issues now dominating the headlines, it isn’t far-fetched to compare the pandemic’s moral and legal challenges to those of the Civil War. Today’s post won’t try to do that topic justice, but it’s interesting to note that slavery was a dominant economic force from before America became the United States, especially buttressing capitalist/entrepreneurial wealth generated in tobacco and cotton, and was both expressly and implicitly adopted as a social, economic, and national norm, — for example in the U.S. Constitution’s denying slaves the right to vote and providing that each slave would count as 3/5 of a resident for purposes of determining seats in the House of Representatives. These “primary causes” remained intact for the nation’s first several decades, until a variety of pressures forced a reconsideration and transformation. Those pressures included, for example, a bubble in the pre-Civil War slave market that made slaves themselves into a valuable equity holding to be bought and sold for profit — a practice particularly outrageous to Northerners.[6]

The Covid-19 triumvirate is not Constitutionally recognized as slavery was, but clearly it is based on the current emphasis of certain aspects of the USA’s foundations to the exclusion of others. Many economists argue, for example, that the way out of the deepening pandemic economic depression is a return to a Keynesian-style massive governmental investment in public works and welfare – a strategy that even then was hugely controversial for the way it aggressively rebalanced the national character. The Covid-19 response, along with the military budget, makes no attempt at such a rebalancing – which, among other things, would require policy-makers to retreat from the common assumption that government support of the public good is Communism.

It took a Civil War and three Constitutional Amendments to remove nationalized slavery from the Constitution and begin the transformation of the nation’s character on the topic of race – a transformation which current events reveal is still sadly incomplete.

What would it take to similarly realign the national character in response to the pandemic?

[1] Since we’ve been discovering and examining these for several years in this forum, in this post I’m going to depart from my usual practice of quoting and citing sources. To do otherwise would have made this post far too redundant and far too long,

[2] My two blogs are The New Economy and the Future of Work and Iconoclast.blogt, Each has its counterpart on Medium – The Econoclast and Iconoclost.blog (recent articles only)..

[3] Visusalcapitalist.com

[4] Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

[5] McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997).

[6] See the analysis in Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan.(2017), and the author’s interview with the Wharton business school ,

Is COVID-19 Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

Salus rei publicae suprema lex
(the safety of the republic is the supreme law)

Cicero‘s De Legibus (book III, part III, sub. VIII)[1]

Mikhail Gorbachev had been pressing his perestroika (reform) agenda through a policy of glasnost (openness) and the Soviet fist was releasing its grip on Eastern Europe, setting the stage for Berliners to bring down their wall – which they did not because the Kremlin planned it, but because a flustered bureaucrat made up an answer to a question he wasn’t prepared for and a middle manager adlibbed a policy decision after senior management left him hanging.

“On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, an East German government official, made a surprising announcement at a press conference.

“‘Permanent relocations,’ he said, ‘can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR [East Germany] into the FRG [West Germany] or West Berlin.’ This news was set out as an incremental change in policy. But, after reporter Riccardo Ehrman asked when the regulations would take effect, Schabowski replied, ‘As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.’

“Schabowski’s press conference was the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night, at 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm, with the takeaway being that the Wall, while it still stood, was no longer the firm dividing line it had long been. Since the late 1950s, the two stations broadcast to nearly all of East Germany, and the programs appeared there as well. That night, anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, ‘This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.’

“This was all the East German populace needed to hear. Citizens flocked to the border en masse sometime around 9:00 pm and found that, after initial confusion, the border guards were indeed letting people cross. This was a crucial flashpoint in the history between the two sides, as the guards could have easily fired on the crowd. However, according to historian Mary Elise Sarotte in her book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, no one among the East German authorities wanted to take the personal authority of issuing orders leading to the use of lethal force.

“By 11:00 pm, Harald Jager, the commander of the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, let the guards open the checkpoints, allowing people to pass without their identities checked.

“To Jager, it was obvious that the five dozen men guarding the border were grossly outnumbered. He repeatedly attempted to contact his superior, Rudi Ziegenhorn, in order to ascertain how to handle the increasingly chaotic situation, as more and more people gathered at the gates. He was unable to get any clear guidance on how to proceed, but a superior in the background called Jager a coward for being unable to handle the situation. After 25 years of loyal service to the regime, according to Sarotte, Jager felt insulted and pushed to his limit.

“Jager was instructed by his superiors to let the biggest troublemakers through on a one-way ticket. But many of these so-called troublemakers were students and other young individuals who briefly entered West Berlin and then returned to the checkpoint for re-entry into East Berlin. However, the GDR was serious in its warnings that this was a one-way ticket. Their angry parents began to plead with officials not to keep them separated from their children, and by that point Jager was unwilling to argue on behalf of his superiors. After Jager made an exception for the parents, others demanded the same treatment as well. Having gone that far, it was simply too late. Thousands of people were demanding that the gates be opened. He was facing a momentous decision — open fire on the civilians, or let them through.

“At 11:30 pm, Jager phoned his superior and reported his decision: he would open all the remaining gates and allow the crowds to stream across the border.

“West Berliners greeted their counterparts with music and champagne. Some citizens began to chip away at the physical barrier with sledgehammers and chisels. The crowd began to chant “Tor auf!”—Open the gate! By midnight, the checkpoints were completely overrun.”[2]

Schabowski and Jager made history: Berlin reunited, Germany reunited, the Soviet Union finished, Russia re-established as a sovereign nation, a whole raft of new independent Balkan states created, Soviet-style Communism struck down, the Cold War ended, and capitalism crowned the winner of the economic ideology derby.

Not a bad night for a couple middle managers.

Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

These days, history is being made just as suddenly, accidentally, randomly, unpredictably, and overwhelmingly, thanks to a microscopic mutant that preys on the body’s natural metabolic processes, turning nucleic acid into poison. Its impact is not on a divided city but on a divided world, bringing a sudden halt to life and business as usual.

The agent of change, of course, is COVID-19 –officially “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2” – the common cold gone bad, very bad.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, in people. However, three times in the 21st century coronavirus outbreaks have emerged from animal reservoirs to cause severe disease and global transmission concerns.

“There are hundreds of coronaviruses, most of which circulate among animals including pigs, camels, bats and cats. Sometimes those viruses jump to humans—called a spillover event—and can cause disease. Seven coronaviruses are known to cause human disease, four of which are mild: viruses 229E, OC43, NL63 and HKU1. Three of the coronaviruses can have more serious outcomes in people, and those diseases are SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared by 2004; MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and remains in circulation in camels; and COVID-19, which emerged in December 2019 from China and a global effort is under way to contain its spread. COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.”[3]

Yes, this is a defining moment in human history. And no, things will never be the same. Some people think one of those things is capitalism;

“The wheels are rapidly coming off of capitalism’s runaway train, and we’re in a collective, televised race to repair it.

“A highly contagious virus is rapidly debilitating and killing some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the world.

“The problem is, stopping the spread means hitting the pause button on global capitalism while we repair its machinery. Unfortunately, the system was built without one. And that means that bringing it to an unceremonious, grinding halt now has catastrophic human and economic consequences.”[4]

The capitalism that’s been infected by COVID-19 is the free market strain, as practiced for the past four decades principally in the USA and UK. There are and have been other versions of capitalism – for example the Keynesian economics that bailed us out of the Great Depression.

Soviet Communism was an economic ideology that didn’t deliver what it promised, instead enslaving citizens to a callous and brutal elite. Free market capitalism has similarly failed the people who go to work every day, who were supposed to prosper along with the capitalists, but haven’t.

Moments like tearing down the Berlin Wall, storming of the Bastille, or breaching the Winter Palace involved mobs overrunning cultural icons – physical structures. But how do you overrun a virus? And who would do the overrunning? Amazingly, the people most damaged by free market capitalism – the working middle class and the poor – continue to staunchly support the politicians who perpetuate it. The mob is simply unwilling to form. How do you make a revolution out of inexplicable indifference?

“…having discussed already how Coronavirus exposes and reveals the need for global systems, a radically reimagined world economy, the response from the average Westerner has been…a kind of deafening silence…mixed with a baffled pause, combined…sometimes, with an outraged ‘What?!!’”[5]

The Public Welfare Goes Missing

Free market capitalism is vulnerable because it eliminated what is most needed in a pandemic: a commitment to public welfare – which, as we’ve seen previously,[6] has been systematically eliminated from economic policy-making.

“The pandemic was not unexpected. But reality always differs from expectations. This is not just a threat to health. It may also be a bigger economic threat than the financial crisis of 2008-09.

“Dealing with it will require strong and intelligent leadership. Central banks have made a good start. The onus now falls on governments. No event better demonstrates why a quality administrative state, led by people able to differentiate experts from charlatans, is so vital to the public.

“The pandemic risks creating a depression. Salus rei publicae suprema lex (the safety of the republic is the supreme law). In war, governments spend freely. Now, too, they must mobilise their resources to prevent a disaster. Think big. Act now. Together.”[7]

Looking Out For The Common Good

In contrast to the USA and the UK, there are countries whose economic systems are built on “the safety of the republic is the supreme law.” Norway, for example.

“Norway’s readiness for health emergencies comes from its choice, all along, to prioritize the well-being of the people as a whole.

“As someone who has lived and worked in Norway, I see several ways in which the Norwegians’ prompt and efficient response draws on the advantages of what economists call “the Nordic model”—a design much different from that of the U.S.

“Meanwhile in the U.S., a recent survey by the First National Bank of Omaha found that 49% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. What is to be done if those people can’t get to the jobs that keep them barely afloat? What does “self-quarantine” mean in that context? Or if employees receive no paid sick leave and can’t afford to stop working when they get sick? And what about the many who haven’t even had a job lately and find each day a struggle for food, including food-insecure college students whose colleges are closing?

“Such conditions are nearly inconceivable in Norway, where the social safety net is intact. A century ago, poverty was widespread but mass movements waged a successful nonviolent revolution in the 1920s and ’30s. By the time I got there, 1959, poverty had already been nearly eradicated, with everyone’s basic needs being met.”[8]

The missing public in the USA and UK is principally composed of capitalism’s key source of fuel: the people who go to work every day. Those workers both produce and consume, which makes them indispensable to both supply and demand.

Supply Side: Production

On the supply side,

“The primary issue is that late capitalism is not designed to be stopped, ever. In fact, the spectacular success of capitalist economics has only ever traditionally been measured by one north-star metric — growth —which is essentially just another term for infinite ‘value’ extraction— and in a general sense, it’s designed to self-organise, resource and innovate at a pace that requires machine-like commitment from a biologically volatile primary resource — human beings.

“In late capitalism’s fundamental design flaw, it is absolutely critical that the relative poor — the workers that create the value and deliver the results — remain healthy and active in order to hold the pieces together, because there is so little built-in redundancy for widespread personal crisis. This form of capitalism assumes that there will never be an unravelling serious enough to threaten it, which is why it’s got no proper killswitch….

“And at the back-end of 40 years of neoliberal, free-market economics, some of the world’s most ‘advanced’ political environments have either removed, privatised or hollowed out the basement machinery needed to stabilise capital markets by providing comprehensive, not-for-profit health, welfare and social services that step in to take the weight when crisis strikes.

“The loss of the working class is capitalism’s great nightmare. Alongside a terrible human cost, we’re watching entire industries that previously seemed indestructible falter – food service, hospitality, aviation and retail expecting massive state support in order to keep afloat — let alone make a profit. But the people are sick, and all dominos fall together, eventually.”[9]

Demand Side: Consumption

And on the demand side.

“Consumer sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan’s monthly survey, saw its sharpest drop since October 2008 during the Great Recession.

“And even then, analysts said, the current decline significantly understated the coronavirus toll as two-thirds of the survey interviews were conducted before lock-down and physical distancing orders in mid-March shut down hundreds of thousands of shops, restaurants, offices and other large parts of the American economy.

“‘The economics of fear are now in plain sight,’ said Oxford Economics, a British economic research firm, noting that the pandemic ‘is dealing a major blow to confidence that will lead to a sharp retrenchment in consumer spending ‘

“That is especially worrisome because high levels of consumer confidence have consistently buoyed the U.S. economy in recent years, despite scant growth in spending power for most Americans.

“Some 70% of total U.S. economic output, or gross domestic product, is tied directly to consumer spending.”[10]

The Rentier Economy Takes The Hit

Particularly squeezed by the loss of a healthy and economically robust working class is the newly dominant “rentier economy” (a topic we’ve looked at before[11]), which drives prosperity to corporations and wealthy individuals through the extraction of rents from assets made artificially scarce by economic policy – affordable housing, for example.[12].

“It’s the end of the month, the rent is due, and a government-issued ban on going to work means a chunk of Britain is already broke, and another chunk is on borrowed time. If thousands aren’t running on fumes by the end of this month, they will be within weeks, and as the layoffs accelerate (which has its very own curve), it’ll be even worse by May.

“This is problematic for reasons commonly known as ‘maths’ — particularly given how the lower/middle access their income. The vast proportion of people’s access to money is through the kaleidoscope of an economy whose leadership won’t stop talking about how ‘wealth is zero sum’ but don’t address that wealth is not income, wages of which are a subtraction on a business’s finite cash reserve.

“This does not favour the working poor in an economy designed, incentivised and explicitly rewarded for its ability to maximise the return on everything. Personal wealth is a pipe dream in a world where the cost of living is always slightly too high, and personal income is slightly too low, and in the gig, self-employment or services economy, unstable, too.

“The profound explosion in UK housing prices in the last 15 years has created a rental market that now props up ownership as an exclusive club, and one that is often (but not always) only accessible via certain personal circumstance or privilege. It’s not uncommon for renters, particularly young, city-based renters (where the majority of the work is) to have to pay out more than half of their income in rent — before factoring in other arbitrary fees or securities. This significant, artificial increase in major, fixed costs against wages, means breaking out of the rental cycle is either a very long, very slow grind — or impossible.”

Although written specifically about the U.K., this analysis is applicable in the U.S. as well.

What’s next for capitalism?

About a year ago, economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, offered a “progressive capitalism” alternative based on “the power of the market to serve society.”[13]

“The United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

“We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking).

“The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society.

“Progressive capitalism is based on a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.

“Part of this new social contract is an expanded public option for many programs now provided by private entities or not at all

“This new social contract will enable most Americans to once again have a middle-class life.

“The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest.

“America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.”

A year after Stiglitz’s article, we have the COVID-19 lockdown. Will politicians act to restore the missing public welfare to economic policy-making, as Stiglitz urges? And, if they don’t, is the electorate willing to storm and overthrow the economic status quo ? Paradigms only shift when culture does, and a new economic paradigm requires more of a global perspective than we had before worldwide populist movements retrenched to aggressive nationalism. This trend leads one commentator to doubt voters will respond to the global pandemic with a newly expanded globalism.[14]

Changing the world means…changing the world. That might sound like a cliche. I assure you it’s not. The average white American liberal is concerned with a thing, maybe, if they’re really caring and intelligent, like healthcare for some of their society. But even that’s not nearly big enough. Without actually changing the world, the world doesn’t change. Westerners attempt to change their broken societies, without really grasping the fact that they need to put the world first.

“That means: without building global systems, nothing much will change. Every single existential threat of now, from pandemic to climate change to inequality to fascism, will simply rage on and continue. But you yourself probably think building global systems is either foolish, idealistic, unnecessary, or dangerous. You yourself are the thing stopping the world from changing — as much as you imagine you want to change the world. That’s true of almost every Western intellectual I can think of, and it’s true of most people, too.

“Our first task this century is therefore building a global consciousness. Teaching the world, especially the rich West, to care about the world. Why does that hedge funder live a better life than that poor Chinese dude, by sheer privilege of birth, because of a long history of violence and exploitation by one’s side against the other? Equality, freedom, justice, truth, selfhood — these notions have no meaning whatsoever at the global level yet in human history.”

“Surveillance Capitalism”

If we’re not willing to “think globally, act locally,” then what will fill the void? Some thinkers have suggested a much more chilling outcome: “surveillance capitalism” or the “surveillance economy.”[15] As bestselling author Uval Hoah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) explained in an article last week, the same technology that supports capitalism has been supercharged to fight the Plague. [16]

“In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.

“In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.

“You might argue that there is nothing new about all this. In recent years both governments and corporations have been using ever more sophisticated technologies to track, monitor and manipulate people. Yet if we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. Not only because it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin’ surveillance.

“Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”

Few would argue that using state-of-the-art technology to slow an international pandemic is a bad thing, but the implications for expanded future use on consumers are deeply disturbing.

But it’s too easy to assume the worst.

It’s possible that the pandemic will catalyze economic reform, demanded by the neglected working class.[17]

“As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock ‘more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.’ About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections.

“Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. ‘This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’ says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.

“Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.”

As the lead to Prof. Harari’s article says, “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.”

And some of us, at least, will live to see it.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] The Gates in the Wall Stand Open Wide.’ What Happened the Day the Berlin Wall Fell. Time, November 9 2019. See also this article from the History Channel.:

[3] Coronaviruses, National Institutes of Health/ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

[4] Thomas K R, Coronavirus : How a global pandemic is single-handedly unravelling capitalist economics, Medium (Mar. 19, 2020).

[5] Hague, Umair, Will Coronavirus (Really) Change the World? Medium (Mar. 31, 2020)

[6] We previously explored this topic in this blog — see Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good.

[7] The Virus Is An Economic Emergency Too, Financial Times (Mar. 17, 2020)

[8] The Nordic Secret to Battling Coronavirus: Trust, Yes! Magazine (March 17, 2020)

[9] Thomas, Coronavirus, op cit.

[10] American Consumers, Once Bulwark Of Economy, Are Rapidly Losing Confidence, MSN Monery (Mar. 27, 2020)

[11] For an introduction, see here and here.

[12] Thomas, K R, The Rent’s Due, but Britain’s Broke, Medium (Mar. 22, 2020)

[13] Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019).

[14] Hague, Umair, op. cit.

[15] For an introduction to this topic, see The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff Review, The Guardian (Feb. 2, 2019).

[16] Harari, Yuval Noah: The World After Coronavirus, Financial Times (Mar. 20, 2020)

[17] How the Pandemic Will End, The Atlantic (Mar. 25, 2020)

Free Market Capitalism: Miracles, Magic, and Mental Illness

 

Free market economics promised magic.
We got the Hustle instead.

The Miracle-That-Isn’t

This year’s State of the Union Address featured an “economic miracle,” citing economic growth, decreased unemployment, and a soaring stock market. There’s nothing miraculous about any of that. It’s all on purpose. The U.S. economy is doing exactly what it’s designed to do — promote capitalism for capitalists — and it’s hitting on all cylinders.

Capitalists are people and companies with access to capital: the corporate nation-states and the people who own and manage them; the entrepreneurs who start them; and the financial firms who trade their securities. U.S. economic policy provides structural support for the massive amount of worldwide capital: low corporate taxes leave more profits in the companies’ coffers, and low capital gains taxes generate higher returns for those who provide the capital.

Since the new USA tax policy went into effect after the 2016 election, corporations have been using their profits to buy back their own securities in record amounts. Stock buybacks are easier to predict than corporate quarterly performance and dividends; instead, you get cash payouts on schedule. As for the shares that remain, when a company takes some of its shares off the market, the ones left are worth more – same numerator, smaller denominator. That’s good for the remaining shareholders and for executive compensation, which is largely based on share value. Stock buybacks have become what Goldman Sachs called the “dominant” reason for stock market demand.[1] Again, all of that is by design, and if you’re a corporation or investor, the Miracle-That-Isn’t is working just fine for you.

How’s all this working for the non-capitalists?

The Magic That Isn’t

Google “state of the union economic miracle,” and the results are predictable. The right crows over robust growth, the left nitpicks over percentage points, and neither side mentions that non-capitalists aren’t benefiting from the economic Miracle-That-Isn’t – none of that robust economic growth gets to them.

Non-capitalists don’t make money from capital, they work for a living, and their ranks include small businesses and self-employed individuals — your local tech consultant, plumber, florist, bookstore owner, micro-brewer. They aren’t capitalists. They’re not entrepreneurs either. Starting a business on a credit card, pledging your home as collateral, spending your savings to pursue a dream… those things don’t make you a capitalist.

All these working people were supposed to benefit from the same “free market” economic theory that’s powering the economic Miracle-That-Isn’t. This was supposed to happen because benefits at the top would “trickle down” to those below. (The term “trickle down” has been around since the 80’s. We don’t seem to notice that it’s condescending and stingy.) This theory was championed by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics:

“The core of [the school’s teaching on the free market] was that the economic forces of supply, demand, inflation and unemployment were like the forces of nature, fixed and unchanging. In the truly free market imagined in Chicago classes and texts, these forces existed in perfect equilibrium, supply communicating with demand the way the moon pulls the tides

“Just as ecosystems self-regulate, keeping themselves in balance, the market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.[2]

As we’ve seen previously, although Friedman and his colleagues characterized their capitalist vision as science, it wasn’t; it was instead a belief system, promoted with religious zeal. The belief was that “trickle down” would happen automatically, like magic. All you had to do was give capitalists free reign — cut taxes, provide trade protection and other incentives — and the economy would grow, the capitalists would get rich, and everybody else would be better off, too.

That’s the theory. Has it worked?

U.S. economic policy has given free market economics its best shot for four decades, including that most recent all-in super-size of the current administration. We now have the empirical data Friedman & Co. didn’t. What it shows is that the policy truly works at the top, but there’s no trickle down.

Trickle-down doesn’t happen magically.
It happens deliberately.
It happens when it’s part of the plan.
And when the plan is carefully executed.

Intentional trickle down policies need to work both sides of the ledger – income and expenses. For example, you could collect tax revenues on some of that newly-created economic “miracle” wealth and spend it for the benefit of the Public (which includes the capitalists). Trouble is, as we’ve seen previously, free market economics has eliminated the Public from policy-making. That leaves low unemployment as the best chance to move money to the pockets of the people who work for a living. But that’s not effective either, because not all jobs are created equal.

Jobs for the Poor

Free market economics’ belief that low unemployment is the best way to benefit non-capitalists has made jobs a sacred cultural norm. Young? Just starting out? Poor? Can’t make ends meet? Get a job! Jobs are morally right – they build character, they’re how you make your way in the world. Public goods and social safety nets are evil, but jobs are everlastingly good. If you don’t work (at a job), you don’t deserve to eat. (That’s in the Bible; [3].it’s also in Lenin’s The State and Revolution.) If unemployment is low, that means there are plenty of jobs to go around, and the slackers have no excuse.

Right?

Wrong.

The capitalist Miracle-That-Isn’t is not creating the kind of jobs that pay a living wage to full-time employees. The jobs are not full time, and the workers aren’t employees. Instead, the jobs are part of the new gig economy. The workers are self-employed contract labor, temporary and short-term. And since there is no Public good anymore, these new gig jobs have to pay enough to cover self-employed FICA and benefits, as well as living costs. That’s not happening, which means we now have something that sounds like a dance craze, but isn’t. We have…

The Hustle

The Hustle is what non-capitalists do when the Miracle-That-Isn’t creates gig jobs.

“Doing my taxes this year, I noticed that the W4 form has transformed into a somewhat confusing jumble of tables and boxes. In one of these boxes, you’re meant to identify if you’re working another job to make ends meet, like freelancing or picking up Instacart shifts. Basically, the form wants to know: “Are you hustling?”

“For most people I know, the answer is a resounding yes. A friend of mine is a talented videographer who bartends and takes odd jobs on the side. I know a preschool teacher who also babysits and moonlights as a Lyft driver. Two employees in my company run a side company and create content on Twitch. A fellow writer on Medium works a nine-to-five, then freelances in the evening. And me? I’m no different. I write, freelance in graphic design, and build websites to provide for my family.

“We’re hustling to make ends meet, ‘building our brand,’ ensuring our startup doesn’t tank, or dreaming about the day our side hustle takes off and we can walk into the office and give everyone the bird.

“Some of the things exacerbating Hustle Life™ are out of our control. I live in Austin, Texas, where the cost of living has skyrocketed in the past few years. Between 2017 and 2018, the cost of living rose by $20,000 per person, about a 33% increase. Also, the average CEO’s salary has grown by 940% since 1978, whereas their workers’ wages have grown by just 12%. It stands to reason, then, that most of us are hustling because we literally have to in order to survive.”[4]

The Hustle means living from paycheck to paycheck, with nothing left over for savings, home ownership, and other out-of-ordinary costs.

“It seems like everyone is just trying to make ends meet.

“One of the latest hashtag games making the rounds on Twitter TWTR, -4.31% invites social media users to provide pithy and honest answers to this open-ended statement: ‘With my next paycheck I will…’

“While these games generally draw amusing memes and witty zingers, many of the responses trending under #WithMyNextPayCheckIWill early Tuesday morning were pretty bleak, with ‘still be broke’ being the general consensus.

“This reflects just how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

“Depending on the survey, that figure runs from half of workers making under $50,000 (according to Nielsen data) to 74% of all employees (per recent reports from both the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education.) And almost three in 10 adults have no emergency savings at all, according to Bankrate’s latest Financial Security Index.” [5]

Poor Becomes the Norm

When robust economic growth doesn’t tickle down, the gap widens between capitalists at the top and the poor at the bottom – this is the economic inequality that dominates economic news – and then the middle class falls into the gap and joins the poor. According to a 2017 Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report,

“Measured by the By the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), more than 95 million Americans (nearly 30 percent of the total population) are either in poverty or considered ‘low-income’ (living below twice the poverty line) … That number rises to 140 million people (43.5 percent) when using the (SPM) [Supplemental Poverty Measure].”[6]

What do we mean by “poor”?

“The OPM was adopted in the mid-1960s and has garnered widespread criticism because it measures pretax income and food-purchasing power, updated yearly to account for inflation. That methodology, experts say, fails to capture many people struggling financially in modern society.

“The Census Bureau responded with the SPM, which since 2011 has measured after-tax income, food costs and other necessities such as clothing, housing and utilities. The SPM accounts for geographic variations in the cost of living, includes welfare benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies, and subtracts child-care expenses.”[7]

Therefore, “poor” officially means you struggle with food, housing, utilities, and childcare. But what if you can’t come up with $500 to cover an unexpected expense[8] –does that count as a necessity? Or what about a car, washer and dryer, TV, air conditioning…maybe even home ownership, a shot at upward mobility, or relief from the insecurities of the gig economy? Are those necessities?

We have now landed squarely in the center of the necessity vs. luxury debate, which apparently will endure until the seas all melt, and to which the most reliable answer seems to be, it depends on what socio-economic level you’re talking about. For the middle class and up, things like a reliable car, smart phone, high-speed wireless, home ownership, savings… plus the occasional night out… are givens. As for the poor,

“There is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable.”[9]

If 32% – 43.5% of Americans are living at the official poverty line, the USA has truly become what one writer calls “the world’s first poor rich country.”[10] That means look left, look right, and one of you:

  • Does not plan for the future in the press of making ends meet right now;
  • Makes money and purchases stretch as far as possible;
  • Is shadowed by the what if? of emergencies and other unplanned costs;
  • Regularly opts out of social engagements for lack of funds;
  • Relies on unreliable transportation to get around;
  • Constantly sacrifices this in order to do and have that;
  • Does not ask for help because it’s too embarrassing and shameful.[11]

Things get worse when the poor become impoverished. Poor is lack of money, the inability to make ends meet. Poverty goes beyond poor: it is a mindset and belief system that drags the poor into a pit of mental ill health.

Why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?

The poor don’t, not necessarily. But the impoverished do. People use “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably, but not everyone who’s poor is also impoverished. The poor are poor because they lack money, but poverty goes further: it’s a chronic, grinding, demeaning, despairing condition that generates a specific outlook and way of approaching life. When that condition is shared, it becomes a culture. You might not know it when you’re around poor, but you definitely know it when you’re around poverty.

Poverty is institutionalized economic mental illness.

The Lost War on Poverty

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.”

Ronald Reagan

Poverty is a “personality defect.”

Margaret Thatcher

That’s true: poverty won the war against it. But it’s also true that the poor lost.

The Gipper was referring to LBJ and his Great Society, but he got it wrong:  the Great Society failed to eliminate poverty because it never got all the way to dealing with it. Instead it took a more politically acceptable path focused on education and community involvement — not bad things, but there’s a difference.

As for the Iron Lady, there’s actually some truth in what she said, but almost certainly not in the way she probably meant it. She was more likely voicing the common attitude that the poor are intellectually impaired, morally flawed, prone to bad lifestyle choices, and criminally inclined, and therefore worthy of only the most grudging kind of help. That attitude and the Great Society reputed loss of its War on Poverty[12] explain a lot about today’s lack of safety nets for the poor – which, remember, refers to 40+ percent of Americans.

Rutger Bregman[13] tackles this subject in his book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017). (As smart and creative as he is, he still uses “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably. I wish he wouldn’t.):

“A world without poverty– it might be the oldest utopia around. But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?”

He continues with more tough questions:

“What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges [toward self-help and away from government assistance] only make the situation worse?”

He then profiles the work of Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, and Sendhill Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, who formulated a theory of poverty based on the concept of “scarcity mentality.” Their research shows that the chronic poor are really good at scrambling after short term solutions, but tend to be inept at sustainable long-term thinking. It’s a matter of mental bandwidth: today’s urgency gets all the attention, leaving other matters to go begging (sometimes literally). In fact, their research estimates that poverty costs a person about 13-14 IQ points. In other words, living in a chronic state of being poor can eventually rewire the human brain to the point where clear thinking and prudent behavior are challenged. Hence the grain of truth in Margaret Thatcher’s comment that the poor have a “personality defect”: having your brain rewired by chronic poverty is a personality defect in the same way that a “personality disorder” is a mental illness.

Mental Illness On A Societal Level

But mental illness is not limited to impoverished individuals. It seems that economic policy may have created an entire “Generation of Sociopaths” of policy-makers and the people who elect them. That’s the premise of a book with that title.[14]

“What happens if a society is run by people who are, to a large degree, antisocial? I don’t mean people who are ‘antisocial’ in the general sense, the sort who avoid parties and hide from the neighbors, I mean people who are antisocial in the clinical sense: sociopaths. Could a sociopathic society function? Unfortunately, this is not a thought experiment or an investigation into some ramshackle dictatorship in a distant land; it is America’s lived experience. For the past several decades, the nation has been run by people who present, personally and politically, the full sociopathic pathology: deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility, and the works. Those people are the Baby Boomers, that vast and strange generation born between 1940 and 1964, and the society they created does not work very well.

“The goal of American politics has been, until the advent of the Boomers, the creation of a ‘more perfect Union’ and the promotion of the ‘general Welfare’ to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’ The Constitution promises as much, and over time America generally made good on that promise, first to a few, then to many. By the twentieth century, constitutional abstractions had taken concrete form, and ‘Blessings’ in the modern vernacular were understood to mean the creation of an ever larger and more affluent middle class. If the middle was not doing well, neither was America. James Carville, the operative who brought Bill Clinton to power as the first Boomer president, understood that modern politics boiled down to ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ And the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) has made clear how to evaluate that economy: the ‘well-being of the middle class and those working to get into the middle class… is the ultimate test of an economy’s performance.’ [Citing the 2015 Economic Report of the President] Measured against the Constitution’s noble imperatives of the more prosaic words of Carville and the CEA, America generally made a great success of things for two centuries. Since the Boomer’s ascension to power, American has accomplished far too little, and in many important ways has slid backward.”

The book ticks through the diagnostics on the clinical sociopathic checklist — e.g. risk seeking, breakdown of relationship, lack of long-term thinking and short-term gratification – and cites a 1991 report[15] issued by the National Institute of Health” compiling the work of UCLA, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Washington, and Duke universities, using DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria that found higher levels of antisocial personality disorder in the Boomer cohort. The result goes beyond poverty-related individual mental illness, to systemic cultural mental impairment. (I’ll be looking further at all of this in upcoming posts.)

Why Poverty Matters to Capitalists (or Should)

Capitalists are sometimes characterized as unsympathetic to the poor, but it’s clearly in their best interests not to be: a sustainable economy needs consumers to buy the stuff they make. The rich can only buy so much, then it’s up to the rest of us, but we can’t do our part if our gig income is gone too soon. Ironically, the neglected middle class will have the last laugh. But by then nobody will be laughing.

“The fundamental law of capitalism is: When workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers—not rich businesspeople—the true job creators. A thriving middle class isn’t a consequence of growth—which is what the trickle-down advocates would tell you. A thriving middle class is the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies.

“Our economy can be safe and effective only if it is governed by rules. Some capitalists actually don’t care about other people, their communities, or the future. Their behavior, if left unchecked, has a massive effect on everyone else.

“The danger is that economic inequality always begets political inequality, which always begets more economic inequality. Low-wage workers stuck on a path to poverty are not only weak customers; they’re also anemic taxpayers, absent citizens, and inattentive neighbors.

“Economic prosperity doesn’t trickle down, and neither does civic prosperity. Both are middle-out phenomena. When workers earn enough from one job to live on, they are far more likely to be contributors to civic prosperity—in your community. Parents who need only one job, not two or three to get by, can be available to help their kids with homework and keep them out of trouble—in your school. They can look out for you and your neighbors, volunteer, and contribute—in your school and church. Our prosperity does not all come home in our paycheck. Living in a community of people who are paid enough to contribute to your community, rather than require its help, may be more important than your salary.

“Prosperity and poverty are like viruses. They infect us all—for good or ill.

“An economic arrangement that pays a Wall Street worker tens of millions of dollars per year to do high-frequency trading and pays just tens of thousands to workers who grow or serve our food, build our homes, educate our children, or risk their lives to protect us isn’t an expression of the true value or economic necessity of these jobs. It simply reflects a difference in bargaining power and status.

“Inclusive economies always outperform and outlast plutocracies. That’s why investments in the middle class work, and tax breaks for the rich don’t. The oldest and most important conflict in human societies is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power. Those at the top will forever tell those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.

“Some of the people who benefit most from that explanation are desperate for you to believe this is the only way a capitalist economy can work.

“The trickle-down explanation for economic growth holds that the richer the rich get, the better our economy does. But it also clearly implies that if the poor get poorer, that must be good for our economy. Nonsense.” .[16]::

What IS Magical and Miraculous

One thing that truly is miraculous about all this is that Americans persist in debating what’s a necessity and what’s a luxury. Why wouldn’t we want everybody to have as much as possible? Instead we concede luxuries to the capitalists but begrudge them to non-capitalists.

Similarly, Americans also persist in debating whether money can buy happiness, when we all know that of course it can, because it can buy things that make us happy – things like food, clothing, a place of our own, clean water to drink and take a shower in, safety and health, a chance to improve ourselves, a net to catch us if dreams don’t come true… all those things that used to be considered part of the Public Good. Countries that still provide those things for their citizens are the happiest in the world.[17] Countries that don’t – like the USA and the former Soviet Union – turn their citizens into a mob of stressed, afraid, hustling, poverty-avoiders who cast our sociopathic votes to elect sociopathic representatives who perpetuate more of the same.

Why?

  • Why wouldn’t we want all those things for ourselves, and for the people around us?
  • Why wouldn’t we think that having all those things is a sign that the human race is making progress, that we’re improving our lives, our world?
  • Why do we instead cling to the self-righteous and self-defeating notion that moral character requires suffering with unmet needs, poverty, and jobs that don’t pay the bills?
  • Why do we want our lives to be precarious and unhappy instead of secure and joyful?

And you know what else is miraculous?

That nobody notices the contradictions and double standards, how we perpetuate cultural norms that work against our own best interests, or that both economic growth and trickle down can’t happen without economic policies that favor both capitalists and non-capitalists.

  • The capitalists don’t notice.
  • The capitalist policy-makers don’t notice.
  • The non-capitalists don’t notice;
  • The former middle class — now the new poor — don’t notice.
  • The voters don’t notice.

The impoverished and the sociopaths don’t notice either, but we wouldn’t expect them to.

But wait — I guess it’s not quite true that nobody notices. I mean, the people quoted in this article notice, and they’re not nobody. But still…

I think we need a longer list of people who notice. A much longer list.

[1] See, for example: Share Buybacks Could Approach Record Levels In 2020 After 2019 Fell Short, S&P Global Market Intelligence (Feb. 13, 2020); Stocks To Buy For Buybacks, Forbes (Jan. 17, 2020); Buybacks Are The ‘Dominant’ Source Of Stock-Market Demand, And They Are Fading Fast: Goldman Sachs, MarketWatch (Nov. 9, 2019).

[2] The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

[3] “If any man does not work, neither let him eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10

[4] Sledge, Benjamin, We’ve Embraced the Hustle Life, and It’s Making Us Miserable, Medium (Mar. 5, 2020).

[5] A shocking number of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, MarketWatch (Jan. 11, 2020).

[6] Joe Biden apparently got his math wrong when he said half of Americans are poor – see Fact Checker: Joe Biden’s Claim That ‘Almost Half’ Of Americans Live In Poverty, The Washington Post (June 20, 2019). Right-leaning Ballotpedia also corrected Biden’s math, concluding that only 32% of Americans are technically poor. On the other hand, progressive Common Dreams is sticking with one-half.

[7] Again from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker:

[8] A $500 surprise expense would put most Americans into debt, CBS New Money Watch (Jan. 12, 2017).

[9] Standing, Guy, Basic Income:  A Guide For the Open-Minded, Guy Standing (2017).

[10] Hague, Umair, Why America is the World’s First Poor Rich Country, Medium (May 23, 2018).

[11] Everyday Things Poor People Worry About That Rich People Never Do, Everyday Feminism (May 7, 2015),

[12] Not everyone agrees that we lost the War on Poverty. See this article that considers both sides.

[13] Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His book Utopia for Realists was a New York Times Bestseller and has been translated in 32 languages. The Guardian called him “the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas.”’

[14] Gibney, Bruce Cannon, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (2018). “Sure to be controversial,” Fortune said about the book, and it certainly is that.

[15] Psychiatric Disorders in America,

[16] A Wealthy Capitalist on Why Money Doesn’t Trickle Down, Yes! Magazine (Sept. 10, 2019).

[17] While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Reporta list dominated by the Scandinavians:Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”

Economics 000: Addiction, Belief, Bible, and Bad Financial and Career Advice

My name is Kevin and I’m a belief addict. Here’s my story.

The Widow’s Mite

I once told a friend who was a legend in the financial planning industry how I was attempting to follow the advice of the Bible story known as “the Widow’s Mite”:

[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,  and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

Luke 21:1-4 (NKJV)

“That’s dangerous advice,” my friend said, always blunt, “It makes no sense today. It will hurt you.”

Did he just say Jesus gave bad advice?

I had no comeback. I was an evangelical Christian at the time, trying to follow all kinds of Biblical advice in my career and finances. “Dangerous advice.” “Makes no sense today.” “Will hurt you.” How could that be? I mean, we’re talking Jesus here. And anyway, doesn’t God’s advice move with the times?

If you start wondering if Jesus gave bad advice or that something he said is outdated, you’re not an evangelical Christian anymore. You violated the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura – the belief that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible.

“[Martin Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian.”[1]

You can’t be an evangelical without the Bible, especially the parts about Jesus. Question either, and you’re out. You’re no longer a believer.

The Economics of Faith

Further, I saw in the Gospel an alternate economic system, to which believers were automatically subscribed.  In this alternate economic system, things like the widow’s mite and other counter-intuitive and counter-cultural ways ot approaching economics and personal financial planning made sense.  It was the “Kingdom of God” economy, and you activate it in your life by believing in it.  Once activated, this alternate economy allows you to take an unconventional approach to money and career, because God himself has your back.

Jesus himself set up the primacy of belief:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Obviously, belief is a completely different paradigm for approaching economics and finance.  And it’s not enough just to believe – you also have to not doubt. Plus there’s one more implicit clause in there:  if the mountain doesn’t move, it’s all you fault. If you start out believing but then have your doubts, belief won’t work for you. Jesus’ disciple James made sure we got the point:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it w”ill be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Okay, I think I get it — God gives generously, but if you doubt you can’t receive. Right? God does His part, but you can screw it up. Does that strike anyone else as sort of… unfair?… lopsided? If nothing else, God doesn’t seem to be very effective in the way He “generously” hands out advice. And why do I keep calling God “He” anyway?

But you don’t think that way when you’re in the grip of belief.

You are always the problem.

Belief seeks its own purification by cleansing itself from doubt. It does that by making the believer the problem. To stay on the right side of belief, you need to believe your way through your doubts. Belief is a closed loop — you either believe or you don’t – you start in belief and end in belief. Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

I wandered intellectually my first couple years of college, then had to declare a major. Okay, let’s see… I’m a Jesus Freak… I know, I’ll be a religion major! Studying the world’s religions, I was soon swimming in doubt. I told that to my “that settles it” friend. He handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

I can still see the hardness on his face. Religions venerate those who long endure and despise those who don’t. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter. Lesson learned: you don’t entertain doubt, you double down on belief.

Belief’s endless loop is what snared me, got me addicted. It played directly into a tendency I’d demonstrated all my short life: be exceptional, take everything to the extreme, out-commit, out-work everybody. Decades later, I would learn where that came from. But as a kid, an adolescent, and a young adult, it was my identity, my calling card. Eventually it would also be my ruin.

After we graduated, we missed the intensity of our college experience, and looked for ways to replicate it. Our leaders — zealous young men like me, only a few years older but they seemed so much wiser — started writing books about how to create authentic new testament churches, meeting in small groups and homes, teaching the Bible and doing miracles. We called this “church planting” and prided ourselves on the idea that we were doing just as the early apostles had done.

That’s who I was when I had the “that’s dangerous advice” encounter. In the face of that blunt dismissal, I needed to prove up my beliefs by pushing them to the limit, one more time.

And so I did.

Belief reminds you that if your doubts persist, there are consequences. Turns out there are also consequences to not doubting when you really ought to – which was how my life played out for the next couple decades, as I set about to prove that Jesus’s financial advice was doable.

My education in bad financial and career advice started early.

Everybody went to church where I grew up: mostly Scandinavian Lutherans, enough German Catholics to make up a parish, plus the “other” — Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Methodist…. My family was “other” – we went to the Congregational Church, where we were into the 60’s Revolution. We read poetry, played guitars, thought believing everything the Bible said was anti-intellectual. Our Sunday bulletins from HQ advocated social justice. I can still see one of them like it was yesterday: stacks of coins like poker chips, with the words “and God said to him, you fool!” – that was from the Bible, the back cover said.[2]

The Parable of the Rich Fool

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12: 13-21 (RSV)

Powerful stuff. I was an impressionable 7th grader. I pinned the bulletin up in my room, and kept it with me for years.

Consider the lilies…

About that same time, my older sister was into art and calligraphy. She made a poster with some watercolor lilies and these lines:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his Glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Luke 12: 27 (RSV)

I loved it, memorized it, used to sneak into her room to look at it when she wasn’t around. The text comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

Luke 12:22-32 (ESV)

That was the sum total of my financial education growing up: don’t worry about money, don’t worry about making it, don’t worry about saving it, don’t worry about where it comes from or what it’s for, and whatever you do, don’t ever get rich or you’ll end up like the guy with his new barns full of harvest and the grim reaper at his door. And the best part was that if you just keep your priorities straight – i.e., you keep believing what the Bible says — everything you need will just show up – food, drink, the whole deal.

When I read that now, I think it’s crazy. I agree with my friend: it makes no sense. But as a pre-teen I thought it was the ultimate in cool.

I never grew up.

My financial education was fixed at age 12. It survived intact through college economics, a few years in insurance and financial planning, an MBA program, all the way into a career in law. There was plenty of fodder for doubt all that time, but it never touched me.

Never mind that my radical Biblical economics didn’t have much company. Most Christians seemed to know it didn’t work. Maybe that’s what the Book said, but… well never mind. But I minded a lot. I had something to prove. I was a commando Christian, living on the edge, taking belief to the extreme, going where weak belief dared not go, out if front showing everybody else back there that Jesus’s unorthodox advice really did work.

Hmmm, no ego in that…

I was committed. I probably should have been… committed, that is.

One Career and Financial Disaster After Another

The first couple decades of my adult life followed a pathetic pattern of first doing well in my career and then dropping out to pursue some kind of Christian vision. Making a living always came in second to the important stuff and besides God would provide, just like Jesus said. The result was a series of financial disasters about every two or three years, followed by me sulking back to work until I had enough savings to afford getting inspired and trying again. It helped that I was smart and worked hard, so new employers kept forgiving my patchwork resume.

After yet one more disaster to end all disasters, I finally started to learn self-awareness, started asking questions, started doubting. I didn’t know yet that to doubt at all is to end belief – that’s all it takes to break the spell.

A couple decades later, and I was what I am today: an atheist. I didn’t see that coming, didn’t set out to become one, resisted for a long time, finally just sort of drifted into it. I’ve read others who’ve told the same story. We’re not as alone as we think we are.

Self-Help Economics

Along the way, I spent considerable time hanging out in the world of self-help. I am going to write separately about that, so I won’t say much at this time, just that after a few years I finally saw the remarkable similarity between self-help and Jesus’s teachings on belief. I had never heard so much God language since my early Christian days, although people often substituted “The Universe.” Create your own financial and career reality by believing it into existence, and God/The Universe will back you up. But you do need to believe, and keep believing, keep intending and reminding yourself first thing in the morning and before going to sleep at night, and you need to make a vision board and read this book and especially that one, and you need to go to these seminars, and lay your money down everywhere you go… all to stay pumped up, to keep believing. And if it didn’t work for you, well you are responsible for everything in your life, so if it’s not what you want then you need to up your belief commitment – do more, more, more.

Believe, believe, believe… Christianity and self help were indistinguishable. Life as a “believer” –- religious or secular -– worked the same way: believe and don’t doubt, and you get the goods.

A couple key experiences kept repeating, and the lessons I drew from them started to loosen the tether.

One was that belief was never about the thing you were trying to believe into existence — the mountain you were telling to get up and jump into the sea. Instead, belief was one long exercise in the dynamics of belief itself. Belief was about believing. You spent all your energy believing and believing in your belief. You never got out of the loop.

Another – the hardest lesson of all — was that believing was the culprit, not me. It wasn’t all my fault after all. Gospel Finance 101 truly was lousy advice, even when it was recast as self help. It truly didn’t work in today’s world. It truly was dangerous. It truly did hurt me – and my family.

The over-arching problem was how belief operates in the human brain, and in human culture.[3] When you start to doubt, you drop out of the cultural context that’s been supporting your belief system. Without constant reinforcement, the neural pathways that run your belief fall into disuse and eventually go dormant as you start looking elsewhere for answers, which requires new neural pathways, and in time your new skeptical neural pathways take over.

No, belief isn’t all bad.

Belief is inspiring and motivating. It throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, replaces them with a world of new possibilities. The brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all the punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” We get a rush of it when we break out, try new things, take risks.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration Meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed closing in on seven million times. Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration Meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[4]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Good for dopamine: it gets us moving, and that’s usually a good thing.

But it might be too much of a good thing.

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get lots of self-help inspirational quotes and to do lists. They’re okay as far as that goes, but they’re not the whole inspiration story. We need inspiration to get going, but all that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[5]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence: the motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; and reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance: each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett: your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[6]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Dopamine is why belief is addictive, why belief always wants more, more, more. It’s not a legally controlled substance, but it ought to be – especially for people like me.

Use it at your own risk.

I kind of wish somebody had told me that. But I doubt I would have listened. I was enthralled with the alternative gospel economy.  It was unquestionably good news.  I just couldn’t make it work.  Money and career ultimately suffered as a result.

Addict? Who me?’

 

[1] Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

[2] Apparently it was okay to use the Bible for our social causes, even if we dismissed it for other purposes.

[3] See this blog’s series on Belief Systems and Culture, also Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief.

[4] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[5] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[6]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good (And the surprising X Factor that could stop it)

Americans rush to defend free market capitalism’s elimination of the “public good,” to our own detriment. Why do we do that?

The short (but complex) answer is that free market capitalism has become the dominant American economic and social ideology, and there’s no place for an egalitarian notion like the public good in its competitive culture.

The X Factor

Economic data suggest we’re in the advanced stages of competitive, zero sum capitalism’s systematic extermination of the public good. But a surprising X Factor could help reverse this trend.

What is it?

Happiness.

Let’s take a look….

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way

Free market godfather Milton Friedman famously said that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” That was free market capitalism’s bold theory: there was no need to import the European ideal of safeguarding the public good; instead, you could give capitalism free reign and everyone would benefit — and no need for social democracy’s clumsy bureaucracy.

We Yanks thought we could do better, but we were wrong, and we were wrong because we were duped. Free market ideology staked its claim as a science, but it wasn’t — it was an ideology, a religion. For it to work, you had to believe, and to aggressively demonstrate your commitment to its ideal or a pure capitalist state.

We heard the call to discipleship, but we still remembered that the compassionate social programs of the Roosevelt New Deal, engineered by Keynesian economic theories of government intervention, had bailed us out of the Great Depression and fueled a startling worldwide recovery from the rubble of two world wars – a recovery that lifted all economic fortunes and established the middle class as the mainstay of socio-economic stability.

But that wasn’t enough for the free market idealists who had already been theorizing and strategizing at their Mont Pelerin Society meetings in the mountains of Switzerland. But their time had not yet come, and they waited, constructing mathematical models that proved they were right — in theory, at least, even though they were untested empirically — until history finally handed them their chance.

European democratic socialism’s reputation had been compromised by the abuses and miseries of its far distant relative, Soviet Communism. The free marketers must have known, but the rest of us didn’t see that they weren’t the same thing, and when the Berlin Wall came down, we celebrated the end of the Cold War by declaring capitalism the victor, and then we set out to cleanse the world of our defeated “socialist” foe. While a new class of Russian opportunists became billionaires by scavenging former state-owned assets at below bargain basement prices, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led the charge to purge their respective countries of any taint of vanquished socialism, which they and everyone equated with Communism. National and corporate leadership snatched the keys to free capitalism’s shiny new muscle car and went peeling out, careening donuts in the cities and shredding fragile tundra in the mountains. The American way of rugged individualism and upward mobility and anybody can make it here if they have enough gumption and are willing to work hard resounded through the halls of government on both sides of the aisle on both sides of the Atlantic, and we routed the welfare queens out from in front of their TVs, put food stamps slackers back to work, created the Incarceration State, and savaged the environment… all to shouts of “workfare!” – a new translation of “hallelujah!”

Competitive capitalism became the new state religion — its competitive capitalism campaign slogans became its scriptures, and its entrepreneurial heroes as iconic as dear old Betsy Ross and her flag, and it became culturally criminal to deface them. Cultural myths and icons grow to sacred stature, snuffing out discourse and banning dissent. That doesn’t ensure success, but it does mean that the electorate will still trudge dutifully to the polls and ante up for another round, long after it has become obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the ideology hasn’t delivered on its promise. And thus the American electorate has done for the past four decades, believing with fundamentalist zeal in Friedman’s promise of economic utopia until today we’re left with socio-economic structures of inequality matched only by the days of the French Revolution, the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way, but it did.

The Unconscious Underbelly

Ideologies originate in the neural pathways of the people who create them, and spread from brain to brain until enough brains have the same wiring and, by a process known as “emergence,” they take on a life of their own in the institutions they create and sustain.[1]

Of course, most people don’t go around thinking about how their neural pathways process free market ideological biases. Instead they respond to the issues – politicians urging them to reject the public good in favor of the chance to do have it your way and forget the deep state and its non-elected manipulating – and never mind that the public good that you’re voting out of existence includes your own.

We do some things consciously, with intent and purpose, but we do much more for reasons we’re not in touch with, or for no reason at all – the latter two driven by unconscious impulses derived from the cultural biases wired into our brains. There is, for example, ample research to suggest an additional endemic cultural factor that helps to explain why we support elected officials and their economic agendas even when doing so is against our own best interests. That factor is culturally embedded racism.

“One question that has troubled Democrats for decades is freshly relevant in the Trump-McConnell era: Why do so many voters support elected officials who are determined to cut programs that those same voters rely upon?

“There is, however, one thread that runs through all the explanations of the shift to the right in Kentucky and elsewhere. Race, the economists Alberto F. Alesina and Paola Giuliano write, ‘is an extremely important determinant of preferences for redistribution. When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, ceteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.’

“Alesina and Giuliano reach this conclusion based on the “unpleasant but nevertheless widely observed fact that individuals are more generous toward others who are similar to them racially, ethnically, linguistically.”

“Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York — Stony Brook, made a related point in an email: ‘It’s important to stress the role of negative racial and ethnic attitudes in this process. Those who hold Latinos and African-Americans in low esteem also believe that federal funds flow disproportionally to members of these groups. This belief that the federal government is more willing to help blacks and Latinos than whites fuels the white threat and resentment that boosted support for Donald Trump in 2016.

“In their 2004 book, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference,” Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, found a pronounced pattern in this country: states ‘with more African-Americans are less generous to the poor.’”[2]

Culturally embedded racism is the same trend that developed the “Welfare Queen” stereotype, which was shaped – as all stereotypes are — from the twisted truth of a notorious 60’s case of welfare fraud that became the standard citation for the free market’s case against the social safety net.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way, Part 2

If you’re going to have a public good, you need to have a government that supports it. Theoretically we do: the USA’s republican form of government isn’t a “pure democracy” –instead we elect people to represent us, trusting that they will act in our best interests, which are represented by the word “public” right there in its name.[3]

Republic (n.): c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.[4]

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees administer it for the public benefit. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

Commonwealth (n.): mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917).[5]

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places that everybody is entitled to simply by being a citizen. Once the res publica is legislated into being, someone has to administer it in trust for the public’s benefit. If you can’t administer public goods, there’s no point in creating them in the first place, and free market ideology emphatically doesn’t want government to do either– even if that government is supposedly a republican one.

Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato (The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist”) describes how limited government has eliminated the commonwealth from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much.

“Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today: government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”[6]

Ironically, while the ideal of limited government enjoys wide appeal, the actual reality has been the opposite: while the public good has been cut and slashed, the size of federal government has burgeoned during the free market’s reign, as measured by any number of economic markers, including national debt, number of government employees and contractors, size of the federal budget, and government spending — especially on national security and the military, including what some are calling the “military welfare state.”

The Public Good Wish List

Thus free market ideology has destroyed as much republican government as it could, and driven the rest into hiding. But suppose both could be restored to their places at the economic policy conference table. Beyond “the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system,” what might be included in a restored commonwealth trust fund? Several online searches turned up a long and illuminating list of things that used to be considered part of the commonwealth trust portfolio, or that might be added to it:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • protection from poverty – e.g., provision of food, clothing, and shelter
  • affordable housing
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • security and defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons” (vs. private ownership of intellectual property)
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

What’s Wrong With That List?

Turns out that certain of the things on that list might not technically qualify as public goods, but before we look at that, what was your response to the list? Did you find some items frivolous, maybe outrageous? Did you favor things that would benefit you personally over those that wouldn’t? Did some of the items make you want you to get on your moral high horse and ride? Probably you did all of that, because there will always be investments in the commonwealth trust portfolio that you don’t value for yourself. But that’s exactly the point: the commonwealth looks to the health of the whole, not what the rugged individual might be able to do for himself if everybody would just leave him alone.

This individual vs. group conflict enjoyed a respite when the neoliberal economics of the post-WWII years picked up the interrupted impetus of the prewar New Deal, creating as a result the halcyon days of the public good, with widely-shared benefits to the middle class and the American Dream of equal opportunity and upward socio-economic mobility. But when the recovery played out in the 70’s and was then replaced with the free market’s reign, the technicalities of what is public vs. private good became more important. Which is why, when you had those typical responses to the list – questioning this, preferring that — you were putting your finger precisely on several key and complex reasons why the public good is tricky to define and administer – complexities free market capitalism avoids by skewing the balance all the way to the private side of the balance. For example:

  1. “A public good must be both non-rivalrous, meaning that the supply doesn’t get smaller as it is consumed, and non-excludable, meaning that it is available to everyone.”[7] This is largely a matter of fiat: while many things on the list could be made to fit this requirement, they aren’t currently, thanks to the free market insistence on privatization, believing that will make everything optimally available. While phones and computer and internet access could be made free, open, and universal, trillions of dollars’ worth of private enterprise would have something to say about that.
  2. Public goods inevitably give rise to the “free rider problem,” defined as “an inefficient distribution of goods or services that occurs when some individuals are allowed to consume more than their fair share of the shared resource or pay less than their fair share of the costs. Free riding prevents the production and consumption of goods and services through conventional free-market To the free rider, there is little incentive to contribute to a collective resource since they can enjoy its benefits even if they don’t.”[8] Freeriding means public radio and TV can’t prevent people from enjoying their programming even if they don’t pony up during the annual fund-raising campaign.
  3. Government solves the free-rider problem by levying taxes to pay for public services – e.g., a special assessment to pay for sewer maintenance on your street. Only trouble is, “taxes” are fightin’ words – both in free market theory and generally for many if not most Americans. We’re stuck back at “taxation without representation” and “don’t tread on me” and “give me liberty or give me death” – if we don’t want it or can’t get it for ourselves, we’d rather go without it than pay taxes so that everybody else can have it.[9] Free market capitalism is okay with enough government to legislate itself into dominance, but then government needs to get out of the way.
  4. “Market failure”[10] is the key to the public goods door. It occurs when the free market doesn’t deliver. Free market capitalism relies on the common economic assumption that consumers acting rationally in their individual best interests will generate the optimal level of goods and services for everyone. This ideal is unrealized for the vast majority of things on the wish list, and giving it a boost requires a new configuration of what is properly a public or a private good.[11]
  5. Even if we put public goods in place to override free market failures, we’ll still face the “tragedy of the commons,” defined as “an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.”[12] The tragedy of the commons is why beaches post long lists of rules: it may be a public place, but a raucous party can ruin it for everyone else who wanted a tranquil place for a beach read.

These issues are inescapable: if you want public goods, you need to deal with them.

“Homo Economicus”

The issue of market failure ought to be the easiest issue to tackle, since it is based on a long-discredited notion of the rational economic man – the assumption that people will act rationally in their economic dealings, and that “rationally” means in their own best interests. John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to explain this economic behavior:

Homo economicus, or ‘economic man,’ is the characterization of man in some economic theories as a rational person who pursues wealth for his own self-interest. The economic man is described as one who avoids unnecessary work by using rational judgment. The assumption that all humans behave in this manner has been a fundamental premise for many economic theories.”[13]

The idea has had its detractors:

“The theory of the economic man dominated classical economic thought for many years until the rise of formal criticism in the 20th century.

“One of the most notable criticisms can be attributed to famed economist John Maynard Keynes. He, along with several other economists, argued that humans do not behave like the economic man. Instead, Keynes asserted that humans behave irrationally. He and his fellows proposed that the economic man is not a realistic model of human behavior because economic actors do not always act in their own self-interest and are not always fully informed when making economic decisions.”[14]

Even so,

“Although there have been many critics of the theory of homo economicus, the idea that economic actors behave in their own self-interest remains a fundamental basis of economic thought.”[15]

Ayn Rand Would Have Approved

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the free market belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest improves things for everyone. It finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”[16]

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of free market.

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”[17]

The X Factor: What Would be Wrong With a Little Happiness?

But you don’t need to be anybody’s patron saint to like the idea of the public good. You just need to be self-interested enough to want to be happy – or at least be envious of those who are.

Back to our Public Goods Wish List. Technicalities and difficulties of definition and administration aside, if we look at it from the perspective of “wouldn’t that be nice” there’s not a lot to dislike about it. While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good –whose citizens don’t seem to be so adverse to their own happiness — routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Report:

“Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”[18]

The capitalists who need our labor would do well to recall that happy workers are better workers – more loyal, productive, loyal, creative, innovative, and collaborative.[19] Further, as the following perspective on Switzerland shows, democratic socialism can still offer plenty of healthy capitalism:

“Like many progressive intellectuals, Bernie Sanders traces his vision of economic paradise not to socialist dictatorships like Venezuela but to their distant cousins in Scandinavia, which are just as wealthy and democratic as the United States but have more equitable distributions of wealth, as well as affordable health care and free college for all.

“There is, however, a country far richer and just as fair as any in the Scandinavian trio of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But no one talks about it.

“This $700 billion European economy is among the world’s 20 largest, significantly bigger than any in Scandinavia. It delivers welfare benefits as comprehensive as Scandinavia’s but with lighter taxes, smaller government, and a more open and stable economy. Steady growth recently made it the second richest nation in the world, after Luxembourg, with an average income of $84,000, or $20,000 more than the Scandinavian average. Money is not the final measure of success, but surveys also rank this nation as one of the world’s 10 happiest.

“This less socialist but more successful utopia is Switzerland.

“While widening its income lead over Scandinavia in recent decades, Switzerland has been catching up on measures of equality. Wealth and income are distributed across the populace almost as equally as in Scandinavia, with the middle class holding about 70 percent of the nation’s assets. The big difference: The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer.

“The real lesson of Swiss success is that the stark choice offered by many politicians — between private enterprise and social welfare — is a false one. A pragmatic country can have a business-friendly environment alongside social equality, if it gets the balance right. The Swiss have become the world’s richest nation by getting it right, and their model is hiding in plain sight.”[20]

Yes, the citizens of countries that promote the public good pay more taxes, but as this article[21] points out, that doesn’t mean the government is stealing their hard-earned money, instead it’s a recognition that paying taxes acknowledges what the national culture has contributed to their success. Meanwhile there’s still plenty of happiness to go around.

The X Factor, One More Time

It would take a lot to reclaim the public good from free market capitalism’s pogrom against it, and all appearances are that won’t happen anytime soon. But if it ever does, it could be a newly reinvented and revitalized homo economicus’ finest hour, motivated by the simple human desire to be happy.

Imagine that.

[1] For more on neuro-culture, see Beliefs Systems and Culture in my Iconoclast.blog.

[2] Why Don’t We Always Vote in Our Own Self-Interest? New York Times (July 19, 2018).

[3] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[4] Etymology Online.

[5] Etymology Online

[6] The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (orig. 2013, rev’d 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018).

[7] Investopedia.

[8] Investopedia.

[9] This is a particularly thorny issue for philanthropy – see this article and that one.

[10] Investopedia.

[11] See Everyday Ethics: The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods, The Rock Ethics Institute, University of Pennsylvania (Apr 15, 2015).

[12] Investopedia.

[13] Investopedia

[14] Investopedia

[15] Investopedia.

[16] What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

[17] How America Lost Its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

[18] See the full list here. See also the corollary Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Reporthere’s the pdf version.

[19] See The Real Advantage of Happy Employees from Recruiter.com., also this re: an Oxford study: A Big New Study Finds Compelling Evidence That Happy Workers Are More Productive, Quartz at Work (Oct. 22, 2019)

[20] The Happy, Healthy Capitalists of Switzerland, The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2019).

[21] No It’s Not Your Money: Why Taxation Isn’t Theft, Tax Justice Network (Oct. 8, 2014). And for a faith-based perspective I’ve never heard from the religious right, see Faithfully Paying Taxes to Support the Common Good, Ethics Daily (April 12, 2018).