The Public Good [2]

drinking water

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

American schoolkids learn that their country has a republican form of government, which means everybody doesn’t get to vote on everything; we vote for people who do the voting for us.[1] But there’s more to the word republic than that:

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.

Etymology Online.

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. That’s the plan, anyway. 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). In the U.S., it forms a part of the official name of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico but has no special significance.

Etymology Online

Several online searches turned up a surprisingly long and illuminating list of things that are or used to be considered part of the common wealth trust portfolio. For example:

  • 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
  • food, clothing, and shelter
  • 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
  • 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”
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places everybody is entitled to just by being human, or by being a citizen or member of the applicable socio-cultural institution. Somebody’s got to administer all that, and somebody’s got to pay for it. Plus, as we saw last time, there are competing private interests as well.

You’ve heard of technological singularity — the point at which technology overtakes human ability — e.g., artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nowadays, administration of both private interests and the commonwealth has been delegated to a near-universal economic singularity:  the “free” market, carried out in the form of American-style capitalism, as also exported to the rest of the world. Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato[2] thinks this practice has skewed the private/public balance to the point where the commonwealth has been eliminated 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.”

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Rev. 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018)

Prof. Mazzucato isn’t the only one concerned about this. When Occupy Wall Street puts up its “We are the 99%” sign, when voters support populist politicians[3], when French farmers don yellow vests and riot in Paris, when Malala Yousafzai advocates for educational opportunity, when Greta Thunberg scolds world leaders on climate change… all these are advancing their own responses to the current public/private balance.

In the search for remedies, the younger generation is more likely than their elders to reject populist nationalist politics and private capitalist solutions, and to push instead for an expanded commonwealth administered under a new version of an economic system many of their elders consider an economic dirty word.

More on that next time.

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

[2] The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist.”

[3] Here’s a list from the BBC of European nationalist politicians.

Economic Darwinism

social darwinism

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

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

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

Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age, Kahn Academy

The result was Social Darwinism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Time to Abandon the Cruelty of Meritocracy

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

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

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

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

More next time.

Corporation Nation-States [3]: Competition is King

competition is king

We’ve seen that corporations and their CEO’s are increasingly implementing socio-economic policies deemed to be “good” for their constituents and for the world at large — combining the conventional roles of philanthropy and government. That sounds altruistic, but it’s entirely in line with conventional capitalist theory, which relies on competition to achieve both outcomes, and in return asks government to keep the marketplace free of anti-competitive barriers.

This theory was evident in an article that came out as I was writing this mini-series .  What Companies Are For:  Competition, Not Corporatism, Is The Answer To Capitalism’s Problems, The Economist (Aug 22, 2019). These excerpts speak for themselves:

“Across the West, capitalism is not working as well as it should. Jobs are plentiful, but growth is sluggish, inequality is too high and the environment is suffering. You might hope that governments would enact reforms to deal with this, but politics in many places is gridlocked or unstable.

“Who, then, is going to ride to the rescue? A growing number of people think the answer is to call on big business to help fix economic and social problems. Even America’s famously ruthless bosses agree. This week more than 180 of them, including the chiefs of Walmart and JPMorgan Chase, overturned three decades of orthodoxy to pledge that their firms’ purpose was no longer to serve their owners alone, but customers, staff, suppliers and communities, too.

“The CEOs’ motives are partly tactical. They hope to pre-empt attacks on big business from the left of the Democratic Party. But the shift is also part of an upheaval in attitudes towards business happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Younger staff want to work for firms that take a stand on the moral and political questions of the day.

“However well-meaning, this new form of collective capitalism will end up doing more harm than good. It risks entrenching a class of unaccountable CEOs who lack legitimacy. And it is a threat to long-term prosperity, which is the basic condition for capitalism to succeed.

“Ever since businesses were granted limited liability in Britain and France in the 19th century, there have been arguments about what society can expect in return. In the 1950s and 1960s America and Europe experimented with managerial capitalism, in which giant firms worked with the government and unions and offered workers job security and perks.

“It is this framework that is under assault. Part of the attack is about a perceived decline in business ethics, from bankers demanding bonuses and bail-outs both at the same time, to the sale of billions of opioid pills to addicts. But the main complaint is that shareholder value produces bad economic outcomes. Publicly listed firms are accused of a list of sins, from obsessing about short-term earnings to neglecting investment, exploiting staff, depressing wages and failing to pay for the catastrophic externalities they create, in particular pollution.

“The popular and intellectual backlash against shareholder value is already altering corporate decision-making. Bosses are endorsing social causes that are popular with customers and staff. Firms are deploying capital for reasons other than efficiency… this portends a system in which big business sets and pursues broad social goals, not its narrow self-interest.

“That sounds nice, but collective capitalism suffers from two pitfalls: a lack of accountability and a lack of dynamism. Consider accountability first. It is not clear how CEOs should know what “society” wants from their companies. The chances are that politicians, campaigning groups and the CEOs themselves will decide—and that ordinary people will not have a voice.

“The second problem is dynamism. Collective capitalism leans away from change. In a dynamic system firms have to forsake at least some stakeholders: a number need to shrink in order to reallocate capital and workers from obsolete industries to new ones.

“The way to make capitalism work better for all is not to limit accountability and dynamism, but to enhance them both. This requires that the purpose of companies should be set by their owners, not executives or campaigners.

“It also requires firms to adapt to society’s changing preferences. If consumers want fair-trade coffee, they should get it. If university graduates shun unethical companies, employers will have to shape up.

“Accountability works only if there is competition. This lowers prices, boosts productivity and ensures that firms cannot long sustain abnormally high profits. Moreover it encourages companies to anticipate the changing preferences of customers, workers and regulators—for fear that a rival will get there first.

“Unfortunately, since the 1990s, consolidation has left two-thirds of industries in America more concentrated. If you cast your eye down the list of the 180 American signatories this week, many are in industries that are oligopolies, including credit cards, cable tv, drug retailing and airlines, which overcharge consumers and have abysmal reputations for customer service. Unsurprisingly, none is keen on lowering barriers to entry.

“Of course a healthy, competitive economy requires an effective government—to enforce antitrust rules, to stamp out today’s excessive lobbying and cronyism, to tackle climate change. That well-functioning polity does not exist today, but empowering the bosses of big businesses to act as an expedient substitute is not the answer. The Western world needs innovation, widely spread ownership and diverse firms that adapt fast to society’s needs. That is the really enlightened kind of capitalism.”

Culturally sensitive or not, competition is “zero sum,” which means it’s a game with winners and losers. And anyone who wants to play should remember that the house always wins. More next time.

Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on ethics and economics next time.

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

Free Market Professionalism

snake oil salesman 2

10- 15 years ago I discovered the Wannabe Economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any problem with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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