Category Archives: Economics

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?


Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.


1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.


1 Comment

Filed under Change, Economics, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity, Travel

The Balance of Solidarity

This weekend’s entry is sort of a stream of consciousness follow-up on one of the afternoon sessions I attended at the university this week regarding a phrase that carries a very positive connotation in Finnish, but translated into English, especially in with reference to the US political scene, it comes off more as something of a curse these days: “The Welfare State”.

The afternoon in question featured a PR event for a research project jointly sponsored by an insurance company and the university itself, basically looking at the theme of how the societal values that are of deep cultural importance to the Finns can be protected from the draconian “invisible hand of the market” which, taken from an Americanized perspective, would seem to point to the law of the economic jungle inevitably leading to the ever greater polarization of developed societies into a “financial class” and a separate “service class”. Ironically perhaps, the name of the research initiative is “Masterclass”.

I won’t go into the details of the theories that were being tossed about this week by the business interests, Green Party politicians, left-of-center social theory researchers and professors representing the “ivory tower” academic establishment. Suffice to say, the main topics of discussion related to theories regarding how the private, public and tertiary sectors of the economy should ideally relate to each other. For me this simply led to my mind wandering in a number of interesting directions. Interesting to me at least; it remains to be seen whether anyone else finds the paths my mind started to wander down interesting or not.

The core thought that struck my mind that afternoon was that I would agree with one point that Pope John Paul II kept coming back to throughout his papacy, even though he drifted further and further from it the older he got. It was the motto he chose for himself: “Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity” (from his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39). I’m firmly convinced that he was right about this: the only way for us to have peace is if we find ways to build solidarity with those around us.

Solidarity4The essence of the hope that Finns have in the welfare state is in the idea of the state serving as a mechanism by means of which all citizens come together, in solidarity, to confront the challenges faced by vulnerable individuals or smaller groups within society –– whether it be in terms of the harsh climate and likelihood of famine when dependent on Finnish domestic agriculture for the nation’s basic food supply, or the risks posed by having a long border with a massive country historically governed by unstable megalomaniacs to the east, or the human tragedies of personal and family breakdowns caused by people self-medicating in various ways in reaction to the stresses of day-to-day life. With all these factors taken into consideration, if life is going to work at all in this country it has to work on the basis of people coming together in a sense of solidarity –– no one gets left behind; everyone counts. Nor is this strictly a Finnish dilemma or solution; more and more the same lesson is being seen in other parts of the world as well, even those where life is not as naturally stressful as it is in this little corner of Europe: we either build solidarity or we build internal conflicts that will inevitably destroy us.

Building this kind of solidarity, however, is no simple matter. It involves a number of forms of delicate balance in order to function. The key to a viable society, which is not on its way to becoming a failed state, is for the people to sense that they have a stake in the system of government, which in turn is able to bring people together, in spite of their differences, with the conviction that they have greater enemies to face than each other. This doesn’t mean that all of the people of the country need to feel like one big happy family together, but it does mean that they have a sense of mutual respect in their interactions, and an awareness of their dependence on each other.

I would define requirement this as finding a workable balance between dynamics of competition and cooperation. If people lose all of their competitive drive in the process of performing traditional tasks and coming up with valuable new ideas, their societies will inevitably drift down through mediocrity into irrelevance. But if the competition becomes so cut-throat that they are no longer able to work together to achieve important shared goals, the competitive instinct starts to do far more harm than good. Thus, as I have written earlier here, I’m inclined to consider competitive comparison, when it serves as an end unto itself, to be the lowest basic form of human motivation. Throw it away entirely though and you’re also in very deep trouble. Like I said, balance.

bmp_republicans_support_corporate_greed_bumper_sticker-rf99478b65c83442898c1641ecfe6dab2_v9wht_8byvr_324Related to this is the process of establishing a healthy level of ambition within the society as a whole. To state the matter in negative terms, when it comes to ambition there are two extremes that can destroy the potential for solidarity within a society: greed and laziness. Those who are driven to get every possible form of reward for themselves, hell-bent on domination of all human and material obstacles in their path, cannot learn to treat other people as anything else than stepping stones on their path to ultimate domination. Solidarity will never be possible with such people. Likewise those who cannot be bothered to do make any effort beyond the minimum needed to avoid acute personal pain, who have no interest in improving life for themselves and those they care about in the long run, lazy-democratscan never be trusted or respected as valuable partners within a communal spirit of solidarity. Thus when others are seen as either too greedy or too lazy, solidarity inevitably begins to break down. So in order for solidarity to function, we need to have some sort of limits on the amount of greed and the amount of laziness that we consider to be socially acceptable, and we need to have means by which we limit extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum.

More importantly in this regard though, we need to avoid falling prey to hate-mongering regarding others who wish to demonize those at a different point than they are on the continuum from least ambitious to most ambitious. The extreme of laziness at which a person becomes useless to society is actually quite rare. Likewise the prevalence of abusive psychopaths among the most greedily ambitious leaders in the worlds of politics and business management is probably quite exaggerated. When we find excuses to think of other people as less than human, and either toss them aside by blaming all of their misfortunes on their inherent laziness or demonize all good fortune as a sign of psychopathic greed, solidarity ceases to function no matter how hard those at the bottom and those at the top try to work together with those in the middle. In order to build solidarity we need to resist the temptation to demonize each other in such ways.

This leads to yet another balance factor that needs to be considered in the process of building solidarity: the balance between trust and incentivizing. Solidarity cannot function in a police state where the only form of personal motivation people experience is the fear of getting caught doing less good or more harm than what they are officially allowed. There needs to be a certain level of trust between people for anything resembling solidarity to function. Yet at the same time there need to be some sort of mechanisms in place by which appreciation is regularly shown to those who make significant efforts to accomplish things for the good of all, and sanctions are regularly given to those whose behavior damages the sense of solidarity within the group. Neither complete absence of official control nor dependence on absolute authoritarian control is functional in this regard. There are, however, countless variables regarding cultural norms, individual emotional maturity factors, social adjustment processes, etc. which play roles in determining how much trust and how much incentivizing is needed to enable solidarity to grow within any given society. There are many cases where we just need to take chances on other people, hoping for the best in terms of future solidarity.

expl no smThat leads to one final balance factor required for the solidary society: risk management. For any society to grow and flourish there need to be chances taken with new and different ways of doing things, many of which “break the rules” of traditional ways of doing things; yet at the same time we as a society have strong vested interests in preventing people from taking particular types of risks such as drunk driving, smoking in places where explosives are stored, and (sorry Second Amendment fundamentalists) carrying loaded firearms in crowded public places. Thus, while we need to both allow and encourage some risk taking, we also need to restrict and penalize other risk taking. The best guide we have to go on in terms of which risks should be encouraged and which risks should be prevented is our collective historical experience, but that will never provide us with a completely reliable guideline as to which risks are worth taking and which risks are unjustifiable. And beyond all the risks that are taken on purpose, some of the most fortuitous new discoveries in human history have happened because of risks people never intended to take. What else can we say about such things beyond reciting back to ourselves Alexander Graham Bell’s famous panicked words, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”

In calling attention to all of these balance factors I am quite aware that all I am really doing is offering a contemporary application of the principle of the “Golden Mean” that Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethic. His primary examples, for individual life, were that in order to flourish as a person, every man needs the proper amount of three things in particular: food, wine and sex. Too much or too little of any of those could prevent him from properly flourishing as a satisfied and virtuous person, but the precise optimal amount of any of them is rather impossible to determine by some basic generalized formula. The same balance principle, writ larger, is then in many ways the best starting point for enabling solidarity within a healthy society.

If we are able to work out these factors of solidarity in practice we really have relatively little else to worry about in life these days. When it comes down to it, the greatest risks that each of us face on a day-to-day basis are not those of natural disaster, attack by wild animals or a complete unavailability of the material resources needed to maintain human life. The greatest risks we face are those brought about by conflicts with other human beings and the long-term effects on our environment being caused by other human beings. If we find ways to work those things out, the rest is a piece of cake. But saying that this is our only serious concern is, as an old classmate of mine once said, “like saying that the Titanic’s only problem was ‘too much ice.’” People’s instinctive drive towards solidarity is rather limited at best. Finding ways of building solidarity as a means of enabling peace and sustainability is indeed far easier said than done.

One thing that needs to be remembered in this process, however, is that “laws of economics” are not to be taken overly seriously in this process. Such laws are not “God-given precepts” regarding how human labor and cooperation need to function; they are human inventions and evolving social conventions that we as humans are entirely free to change if and when we find more functional means of incentivizing solidarity on all different levels. If economic structures do more harm than good in terms of enabling solidarity, there is no transcendent natural law out there to prevent us from changing things. The problem is merely that the people who currently have the most power within the system would of course have a vested interest in preventing change, even if it would be massively better for humanity as a whole.

Thus the excuse that “we don’t have enough money” as an excuse not to build greater solidarity within our societies is actually rather abstract at best. Money is nothing more than a means of keeping score of who is willing to do what for whom. Wealth, in concrete terms, is ultimately not based on such value calculating games, but on people’s willingness to work together and contribute to each other’s well-being through their various constructive and cooperative efforts. (While in most matters I strongly disagree with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Joseph Ratzinger, and while they too have very limited areas of ideological agreement, on this point they entirely agree with each other and I agree with both of them.) So when we so that so-and-so has this much money, and that this-and-that is this far in debt, what that actually means is that according to the current mechanisms for enabling cooperation between people, the wealth holder is in the position of justifiably expecting more to be done for her by others in the future and the debtor is in the position of being expected to do more for others in the future in exchange for favors he has already received. That’s really all there is to it. As long as such understandings provide the most reliable means of maintaining and improving human solidarity, we should accept their continuation. When it is clear that they are doing more harm than good, we should start some sort of revolution to change them… before those currently holding the reins of power destroy the possibility of peaceful and sustainable human life on this planet entirely.

There are many other theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological and political arguments I could try to toss out in favor of the points made above, but it’s probably best to leave my rambling thoughts at that for now. As a means of summarizing all of this and tying it all together though, let me just say that in order to protect all that is dear to us we really need to improve out means of building solidarity with each other, and to do that we need to achieve a sense of balance in four basic areas: integration, ambition, trust and risk-taking. Perhaps someday I can arrange those into a catchy acronym that will help people remember them and build on those principle in order to help us save the world from ourselves. For now I’ll just keep doing the best I can to build on the solidarity I’m already experiencing in life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Change, Control, Economics, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Risk taking, Social identity, Sustainability

And Still We Keep Trying

I started trying to write this last weekend as a stream of consciousness piece, attempting to overcome a bit of writer’s block. Then I got distracted and blocked again before finishing it. Let’s see if I can finish it now and purge some of the overall despair from my system in doing so.

The past couple of weeks have been a more or less continuous exercise in overcoming despair worldwide. It’s not that things are particularly bad right now where I happen to be, and I’m not feeling especially sad or depressed at the moment, but there’s a sense with virtually every area of life that my/our chances of influencing things in a positive/safe/dignified/sustainable direction are especially limited.

Vladimir PutinI’ll start with the most globally obvious source of stress: Putin. It’s more than a little scary to see that the world’s most evil dictator is less than ten years older than me, and that he has been a de facto dictator for 15 years already. And for anyone to claim that Vlad is a popularly elected head of state that the people are free to vote out of power… I hope that the turf battles between the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t get too violent in that world you live in.

To make matters worse, his closest competitor is this little psychopath in Korea, who happens to be younger than my sons! So besides the fact that our world has some fundamentally messed up structures to it, I’m continuously reminded that my limited time for playing an active role in influencing matters here is speeding by, with little sign of progress!

1936 scupturesPutting aside my aging angst and going back to the Putin problem though, the Sochi Olympics last month were the closest thing in my lifetime to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in terms of their efforts to glorify the accomplishments of a dictator. The main things that were missing from that picture were German technical competence and a heroic Jesse Owens figure to steal the limelight from the dictator for part of the spectacle. The most enjoyable moments for me were watching the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia and then the United States. (Sorry hockey friends there. It’s just more culturally important here, and you have to admit, Selanne did deserve to go out on a high note like that.)  My mother enjoyed watching the ice dance and figure skating events when we happened to have the television open while she was visiting. My nephew developed a certain technical fascination with curling it seems. I couldn’t go much further than politely respecting their tastes on either. It hardly made for inspiring viewing for me overall.

bear tearIt’s hard to say which was more fake in the closing ceremony:  the IOC chairman’s praise what a wonderful job Russia had done or the synthetic tear of the ananmatronic bear on skates. While I strongly support the whole concept of the Olympic spirit and all that, I cringe to see it used with such transparent corruption, and I really don’t know what can be done to fix that problem, or keep it from further snowballing in years to come.

Syria-uprising-At-least-88-protesters-were-killed-This problem has tragically dovetailed into the events featured in other sections of our daily newspapers over the past month: the popular uprisings in Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine and other countries attempting to overthrow lesser dictators than Putin. Many of these public square demonstrations and coup attempts have been getting very messy, and journalists don’t really seem to know what to say about any of them. It’s hard to sympathize with the struggling strongmen in any of these countries, but regardless of the on-going messy legacy of Bush’s Iraq fiasco there is still something to be said for a residual respect for Westphalian principle of nominally acknowledging national sovereignty in such matters. Not to mention how various rebel groups tend to have their own unsavory supporters and bedfellows for us to worry about, especially in this generation when the CIA’s accidental creation of the Taliban is still fresh on everyone’s mind.

So with all of this confusion up in the air Putin somehow decided that this would be a real good moment to cash in on his political capital from the Olympics and invade Ukraine.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-UNREST-POLITICS-CRIMEANot that anyone was under the illusion that Ukraine had ever really achieved complete national sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made some significant strides towards join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in sliding over into European culture and NATO’s sphere of influence, but the orangeness of their revolution wasn’t nearly enough to break free of the bear hug they’re still in. And besides a Black Sea coast that for some obscure reason Putin considers to be strategically important, the outside world has a hard time seeing much in Ukraine really worth fighting over. So what’s to stop us from just letting this expansive dictator have his way with little pieces of this lesser neighboring country?

Just one thing actually: The only thing worse than Putin making delusional efforts to restore the glories of the Soviet empire is for the last remaining military superpower from the Cold War era to find new excuses for expanding its “military-industrial complex” at its own people’s and the rest of the world’s expense.

iraq war troopsThat reminds me of a whole other can of political worms that seems rather hopeless to untangle. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2002, the United States has been more or less continuously involved in a series of military police actions around the world involving American soldiers killing and being killed for causes that overall have less to do with American national security than Viet Nam did. Yes, there was some justification in attacking a country which was providing refuge to a terrorist leader who had engineered a series of attacks that succeeded in killing thousands of Americans within their own country. No, that did not provide moral justification for the use of that conflict as a political smoke screen under which to attack other dictators in the region; even if they did control significant oil reserves and even if they had succeeded in making a fool out of the president’s daddy internationally.

The only “logic” to justify the state of perpetual war that the US has found itself in for my school-aged nephews’ entire lives thus far is that it appears to be good for business. Companies which make bombs, guns, airplanes, troop transport vehicles, armor and fuel for all of these are making trillions (literally) off of these adventures, and some small portion of the income from these government contracts is actually filtering down to American workers and voters. In this way the military-industrial interests, and those who depend on them, have more at stake, and more invested in maintaining political influence, than any abusive sector of the economy since the black slave trade of the 1850s. The military industrialists have thus eclipsed the tobacco industry of the Carolinas, the steel and railroad industries of the reconstruction era, the automotive industry with their lobbies in favor of highway infrastructure development, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry. When you consider the mammoth amounts of political corruption that went into those other lesser endeavors already, and the immense dishonest fortunes built off of them at the public’s expense, you can’t help but experience a sense of awe at the sheer immensity of the evil involved!

The number of human beings who have been treated as disposable in the process of building these fortunes –– as sub-subsistence laborers, soldiers, other casualties of war, ignorant and addicted consumers, involuntary supporters of corporate welfare programs via taxation, and tragic human failures among the homeless or imprisoned whose fate serves as a negative example to keep others in line –– cannot be rationalized away as an acceptable trade-off, an inadvertent misfortune or a hiccup in the process of human advancement. We are clearly talking about one little group of people having explicitly chosen to treat other massive group of people as un-deserving of human dignity, just because they can. This tiny privileged group has clearly made it their goal in life to prove to themselves that their excessive privileges at the expense of others are part of the way things are supposed to be. If a few million need to die earlier from causes like war, hunger and preventable disease in order to bring this about, so be it. The fact that they have succeeded in using association with certain factions of Christianity as means of constructing their self-justifications makes the situation all the more obscene.

Behind_Barbed_WireThis state of affairs is made all the more absurd by political initiatives intended to limit the extent to which public resources can be spent to reinforce the dignity and opportunities of those in the least advantaged positions in society. The idea that a society can somehow afford to police the rest of the world and force its business practices onto the rest of the world, but it can’t afford to provide food for its own hungry children and basic health care for its own ill, is quite conspicuously the most absurd political argument of the 21st century. The only argument that even comes close on the absurdity scale is that a proliferation of privately held handguns serves to make people safer. Having accepted those arguments, when the right wing faithful hear from their trusted sources sound-bite sources that they should never trust scientific claims that continuous burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage to our eco-system, it comes across sounding to them like the most basic common sense!

The thing that makes me/us feel helpless and despairing about all this then is that there are so many people who I know out there, who are not only falling for these absurd arguments, but who’ve been falling for them for so long that they have become emotionally committed to defending them at all costs! As long as that remains the basic state of affairs even for a significant minority in the United States, and as long as momentum from the last century keeps the United States in the position of being the most powerful nation in the world, human rights will continue to be downplayed in the rest of the world as well, the global environment will continue to be ignored whenever protecting it is inconvenient to business interests; and the risk of there being no future whatsoever left for grandchildren I may happen to have some day, regardless of where in the world I might try to hide them from such problems, continues to expand unchecked.

IRAQ-WAR-GAMESThe number of ways in which humanity could drive itself to a state of mass extermination if not borderline extinction within the next generation or two is deeply intimidating to say at the least. The limited number of means at our disposal for limiting these risks and promoting more positive life directions for those we care about are even more disturbing. There’s only one thing that can be said in terms of resisting the temptation of total resignation: The worst thing we can do is to give up entirely.

david-simonDavid Simon made this point particularly strongly in his last interview with Bill Moyer (here starting approximately 7:00 in). Where I would disagree with his statements in that interview is in terms of the best hope being in campaign finance reform. While that certainly can’t hurt, I believe the best hope is in improved public education, so that those who are involved in the democratic process as voters and campaigners actually understand the issues they are struggling over, and the cause and effect factors involved. Until the education system is fixed, people will continue not to know any better than voting either for whoever they find the most entertaining, or whoever appeals most powerfully to the darker sides of their natures. But in the meantime, as Simon points out so eloquently, we indeed don’t have the luxury of opting out of the electoral process and leaving voting up to psychopaths and those weaker thinkers whom they can most easily manipulate.

The same applies to all other areas of life: We can’t just give up and passively let whatever’s going to happen happen with regard to our families’ health, our children’s education, our consumer alternatives, our communal solidarity or any other aspect of life where our active participation can conceivably make a difference. We never can tell which of our actions will make a difference in the world as we know it, but we can be pretty sure that if we do absolutely nothing we will have no effect on the world whatsoever. Thus making an effort is always worth attempting no matter how bad things look.

Titanic_sinkingNow of course there are some exceptions here: The most effective tear-jerking scene in the film Titanic was the simple shot of the mother in the discount cabins, knowing they had been locked into their compartment and that she and her children were soon to die, bravely singing them to sleep as the water rose. But with all due respect for all in that sort of situation, it should be obvious why I don’t want to see people I care about adopting that sort of strategy on a broader basis.

In short the maxim I’m recommending is: Act as though your actions might make a positive difference in the world, even if that difference is unlikely to be realized through any given action you might take, because some of your actions might in fact make a difference in the world.

Thus, regardless of their overall limited impact, I keep writing and posting these things…

1 Comment

Filed under Control, Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Parenting, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Sustainability

Mandela and Other Heroes


One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.


Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Economics, History, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Racism, Respectability, Social identity

Debt and Making Money

There’s a pretty serious crisis in government going in the United States so far this month, which relates to a slightly lesser crisis in government throughout Europe and many other parts of the world which are making a believable pretense at democracy. The crisis is basically this: the burden of pretending to be democratic is getting in the way of those who would wish to run things in a more autocratic fashion, and therefor there are major efforts underway to undermine people’s faith in the institutions of democracy, potentially clearing the way for a group of self-appointed moral guardians of the people to take charge of the running of things without the messiness of the “less moral” populace getting involved in the process. This is the definitive essence of fascism. This is effectively the partially considered strategy of the “Tea Party” faction within the US Republican Party.

Tea party vs democracyThe scary part about this is not that, as in the time of St. Augustine, we are witnessing the inevitable collapse of a dominant empire in the world; but rather that in previous historical eras when an empire controlling more than half of the world’s economic systems and armed forces was collapsing the dangers of their technologies falling into the hands of unscrupulous warlords were not nearly as great. Thus I write this hoping that I can play some small role in convincing some would-be moral(istic) Americans not to go along with the ideological destruction of systems of democratic government in the United States, for the safety of all of us –– American and non-American alike –– who still have to share this planet for most of the foreseeable future.

Besides childish objections to the idea of health and education being seen as basic human rights, the basic excuse that the Tea Partiers are offering for discrediting democratic institutions and trying to shut down the US government on a longer-term basis has to do with deficit spending. In the words of my friend Joel, who seems to have marginal sympathies in that direction: “Every single hour, of every single day, the U.S. government spends about $200 million that it doesn’t have… For a point of reference, consider that in just two months, the government borrows more money than the combined annual profits of the 100 biggest publicly traded companies in America.

“That’s absolutely incredible, isn’t it? Keep this up and we won’t have a country that allows us to debate and work through issues surrounding voting, immigration, privacy matters, military intervention, terrorism, social justice, abortion, guns, drugs, race relations, gay marriage, religious rights, taxes, health care, national security, national parks, et al.

“Most every citizen feels absolutely impotent as to what to do about this mess, while watching the ‘clowns’ (no disrespect to actual circus clowns) in Washington — run by TWO party machines (and lobbyists) that do not truly care about the tax-paying citizens. All these politicians (not statesmen) care about is acquiring or staying in power. And they seem to use ANY means to do so…until they run out of tax-payer’s money.”


With all due respect to Joel and other Tea Party sympathizing PhDs, the basic problem is that he seems to have forgotten what money actually is and where it comes from. Or I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t know. In real terms the system is designed so that no one can really understand the system of money creation entirely –– sort of like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in that regard.

It actually reminds me of the time I spent as part of the board of directors for the oldest continuously operating student organization in Finland: the University of Helsinki’s theology student organization, currently going by the initials TYT. TYT got to be the oldest in this sense by surviving the Tsars’ purges of “potentially subversive” student organizations back in the 19th century by taking advantage of the complexity of the Finnish language and its absurd potential as a tool of bureaucracy. The founding theology students, with a little secret help from their friends in the faculty of law, put together a constitution for this organization in the most obtuse Finnish Bureacratese ever written, so that when the Russian governors of the time came to inspect to make sure things were operating in a proper and respectable manner they were able to make neither heads nor tails of the proceedings. Consequently no official protest against their operations were ever filed and useful forum was preserved for gathering bright young minds who worked on building a respectable Finnish culture as such –– and eventually a state to go together with it –– through Finland’s final years as a grand duchy of the Russian Empire.

The international banking system in use in the world today uses much the same tactics, only rather than using it to keep imperial inspectors at a distance, they use it to keep common citizens at a distance. Bankers go to great lengths to play their own games at the expense of everyone else in the system, keeping things just complicated enough so that when they are caught breaking the rules everyone else remains too confused to get upset about it.

But let’s break it down into simple terms that pretty much everyone can understand. The most important thing to wrap your head around is this: There is no form of money which is intrinsically valuable. As Eric Garland wrote in The Atlantic  last year regarding the gold standard, “Unless you decorate state capitol domes for a living, nobody really needs gold — but it is tangible and limited, though you can mine more if you happen to be really motivated.” But the main point is that it “can be exchanged directly for goods and services, if you find someone who will take the trade.” The value of any currency then is not God-given, but based on who is willing to give you what in exchange for it.

These days there are a number of local exchange programs based on the concept of certificates worth a given number of hours. I spend a certain number of hours mowing your yard or splitting your fire wood or tutoring your children, and in exchange for that you give me the appropriate number of hours’ certificates so that I can use those to get someone else to fix my teeth or pick berries for me or wash my laundry. For some types of work fewer than 60 minutes’ effort is considered to be worth an hour’s worth of “normal labor” but that can be negotiated between those who are willing to trade on such a basis. The point of these systems is to get local people to work together and provide each other with the things they need to maintain their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. National and international currencies are effectively based on the same principle, but the question is, who gets to write out the certificates to start with, and what is to stop them from writing out more of them whenever they feel like it just to get people to do what they want them to do while offering no other service in return?

Imagine that there are a few hundred of us stranded on a deserted island, as in Lost on a bigger scale, before it starts getting seriously mystical. If we accept that rescue is not immediately forthcoming, money, jewelry, etc. from the outside world will come to be of little value between us. Power and cooperation is not going to be based on who has such symbolic items. Rather, in the short-term, it will be based on who is able to seize control of resources others actually need for survival; and in the longer-term on what people are able to do to help each other out.

lost-1If the society is small enough where literally everyone knows everyone, your word and honor is your currency: Someone helps you out on the expectation that they can trust you to help them out in the future. People contribute to the “general good” so that they will have access to others’ contributions to the “general good” later on. But if things get too big for us to know and keep track of everyone then we need some form of written records or symbolic items to help keep track of who has contributed what to the well-being of which others. So let’s imagine that within our little society we appoint some authority to produce a set of certificates that help us keep track of such things. These certificates will have a number of different denominations, but we might say that the basic unit will be worth an hour’s labor. So what makes these certificate valuable is a general public agreement of what people are willing to do to get them. They have no value in themselves, their value will be in what people are willing to do for them.

That’s actually the same with any sort of money we have in the world today.

Now imagine that the fellow who is physically producing these certificates starts treating himself to all sorts of extra favors with the power that this gives him. He want’s someone to build him a bigger house than anyone else’s, so he writes out all sorts of hour’s work certificates to those who agree to build this fancy house for him. It doesn’t cost him anything to do so, and the certificates go into circulation in our little society from there pretty freely and productively. Is there any harm done in the certificate writer using his power to his advantage in this way?

One risk is that he writes out so many of these certificates that everyone ends up with piles of the things and no one really cares to bother to do anything anymore to get them –– they cease to serve as a measure of exchange value because they are in unlimited supply. But what if the fellow who is writing out these certificates is being subtle enough about it so that there aren’t too many of the things around, but still the only way anyone gets any new ones is by doing what he selfishly wants them to do? How far can this go before it leads to some sort of revolution?

Perhaps to keep one guy from abusing the system in this way we should appoint a group of guys to do this together and keep tabs on each other in the process. But what’s to stop them from forming a sort of cartel which enables them to work together in effectively cheating everyone else? The fundamental question remains the same: How far can their corruption go before it brings the whole system crashing down?

This is the basic situation in the world of banking today. Central banks are organizations somewhat separate from governments which have been given the right to literally make money that people within the societies in question can use as a basis for working together and exchanging services. They give the money they make out of thin air to governments and others who wish to borrow it from them in exchange for promises of getting whatever they want in return. Bankers are thus able to write obscene salaries for themselves in exchange for doing nothing more than roughly keeping track of how much money they print and pass around. They’re not doing anything to make this money valuable; the people who are willing to work for that money are the ones who give it value.

so-true-34-pics_3Meanwhile (most) governments have sort of removed themselves from the process of making their own money, mostly to keep people from getting too spooked by the idea that money is being made out of thin air to start with. Governments “borrow” this money from the banking organizations who make it out of nothing, on licenses granted by the governments themselves. To keep this process believable, governments have to be able to pretend to pay this money back to the banks, and to private parties who have made deposits in these banks, not so much from new money being produced, but from the value of the work done for that money coming back around to the government in the form of taxes.

In the little island society example and in the global financial system in practice today, the most important issue is not how much debt there is –– how much service has been promised but has yet to be delivered –– but rather what and how much are people capable of and willing to do for each other, and on what basis can they believe that they will be fairly compensated for their efforts. This is imperfectly measured by the ratio of new money creation to the GNP, and the national debt is relevant to this primarily as one of the factors driving the former variable.

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but...

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but…

People are generally willing to allow a certain number of individuals to be exempt from actual productive labor so that they can keep things organized for the good of all involved in the system, but when those doing the organizing start to get too distant from those whose labors they are trading in to care about their well-being any more, and when the people who are doing the actual production lose trust in those who are organizing the interaction between them because of the obvious corruption they see at the upper levels, that’s when the entire system is in the greatest danger of collapse.

Democratic institutions, or some believable pretense at such, seem to be the best means humans have yet discovered for maintaining some stable sense of trust between those doing the organizing and those providing more concrete services to each other. Keeping banks sort of at arm’s length from the legislative process also seems to be a useful strategy for keep people trusting in the value of the money that the banks make. This trust would be significantly improved if more governments were able to do like Iceland did recently and seriously punish the most corrupt and incompetent members of their banking communities. But the last thing we should be worried about these days is debt: making sure the bankers keep getting back their fair share of the fruits of everyone else’s labors. Our primary concerns need to be arranging things so that people continue to feel as though they have something of value to offer each other, and so that helping each other out –– by way of both market activity and non-market activity –– is something people remain motivated to do.

A significant part of this in moral terms is to base as little of that motivation as possible on threat and blackmail. We don’t want societies operating on the premise of, “You do what I tell you to or your child dies!” It’s easy to forget sometimes just how close we are to such a dynamic.

There was a time, just a few generations ago actually, when it was more the rule than the exception that most families would lose a child or two before they reached adulthood to malnutrition, disease or accidents caused by lack of safety precautions (which would have been too expensive). Poor people worked hard to reduce the odds of that happening to their children, as long as they believed that their work could make a difference in the matter. For some of the psychopaths in charge of large businesses having a few poor children die every now and again was a necessary part of keeping the system going.

These days we are more inclined to take it for granted that all children, even poor ones, have a right to live into adulthood, but there are some corporations which are doing everything in their power to return us to the “good old days” in those respects. In parts of the United States they have been quite successful in this regard. The thing that is slowing them down in this process though is a (pretense at a) system of (small d) democratic government which is based on a premise of “the little people” being able to come together to stand up for their rights, including children’s rights to education and health care that keeps them from dying of preventable causes, regardless of how much their parents do or don’t get paid for what they do for work. So it would be far better for business if they could shut down as much of the system of democratic government as possible.

As I said at the start here, my fear is that if the psychopaths behind the Tea Party movement fully succeed in this process not only will thousands more poor American children lead sad lives and die young (and I’m not being melodramatic here), but the tools of economic and military dominance which have been developed over the past century or so will come to be used with even less pretense of restraint. This could lead to the de facto enslavement of billions more people and further reckless exploitation of limited natural resources, leading to billions more unnecessarily early deaths. Some in the American Religious Right would disagree with me on such matters, but I still hold to an ethical position that contributing to such processes is a morally wrong thing to do.

My strongest hope is that enough Americans will start believing enough in the idea of democracy as such to make it true again –– in some ways for the first time –– within the United States; that people they will stop letting those who are milking the system by doing nothing more than finding creative ways of telling others what to do for them run things without even a pretense of interest in the well-being of those they are abusing in the process. I realize that a lack of philosophical content within the education system has seriously reduced the likelihood of many there figuring this problem out, but there are some smart people there who might get it anyway, and it remains remotely possible that they might be able to wake up just enough of their (our) countrymen to stop the complete collapse that things now seem to be headed towards.

Joel, others… care to help?

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Education, History, Human Rights, Politics, Sustainability


The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

This month I’m following the lead of Carol, one of my South African friends, in participating in a hobby photographers’ activity of posting a current picture for a given theme for each day of the month. I’m pretty sure that the initiators of the event are from South Africa, but there’s a fair number of us from the northern hemisphere also participating. But for today I feel the theme is a bit of a disadvantage to those outside of South Africa: “Dilapidated”. There are probably more picturesque dilapidated buildings, vehicles, monuments and people within any given square kilometer of the Cape Town area than within all of southern Finland.

001Thinking about the subject was an interesting way to start the day though. Since I junked my dilapidated old car in February, limiting my access to more remote ruins in the Finnish (and Estonian) countryside, probably the most dilapidated sight I come across on a week-to-week basis these days is the sight of my face in the mirror each morning.

Or is it? Is that really a fair thing to say? What does dilapidated actually mean anyway?

So of course I looked it up. Etymologies are always fun in such events. To dilapidate something literally means to get the building stones –– “lapides” in Latin –– of the property in question out of their proper places. In traditional British law “dilapidation” is the basis for a tenant not getting his security deposit back when he moves out of property left in bad repair. The same could be applied to a parson or other churchman being fined for letting the parsonage or parish properties get run down during the time they were in his care.

So how badly are my own stones, figuratively speaking, shifted out of place these days, and what sort of penalty might I be liable for in that regard? Hard to say. All things being relative, I could perhaps be taking better care of my body, but so far it’s holding together as well as can reasonably be expected at my age –– significant as that qualifier is.


The dilapidated breakwater at the harbor down the road from my apartment

This also brings to mind my recent Zygmunt Bauman readings again. How badly has consumerism and the “liquid modern” situation shifted the foundation stones of contemporary society? What are the most important foundation stones in that regard, for that matter, and what should we be doing to keep them in place? In Liquid Love (2003)  –– the last of my Bauman summer reading books, currently late for return to the library  –– the old social theory guru takes on perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the human experience: the relationship between love, sexuality and economic self-interest. After exploring the concept of “pure sex” as a commodity in the consumer economy for a while he makes the speculative statement (p. 47), “Intimate connections of sex with love, security, permanence, immortality-through-continuation-of-kin were not after all as useless and constraining as they were thought and felt and charged to be. The old and allegedly old-fashioned companions of sex were perhaps its necessary supports (necessary not for the technical perfection of the performance, but for its gratifying potential).” These stones, however, are rather thoroughly out of such a place these days. Does that mean that sex has become dilapidated? Can the de-commercialization of sex put these stones back into place? Is the de-commercialization of sex merely a necessary condition for some other cultural force, like religion, to reconnect sex with its former necessary “intimate connections”? How willing are we to see the clock turned back in this regard?

033One significant part of the question is the extent to which we are willing to defy the capitalist/consumerist status quo. How far can we escape the urge to put a price on everything as the measure of fair exchange? How much can we allow ourselves to give and receive without price “merely” for purposes of having a sense of connection with each other? To do so is to defy the market system’s absolute sovereignty over our lives; to enter into some level of “unofficial” or “underground” economic activity. Not to do so is to accept that our lives have no value beyond what someone is willing to pay for them in an officially recognized “legal tender”. Taken to its furthest extreme, allowing the market to maintain absolute sovereignty might well make human life itself untenable and unbearable. What hope do we have for fixing this? De-dilapidating sex and social life may well, according to Bauman (p. 48), call for “consumer rationality to be deprived of, and to shed, its present-day sovereignty over the motives and strategies of human life politics. This would mean, however, calling for more than could be reasonably expected to happen in the foreseeable future.”

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

In some regards Bauman is taking this discussion back to Kant. Commenting on Kant’s minor 1784 treatise What is Enlightenment?, Bauman (p. 125) says: “Sooner or later, Kant warned, there will not be a scrap of empty space left where those of us who have found the places already occupied too cramped or too inhospitable for comfort, too awkward of for whatever other reason uncongenial, could seek shelter or rescue. And so Nature commands us to view (reciprocal) hospitality as the supreme precept we need to  –– and eventually will have to –– embrace and obey in order to bring to an end the long chain of trials and errors, the catastrophes leave in their wake.” Thus in Bauman’s perspective (and mine) striving to create a cultural atmosphere which encourages treating of others as ends and not means –– loving your neighbor as you love yourself –– considering the well-being of others to be part and parcel of our own well-being –– is the best utopian hope we can harbor for reducing the likelihood of humanity’s self-destruction.

This also relates to the eschatological dystopia spoken of in the Bible’s book of Revelation. The mysterious “mark of the beast” –– the number 666, or some close variation on such –– near as we can tell, was a coded reference to Caesar Nero, in whose honor the most commonly distributed CD-ROM burning software package these days is named. Nero, according to legend, started the major persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as an exercise in scape-goating with regard to the great fire of Rome in the year 64 of our calendar. As the story in Revelation goes, there is a dragon, a beast coming out of the sea, a junior beast and a big statue of the first beast, all being strongly connected with the number 7 (as in the 7 hills of Rome) and the number 10 (perhaps related to the fact that Vespasian, Caesar at the time of the Roman legions’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem, was the tenth Caesar of the empire); who together form the ultimate opposition to the forces loyal to God/Jesus. It is the first beast from the sea which gets the famous triple-six number. This beast is basically considered to be invincible by its fan club, and it comes back from seemingly certain death a time or two. But its trademark characteristics are waging war against the righteous and establishing dominance over economic affairs.

018Leaving aside all of the numerological puzzles contained in the text for the moment, assuming that Nero did have a hand in the great fire and that the Christians were innocent scape-goats in the matter, the purpose of lighting such a fire would have been to eliminate part of the city market area that was outside of the emperor’s control and to enable him to rebuild in a way which gave him far greater control over the economic structure of the city. This would fit together quite well with the idea that the human name based code number for the “mark of the beast” was/would be Nero’s name, and that its purpose was/would be to control all economic activity: “…so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:17). The next chapter declares a major curse on anyone who goes along with “the beast’s” economic control program: “There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:11).


There are a number of fantasy interpretations of this text popular these days, as there has been in many phases of the history of Christendom, but I would propose a more practical application, in line with what Bauman has to say about the sovereignty of market forces over our lives: Those who place a higher priority on economic power than on love, loyalty and justice –– who are willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses that are perpetrated by the economic powers that be, which enable these powers to strengthen their grip on things  –– create their own personal hell for themselves and set themselves up as the enemies of God/goodness/righteousness/justice. To be on God’s side we must be willing to prioritize non-market values over market values. Not doing so leaves us thoroughly spiritually dilapidated.  012Meanwhile, while contemplating visual manifestations of dilapidation, I took Luna, the dog I am baby-sitting this weekend, and walked down to the little harbor closest to my apartment. I knew that there is a relatively new breakwater there which is somewhat prematurely dilapidated in the more literal original sense of the term. I also suspected that there might be some boats down there in less than ideal condition. Along the way we went to explore a hilltop ruin of some sort, which at one time would have commanded the best sea view in the district. I can’t say what the original building was, but these days it seems to provide a location for young people and rebels of all ages to party and practice their graffiti skills. It was as definitive an image of dilapidation as I might have hoped for.

This in turn opens another contemplative aspect of the dilapidation question: is it healthiest to sometimes just allow certain stones to slip out of the places we had in mind for them –– to let the dynamics of life to somewhat break free from the structures we try to use to contain them, even if that significantly damages the structures themselves? Sometimes perhaps so.

016I appreciated the fact that the ruins I explored today were not entirely fenced off, like some of the more interestingly dilapidated sections of Suomenlinna, the island fortress outside of Helsinki. I respect the local authorities’ judgment calls in both cases though. The ruins above the Haukilahti harbor which I visited today are of little historical value as such. Preserving them in some nostalgic form would not serve to genuinely enable a deeper sense of contact with the struggles and accomplishments of previous generations. One of the most important purposes they can serve is as an outlet for dilapidation as such; a place where those who feel a need to be unruly can be so with relatively limited risk to themselves and others. Outside the opening in the rusty chain-link fence around the ruins there is a sign with a mildly stated warning that there are certain risks involved in exploring such dilapidation, so be on your guard and don’t try to blame anyone else if you end up hurting yourself in here. Suomenlinna, on the other hand, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with all sorts of associated rules and restrictions and preservation requirements. It also has significantly higher walls over rocky coasts, offering significantly greater risk of self-injury. I would still like to be allowed to climb around in some of the areas they have fenced off these days, and I believe I could do so with relatively limited risk, but I get the idea of why they’d want to try and stop me from doing so, and I’m willing to abide by those limits in that case.

A "re-lapidated" section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

A “re-lapidated” section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

Finding the right balance between keeping our rocks in the places we want them and letting them slide around a bit as they are wont to do –– literally and figuratively –– is one of those matters about which general rules can have limited validity in their specific applications, generally speaking. The important thing is to keep believing that we each have a value that consumerist dynamics cannot quantify, and that we must never allow market forces to take from us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Economics, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Sexuality

For the Love of Liquidity

I recently began correspondence over research matters with a professor from a distant city whom I have never met but with whom I have a number of shared interests. In the course of establishing a rapport I was rather surprised to find that, based on my recent blogs and other writings, she got the impression that I harbored a resentment towards academia as such and towards postmodern theory in particular. Given that among my teaching colleagues over the past decade and some I’ve been frequently labelled as the most abstractly academically theoretical and postmodern thinkers in the school, it’s one of those ironic situations where I don’t know if I should laugh or cry –– and when in doubt I always go with the former.

But regardless of that fact, given that I have managed to give at least one highly intelligent person such an impression, it is more than possible that others might have come to similar misconceptions about me, and therefore I should take the trouble to further unpack my perspectives on some of the more abstract aspects of humanities theory within academia that I have been writing about here lately.

To start with let me make a somewhat obvious observation: it is factually untrue and thus a gross mis-characterization to refer to those who are lost in their own theoretical abstractions as “tucked away in their ivory towers.” University towers are not made of ivory, and I doubt that they ever have been. In concrete terms university towers (to the extent that universities have any use for towers these days) are made of… concrete. Some older university buildings made of wood, brick or field stone are still rather heavily used, but those materials don’t provide a particularly distinctive image of academia as such. Newer university buildings made of steel and glass are becoming more common, but steel and glass structures are more emblematic of venture/vulture capitalists than of academics per se. Professors can’t really be said to be looking down from their steel and glass towers, literally or figuratively. In practice these days we’d have to say that those professors who suffer from a lack of contact with the non-academic world are seeing that world through the tiny windows of their concrete cubicles, literally and figuratively.

The University of Helsinki's main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

The University of Helsinki’s main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

For those in the humanities, concreteness is a rather uncomfortable image to relate to. In one sense many of them would much rather be out in the world of Platonic ideals rather than stuck in the hard, cold material reality in which we all find ourselves; thus they try to avoid speaking in concrete terms in general. In another sense they would like to believe that their work has more flexibility to it than do the crude forms of man-made stone in which they find themselves encased. In yet another sense they would like to believe that their work has some sort of inherent nobility and superiority, relating to some more refined substance, like silver or marble or… ivory. In still another sense they want to fantasize that their work is both highly reflective and transparent, like glass or crystal, only without being so fragile. Yet they do not want their work to take on the image of something so pedestrian and practical as Plexiglas.

So with the ivory tower fantasy shot, if they are to establish an alternative image to that of looking at the world from behind their concrete walls, what image are they to use? Given all of these contradictory symbolic elements they are trying to project in their self-images these days, one image that younger professors have started turning to as emblematic of their professional identity is… water. Beyond representing aspects of potential refinement, reflectiveness, transparency and naturalness that professors like to associate with their work, the image of water involves aspects of flow and vitality that every academic would like to believe characterizes her/his work. Images of drinking from pristine bubbling brooks spring to mind, or those of daring young athletes riding wild rapid currents through uncharted territory. Why not? Academics are also entitled to their fantasies.

South Africa 2011 579The water analogy also provides a functional excuse for their separation/alienation from more practical concerns of everyday life: some would like to think of their theories as being like fresh springs, gushing out a cool, clear stream of life-supporting liquidity, which must be fenced off to keep crude animals from tromping through them and/or pissing in them. Those who can respectfully and responsibly protect and direct the flow of this precious liquid can in turn appropriately channel it down the line to make it available to other users, but at its source they must, for the good of all, painstakingly protect its purity –– or so the fantasy picture goes.

baumanThe irony is in how far this image is from the thought of the current father figure of “liquid modernity” theory, Zygmunt Bauman. In his discussion of the “liquid modern,” the liquid in question is not a pure, clear stream poetically flowing across and cutting through solid stone with its life-giving power; it is more a tsunami of sludge plowing its way across traditional landscapes, taking out whatever farms and temples and government installations stand in its way, leaving anarchy and mayhem in its wake. Some of the structures this tsunami takes out are indeed prisons and oppressive fortifications, but its destructive power is not focused against these systems of oppression. The liquid modern is also destroying traditional means by which life has been protected, order has been maintained and personal meaning has been established. The name of this tsunami which Bauman has been trying to caution people against is consumerism, and his recommendation is that education, rather than riding this wave, should be positioning itself as our last, best hope of somehow limiting the senseless destruction it is wreaking on our societies. Rather than becoming part of the liquid in question, education should establish certain concrete channels, dams, breakwaters and levies; not to overcome the force of this flood, but to direct it in less destructive, more functional directions. The problems I have a with academics are with those who don’t get what Bauman is saying here.

718146-floodsThe essence of postmodern theory in this regard –– a la French speaking post-Marxist-Hegelians such as Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard –– is heralding the collapse of metanarratives of human cultural evolution and the grand march forward from ignorance and superstition towards enlightened self-interest and social harmony. In various ways and from various perspectives, over the past half-century or so French, English and German-speaking theorists, in roughly that order, have been calling “masculine bovine excrement” on the remains of this enlightenment dream. We are not becoming one big happy family, and we probably shouldn’t even try to be. We need to recognize that much of what was done in the name of enlightenment and “progress” was a matter of morally questionable power interests stomping out any form of difference and dissent which got in their way. Over the course of the twentieth century colonialism gave way to international capitalism as the dynamic by which this took place, but for those on the receiving end this makes little difference. Corporations, rather than nation states, have forced their will onto semi-cooperative populaces around the world, proclaiming their benevolent intent, yet crudely stomping out any resistance to their dominance and their control of natural and human resources. But rather than proclaiming a Marxist revolution as the solution to this problem, which has been exposed as just one more means of international power-brokering under false claims of benevolent intent, the postmodernists have promoted “deconstruction,” to use Derrida’s term on the matter. Rather than reinforcing the power of any of the particular elite forces in government or business, the intelligentsia should be pointing out the moral and rational flaws inherent in all of the competing parties’ thinking, encouraging a diversified social order in which no one can claim absolute hegemony.

As noble as these ideas may sound, the de facto anarchy of eliminating all existing structures while replacing them with nothing in particular is highly problematic to say at the least. The hopes of the postmodern theorists were not in fact to pursue a cultural “nuclear alternative” of “mutually assured destruction” of all aspects of culture as such, even though few of them put much effort into coherently stating were the new levies should be built. Bauman, in part due to what he sees as the sheer accident of his extremely long life, has gone further than most of his former contemporaries in the field in contemplating this problem. His basic conclusions, like those of his former fellow postmodernists, are stated in terms that are intended to defy simplification, but I will give it a shot anyway.

One thing that must be accepted as a given here is that people are as lazy as they dare to be. No one likes to do tedious and painful routine tasks that they are told they have to do if things remain pretty much the same whether they do them or not. The old cultural and economic status quo was based on social discipline reinforced by scarcity: People were kept from being lazy because struggle for survival was a natural state of affairs. We sometimes forget how difficult life was just a couple of generations ago –– and how difficult it still is for the poorest 2 billion people on this planet these days. A century ago for families to lose a child or two to some form of disease was more the rule than the exception. When it happens these days it is a rare event, caused by someone out there being the sort of person that cannot be described in polite language. There are plenty of remaining problems in today’s post-industrial societies but there are in fact plenty of resources to keep everyone fed, housed, medically cared for and educated even. The problems have to do with extremely morally deficient individuals preventing these resources from being used to meet these basic needs. Which in turn presents the question, how do we motivate people to work together and to overcome their natural laziness in a situation where they can easily tell that the threat of shortage is quite artificial?

black-friday-shoppers-at-macy-sThis leads to the instant gratification problem of the liquid consumer society. Rather than delaying gratification and disciplining themselves to work hard and produce before consuming, the current expectation is to get a few credit cards, experience whatever you (are told that you) want instantly, and sell yourself into slavery to the system to keep up with the consumer addiction you have entered into. You thus become a cog in the machine feeding the snowballing greed epidemic is endangering the future of the whole planet. If you happen to be one of the less important cogs in this machine you can easily find yourself in the sort of de facto slavery where if you (and your spouse) work less than 60 hours per week (each) for whatever wage you can get, you are likely to lose your family through not being able to afford housing, food, health care and the basic status symbol products that are seen as needed to prevent their children from becoming socially marginalized –– not being seen as a good enough provider. If you happen to be one of the more important cogs in this machine you are expected to be available to the needs of the production system 24/7 as befits your position, so to compensate for your consequent absence from your loved ones’ lives you are expected to provide them with a continuous flow of mass-produced, disposable forms of entertainment and means of superficial human contact. Children raised within these systems, meanwhile, have less and less of a sense of any human relationships, social traditions or status symbol items having a lasting value. They have a vague sense that all of this could lead to oblivion, but for the moment all they feel they can do is go with the absurd flow of things, hoping to eventually find some form of love and meaning in life along the way… whatever those things are.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Bauman is by no means suggesting a nostalgic return to the “good old days”. What we don’t want is to go back to the old system of shortage-driven desperation and authoritarian discipline for its own sake –– even if that is one of the places that the consumerist tsunami is likely to leave us when it ebbs back out again. What we want is to be left with a sense of what and who makes our lives important, and to feel a firm sense of connection with those principles and people –– preferably of our own choosing, and not vulnerable to be taken from us by those who see things differently. Whether we will succeed in finding ways of so anchoring ourselves under the current tsunami conditions remains to be seen, but from Bauman’s perspective our best hope in this matter lies in the development of suitable concrete structures within the education systems of so-called developed countries.

This isn’t a matter of clinging to some pre-modern cultural monuments for the sake of faithfulness to the monuments, nor is it a matter of pretending to have some sort of fixed reference point while being swept along with the tide (a “Janus-faced” approach, as some have tried to call it). It is a matter of getting to know ourselves and learning to care for ourselves through our contact with others –– “Ubuntu” as it is called in many parts of Africa –– without letting the madness of the mob mentality sweep us away in the process. If we can teach young people to seriously look for this sort of beauty within themselves and within the world around them, there is still a chance that we can save the world from ourselves.

Closing disclaimers: This is an amateur essay (in the sense that there ain’t no one paying me to write it) based on my perceptions of the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and company from my recent reading. I can claim with reasonable certainty that I’ve got Bauman’s message right, but unless Bauman himself endorses this essay it remains just my voice among all of his friends and admirers and scholars of his work. Some may dispute my interpretation, but it’s currently not worth my time to take the effort to prove them wrong further than this. Thus please take this for what it’s worth as passing academic perspective, personal advice to fellow educators and a statement of hope for our world. Meanwhile, please don’t anyone else subject me to any further BS about your role in promoting the virtues of liquid modernity as though you were advancing Bauman’s perspective in the matter. And please don’t attempt to label me as anti-academic or anti-postmodern for saying so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Education, Ethics, Freedom, Individualism, Purpose, Respectability, Social identity, Sustainability


Every time I go in or out of Helsinki I pass the Nokia international headquarters in the southeast corner of Espoo. I didn’t have any business in Helsinki on Tuesday (September 3) so the first time I saw the building after the sale of its guts to Microsoft had been announced on Tuesday morning was late Wednesday afternoon. It was sort of surreal feeling.

vallila, etc 246The structure of this “iconic” headquarters is such that in certain light conditions the steel framed glass outer walls give the impression of construction scaffolding, of the sort that encases the significant number of buildings that are continuously being put up, structurally repaired, resurfaced or gutted in the Helsinki region at any given time. It’s hard to say which of those processes is the most apt analogy for Nokia this month. People might or might not continue to work in Espoo on designing phones for their new masters in the state of Washington; that remains to be seen.

Sitting in front of me on the mostly empty bus was a fellow randomly playing with his iPhone. I assume he was texting to whomever he planned to meet when he got to wherever he was going; I didn’t pay much more attention than that. I glanced out to consciously read the sign over the plywood encased construction area along the new subway/metro/underground route they are constructing outside of the now former Nokia headquarters. Sometime next year or the following the bus I was on will cease to run that route, and travelers will start to go on a faster, cleaner running, high speed underground trains instead. The sign at the construction area there between the Nokia building and the motorway says that they are putting in a service tunnel entrance, not a passenger station there. I wonder when they made that official decision.

vallila, etc 237So it’s official now: the Nokia phenomenon has come and gone in the time I’ve lived in Finland. I wrote last year about Finnish history thus far being roughly divisible into the Mannerheim era, the Kekkonen era and the Nokia era, with a bit of uncertainty about what might come next. That has now been “announced in church” as the Finnish idiom says. The uncertainty of it all is a bit intimidating.

My hindsight perspective on “what went wrong” for Nokia is simpler than most: Steve Jobs. This patron saint of user-friendly electronics, as his life’s last thrust to put another “ding in the universe,” reshaped people’s expectations of what their little pocket computer/phones were supposed to do. Nokia had some interesting R&D going into similar ideas, but they weren’t really ready for Jobs’ swan song when it came. Nokia made phones that could pretend to be personal computers; Apple started making functional mini personal computers that also worked as phones. Sometimes image is everything. Now without Jobs around to further bend their fenders, Nokia’s cell phone division might have made a significant comeback on its own; but now that they’ve been commandeered by Apple’s arch-rival, Microsoft, such speculations have become entirely hypothetical.

Microsoft is a brand which says to people “familiar, functional software for generic computers”. Nokia is a brand which says “sleek and dependable basic communication devices”. It’s hard to guess which, if either, of those names will go on whatever new sorts of phones this new joint-venture might start coming out with. They may have to create an entirely new brand to capture the imaginations of the clients they are targeting, sort of like what Toyota did when the invented the Lexus line. What this new brand might stand for, beyond “imitation iPhones,” remains to be seen.

vallila, etc 118Nokia is not the only aspect of Finnish society (and yes, more than just a corporation, Nokia has been an aspect of Finnish society in many senses, and while the grieving process continues it remains so) that is now contemplating rebranding. A friend of mine in the mid stages of theology studies in the University of Helsinki was griping this week about an absurd required-subject lecture about “personal branding” that he had to attend. Since Finnish educational institutions, from kindergartens all the way through to the university, are being told that they have to seriously consider their “brand status” these days, of course they are passing on that pain to all of their teaching staff, who in turn are passing it on to all those they are teaching. The further up the academic ladder one goes, the more permissible it becomes to pass this sort of abuse on to one’s students.

This subject also came up in the university summer school course I took last month, under the supervision of a new professor from the department of teacher education in the University of Helsinki. The fact that I was rather unimpressed with this particular professor’s skills was a rather poorly kept secret; but he and I did agree quite strongly on three things in this regard: 1) Finland currently has a very strong brand in education. 2) This brand may be somewhat endangered, as the means by which it has come about may be fading (though he and I disagreed about what those particular fading sources of brand strength may have been). And 3) His department has very little to offer in terms of safeguarding the strength of the brand. Meanwhile, Fred, the professor in question, is very optimistic about the value of his own personal brand, but rather fuzzy about what this personal brand value is based on, or what he has to offer –– besides an abundance of published academic articles that no one reads, and access to an international sewing circle of somewhat like-minded individuals. To say that he’s not doing the University of Helsinki’s brand any good is a substantial understatement.

Irja+Askola,+Helsingin+piispa+116348It may or may not be coincidental that the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki came out with her own statement about branding this week, or at least so one tabloid has to say. The sensationalism-prone Iltalehti claimed on Wednesday that Bishop Askola had given an interview to the daily business digest Kauppalehti (which the latter publication’s web site shows no record of) in which she seriously critiques the institutional church that she represents for screwing up Christian identity by making it a judgmental brand. The brief article goes on to say that the bishop is having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace of change within the church, that Christian identity –– based on justice, mercy, caring, and prioritizing the good of the community –– is as appropriate for our age as for any, and that she remains firm on the principle that the church’s message is mercy, not judgment.

Assuming that this report credibly represents the bishop’s thoughts on the matter, it would seem that she is continuing to work on distinguishing her own personal brand from that of Finland’s Minister of the Interior Päivi Räsänen’s brand –– the latter emphasizing the rejection of “inappropriate” forms of sexuality. (For my own take on this matter see my last blog for July this summer.) These women have clearly agreed to disagree, each hoping that she can win over a majority within the church to her own position, somewhat marginalizing the other in the process, all the while claiming that the church is big enough to allow for both of their positions within it. This raises the question, is either woman more guilty of abusive brand manipulation than the other? Or perhaps more importantly, if their mutual brand does not provide any definitive identity markers regarding the sort of major questions on which they disagree, what good is it? If the Evangelical Lutheran brand doesn’t actually say anything about any moral questions over which reasonable people may disagree, and if it refuses to distinguish between insiders and outsiders in any meaningful way, what remaining significance does the brand have?

Within Finland’s Lutheran church brand confusion is a fairly serious issue. When it comes to anything resembling regular worship (not exactly their brand’s strong suit) there are actually many sub-brands that mean more to “consumers” than the overall brand. One of the most successful sub-brands has been the Tuomas messu or “St. Thomas Mass,” which got started in the late 1980s –– just as Nokia was establishing itself as a mobile phone maker –– in the church in Helsinki dedicated to Mikael Agricola. This “mass” format combined a lot of safe feeling “high church” ritual and liturgical elements with various forms of contemporary music –– including everything from Taize worship music to rock and roll variations on traditional hymns –– and an open invitation to those who didn’t necessarily believe particularly strongly, to come up with a pretty successful combination in its day.  But now, 25 years later, the distinctive appeal of the Tuomas messu brand has pretty well died out. Its image is that of a bunch of older middle aged folks who are trying to act spiritual, deny their aging processes and find a sort of weekly mutual acceptance. Young people of my sons’ generation who are interested in spiritual experiences don’t find it to be their worship of choice any more. I still go to these at times, but I don’t always find them particularly inspiring, or comfortable even. Sometimes the more traditional forms of Sunday morning worship feel less awkward these days.

So with that brand pretty close to dead, I heard by way of my sons last year that “the new thing” is the mid-week Agricola messu, in the same traditional church building where the Tuomas messu system got started. The Agricola messu has the same basic ethos as its older sister, just with more “updated” effects to appeal to a new generation of religious skeptics: smoke machines and a computerized concert lighting effect board, more English used in their worship music, younger priests leading the events, trying to dress like hipsters while displaying their “dog collars” to identify their role; shorter sermons, clearer and lighter weight “therapeutic” aspects to the ritual.

The lighting effects that the "Agricola messu" brand is shooting for.

The lighting effects that the “Agricola messu” brand is shooting for.

I went to one of these gigs last winter to check it out, and I was neither overly impressed nor overly bothered by it. This week I got a notice that as part of the orientation time for new theology students at the university a bunch of them were going to attend this mass together, so I thought I’d give it another shot. (That was actually where I was headed as I passed the Nokia headquarters by bus late on Wednesday afternoon.) It turned out to be a significant disappointment. Getting warmed up for the first time after their summer vacation, the whiz-bang special effects special effects system appeared to have some bugs stuck in it. The music this time seemed overly ambitiously arranged, but the band was noticeably under rehearsed. But most distractingly, the majority of the participants this time were teenagers who clearly were only there because they needed to rack up a given number of church attendances over the course of the year to be officially confirmed as church members this fall. So the atmosphere was one of a hall full of junior high students restlessly waiting to collect their required signatures from the priests and get out of there. The whole thing was played out at a volume loud enough to cover up the drone of these semi-voluntary participants, who seemed to be chatting with each other the whole time, and as soon as the Eucharist portion of the ritual was starting to wind down the background noise began to rise, with kids preparing to jockey for position to get their attendance cards signed by priests so they could leave as soon as possible. All I could think was, here goes another ambitious attempt at religious rebranding down the drain.

vallila, etc 119Brands can indeed be disposable commodities. When I was a bar tender I learned that certain breweries would regularly introduce new beers onto the market, with all sorts of advertising fanfare, and then pull them from the market a few months or years later with no particular regrets. The idea was to give consumers something new to be fascinated with for whatever little time that fascination might last –– nothing more than that. Brands come and brands go; blessed be the name of the market.

Some brands can be worth protecting on a longer term basis though. Back in the 1980s, when I first came to Finland I was working for McDonalds, and I remember reading in one of their in-house propaganda magazines about how the corporation had cleaned house disenfranchised their major French franchisee earlier in that decade, and they were optimistic about having rebuilt their brand image within that country with a new, more reliable set of operators and a more “culturally sensitive” branding approach there. I guess they’ve been happy with the results since. Of all of the problems with the McDonalds brand these days, lack of conformity to corporate standards in Europe doesn’t seem to be one of the major ones. Whatever else can be said about the McDonalds brand –– and I’d have plenty to say against it –– they are remarkably effective at defending it and keeping it consistent from country to country. This level of corporate discipline and standardization management is the primary reason why McDonalds is much more successful in Europe than Burger King, for instance. Thus the McDonalds brand, like a McDonalds cheeseburger, is something that lasts for years and years, showing only subtle changes as it ages. Some would consider that to be a marketing ideal; I have mixed feelings about the matter.

Is success really to be measured by the volume of quick fixes and disposable commodities which can be sold under a succession of given brand names? In some ways it is undeniable that this is the operational standard that industrialized economies operate according to. In other ways hope remains that we can learn to live beyond these sorts of wasted lives and liquid love that Zygmunt Bauman speaks of in his books of those names. We hope to be part of something more lasting, more permanent than just the ebb and flow of temporary sources of emotional satisfaction distributed under various brand names. Sometimes we turn to rituals for ritual’s sake as an emotional safeguard against this, not realizing that these rituals too are in their own right branded commodities in an economy of branded commodities. A greater hope lies in finding some form(s) of “true love” as means of connecting with something beyond ourselves, but for that pursuit brands, it turns out, are fundamentally useless. Yet on a more superficial level we continuously use our own image identifiers to “brand” ourselves in our attempts to gain customers, partners and friends of various sorts. Few of us can be secure enough in our lasting relationships to escape from this sort of personal marketing culture.

angry bird perfumeIt is perhaps particularly ironic that the newest iconic Finnish brand these days, setting up shop in the section of southeastern Espoo that Nokia will no longer be calling home,  is “Angry Birds” –– based on a computer game of the simplest possible sort, designed to be easily installable on any sort of “smart phone” or PC. The idea of the game is to slingshot these little avian attitude bombs at a set of temporary structures in which a group of pigs are hiding, eliminating as much of the structures and as many of the pigs as possible with the birds at your disposal. This silly little pastime has captured the public imagination enough where there are now candies, soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion accessories and playground equipment being marketed on the basis of this brand. The whole concept of trying to build lasting economic hope on such a self-consciously disposable premise boggles the mind; but for the moment it seems to be working, so no one wants to say anything.

Meanwhile I struggle on with the process of rebuilding my own brand. Having rather limited success in promoting Finnish style secondary school philosophy teaching and “values education” in general for the English-speaking world, and not having discovered any significant new markets for my skills during my African adventure last year, I’m now working on getting into a routine of marketing myself as a “doctoral researcher in philosophy of religion”. Ideally within this role I’d like to help people discover more permanent sources of value for their own lives. In practice though this probably has more in common with “Angry Birds” than I’d care to admit. When I’m done figuring out how to use this role to knock down as many of the pigs’ hiding places as possible we’ll see where it gets me.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Education, Ethics, Materialism, Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Social identity, Sustainability

Ben Carson for Mayor of Detroit!

The other morning I woke up with this ingenious thought that I thought I should develop and share with the world. That is what I’ve placed in the title here. Frankly I see it as the solution to a whole pile of problems at the same time. I really think this idea needs to be spread around thoroughly, ideally going viral and becoming a mass movement. As an idealistic statement it’s far more realistic than Michael Moore’s “Oprah for President” idea anyway.

I will try to avoid polarizing and polemic language here, because, honestly, I believe that this is an idea where constructive thinkers of good will among both Democrats and Republicans could come on board, and I don’t want to mess that up by presenting the idea either as some flaming liberal or some calloused out-of-touch white guy (even if I might be a bit of both).

The basic idea is relatively simple: We have a formerly major US city that is currently way up “Poop Creek” without a paddle, and we have a world famous brain surgeon (literally) who happens to have been born as a poor black child (literally) within the city in question, who is getting on towards an age where he could comfortably retire from the stressful business of getting rich by cutting open white people’s heads and dealing with their brain problems for them (literally), instead focus the rest of his life on giving something back to “his people” in the broadest sense (literally). Why not bring these two situations together as the best hope for both?

headshot_scrubsBen Carson is already being touted by some political pundits as the next great hope for the Republican Party. A regular performer on the Washington public speaker circuit these days, he gave what some consider to be a particularly inspiring talk at a Washington prayer breakfast last winter, where in front of President Obama and the rest of America’s most important leaders (literally) proposed a set of values and solutions to address Americas “spiritual concerns” which were music to Republican ears. The problem was that he also clearly demonstrated that he had no concept of how political administrations need to work to get things done.

I’d say Detroit would be the perfect training ground for him in this respect. If he were to dive into that project this year or next, at age 62, and if he would succeed in turning that city around, then even at 69 years old I would consider him to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination for 2020. But more importantly this year I believe Detroit needs him and he needs Detroit. And let me stress again, even though he more strongly identifies with Baltimore these days, the city in which he built his reputation as a great surgeon, he originally comes from the ghettos of Detroit.

Dr. Carson began his breakthrough prayer breakfast speech quoting from a few verses in Proverbs 11, followed by 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” His great hope is that through prayer, moral discipline and a restored sense of self-belief, American society can be turned around. I believe that if he wants to pursue that vision he should begin by doing so on what might be called a “Gideon scale”: winning a truly miraculous victory on a very local level, and there is no better place for Carson to start than in the city of his birth.

Among the most conspicuous and least tenable ideas that Dr. Carson tossed out in his prayer breakfast speech was that of a flat tax system. His rationale on this was as simple and elegant, and probably as ultimately unworkable, as his tax proposal itself: “When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. […] So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. […] Now some people say, ‘Well that’s not fair, because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made ten billion dollars as much as the guy who made ten.’ Where does it say that you have to hurt the guy?”

On a national scale the unintended consequences of assuming that the Old Testament is the ultimate standard for fair and just government could ultimately be disastrous. I won’t even begin to argue that point here. But in Detroit operating on the basis of that sort of standard could be a very good thing! What Dr. Carson’s native city needs is a restored sense of fairness and compassion and belief in its future, based on significant transcendent values. If that city sees its leaders as holding themselves accountable to a higher standard, rather than pursuing whatever personal advantages they can get away with as long as the loopholes of American law allow for them and joining the Romneys in stashing their loot in the Cayman Islands, that could inspire its residents to come together and work to realize these same higher principles.

Heck, let him try to restructure the finances of that city on a flat tax basis. Let him work with the neighborhoods there on a basis of everyone chipping in proportionately. It’s not like he’d end up making their situation any worse, and he could learn some valuable lessons about practical public management in the process.

But more than his conservative fiscal policy theories, Carson has a true zeal for something close to my own heart; something I believe is key to turning around US culture in general and for salvaging Detroit in particular: education. Again from his prayer breakfast speech: “Our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace, and when they become less informed they become vulnerable. Think about that.”

I have thought about that, and I quite entirely agree. I also fully agree with the aims of Dr. Carson’s own personal charitable organization, The Carson Scholars Fund,  which was initiated in the 1990s to address the problems in American education that studies like PISA (which make those of us in Finland’s education system look so good) have pointed out. His goal has been to give “intellectual superstars” the same sort of social status within schools that sports heroes have –– a Quixotic quest if there ever was one, but an incredibly noble one all the same. The basic idea is to pass on to the most vulnerable in society the same sort of hope and vision that Ben Carson himself found as a very vulnerable young man between covers of books that the tax payers provided for him in the Detroit public library!

The ideal of Carson’s scholarship program is not only to build self-reliance, but community involvement among its beneficiaries: “Unless you cared about other people it didn’t matter how smart you were. We got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people.” Those they set out to help are “kids who come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out, and we need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. For every one of those people that we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from; one less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more tax-paying productive member of society, who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They’re all important to us and we need every single one of them.”

Beyond that, Carson sees education as the key to preventing the US from “going down the same pathway as so many pinnacle nations who have preceded us” to self-destruction from within, in spite of their massive military dominance. This has obviously started to happen in America already, but as Carson says, “We can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart.”

Dr. Carson’s appeal to Republicans is not only based on his religious ideals and his message of “not accepting helplessness,” but that he is a front line expert in medical matters and health care. The intense and ongoing efforts to block and repeal “Obamacare,” they feel, need a (preferably black) compassionate yet firm and unquestionably well informed human face. This was one of the main issues that Fox (or Faux) News’s Sean Hannity put to Carson in an interview following up on his prayer breakfast performance. To his credit, Dr. Carson replied in terms that largely ignored the bile built into Hannity’s question, with the constructive suggestion that rather than focusing on destroying what they hate, Republicans need to focus on building better alternatives, which shouldn’t be that hard to do. Public health care needs to be arranged in a way that places the emphasis back on local community needs, and on the doctor/patient relationship. He’s probably quite right about that, and Detroit would be the ideal place to start building, from scratch really, a health-care infrastructure based on those principles. While he’s at it he can rebuild the rest of the city’s social service infrastructure in this sort of a way that “puts power back in the hands of the people”.

Republicans have blamed Detroit’s problems on generations of labor union centered Democratic administration. Whether or not that’s a cheap and unfair charge (and I believe it probably is) at this point there’s not much left in terms of entrenched power structures there. The city is ripe for starting over, and rebuilding based on fresh ideas. If there is an idealistic, intelligent and successful black man with a track record of public speaking out about such ideas, who would like to show the world how they would work in practice, Detroit would be just the place for him to do it. In the same Hannity interview he said, ”Part of the problem we’re having right now is that there are a lot of people who lack courage, who always want people to adore them and that just are not willing to take stands based on real convictions.”

Amen! So let’s give him a practical laboratory for putting these educational and economic principles into practice, to show the rest of the country and the world what a difference pride in education and community involvement can make. With the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Detroit, let’s insists on emergency replacement of the city’s managers, with an expedited election of a replacement mayor under the supervision of state and federal emergency managers. Let’s come together behind Dr. Ben Carson as the man for this job, not as another political lawyer but as a man focused on fixing things, to give kids very much like him 50 years ago a chance to develop an awareness of their own potential greatness. Let’s let him put his money where his mouth is, not only in helping individual children with promise, but in terms of administrating substantial reform and renewal.

Carson claims to want to follow his mother’s spiritual leadership model. After ignorantly getting married at just 13 years old to a man of very limited integrity, his mother went on to divorce this shyster and raise two sons as a single mother in a ghetto in the troubled times of the fifties and sixties the best way she knew how: by setting very strict rules and high standards, and not accepting excuses for any form of poor performance. This included strict limitations on television and requirements for regular reading and writing outside of school. During his childhood Carson never actually realized that his mother herself was illiterate.

On this basis Carson really has no excuse for distancing himself from Detroit’s problems. Everything he is, and every value he promotes, finds its starting point and its future relevance in what used to be Motown. The fact that it seems unlikely that he could succeed in of solving Detroit’s problems is all the more reason that he should focus on trying to do so! With so much of his rhetoric focused on not accepting excuses for defeat and not being the prisoner of preconceptions, to be consistent about things he really has to apply these ideals to the city of his birth. He might not be able to get away with bluffing as much as his mother did in insisting on high performance from those under his leadership, but that is no excuse for not believing in himself and his city and not trying. Not to try would be worst form of failure in this case. Carson should know this on the basis of being a doctor rather than a lawyer. Back to his prayer breakfast speech, “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win! By hook or by crook, you gotta win. So you’ve got all of these Democrat lawyers and all these republican lawyers and all their side wants is to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”

I really can see where Detroit doesn’t need more well-meaning white liberals telling it what to do. Detroit needs one of its own –– a kid who grew up poor but somehow made it anyway –– to return and restore a sense of vision, combined with a conviction that none of the little black kids in decaying neighborhoods can be treated as disposable.

So seriously, let’s get a movement started to draft Ben Carson for the job. I know that some of you actually know him. Put this idea to him. Light a fire under him to get him moving on this. Detroit needs him, and the world needs the hope of seeing Detroit rise out of its ashes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Risk taking

My Take on Basic Christian Economic Principles

This week I’ve been reading further into the views of those who claim to want to see government, particularly in the United States, run according to more strictly biblical principles, and in the process I’ve had to plow through some of their particularly distasteful economic theories. I must confess that this has caused me to mutter to myself some particularly un-Christian exclamatives at times, but I believe God has forgiven me. But it occurs to me that rather than simply ranting to myself about these matters and waiting to eventually channel all of my disagreements on such into my dissertation, I should take the trouble here to lay out the basic structure of what it is I disagree with and what I see as a more “godly” and rational approach on the matter. (Warning: This gets rather long and theoretical.)

I have written before here about the problems inherent in an Ayn Rand “objectivist” approach to economic theory, and with assuming that this is in some way compatible with basic Christian doctrine. Rand’s own mistakes did not include assuming that her views were faith-compatible. In fact she was rather dogmatically opposed to being associated with Christianity, or even traditional morality, but that’s rather beside the point. Those who have made “moral issues” their core political rallying cry have rather broadly chosen to associate themselves with laissez faire economic positions reminiscent of Rand –– actually borrowing from Rand far more than they realize: letting the rich decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do to help the poor, and leaving it up to market forces to distribute the bounty that the earth and human ingenuity have to offer. How this came about is a long sad story unto itself, involving more than a little bit of unproven speculation along the way, but the sad fact of the matter is that many have come to think of this laissez faire approach as the “proper Christian position” on economic matters.

ECP coverThe book on the subject that I’ve been trying to finish this week is called “Explicitly Christian Politics,” edited by a guy named Einwechter (1997, Hopeland, PA: Christian Statesman Press). It’s not intellectually heavy reading, but it is somewhat emotionally draining. It’s written by the sort of Calvinists who honestly believe that America would be a finer country and the world would be a better place if they were (literally) allowed to stone gays and adulterers to death. They’re the ones who believe that they have a direct rational understanding of what God wants for humanity based on their interpretation of the bible, and from there their job is to find ways of progressively taking over the culture in order to bring about this divine mandate. “Mainstream” Religious Right representatives who do the actual “king-making” within the US Republican Party these days try to publically distance themselves from this group even more thoroughly than they do from Ayn Rand, but like Rand, this is the sort of material that those in the Religious Right secretly read and occasionally pass on ideas from.

Anyway, between the chapter on taking the Old Testament literally as a source of civil law and the one on eliminating public education (honestly, literally) comes the chapter on the glories and godly mandate of the free market system, written by a fellow named Tom Rose. Like other writers in the book in question, Rose doesn’t bother too much with investigating the historical context of the “proof texts” he quotes from the Bible. That would effectively kill their whole argument. Thus he takes both Psalm 118 about princes (and by extension all government workers) not being trustworthy and Romans 13 about obeying government authorities as God-appointed ministers of the good as being equally normative for Christians today. This schizophrenic premise leaves him to decide where government should be trusted and where it shouldn’t according to the premises of his school of thought: Government should be trusted to protect the property of those who have lots of property to be protected. Government should be trusted to kill off those who we can justifiably label as “evil doers”. Government should not be trusted to protect and provide for the needs of the poor and the outcast.

Rose_TomAs Rose puts it, “God’s purpose in establishing civil government is to foster a climate of peace, godly freedom and honesty so that man’s freedom to act self-responsibly before God is maximized. Such a climate of principled freedom… fosters the free and spontaneous economic interaction of men through mutually beneficial voluntary exchange.”

He goes on from there to claim that, “A spontaneous and dynamic increase in productive economic activity can be observed throughout the world in countries where civil rulers move from state-controlled economies towards free markets.” His list of historical examples of such a dynamic is pretty thin –– limited in fact to Douglas MacArthur’s role as the occupying governor of Japan after World War 2, where after thirteen years he left “as a beloved benefactor because of the godly policies he implemented.” The assertion that the whole reason Japan was doing so well economically in the late twentieth century was because MacArthur established more “godly principles of government” there than their competitors had deserves to be pondered for a moment.

The whole ideal of voluntary cooperation rather than coercive oppression sits rather awkwardly with the Calvinist emphasis on the completely sinful –– totally depraved –– nature of mankind. Other chapters in the book in question emphasize how we need to have threats of capital punishment not only for murder but for “sexual perversion”, juvenile delinquency and other “grievous crimes”; but when it comes to free market exchange somehow we don’t need so many regulations, because we can believe that somehow in this area people are more capable of peaceful cooperation with each other. How can this be? Well, according to Rose this is because “God has instituted [a] deterrent to the general outworking of evil in society… by infusing a self-interested nature in man.”

This deserves yet a longer ponder. The factor that we can trust to protect us against other people’s sinful greed is their self-interest?! The mix of “objectivism” with Calvinism here is getting more than a little funky.

From there Rose turns to the authority of the nineteenth century French nobleman economist, Frederick Bastiat. He quotes Bastiat as saying, “[M]en will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work… It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work.”

Rose misses the historical irony of this entirely. Bastiat was only able to write these words by excusing himself from working life through what Marx later termed “control of the means of production.” Bastiat was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and with great luck and moderate skill he managed to maintain his bite on that spoon for all of his 49-year life. In the latter half of that life, after his parents and grandparents had died, he gave up all pretense of economic productivity, hiring others to manage his family holdings for him and dedicating his time to theorizing as to why the revolutionary forces of his day should not be allowed to curtail or restrict the means by which he maintained his privileged lifestyle. So for Bastiat to have preached that the government’s job is to limit the extent to which people take the easy way out of working life involved a fair amount of hypocrisy to say at the least.

But taking Bastiat’s perspective as godly wisdom, Rose goes on to argue that the “misuse of government power” needs to be prevented in the forms of:

  • Minimum wage and price control legislation
  • Licensing laws limiting access to particular professions
  • Market restriction mechanisms such as tariffs
  • Government support for businesses and for the poor and needy.

hegel50In condemning these practices he sites G.W.F. Hegel as a prime example of ungodly thinking in social policy: “He [Hegel] viewed men as having social rights rather than God-given rights, and he viewed the state as the entity that prescribed rights and duties… This is an excellent picture of what many modern humanist-oriented states… have devolved into… as they have deviated from God’s clear instructions that rulers are limited in power by the guidelines God has laid down in the Bible.” One of his co-authors puts it, cynically rephrasing Job’s lament, the Hegelian position is that “The State giveth and the State taketh away. Blessed be the name of the State.” Whereas in the “proper order of things” mankind is supposed seize dominion over available resources (as justified by Genesis 1:28) and only God is allowed to take from those who have those who have so seized to give to those in need.

The selective way in which Rose trusts in the virtue of mankind and in the function of government –– with the self-interest of those in positions of economic power being the primary exception to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity that he follows –– makes me uneasy for reasons beyond its intellectual inconsistency, its blind fideism and its similarities with “objectivism”. In terms of encouraging innovation, hard work, creativity and social harmony I just don’t see such a system as stable and workable in the long term. The idea that extreme economic polarization can be anything other than harmful to society strikes me as absurd, and the idea that whatever wealth a person is able to seize needs to be treated as his “divine right” even more so. But lest I be labelled as a Marxist or some other form of heretic than what I am, I should follow this up by taking the trouble to lay out my own basic views on wealth and its proper distribution in line with my religious and ideological commitments. Take what follows for what it’s worth. I only ask that if you slap some sort of label on my ideas you do so without associating me with those who would not want to be associated with my ideas.

Essentially I would define wealth primarily as the capacity to acquire important forms of happiness for oneself. This too goes back to my “Five Cs” theory that I was talking about here again last month: Happiness basically comes by way of comparison, comfort, control, confidence and/or connection. Most often wealth is defined in terms of control: the power to get others to do what you want them to, or give you what you want to have, by paying them enough to make it worth their while. As important as that part of it is, I wouldn’t limit it to that. Nor would I want to determine who is truly wealthy merely on the basis of how much they have in the bank. I could go on about this matter of definition for a couple pages, but I suspect that most of you get my point.

So on the basis of this definition then, I would say that there are essentially seven basic categories for means of wealth acquisition –– three which need to be protected for the economy to remain functional, two which are to be permitted as mostly harmless in most cases but not defended as essential rights, and two which need to be prevented as much as possible by people taking collective action against them.

Means of acquiring wealth to be protected:

The Commons:  The most basic factor in maintaining life and happiness is being able to freely have access to “what God has given” without government and corporate interests blocking this access. This would include basic fresh air, sunshine, companionship and many other important resources, which actually vary from place to place and culture to culture. Here in Finland my “commons” rights include the right to freely go out into the forest and pick blueberries this month, so long as I don’t destroy other people’s possibilities of doing the same. No one is allowed to establish a monopoly on the bounty that nature provides in this regard, and there are legal restrictions over anyone attempting to do so. The same applies in Finnish law regarding simple hook-and-line fishing (at least in areas where the fish haven’t been stocked as part of a professional service to be paid for). More efficient means of gathering fish, reducing the amount available for other common folk, does require a license here, but the simple system I used to catch three big breams last month is fully covered under “everyman’s rights” here.

june2013 030Obviously not every country can guarantee free access to fish and summer berries for all of its residents, but variations on the same principle apply in all places. When Gandhi was fighting to protect the common rights of the people of India against the abuses of the British Empire he did so by collecting salt from the ocean, in defiance of unjust laws monopolizing production in that commodity. The law he was breaking was unjust, not because salt per se is something that every person in the world has a natural right to, but because the attempt to monopolize a freely available natural resource is inherently unjust. Every person should have a right to the plenteous natural resources of their local environment, providing they don’t exclude the same right for others in the process. In theological terms, these resources are God’s gift to all mankind, not just to the greedy and the powerful.

One item that I believe should be included in this category very generally, but which I realize might not be fully applicable in all areas of the world still today, is access to clean drinking water. But even if there are cases where there isn’t enough clean water freely available to fully meet the needs of the local population, I believe that the rights of the common person to a just share of what resources there are is a far higher moral priority than enabling those who would commercially exploit this resource to turn a higher profit. In brutally concrete terms, no child in arid lands should have to die of dehydration because Coca-Cola or one of its competitors owns rights to the primary regional water supplies. I believe that the blocking or monopolizing of access to such basic resources for purposes of increasing the power of the powerful is fundamentally immoral, and one of the chief tasks of government is to protect access to such basic commodities for all of the people of the nation.

Productive labor:  Many of the things which contribute to our overall thriving and sense of happiness cannot be freely gathered; they have to be produced, indirectly or directly by human effort. In this regard people need to be encouraged and rewarded for producing means by which others can maintain life and build their personal happiness, which can in turn be exchanged for the sort of goods and services that enable the laborer to keep pursuing his or her own preferred forms of happiness in life.

garment factorySometimes this process gets incredibly complicated and abstract. In fact the vast majority of productive laborers these days perform the sort of tasks that play some small hidden role in complex processes of providing happiness for others, which they cannot take out onto the open market and sell to the highest bidder, as libertarians would like us to believe that they can. Someone who has worked for over a decade at some simple basic task –– like sewing the size tags into t-shirts that I might buy –– plays a very minor but recognizable role in my day-to-day happiness, that I indirectly pay for; but I am not in a position to make sure that what I pay for the service she provides to me actually reaches her, and she is not in any position to individually negotiate with the factory manager to make sure she gets a fair price for her role in contributing to my happiness. Thus there need to be collective mechanisms in place to protect the rights of individual workers to fair compensation for their efforts. Sometimes this needs to be done by trade unions; other times, by government agencies. The important thing is to insure that those who play a role in productive processes get enough back out of it so that those processes which are truly important to our collective happiness are able to keep going without treating those who enable them as disposable.

The form of happiness that these efforts contribute to can me many and varied, but I would tie them to my five pet categories still: helping us feel like we can favorably compare ourselves with others (comparison), helping our basic biological processes to function smoothly and enjoyably (comfort), enabling us to feel like we’re somehow in charge of our own lives and able to influence things beyond ourselves (control), feeling like we’re somehow making the world a better place (confidence), and/or having a sense of being part of someone or something beyond the confines of one’s own skin (connection). Some of these are more important than others in the big scheme of things. Some are more dependent than others on the goods and services we are able to acquire from other people. In many cases we all try to get as much as we can from others while offering as little in return as we can get away with… unless we stop to consider those we are interacting with as important individuals unto themselves. Then it becomes important to my happiness to keep those others from being abused, and I am even willing to pay others to help protect them from abuse, including by way of trying to hire government officials that share my priorities in this regard. In fact I believe that having this sense of connection with others –– loving our neighbors as ourselves –– is at the core of all Christian economic ethics, properly understood.

Distributing goods: Besides the process of producing the items and services needed to preserve life and enable happiness for all of us, there is also the challenge of getting the commodities in question to those who want and need them. In the ever-increasingly complex world in which we live this action within the economy takes on a greater and greater role all the time. Those who play important roles in the distribution of means of happiness include merchants, delivery personnel (drivers, sailors, pilots, dock workers…), broadcasters, publishers, bankers, business managers, salespersons, secretaries, advertising agents, talent agents, literary agents, travel agents, purchasing agents, tax collectors, librarians… The list is really endless. Without such people, I must admit, the computer on which I’m writing this, the particular room in which I am sitting, the food in my refrigerator and the clothes currently on my back probably never would have become available to me.

gerrits milk cartThese people are actually not spoken of to any significant extent in the Bible, or in the Qur’an for that matter, because those books were written in a logistically far simpler time: as a rule producers of goods did their own marketing and delivery, like my great-grandfather’s milk business still a century ago. Capitalism, industrialism and consumerism hadn’t really become social phenomena worth mentioning yet. To the extent that such people are mentioned in scripture the comments made about them are generally not that favorable. It is fair to say that for all of the abuses inherent within these developments though, they have increased our overall freedom, our personal safety, our lifespans and our sense of brotherhood and interconnection with people all over the world. Thus it would be fair to say that on the balance these post-scriptural structural developments have been a good thing for the world. But like all new cultural and technological developments, these complex means of distributing goods and services need to be carefully regulated.

Those who come between the t-shirt sower and myself enable her work to benefit me and my money to benefit her, but they more often than not charge me far more for bringing the fruits of her labor to me and demand more from her in turn for the pay they give her than is necessarily justifiable. More than a few people have gotten obscenely rich not by making anything that increases the happiness of others but by controlling the extent to which those who actually produce useful commodities have access to the fruit of each other’s labor –– more often than not exponentially increasing the prices paid in the exchange. By enabling more extensive trade many of these middle men earn their money fairly quite fairly, so it’s not fair to label all of them as crooks, but enough of them are crooked and abusive so that government has a major role to play in keeping a watch on these middle men and preventing them from abusing their power. It’s not enough to have nominal competition between distribution services; there needs to be an oversight system with more power than even the biggest business interest, answerable directly to the people in need of the protection.

Of all the people who cry foul when their extreme wealth is taxed by the government, those who acquired this wealth by more than quadrupling the prices consumers pay to the producers of particular services have the least right to complain. When these businesses become bigger and more powerful than the governments whose job it is to keep their abuses in check then we’re all in trouble. This is a situation that the writers of scripture never would have imagined, but which they certainly would have condemned if they could have seen it.

Means of acquiring wealth to be permitted

Gleaning: The Bible’s book of Ruth is actually the most touching religious love story that I know of. It is based primarily on the principle of gleaning: poor people being allowed to pick up the leftover products of mass-production. In particular if there was a poor girl who didn’t have enough to eat, she could freely go around to big farms after all of the produce had been harvested and pick up what scraps there were left in the fields for her own needs. As it happened in the story of Ruth a rich farmer happened to fall in love with a girl he noticed gleaning in his fields in just this way.

Book_of_Ruth_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Unlike rights to “the commons” mentioned above, gleaning involves taking advantage of other people’s labor without paying them for it. This is justifiable only in the case where it’s actually not costing the producer anything for the poor person to take advantage of his work. Those who build careers as abusive middle men would argue that in a market economy this is never the case: if anyone gets anything that they would otherwise have to buy for free, it drives the market price down and that in turn decreases the return to the producer (or more likely, to the middle men). There are many cases, however, where this amounts to nothing more than excessive greed. This is particularly relevant to the defense of “intellectual property.” It is one thing to prevent someone from the Far East to steal the ideas in question and flooding the market with knock-off copies of the product –– whatever it is –– thus preventing the innovative thinker from getting any substantial reward for his/her ideas. It is quite another thing for someone who has already profited handsomely from an idea he has come up with to prevent poor children in India or Africa –– who never would have been able to pay for the use of the idea in any case –– to freely benefit from the idea being “out there” once a fair and motivating amount of money has been made on it. Gleaning plays an important and respected role in biblical economics. Not shutting down gleaning operations out of pure greed to maximize middle man profits is a distinctly ungodly way of doing business.

CrapsTableOldGambling: Another means of acquiring wealth is through various variations on games of chance. These games can easily become dangerously addictive and economically destructive to those who make a habit out of playing them, and as such they are broadly discouraged by moralists of many sorts, but in fact the Bible has surprisingly little to say directly against such practices, as long as they are conducted with a modicum of honesty. For many businessmen this is a good thing, because what they are doing in the process of “playing the market” amounts to little more than gambling with other people’s money. This process is morally acceptable as long as all of those whose money is being wagered are fully informed about how the game works and what their risks are. What is not acceptable is when these folks lose their bets and then expect the government to bail them out, especially when they are not willing to surrender any of their previous dishonest “winnings” in the process. Those who have paid even the slightest attention to what the Occupy movements of the past decade have been saying don’t need me to explain this situation to them though, and the rest probably aren’t interested in understanding it any further, so I’ll move on.

Means of acquiring wealth to be forbidden

Enslavement of others: There are biblical precedents for allowing slavery, but there is a universal moral outcry these days against allowing such practices to continue. In fact the most honorable thing do be done in the name of Christianity in the past few centuries was the movement to abolish the slave trade worldwide. The problem is that many still don’t take the risk of enslavement that many face –– and the moral equivalent of enslavement for the working poor –– as serious moral issues. Any form of employment which treats human beings as disposable production apparatuses –– not paying them at least enough to cover the housing, nutritional and medical expenses for a small family, so that “the bosses” are able to get richer off of selling the products of their labor –– is dehumanizing and immoral, and their need to be laws to prevent such de-facto enslavement. If customers aren’t willing to pay enough for a particular product so that there’s enough money being made off of it to provide a livable wage to all of those making the product in question, then the economy would probably be better off without the wasteful exercise of producing such valueless garbage. That excuse aside, there is no real justification for legally allowing businesses, especially within “developed countries”, to disregard the standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with regard to their employees’ basic dignity. A fortiori, we need to forbid the import of products that are made by explicit slave labor, or under conditions that result in the unnecessary death and blatant de-humanization of people in third world countries, regardless of how many powerful men within our societies are benefiting from such practices.

Plunder by means of deception and non-democratic force: Regardless of Bastiat’s hypocrisy in saying so, it is true that if people have an alternative to working (contributing to the happiness of others in order to have something to fairly exchange for the means of gaining happiness they expect others to provide them with) that gives them the same personal benefits for less of an effort, they will frequently take advantage of such an alternative. For some short-sighted individuals various forms of legalized gambling seem like the best means of avoiding work. For many, however, there are convenient forms of cheating and bullying available to them that involve less effort than honest work, and less risk than the various gambling rackets. These include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, extortion, armed robbery, burglary, kidnapping, hijacking, con schemes, resource monopolization and blackmail. It is part of the essential role of government to protect citizens against such abuses at the hands of their immoral neighbors. This much should be obvious.

This would not, however, include democratic institutional structures requiring higher tax contributions from those who have benefitted most extensively from the societal structure for the maintenance of that structure and for the protection of the most disadvantaged within that structure. Regardless of what libertarians and “objectivists” have to say about the subject, democratically regulated wealth redistribution for the basic protection and stabilization of the society in which that wealth was generated does not count as plunder. To equate the rich in modern industrialized countries having to pay over 25% in taxes with the guillotining of the French aristocracy and the nationalization of their property back in Bastiat’s time is more than a little absurd –– especially when that income so often comes not from working in the sense of contributing to the thriving of others, but from blatantly “working the system”.


So if we are going to try to manage national economies according to genuinely Christian principles, I strongly believe that these are the ones we have to be prioritizing. If you believe we should manage economies strictly on the basis of Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest theory and as Dickens’ Scrooge said, allow the poor to die off to decrease the surplus population, I can respect your intelligence but not your morality. If you believe that the best interests of the poor are really served by allowing the rich and powerful free reign in operating according to their own self-interest, I can respect your moral intent but not your intelligence. I deeply and sincerely respect the intelligence of some who disagree with me on this matter, and the moral integrity of others, but I find it very difficult to respect both. Feel free to attempt to change my mind on the matter.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion

Syrup Season

Every school day morning for the past few weeks I’ve cycled to work over ice that‘s just starting to melt in the sun, and every afternoon I’ve returned over slush that is just starting to solidify, with irregular solid chunks of ice buried within. So far I’ve managed to avoid any significant injury or equipment damage in the process. It’s hard to get really frustrated with the conditions even, as they are the surest sign of spring that we’ve got here at the moment.

wannabe syrup

wannabe syrup

The other happy thought that keeps me going these days is that these are prime conditions for doing maple syrup. Relatively few people outside the northeast United States, where I grew up, seem to be aware of this important cultural activity. Around the world there are products labeled as “Maple (flavored) Syrup”. But few seem to have any clear idea of where the real thing comes from, when and how it is produced.

To get good maple syrup you need to have the right sort of trees growing in the coldest possible area. The trees need to be good and hopelessly dead for some months of the year for the process to work. If they aren’t frozen up solid on the top during the winter, you won’t get any decent syrup making sap out of them. Then once they have suffered enough, and they become desperate enough to make leaves to gather what energy they can during the summer, you need the sort of weather that cruelly teases them for a while. So in the morning they need to feel warm enough in the sun where they start saying to themselves, “Yes! We can live with this!” and they start shooting all sorts of energy-rich sap up into the branches to start making leaves. But then later in the afternoon it starts to get cold again, the trees start to think un-Christian thoughts about the weather again, and they start to suck their sap back down into the roots where it won’t suffer from the solid freeze coming again that night… only to be fooled again the same way the next day.

The earlier in the season you manage to get some sort of inter-venous tap into the tree to collect some of this energy rich life blood of the maple tree, the more pure sugar water it contains. There’s something particularly sweet about the trees’ time of innocence each spring, when they have their first few dozen false alarms about spring having come. Eventually though a woody cynicism starts to set in, and rather than just sugar water the tree starts sending up more of its deeper brown earthy wisdom as to the disappointments this world has to offer. Eventually the sap becomes too dark and woody for commercial syrup production, and the season comes to an end, leaving the trees to make their leaves and do their best to thrive in peace. The sap is then boiled down to the desired thickness, bottled up and stored for special occasions or shipped off to be sold to those who appreciate the finer things in life.

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

So there are actually an infinite number of grades of syrup to be had from any given patch of maple trees on any given year. Some connoisseurs particularly like the lightest, sweetest, most innocent syrup from the early season; others prefer the darker, more distinctively “mapley” flavor of later season syrups. In Europe and in more southern climates, however, you can’t really shop around much for finer grades and better years of syrup. You take what you can find and you’re thankful for it!

The Finns do something similar to maple syrup from birch sap in the spring, but it’s not as sweet and it has a pretty powerful laxative effect, so it can’t be appreciated as freely as the classic North American confection. I would image it would be rather easy to grow sugar maples in this part of the world, but to the best of my knowledge no one has done it with any noteworthy success; and with all of the problems that have come with other tree species that have been transplanted around the world, it could well be illegal to try. Besides, it takes close to a man’s lifetime before a sugar maple tree even starts to provide a significant amount of tappable sap in the spring. It takes a pretty old forest to really make it worthwhile.


Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Now buried within this philosophical acceptance of, and sentimental appreciation for, the current time of year, there are far more analogous lessons for life than I can even begin to tease out for you. I’ll just quickly note some of the basic understandings that all this brings to mind for me:

  • The sweetest things in life only come through difficulties and disappointments. 
  • Sometimes naïve hope is worth expressing even if it does end up getting frustrated. 
  • Not everyone can appreciate it, but the unique character that comes out of repeatedly facing difficulties without giving up –– the darker aspects of what comes out of us –– are part of the unique character that makes us special. 
  • When you move on to new adventures in life you can’t always take all of the best of your old experiences with you, but you can bring some little taste of them along, enriching the lives of those you meet along the way in the process. 
  • You need to be careful how you go about replacing things you start to miss. 
  • Every season has its purpose, its beauties and its rewards. 
  • When it comes to changing the world for the better, we need to remember that sometimes the process takes longer than what would allow us to appreciate the fruits of our own labors. 
  • Some of our best intentions may have unpredictable consequences, and sometimes when we are not able to realize our ambitions that might actually turn out to be a good thing.

With those things in mind, let me go on to say to those I know in New England, New York, Michigan and southeastern Canada in particular, count your blessings, friends!

People in other parts of the world have their own special blessings about which you can understand little from where you sit, but your own blessings are something special. Like everyone, you are able to experience some of these blessings due to your own persistence and hard work in life, but there are other aspects which have nothing to do with your merit and everything to do with random factors working in your favor, or your good fortune to be able to harvest what those who came long before you have cultivated. Enjoy your freedom and blessings in tapping into the bounty that surrounds you then, always being careful to protect the trees and keep this wonderful blessing going for those who come after you.

Those too are ideas worth pondering for their broader implications.

And if any of you find it in your hearts to send or bring me some of your early to mid-season syrup, I will do what is in my power to arrange blessings in return on your lives.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Freedom, Happiness, Travel

A Vision of Economic Justice

Sitting and reading the most recent papal encyclical that I am aware of, Caritas in Veritate, I was suddenly flooded with thoughts about “Christian perspectives” on economic issues that have crossed my mind in recent months.  Let me see if I can put some of them together as a coherent personal statement on the matter.

bcarsonI recently read that Dr. Ben Carson has thrown his hat into the ring in terms of Republican presidential politics for the next round three years from now. I really wish I could support him. He is one of the world’s best brain surgeons, literally, and one of the children whose lives he may have saved with this skill is my half-sister. He is a gentle, likeable, funny, immanently confident black man who rose up from a significantly disadvantaged background to be the very best in his chosen field without becoming a total jerk in the process. He also makes no secret of the fact that his Christian faith is a source of personal strength for him, keeping his perspective on life grounded in something beyond his own genius and ambition; which I consider to be a major plus for anyone I’d support as a world leader. But alas, in the prayer breakfast where he set out to launch this political career he began by promoting the idea of a flat tax as opposed to progressive taxation. That says he’s become more concerned with the economic interests of his fellow surgeons than those of single mothers like the one who raised him. In some ways it’s not surprising that he’s more interested in where he has arrived at than where he comes from in that regard, but it still shows a lack of understanding of social justice of the sort I consider necessary for a political leader to grasp before they will get my support.

Nicolas Wolterstorff has pointed out that there are effectively three perspectives that we can take towards poor people in general politically, philosophically and theologically, all of which can have some legitimacy under certain circumstances: First we can consider them to be inherently lazy, not making a strong enough effort to achieve the level of success that so many self-made millionaires have as inventors, entrepreneurs, sports heroes and scientists. If they don’t have what they want and need it’s largely their own fault, and we should give them a swift kick in the seat of the pants to get them moving.

Secondly, we might consider poor people to be just tragically unfortunate, in the same way as someone born blind, or someone going through some of the sorts of disasters that the biblical character Job experienced. Some forms of misfortune just can’t be morally accounted for, and attempts to do so tend to make asses out of those offering the explanations. A case in point is when evangelist/politician Pat Robertson tried to explain the natural disasters that have hit Haiti in recent years as the result of their use of Voodoo religious practices in the process of their struggle for independence from France. If you need an explanation of what is wrong with that, look here; I’m not going to try to explain it beyond confirming that Robertson did indeed make an ass of himself. The proper response in such cases of misfortune should range from relatively helpless empathy to significant efforts at charitable assistance. This, however, is based on the assumption that we don’t actually owe the misfortunate persons anything; we only do so out of the goodness of our hearts, and we can refuse such aid to them if they are not doing as we expect them to.

A third perspective towards the poor, however, is that of many of the early church fathers and the teachings of the gospels: of those to whom much is given, much is justifiably expected, including helping the poor as a matter of duty. As Basil of Caesarea is quoted as saying, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” 

John Rawls is labeled as one of the most major bad guys of the last generation among those of America’s “Religious Right” these days, mostly because he claimed that political argument should not be based on religious premises, but rather on ideas that any reasonable person could be expected to appreciate, regardless of his or her religious or ideological perspective. This anti-religious political perspective, however, is somewhat a separate matter from Rawls’ economic ideals, which in fact have more than a little bit to do with his training for Christian priesthood before he went through a bit of a crisis of faith as a soldier in World War 2. The conclusions Rawls comes to in his post-Christian perspective is undeniably a bit radical by most other standards than those of the early church fathers: Rawls preaches that the only human inequalities which should be allowed are those which cause society to function better to the extent that even the poorest of the poor are better off as a result. In other words if someone is going to remain significantly richer than others, in order for that person to be allowed to keep those advantages over others he must show how allowing him to be rich is not only good for him, but good for the poor as well.

So for instance Dr. Carson is considerably richer than I will ever be, but allowing him to be so provides a dependable means of paying off the expenses that medical geniuses like him inevitably incur in the process of developing their skill for the good of all, and it provides an incentive for other bright young kids, even those in the ghettos, to work on following in his footsteps. So from Rawls’ perspective it is perfectly justifiable for the surgeon to have significantly more income than, say, the garbage collector, or the philosophy teacher even.  But ideally this advantage should go no further than what is necessary to enable future Dr. Carsons to achieve the sort of greatness we all benefit from. If it is enough to secure these benefits for the rest of society for him to earn fifty times as much as the cleaning lady, there is no justification for him to earn hundreds of times more than the cleaning lady; the difference should only go as far as is necessary to secure the benefits for all that the inequality enables.

popeinsider_640That may sound more than a bit leftist to many who, from a “Christian” perspective consider the ghost of Communism to be a serious threat to watch out for, but in fact the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI was in many regards more explicitly leftist still in his personal economic theory. To lift a few quotes from his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth):

“The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which farms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. ‘The scandal of glaring inequalities’ continues” (part 21).

“These processes [outsourcing and cheap labor competition] have led to a downsizing of social security systems […] with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. […] The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine […] for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past” (part 25).

“The dignity of the individual and the demands of Justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…

“Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness hinder the achievement of lasting development” (part 32).

“Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (part 36).

“Economic life […]needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift” (part 37).

“Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders –– namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society […] Paul VI [in the 1967 encyclical, Populorum Proggressio, “The progress of peoples”] invited people to give serious attention to the damage that can be caused to one’s home country by the transfer abroad of capital purely for personal advantage. […] [T]he requirements of justice must be safeguarded, with due consideration for the way in which the capital was generated and the harm to individuals that will result if it is not used where it was produced” (part 40).

“The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. […] In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences” (part 41).

“The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future” (part 49).

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all” (part 60).

“Both the regulation of the financial sector […] and experimentation with new forms of finance, designed to support development projects, are positive experiences that should be further explored and encouraged” (part 65).

“…there is urgent need of a true world political authority […which] would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties” (part 67).

“Only if we are aware of our calling as individuals and as a community[…] will we be able to […] muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism” (part 78).

So in case you missed it, the retiring pope’s political and economic ideal involves a one world socialist government of sorts, capable of controlling all existing states and with the power to socialize the industrial utilization of all non-renewable natural resources, with the ultimate goal of implementing significant programs of wealth redistribution! This isn’t some conspiracy theory I’ve dreamed up to scare American conservatives; this is a basic summary of the pope’s own words, quoted above. Now in between stating portions of this utopian vision within this encyclical Benedict comes out with statements against abortion and in favor of church involvement in politics that American conservatives have been quoting from it as part of their political campaigns. In the broader context though what he was saying about abortion is that it is a reflection of the evil within parts of society that are not properly submitted to Church doctrine, which in turn prevents his vision of a just international socialist government from being realized in our age. I doubt that many of my social and fiscal conservative Catholic friends have caught the drift of this message.

Now we have a new pope, who so far seems to be signaling a much stronger emphasis on the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the first pope to have taken the name Francis, for the saint who is known for remaining close to the earth and identifying with the poor. In Argentina he made some of the strongest statements against income disparity of any Catholic bishop since the fifth century. And he may have yet more to prove in that area: In rejecting Latin American Liberation Theology as the authentic voice of the church speaking for the poor, he still has to show that the “mainstream” Catholic Church can take up their cause without taking an explicitly Marxist line in the process. So rather than de-emphasizing these international socialist elements of his predecessor’s teaching, there seems to be every likelihood that Francis I will emphasize them all the more.

There is one quasi-Marxist idea that this encyclical hints at that I fully support however: the link between wealth and labor. Rather than going through historical background and comparison with Benedict’s position on this one though, let me just state what I believe on the subject. Wealth is standardly measured these days in terms of standardized currencies –– money –– which in turn is a purely symbolic implement, deriving its value from what people are willing to give you or do for you in exchange for a given quantity of it. The things that they might give you for some of your money in turn derive most of their value from the effort and skill that went into obtaining the necessary materials and producing the “things” in question. So wealth has less to do with “stuff,” and more to do with the amount of human ingenuity and labor available. The more skilled people you have in the world, the greater the available wealth. Finding enough of the basic “stuff” to work with to produce wealth requires a certain amount of specialized skill these days, but that places no set limit on how much total wealth we can have in the world. As long as we can maintain stable economic interaction between members of a growing pool of skilled producers, we can have a continued growth in wealth.

Rather than scarcity of resources then, the biggest threats to the continued expansion of wealth in the world –– as defined above –– are lack of education and radical inequality between the people involved in economic interaction. Thus I come down strongly in favor of increased investment in public education, based on building investigative and human interactive skills, and putting some functional regulations in place which limit the process of economic polarization within local, national and global economies.

I have my own radical proposal in this regard; not as radical as the pope’s, but radical none the less. I have heard the famous professor of psychology, Howard Gardner, make a similar suggestion to what I have in mind, but I wouldn’t blame my radical ideas on him. If anyone deserves blame it would have to be the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When they first built this hippie company they had a rule that the top executive could earn no more than seven times as much as the company’s lowest paid employee. Of course they have long since sold out on that one, but the principle still has some merit to it: we need to set some sort of limit in terms of just how much disparity we are willing to accept in our societies and in the world.

Obviously some disparity will remain necessary, as Rawls even has pointed out. In the name of freedom we may even want to allow a bit more disparity that Rawls’ rule would give us, but once we get to the point where some people are getting literally millions of times more than those who work for them, we’re talking about people not even recognizing each other as part of the same species any more. Somewhere in there we have to draw a line as to how much disparity we are morally ready to accept; somewhere greater than the original Ben & Jerry’s factor of seven and somewhat less than the current problem a factor of millions.

As a reasonable starting point for negotiations on such matters then I’d toss out a figure of a factor of a thousand. I don’t think economic motivation requires that anyone would be earning more than a thousand times as much as they are paying others whose skills and labor they are purchasing. If there’s someone out there who can’t be satisfied with a thousand times as much as other human beings have to subsist on, that person is probably too emotionally dysfunctional to play a positive role in human society to begin with. So I’d start with a progressive system of taxation that has a maximum bracket of 50% on the super-rich, up to a maximum of 2000 times the national minimum wage. That would effectively allow the most rich to be taking in 1000 times as much as the working poor.  From that point a 100% national income tax on all income exceeding the 2000 times minimum wage would kick in, so of course no one would be motivated to try to earn more than that. And of course every time the minimum wage would go up, the income ceiling for the ultra-rich would go up as well. If further motivation and means of competition between billionaires is necessary at that point, this can be provided in terms of added contractual benefits, such as armies of personal assistants, access to luxury corporate facilities or contractually required corporate donations on behalf of the valued individual to the charities of his or her choice.

So for instance let’s say that the basic salary of a full-time minimum wage burger flipper some day comes to $20,000 per year, and there is a basketball star whose presence on any given team is capable of boosting that team’s corporate income by over $80 million per year. That’s not entirely unrealistic.  Under the sort of law I’d propose no team could offer that player more than half as much as he would be worth to them, so how would they set about bidding for his services in the market?  Dozens of ways: offering him personal limousine and private jet services, putting members of his family and peer group on staff, sponsoring various young artists of the player’s choosing, building and operating a sports hall in his name in his old home town, building a health clinic in his honor in some needy part of the developing world… The same “perks” could be offered to others who bring in more than such an anti-disparity cap would allow in personal income: bankers, brokers, rock stars, inventors, designers… Rather than trying to further out-do each other in ostentation, they would be pressured to try and out-do each other in philanthropy and in solidarity with broader sections of humanity.

Expanding this rule to apply to all those who would do business within the country would be another step. Companies outsourcing to countries where workers are paid less than a thousandth of the top executives’ pay would be subject to heavy enough fines to keep this practice from being profitable. Heavy tariffs could be levied against any imported product produced by workers making less than a thousandth of what the corporate executives involved in the transaction are making, thus providing a strong incentives to raise miners’ and factory workers’ wages in developing countries. International inspections to improve compliance with such rules would also have the added benefit of drastically reducing problems of covert slavery and child labor abuses in poorer parts of the world. Not only would this go a long ways toward reducing human suffering in such places, it would enable far more young people to get an education and thus increase their capacity and opportunities to contribute to wealth creation that benefits all of us in the long-term.

All of this would be part of a process of recognizing that we really are all part of the same human race, that we are in many real senses part of each other, and that radical predatory selfishness is never a good idea, especially in the long term.

I’m not utopian enough to believe that any globally important politicians will read this essay and pick up the ball and run with it any time soon. I’d be surprised if any representatives of those with vested interests in the status quo would even pay enough attention to this essay to bother attacking my ideas. I toss them out for what they’re worth, with hopes that maybe someday they might play some marginal role in making the world a better place. Here’s hoping together with any of you who share such ideals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Empathy, Ethics, Religion

Artificial Protein


A few years back some Chinese businessmen were given the death penalty for a business decision they made. This was a highly unusual practice, but in fairness it was a highly unusual business decision they were being punished for. They put industrial poison into baby formula to fool those who were chemically testing the formula into believing that it had a higher protein content than it actually did. (The chemical protein check in turn was in place because the watering down of baby formula had been putting certain Chinese infants at risk of starvation.)

I remember this story every time I hear about efforts to boost GDPs, productivity levels, consumer spending levels, employment statistics and other indicators of the health of our economies. If the economic powers that be can make those sorts of numbers look better by pumping more poisons into our societies, is anyone going to stop them?

Five years ago General Motors was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, together with a number of other concerns that were considered “too big to fail”, but GM was a particularly poignant case. For years they had operated on the basis of an assumption that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Well, what was good for GM for a long time was to make lots of luxury cars and muscle cars that burned roughly 3 times as much fuel as necessary for their functional purposes (even with the technology available in the 1950s and 60s), and to convince Americans that they were more “successful” and “prestigious” if they drove such machines. That in turn created many jobs: making larger highways, bigger parking lots and plenty more tires and spare parts for these symbols of success. But this major component of American economic growth was consequentially forcing people to work harder for things they didn’t need, in order to enable those at the top to get conspicuously richer; justifying the process by making the economy look much better for on paper. The fact that this created industrial pollution problems, a dependence on imported oil and millions of unnecessary deaths in car accidents was… just part of the price of success for the US.

What was good for General Motors...

What was good for General Motors…

In many ways that’s like saying that the deaths of 6 children and the serious illness of 300,000 others was just an inevitable side effect of efforts to set up a program to nourish millions of babies as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.

Capitalist profit motives and open product competition –– even image based product marketing –– can be useful means of providing us with access to many life-enhancing and satisfaction providing tools and toys, but it doesn’t follow from there to say that the more profitable such systems are, the happier everyone will be. There needs to be a means of enforcing responsibility on those who endanger and callously destroy the lives of others in order to increase their own power and prestige. There also needs to be a more serious conversation about what added economic activity leads to a genuinely higher quality of life for all, and what amounts to corporate interests manipulating people into destroy themselves and each other for purposes of improving the corporate bottom line. I won’t bother to catalog them, but when we stop to soberly examine the situation there are in fact clear cases of both.

This comes to mind whenever I see sound bite-sized opinion posts like the one by Robert Reich which I saw this week,  stating that “it’s vitally important that our politicians in Washington not lose sight of the single most important issue: jobs and the economy.”  On some levels I agree, but on others it is just begging for someone to dump more “Chinese protein powder” into the economy: to give people tasks to do for the sake of giving them tasks to do, actually harming them rather than providing them with opportunities for growth and advancement in the process.

When we’re talking about economic problems and a risk of meltdown in the global economy, what are we really worried about? More of the poorest of the poor starving and dying than is currently the case? Not really. In fact many forms of economic growth that could create jobs and provide more tools and toys for western consumers may do so at the expense of the environment in ways that could lead to even more vulnerable populations facing mass starvation as a result. And selling our “lifestyle” crap to developing countries is likely to be good for western businesses, but not particularly helpful for the consumers themselves. Not that anyone in corporate America is losing much sleep over that.

Are we worried about more people dying on American streets for lack of access to food, shelter or medical care? Or is our concern for the mentally ill running around untreated, endangering their own lives and those around them? Actually, I doubt it. I believe the US has come pretty close to bottoming out on that one already. I don’t see how, short of a revolution engineered by the “Citizens United” crowd that eliminates any pretense of a representative democracy, the ultra-wealthy can become any further insulated against problems around them, protected by a government operating strictly in their interest, while the poorest within the nation increasingly starve and die of preventable problems. We look back now at the human rights abuses that occurred in the early phases of the industrial revolution and we shudder to see how disposable children were considered to be within western societies. I can’t see us going back to those sorts of values. Thus the role of government in caring for the disadvantaged and vulnerable really can’t get much smaller, and if it doesn’t the physical risks for the poor within the US can’t really get much greater than it already is. Call me naïve, but I really think that going back to the bad old days on that one is now off the table.

So are we worried about running out of the most basic material resources needed to feed, house and care for our population? Not so much that either. There is plenty of food being produced to keep everyone fed, and there is plenty of plastic available to construct the various physical items needed to make clothing, shelter, transport equipment, etc. We’re really not at risk of running out of stuff. The risk is more in terms of our systems for determining who is entitled to which stuff becoming even less functional. That could lead to some nasty power struggles in which everyone makes sure that everyone else suffers.

If there’s a significant issue with employment statistics themselves, it has to do with the long-term stability of a system which keeps the current de facto wage slaves in their slavery voluntarily, with hopes that someday they too will become masters. If they give up on that, seeing that no matter what they do they will never get ahead, the system which enables the rich to perpetually keep getting richer starts to break down.

At this point then Marxists will say, “Fine. Let it.” But if it does there is a certain risk that all of our surplus stuff might cease to exist –– not such an immediate risk, but a risk none the less. The greater risk is that it will bring our technological advancement to a halt: the future will contain far fewer technological marvels for us to play with if we don’t maintain a system that helps people dream of getting rich by making such things.

But let’s assume Marxists don’t get their way on this one. This leaves us with two dangerous factors that we need to stop and think about, that we can’t keep ignoring forever. First there is the question of the size of our ecological footprint: Will the process of wasting resources on silly amusements and otherwise useless status symbol stuff eventually prevent us from meeting our most basic long term survival needs? Second, there is the risk of the gap between the wealthy and the disadvantaged becoming so great that any remaining solidarity and empathy between them fades away and open conflict becomes almost inevitable. Continuing on with greater expansion of our technological wonder world actually increases both risks. We can’t keep ignoring these risks just to boost our economic indicators.

All in all economic indicators are 1) a way of saying how likely the current system is to keep serving the interests of those at the top on a long term basis, and 2) a way of giving us a better guess at how well the desires and needs of the population as a whole are being met. It would be fair to say that they serve the former purpose far more reliably than the latter.

So rather than boosting the numbers for the numbers’ sake, let’s focus on seeing what factors actually enable people within a society, top to bottom, to thrive and experience a sense of purpose in life. That will include having a sense of security that their basic needs will continue to be met –– that their kids are not going to die because they can’t afford to feed them or take them to the doctor when they’re sick. And it will also include giving people a sense of being able to make a difference in their societies, preferably a positive difference, in part by way of gainful employment. If those two factors can be linked to each other for the great majority of the population, so much the better, but that doesn’t actually make employment as such an absolute necessity in and of itself.

Take this example: One economic alternative is to have thriving businesses making cigarettes, raw explosives for weapons use and some form of recreational drugs. Everyone can find full-time employment in one or another of these factories, but the salary that they earn is insufficient to meet their family’s basic needs. Another alternative gives you with none of those businesses, none of those products available to the public, and the equivalent to what would have been spent on such products being charged in higher taxes. You would have far higher unemployment, but enough money in government coffers to more reliably meet the basic needs of those who would have been employed in those “vice industries” than if they would be so employed. They could be given a series of multiple choice options of how they could contribute in turn to society until they could find employment in a business that actually enriches the life of the community. Which economy would be “healthier”?  I’d pick the latter. I’d consider the sort of “job creators” in the first alternative to be the economic equivalent of “Chinese protein powder”: they make the system look good on paper, according to some standard indicators, but they end up decreasing the quality of life for everyone involved without providing any actual benefit to either worker or consumer.

So rather than trying to make sure that there are lots of private sector jobs that make the economy look good on paper, I say there should be high enough taxes and an active enough public sector to prevent unnecessary human suffering on the most basic level, and then government efforts to help establish businesses which actually reduce the damage we are doing to the environment and genuinely increase the quality of life they offer to their customers. This level of “socialism” might reduce the hope of getting filthy rich for some, reducing in turn our number of alternative ways of amusing ourselves to death, but as a whole that might not be such a bad thing. It would certainly be better for all involved than an open revolution a few years further down the road.

So in summary, on this one I think the Chinese actually got it right, and there are a few things we can learn from them. When business management psychopaths put their own prestige and success ahead of the lives of others, heads should roll, at least figuratively. Protecting business interests and power structures should be secondary to protecting human lives, especially those of the innocent. Statistical measurements of products and systems cannot be allowed to become an end unto themselves; the must always serve as means of better meeting the needs of actual human beings. And established power interests should not be allowed to prevent these principles from being followed. If the US cannot live up to that standard, it has lost its moral right as a nation to complain about China’s human rights record, and that would be a sad thing indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not recommending a Marxist command economy of the Soviet style or anything like it. But I am recommending a thorough rethinking of the premise that getting good economic indicators according to accepted standards of laissez faire capitalism should be an end unto itself. These indicators should only serve as a rough guide as to how well the status quo economic system is meeting people’s basic needs and desires. If our national or global economic systems aren’t working properly then we shouldn’t be shy about adjusting, regulating, replacing and/or thoroughly rebuilding less functional parts of them. If we can get to where we want to go in terms of building just and stable societies by protecting banks and other businesses from their own stupidity and pumping up the capitalist system despite its moral short-comings, I’m ready to keep trying with it. But if protecting the system becomes more important than protecting the people which the system is meant to serve, it’s time to do something radical to fix the situation.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Ethics, Politics, Respectability

Not So Sweet Deals

I lay in bed this morning thinking very much like Winnie the Pooh, “I wonder what’s for breakfast.” Unlike the iconic bear though, for me it’s not a rhetorical question. I’d have to get up and make something. As a somewhat overweight middle-aged man living alone, there’s always the question of where to go on the scale of health food to comfort food.

American style breakfasts have always been an important part of my life and culture. One of the few things I continued to miss about my native land after decades in Europe was the option of going out to a diner and being able to choose between a wide variety of omelets, muffins, pancake styles, waffles and even porridges if I felt so inclined, with a genuine maple syrup dispenser on the table, a bottomless cup of weak coffee, a large orange juice and something unsubstantial to read. I have over the years found ways of making or acquiring all of these things for myself outside of the US –– and I have earned some moderate praise in serving all of these (other than the weak coffee) to family and friends in places where they are less familiar experiences –– but it’s still not the same as my young adult memories of being able to go out and have them randomly and conveniently provided by a number of competing local businesses.

One chain of “restaurants” I used to frequent in my younger days was Dunkin Donuts. This was something of a guilty pleasure even then, but back in the day they used to have some excellent soups and sandwiches besides their signature coffee and carb bombs. I was rather disappointed on my last trip to the states to discover that they had dropped their old savory lines in favor of specializing only in the sugary stuff. But I guess they know their market, and during the time I’ve been an expat that market has certainly been changing: When I moved abroad in 1986 only half of the states were keeping records of the percentage of obese people among their residents, and of those only a third were reporting obesity rates of over 10%.

By the time all states started to keep such statistics on an annual basis in 1995 they were all coming in at between 10 and 20% obese.

The first states started to cross the 20% obesity mark in 1997, and they started to crack the 30% border in 2005.

At last measure there were no states left with less than 20% obesity rates, and a quarter of them were up over the 30% mark.

So it should come as no surprise to me that Dunkin Donuts has given up on selling anything else than carb bombs and caffeine.

Now I really can’t throw stones about this. In middle age I’ve been skating pretty close to the magical BMI limit of 30 (the statistical starting point for obesity) myself. The point is that, from my perspective, if fattening people up were to become a smaller business, so much the better it would be for many of us, and for the economies of many “developed” countries besides.

Enter the one company that has a reputation for providing “food” that is closer to candy than Dunkin’s products even: Hostess. I too was raised on regular treats of Twinkies, HoHos, Ding Dongs, Devil Dogs, cream filled cup cakes, and icing dipped fruit pies from the Hostess factories. I remember sometime over 40 years ago touring a Hostess factory in the suburbs of Boston with a YMCA father-and-son group, and being fascinated by the rotating robotic fingers that injected the cream filling into so many of their products, and at how much different Wonder Bread tasted straight out of the oven, with the yeasty smell still rising off of it. Thus it’s not too hard for me to see where the American obesity epidemic is coming from.

Yet for all this decadence that Hostess is providing to the American public, they keep losing money lately. To keep addicts hooked on their particular brand of sugar highs they have to keep their prices especially low, and to do so they need to take those few employees which can’t be replaced by robots and put them on the closest thing to slave wages that they can get away with. Even that hasn’t worked, and now following President Obama’s re-election Hostess has declared that they are shutting down operations.

The bad guys, according to company spokesmen, are the unions. Just under a third of Hostess employees are part of the national union covering workers that make pastries, candies, tobacco products and flour (an ironic set of product associations in itself). They refused to take another round of wage and benefit cuts from this company that has been on the edge of bankruptcy since the early Bush (43) era. So because of the big bad unions, as the venture capitalists’ representatives explain it, an extra 18,000 manual laborers around the US will be out of work this Christmas, and many Americans will have to find new sources for their empty carb and sugar fixes.

But this ignores the broader question: Is it economically and socially healthy to keep low profit margin businesses running by squeezing more work out of employees for a lower wage than they can actually safely live on, or is it better to let these businesses go under if they can’t afford to (or otherwise refuse to) pay their workers an honest wage? Part of the essential question too is, how important is the product that these companies are making to the overall happiness and well-being of their customers, and how badly will the public suffer if particular providers of this product go out of business?

If the product in question is important enough, and difficult enough for consumers to live without, raising prices by 5-10% and passing those increased revenues on directly to the workers (rather than the “investors” and upper management) in theory should work just fine. But of course doing that would turn economic trends in the “wrong direction” from a management perspective: employees might start expecting to earn closer to a 20th rather than a 50th of what those at the top are earning. Rather than taking those sorts of risks it’s better just do drive the company into bankruptcy.

But at Hostess those sorts of strategies wouldn’t necessarily work. There really isn’t a shortage of competitors in the empty carb market, otherwise US obesity rates wouldn’t have tripled in the last generation. Perhaps, like their union brothers in the tobacco industry, Hostess workers need to recognize that their meager wages have been based on those at the top getting rich off of destroying the health of others, and people might actually be better off without what they’ve been making; even if it did provide a semi-regular income for thousands and a source of intoxicating satisfaction to millions. Yes, losing Twinkies and Ding Dongs might be as traumatic to some as losing Lucky Strikes was to others… but life goes on, perhaps better for the lack of them.

Now an entirely different “borderline profitability” business where aggressive union activity is still necessary is in South Africa’s mining sector. Mining company negotiators have been telling the unions that the world Platinum price is down from where it was five years ago, and they will have to close down if they start paying their workers more than $500 a month for the dirty work of mining the stuff.  This is crap. South Africa mines more than three quarters of the world’s platinum, which is needed not only for hit record awards but also for car’s catalytic converters (explaining why it costs so much to replace the damned things!). Thus the South African platinum industry is in a far better place to determine world prices in their commodity than the OPEC countries are to set world crude oil prices! The fact that they have not taken their workers’ basic welfare seriously enough to raise both prices and miners’ salaries reflects one of the greatest failures of the ANC government’s management of the national economy there over the past 20 years. The “wildcat” unions there aren’t the bad guys; they are the only ones who are taking the basic human dignity and welfare of the workers seriously. They are taking the action that government should have taken long ago to require a decent wage for hard working people, to build a strong, multi-ethnic middle class and to provide hope for those who have long been victims of exploitation and abuse. For police to have killed striking miners only adds injury to the insult of their government’s inaction.

American business leaders of an elitist far right persuasion apparently haven’t given up the offensive against unions’ attempts to limit the economic polarization that has been happening in the US over the past generation. The election is over for another couple years, and they’re seriously pissed about not getting their money’s worth with all of the national elected officials they tried to buy, but they still aren’t ready to call it quits. If they can find ways to further damage the US economy over the next couple years and convince people that it is all the unions’ fault, maybe they can garner more support for their minions in the next round. They can always try. I can always hope that Americans progressively become smarter than that.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Politics, Sustainability

KE part 4 (evaluating control-based happiness)

On I go with re-editing and re-blogging my three year old series of posts based on my “Kristian’s Ethics” manuscript.

Having outlined my basic approach and discussed the pursuit of happiness by way of comparison and comfort, I now move on to the third c-word: control. I began explaining this to my son years back by way of a true story (or so the person telling me claimed) that I heard during my years as a bar tender in Helsinki, shortly after the Berlin Wall and all it represented came down:

This Western businessman I was serving told me a story of the culture clashes he had faced while trying to set up a business in Eastern Europe. As he told it, as free enterprise was just becoming possible in that part of the world, he went to this Eastern European country, hired a few local assistants and set up an import/export office. The office was an immediate success in marketing at least; orders started coming in left and right, and to keep up with the demand the entrepreneur himself had to work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week. The problem was that he had to do most of the work alone; every weekday afternoon at five o’clock all of his local work force would put on their coats and head for the door. Working nights and weekends was out of the question for them. Overtime was a concept that was untranslatable into their language. The business man begged and pleaded and negotiated with these people until finally one Friday afternoon one fellow explained things to him in rather crude terms: “Look,” he said, “I’m done with this shit for the week. I’m going home to open a bottle of brandy. I’m going to get so drunk that I can’t stand up, then I’m going to go to bed and screw my girlfriend until I wear the skin off my dick.  Tomorrow I’ll get up around noon, open the next bottle and start the party all over again, and I’ll keep it going all the way through ‘til Sunday.  Meanwhile, you’ll be here driving yourself crazy with this shit, and if you go anywhere it will only be back to your hotel room to collapse because you’re too tired to do anything else. Why should I want to be more like you?”

The poor businessman couldn’t answer, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for himself. He thought of himself as a free and single playboy, but he wasn’t really living up to it. He kept going with his own rat race while his hired help was getting what he thought he wanted for himself in life.

He wasn’t being as illogical as he thought he was though. Most people, given a chance to see everything about the businessman’s and the worker’s lives, and given a choice of having one or the other for themselves, would still choose the businessman’s life; and as time has gone on more and more Eastern Europeans have become workaholic businessmen themselves. Why? Because he had something that most people consider to be more important than comfort: control. He could control what his company did, where he lived, what he owned, where he traveled, who worked for him, and to a certain extent he could even control the economic relationships between different countries. Compared to that, the only things that the worker could control was (to a certain extent) what time he could come and go, what he drank on the weekend and, if he was lucky, what woman he would sleep with.

I use the term control here less in the sense of having order and predictability in life––though that is an important side effect––and more in terms of being able to cause the things of your own choosing to happen. It involves the exercise of power as a primary element, but also a certain skill at channeling that power with precision and being able to foresee and regulate the consequences of the exercise of this power.

There is a common but erroneous conception of there being good and bad forms of control, with a clear border of sorts between them. The good ones would have names like empowerment, freedom, liberty, self-determination and autonomy. The bad ones would be labeled with terms like tyranny, domination, subjugation and dictatorship. The word authority has a rather variable connotation between these, in that it is technically defined in sociology as “the legitimate exercise of power,” but it is also the primary factor limiting the exercise of freedom or liberty which everyone wants for themselves.

In practice no line can be drawn between “good control” and “bad control,” because we humans are interactive creatures. Everything I choose to do has effects on those around me, and everything those around me do has an effect on me. If I have complete freedom to do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of how those around me feel about it, I am effectively subjugating them. On the other hand, if I have no control over the actions of other, I end up lacking freedom from their harassment and freedom to interact with them in ways that I find satisfying. I illustrated this with a paraphrased version of a story that I borrowed from someplace I can’t actually remember. (Extra points if someone can find the original source.)

Let’s imagine that once upon a time there was a village where there was perfect freedom: everyone could do whatever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it. Well, as it happened, what some people felt like doing was going around punching other people in the nose as hard as they could. They claimed that it was part of their basic freedom to use their fists as they wished, and they were perfectly willing to grant the same freedom to those around them. Most of the people in the village, however, preferred freedom from having their noses broken to freedom to break other people’s noses; so they passed a law that forbid spontaneous nose punching.  The nose punchers were deeply insulted by this new law.  They claimed that this was a terrible restriction of their basic personal liberties, and that the village was taking away their greatest joy in life. Eventually many of them moved away to form their own village, where starting a fist-fight when you felt like it was a guaranteed civil liberty. So then you had the pretty-nosed village and the happy-fisted village side by side, and the question must now be asked, which one was more free?

The traditional reciprocity argument of limiting yourself to actions that you can accept everyone else doing doesn’t do much to help us solve this one. In their own ways each village was being perfectly reasonable. And while this may sound a bit absurd to some, if you substitute the nose punching with smoking, trading in pornography, experimenting with “chemical recreation” of various sorts, playing loud music, auto racing or even the building of nuclear power plants, you can see the same dynamic as relevant to issues of our own time. Sometimes in order to achieve happiness it is important to exercise control over more than yourself, and developing means of controlling yourself, your environment and other people in it can be a very important part of any person’s happiness.

So how do we do that? What means of control are we talking about? I would itemize four basic types: physical, political, economic and philosophical control.

Physical control is perhaps best symbolized by various larger vehicles marketed as “freedom machines,” ranging from cruising motorcycles to sport convertibles to SUVs to private jets. Not only being able to go wherever you want whenever you want as fast as you want, but being able to get tons of metal to move at great speeds precisely according to your whim can give guys in particular a great rush. In the old days an important part of this rush was making it happen with the strength of one’s own muscles, and sometimes that still applies, in sports in particular; but less and less it would seem, as sports become more technology and equipment oriented. This also spills over into our primitive violent urges to dominate other people through physical aggression, but in the contemporary world that technique of controlling other people has become largely outdated.

Techniques of influencing other people can be referred to as political control. I use this as a broad term for pretty much any exercise of social influence, down to children manipulating their parents into giving them the toys they want. The means of exercising this sort of control over others are too many to itemize. Carnegie’s famous work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, doesn’t even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, advertisers and lobbyists have worked on getting this down to a science, but it still remains more of an art, and on the micro level at least, women seem to have an advantage over men in this area. But there is one way that more than any other seems to work these days as a means of getting people to do what you want them to: pay them.

This is what I mean by economic control. These days wealth is not, strictly speaking, an abundance of material possessions; it is a measure of a person’s culturally accepted capacity to pay for things –– to get others to give them what they want or do what they want in exchange for a certain portion of their money –– their recognized purchasing power. With certain cultural skills, this form of control can be used to expand itself exponentially these days, until the system becomes so abstract that it starts to crumble from within. Since I am not an economist by training I have to limit myself in terms of how far I try to go in analyzing the monetary system, but suffice to say, it is the major measure of the capacity to exercise control in the world today, and it is in itself rapidly spiraling out of control.

Given my own biases as a teacher though, I consider one form of control to be more important than money: the power of original and valuable thoughts and ideas. I refer to this category with the blanket term of philosophical control. This can include conceptual areas ranging from inventiveness to hegemony, but explaining those would take more bandwidth than I’m ready to use here this weekend. Once again, suffice to say that if you have sufficiently powerful ideas or wisdom, you can usually parlay that into economic wealth. (I’ve never managed it myself, but I do believe it can be done.) Beyond that, there are some things that some people will not do for money, but there are far fewer things that people would not do on the basis of a commitment to an ideal they have become convinced of.

All that being said, Nietzsche’s theories not withstanding, I do not believe the will to power, or the desire for “freedom” and control, to be the ultimate source of satisfaction in human life. While a certain amount of freedom is necessary for anyone to be happy, and while control tends to be more important to people than physical pleasures once we get beyond the basic survival level, obviously the world’s most powerful people are not the world’s happiest people. It has become a cheap cliché to say that money cannot buy you happiness. There can be exceptions to this, but they require that the money is used to gain something other than influence over others. It’s not enough to be in control; we need to have something worth doing with that control. That’s where this serialized theory of happiness is going next.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Philosophy

Value by Fiat

I bought my first Fiat in 1997. It was an early 80s Fiorino, which basically meant that it was a Fiat 127 (their smallest, cheapest model of that era) with the rear end chopped off and a 1.5m x 1.5m x 1.5m cargo cube patched in instead. Mine was the definitive example of what the British are talking about when they describe a vehicle as “clapped out”. For the incredibly simple vehicle that it was, virtually every part of it was defective in one way or another. For no logical reason though, I kept getting it fixed, and I may well have put more mileage on that sad little beast than on any other car I’ve ever owned.  I used to drive it over a thousand kilometers per week between teaching jobs at one point, and I took major excursions with it from Finland to England, from the southern tip of Finland to the northern tip of Norway, and a few times around all of the Baltic states. I had the body and frame patch welded a few times. I had a new exhaust system put in. I had the gearbox replaced when the original blew on England’s M5. I had the head gasket and valves done. I had the crank shaft bearings replaced. I had the wheel bearings replaced repeatedly, and I can’t remember how many little seals and joints I had done over the course of the time I owned the beast.

What my Fiat theoretically would have looked like in good condition

My sons and I dubbed it “Smokey,” in part as a tribute to the legendary lead singer of the Miracles, but more directly for the visible evidence of all of the different sorts of oils it was burning.

Eventually, when I moved to the city of Espoo, I brought it with me, unregistered, and left it in a public parking lot near my house. While I was out of town for a couple weeks one time the city took it for abandoned garbage and had it towed it away and crushed. I was hurt by this more for the loss of the tools and parts for other cars that I had stored in the back of it than for the loss of the Fiat itself, but there was little I could do about it. I still had the memories.

Aside from parts cars for Smokey that were basically given to me, I owned one other Fiat over the years: a 2001 Punto that I bought brand new. That was the only time I ever bought a new car, and it was a huge financial mistake. I sold it less than a year later because I was having too much difficulty keeping up with the payments.

So overall for me the name “Fiat” is strongly associated with making mistakes and wasting money. In hearing talk lately about the problems of the global financial system being based on “value by fiat” then, I can’t help but smile to myself at the irony.

Value by fiat (small f) is basically taken to be the alternative to “trading on some fixed value commodity,” which usually means some precious metal.  It basically means that some government-based institution issues some currency which it legally states “is legal tender for all debts, public and private,” without any more basis for its value than that. Is than an inherently bad thing? Let’s stop and think about it.

The best way to conceptualize this mess, I believe, is to think of the first season of outstanding television series, Lost, only in at least 1000 times larger scale. We’re stuck in this mysterious environment where we’re going to have to find ways to overcome our mutual suspicions and resentments and work together if we’re going to survive. We can actually do pretty well though if we find a workable mechanism for cooperation. We have to find some way of measuring give and take; of seeing who is doing their fair share; of making sure we get things in return from people when the group is too big to know everyone personally and to exchange favors on the value of reputation and personal alliance alone. How can we do that?

One way would be on the basis of pure barter: goods for goods, favor for favor. But that has the problem of limited accruability. If I want to work hard and save up enough credit to get people to help me build a really big boat I need some measurable way of guaranteeing that I can call in those favors, or get the equivalent service from others if I need it.

For that purpose I might be able to stockpile some commodity that my neighbors are willing to do what I want in order to get. In prisons, I’m told, the best commodity for to stock up on to buy favors with is cigarettes. In ancient Rome it would have been salt. In other primitive societies they were paid in some form of “bling” or another that they could show off. (How do you think gold became valuable to begin with? How do you think the Europeans were able to get the Native Americans to give them land in exchange for cheap beads and trinkets?)

But if we’re in a position where we have to build a cooperative community rather quickly, it might be problematic to do so on the basis of who happens to have best managed to scramble and stockpile the commodities that others want.  (In Lost this was the problem with Sawyer in the early phases of his character’s development.) What we need is a system by which people are encouraged to work together rather than against each other. That might be rather idealistic sounding, but it also might be a practical necessity.

So maybe in that sort of situation we might want to do sort of like Ithica, New York  has done and start printing some sort of certificates which are recognized within the community as meaning, “I’ve done an hour’s worth of basic labor for one of my neighbors, and so now I’m entitled to someone doing an hour’s worth of basic labor for me.” What makes these papers valuable is that there is a certain social understanding which backs them up, based on mutual trust and respect. As long as we can build those things, this sort of currency can thrive on the basis of nothing more than the word of the people printing them up and passing them around.

In theory that is the basic foundation of pretty much all of the world’s major currencies these days: they are based on the cooperative understanding between the people who are (theoretically) part of the democratic governments which the federal banks answer to. So what makes a Euro valuable is how much the average European is willing to do to get one, and how much shops are willing to give him in return for it. That’s really all there is to it. The same applies to the respective dollars of the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, etc.; and to the pounds, rand, rupees, lira, litas, latis and other such paper money found in different parts of the world.

The big question is, how do you maintain that trust, symbolized by this paper money, within the society? How do you prevent those who have contributed nothing from printing their own certificates which would indicate that others owe them something, thus destroying everyone’s trust in the system? In this regard it makes no difference whether we are talking about corrupt bankers paying themselves official dividends or counterfeiters operating through entirely unofficial channels; the result is the same: some get money for nothing and as a result the whole monetary system is considerably weakened. So how can we safeguard against this?

There isn’t really any foolproof system. Whenever someone comes up with a “foolproof” economic program, someone else invents a greater fool to foil it.

Trial and error has proven that it doesn’t really work for a national government to make its own money, distributed through salaries for soldiers and teachers and the like. That model quickly leads to people thinking of the money as worthless paper. Money creation needs to be shrouded in mystery to really work. New money needs to be based on a promise that more new work will get done.  But promised to whom? Well, to each other, sort of.  How? By way of special organizations set up for that purpose. What are we going to call those organizations? They’ll probably have to be called “banks.” You sort of see the problem.

It would sort of help if there were a cleaner distinction between the sort of banks that print up money in order to enable people to measure the value of the work they are doing for each other; banks which people can save their money up in, loaning part of it to other people at a reasonable interest rate, like the lovable old Baileys did; banks which provide basic payment services such as checking accounts and electronic money transfers; banks which loan money on speculation to new entrepreneurs, sharing the risk of the business not working out; and banks which are effectively bookies for people placing bets on the stock market, placing a few institutional bets of their own as they go. All of these are legitimate businesses in their own right. The problem is that all of these banking functions are helplessly and hopelessly entangled with each other, and people are gradually starting to realize how badly those within this sector have been using the resulting confusion to their criminal advantage. To make matters worse, banks and insurance companies have conglomerated together, making all new levels of criminal abuse possible.

I’m not saying that the banking or insurance businesses are inherently criminal, but if there is one section of society which needs to be extremely tightly regulated by a democratically elected government, it is definitely “financial services”. Those who try to build fortunes by playing the system and enslaving others, contributing nothing useful to the economy, definitely need to be punished far more harshly than current law enables us to.

The greatest criminal abuse in the banking sector in the world these days is probably happening in the United States, as the result of business deregulation of the Reagan era. But I must say “probably” because there are plenty of other examples of abusive banking practices around the world. The European Central Bank, which prints Euros, has its own considerable moral problems in terms of what it is demanding of northern Europeans in exchange for the service of creating more money to be borrowed by southern Governments. Meanwhile there is the question of how much money the Chinese government is making for its people, and how fairly, on that basis, they can buy stuff from America and Europe in exchange for the stuff they send to America and Europe. Thus the Chinese government is holding more financial reserves –– more promises that work must be done for them –– than any organization outside of the major American banks.

Now of course those who are ripping off these systems have to be careful not to take their personal pocket lining processes so far that the money they have amassed for themselves becomes entirely useless. These days the criminals within the system are cutting it pretty close in this regard. The gap between the de facto peasants and serfs in Western society and their de facto lords and counts these days is as great as it has ever been historically in empires on the verge of collapse. Thanks to the Internet these days these contemporary peasants are quite aware of how the lords of the banking sector have come to live lives of obscene luxury at their expense. How far things can go before this leads to waves of currency collapses and revolutions remains to be seen, but the risk is palpable.

Given that there is no foolproof system, I would not recommend abandoning the “value by fiat” system wholesale in favor of system based on the value of “bling” (silver or gold), oil, wheat , salt or anything else. Ultimately currency has to be a matter of trust within the society, and for that to be based on the word of those we authorize to print these notes is as good a system as any, as long as we have some way to hold them to account for their actions. To restore trust in the system what is really needed is for those on the bottom to see that they still have some collective say regarding what those at the top can get away with.  The biggest crooks and abusers of public trust need to be punished, and harshly. Steps also need to be taken to break down the social and economic barriers between the counts and the serfs.

Going back to the Lost analogy, our survival really does depend on our being able to somewhat trust each other and find means of overcoming our mutual antagonisms and competitions for power and influence. The societies which will survive will be those in which members recognize that they face greater threats than each other. The financial system will inevitably either be a reflection of that trust, or the lack thereof. And if we can’t trust each other and find ways of working together, an unstable financial system is the least of our problems.

Leave a comment

Filed under Control, Economics, Philosophy, Politics