Homo Economicus

homo economicus

John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to explain economic behavior. This is from . Investopedia:

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.

“The history of the term dates back to the 19th century when John Stuart Mill first proposed the definition of homo economicus. He defined the economic actor as one “who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labor and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.”

“The idea that man acts in his own self-interest often is attributed to other economists and philosophers, like economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who considered man to be a rational, self-interested economic agent, and Aristotle, who discussed man’s self-interested tendencies in his work Politics. But Mill is considered the first to have defined the economic man completely.”

Homo economicus says the rational approach to commerce is to seek the most for the least. The idea has 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.”[1]

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises sided with Keynes:

“It was a fundamental mistake … to interpret economics as the characterization of the behavior of an ideal type, the homo economicus. According to this doctrine, traditional or orthodox economics does not deal with the behavior of man as he really is and acts, but with a fictitious or hypothetical image. It pictures a being driven exclusively by ‘economic’ motives, i.e., solely by the intention of making the greatest possible material or monetary profit. Such a being does not have and never did have a counterpart in reality; it is a phantom of a spurious armchair philosophy. No man is exclusively motivated by the desire to become as rich as possible; many are not at all influenced by this mean craving. It is vain to refer to such an illusory homunculus in dealing with life and history.”

The Homo Economicus Straw Man, Mises Institute (Oct. 26, 2016).[2]

More recent criticism questions the role of rationality in human behavior not only in economics but more generally:

“Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

“The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

“Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear.

Not so foolish:  We are told that we are an irrational tangle of biases, to be nudged any which way. Does this claim stand to reason? Aeon Magazine (Sept. 22, 2014)

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.”[3]

If the shoe doesn’t fit, why do we keep wearing it? And to what end? More next time.

[1] Investopedia, op cit.

[2]  The image above is from this article.

[3] Investopedia, op cit.

A Tale of Two Countries

pie cut in half

It’s official:  the U.S. is split in half — not just on everything, as we already know, but also in economic terms:  half of us are poor, half of us aren’t.

Well, not quite. Joe Biden apparently got his math wrong when he said half of Americans are poor. More accurately, 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].”

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.

Glad we got that cleared up.

Besides, what’s “poor” anyway? Are we talking poverty, poor, low income, or what? Again from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker:

“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.”

Therefore, apparently “poor” is about food, housing, utilities, and child-care  — subject to how much you make on the dole. But what about childcare for people not on public assistance — are you poor if you can’t afford that? Or how about healthcare, education, transportation? Internet access? Cell phone? Or what if you can’t come up with $500 to cover an unexpected expense? (Something 63% of American’s couldn’t do, according to this Forbes article.) 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?

We have now landed squarely in the center of the necessity vs. luxury debate, which 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.”

Basic Income:  A Guide For the Open-Minded, Guy Standing (2017) [1].

If “only” 32%, or maybe 43.5%, or even half of Americans are below, at, or just above the official poverty line, the USA has truly become what one writer calls “the world’s first poor rich country.” That means look left, look right, and one of you:

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

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

If none of those apply, then either you’re a member of the top 10% economic upper class or you’re part of the middle class that hasn’t vanished yet. Otherwise, “poor” can happen even right here in our house. If I’d thought about it back in the day (but of course I didn’t), I’m sure there were three things I would have thought I’d never be:  old, poor, and infirm. Now, by federal standards, I’m all three. I’m also certain I never would have thought that the best financial day I’d ever have was the day I qualified for disability income. Amazing what a social safety net can do for your outlook.

Old, poor, and infirm are three reasons why I’ve been writing about economics and jobs for the past couple years. One of the many things I’ve learned is that law and economics are inseparable — which is obvious if we ever think about it, but usually we don’t. Click here for an article about how law creates economic reality.

Next up:  we’ll meet a human species you’ve probably never heard of.

[1] The results of my Google searches on necessities vs. luxuries were fascinating. I highly recommend your own. See, e.g., this article that cites a 2009 Pew Research Center poll re: what Americans considered necessities at that time. I didn’t find an exact Pew follow up, but for something close, see this 2016 research study that identified job security and the ability to save money as prerequisites for being considered middle class.

Masters of the Universe

masters of the universe 2

If the rich can’t save the world, how about the CEOs? They know how to get things done – how about we let them take a crack at it?

That kind of thinking has become “powerful in the public consciousness,”  say the authors of CEO Society:  The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life, Peter Bloom and Carl Rhodes (2018):

“CEOs epitomize this fantastical figure of the empowered sovereign. Their vaunted decisiveness, guiding vision and ability to proverbially ‘get things done’ speak to this deeper aspiration for being the master of capitalism rather than its mere slave or apparatchik.[1]

“It is no surprise that many people seeking to become more powerful themselves would look to CEOs as heroes and role models.

“Perhaps the most evocative, if not foretelling, in this regard, was Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of stockbrokers and financiers as the new ‘masters of the universe’. [2]

“In the decades since Wolfe’s era-defining novel, the business executive has become the stuff of dreams on a much broader scale than the novel could have imagined.

“The CEO is the ultimate contemporary figure of power. CEOs, in their ideal form, have the ability to thrive in the market, save companies, and spread their influence across the world.”

Nothing wrong with solving the world’s intransigent problems, but watch out:  CEO power degrades into elitism in the marketplace and authoritarianism in politics:

“The marketization of global charity and empowerment has dangerous implications that transcend economics. It also has a troubling emerging political legacy, one in which democracy is sacrificed on that altar of executive-style empowerment. Politically, the free market is posited as a fundamental requirement for liberal democracy. However, recent analysis reveals instead the deeper connection between processes of marketization and authoritarianism…

“The image of the powerful autocrat is, to this effect, transformed into a potentially positive figure as a forward-thinking political leader who can guide their country on the correct market path in the face of ‘irrational’ opposition.

“[For example,] Rwanda is led by the autocratic President Paul Kagame, a close personal associate of former President Bill Clinton whom the New York Times has described as the “Global elite’s favourite strongman.” In the face of mounting criticism of this relationship, “Clinton has privately praised Kagame as someone who can “GSD” (get stuff done). One supporter, Gerald Mpyisi, the managing director of the Institute of Management and Leadership, defended Kagame’s methods in explicitly corporate terms:

‘The president is running the country like a CEO of a company who ensures that every director is accountable for their department. That is why, despite the lack of resources, you still find things happening. I believe for a country in the third world to develop there has to be a certain a certain element of organizing the population. The west tries to use its standards in the developing world and it isn’t fair.’”

Apparently the prospect of being in a position to get things done is irresistible. U.K. politician Boris Johnson once said, “I have as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as of being decapitated by a frisbee or of finding Elvis.” Now he’s the odds-on favorite to become just that. Either he actually did find the King or he’s taking to heart something else he said — back in 2008, just after the Great Recession:  “No matter how much you may dislike the Masters of the Universe, my friends, there are plenty of other parts of the universe that would welcome them.”

Meanwhile, on this side of the Pond, we have CEOs running for the ultimate corner (oval) office.

“Here’s an argument for billionaires in politics, at least as long as they made their fortunes themselves: It takes an incredible work ethic, good management skills, dedication, and a gift for setting priorities to turn a small company into a prosperous multinational one. Those all seem like skills that’d be useful in politics too, right?

“This is the case Perot made for himself, starting in 1992. ‘See, there’s a lot I don’t understand,” he said in a debate with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “I do understand business. I do understand creating jobs. I do understand how to make things work. And I got a long history of doing that.’

“Billionaires since have echoed him. Bloomberg cited the “pragmatic approach” of business leaders. Schultz’s website prominently features his successes at Starbucks. Trump leaned on his business background, telling voters in early campaign ads, ‘My opponents have no experience in creating jobs or making deals.’”

Dear Billionaires: Stop Running For President:  If you’re a billionaire who wants to transform politics and our world, there are better ways. Also, you’ll lose. (Vox, Jan. 19, 2019)

But are those skills really transferable? Again from Dear Billionaires:

“The problem is that it’s not really clear the skills transfer. In the course of their meteoric professional careers, billionaires mostly interact with people who work for or with them, and lots of political concerns that rank highly for everyday Americans aren’t areas they know anything about.”

Besides, is somebody who rakes in thousands of times more than the average person on their company’s payroll really going to understand what’s good for the rest of us? For an opinion about that, see No One Should Earn 1000 Times More Than a Regular Employee (The Guardian, Mar. 20, 2018).

Today, we’ll let Tom Wolfe have the last word on whether the CEOs can save the world:

“The Masters of the Universe were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with… On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe. There was no limit whatsoever!”[3]

[1] Merriam-Webster:  “Apparatchik:  1. a member of a Communist apparat,  2. a blindly devoted official, follower, or member of an organization (such as a corporation or political party. In the context of the definition of ‘apparatchik’ (a term English speakers borrowed from Russian), ‘apparat’ essentially means ‘party machine.’ An ‘apparatchik,’ therefore, is a cog in the system of the Communist Party. The term is not an especially flattering one, and its negative connotations reflect the perception that some Communists were obedient drones in the great Party machine. In current use, however, a person doesn’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to be called an ‘apparatchik’; he or she just has to be someone who mindlessly follows orders in an organization or bureaucracy.”

[2] Wolfe’s epic satire, Bonfire of the Vanities. You may know that the original bonfire of the vanities occurred in Florence on February 7, 1497, when Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola sponsored a bonfire of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin — cosmetics, art, books… you know, the usual.

[3] Said about bond trader Sherman McCoy.

Can The Rich Save The World? (2)

Clinton and Branson

Not only can’t the rich save the world, but philanthrocapitalism is a ruse to keep the rest of us in our place says former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2019). The Amazon book blurb calls it “the New York Times bestselling, groundbreaking investigation of how the global elite’s efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve.”

This edited extract from the book begins with a recitation of the same economic trends we’ve been following for the past two years in this blog — essentially how the equitable, “floats all boats” neoliberal years melted down in the past four decades of runaway economic inequality. After that, the book’s argument sorts itself into two main points:  however praiseworthy “doing well by doing good” may be, (1) it perpetuates inequality, and (2) it’s taking place off the government ledger, and that’s not how democracy is supposed to work:

“In recent years a great many fortunate Americans have also tried … something both laudable and self-serving: they have tried to help by taking ownership of the problem. All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure.

“For the most part, these initiatives are not democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favour the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo – and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win – are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviours….

“This genre of elites believes and promotes the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.

“This is what I call MarketWorld – an ascendant power elite defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.

“The elites of MarketWorld often speak in a language of ‘changing the world’ and ‘making the world a better place’ – language more typically associated with protest barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that even as these elites have done much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved.”

The New Elites’ Phoney Crusade to Save the World Without Changing Anything, The Guardian (Jan. 22, 2019).

MarketWorld is about putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop; or, as Giridharadas says it, “ the people who broke the progress machine are trying to sell us their services as repairmen.” That’s exactly the point is the rejoinder of the philanthrocapitalist movement, and thus we have yet one more case of polarized assumptions and opinions talking past each other. There’s plenty more where that came from — for example:

The Prosperity Movie’s website declares “It’s not just a movie. It’s a movement.”

“The businesses we showcased in the film are only a handful of the thousands of new and existing companies who are actively trying to make changes in the world around us.

“The challenge we face is simple. We can’t predict the future, but we can help make choices that turn us in the right direction.

“We could feature something cool a company is doing today and, tomorrow they can go off the rails and do something bad.

“Our goal is not to endorse specific companies, but rather reward ANY company making an effort and showing good behavior. Let’s come together and encourage them to continue doing good things… and reward them for that.”

There’s a lot of “good” and “right” and “bad” in that blurb. Says who? On the other side, the title of this op-ed piece tells you all you need to know about its bias:  Tech Capitalists Won’t Fix The World’s Problems — Their Unionised Workforce Might.

So, one more time with feeling:  Can the rich save the world?

It depends who you ask.

Photo:  Bill Clinton and Richard Branson at a Clinton Global Initiative event in New York in 2006. Photograph: Tina Fineberg/AP

Can The Rich Save The World?

adam Smith

Adam Smith didn’t think so.

“For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture. According to Smith, the most pressing dangers came not from the state acting alone, but the state when captured by merchant elites.

“Political actors, Smith claimed, were liable to be swept up by a ‘spirit of system’, which made them fall in love with abstract plans, which they hoped would introduce sweeping beneficial reform. Usually the motivations behind these plans were perfectly noble: a genuine desire to improve society. The problem, however, was that the ‘spirit of system’ blinded individuals to the harsh complexities of real-world change.

“What Smith is saying is that … the ‘spirit of system’ infects politicians with a messianic moral certainty that their reforms are so necessary and justified that almost any price is worth paying to achieve them.”

The Real Adam Smith, Aeon Magazine (January 16, 2018).

Smith had little faith in the free market’s altruism:

“Smith was, however, deeply pessimistic about the stranglehold that the merchants had managed to exert over European politics, and despaired of it ever being loosened. Accordingly, he labelled his preferred alternative – of liberal markets generating wealth to be passed on to all members of society – a ‘Utopia’ that would never come to pass.”[1]

The Real Adam Smith

Today’s “philanthrocapitalists” would beg to differ. Their social and economic charter originated in the 1990’s, under President Clinton’s leadership. Post-WWII neoliberalism had begun to fatigue in the 70’s, and the tide had turned against the 80’s social conservatism. Clinton and his U.K. counterpart Tony Blair offered a mix of conservative economics with social liberalism:

“As much as possible, they preferred a progressive politics that channelled private initiative, and the logic of philanthrocapitalism was pleasingly straightforward. Since the rich were getting richer, they had more money to throw around. The lure of yet more lucre could now be used to steer them into sinking some of this new wealth into the poorest communities, something touted by Clinton late in his presidency when he went on a four-day ‘new markets’ tour of deprived American neighbourhoods. Urging the super-rich to do some good with a portion of their rapidly growing prosperity, Clinton told them that a better world would make them richer yet. ‘Every time we hire a young person off the street in Watts and give him or her a better future,’ he said, ‘we are helping people who live in the ritziest suburb in America to continue to enjoy a rising stock market.’”

Economics As A Moral Tale, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2019) [2]

The rich and famous jumped on board, and the rest of the 90’s into the 2000’s, private foundations were a growth industry. The Economist’s Matthew Bishop and development pro Michael Green  wrote the book on the topic, with a foreword from Bill Clinton:  Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World (2009). The book blurb captured the spirit of the approach and the times:

“For philanthropists of the past, charity was often a matter of simply giving money away. For the philanthrocapitalists – the new generation of billionaires who are reshaping the way they give – it’s like business. Largely trained in the corporate world, these “social investors” are using big-business-style strategies and expecting results and accountability to match. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, is leading the way: he has promised his entire fortune to finding a cure for the diseases that kill millions of children in the poorest countries in the world.

“In Philanthrocapitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green examine this new movement and its implications. Proceeding from interviews with some of the most powerful people on the planet―including Gates, Bill Clinton, George Soros, Angelina Jolie, and Bono, among others―they show how a web of wealthy, motivated donors has set out to change the world. Their results will have huge implications: In a climate resistant to government spending on social causes, their focused donations may be the greatest force for societal change in our world, and a source of political controversy.”

Maybe philanthrocapitalism’s greatest appeal was that it offered a fresh, inspiring story:

“At heart, philanthrocapitalism offered not a new science of development, but an old-fashioned moral tale – one in which a hero, who would reveal himself by some magnificent achievement, would come along to save us from some peril.”[3]

Everybody loves a great story, but does this one have a happy ending?

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Id. For more, journalist and social commentator Chris Hedges thoroughly and adamantly deconstructs and debunks secular and religious utopian thinking in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.” His analysis explains why utopias invariably crash into dystopias. If that topic interests you, I’ve been writing about it in my Iconoclas.blog, and you might like to check it out.

[2] The author is John Rapley, academician, world development expert, journalist, and government advisor. His latest book is  Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong (2017).

[3] Id.

Free Market Professionalism

snake oil salesman 2

10- 15 years ago I discovered the Wannabe Economy.

It’s staffed by speakers, writers, facilitators, hosts, coaches, consultants… awake, aware, alive, attractive people ready to show us how to have it as good as they do. I needed their help. I dove in, gobbled up their wares.

At one point, I tried to be a Wannabe provider myself (books and workshops). But then doubt started stalking me: was I promoting sustainable change or just trashing people’s lives? How would know? I meant well, but so do lots of harmful people. The Wannabe Economy didn’t have an existential crisis:  it championed personal responsibility and trusted the marketplace to sort  things out.

The pitch is, “Do this, get that” — here’s the secret, the key, the code. the password, the knock. This gets you in. We want in, so we lay our money down. We feel grateful. We go for it. Then what? It’s all on us — personally responsibility, remember? — so if it works, we did it right, and if it doesn’t, we didn’t. We don’t call our guru to account; instead, we buy more.[1]

Why? Because we want desperately to play until we win. The sellers are invariably charismatic, assured, happy, rich — or appear to be. We believe in their sincerity, look for and find evidence that they live what they’re selling. (They’re making money selling to us, but we miss that point.) So we keep shelling it out, keep trying to finesse our way to the promised land. Meanwhile, our guides have no skin in the game — not our game, at least. There’s no investment, only well wishes.

I suspect that 99.999% of the helpers in the self-help industry genuinely want to help. But it’s a business, after all, not charity.[2] There’s no mens rea for buyer’s remorse in the Wannabe Economy. You pays your money, you takes your chance. Caveat emptor.

And, more pertinent to this blog, what I just described has become how “professional” services are bought and sold. Capitalism serves up both the Wannabe Economy and Free Market Professionalism.

Any problem with that?

In two words, trust and accountability, which are reducible to one word:   professionalism. And professionalism is taking a beating in the free market. That’s the message of this article: Why A Market Model Is Destroying The Safeguards Of The Professions. It’s written by a German academic mostly about the medical profession, but it applies to other professions as well.

“Wasn’t there a time when professionals still knew how to serve us – a cosy, well-ordered world of responsible doctors, wise teachers and caring nurses? In this world, bakers still cared about the quality of their bread, and builders were proud of their constructions. One could trust these professionals; they knew what they were doing and were reliable guardians of their knowledge. Because people poured their souls into it, work was still meaningful – or was it?

“In the grip of nostalgia, it’s easy to overlook the dark sides of this old vocational model. On top of the fact that professional jobs were structured around hierarchies of gender and race, laypeople were expected to obey expert judgment without even asking questions. Deference to authority was the norm, and there were few ways of holding professionals to account.

“Against this backdrop, the call for more autonomy, for more ‘choice’, seems hard to resist. This is precisely what happened with the rise of neoliberalism after the 1970s, when the advocates of ‘New Public Management’ promoted the idea that hard-nosed market thinking should be used to structure healthcare, education and other areas that typically belonged to the slow and complicated world of public red tape. In this way, neoliberalism undermined not only public institutions but the very idea of professionalism.

“This attack was the culmination of two powerful agendas. The first was an economic argument about the alleged inefficiency of public services or the other non-market structures in which professional knowledge was hosted.

“The second was an argument about autonomy, about equal status, about liberation – ‘Think for yourself!’ instead of relying on experts. The advent of the internet seemed to offer perfect conditions for finding information and comparing offers: in short, for acting like a fully informed customer.

“These two imperatives – the economic and the individualistic – meshed extremely well under neoliberalism. The shift from addressing the needs of citizens to serving the demands of customers or consumers was complete.

“The imperatives of productivity, profitability and the market rule.

“We are all customers now; we are all supposed to be kings. But what if ‘being a customer’ is the wrong model for healthcare, education, and even highly specialised crafts and trades?

“What the market-based model overlooks is hyperspecialisation, as the philosopher Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015). We depend on other people’s knowledge and expertise, because we can learn and study only so many things in our lifetimes. Whenever specialist knowledge is at stake, we are the opposite of a well-informed customer. Often we don’t  want to have to do our own research, which would be patchy at best; sometimes, we are simply unable to do it, even if we tried. It’s much more efficient (yes, efficient!) if we can trust those already in the know.

“But it can be hard to trust professionals forced to work in neoliberal regimes.

“Responsible professionalism imagines work-life as a series of relationships with individuals who are entrusted to you, along with the ethical standards and commitments you uphold as a member of a professional community. But marketisation threatens this collegiality, by introducing competitiveness among workers and undermining the trust that’s needed to do a good job.

“Is there a way out of this conundrum? Could professionalism be revived? If so, can we avoid its old problems of hierarchy while preserving space for equality and autonomy?”

Good questions that deserve engaged, real-time answers from people with skin in the game.

[1] For a scathing description of this particular consumer behavior in the Wannabe Economy,  see 11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness (Hint: Unhappy People Buy Things) Inc. (Oct. 19, 2017).

[2] Although it is very much a religion — I write more on topics like that in another context.

“What Do You Do?”

Anybody else remember when “networking” was something you did at cocktail parties? That was before it became a fact of computerized life — see this pictorial history . The idea of old-style networking mostly gets eye rolls these days — too much objectifying, I’d guess — but it’s not dead yet:  as this promo for Social Media Marketing World 2020 makes clear.

The standard cocktail party question is, of course, “What do you do?” Turns out we’ve been asking and answering that question the same way for 114 years — ever since German sociologist and political economist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[1]

“We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe.

“The idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

“The blinkered professional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism

“It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since [the end of WWII and the advent of neoliberal economics].”

What Did Max Weber Mean By The ‘Spirit’ Of Capitalism? Aeon Magazine (June 12, 2018)

“What do you do?” was culturally relevant for most of the 20th Century, when jobs as we normally think of them were still around — but not so much today, especially for the new socio-economic lower class known as “the precariat.”

 “Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom.

“The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.”

The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2017)

I Googled “how to answer ‘what do you do?’” and got lots of articles about how to give your answer the right spin and turn the question into meaningful conversation — mostly directed at job applicants and people who hate their jobs — but the question’s relevance as an accurate reflection of Kultur is lost to the “gig economy” where the precariat hang out. It could be worse, though:  you could be a member of the “lumpen precariat.” Again from Guy Standing:

 “Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

I’ve written before about how I made an ill-timed (at the height of the Great Recession) and otherwise disastrous exit from law practice for a new creative career that bombed,[2] while at the same time dealing with an as-yet-undiagnosed onset of “Primary Progressive MS” (the most degenerative kind you can get). During those years, I barely slowed down as I crashed through “precariat” on the way down from “salariat,” before ending up on the roles of the “disabled,”  a lumpen subclass. I did some awkward old-style networking during those years, and eventually developed my own Q&A. When asked “what do you do?” I would simply describe what I’d been doing that day. When it was my turn, I simply asked, “Who are you?”

Great conversation starters, as it turned out.

Photo is from Nimble Bar Co., re: how to throw an unforgettable party.

[1] Naturally there’s been lots of argument about whether the work ethic was Protestant or Catholic… and if Protestant, if it would be more properly “Calvinist” or “Puritan.” Sigh.

[2] For the full story, see my book Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download and on Amazon for cheap. It’s a short, quick read, I promise.