The Fuzzy Correlation: A Ramble about Capitalism, Socialism and Politics

Here are some thoughts I had the other day about capitalism, socialism and politics.

(And I'm an idiot for even trying to share some of this stuff in the current political climate. Somebody, please, take this keyboard away from me.)

I don't think we can ever escape sin. Consequently, I think every economic system is going to have sinful aspects to it. Capitalism is no exception. But one of the interesting features of capitalism is how it harnesses sin for the greater good. We pursue our self-interest, often in competition with each other, and all boats rise, prosperity fueled by the "rat race" of modern economic life. By saying, effectively, "Good luck, you're on your own" capitalism takes our innate instincts for survival and social comparison (shame and "keeping up with the Jones's") and turns it into gasoline for the engine of productivity. As Adam Smith pointed out, we don't appeal to the benevolence but to the self-interest of the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. Or, in the words of Gordon Geckko, "Greed is good."

A couple of observations about this. First, it seems here that capitalism gets human nature right. This is one of the reasons capitalism appears to be more successful than communism. Communism seems to miss the mark on human nature. Ironically by being too optimistic and hopeful, even Christian. People don't tend to work hard for the good of others. Saints might do that, but normal people don't. Normal people are lazy and like to free ride on the system. Just ask any Children's minister at church how easy it is to get people to teach Sunday School. Everyone likes to drop their kids off at Sunday School. But fewer actually step up to take a turn teaching. Free riding is human nature.

So capitalism does seem to have the more realistic anthropology. It assumes humans are selfish and self-interested and then puts them in competition. This infuses economic life with an anxiety that is effectively leveraged into work.

While capitalism is premised on human selfishness this focus on individual effort isn't wholly without biblical precedent:

2 Thessalonians 3.10
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
While the "collectivist" visions of community life in Acts 2 and 4 seem utopian (and even communist), we get a sense in 2 Thessalonians 3.10 (and in other places where Paul preaches work) that people were free riding on the system. Thus the rule: If you want to eat, you have to work.

What capitalism does is to take this notion--if you work you can eat--to a unique place, an extreme even. It suggests that, if we assume a level playing field, that any need you are experiencing is the product of your failed work ethic. You are not eating because you are not working. And that's a working assumption among many Americans today, particularly among conservative Christians.

And to some degree, you can't really argue with that assumption. It's empirically true that if you don't work you'll struggle to pay your bills. Which creates another interesting feature of capitalism: it helps assign the blame when it comes to need. Specifically, if you are in need that's your own fault. Society isn't being "unjust." There is no "injustice" here. You're just failing to follow the Apostle Paul's command: Work.

This is why, in America today, we moralize socioeconomic status. Failures of character (e.g., a lack of a work ethic), it is believed, produce need. Strength of character produces success. Thus, God is blessing the wealthy. God helps those who help themselves. A sentiment that many think is in the bible. (It isn't.) This is why we see health and wealth gospels so popular among Christians. Health and wealth gospels resonate with how we think capitalism accurately assigns praise and blame.

Now this blame assignment would work well if, in fact, the playing field was perfectly level. Imagine, say, if we could hit the reset button and let everyone have the exact same family, go to the exact same high school, have the exact same gender, have the exact same skin color, have the exact same physical appearance, have the exact same genetic aptitudes, have the exact same life experience, and so on. Imagine a perfectly randomized clinical trial. In that case, yes, we might be able to identify the virtuous by their subsequent success. But, as we all know, that's not the situation we have. What we have is a system well in motion, one with with a variety of different and unequal starting places. The topography of "fairness" isn't level. It's hilly and uneven. Just how uneven is a matter of debate.

I want to talk some more about that hilly fairness topography, but before I do I'd like to pause and make a few comments about the effects of sin within the the randomized clinical trial described above. Specifically, while communism gets human nature wrong about our work ethic (i.e., we'd rather work for ourselves rather than for others) capitalism gets human nature wrong when it comes to acquisitiveness and fair play. It's true that capitalism creates productivity. But it doesn't reliably reward virtue. In fact, since capitalism mainly rewards success within a competitive environment we'll often find that "good guys finish last." We call this corruption and greed.

And there's another flaw in the system, of a generational nature. To see this imagine us starting our clinical trial experiment at Time 1, kicking off the self-interested competition of capitalism to get all those worker bees off and running (or buzzing). The Time 1 round plays out and prizes (think: promotions) are awarded. Trouble is, there are only so many promotions and wins to go around. There is a bottleneck at the top. Which, in one sense, kind of works. With few prizes to go around the competition and innovation really ramps up. And that flurry of activity is generally good. But as Time 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 tick by something starts to happen. Due to the bottlenecking we start to have growing inequities as time passes. The Have's start having more haves. And the Have-Not's start having more nots.

This is the second flaw in capitalism. Over time, due to bottlenecking, capitalism leads to greater economic disparity. Despite an initial level playing field of, say, 100 employees, there is only one manager position. Someone gets that job and the increased pay that goes along with it. And this pay allows the kids in that family to go to a better high school and college, improving their human capital. That human capital and the old boys network (Dad is, after all, in management and not working on the factory floor) increases the probability of these kids ending up in management and not on the shop floor. This is no guarantee of course. But the odds of reaching the American Dream have ticked up a bit in your favor. And, over time, those odds accumulate.

This isn't to say capitalism is bad. It's just glitchy. Capitalism can't produce utopia. Every system is going to have its problems. And to say that capitalism is better than, say, communism isn't a claim that capitalism is flawless. It's isn't. It has two basic design flaws: It rewards corruption and it creates income inequities. In short, despite capitalism's promise of accurately assigning praise and blame (work = eating) it often fails to deliver.

Like I said, every economic system is contaminated by sin.

And this is hardly a controversial conclusion. Even Republicans feel a bit squeamish about defending CEOs. The only business owners it is safe to praise whole-heartedly are the small business owners. But CEOs and big corporations? There's something a bit shady, a bit too greedy about them. To be sure, Republicans are sympathetic to big business. But watch the rhetoric of the Republicans running for this year's nomination. They'll not sing the praises of CEOs and big business, though they will defend them from time to time, albeit obliquely. No, what they'll do ninety-nine times out of a hundred is sing the praises of small businesses. And why is that? Because we're aware that the system has a glitch. For not very virtuous reasons, big things tend to get too big in capitalism. Perhaps too big to fail. Or monopolies that stifle competition. Or increasing income inequity.

Now let me get back to the issue of how we assign praise and blame in capitalism and moralize socioeconomic status.

Recall, blame can be easily assigned if we all start off with a level playing field. But the playing field, as we've noted above, isn't level. So, given this unevenness, success is only going to be, at best, a rough approximation of virtue. Yes, it will have some approximation. Again, those who are responsible and work hard will, on average, rise to the top. Those who squander their opportunities or don't work will drift toward the bottom. Still, this correlation isn't perfect. Some people get head starts. Some people get lucky. And some people succeed because of vice rather than virtue (think of that Machiavellian co-worker who stabs you in the back to get the promotion or get you fired). And so on. In short, there are many virtuous and hardworking people who, in America today, aren't living the American Dream. And why does this happen in capitalism? Simple. The system isn't perfect.

And this puts us in a bit of a pickle. Given that the correlation between success and virtue is only approximate there is some ambiguity in how we should approach the issues of fairness and wealth redistribution. This in addition to the the generational flaw inherent in capitalism which produces, over time, greater economic disparity.

For example, if the correlation between success and virtue were exact then we really would struggle with the idea of wealth redistribution. We'd be taking something from someone who "earned" it and giving it to someone who is a bum. That doesn't seem right. We should reward virtue. (Again, we are imagining here that the correlation is exact. That those who aren't eating aren't working.)

But what if the correlation is less than exact? Let's say it's actually quite weak. That where I end up in life is more a matter of fortune and systemic corruption than my own virtue. More, that the lucky and/or corrupt "winners" get to pass their "winnings" on to their children, that the playing field isn't reset after each generation. (Call this the "trust fund baby problem" or the "old boys network problem".) Well, in that situation it seems that we'd try, as Americans have generation after generation, to remediate the situation via our social contract. Why? Because good, hardworking people are economically struggling. And lucky or less than virtuous people are living large. That doesn't seem right or fair. The system is no longer rewarding the virtuous.

Call this the theodicy of politics.

This political theodicy problem is, incidentally, what drives populist unrest. The ideal capitalist polarity of Rich = Good and Poor = Bad gets reversed and we start to see the sentiment emerge that Rich = Bad and Good = Poor (this sentiment is usually labeled "class warfare"). This reversal is what see in the lament psalms, hence my label of theodicy. (Incidentally, the polarity in Scripture where Good = Poor and Bad = Rich is called by theologians God's "preferential option for the poor" and it sits in tension with the capitalist polarity of Rich = Good.) When we see the populist polarity emerge we're going to see more voices crying out to rectify the situation. Attempts to move the wealth back to the virtuous poor and to correct the systemic inequities that created the uneven playing field. As I said, it seems that America has had to do from time to time.

One of the things I'm trying to say about all this is that, given the fuzzy correlation between virtue and success, we are looking out on something akin to Rorschach blot. There are examples and counterexamples aplenty that can help illustrate the strength or the weakness of the correlation between success and virtue. During this election year we'll see conservatives emphasize narratives that demonstrate a stronger correlation (think ACORN stories on Fox where Poor = Bad/Lazy) and liberals emphasizing narratives that demonstrate a weaker correlation (think fat cat Wall Street/CEO stories on MSNBC where Rich = Bad/Greedy).

The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle. How strong is the correlation between virtue and success in America today? It's hard to say. It's a debatable point. But one thing is clear, your views on the correlation affect how you see the world and how you think our social contract should be arranged.

And in light of that, I'd like to make a few concluding observations.

First, no one really knows what the actual correlation is. And because of that I think everyone needs to be a whole lot more humble about what is going on in America today. More, in light of this uncertainty we should pause to consider the counterexamples to all our examples. We need to get clear about just how unclear the situation is.

In this sense there is something healthy, if infuriating, in listening to the competing examples on, say, Fox and MSNBC. Each is providing the examples and counterexamples that demonstrate the fuzzy correlation. And this is why we get in trouble if we exclusively listen to only one set of examples. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the correlation is stronger or weaker than it actually is.

This is why, I think, political debate is often so unproductive. Rather than paying attention to the fuzzy correlation conservatives and liberals simply exchange examples and counterexamples thinking that they are "refuting" each other when, in fact, they are just talking about opposites ends of a shared and underlying reality. And it's hard to solve problems when you are only paying attention to 50% of the available information.

(As a case study, examine at the narratives that are dominant about what happened during the 2007 financial crisis. On the Right the examples are about individual irresponsibility, low income people buying more house than they could afford (Poor = Bad: poor being being greedy or dumb). On the Left, by contrast, the story is about a greedy Wall Street, their reckless leveraging and how the credit agencies hid the risk under AAA ratings (Rich = Bad: greedy bankers and Wall Street sharks). Which narrative is right? Well, both are right. And that's the point. Tell the whole story. Don't just lock in on 50% of the story and think you're telling the truth. You can't tune into only half the information and think you are describing reality.)

All this is why, I think, America has created a capitalism/socialism hybrid. We have the sense that the association between success and virtue is only approximate. We know there are glitches in the system. So we try, in each generation, to position our social contract somewhere in the "middle" and adjust it back and forth if we think it's drifting too far in one direction. Generally, these adjustments are small.

The point being, Obama isn't all that different from George W. Bush who wasn't all that different from Clinton who wasn't all that different from George Bush who wasn't all that different from Reagan. And so on. These guys really aren't all that different. At least when I look at them. Sure, they adjusted things one way or the other per their party. But voters voted in each case for that particular adjustment. Which is sort of the point of a democracy. But the larger social contract today, looked at from a big picture perspective, isn't radically different from when, say, Nixon was in office. Yes, adjustments have been made. And there will be more adjustments to come. Back and forth, back and forth, looking for the sweet spot of the fuzzy correlation.

Which is really just to say, in my long and tedious manner, that I don't know what the fuss is all about. I really do believe that if things get out of hand in one direction we'll have a new New Deal. And if things get out of hand the other way we'll have a reduction of government. Again, it's back and forth, back and forth.

We are pretty evenly divided in America. And that's what we'd expect if we were finding the middle of the correlation, the sweet spot. And yes, this makes us polarized. Red state. Blue state. Each sitting to one side of the sweet spot. But this also means everyone's doing their job. Bringing into the conversation (and voting booth) examples and information--whether that be about free riders on welfare or CEOs with Golden Parachutes--that we need to make good decisions.

Does that mean the wisdom of the crowd will lead to the best outcome? Not necessarily. But I'd rather trust all of us than only half of us.

To conclude, take all this for what it's worth. Which might not be much. Just some thoughts that were going through my head on my bike ride to work.

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90 thoughts on “The Fuzzy Correlation: A Ramble about Capitalism, Socialism and Politics”

  1. very insightful. i live outside the States and i often wonder just how much or little of the wealth in certain nations is at the expense of other nations. Like you i think the answer is fuzzy, I can find examples to lay the blame more at the door of poorer developing nations, then other examples and reasoning to lay primary blame on western empire and control of markets etc.
    Definitely we need humility and to listen to the other sides of the discussion.
    At the same time I think we should not let strong opposing views or even evidence paralyse us to the point we just go along with the flow and accept there is no better alternative to western capitalism.
    As you said the truth is somewhere in the middle. I wonder if that is merely the truth within the american context, but change the context to the world and i dont see the truth sitting in the middle in the sense of half way between american capitalist and more socialist or entitlement based views... because someone in the west living off welfare might actually be far better off than vast majority of rest of the world.

  2. It's also worth noting that the United States does more to encourage non-profits than most nations. This balances the bad "greed" side with the good "human potential" side.

    Politically speaking, I agree with you. There isn't much difference (by worldwide comparison) between the parties which is why many social justice organizations don't trust either side.

  3. Very interesting post.  As a statistician, I especially like the analogy of a randomized clinical trial.  I also wish it were possible to accurately calculate the correlation between virtue and success; as you mention, too much ink is spilled over anecdotal evidence.

    If I can add anything to this very comprehensive analysis, I would say that the tilted playing field gets even more magnified when the economy is bad: when there are not even enough jobs for those who *want* to work, it gets even harder to tell the lazy from the unfortunate from those who have given up hope.

  4. There exists no human system or invention which evenly adjusts the playing field.  From the moment of birth, we are all unevenly different.  And we must all somehow survive, and this requires that we work at something.  And work is often its own reward.  Every human requires basic goods and services in order to survive, and those things must be somehow produced, earned, purchased, and consumed.  If not, human life here would cease to exist.

    Liberal/progressive thinking allows people to feel good about themselves on behalf of the poor without actually getting personally involved.  This creates hypocrisy such as you see in the Hollywood elite and people like Michael Moore and Al Gore, who never mention their own carbon footprint or vast wealth.  Unfortunately, the current president has chosen to inflame the populace with his stunning class warfare rhetoric.  We hear a lot about CEO's, but no one ever suggests that George Clooney, Michael Jordan, or Oprah Winfrey make too much money, or that Steven Jobs didn't deserve his billions. 

    The engine of capitalism created in the USA the world's biggest economy, and so poverty in this country looks quite different than poverty in a place like Somalia.  The "trickle down" and "all boats rising" worked!  No adult in the USA goes without food unless they are mentally ill or because they chose to, since there are ways, both public and private, to obtain it for free in almost every city and town.  The same has been true of health care for at least the past 45 years.  Medicaid (since 1965) has insured that everyone get free treatment, along with federal laws requiring hospitals to treat everyone regardless of their ability to pay.  Also, there is a free medical clininc in most towns and cities in the US.

    But capitalism does require that there be more "makers" than "takers", no matter how uneven the playing field.  However, we now have a 15 trillion dollar debt hanging over our heads, more than half of all households are paying no federal income taxes, and more than 40% of all Americans are living off some type of federal or state entitlement.  The system is on the brink of collapse.  We may soon see actual grinding poverty on our own streets, instead of middle class students demanding free college educations.

  5. If I had a wish in any of this it is that, for whatever issue, people would become less ideological and more pragmatic. Desiring information over propaganda, thoughtfulness over emotion, and fixing problems over ideological purity.

  6. To be honest, given my fondness for the prophets, I don't a little bit of a class warfare rhetoric. True, I don't want to throw "the rich" under the bus. But I like the Magnificat.

  7. I'm aware that in many ways I'm not that qualified to speak about US politics, speaking as a British person. But there are three things that strike me as problematic in your argument. Firstly, you seem to suggest that there's a kind of Aristotelian middle that's the perfect spot between left and right. But the thing that always surprises me about the US is how far your existing consensus is from that of the UK. And even more different from that of somewhere like Sweden. How do you handle that? Second, it seems to me, again speaking from the outside, that a lot of your political conversations aren't about where the sweet spot is. You have mainstream(ish) conversations about whether your President is really American; about whether socialised health care will set up death panels. That doesn't sound to me like bringing examples and information to the conversation. Third, I think it overlooks the fact that although there's relative political stability in the US, it currently looks an awful lot like capitalism will ultimately do serious damage: it's already done huge harm to poorer countries; it's well on the way to causing serious climate change with catastrophic consequences; and the recent financial crisis is far from over. You can't separate out what's going on in the US to what's going on in the rest of the world. What do you do about those situations, which involve not just small adjustments, but serious chaos and suffering for huge numbers of people?

  8. I think about this a lot, especially being an American living abroad. This how I see capitalism playing out in northern Thailand. Due to the fact that capitalism, at its root, is about competition, I bemoan the fact that globalization and capitalism are so intimately connected. So many countries (not in the West) have to play the capitalism game (competition in the marketplace) just to survive, and they came late to the game. The sad part is that places like Thailand are historically highly collective and surviving and thriving were based on interdependence. Thus, I see something very gospel (interdependence and communal sharing--Acts 2 and 4) being bullied out by competition and independence. LIke you said, there is no perfect system. And there are advantages to capitalism. But, I get tired of people worshiping capitalism without giving serious weight to the negative fallout it has in places near and far. 
    There are other side effects as well that show the other side. For example, the minimizing of women in society and leadership roles came as northern Thailand tried to change to a market economy in order to keep up. This was due to the fact that northern women (traditionally the leaders in the family) had to withdraw so the men could do business in the larger, male-dominated market of the region. While that example might not be a an inherent fault of capitalism, it does reveal its power to shape societies in less than desirable ways (as well as in desirable ways). 

  9. Great post. And, for the most part, I'm with Sam ... I have just been noting to myself that, in the U.S., if a service is needed (the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare are prominently in my mind), then there seems to be a resentment of that industry's profits. There seems to be a crank-down more and more on healthcare providers in general, in an effort to limit their profits because it's "not fair" that the big bad doctors make money at the expense of poor sick people. Yet, industries that are not really necessary, such as booze and entertainment, are free to make all the money hand-over-fist that they want. So, how is this encouraging our best and brightest to do the hard stuff like become a physician or a psychologist? 

    A lot of the problems with capitalism can be traced back to special favors given to them by government. The politicans have been in bed with the insurance companies forever ... why else are insurance companies immune from prosecution when their decisions to pay or not to pay claims result in harm or death? I would agree that it is a good goal to try to level the playing field ... but quite frankly I don't trust government to do that. 

    OK, I'm through with my political mini-rant. Or maybe not ... I totally agree with your assessment of capitalism and communism/socialism. It would be nice if we could be what the communists assumed we were (motivated by the promise of the greater good for everyone). It would also be nice if we could be what the capitalists assumed we are (starting on a level playing field influenced primarily by how hard we work). Neither of course is true. 

    But, the idea of some this-worldly utopia freaks me out a little. I have no idea how Skinner thought that "Walden Two" was an attractive idea. I'm not sure I agree with your idea that we are continually "tweaking" the system back and forth ... but I do agree that political dissent is generally a good thing, and that gridlock in Washington is not necessarily bad. In fact, I think our founding Fathers set up the system for dissent and gridlock ... they were cynical enough about government to want the wheels of power to grind slowly.

  10. You can ask us for a lot of things, Dr. Beck, but HUMILITY? Thin ice, brother, thin ice.

    By which I mean to say: totally agreed. 

    Except... as an AmeriCanadian raised abroad in a "developing nation," I find it a little easier than most, perhaps, to think more globally. What this means is that I am regularly, frustratingly confronted with the fact that Americans have a very hard time understanding and remembering how far the scales are tipped in their favor. You are correct to say that both sides are correct, but I think that when we take into account the billions who live at or below subsistence, it becomes very hard to see the average modern American as anything other than a delusional autocrat who has become completely unmoored from economic reality - who has completely lost the ability to distinguish "want" from "need." 

    I, too, find political debate to be mostly unproductive. But perhaps not as much because both sides are whacking at opposite ends of the same element, as because both sides need to get to their knees in penitence, realizing that whacking the elephant is just a way to avoid looking around at all the starving children (there are plenty). 

    I wish I had the courage to live this and shout it from the mountaintops with my every word and action, but being a selfish, greedy American myself, well, I don't. 

  11. Yes, I left out the global perspective. (Typical American mistake on my part.) But I think the analysis of the post can be easily extended to include the competition among nations in a global economy and how the system increases GDP difference over time.

  12. I'm a bit shocked to hear you say that we don't tweak the system back and forth. Two quick examples: Clinton signing welfare reform and George W. Bush signing the prescription drug act for seniors.

    Back and forth, with the Democrat going toward smaller government and the Republican going toward socialism.

  13. Almost all Christians, including myself, are remarkably selective when it comes to living out the gospel. 
    As you pointed out in your post on Christ's absolute repudiation of warfare, if it's not what we wish to hear, we just don't hear it. His warning that wealth would prove to be an almost insuperable obstacle in gaining entry to the Kingdom of God has long since been airbrushed away...

  14. I didn't mean that I don't think the back and forth thing happens. I'm just not sure that we end up in stasis. To me, the use of the word "tweak" implies at least a semi-stasis over long periods of time (basins of attraction?) ... I think there is probably significant change happening, albeit over generations rather than years or decades. 

  15. Love this.  
    The worst example I know of right now for people that are good and working hard but making very little money are farmers.  The ones actually doing the work.  My husband and I had a small organic farm for two years.  He made the equivalent of $2 an hour while working his butt off.  After two years he went back to school to get his graduate degree so he could teach agriculture instead.  America rewards teachers more than farmers.  I really wish I knew how to fix this problem.  Subsidies made it worse.  Higher food prices causes other problems.  But if we don't reward our farmers for their work, there will be no farmers and thus no food.

  16. I have a rule that if anyone quotes 2 Thessalonians 3.10 they must immediately hire the first unemployed person they see or get them a job in their place of business. While it's true that folks tend towards the free ride, I've rarely met anyone who wasn't a hard worker if they felt they were getting from the work what they were putting into it.

    In Shakespeare's play "King John" one of the characters says,

    "Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
    And say there is no sin but to be rich;
    And being rich, my virtue then shall be
    To say there is no vice but beggary."

    And then at the end comments that

    "This England never did, nor never shall,
    Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
    But when it first did help to wound itself."

    which is the US in a nutshell.

  17. Speaking of empirical facts, dispassionately pursued: What if we were to adopt the notion that inter-class mobility is a reasonable if imperfect measure of socioeconomic opportunity? How would you expect different systems to stack up?

  18. This quote came to mind.
    I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man.
    I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government.
    The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .
    The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters              --C.S. Lewis

  19. I seriously doubt that there will be a new New Deal.  The US rich needed revival in US consumer markets during the Great Depression.  Growth of international markets causes them to need us much less now than then.

    A good U.S. economic history --- one that doesn't throw away 98% of the data --- is one of the rich continually getting nearly everything they want, with lower classes, luckily, often finding that their interests could be served somewhat well along with those of the rich.  That happy coincidence appears to be less often the case these days.

    The issue of public discourse isn't that (the national leaders of) the Republicans talk about half the data while the Democrats talk about the other half: the Republicans talk about 5% of the data, while the Democrats talk about a somewhat overlapping 5%.  None of them talk regularly about the poor.  None of them talk about systemic lack of access to the means of production.  Neither is discussing a radically democratic reform to such lack of access like, say, Jubilee.

    To me, a Christian political economy doesn't trouble itself with the correlation between virtue and prosperity.  It starts with justice --- everybody gets a shot at making a living --- and worries about other details later.

  20. For starters, the US system would come up pretty racist: blacks and hispanics rise out of poverty at lower rates and descend into poverty at higher rates than non-hispanic whites.

    Perhaps accepting class as a reasonable and just fixtrure of the economic landscape is a bad start.

  21. Yes, and to be clear for everyone, this isn't a post about a Christian or biblical view. It's a meditation on how people think about success, virtue and blame in capitalistic societies and how those associations are murkier than we might think.

  22. The number one problem with capitalism is that its days are numbered. It depends on perpetual growth to survive in a world with a population of seven billion that is rapidly emptying the earth of its limited resources. When the earth has nothing left, capitalism as a social vehicle will eventually run out of gas. Discussions as to whether or not capitalism works, is evil, etc. will become moot. After capitalism's inevitable, dwindling demise, we will all be forced into the lifestyles of our ancestors, forming tribes and becoming interdependent in order to survive. Ironically, the will to live may force us all to become enthusiastic communists.

  23. As of 11:27 am CST I don't think I'm an idiot for posting this. I've found the conversation, for the most part, to be very helpful and interesting.

    I'll keep you posted.

  24. I guess that I've long forsaken thinking about success, virtue, and blame in typically American ways.

    I did intend to push back fairly hard on the issue of framing: popular voices from the right and the "left" hardly begin to apprehend all the data and all the life situations.

  25. I think that's right. When you get way out there, where the shrillest voices are, there is no information. I was thinking of the more reasonable liberal and conservative voices, people who are making legitimate points on both sides of the issue.

  26. I know that statistics says that you only need a representative sample, but my big question is if the current polarized voting populace is representative enough in two ways.  1) The young, being young (and implied dumb), just don't vote.  Hence everything in our political-economy is geared to the elderly.  2) Most samplings of voters show them to be much wealthier (and more likely to believe the success = virtuous) than the population.  Are we ok with that, or are we really just iterating like you say around an outcome that is skewed.  And I don't think left/right is a great way to think about that.  The better way might be cognitive/non-cognitive.  What do the winners of nature's lottery in regards to intelligence owe those on the other side.  Universal college doesn't seem right.  Nor any of the other "socialism" items or the sexually lax general culture.  And the "capitalism" answers like free trade don't seem right either.  It isn't John IQ who pays the short-run price there (although it might be catching the lower rungs now).  It just seems to me that we are iterating around a mean that is from a narrow sample of those on the right half of the bell curve of intelligence. 

  27. This is exactly why the new Tea Party was formed.  We as a nation have collectively forgotten that our government was set up by people who wanted checks and balances -- but most of all SMALL and LIMITED government.

    Progressive thinking ignores human nature, obligations, and responsibility, and dictates a pro-active nanny state without regard to the unintended consequences (such as the dissolution of marriage).  Which is why, over time, we have come to expect the government to do almost everything for us. In the name of compassion we are now all slaves to the state.

  28. I'm not sure what counts as "shrill" and "way out there" for you.  The poor are talking about the injustice of poverty, and that's not part of any popular discussion.  I think that talking about suffering is reasonable, even if it's not "mainstream."

    You seem to be casting popular discussion (what goes on in the national media) as one between two opposed halves that roughly surround a sensible middle ground.  I find that the national media, the national parties, and the national government talk about the concerns of the rich (and just enough of the upper middle class and aspirants to it) because the rich are in control of all three.  The sensible middle ground that they're talking over has guaranteed unemployment and no vision of a society without rule by the rich.

    I suppose I can leave it there, since you appear to be most interested in this post in the internal moral judgments of Americans.  I simply wish to point out that listening to both Democratic and Republican partisans hardly lends balance to those judgments.

  29. That's a fair critique. The issue I'm focusing on does seem small fry in relation to the bigger issues you are talking about. More, seeking a "middle ground" might be a gross (and immoral) missing of the point.

  30. "Slaves of the state"? Sam, you're cracking me up.

    After four years of Obama (or eight) things are going to look pretty much exactly as they looked under Reagan.

  31. Let me add something.

    Here's the history, as I see it.

    Budgets were balanced under Clinton, with surplus. And let's recall, Clinton was the worst President in the world as I remember the rhetoric then. Same sort of panic we're seeing now. Same sort of panic liberals felt under George W. So the panic is starting to bore me and wear a little thin.

    Anyhow, Clinton's surpluses evaporated and deficits begun under George W. Financial crisis in 2007. Obama elected in 2008 and....he's a socialist anti-Christ? I don't get it. Your taxes have gone down over the last four years. The Democrats and Republicans are trying to work out a deficit reduction deal. Sure they'll likely screw it up, but that's a pox on both their houses. And you know why they'll likely screw it up? The older white voters (the GOP and Tea Party base) don't want significant entitlement reform.  In short, there's hypocrisy aplenty to go around. Everyone should just calm down.

  32. Time will tell, won't it.

    I am not politicizing anything.  I am simply doing the math: federal income taxes, withholding (FICA, Medicare) taxes, state income taxes, state and local sales taxes, personal property (home, car) taxes, and user fees (check your phone and utility bills).

    Whether the money went on a war or to treat someone who is ill and has no money of their own, the first three-and-one-half months of this year your entire salary was confiscated by somebody to pay all the bills. 

    Americans will pay more in taxes in 2011 than they will spend on groceries, clothing and shelter combined. (The  That, by definition, makes you a "slave" to someone else.

  33. By which, presumably, you mean that the very existence of socioeconomic gradients is inherently immoral?  Good luck with that one.

  34. *swoon*  *chuckle*

    In one breath, we lament that two parties are practically undifferentiated and cannot therefore be trusted; in the next, we rail and wail against apocryphal sins of "ideological purity."

    If you want differentiation, ideology is essential.  You cannot convince me that a Bachmann presidency, for example, would look little different than a BHO presidency.


  35. Dr. Beck, political pragmatism *cough* *cough* is what gives us the back-slapping splitting-of-differences that ratchets up spending in an inexorable, monotonic, accelerating arc.  We need ideology as a sharp corrective.  We've now had nearly three years of ideological corrective to the progressive side; fortunately, we have empirical evidence of what that has gotten us.  It's past time to swing far to the ideological right, devolve power back to the states where it belongs, and let the states be laboratories for much of what BHO wants to concentrate in federal hands.

    We NEED more than ever.

  36. As the youngsters say, OMG!

    Speaking of youngsters, let's consider who is being conscripted - yea, even indentured, by force of law - to pay for today's spending orgy:  your children and mine, and their children.  We are placing a claim on their future incomes to an unconscionable degree.  And they WILL pay it, one way or another, either by having their (!) debt monetized, by having their taxes raised to the stratospheric levels we had before Reagan (>70%), and/or by ensuring that 10% unemployment is the new 5%.

  37. Don't you think it would be wise for us to pay the full price of the register, transparently and fully, including the uncertainty premium that attends a weather-driven enterprise, rather than through the back door of a smoke-filled room in which ADM, Grassley, Harkin, and Big Ethanol grease one another's palms?  I sure do...provided that paying full price for food up front was accompanied by a commensurate reduction in the overt and hidden taxes I've been paying to keep that full price concealed.

  38. To clarify, I'm not talking about all the metrics of the relative health of our economy. Those go up and down for all sorts of reasons, many out of the control, as you well know, of the POTUS. I'm not talking about things being "better" or "worse" under any given administration. If we play that game Clinton, that devil, was a wonderful President, correct?

    My point about Reagen has to do with our social contract. Sam used the phrase "slaves of the state." And my response is simple: Explain how your relationship to the US government, our social contract, is any different today than it was in the 80s. Isn't not, as far as I can see, very different at all. Nor do I expect that to change. Hence my conclusion in the post: All the Presidents are just ciphers and everyone should calm down.

    But if you, or anyone else, really wants to convince me that Obama is the anti-Christ and the End of Days is coming with tyranny and slavery and blah, freaking, blah, blah, let me just declare my great fatigue and ho-hum boredom with all that drama.

    Because here's the deal. Is Obama the best President ever? Ummmm. No. Then, again, Bush kind of botched it up a bit as well, huh? And I'm not seeing a whole lot of light coming from the current GOP field. For goodness sakes, Rommey's going to be the nominee. He's going to set us all right?

    Again guys, can't we just calm down? The people we are voting for (or against) aren't all that different or special.

  39. "...[capitalism] has two basic design flaws: It rewards corruption and it creates income inequities."
    Let us, for sake of argument, stipulate the first and consider the second of those two ostensible "flaws."

    1.  Income inequities are entirely rational.  For reasons that should be obvious, we do not want a civil engineer designing bridges to make minimum wage; and we do not want a hormone-ridden, 16-year-old boy making $100k/yr sacking groceries at United.  We MUST have income inequities in order to assign prices rationally to various forms and degrees of risk reduction.  If my Ding-Dongs [TM] are crushed by a 15 oz. can of kidney bean puree, we might have mitigated that risk by paying the experienced, mature, perspicacious civil engineer $100k to sack my groceries, but at what cost?  Certainly not a cost commensurate to the potential damage.  Conversely, we may not like paying $100k/yr to each of a team of engineers designing a massive bridge over Copper Creek, especially if we could pay that 16-year-old basket case to do it instead...right?

    Much of our national income disparity is empirically traceable to perfectly rational distinctions like age, experience, specialized education, etc., and the irrational distinctions that remain are being steadily eroded.

    2.  Income inequities create incentives to excellence and hard work.  How this could be disputed, in light of human nature, is beyond me.  In fact, a great deal of the natural world itself operates - by which we mean, creating fluxes that in turn create structure and predictable product - is a consequence of driving forces that are proportional to gradients.  For those of you in Rio Linda, that means that the absence of a gradient nearly always implies an absence of flux and therefore an absence of creativity.  No gradients = maximum entropy = death.  ("It's not just a good idea, its the law.")

    None of this is to say that capitalism is flawless.  But we are better off focusing on its real shortcomings rather than inventing shortcomings that sound populist.  Income inequities, where they are rational, are essential to a functioning, creating society.


  40. Landowners versus sharecroppers is a difference of kind, not merely degree, and that difference in kind is what I mean by class.  You might think of class differently.

  41. Wages also serve as indicators of the most needed and desired services in the society. Those jobs that receive greater remuneration more often than not (and, yes, there are exceptions here) involve greater costs, risks, skills, etc. or less common abilities and aptitudes. Paying a lot of money to civil engineers serves to encourage young people to train to serve that need of society. Without such high wages, people would be less inclined to give the heavy investment of time and energy required to become competent in the area. The lowering of the wages of certain types of workers is a signal that tells us that society's needs in that particular area are largely being served and that they would be of more use elsewhere. Without disparities in wages, workers would merely do the jobs that they wanted to do, rather than being driven to serve the needs of the wider society. We would have much less indication of which skills were needed in which area. Market-set wages are a rather efficient way of channelling resources and abilities in the direction of greatest service. It seems to me that a better alternative has yet to be suggested.

  42. ...yes, Bush botched it up.  A lot.  Terribly.

    Having thereby established my _bona_fides_, let us join together in a little thought experiment.  Let's say qb has conscripted you to shovel ferret manure, and qb pays promptly at the end of each day.  And let's say that Herr Gottschalk has decided to tax you thusly:

    1.  At the end of the day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you must endorse your paycheck over to him, after which he will take your checks to the bank and drive straight to the ol' watering hole for an all-night orgy.


    2.  At the end of the day on Monday, you must endorse your paycheck over to him, after which he goes over and repairs the bridge near your property.

    Is there any difference in your motivation to work for qb under those terms?  Honestly?

  43. Richard, have you read this month's Time Magazine article on upward mobility in America? It's an interesting correlation with this post. In fact, I just read the Time article last night and thought this post complemented it well.

  44. The inequities are of kind, not just degree.  The rich need not work to survive.  Very many poor cannot support a single dependent on minimum wage at forty hours per week.

    And forced unemployment.

    And markets aren't rational.

    And even if they were, their objectives aren't obviously moral.

    And please don't channel Rush Limbaugh.  That greatly encourages us to presume that you are a heartless, misogynistic racist who doesn't want to listen to what others have to say, and despite what I think are your blind spots, I've never thought that about your generally gentle spirit.  Please, please don't make it hard on us who want to extend fellowship and the benefit of the doubt to you.

  45. Well, OK, but that's a technical definition that's not in play in today's public discourse (such as it is). Classes today simply mean rich vs poor, Lexus vs. Datsun, abacus vs. iMac, Boar's Head vs. Spam, and so forth.

  46. We now have a president who is hell-bent on bringing about the collapse of our entire economy, and you think it's boring.   I think you need to get out more.  BHO is a BULLY, and he fights dirty (think Lockheed and Yucca Mountain).

    I tend to judge the POTUS by moral code rather than politics or even outcomes.  Given that, the two worst presidents in my memory (going back to DWE) are Nixon and BHO.  Why?  Because each set new standards of low in ethics, truthfulness, disregard for the rule of law, and lack of leadership.  In this area (ethics/morality), the POTUS has a duty to the country above him/herself, and these two were by far the worst.

    I believe we can do better.

  47. It's not merely technical to those millions of Americans who are painfully aware every day that they have no right to work for a living.  They know that class is that kind of difference.

  48. "We've now had nearly three years of ideological corrective to the progressive side [citation needed]"

    It's hard to take this seriously.  Treasury has always done what the rich have wanted, no less so since 3Q 2008.  That's a pretty significant observation that your hypothesis fails to account for.  What would be the progressive corrective begins to make up for that --- that makes up for Obama, Geithner, &co.?  How is that not the 98-percent-of-the-facts blind spot that I've mentioned elsewhere today?  How are those of us who can account for that phenomenon supposed to find anything of use in your assertion?

  49. Yes, but that conversation isn't, as far as I can tell, happening in the US (but then again, I'm also on the outside.) And I must agree with what Marika Rose is (I think) suggesting, that this middle you are thinking about isn't a middle in any external sense, but the point that happens to be between the existing parties. For instance, we can imagine that in Atlantis there were two
    competing factions: one thought that they should be governed by a dictator who held the position for life; the other thought they should be governed by a dictator who was replaced by lottery each year. A wise philosopher looked on and said that the middle would be the thing, and so they had a dictator who was replaced by lottery every ten years. But I don't think we in 2011
    would agree that such a system was actually the median of possible or ideal systems, and perhaps if that phiosopher had looked outside of his own context, he'd have seen that, too. (Or maybe he'd just have thought of those other models as collected around the false centre he perceived as located within his own country's political culture. That's what most people do.)

    And your argument seems to depend on the central position being actually central in some external way, a happy medium rather like a target which the US is shooting at, in which Democrats bias to the left and Republicans bias to the right. What I see is that Republicans shoot at the side of a barn, and the Democrats shoot, and then a target is painted between them and this is what they are "supposed" to be shooting at--but the middle of the barn wall could easily be five feet to the left yet and six feet lower besides.

    Apologies if this has already been covered elsewhere. I'm not wading though 53 comments to find out.

  50. And I should also add that the "competition among nations in a global economy" and "competition among individuals in a national economy" analogy may not actually hold. Do you know of any evidence that it does? Nations don't act as single, coherent agents in the way that humans do. (People don't have economic actors inside of them making purchases that aren't in the person's best interest, for example. My spleen can't decide whether to buy imported products.)

  51. Last thing: I should say that I this way of thinking about things to Noam Chomsky's discussion of the media coverage of the Korean War (or was it Vietnam?).

  52. "On the Right the examples are about individual irresponsibility, low income people buying more house than they could afford (Poor = Bad: poor being being greedy or dumb). On the Left, by contrast, the story is about a greedy Wall Street, their reckless leveraging and how the credit agencies hid the risk under AAA ratings (Rich = Bad: greedy bankers and Wall Street sharks). Which narrative is right? Well, both are right. And that's the point. Tell the whole story."

    Great article. Part our nature as humans is to always be judging others in comparison to ourselves. (Because we ate of that "fruit" we now "know" who is good and who is evil.) Anyone with less (poor) is lazy and undeserving. Anyone with more (rich) is greedy and arrogant. But as to myself, well I'm just right. And it's always good to be right. ;) 

  53. Richard-

    My lament - similar to yours - is that we spend too much time talking in the vagarities of broad political philosophies, and too little time talking in terms of actual policy.

    Not that there is no use for political philosophy - but we need to view them as *tools* rather than absolute, moral standards to be defended to the death (or, at least, until time is up on our radio/tv talk show of choice). Sometimes, a market-based solution is a good approach to a problem. Sometimes, "socializing" an industry or interest is a good approach. All liberal democracies are a melange of capitalistic systems and socialistic systems.

    Pitting capitalism and socialism against each other, as though real-world policymaking were as simple as picking one or the other, is what makes our political dialog so unhealthy and unruly.

  54. A few comments following on from Marika's.

    Where exactly are the mainstream American voices for socialism (and I mean genuine, dyed in the wool, ideological socialism, not the sort of socialism that exists only in the fevered imaginations of right wing paranoiacs)? I can't say that I have heard them yet. But then again, I am another outsider and perhaps just haven't been exposed to this part of the American political conversation. Claiming to be seeking the 'sweet spot' between capitalism and socialism, when socialism isn't really a voice in the conversation, though, seems a little odd to me.In a country as large and diverse as the US, why should we even presume that there is a single 'sweet spot'? What reason do we have to believe that a single form of economic system will be equally functional or serviceable in every situation? If nations have the capacity to resist a uniform logic of a particular globalized form of the capitalist marketplace, why can't alternative forms of markets be pursued and maintained on a more regional or local scale?The modern marketplace, like the contemporary multinational corporation, is so vast, complex, and involved that realistic management of it is virtually impossible. Our collective actions within the marketplace can have huge and unforeseen consequences that impact upon the lives of people on the other side of the world. As our footprint increases, and the world is placed at our fingertips, the powers that shape the lives of those at the bottom of the economic food chain become increasingly inaccessible to them. A decision made in a boardroom in Manhattan can destroy the livelihoods of people on the other side of the world, people who have no means of protest and challenge. When innumerable different economic transactions accumulate to bring us even the most basic products that we own, our ability to assess the exact impact of our actions in the economy is seriously limited. Modern management can often be profoundly ignorant of the actual process of production, and no longer serves much of a meaningful supervising and monitoring purpose. Beyond serving as convenient scapegoats, one wonders what purpose many politicians and managers serve in the vast machinery of government or corporate structure, that gradually renders them practically largely redundant (albeit with an important symbolic purpose). In such a context, it is hard for anyone genuinely to assume responsibility. The impossibly complex modern economy or system of government gradually becomes immune to genuine oversight, and comes to be seen as a sort of capricious beast that has an independent existence to which we must conform our practices.

    In such a context we are faced with several questions. How do we gain oversight and achieve knowledge of the effects of our actions, sufficient to assume genuine responsibility for them? If we can't achieve such knowledge, to what extent is moral participation in the market a possibility? Are we morally obligated to refrain from certain forms of economic activity? In a profoundly interconnected world where the reckless economic activity of a few actors can have profound and devastating consequences for millions, how ought we to manage such risk? Can many of our problems be traced back to the particular technical and abstracting systems of management that dominate modern governments and businesses? When we start to set up impersonal bureaucratic systems, techniques, protocols, procedures, and the like exhaustively to manage our governments, businesses, etc., to what extent are we abdicating responsibility that we could (and should) otherwise be exercising? Are we rendering structures increasingly dull to challenges and questions of legitimacy and justice as no human being is ultimately taking genuine responsibility or exercising sovereignty, but merely serves as a functionary of the system? What might it look like if we were to try to exercise personal sovereignty over and responsibility for our actions in the marketplace? etc.

  55. Seems like the good people who post here have enough wealth and leisure to think and reflect in whatever looney fashion they choose--including yours truly.  Which may mean that we more often than not we contribute, despite what we intend and write, to the dismissive rhetoric of the party that James recognized: the party of "be ye warmed and filled." For those of us who are rich by global standards do the words of Jesus apply: "sell your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me"?  

    God have mercy.

  56. Josh, very good observations. You should feel very confident in sharing this way of thinking anywhere you have opportunity. Having lived abroad you have a perspective many aren't privvy to. The way Dr. Beck walked through the arguments here is a good example of how to do it. Most of us are sheep and will follow the way the rest of the sheep are going. That makes most of us more "sheepish" than evil. What Americans need most is reasoned argument rather than a tongue lashing.

  57. I have two reactions to this comment:

    1) Calling Obama "progressive" is almost laughable - he's only progressive in the sense that conservatism has taken a sharp stumble to the right. If Obama is progressive, then so were Reagan and Nixon. (Did you know that Reagan suggested that the rich should pay more? [] Class warfare!)

    Healthcare is a great example: if Obama had really stuck to progressive ideology, we'd have a public option (which, as the rest of the world shows, would lead to much cheaper and better outcomes). Instead, he took it off the table pretty early in the process, leaving us with some marginally better reforms that arguably help out insurance companies more than consumers.

    2) If you're saying that ideology has a place in politics, then I can agree with that: it's a starting point for our discussions about moving from the inefficient and ineffectual to improvements and innovations in making our country work better. But if you're insisting that ideology could be adhered to blindly, without consideration for compromise and moving forward, then that almost seems self-evidently wrong. That's what leads to gridlock and ineffective governance, as we have seen especially in the past year.

    By the way, why are commenters referring to our president as BHO? I might be reading too much into that, but the choice of going with initials seems a little bit suggestive (you know, since he's got that awful foreign name Hussein as his middle name). There are practical reasons to do that for the Bushes (differentiation), as there was for FDR and LBJ, but it's simply not a common practice. You don't see people refer to Reagan as RWR, Clinton as WJC (or BJC), etc. Again, I want to be charitable and conclude that no such nefarious intent is present, but I have virtually never seen anyone left-leaning use initials to refer to Obama (and in fairness, a lot of right-leaning individuals don't do this, either).

  58. Oh, yes, by way of full disclosure, I am a full-blown, Dan's Bake Sale alumnus Dittohead.  Bring on the hate!  The irony will be delicious.  qb

  59. Jim, I think you've hit the nail square on the head with that observation about how we judge and view everything in comparison to ourselves.

  60. For example, "Dubya."  Google it and get back to us on how that was used pejoratively by the hard left for eight full years.

  61. I love your idea of fuzzy correlation, and your recognition that America is deeply capitalist and socialist--both. Exactly.

    Given that, however, I sometimes want to side with conservatism--not as a role-back to pure laissez-fare capitalism, but simply as a braking system on the unbridled notion of ever-expanding entitlements. For a modest conservative (like me), the assumption isn't that the system is completely fair and in no need of correction. It's that after allocating huge percentages of our economy to public education, federal start-up loans, progressive taxing, welfare safety nets, disaster relief, etc., etc., it is proportionally more likely that people are taking too little responsibility to make their own way forward, than that people are trying to do so but being blocked by the inherent (and difficult-to-track) inequities of pure capitalism. For a modest conservative (like me), the idea is not that we should undo every progressive reform but that we cannot demand, every decade, ever more of these reforms (more free childcare, paid leave, unending unemployment benefits, universal healthcare). The trade-offs of this ever-increasing "progressive" may eventually result in fewer people actually having a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, precisely because they now over-depend on the government to somehow make it all work.

    My point here is not that we have reached this theoretical tipping point. It is simply that the existence of such a tipping point is, I think, a real possibility--that someone could want more quasi-socialism in the 1920s but, by the 21st century, decide that the pendulum had swung too far the other way. This is, it seems to me, a far cry from a pure rejection of all things that smack of socialism.

  62. I don't see how you can say that the "social contract" is not different than in the 80s. As far as I can tell, we are now supposed to expect from our government EVERYTHING that people expected from the government in the 80s--plus prescription drugs when we are older (Bush)--plus universal health care (Obama)--plus employment benefits that do not end after a discrete number of months (Obama).

    My point is not that Obama is vastly different than past Presidents, but only that a "ratchet effect" obtains for entitlements. I have no idea whether a private capitalist economy can continue to support any given expanding entitlement. Will people stop wanting to produce medicine, to provide healthcare, or to hire people, in sufficient numbers to degrade our quality of  medicine/ healthcare/ employment)? I don't know. But I do believe that these "capitalist" endeavors have become more difficult, not just under Obama but also under Bush, compared to simply finding ways to siphon more money from the expanding state. That's the flip side of making life better for people who can't pay for their medicine, or can't afford insurance, or can't get a job.

    My question is not whether Democrats are all closet socialists, but whether Democrats are (marginally) more likely to speed up the ratchet effect--an effect that tends to continue under both parties.

  63. "Welfare reform" did little or nothing to decrease the real dollars spent on social programs. (This may be a good thing.) As best I can understand, it was forced upon Clinton by a Republican congress (and by conservative rhetoric winning popular support), and the powers of government involvement/ compassion quickly reduced it to a mere accounting trick while the system continued to march in the same direction it had been marching all along.

    Certainly you are right that Bush too increased the entitlements both for seniors and for public education. Yet I have not hear a single critique of him from Democrats that did not begin with the assumption that he should have done more to expand the entitlements, that he was a big nasty meany for not doing so.

    I don't think we are really tweaking the system back and forth here--only occasionally (and ineffectually) tapping the brakes.

  64. I have used this same line of reasoning (i.e., in the name of compassion we now all suffer).  We have a debt of 15 TRILLION dollars and the current president seems more than OK with that.  In addition, he has stated on more than one occasion that he will "transform" America.  He wants to "spread the wealth".  His policies are socialistic, and when he cannot pass a law constitutionally, he appoints a czar and writes regulations to get his way.  He favors labor unions at the expense of right-to-work states (through the NLRB).  After the expenditure of over $20 billion of our dollars, he summarily closed Yucca Mountain.  We all just have to put up with spent nuclear fuel in our own backyards (I live four miles from a nuclear power plant).

    The effect of the policies of this administration has been to shut down any new hiring by businesses both small and large.  They will not hire because there is both uncertainty over healthcare and lack of demand.  While liberals shout "racism" at anyone who citicizes the president, the current Justice Department and Attorney General have officially racist policies in place (they have been ordered not to prosecute black-on-white crime). 

    The tipping point is here.  Soon there will be inflation on a level we have not seen in our lifetimes.  Most of us have already lost 30% or more of our life savings and home equity.  The rest apparently are employed, rent, enjoy great health, and have never saved for retirement.  I understand why they see no crisis. 

  65. I'm pretty sure that Bush's biggest criticism for Medicare Part D from the left is that it (like so many things Bush pushed) was unfunded, not that it was a stupid move in general. (I personally have no real opinion on whether it was good or bad, but I think anyone who espouses fiscal responsibility should recognize that this is a valid criticism.)

  66. Lara, I suspect that you're right, in the sense that agriculture policies do often hurt small farms - but that's not really who the subsidies are for. I work (teach, actually) in a rural community that is heavily invested in agriculture, and while there's a fair amount of poverty, there are also plenty of farmers who make quite a good living at it. I do think, however, that it is quite untrue that "America rewards teachers more than farmers." (I might be slightly biased, admittedly, but I hardly feel rewarded.)

    In general, though (although if you repeat this to anyone I work with or live near, I will deny it for my own safety), I think that farm subsidies should definitely be eliminated, especially subsidies to support ethanol, which is an absurd idea to begin with.

  67. I should also add that a big beneficiary of farm subsidies are corporate farms, perhaps moreso than individuals.

  68. OK, "FDR." Why not just "FR?"

    If it were I, "BHO" would be far preferred to "BO." In my own case, "BWA" is better than "BA." What color's the sky over there? Much ado about nuthin'.

  69. BTW, qb calls BS here too. You most certainly WERE insinuating a pejorative intent, by referring to "that awful foreign name, Hussein."

    If you expect me to believe you were not accusing qb of xenophobia, you, [silly].

  70. It's possible, of course, that I am simply "one of the rich" and that therefore my skepticism about the degree of socialism in this country are unfounded. That very possibility is, however, a reason (in my mind) to be skeptical about the current degree of socialism: the fact that, in its Democrat form, the current system in this country considers me "one of the poor." I have never paid (significant, non-sales) taxes, and I have repeatedly qualified to collect money from the government. Thus the idea that there should be even MORE entitlements lest "the poor" not get enough money causes cognitive dissonance for me. Now, if they were taking more money away from me to give it to truly poor people, that would be different. But they aren't. And I am finding plenty of extra in my budget to give away to the true poor, in ways that have nothing to do with the government (and I'm kinda glad that it doesn't).

  71. The classic definition of socialism is state ownership of property and the means of production--far different from redistributive and state regulated means of production.  But I did not have political policy in mind but rather personal and collective choices that followers of Jesus in our capitalist/consumerist/state-regulated/policy-shaped society tend to avoid.  Augustine's words in his commentary on the 95th Psalm are apropos: “Do you, because you are unjust, expect the judge not to be
    just? Or because you are a liar, will the truthful one not be true? Rather, if
    you wish to receive mercy, be merciful before he comes; forgive whatever has
    been done against you; give of your abundance. Of whose possessions do you
    give, if not from his? If you were to give of your own, it would be largess;
    but since you give of his, it is restitution. For what do you have, that you
    have not received? These are the sacrifices most pleasing to God: mercy,
    humility, praise, peace, charity. Such as these, then, let us bring and, free
    from fear, we shall await the coming of the judge who will judge the world
    in equity and the peoples in his truth.”


  72. The US also built its economy with slave labor, child labor, stolen land, and broken treaties, to name a few dirty deeds. Some opportunistically nabbed spoils from colonial empires, e.g. Spain, were also beneficial. There's much more the to history than you let on.

    "We may soon see actual grinding poverty on our own streets..." This already exists. You live in a bubble.

  73. Yeah, I realize I'm using "socialism" sloppily--but the economy has changed from hard objects (which the government can just "own") to liquid flow of cash/ services. If we reach the point that most people pay out most of their money to the government, which is expected to provide most of the services (health care, education, and so forth), it's hard to argue that "the government doesn't own" the means of production. And anybody who wants to challenge me for not making enough hard choices on behalf of the poor, as a follower of Jesus, is always automatically right. But anybody who wants to claim that it's because I'm rich (which I am) that I don't trust certain public-policy decisions for (in Beck's terms) balancing socialism with capitalism, I may not agree.

  74. I think maybe your perspective on the flaws of capitalism can be distilled into something better than the two you have. Those are both symptoms of the design flaw. For capitalism to work as best it can every individual has to be free and able to participate.

    "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." ~ GK Chesterton

  75. I appreciate how you made the points: "capitalising" on sin and rampant human-sin-in-the-whole system.

    Red State/Blue State + general stuckness = runaway military spending + runaway social spending. It's like a dysfunctional marriage where each spouse has a credit card and they keep running up the debt while blaming the other.
    I like what Ron Paul said about bailing out the big banks: (my paraphrase) "Not that I would advocate it, but why wouldn't you just divide that [bailout] money among every citizen equally?" 

    Whether the politicians claim to be conservative or liberal, it seems to me that those who support this preferential treatment of the irresponsible rich [eg bankers who "can't" go bankrupt] can't genuinely be either for socialism or small government.

    Why wouldn't we be genuinely socialist instead of rewarding the rich who not only perform poorly, but greedily and at the expense of the working poor? Or on the other hand, why wouldn't we have a humbler foreign policy if we really believe in a small government?

    I suppose the answer to the questions is "FEAR and INSECURITY," but I suppose that's for a psychologist to explain.

  76. [This isn't letting me reply to qb directly for some reason, so I'm adding it under my own post.]

    First, to the insinuation of xenophobia: taking that out of the larger context of my comment is disingenuous. That comment was sarcastic, but my comment as a whole noted that I can't necessarily ascribe pejorative intent to the choice of initials, even though I might suspect it in general.

    Second, I couldn't tell you why three initials are used when they are, but I can't think of a single president who is regularly and consistently referred to by their initials that isn't a case of differentiation. (The only case I can think of where a president isn't referred by initials when differentiation is necessary is with John Adams and John Quincy Adams.) So saying that "BO" is a more palatable option than "BHO" (which I can't frankly disagree with) misses the point: there is no reason to use Obama's initials at all. Even if you have no such motives (and despite the fact that you do obviously seem rather opinionated about our president, charity demands that I give you the benefit of the doubt), you might be well-advised that your use of it puts you in some bad company.

  77. What always struck me about Adam Smith was what he thought should be done with wealth once you'd been a successful capitalist. This new wealth was meant to be used 'for good'. Capitalism was designed to be a system in which the conditions were ripe to enable the greatest potential for philanthropy, rather than for the accumulation of wealth per se. The wealth was not meant to be an end in itself. 

    I live in the UK, and I have long respected the American tradition of philanthropy. I don't think it should replace taxes (because some unpopular things are necessary, so relying on voluntary contributions is not in the national interest) but I do think the generous spirit of philanthropy is something very much missing in the UK. People accumulate wealth and squirrel it away in Switzerland for their children's children. And what we wind up with is the same feudal, aristocratic mess we were trying to replace with meritocratic capitalism.

    Thank you for your post, it has helped my thinking through some of these issues.

  78. Richard, your original post has some flaws:

    1.  There is a difference between "the pursuit of self interest" and "greed."  The former can be engaged without lapsing into the latter.
    2.  A country's GDP is infinite; my piece of the pie does not necessarily diminish yours.
    3.  People who pass on wealth to their children were not necessarily involved with either "luck" or "corruption."  A third option is those who lived beneath their means, saved, and invested.  80% of all millionaires are first-generation.
    4.  According to a new study by economists from the University of Chicago and Notre Dame, the median income of Americans has risen nearly 50% since 1980.  Thus, the argument that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer" really does not bear out.  For more info about this, see this link:
    5.  People are not automatically disadvantaged at birth by those who create weatlh; they are, I would argue, often disadvantaged by parents who gave them birth under poor circumstances or when they were not wanted. 



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