Reckoning With Competitive Capitalism [2]

President Kennedy address at Yale

 “President John F. Kennedy explained to Yale’s graduating class of 1962 that ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest —  but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears…. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”

The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019)

Adverse outcomes often aren’t the result of dishonesty, fraud, or conspiracy; it’s just that things don’t go as projected. The trick is to notice and make adjustments, but often we don’t, especially when the expected outcome has become a cultural myth. In that case, belief makes us blind, conviction replaces vigilance, and contrary data avoids analysis, until one day we find ourselves living in a distressing new normal and wonder how we got here. Often, it takes a crisis to wake us up.

We’ve seen this dynamic before when economic policy morphed into socio-economic ideology. Communism began with an intent to champion the working man but became brutal and imperialistic; the Cold War was “normal” until one day the wall came crashing down and the Soviet Union and its progeny were thrown at the mercy of  capitalism, their ideological rival. The American Industrial Revolution begun by the Robber Barons roared through the 20’s but then crashed into the Great Depression; the era of legal monopolies, unregulated stock speculation, and vast economic inequality was recast into the social programs of the New Deal.

And now we’re seeing the cycle again:  post-Cold War free market capitalism blazed through the past three decades, morphed into its current hyper-competitive version, but now its unfulfilled promise of universal prosperity is becoming too obvious to ignore and there are signs its day of reckoning may not be far off, if not already at hand. That, at least, is the message of a Time Magazine cover story on economic reckoning that ran last month. It begins this way:

“History is the story of conditions that long seem reasonable until they begin to seem ridiculous. So it is with America’s present manic hyper-capitalism.

 “Until recently, it seemed normal that a technological revolution that began with promises of leveled playing fields had culminated in an age of platform monopolies. Normal that businesspeople should try to make as much money as possible by paying as little as possible in taxes and wages, then donate a fraction of the spoils to PR-friendly social causes. Normal that economic security for most Americans was becoming a relic of the past.,,. Normal that bankers could shatter the world economy with their speculating, and that they would be among the few to be made whole after the crisis.”

How the Elites Lost Their Grip: in 2019, America’s 1% behaved badly and helped bring about a reckoning with capitalism, Time Magazine , Dec. 2-9, 2019.[1]

These aspects of “normal” weren’t intended, but they are how things turned out. Along the way, various individuals and movements were vigilant enough to have seen the trends. but their attempts at dissent fell on deaf ears on both sides of the political aisle.[2]

“For years, there have been voices trying to denormalize this state. There were protests in Seattle in 1999, there was Occupy in 2011, there was the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], there was the World Social Forum to rival the World Economic Forum, there was, eternally, Bernie Sanders saying the exact stuff he is still saying today, there were civic groups trying to organize workers and poor communities, there were outcasts in Silicon Valley warning that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t really about human connection. But America was in the grips of the ideological consensus… Hyper-capitalism was the intellectual stadium in which the country played.”

Thus hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized, hyper-monetized capitalism became the cultural standard of the American Way as politicians and the public transferred their faith in Post-WWII neoliberal capitalism, which did indeed “float all boats,”  to the new Post-Cold War capitalism, which was supposed to have the same effect but didn’t. Instead of universal prosperity and opportunity, the new capitalism relegated the Public to the left behind, economic precarity and job insecurity took over the workplace, healthcare and other employment benefits were left up to consumers, upward mobility through higher education became the lifelong debtor of a newly nationalized student loan industry, incomprehensible wealth was increasingly concentrated in an incomprehensibly tiny percentage of capitalists, a new meritocratic social class arose… we’ve heard commentators recite the same litany of outcomes time and again in these blog posts.

But the days of complacency are over, the Time article declares:  the year 2019 brought us a wakeup call in the form of the one percenters “behaving badly” in such things as Amazon’s failed expansion in NYC, the college admissions scandal, and Facebook’s $5 Billion FTC fine.

“In response to these scandals and outrages, many in the business world declared themselves newly interested in reform. The most prominent and heralded instance this past year was a statement by the Business Roundtable, an umbrella organization whose members are the chief executives of many of America’s largest companies. For decades, the roundtable has clung to a particular interpretation of the purpose of a business—that it is solely to make money for shareholders. With its new statement, issued in August, the roundtable updated its view.”[3]

“It was inspiring, limited stuff,” the Time article says of these developments, but “what it really revealed was how hard it will be for the old-guard capitalists to change at all.” As JFK told the Yale Class of ’62, allegiance to cultural myths dies hard and, all evidence to the contrary, free market capitalism’s ideological lynchpin remains in place:  what Reaganomics called “trickle down” — the belief that free market capitalism is win-win, that’s what’s good for the elites will be good for the commons.[4]

“If a single cultural idea has upheld the disproportionate power of [capitalism’s winners], it has been the idea of the “win-win.” They could get rich and then “give back” to you: win-win. They could run a fund that made them sizable returns and offered you social returns too: win-win. They could sell sugary drinks to children in schools and work on public-private partnerships to improve children’s health: win-win. They could build cutthroat technology monopolies and get credit for serving to connect humanity and foster community: win-win.

“As this seductive idea fizzles out, it raises the possibility that this age of capital, in which money was the ultimate organizing principle of American life, could actually end.

“The choice facing Americans is whether we want to be a society organized around money’s thirsts, a playground for the whims of billionaires, or whether we wish to be a democracy. The second Gilded Age will end at some point. The question is what comes next.”

Just how that question will be answered remains to be seen.

[1] All quotes in this post are all taken from this article.

[2] Left and right are polarized on various social issues, but beginning with the Clinton administration have been united in their economic free market ideology.

[3] We’ve previously looked at the Business Roundtable’s “Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation” that promotes “an economy that serves all Americans.”

[4] See “Winners Take All” – a combative short video thank debunks the trickle down theory.

Reckoning With Competitive Capitalism

“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral:
namely, that a man is always prey to his truths”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)

I wrote a post about 2½ years ago (Aug. 31, 2017) with the same title as this one. It referred to University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak’s book Economism, which warns against “the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society.” Prof. Kwak defines “economism” as “a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge,” and makes the case that free market ideology is guilty of it:

“The competitive market model can be a powerful tool, but it is only starting point in illuminating complex real-world issues, not the final word. In the real world, many other factors complicate the picture, sometimes beyond recognition.”

As we’ve seen, free market economic theory is based on the assumption of a “pure” capitalist state. Prof. Kwak calls for a new approach that meets the complex challenges of real life:

“Real change will not be achieved by mastering the details of marginal costs and marginal benefits, but by constructing a new, controlling narrative about how the world works.”

“Reckoning” means “a narrative account” and “a settling of accounts,” as in “Day of reckoning.”[1] A reckoning on economic policy therefore begins with an examination of  whether the prevailing ideology actually delivers what it theoretically promises. Honest reckoning is hard, because the neural circuits of our brains are predisposed to maintain status quo and resist change to both individual and cultural belief systems. The difficulty is amplified when fundamentalist ideology is at play, because  reckoning threatens historical cultural mythology, which is tantamount to sacrilege.

 “History is powerful. George Santayana’s warning that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ rings true because the past influences the present.

“Unfortunately, history’s power does not depend on its accuracy:  A widely believed historical lie can have as much impact as a historical truth.

“President John F. Kennedy explained to Yale’s graduating class of 1962 that ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest —  but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears…. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”

The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019)

Change that breaks with predominant ideologies and historical cultural myths requires more than individual changes of opinion:  it needs shifts in cultural belief and practice, and a willingness to learn from history. The odd are stacked against it, for reasons Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent Chris Hedges describes in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014):

“Every society, ethnic group or religion nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of the nation or the movement itself. These myths lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to rise ascendant, to define and glorify followers or member in times of crisis. National myths are largely benign in times of peace…. They do not pose a major challenge to real historical study or a studied tolerance of others in peacetime.

“But national myths ignite a collective amnesia in war. They give past generations a nobility and greatness they never possessed…. They are stoked by the entertainment industry, in school lessons, stories, and quasi-historical ballads, preached in mosques, or championed in absurd historical dramas that are always wildly popular during war.

“Almost every group, and especially every nation, has such myths. These myths are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict.

“Archeology, folklore, and the search for what is defined as authenticity are the tools used by nationalists to assail others and promote themselves. They dress it up as history, but it is myth.

“Real historical inquiry, in the process, is corrupted, assaulted, and often destroyed. Facts become interchangeable as opinions. Those facts that are inconvenient are discarded or denied. The obvious inconsistencies are ignored by those intoxicated with a newly found sense of national pride, and the exciting prospect of war.”

All of this makes the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation and the World Economic Forum’s Davos Manifesto (we looked at them last time) all the more remarkable, since they defy four decades of the prevailing economic myth that “The [sole] social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

On the other hand, a recent administrative order imposing work requirements on food stamps recipients offers an equally remarkable example of myth-driven policy-making. According to ABC News (Dec. 4, 2019), proponents say the move will “restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population” — clearly a nod to the cultural myth that anybody with enough gumption (and enough education, funded by the newly nationalized student loan industry) can work their way out of poverty, and if they don’t, it’s their own fault. As we’ve seen, data to support this way of thinking has long been absent, but the myth prevails, and never mind that “all the rule change does is strip people from accessing the benefit,” that the food stamp program “is intended to address hunger and not compel people to work,” and that “those affected are impoverished, tend to live in rural areas, often face mental health issues and disabilities.”

Economism was published on January 10, 2017, just shy of three years ago as I write this. Today’s “Reckoning” post was inspired by a Time Magazine cover story last month:  How the Elites Lost Their Grip: in 2019, America’s 1% behaved badly and helped bring about a reckoning with capitalism, Time Magazine (Dec. 2-9, 2019). We’ll look at what it says about economic reckoning next time.

[1] Etymology Online.

Belief in the Free Market

Mammon

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammon

We saw last time that Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the Chicago School of Economics promoted the free market with fundamentalist zeal — an approach to economics that Joseph Stiglitz said was based on “religious belief.” Turns out that using religious-sounding language to talk about believing in capitalism isn’t as farfetched as it sounds on first hearing.

In the history of ideas, the “Disenchantment” refers to the idea that the Enlightenment ushered in an era when scientific knowledge would displace religious and philosophical belief. Reason, rationality, and objectivity would make the world less magical, spiritual, and subjective, and therefore “disenchanted.” You don’t need to know much history to know the Disenchantment never really played out — at least, certainly not in America.

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

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

Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher makes the case that capitalism stepped up to fill the belief void created by Disenchantment enthusiasts, and became the new world religion.

Mammon book“Perhaps the grandest tale of capitalist modernity is entitled ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Crystallised in the work of Max Weber but eloquently anticipated by Karl Marx, the story goes something like this: before the advent of capitalism, people believed that the world was enchanted, pervaded by mysterious, incalculable forces that ruled and animated the cosmos. Gods, spirits and other supernatural beings infused the material world, anchoring the most sublime and ultimate values in the ontological architecture of the Universe.

“In premodern Europe, Catholic Christianity epitomised enchantment in its sacramental cosmology and rituals, in which matter could serve as a conduit or mediator of God’s immeasurable grace. But as Calvinism, science and especially capitalism eroded this sacramental worldview, matter became nothing more than dumb, inert and manipulable stuff, disenchanted raw material open to the discovery of scientists, the mastery of technicians, and the exploitation of merchants and industrialists.

“Discredited in the course of enlightenment, the enchanted cosmos either withered into historical oblivion or went into the exile of private belief in liberal democracies…. With slight variations, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ is the orthodox account of the birth and denouement of modernity, certified not only by secular intellectuals but by the religious intelligentsia as well.”

Mammon:  Far from representing rationality and logic, capitalism is modernity’s most beguiling and dangerous form of enchantment, Aeon Magazine (Oct. 22, 2019)

Prof. McCarraher develops his ideas further in his book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2019). This is from the Amazon book blurb:

“If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

“Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of ‘the market.’”

Economic theories — capitalism, Marxism, socialism — are ideologies:  they’re based on ideas that can’t be proven scientifically; they require belief. The reason thinkers like Kurt Andersen and Eugene McCarraher both use the term “dangerous” in connection with economic belief is because of the fundamentalist dynamics that invariably accompany ideological belief, secular or otherwise. We’ll look at that next time.

[1] The book is another case of American history as we never learned it. For the shorter version, see this Atlantic article.

Economic Darwinism

social darwinism

The 19th Century’s Gilded Age of the Robber Barons came hot on the heels of The Origin of the Species. Little wonder that…

 “Soon, some sociologists and others were taking up words and ideas which Darwin had used to describe the biological world, and they were adopting them to their own ideas and theories about the human social world. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Social Darwinists took up the language of evolution to frame an understanding of the growing gulf between the rich and the poor as well as the many differences between cultures all over the world.

“The explanation they arrived at was that businessmen and others who were economically and socially successful were so because they were biologically and socially “naturally” the fittest. Conversely, they reasoned that the poor were “naturally” weak and unfit and it would be an error to allow the weak of the species to continue to breed. They believed that the dictum “survival of the fittest” (a term coined not by Charles Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) meant that only the fittest should survive.”

Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age, Kahn Academy

The result was Social Darwinism:

“The term ‘social Darwinism’ refers to the deterministic philosophy of Englishman Herbert Spencer that applied, to humans and markets, Darwinian biological and evolutionary concepts of natural selection.

“Spencer offered his philosophical defense of individualism and laissez faire in Social Statics (1851). He coined the term “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology (1867), arguing that human progress resulted from the triumph of superior individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors; poverty was evidence of inferiority.

“Anything that interfered with the self-improvement of superior individuals or markets was to be resisted. What came to be called “social Darwinism” was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the unfit poor. The state was not to hinder the strong or assist the weak, interceding only to protect individual freedom and rights. “

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Social Darwinism, National Association of Scholars

Social Darwinism has since been widely discredited in academia, but Pulitzer-prize winning economics columnist and professor of public affairs Steven Pearlstein was dismayed to find it alive and well in current hyper-competitive, zero-sum economic policy, as revealed in numerous studies showing that certain genetically inherited traits play “an outsized role in determining economic success.” The list includes intelligence, personality, height, and good lucks, all of which statistically affect income and likelihood of being favorably judged on leadership qualities. Add parental nurturing practices — such as those of the new “Meritocrat” economic class we’ve been looking at — and “whether it’s by way of the genes we inherit or the circumstances in which we are raised, the parental lottery is more important than ever in determining economic outcomes.” It’s Time To Abandon The Cruelty Of Meritocracy, The Guardian (Oct. 13, 2018).

Pearlstein concludes that the luck of the genetic and nurturing draw “must always play a significant role in who achieves economic success” and that “we must also acknowledge that there is a point beyond which the consequences of the parental lottery can never be overcome.” Disconcerted by his own findings, Pearlstein calls for remedial action:

“No matter how hard we might try to make it otherwise, there is a fundamental and irreducible level of unfairness to market competition, one that undermines the moral legitimacy of market outcomes and provides a justification for taking reasonable steps to make them more equal.

“Because of heritability and upbringing, there can never be genuine equality of opportunity. More socialist countries in Europe and Asia have gone a long way toward equalizing access to healthcare, education, nutrition, childcare and even disposable income, and yet they have not come close to eliminating the transmission of family advantage or disadvantage. Surely we should do more along those lines to equalize opportunity in the United States?”

It’s Time to Abandon the Cruelty of Meritocracy

Economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz offers an alternative to economic Darwinism which he calls “progressive capitalism.”

“Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.”

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

More 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.