Economic Storytelling [2]: Hail the Conquering Capitalist Comes

handel    hail the conquering

Handel wrote “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” for his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, created to commemorate the Duke of Cumberland’s stomping out of the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Two hundred years later, hay fever stricken non-hero Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith rode a myth of his own heroism, fabricated by well-intentioned friends, to a public moment of truth in the 1944 film Hail the Conquering Hero. But that was Hollywood, and everybody was happy in the end as Woodrow lived out the popular “redemption” narrative that Silicon Valley loves, as we’ve seen previously. As for the Jacobites, their story became a cautionary tale — a more sobering narrative genre.

These two conquering hero stories illustrate why non-narrative economists think we’re better off leaving stories at the water cooler:  narratives contain too much subjectivity, interpretation, cognitive bias, self-deception, and wishful thinking to be trusted, and therefore add nothing to economic policy-making, which is all those things already. You can talk “normative” all you like, but narrative policy will end up being a matter of power, not plot.

Plus, narratives can have unexpected outcomes. This article chronicles the pendulum swings that have characterized political/economic narratives for the past century, and warns that popular narratives of economic doom can have catastrophic consequences because they’re forged in simplistic thinking to the exclusion of more complex analysis:

 “[Catastrophe narrative favor] the politics of the strong man glaring down the nation-doubters… It’s globalism or ‘nation first’, jobs or climate, friend or foe.

“The alternative is not to be wistful about flat-world narratives that find solace in technical panaceas and market fundamentalisms; the last thing we need is a return to the comforts of lean-in fairy tales that rely on facile responses to a complicated world.

“Nowadays, the chorus of catastrophe presents differences as intractable and incompatible, the choice between them zero-sum.

“We need to recover our command over complex storytelling, to think of tensions instead of incompatibilities, to allow choices and alternatives, mixtures and ambiguities, instability and learning, to counter the false certainties of the abyss.”

Why We Need To Be Wary Of Narratives Of Economic Catastrophe, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 22, 2019)

I.e., if we’re going to have economic narratives at all, they need to be complex, not simplistic, and take into account the full range of “positive” and “normative” ethical judgments, as well as both mathematical modeling and fundamental human behavior. Anything short of that promotes polarized thinking, which is not only the standard of the day, but might be inescapable as long as the human brain is in charge. Coach, consultant, and author Karl Albrecht wrote the following in Psychology Today iun 2010 — before discourse disappeared entirely from American public life:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’’

Albrecht goes on to say that “imagination, creativity, and innovation all thrive in the ‘twilight zone,’ not at the poles of opinion,” and offers these seven antidotes to the plague of silo-building:

  1. Have fewer opinions.
  2. Keep your opinions and conclusions on probation.
  3. Let go of the need to be certain about everything.
  4. Seek the “third hand”- and any other “hands” you can discover.
  5. Modify your language.Replace the word “but” with “and” as often as you can, even if it sounds weird at first.
  6. Remind yourself every day that your “truth” is not the same as any other person’s truth.
  7. Avoid head-butting contests with opinionated people.

Good advice no doubt, but storytelling or not, these days capitalists and capitalism are the conquering heroes making their grand entrances. In fact, they’re so powerful that they’re eclipsing the historic “nation-state” in size and influence.

We’ll look at that next time.

Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and 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.”

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

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’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.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

Homo Economicus [2]

homo economicus

Despite its detractors, the concept of homo economicus is a mainstay of economic theory and policy-making because it has become a cultural myth, and cultural myths hold tight even if they perpetuate societal ill health. That’s is the perspective offered by London economist and Guardian columnist Peter Fleming in his book The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation (2017). This is from the book blurb:

“In today’s workplaces we work harder and longer, labouring under the illusion that this will bring us more wealth. As this myth becomes increasingly preposterous, it’s time to understand why we believe in it, and where it came from.

“The Death of Homo Economicus explores the origin of this oppressive myth, in order to destroy it. The story begins with the creation of a fake persona labelled the ‘dollar-hunting man’, invented by economists Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. Today, this persona, driven by competition and ego, is used by politicians and managers to draw a veil over the terrible reality of work under capitalism.

“Creeping into all aspects of life, the desire to constantly compete and accumulate must be resisted if we are to create a better way of life for all.”

In this short book promo video, Prof. Fleming challenges the notion that humans are “a money-chasing animal” and that society as a whole prospers when dominated by “self-interested individualism.”  “The [homo economicus] ideal never really gained traction from the beginning.” he says, “because we don’t act as individual self-seeking beings, we live in a society and we live in communities.”

Author and entrepreneur Jeremy Lent agrees:

“Capitalism is based on the premise that the most desirable state of affairs is economic growth, which can be attained most effectively through free markets in which assets are privately owned. Based on this credo, the primary responsibility of government is to provide the infrastructure necessary for the free market to conduct its business with minimal constraints.

“Some important assumptions about human nature underlie these beliefs. Individuals are understood to be motivated primarily by financial self-interest. They are assumed to be rational in pursuit of this goal, and their “rationality” is believed to lead them to act competitively rather than cooperatively in the marketplace.

“Another crucial assumption holds that the aggregation of all these individuals competitively their own financial gain leads to the most beneficial outcome for society.

“These assumptions about human nature are not self-evident truths; however, the money-based system constructed by capitalism encourages and rewards these traits over other traditional, community-oriented values, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about the nature of human behavior.”

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

As The Guardian said in its review of The Death of Homo Economicus:

“‘Homo economicus’ is the totally made-up creature who is the proletarian hero of mid-20th-century economics: going about his daily life with unimpeachable rationality, efficiently calculating ways to maximise his self-interest.

“But people don’t actually live like that, as the behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman pointed out. It is a refuted model, yet its malign influence persists.”

“Malign” or not, competitive capitalism has become a cultural norm. Again from The Guardian’s book review:

“Our entire lives, [Fleming] argues, have been economified. The ruling narratives of work and commerce hypnotise us into thinking of our very selves as micro-businesses, so that it becomes ever harder to imagine life outside the paradigm of capital investment, productivity and profit.”

Free market champion Mises Institute agrees that economics would be better off if homo economicus went extinct.

“The problem … is that homo economicus is not actually necessary to understanding human behavior or how markets work. In fact, understanding of markets would be improved by not resorting to the homo economicus model at all… because it fails to provide a useful or accurate metric or model for human behavior.

“Thus, Ludwig von Mises noted that the homo economicus model described behavior for only one small type of human action, and failed to account for the behavior of consumers:

‘The much talked about homo economicus of the classical theory is the personification of the principles of the businessman. The businessman wants to conduct every business with the highest possible profit: he wants to buy as cheaply as possible and sell as dearly as possible. By means of diligence and attention to business he strives to eliminate all sources of error so that the results of his action are not prejudiced by ignorance, neglectfulness, mistakes, and the like…

‘The classical scheme is not at all applicable to consumption or the consumer. It could in no way comprehend the act of consumption or the consumer’s expenditure of money. The principle of buying on the cheapest market comes into question here only in so far as the choice is between several possibilities, otherwise equal, of purchasing goods; but it cannot be understood, from this point of view, why someone buys the better suit even though the cheaper one has the same “objective” usefulness, or why more is generally spent than is necessary for the minimum — taken in the strictest sense of the term — necessary for bare physical subsistence.’

“If an economics model tells us very little about consumer behavior, then its value is limited, to say the least.”

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

Curiously, von Mises’ argument suggests why homo economicus persists in capitalism theory:  it may not describe consumer behavior but it does describe his prototypical “businessman,” who is also his prototypical capitalist.

Continued next time.

[i]  The image above is from this article.

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

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.