Monday, November 14, 2011

Rewards and Punishments

The problem with capitalism is that it is too rewarding. The prospect of unlimited income is undoubtedly motivating—drug lords have excellent work habits—but that’s precisely the problem. We know that people will lie, cheat, and steal for relatively small payoffs. What do you suppose they’ll do if they can make $345 million a year doing it? Swindle their customers? Destroy the environment? Sell tainted food? Sell people into slavery? Buy politicians? Subvert the courts? Start wars? Betray their country? As we all know, the lords of universe do all that and a great deal more as a matter of routine. Even the most fervent disciples of the gospel of wealth are perfectly aware that the doings of the great would be the sheerest criminality in small timers. They simply assert that these activities automatically result in good consequences, a conclusion they apparently base on something they read somewhere.

What we have here is a dosage problem. If one pill makes you feel better, it doesn’t follow that it’s a good idea to empty the bottle. The opportunity to get ahead can certainly make people work harder and sometimes smarter, which is very often a good thing. Increasing the potential rewards without limit, however, simply means that other motives and considerations will be overwhelmed. Offer me enough and I’ll not only ignore my obligations to my fellow man, I’ll feel that I ought to ignore them.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Theoretical Problem and the Real Problem

You still encounter people who doubt that atheists can be moral even though one would think that a debate that began back in the late 17th Century with a famous entry in Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary would be pretty much played out by now. I actually had a thought about it the other day, which, though not really new, is at least one I haven’t heard recently. It occurred to me that the real reason it’s hard for traditionalists to imagine non-theological justifications for morality is not that they or anybody else has much trouble figuring out what’s problematic about lying or homicide and most of the rest. It is only very specific elements of their moral stance that are difficult to justify without divine help. It isn’t that there can’t be rational arguments for moral principles; it’s just that there can’t be rational arguments for irrational principles. As one can verify by perusing any reasonable sample of three hundred years of anti-atheistic polemic, what the traditionalists overwhelmingly care about is defending hierarchy, the privileges of kings and priests in the old days or the wealthy and powerful in ours. It really is hard to come up with something that will convince non-elites that they should be obedient servants willing to suffer and die for their betters. That’s what God and the angels do for a living. The much discussed abyss between the ought and the is has very little to do with it. The problem isn’t meta-ethical, but ethical. There just aren’t any good arguments for immoral conclusions.

Friday, July 08, 2011

You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do

A significant fraction of American economic capacity is going unused. We not only aren't getting the goods and services this capacity could produce, but more importantly we're losing future capacity because of flagging real investment in plant, personnel, and technology. The private sector is sitting on piles of money right now and could invest, but won't because it doesn't make any sense to produce goods and services nobody is buying or can buy—all the surveys of business people list absence of customers as the prime reason for decisions not to hire. Under the circumstances, I don't see the alternative to public investment.

The notion that resources put to work by governments are somehow not productive is obviously false. Indeed, the most obviously needed capital investments are just the kinds of things that governments have traditionally undertaken or subsidized: transportation infrastructure, research, education, environmental remediation. They are also the investments that the roaring new Asian economies are undertaking as they outstrip us. Does somebody actually believe that the Erie and Panama Canals, the land grant universities, the railroads, the interstate highway system, or the Internet weren't productive investments? Really?

The Conservatives, who favor policies that promote income and wealth disparity, should think twice before blocking projects that put the country back to work. America has consistently tolerated levels of inequality that led to popular revolt elsewhere in the world because economic expansion gave the have nots hope that they would eventually become haves. Absent renewed growth, it will soon become apparent to anybody who hasn't already figured it out already that America is not only stratified but that its class divisions are becoming set in stone. The philosopher Hegel once remarked that the French Revolution would never have taken place were the forests of Germany still empty. By the same logic, we never had a revolution comparable to the French Revolution in this country because in the 19th Century we had a still open frontier and in the 20th we had several episodes of dramatic industrial growth. If the Republicans don't want to end up with their heads on pikes, they might want to reconsider their opposition to the public investments essential to a fresh burst of economic expansion. Ironically, restoring a realistic sense of hope to people of middling means is essential to maintaining America's tolerance for inequality.

Friday, June 17, 2011

To be Fair

The right wing outlook on life doesn’t often get the respect it deserves. For example, the Conservative answer to the current economic situation is not so crazy as it sounds. If the ability of working people to resist lower wages were decisively broken, supply and demand would indeed raise the employment rate—for a couple of hundred a month, who wouldn’t hire more servants? We simply have to stop thinking of great disparities of wealth and income as an exceptional condition. Of course reestablishing the proper social order of things will require some political changes to prevent any effective popular protest, ergo the current campaign of reinstituting Jim Crow laws to prevent the wrong kind of people from voting and the continuing effort to make it effectively illegal or at least extremely dangerous for working people to organize. There is surely no moral objection to this program: if you’ve been told that capitalism turns private greed into public good, its natural to draw the conclusion that one should therefore be as greedy as possible, not just in the grand fashion of business moguls, some of whom, after all, really do build useful things but in the somewhat less glamorous fashion of grasping old farts. This does not mean that conservatives cannot be charitable, of course. Charity is one of the cardinal privileges of wealth and ostentatious demonstrations of compassion by professional golfers and oil billionaires are praiseworthy so long as they don’t threaten to actually relieve human suffering or create confusion as to who is in charge. What did Jesus say? “The poor should always be with us.” Close enough. And it would be utterly unjust to object to modern conservatism as elitist. Humility, no doubt, is a virtue; and vulgarity is the right-wing version of humility, a philistine populism that brags about its ignorance and love of violence. What we have here is a large number of people who have decided that civilization was a mistake all along. Who’s to say they’re wrong?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To Whom It May Concern

The lede in the New York Times article on the New York election reads: “The Republican defeat in a special election is a reminder that voters like the idea of budget cuts, but often recoil when the cuts threaten programs that touch their lives.” This sentence, though not exactly false, reflects a deeply erroneous story line, the notion that the Republican attempt to destroy Medicare has something to do with controlling the deficit. The deficit is just the most recent of a long series of excuses to do what they have always wanted to do. How anybody could live through the last thirty years and believe that the Conservatives care about the national debt is mysterious to me. They do say they care about the state of our finances, of course; but you have to give them the benefit of the doubt to an extraordinary degree to credit their protestations of fiscal virtue in view of the budget-busting policies they have put in place at every opportunity under Reagan and the two Bushes. The current uptick in the deficit, after all, is almost entirely a function of the Bush’s tax cuts and military adventures. The long-term budget problem is indeed largely a matter of medical inflation; but the Republicans fought a ferocious and dishonorable campaign to prevent the passage of the health care reform, which was the first serious step in decades to curb the increase in costs.

Of course if what was at stake were merely one way of organizing a decent provision for the well being of the aging population, the issue would not be so critical. There’s nothing sacred about Medicare as a particular scheme. Unfortunately, the Conservatives would be just as hostile to any arrangement that could actually work since what upsets them is the idea that people can best deal with an existential problem by universal, intergenerational cooperation instead of purely private initiative.

At root, Conservatives hate Medicare because they hate the notion of universal human rights and the inclusive view of humanity that goes along with it. Like people who are besotted with love, they lie without hesitation or shame to satisfy their ideological passion. It’s not that they don’t have a sense of right and wrong: if the dishonesty had not long sense disappeared in the oblivion of habit, they would simply argue that behavior that would be reprehensible if done to members of the in-group is perfectly justifiable when used against members of the out-group, in this case, the majority of inhabitants of the country. As I have had occasion to point out before, in a political system with some democratic features, deceit is absolutely imperative for defenders of privilege and that’s true even when privilege is not recognized as privileged. Indeed, the moral contradiction is all the stronger in the American instance where the oligarchical party actually thinks of itself as populist. Surely lying to a newspaper is not a sin if it is done in defense of liberty! There are bound to be casualties in any war, and even I have to admit that the least of it is the massacre of arithmetic perpetrated every night on CSPAN by Republican congressmen.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Not About Wikileaks

HBGary Federal, a private security firm, has been advising Bank of America how to respond to the threat of more data dumps from Wikileaks. Since the relevant memos from HBGary have themselves been leaked, we know that the recommended response is preemptive attack on Wikileak supporters including the Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald. One of HBGary’s bullet points reassures the bankers: “These are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them will chose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.”

At the moment, I have nothing to add to the debate about Wikileaks; but I note the oddity that an important, if not central fact of American political life can appear in a private Power Point presentation as a truism and yet seldom be mentioned or commented upon in a public venue, presumably because this particular truism is, in fact, true. For many professions, prostituting one’s self is an integral part of the trade and counts as the prudence expected of an adult. Thus, American journalists, at least the sensible ones, only rock the boat as a bargaining maneuver. They have to represent themselves as a potential threat to the powers that be in order to satisfy their armour propre and command a higher price for their later good behavior. There is a place for honest reportage—Glenn Greenwald isn’t going to shut up—but the commercial niche for principled commentary is very narrow and generally doesn’t pay enough in an era in which professional people expect to be extremely affluent.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Five and a Half Whys

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has delivered its verdict on the causes of the 2008 collapse. Because the majority determined that the disaster had been preventable, the Republican members of the commission were not enthusiastic about this conclusion, perhaps pretending to doubt the validity of the forensics because of whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon. I have a different criticism. Although several factors were identified, the inquiry was not sufficiently recursive. It didn’t repeat its questions enough times. If the regulators failed, why did they fail? If financial laws were inadequate, why were they inadequate? If too much money went into highly leveraged derivatives, why were these paper investments so much more attractive than investments in plant and personnel?

Six-year old girls know the game of asking why over and over again. You’d think that sixty year old economists could at least ask why at least five times, as famously recommended by the engineers of Toyota. The difficulty, I suspect, is not that answers are not forthcoming to the repeated questions but just the reverse. There’s a slippery slope here. If you don’t stop fast enough, you might tumble down to an inconvenient place. You might have to admit that the problem cannot be explained by corrupt individuals or institutions, but reflects more fundamental and intractable problems. Moral explanations are always superficial. It’s not just that there are reasons why the malefactors do wrong. There are also reasons why honest actors do the right thing and reasons why, under some circumstances, it doesn’t matter a great deal what anybody does.

It is perfectly true that Alan Greenspan deserves to be horsewhipped, but it would be more useful to know why it is unthinkable that he and the rest of his kind will ever be horsewhipped. And it would be still more valuable to figure out how to promote anti-Alan Greenspans to positions of authority. Similarly, it’s all very well to bewail the dominion of financial interests over regulators, legislators, and judges; but it would be better to find a counterforce to concentrated wealth. Laws by themselves will never help. Like an alien aphid, Goldman Sachs has no natural enemy in these parts—we need to find somebody or something that eats bankers.

Incidentally, I do try to follow my own advice occasionally. For example, while I do think that one of the deeper reasons for the financial and economic calamity of the last couple of years is the great and growing disparity of wealth in the our country—a conclusion, by the way, which is apparently shared even by many business leaders—I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation for what’s going on either. One has to ask why wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated at the very top, not only in the U.S. but in other nations as well. I’m not satisfied with the answers I’ve encountered to that question so far.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Question of Who

The critical thing is not one’s moral principles: rules, after all, can be interpreted in endless ways; and it requires an excess of metaphysical optimism to believe that there is only one right course of action and that we’re always able to see it. What matters is the point of view taken up by the moral actor. Theological ethics make sense if we think of ourselves as servants or slaves, i.e. individuals whose task is to understand the orders of their masters and faithfully observe them. Kantian ethics, but also many versions of utilitarianism, are the ethics of free individuals who assume that it is their responsibility to make decisions. That’s why such secular ethical systems so offend the religious: the follower of the categorical imperative is guilty of the sin of pride since he takes up the station of the lawgiver that ought to belong to god alone. The religious also imagine that an ethic of autonomy is an invitation to arbitrary and perhaps murderous freedom, the creed of Columbine. Those who have thoroughly thought through the implications of human liberty will disagree: the recognition of one’s freedom is the coldest of cold baths. The dangerous people are those who attain the authority without accepting what goes with it: as the Greeks knew and every age learns again, a tyrant is a slave with too much power.

No Commercial Possibilities

Pederasty Deflated is a book that will never be written, though its general outline is easy enough to rough out. Such a text would point out that the obsession with sexual crimes against children is rather recent and that the salience of the issue is more than debatable given the fairly obvious fact that children are harmed far more by poverty and the lack of good health care than the ministrations of horny priests and peculiar uncles. Like the witch craze of the Renaissance and Reformation era, the SVU hysteria of our times is a clear instance of displacement, the refocusing of anxieties on a convenient target. It’s almost as if the need to get upset about other people’s sexual behavior has a constant mass and the pederast now bears a much larger proportion of this burden now that it has become socially unacceptable to hate homosexuals and cohabiting unmarried couples. The persecution of sexual deviance is also politically useful, as we see in the predictable way in which any person who threatens ruling interests will be predictably accused of sexual irregularities, often involving children. Just as the war on drugs has long served to erode everyone’s civil rights, the interminable campaign against child pornography is a crucial element in the state’s campaign to tame the Internet. There are, of course, people who prey on children, just as there really are people who want to blow up buildings for political and religious causes; but the response to both pederasty and terrorism is so ludicrously disproportionate as to call for an explanation in terms of the psychological, economic, and political utility of these inflated threats. Unfortunately, while various people have addressed the hyping of terrorism, it is a far more daunting prospect to confront the other great inflated monster.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Editorial

Somebody once told me that my essays sound like editorials by which I think he meant that they were measured, sound, and reassuringly dull. I suppose I’d rather have a reputation for daring, but you can’t escape your nature. Character is destiny, as Heraclitus pronounced long ago; or, to put it another way, even though an excruciatingly gradual vengeance would be the most terrible, no superhero is ever going to be named the Sloth. My thoughts are doomed, apparently, to drag their arthritic coils laboriously behind the gravity of my purposes. Might as well advertise this effect as dignity. Anyhow, there may be times when it is appropriate to take your time.

When Gabrielle Gifford was shot in Tucson last week, a great many people, myself included, instantly wondered if somebody had finally been inspired to action by Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and the rest, though I at least and I expect most of the others were also perfectly aware that we simply didn’t know. When it turned out the perpetrator’s motives were thoroughly psychotic, the assumption that right-wing paranoia was at fault was criticized even though it was surely, if silently shared at the time by most Republicans who must have felt they had dodged a bullet—nobody, right or left or center, is going to be surprised if Teabaggery eventually results in violence, after all. Thing is, what’s at stake in all this is not the impropriety of jumping to conclusions and engaging in a scholastic debate about the effect of the rhetorical environment on the behavior of paranoid schizophrenics is similarly irrelevant to what lies beneath the public debate. It is simply this: the scandal that it takes a multiple murder to get anybody to notice how screamingly pathological our politics has become. The crazy narratives retailed on Fox may indeed have nothing to do with one guy in Arizona, but they are extraordinarily crazy nevertheless. What does it take for the political nation (if there is such a thing) to respond to the fact that a large part of the population has convinced itself that the government is run by a Marxist/socialist/fascist/Nazi/atheist/narco/muslim/terrorist Antichrist?

Come to think of it, that last bit didn’t sound that much like the New York Times.