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’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).

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.