Monday, December 31, 2012

Why No Outrage? More on How Economism Works

 Dr. Roy Poses, blogmeister of Health Care Renewal, has been kind enough to mention The Golden Calf and my arguments about economism:

Dr. Poses now asks, in his New Year’s Eve posting, for responses to the question—why, in the face of so much incompetence, greed, and corruption in high corporate places (he’s concerned about health care organizations, but why stop there) is there as yet no organized opposition to what deserves to be called the Second Gilded Age? (

Johnny One Note that I am, I naturally believe the answer to his question is: economism. But the way he asked the question forces me to think harder about just how economism works in seducing all of us. Actually I have a two part answer, one theoretical and one practical.

First let’s start with what it means to say that economism functions as a quasi-religious ideology. When I first started writing The Golden Calf, I had intended to say more about linguist George Lakoff’s idea of frames in political dialogue, such as he analyzes in his Moral Politics. Most of that draft ended up on the cutting room floor, so let me fill in some of the blanks here.

A political frame is what surrounds an argument or statement or question, that is treated as background and accepted as is, without itself giving rise to any further discussion or questions. Lakoff noted that today’s conservative movement in the U.S. started working on frames back in the 1970s, generously funding many conservative think tanks and paying their best minds to do this work. Liberal think tanks, at the same time, avoided this intellectual spadework and tried to find ways to make a real difference in people’s lives. Lakoff stated that this gave the conservatives a huge head start that the progressives have never yet caught up with.

Economism works very well as a frame. Consider the old bumper sticker slogan, “If you like the Post Office, you’ll love national health insurance.” Notice what has to be true for this slogan to work—and it does work, for even people like me who support national health insurance snicker a bit and shake our heads at how effective it is. For this slogan to do its job, it has to be an article of faith that the U.S. Post Office is laughably inefficient. The reason for this faith is that we see the Post Office as a government bureaucracy—two four-letter words in economism’s lexicon. Government bureaucracies are ponderously expensive and inefficient, virtually by definition. (Notice that in America, private enterprise may have layers and layers of managers tripping over each other and messing things up royally, but somehow no corporation ever has a bureaucracy—that hated enemy, government, is the only place such abominations exist.)

People who have studied the matter carefully note that everywhere else in the world that has national health insurance manages to provide health care for their populations at much lower administrative cost than we do in the US, and that government health plans in the US such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA all manage to meet the standards of those other national plans, running at around 3-5 percent administrative costs. We also know that when, under Obamacare, the U.S. private insurance industry was told that they would have to get by on merely 20 percent administrative costs, they hollered and screamed that that was impossible. So there is a lot of evidence that adopting national health insurance would make our system more efficient, not less. But such an argument never gains any traction in the U.S. It’s not worth even talking about because we just know from the get-go that government bureaucracies are inefficient.

I could have attacked that bumper sticker from the other end. On what basis do we make fun of the U.S. Post Office? When was the last time somebody sent you a letter or a package and you didn’t get it? How long does it take you to get the average letter you are mailed? But again, no one even bothers to ask such questions, because we just know the answers beforehand.

An ideology like economism doesn’t win this type of war overnight. If it was only a year or two ago that this ideology had begun to spread, then we might hear serious questions about its assumptions today. The point is that this way of thinking has had nearly 40 years to worm itself into the fabric of our national thinking, and it had on its side excellent right-wing orators such as Ronald Reagan who devoutly believed it—and, perhaps even more important, so-called center-left orators such as Bill Clinton who decided it was a matter of political expediency not to oppose or expose it.

That’s the theoretical answer; now for the practical answer.

From what quarter, in American society, might we expect to hear the call for a political movement to end the Second Gilded Age? The Occupy movement was great for a while but apparently had no staying power. If we look back in time to when we last had some balance, when large corporations did not always get their way, the main countervailing force was labor unions. So my practical answer to the question is that we cannot expect much to happen to derail the Second Gilded Age while unions are held in such disrepute by so much of the American public—which gets back to the theoretical answer in explaining how this disrepute came about.

I was saddened to hear a recent report on NPR that interviewed three generations of residents of Flint, Michigan. The oldest member of the family walked the picket lines during the great auto strike of the 1930s when the UAW was created. The middle generation worked for the auto industry and reaped all the benefits of unionization in higher wages and ample benefits. The youngest generation is now struggling to make it in a town that has shuttered factories and massive unemployment. The grandson works in a non-union shop and sees no reason to join a union or to have anything to do with unions. Within one generation, all the life experiences and memories of the grandmother and the father have simply been erased.

I spent some time in The Golden Calf wondering about the virtual destruction of the American union movement, noting among other things that the union hall was more than a power center for those opposing and exposing corporate power. The union hall was most people’s exposure to practical democracy in action. With so few Americans belonging to unions, it is not surprising that democracy in our nation is at such low ebb—or that we now have such a low bar for what democracy is supposed to consist of (like going to vote every four years, if you can spare the time, and ignoring public events in the interim).

Incidentally, if you wonder about the force behind political frames, consider the incredible power that the American right accumulated when it managed to label state laws that emasculated the unions as “right to work laws.” In a country when Republicans talk about right to work laws, and Democrats answer them back as if the term is completely acceptable and noncontroversial, you know that the political frame is stacked heavily on one side of the power equation.

I wish, obviously, that I had the answer to all this, but at any rate this is what I think a big part of the problem is.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: How Limited is Liberal Thinking?

            In the previous post:
--I summarized the main messages from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I noted:

Based on a large-scale survey of ethical attitudes, Haidt holds that our ethics is determined by our views on six basic scales—care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. His research indicates that conservatives are well grounded in all six areas. Liberals, by contrast, base almost all their ethical thinking on care/harm and liberty/oppression, with some concern for fairness/cheating, while largely ignoring loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The broader base for conservative ethics makes it easy for many in the population to dismiss liberalism as empty at best and a threat to society at worst.

            So one important question for people like me to try to answer is—is our liberal ethical and political thinking really as limited and as deficient as Haidt makes it out to be? A full answer to that will require the volume that I hope to write sometime soon as a follow-on to The Golden Calf, in which I will go beyond pointing out the deficiencies in economism and lay out an adequate alternative framework for thinking about human society. So here I will offer simply some brief hints.
            According to Haidt, and based on his careful empirical research, liberals seem to be saying that when they decide what should be done, they tend to focus on care, liberty, and fairness, and to discount loyalty, authority, and sanctity. My question is—is this really what liberals think? And when I ask what liberals think, let me bring it down to the nitty gritty—what sorts of people do liberals hope their children will turn into?
            Since I haven’t done any large scale research I can only speak for myself. Maybe Haidt would declare me an oddity and perhaps I am really a closet conservative claiming to have liberal politics. Maybe all this reflects the way that I was raised in the 1950s. Be that as it may, I am prepared to say the following: I hope that my children feel loyalty to all those who are worthy of that feeling. I hope that my children have a reasonable and healthy respect for those in legitimate positions of authority (including their parents). And I hope that my children have an appreciation for the sacred and spiritual dimensions of life and are not base materialists, whether that’s expressed through religion or some other manner.
            As I said, I may be a very odd duck in liberal’s clothing, but I am going to take a leap here and to imagine that I’m not really all that atypical. In fact I’d be rather surprised to meet a so-called liberal who did not have fairly similar aspirations for her children.
            So what might be going on, when Haidt accuses liberals of ignoring certain bases for ethics that conservatives value, and I insist by contrast that liberals might indeed have a healthy respect for those features? A possibility that I need to develop in more detail on another occasion is that Haidt may have a flat, unidimensional view of morality and politics while I favor a multi-layered view. I think one major difference between typical liberals and conservatives today is not the ethical values they espouse, but where in society they expect to find those values at work.
            Let’s take an example from a different one of Haidt’s ethical bases, fairness/cheating. Liberals want there to be robust welfare programs to assist the less fortunate, while conservatives oppose such programs as encouraging lazy people to avoid doing their fair share of the work. There are a number of factual issues involved in these views, but as Haidt insists, our ethical views are much more formed by emotion and intuition than by dispassionate assessment of the facts. So let’s consider the person who actually is a classic Reagan-type welfare cheat—somebody who could easily go out and get a decent job and earn money, but prefers to stay home and mooch off the system, for no good reason except self-indulgence.
            To hear the conservative talk, the liberal is not bothered by such a person at all, which shows why liberals are a) na├»ve and b) a threat to social stability. Are these charges true?
            The case that I’d wish to argue is that the liberal agrees fully with the conservative—show me such a person and I will find him morally reprehensible. Where the two disagree is where in society they believe the function of judging such a person ought to occur. This answer shows a certain logical inconsistency within the conservative argument.
            The liberal might say—before you can judge any person you need to know a fair amount of detail about her life story. Some people might look to outsiders like cheats, but if we knew all the facts, we’d realize that they have major disabilities or other good reasons why they have not been able to make their way under their own power. So the right place within society for such judgments to be made is within families, churches, and community groups where people have a lot of detailed knowledge of how each other behave. If those groups came down on people who cheat the government out of welfare benefits, then such behavior would get a lot rarer—most folks don’t want to be cast out of the groups whose approval is most valuable to them. (How to make such judgments more common in society is another issue I have no space here to discuss.)
            The liberal goes on to explain that if you tried to set up the government program in such a way that it had primary responsibility for assuring that not a single cheat made it onto the welfare rolls, two bad results would occur. First, many deserving people would be pushed aside because the government agents could never know enough about each individual’s life to make reliable judgments. Second, in trying to make such judgments, the government would get much deeper into our lives than anyone concerned about freedom and privacy would want. This is where the inconsistency comes up—conservatives presumably want to keep the government out of our private lives (though many social conservatives today want to come into our bedrooms and dictate to us our sexual and reproductive behavior).
            Bottom line—it’s not that the liberal has a totally different moral sense than the conservative about what sorts of behavior deserve blame or praise. It’s rather that politically, the liberal wants to see these functions carried out at different levels of social organization—ones that the liberal argues are more appropriate to the task.
            If I were to have the space to defend this argument in detail, I’d draw on the work of such philosophers as John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen, who I think provide good grounds for taking the stance that I sketched above. All I have space for here is to suggest that Haidt may have been too hasty in concluding that the liberal base for ethical thought is so much narrower than the conservative.

The Righteous Mind: Orthodoxy vs. Conservatism

            A book about ethics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has deservedly been getting a lot of recent media attention. Haidt’s book poses several interesting challenges for the views expressed in this blog and in The Golden Calf, so I hope to devote at least a couple of posts to discussing those issues.
            Haidt’s basic message can be summarized as follows: we do ethics primarily by emotion and intuition and reason comes along later to explain what we did; humans are programmed by our evolution to be mostly competitive individualists but also to have strong needs for  group identity and community; and we can discover six bases for ethics, of which today’s conservatives are better able to incorporate a broad scope than are liberals, giving the former group a clear advantage in winning hearts and minds.
            Let me here take up the last point. Based on a large-scale survey of ethical attitudes, Haidt holds that our ethics is determined by our views on six basic scales—care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. His research indicates that conservatives are well grounded in all six areas. Liberals, by contrast, base almost all their ethical thinking on care/harm and liberty/oppression, with some concern for fairness/cheating, while largely ignoring loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The broader base for conservative ethics makes it easy for many in the population to dismiss liberalism as empty at best and a threat to society at worst.
            Haidt concludes that the culture wars are unfortunate because a well-rounded social ethic would draw on both liberal and conservative thought. He illustrates this conclusion by telling his own story. He began as a pretty much garden-variety academic liberal, but more recently has come to see the value of conservative views. He attributes this recent enlightenment to a particular book that he ran across in 2005, Conservatism by the historian Jerry Muller. Haidt found in Muller a much more sympathetic portrayal of conservative views than he had previous encountered, and much of what he read resonated with his own thinking.
            What struck me as most interesting as I read Haidt’s account of his own conversion at the hands of Muller’s book was how he said Muller began his work—by drawing a sharp distinction between conservatism and orthodoxy. Quoting from Muller, Haidt explained, “Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a ‘transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.’ Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.”
            Muller further develops this point by placing conservatism firmly within the intellectual precincts of the Enlightenment (now quoting Muller directly): “What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is that the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.”
            From that point on Haidt explains what Muller has to say about conservatism, assuming that we’ve cast orthodoxy aside and agreed that that could hardly be a suitable basis for politics. But the main argument that I offer in The Golden Calf is that to the extent that today’s conservatives are wedded to the ideology of economism, they have not cast orthodoxy aside at all—they remain orthodox through and through.
            Haidt seems to have an inkling, but only an inkling, of this problem. Trying to be even-handed, he admits that libertarians might have something useful to say about ethics too, even though their thinking has an even narrower base than does liberalism, since they are almost solely concerned about one aspect only, liberty/oppression. So the lesson he believes that others need to learn from libertarian thinking is “markets are miraculous.” In discussing this point, he makes the following interesting comment: “If God is commonly thought to have created the world and then arranged it for our benefit, then the free market (and its invisible hand) is a pretty good candidate for being a god. You can begin to understand why libertarians sometimes have a quasi-religious faith in free markets.”
            This passage is interesting because seldom, in this book, does Haidt see any need to invoke God or religious language, even though he sees religion as one important way humans bond together in communal identity. He appears to make no distinction between libertarianism and economism, though as I explain in The Golden Calf there are important differences. So Haidt simply does not take into account the possibility that in believing in economism, people who call themselves both conservative and libertarian have not abandoned orthodoxy at all, and are in their own ways as fundamentalist as those calling for sharia law.
            While for most of his career, doing the research that he summarizes in his book, Haidt taught at the University of Virginia, he now is attached to the Stern School of Business at New York University. I cannot say whether the transition from the broader university environment to the narrower range of thinking one finds in the typical business school had any impact on Haidt’s apparently not seeing the orthodox features of economism.
            Anyway, Haidt abjures liberals like me to be more understanding of where conservatives are coming from and what wisdom they bring to the table, and I will try to address that point in a later post. I even agree with Haidt, as I stated in The Golden Calf, that markets when they work well are pretty miraculous things (and Haidt admits that there’s a clear danger that markets won’t work well, which is where he thinks the liberals’ message needs to be heeded). But if what gets called conservatism is really orthodoxy, then Haidt and Muller would apparently both agree that there’s not much wisdom to be gained from that source—and I’d claim that that’s true so long as economism holds such a grip on the American public consciousness.

Economism: Where Are We after the Election?

            Barack Obama’s re-election, by a strong showing in the electoral college and a decent margin in the popular vote, has warded off two great dangers. First, we are now spared the sorts of Supreme Court justices that an economism advocate such as Romney would no doubt have appointed, that would have further tilted the court in the coming decades in a pro-corporate direction (and no doubt led to more decisions such as Citizens United). Second, we can predict with reasonable confidence that this President will probably preside over an economic recovery. This of course would have happened no matter who was elected. But had Romney been elected, given the voters’ apparent love affair with imagining that the President has some control over the nation’s economy, the popular political narrative would have been that Romney was chosen by the voters, and so therefore his favored policies caused the recovery. That narrative would have polluted any serious thinking about economic and monetary policy, again for a couple of decades at least.
            Besides dodging these bullets, what the various pundits are saying about the election is somewhat reassuring for people who believe that we’ll make policy progress in the U.S. only once we can get the albatross of the economism ideology off our necks. Perhaps the most striking comment was one I overheard on an NPR segment, that to the extent the people who actually show up at the polls on Election Day look like the country, the Democrats do well and the Republicans do badly. If true, this suggests that the Republicans, if they win elections, are not winning on message; they are winning by keeping a representative sample of voters away from the polls. That’s further suggestive that the Republican message, which coming out of the mouths of Romney and Ryan was all-out economism, is simply not a winner with the American public at this time.
            So all that may be encouraging, but the fact remains that nearly half of those who voted were willing to vote for Romney, and presumably at some level bought into his economism shtick that because he was a successful businessman, he could be trusted to be the kind of president that would know what needed to be done to right the economy and create jobs. So a great deal of work needs to be done.
            As I noted in The Golden Calf, Obama has generally been wary of any direct attacks on economism—apparently wishing to maintain his bona fides as one willing to reach across the aisle and promote bipartisan compromise. Obama made a couple of major speeches in which he seemed to start in a direction of exposing economism’s untruths and illogic, but then he tacked back toward the center. Attacking Romney as a rich man out of touch with the majority of Americans is a sort of swipe against economism, which portrays the rich as God’s chosen people and hence worthy of our accolades. But in choosing Obama over Romney, the American voters were not presented with a clear choice of economism yes or no.
            If we are to create a firm basis for sensible national policy, and clear the ground for such reasonable thinking by sweeping economism aside, then much more work remains.