Is COVID-19 Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad night for a couple middle managers.

Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Public Welfare Goes Missing

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

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

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

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

Looking Out For The Common Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply Side: Production

On the supply side,

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

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

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

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

Demand Side: Consumption

And on the demand side.

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

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

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

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

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

The Rentier Economy Takes The Hit

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for capitalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surveillance Capitalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s too easy to assume the worst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Thomas, Coronavirus, op cit.

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

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

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

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

[14] Hague, Umair, op. cit.

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

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

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

Free Market Capitalism: Miracles, Magic, and Mental Illness

 

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

The Miracle-That-Isn’t

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

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

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

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

The Magic That Isn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the theory. Has it worked?

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

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

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

Jobs for the Poor

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

The Hustle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Becomes the Norm

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

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

What do we mean by “poor”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?

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

Poverty is institutionalized economic mental illness.

The Lost War on Poverty

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

Ronald Reagan

Poverty is a “personality defect.”

Margaret Thatcher

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

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

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

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

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

He continues with more tough questions:

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

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

Mental Illness On A Societal Level

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

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

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

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

Why Poverty Matters to Capitalists (or Should)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What IS Magical and Miraculous

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

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

Why?

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

And you know what else is miraculous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Psychiatric Disorders in America,

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

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

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

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

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

The X Factor

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

What is it?

Happiness.

Let’s take a look….

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unconscious Underbelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Public Good Wish List

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

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

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

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

What’s Wrong With That List?

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

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

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

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

“Homo Economicus”

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

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

The idea has had its detractors:

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

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

Even so,

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

Ayn Rand Would Have Approved

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

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

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

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

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of free market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This less socialist but more successful utopia is Switzerland.

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

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

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

The X Factor, One More Time

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

Imagine that.

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

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

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

[4] Etymology Online.

[5] Etymology Online

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

[7] Investopedia.

[8] Investopedia.

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

[10] Investopedia.

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

[12] Investopedia.

[13] Investopedia

[14] Investopedia

[15] Investopedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horatio Alger is Dead, America Has a New Class Structure, and it’s Not Your Fault

horatio alger

January 23, 2020

The member of the month at the gym where I work out is a guy who looks like he’s in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asks “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything” — yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids, and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it, that’s your problem, not America’s.

Except it’s not true, and we know that, too. We know that you can work really, really hard and dedicate lots and lots of time and effort (and money), and still not get what you want.

Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Why don’t we admit that things don’t actually work that way? Because that would be un-American. So instead we elevate the boast: America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity — like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed.
I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that landed gentry/inherited wealth class system here.

Except that’s not true either, and we know that, too.

But we love the equal opportunity myth. We love the feeling of personal power – agency, self-efficacy – it gives us. It’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[1]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

Equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is.

Never mind that the Sacred doesn’t seem to mind being doubted – it’s the people who believe something is sacred you have to watch out for. And never mind that history and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths – exposing them as belief systems, not absolute truths. But it’s too late by the time history has its say: the fraud is perpetrated in the meantime, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. If we don’t get “anything you want,” then we confess that we didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort,” or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth.

You may have seen the Indeed commercial. (Go ahead, click it – it’s only 30 seconds.)

Indeed advert

It brilliantly taps the emotional power of the equal opportunity myth.

“With no choice but to move back home after college, they thought he’d be a little more motivated to find a job.”

The kid is glued to his phone, and it’s driving his parents crazy. He’s obviously a slacker, a freeloader. Household tensions mount. The phone dings at the dinner table. Dad snatches it up.

“Turns out, they were right.”

He’s using it to find a job! Faith and family harmony restored! That’s our hard-working boy!

Heartwarming, but still untrue.

But What About the Strong Job Numbers?

Yes, unemployment is low. But consider this analysis of those numbers[2], just out this month:

“Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation report (better known as the ‘jobs report’) to outline the latest state of the nation’s economy. And with it, of late, have been plenty of positive headlines—with unemployment hovering around 3.5%, a decade of job growth, and recent upticks in wages, the report’s numbers have mostly been good news.

“But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are these jobs any good? How much do they pay? Do workers make enough to live on?

“Here, the story is less rosy.

“In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions.

“Just how concerning are these figures? Some will say that not all low-wage workers are in dire economic straits or reliant on their earnings to support themselves, and that’s true. But as the following data points show, it would be a mistake to assume that most low-wage workers are young people just getting started, or students, or secondary earners, or otherwise financially secure:

      • Two-thirds (64%) of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25 to 54.
      • More than half (57%) work full-time year-round, the customary schedule for employment intended to provide financial security.
      • About half (51%) are primary earners or contribute substantially to family living expenses.
      • Thirty-seven percent have children. Of this group, 23% live below the federal poverty line.
      • Less than half (45%) of low-wage workers ages 18 to 24 are in school or already have a college degree.

“These statistics tell an important story: Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.”

When the kid got a text at the dinner table, it was about one of these jobs. Mom and Dad better get used to the idea that he’ll be around for awhile. Even if he gets that job, it won’t offer benefits, could end at any moment, and won’t pay him enough to be self-sustaining. That’s not how Mom and Dad were raised or how things went for them, but that’s how the economy works nowadays.

Economics Begets Social Structure

The even bigger issue is that the equal opportunity myth has become a social norm: uber-competitive free market economics controls the collective American mindset about how adult life works, to the point that it’s become a nationalist doctrine.

The Chicago School of Economics – the Vatican of free marketism — believed so ardently in its on doctrines that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of fundamentalist indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”[3]

Free market ideology preaches that capitalism promotes both economic and social opportunity. It has had the past four decades to prove that claim, and has failed as spectacularly as Soviet-style communism failed to benefit the workers it was supposed to redeem. Instead, free market ideology has given America what it wasn’t ever supposed to have: a stratified socio-economic class system that skews rewards to the top 10% and leaves the rest in the grip of the dismal statistics listed above.

But we don’t see that – or if we do, we don’t say anything about it, we just keep reciting the “trickle down” mantra. Member of the month and his Dad and the parents in the Indeed commercial and most Americans still believe the myth. Ironically the ones who see through it are the top 10% members who got in before they closed the gates. Meanwhile, the lower 90% — the decimated middle class, the new poor, the hard-working wage-earners – keep blaming themselves.

Even though it’s not their fault. If the kid in the commercial can’t find a job to support himself, it’s not his fault.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

But unlike “anything you want,” “it’s not your fault” is true: current economic policy and its companion social norms do not deliver equal opportunity. Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth lives on life support as we teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data.

Horatio Alger is Dead

There’s no more enduring version of the upward mobility ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons – opportunists aided by collusion and chronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[4]

But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin. Thanks to our devotion to that philosophy, a fair start has become is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders.

Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the economic elite himself:

“As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

“I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

“My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.”

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

“Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education – that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

“The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our ‘creed,’ the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims ‘All men are created equal.’

“There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

“Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

“The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.”

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

“Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did…. But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.”

The New American Meritocracy

Along with Richard Reeves, philosopher Matthew Stewart and entrepreneur Steven Brill cite the same economic and related social data to support their conclusion that the new meritocrat socio-economic class has barred the way for the rest of us. I’ll let Matthew Stewart speak for the others[5]:

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below.

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re ‘middle class.’

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

Two Stories, One Man

In a remarkable display of self-awareness and historical-cultural insight, Stanford professor David Labaree admits that his own upward mobility story can be told two ways — one that illustrates the myth and one that doesn’t, depending on your point of view.[6]

“Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

“But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed. As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University.

“Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game.

“In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale.

“The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children.”

Pause for a moment and wonder, as I did, why would the new meritocrats write books and articles like these? Is it a case of Thriver (Survivor) Guilt? Maybe, but I think it’s because they’re dismayed that their success signals the end of the American equal opportunity ideology. You don’t trample on something sacred. They didn’t mean to. They’re sorry. But now that they have, maybe it wasn’t so sacred after all.

The new socio-economic class system was never supposed to happen in America. We weren’t supposed to be like the Old World our founders left behind. But now we are, although most of us don’t seem to know it, and only a few brave souls will admit it. Meanwhile the Horatio Alger mansions are all sold out, and the gate to the community is locked and guarded. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America.

Until it did.

[1] The Declaration of Independence.

[2] Low Employment Isn’t Worth Much if the Jobs Barely Pay, The Brookings Institute, Jan. 8, 2020.

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

[4] The best source I’ve found for the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

[5] Matthew Stewart is the author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. Steven Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, and is the author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America. The quoted text is from Stewart’s Atlantic article.

[6] Pluck Versus Luck, Aeon Magazine (Dec. 4. 2019) –“Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.”

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.

Ideologies at War

Discourse:  Formal and orderly
 and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.

Merriam-Webster

I finally figured out why there’s no discourse in economics. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I started researching and writing about economics and the workplace three years ago. Right away, I noticed the topic was as polarized as everything else these days. I confess, I was surprised — I was a newbie, idealistic about my new course of study. I figured everybody would want to talk about it. But the pros? No. They talked past each other, nobody convincing anybody of anything they didn’t already believe.

And now I know why.

At first, I thought the divisions — right vs. left, capitalism vs. socialism, conservative vs. progressive, free market vs. Keynesian intervention, etc.  — were the result of opinions logically and studiously debated. Three years later, I can see it’s not so — those opposing positions are rationalizations after the fact, justifying prior beliefs grounded in ideology. When a topic — any topic — is dominated by competing ideologies, a fundamentalist dynamic takes over. Fundamentalism has no place for “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought.” Instead, it stifles discussion, damns doubt, brutalizes dissent. If you’re not with us, you’re against us — so choose sides, and the other side can talk to the hand.

We’ve seen, for example, how the Mont Pelerin Society and the Chicago School of Economics pursued their capitalist free market beliefs with fundamentalist zeal, and how the Democratic Socialists of America party has responded in kind. This, and other similar ideological standoffs have banished discourse from the field of economics.

The Berlin Wall fell because Soviet communism failed as a fundamentalist belief, leaving American capitalism the winner of the Cold War. Since then, political leadership in the U.S. and the U.K. has supercharged capitalism into its current hyper- competitive, hyper-privatized form, to the point that free market ideology has become not just economic policy but a cultural norm, and supporting it has become a patriotic duty.

Now in its fourth decade, the post-Cold War model of capitalism has failed in the same way Soviet communism failed before it:  it has neglected and alienated the “Public” — the res publica, the things that belong to the people, the things that assure citizens the basics of life and health, satisfying work, opportunity for educational, social, and economic betterment, and the sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being those things engender.

Fundamentalist ideologies wage war, and win at all costs. When free market economics became a fundamentalist ideology, it went to war. One of my daughters recently gave me a book published in 2007, at the height (depth?) of the Great Recession. The copyright date made me inclined to dismiss it as outdated. Now, as I read it, I wonder, how it is that we never knew these things, and most of us still don’t? This is from the book blurb:

“In this groundbreaking alternative history of the most dominant ideology of our time, Milton Friedman’s free-market economic revolution, Naomi Klein challenges the popular myth of this movement’s peaceful global victory. From Chile in 1973 to Iraq today, Klein shows how Friedman and his followers have repeatedly harnessed terrible shocks and violence to implement their radical policies.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2007)

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote about the cultural dynamics of war in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014). As you read the following, substitute your ideology of choice — political, economic, religious, etc. — in place of war as armed conflict:

“War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.

“The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict. It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed to broadcast the injustices carried out against us.

“The goal of such nationalistic rhetoric is to invoke pity for one’s own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group or state.

“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.

“War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought.

“Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuring suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seeks not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“Before conflicts begin, the first people silenced — often with violence — are [those who] question the state’s lust and need for war. These dissidents are the most dangerous. Such voices are rarely heeded.

“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”

Thus the Public has been “murdered” by economic policy as carried out under the current model of capitalism.

When the Public dies, so does public discourse.

It takes moral strength to dissent. The Business Roundtable recently took a step in that direction. According to its website, “Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies working to promote a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy.”

We’ll look at what the CEOs have to say next time.

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.