The Rise of the American Taliban

As an economist, I have been watching this drama unfold since the late 70s, although it began earlier—a deliberate effort to rouse the passions of people who felt marginalized by people of color, immigrants, non Christians, and women and wanted to “take their country back.”  Perhaps to 1861. This is the war (Civil war? War of the Rebellion? War Between the States? War of Northern Aggression?)  that is a fire still smoldering 167 years after it supposedly ended. So it’s been a long time coming. But it’s here, and the misogyny has just proved itself as powerful as the racism. The purpose of this concerted, well-funded effort was to distract citizens and voters fromt he growing inequiality, deterioration of public services, land lack of basic protections enjoyed in other advanced nations by blaming it on the current whipping boy–people of color, immigrants, refugees, imaginary socialists,, welfare queesns…

And I am angry, very angry.  I am the grandmother of four granddaughters of child-bearing age living in a red state.  They have been stripped of the rights that their mothers and grandmothers enjoyed. I was married in Connecticut before Griswold in 1968 made contraception legal there, but my husband and I cheerfully defied the law and no one cared.  It was legal to sell condoms for avoiding STDs and birth control pills to restore menstrual regularity, which were apparently epidemic among the tate’s citizens. These blue laws were like prohibition, driving what was legal in other states underground and making the sales and use of these products a little harder but no less prevalent. But today’s penalties are much more stringent, and legislators are looking to find every possible escape rout and to shut abortions and perhaps evetually contraceptiondown.

What can we do? 

  1. Most of my blog readers are South Carolinians.  Talk to your legislators, who will reconvene for a special session later in the fall.  Abortion is on the agenda.  Try to urge them to vote no or better yet, to soften the impact with more time and exceptions.  Look for ways to hold the putative fathers accountable with DNA tests and obligations (or in the case of rape or incest, legal penalties). If you are not from South Carolina, do what you can where you live to keep a woman’s right to choose alive.
  2. Seek out ways to support women seeking abortions if they need to travel.
  3. 3. Harness the power of the vote—in remaining primaries if your state hasn’t primaries already, in candidate events and putting those running on the spot about what they will and will not support (don’t let them do a mealy-mouthed Susan Collins on you).
  4. Help people register and get to the polls. Now what the registration deadlines are, what’s available in early voting and/or mail-in voting, how to find their ballot, and drive them to the polls.
  5. Take every opportunity to remind people of the Martin Niemoller quote on the rise of Naziism:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.Be aware that this court decision is part of a larger systemic effort to undermine democracy and replace it with an oligarchy of rich, greedy old white men! Yes, there are plenty of good, caring, compassionate old white men. I was married to one. But those are characteristics shared by the beneficiaries of cutting taxes and services, gerrymandering, enhancing minority rule, discouraging voting, and fomenting hatred against the “other.” And creating hare-brained theological justifications for forbidding abortion and contraception that are so out of touch with a Christianity of love, respect, compassion, and second chances, as well as with most other major religions.

Democracy is a fragile system that we take for granted and let fall  into disrepair.  Roe v. Wade overturned and the very unveiled threats in Thomas’s opinion should a clarion call for really stopping the steal—not just the attempted theft of the election but the attack on our human rights. It is of a piece with the plot to overturn the 2020 election.

I have hope that telemedicine and nonsurgical abortion with the 25 or so states that still think women and people of color and LGBTQ people are full fledged human beings.  I fantasize about he right of a woman to demand a DNA test for the putative father and use it to required financial support—unless it was rape or incest in which case there need to be criminal penalties. I find myself wondering if Native American sovereignty extends to developing abortion clinics on reservations. And I refuse to surrender to despair.  It is my country too. Any yours.

Tyranny of the Minority

I write as we are in the midst of a long and contentious midterm primary season. Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on the way we choose candidates for the November election. Let’s begin with presidential primaries, which are run by the two major parties,. with the collaboration of state governments. Democratic presidential primaries generally allocate delegates proportionally among c candidates, which is why it takes so long for Democrats to settle on a candidate–but does make voters feel that their votes are reflected. Republican presidential primaries are winner take all, even if the winner only gets 25 percent of the vote in a crowded field. This system tends to favor more extreme candidates. The Democrats are not without flaws. They still have too many superdelegates that have too much say in a close contest. But the idea that a candidate could never win majority support of his or her own party’s voters and still get the nomination seems undemocratic with a small d.

State primaries are more diverse. Some have closed primaries, only for voters registered with that party. Others have open primaries that allow independents to vote,or sometimes do not rquire require party registration at all. In states that lean heavily towrd one party, that open primary gives everyone a say in the choice of the canddiates most likely to win in the general election. Open primaries tend to favor more centrist and less extreme candidates.

Many states also required a majority of 50 percent to be nominated, requiring a runoff vote between the two top contenders. if no one succeeds in topping 50 percent. Other; states give the nomination to the highest vote getter–even if, Like Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania this year, that is only one-third of Republican voters. Again, this practice favors less moderate and more extreme candidates. My home state of South Carolina and Georgia both have open primaries and runoffs. The chief drawback to runoffs is the low turnout in primaries generally, which is even lower in a runoff. This year in South Carolina the only statewide race to generate a runoff was the Republican primary for Superintendent of Education. Far fewer voters are likely to participate in the runoff.

There are two recent innovations which may address all of these challenges while increasing participation while lowering the cost of running elections. One is the jungle primary. The other is ranked voting. California was a pioneer in the jungle primary, in which all candidates–Republican, Democratic, Independent, minor party–for a particular office (say, Secretary of State) are on the ballot in a primary open to all registered voters. The top two vote getters advance to the November general election. The two finalists could be from the same parity, different parties, or even independents. The general election replaces the runoff. Variants of this system are in use in Louisiana, Wyoming, and Alaska. This system also favors less extreme candidates, making the possibility of compromise and collaboration in legislative bodies more likely.

Ranked voting is used in many contexts, including some municipal elections and nongovernmental organizations. Its main advantage is to eliminate the need for a runoff if no candidate receives a majority, while still ensuring that the winner is the preferred choice of a majority of voters. Confronted with a ballot with candidates A, B, C , and D, each voter assigns each candidate number from 1 (first choice) to 4 (fourth choice). All the first choice votes are tallied. If candidate B is the first choice of 50 percent or more, she wins. If no one gets 50 percent the second choices are added in, The vote count ends when someone receives a majority.

Many features of our present electoral process, intentionally or otherwise, favor candidates with minority support and perhaps more extreme positions than the mainstream of American voters. I’m pretty happy with the way my state runs elections, even though I seldom get what I want–because I am in a minority. I don’t whine. I don’t’ try to change the rules in order to get the outcome I want. Instead, I work within the system to encourage people to vote and try to persuade them to consider the candidates I support. Isn’t that the kind of playing nicely with others we were supposed to have learned in kindergarten?

The Whole Truth

My state of South Carolina, like many other states, has wrestled with the many places, statues, monuments and buildings named for people in leadership roles in what is euphemistically called in the South “the recent unpleasantness.” Or less euphemistically, The War of Northern Aggression. When the General Assembly reluctantly consented to hauling down the Stars and Bars flying over the State House, they also passed the Heritage Act, forbidding any entities from removing monuments or changing names of anything on public property without a 2/3 vote of the legislature. Lest we forget…protect our heritage–.the usual platitudes were trotted out.

I have come to the conclusion that these guardians of Civil War culture may have a point. We don’t need to erase that history. We just need to tell it true. Not the whitewashed (literally!) version. The warts and all version. Every monument, every park, every building should have, prominently displayed, a balanced biography of the honoree’s name.

I will use my own university where I am an emeritus professor to illustrate students my proposal, but it obviously applies to many public institutions and places. Clemson University, for example, may have to tolerate a prominent building named fir a racist violent 19th century governor who led the process of creating a constitution that perpetuated disenfranchisement of black voters and personally advocated and practiced physical and economic violence toward the state’s black majority. He also played a prominent role in the establishment of the college.

In front of that building is a statue of Thomas Greene Clemson, for whom the college is named, He bequeathed the land to the state for a “high seminary of learning for the agricultural and mechanical arts.” Surely his plaudits should acknowledge that neither African-American citizens or– heaven forbid, women–were welcome in its hallowed halls, or that Clemson himself was a slave owner who fought for the Confederacy.

I have mixed emotions about Clemson’s father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under both Adams and Jackson. He was the original owner of the land on which the college was built–not counting, of course, the previous inhabitants, the Cherokees, who were sent west on the Trail of Tears to facilitate Calhoun and others access to mining for gold in nearby Georgia. But he also made useful contributions to ending the Mexican war, resisted high tariffs, and contributed to political theory. All three of these men were complex people in which good is mixed with not so good in varying forms and degrees.

.Universities are supposed to search for truth, proclaim truth, protect truth. Truth in historical markers would be a good place affirm that commitment.

Your Money, Your Values,Your Planet

This is the first in a series of blog posts that reflects the title of a book my friend Catherine Mobley and I wrote about ten years ago.  The premise of that book (Our Money, Our Values) was the need to be clear about what our values are and use our money—spending, saving/investing and giving it away—in ways that promote those values. One of my values, and probably one of yours, is to honor and respect that planet that sustains our lives.  How does our use of money express our gratitude and concern for Mother Earth, promote sustainability, and counter climate change?

In terms of spending, all of us need to be more conscious of our carbon footprint and other impacts on the planet and other living things  Tolerate higher indoor temperatures in the summer and lower in the winter. Drive less in a  fuel-efficient vehicle. Fly less. Stop mowing lawns and have a yard full of native plants that provide habitats for birds and bees and other critters. To the extent feasible,  buy organically produced food and cook more of it yourself. Shop less, recycle more. You know the consumer drill. 

Beyond the consumer drill, however, all of us are engaged with firms and organizations whose practices also impact the planet.  Why do stores have to be too cold in the summer, too warm in the winter?  Which is better for the planet, shopping locally or online? (Does that recall to mind the unsettled debate over cloth versus disposable diapers?) Are there any trees near the store or shopping center, or is it just surrounded by acres of paved impervious surfaces? What role does local government regulations play in making these properties more earth friendly? Does your state and local government regulate in ways that make it easier or harder to promote renewable energy? And how sustainable are these local governments’ own practices? How do they make it easier to recycle? Are their newer buildings examples of green construction? How many trees surround City Hall?

Saving and investing also have implications for the planet.  There is a long history of financial services for socially responsible investing, either on your own (with a lot of investigative work) or in mutual funds that invest in firms committed  to a variety of good practices. These firms recognize that they have more stakeholders than shareholders, and those stakeholders matter—their workers, their customers, their suppliers, their communities. All these stakeholders have, or should have, an interest in corporate practices that are promote sustainability.

What can you do?  You can try investing in B-corporations, which have charters of incorporation that require them to be accountable to all those stakeholders, not just their investors.  Or you can seek of socially responsible mutual funds and choose those whose particular investment strategies mirror your own values, specifically sustainability and wise use of limited national resources. You should also remember that if you have a pension fund, it is an investor too, investing your money.  Find out what role sustainability and energy conservation play in their management of those assets, which can be very substantial.  Your collegiate alma mater or your religious community (including pension funds) is also are likely to have endowments that are invested in financial assets.  They, too, should be held accountable to the planet for how those funds are invested.

Finally, you probably give some of your money to various good causes. It’s easy to succumb to the countless requests for money from lots of places, many of which are deserving charities. At least some of those resources should be focused on the twin needs of the poor and the environment.  Include the planet in your charitable giving! My two personal favorite programs promote solar power (it doesn’t take much to charge a cell phone and a light so children can do their homework at night) and planting trees, both in sub-Saharan Africa. How did I find them? Both  are run by charitable organizations that can be accessed through an umbrella organization called Global Giving.  I want to improve  the lives of people around the globe, but I want to do it in ways that makes the recipients more able to thrive in a healthier planetary environment.

As Kermit the frog would say, it’s not easy being green. But it is important. Consider these three ways in which your money can work for you and your planet. How can you put your money where your values are?

By What Authority?

Many years ago, Clemson University briefly hosted a visiting economics professor from Russia who had emigrated because he was Jewish and felt unwelcome there.  He visited some of our classes to talk about life under communism.  One student asked whether the people of the USSR didn’t want more freedom.  No, he said. I think most people prefer to be told what to do, think and believe. 

Surely not, I thought. Some people, yes, but not most. Maybe the Soviet Union is different,  having had little experience of anything but authoritarian governments. Bur psychological research confirms that there are people who are drawn to authoritarians, seeking out authority in religion, or customs, or laws. They stick to familiar gender roles and resist diversity—whether in race, politics, sexual or gender orientation, religion, or just about anything else. They gravitate to authority figures in politics, join cults, listen only to select media, and blindly follow doctors’ orders—even that last one is not always a good thing.  In response to authoritarians moving into silos and echo chambers, those of us who do not share their worldview are driven to seek safety and affirmation by building our own silos and listening only to our own echo chambers.

I (and I imagine my readers) tend to think that authority must be earned and tested against our own values and perceptions.  But reading Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, I am apparently in a minority.  I like diversity.  I try to seek out and listen to  other viewpoints in order to reflect more deeply on my own.  The same is true of my family members and most of my close friends. But the facts suggest we are a minority, or at worst, a silent and ineffective majority attempting to hold back the tidal waves of history. Worldwide, authoritarian regimes are taking power and stamping out resistance once they gain it by whatever means, including stealing elections and gaining control of the media. Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are the exceptions, not the rule.

The division of society into  liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat, religious-secular, and other binary categories is quite different from  this particular tension between authoritarians and libertarians. I do not use the term libertarian in it more recent sense of pro-free market and anti-government, but rather in the sense of questioning authority and looking for common ground between two extremes. I describe myself as both pro-life and pro-choice, pro-market and pro-government, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses and more useful as partners than opponents.  I look with sympathy and gratitude on those Republicans who are pro-free market but anti-authoritarian like Susan Collins. Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

I am somewhere on the spectrum from pessimism to hope to optimism between the latter two. My inborn optimism has retreated to hope. But theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope by itself is not worth much unless it is activist hope.  Pessimism is just giving up.  Optimism is the unjustified belief, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that “all is [or will be} for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Active hope is the most powerful response. Those of us who truly believe in democracy have to earn it by resistance and support.  We need to be “woke” not just to the sufferings of the oppressed but to the very real threats to tear down what protections they already have in our laws, our courts, our constitution that are now all under attack.

Where is the resistance? In the 1950s (actually 1949) there was Orwell’s 1984. In the1960s there was a Broadway play by Ionescu called Rhinoceros.  Each cast member gradually turned into a rhinoceros, following the herd, trying to conform. In the 1970s, it was The Stepford Wives .Then the anti-authoritarianism that is another deep current in American culture turned to folk music and sitcoms on the wave of civil rights, the women’s movement, and environmentalism. Since 1980, however, the tide has steadily turned, to push back,the fragmenting a society, culture and economy that had previously been perceived (inaccurately) as a unified nation (or plantation) peacefully overseen by old wealthy white men.

Where and how do we begin to revive the resistance?  Free and fair elections historically have been the most common casualty of the rise of authoritarianism around the world,aided by control of the media.T

here is a rich array of electoral tools forged in the Jim Crow era and enhanced by modern technology and gerrymandered state legislatures to suppress the vote, purge the rolls, limit access to the polls, discourage mail in ballots, and target those voters least likely to support their party and its candidates—poor, people of color, young people. Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote offers, a powerful account of these methods of undermining democratic elections in the last 50 years .  But there are also stories of hope. Anderson tells the story of one Native American community that resisted efforts to keep them from voting, with election officials using as a pretext the  lack of suitable IDs and mailing addresses.  A labor-intensive volunteer effort overcame those obstacles, provided everyone with a legal street address, ensured that tribal IDs were accepted, and reclaimed their right to vote.

What can you do to push back against the tide?

What ever happened to money?

Bitcoin, as most of you know, is a way of making payments and storing financial assets that escapes the oversight of governments (at least so far) because it is a digital currency that rests in virtual world. Creating bitcoin takes real resources with significant consequences for the health and well being of humans and the earth’s climate.  It expends enormous amounts of electricity to “mine” the components of the bitcoins, which are crated on giant computers located in “mining” cities near cheap electricity.  The electricity used could be put to far more important ventures, while creating a block of bitcoin greatly enriches its creators. The market price of a bitcoin is currently over $40,000.

Recently a team of economists estimated the costs of producing bitcoin that are imposed on people other than the owners/creators.  The primary cost to creators is the amortization of the capital equipment required and the electricity and workers to produce it. The costs in increased mortality, climate change, and health damages from these operations amount to 37-49% of the coin’s value, depending on where the production is located. However, those costs are not borne by the producer, but by the rest of us. They are what economists call externalities.  Noise and air and water pollution are familiar examples of externalities.  Because the owners do not have to pay these external costs in the absence of regulation, they will overproduce goods and services that create negative externalities.

The process used by economists to determine those numbers is called cost-benefit analysis. Economists add up the costs of producing X and the benefits of producing X and either subtract the costs from the benefits or take the ratio of benefits to costs to determine whether a project is worthwhile.  When used in public sector projects, like building a highway or creating a new park, all costs and benefits are included, so the externalities are part of the cost.  For a private firm, however, the decision makers only include the costs they actually have to pay.  The purpose of much regulation, especially environmental regulation, is to require that the firm bear those costs as well—sometimes known as full-cost pricing. Bitcoin is not regulated and does not bear these costs..

The bitcoin industry is gulping up huge amounts of electric power, and that electric power creates significant externalities in its production, especially if it is derived from fossil fuels. In the Christian Bible there is a famous quotation: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  (I Timothy 6:10.) I’m pretty sure the author of this quotation could not foresee bitcoins, but he certainly would have supported the idea that producing a form of money that does great harm to innocent bystanders—humans, animals, earth—while greatly enriching its creator would be a clear application of the evil that money can do..

The Cheerful Taxpayer

Income Tax Day, for many years March 15th, is now in April.  It would have fallen on the 15th except that Emancipation Day was a legal holiday in the nation’s capital, so tax filing was deferred to Easter Monday, which isn’t a holiday in very many places.

Many years ago, I was team teaching an introductory economics class with my dean, with whom I coauthored a principles textbook.  In the first class I asked them what words came to mind that they associated with economics.  One of them said, taxes. My co-author immediately responded with “taxation is theft”—a classic libertarian response.  I quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes:  “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” In a later reprise of this incident  with another conservative colleague,  he said, “The price is too high,” I responded “…or perhaps, the amount of civilization we get is too low.” Most of us may share the sentiments of  a less noted philosopher, the late Senator Russell Long, who is famous for observing that most people’s idea of a good tax system is “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that man there under the tree.”

So, what is a fair way to tax people?  Historically, there are three ways to tax. The government can tax what we earn, what we spend, or what we own.  These three are known as income taxes, sales and use taxes, and property or wealth taxes.   It’s a good idea to have more than one way to tax, because it’s not hard to evade one but very difficult to evade all three. FYI, tax evasion is illegal. That’s how Al Capone wound up in jail. )Tax avoidance, however,  is perfectly legal—another quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “There is nothing illegal in a man (sic} so arranging his affairs in order to minimize his taxes.” There is also a gray area that might be described in Brooklyn speech as tax “avoision.” More damaging to the revenue system than evasion, avoidance, or avoision ,is aversion, which is a resistance to paying taxes in order to fund government services.  The result is underfunding of the Social Security system and looming and accumulating budget deficits that become an excuse for reducing public services.

When I used to teach taxation in undergraduate classes, I reminded them of Scrooge McDuck (a reference that would be lost on most contemporary students). He spent nothing, did not have a job, and simply held an enormous amount of wealth. If he invested it he would at least, so he paid no sales taxes or social security taxes. Perhaps he had to pay income taxes on his investment earnings—it was never clear in the comic strip how he became so rich. Current proposals suggest a billionaires’ tax aimed at what people own rather than just what they earn.  Scrooge McDuck would be in trouble.

 There’s also a fourth source of government revenue, fees for public services, from admission to parks and highway tolls to tuition at public colleges and city water and sewer services. These fees have become increasingly popular as an alternative because people feel they have some control over consumption, but they also tend to be very regressive (= take a larger share of income from those at the bottom of the scale).

Since April is the month for income tax, let’s concentrate on that kind of tax for the rest of this post. The federal government required a constitutional amendment (the 16th) to institute an income tax in 1916. The rates became steeply progressive during World War II and gradually cruised back down with a series of tax legislation that widened brackets and reduced rates.  The most recent such bill was Trump’s highly touted tax cut that was heavily slanted toward the wealthy.

The average American paid 13.3 percent of adjusted gross income n federal income taxes in 2019.  A second important tax on income for those who are working is the Social Security Tax, which is 6.2 percent of earnings each for employer and employee, or 12.4 percent for a self-employed person.  Unlike the income tax, there is a cap on the amount of one’s earned income that is subject to Social Security tax, earnings of up to $147,000. For poorer households that have limited income derived entirely from wage earnings, the Social Security tax is clearly regressive.  

Only 19 percent of Americans, including many entry-level workers and retirees, paid neither type of income or wage  tax. As we have reduced reliance on the income tax (but not the Social Security tax), the tax system as a whole–federal, state, and local—has become increasingly regressive. At the same time, in part because of the tax system, the distribution of income and wealth has become increasingly unequal.

If we want a civilized society, one that provides a safety net for those going through difficult times and a certain basic amount of security from disasters, misfortunes, and other hazards of human life, we have to be willing to pay or fair share without demonizing those who turn to the government to see them through those difficult times. So ,pay your taxes with as much cheer as you can muster and be grateful to live in a country that tries to respond to the needs of its citizens, or at least its voters. We are all in this together.  Or for a final quote from a famous American, Ben Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

More Than One Principle

More Than One Principle

I have been reading two interesting books on the evolution of 20th century American economics in the late 20th century that have confirmed some of my worst suspicions of the harm that has been done by my profession. One was Democracy in Chains by Nancy McLean, a history of the growth of the anti-government public choice school.  The other is The Economists’ Hour by Binyamin Applebaum, a history of the growing influence of monetarism and market-worship  and its influence on public policy. It would be a shame if these books were read only by economists, because their critiques are very discouraging about the future of our democracy, our society, and our economy.

As an economist, I was assured by my mentors and colleagues that our profession was value-free, merely a set of tools for making decisions. We told our students in lectures and textbooks that there were six measures of a well-functioning economy: efficiency, equity, and freedom for microeconomics and  growth, price stability, and full employment for macroeconomics. But when push came to shove, the pursuit of some of these indicators trumped the others, suggesting that they were not neutral measures of performance but in fact values that should guide our economic policies.

Efficiency and freedom trumped equity, price stability and growth trumped full employment. Over time, those priorities have resulted in low inflation, and growing inequality.  Growth, supposedly, would resolve that conflict.  In the Kennedy years, the favorite saying was “A rising tide lifts all boats.” And one dissident remarked, “but not those already under water.”  One might reasonably ask whose interests were served by that rank ordering. The law is on the side of the rich. Or, ,as Anatole France wryly observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”  

Who gains from freedom? Those who have the most control over resources, who want to be able to  use them as they see fit.  Who gains from efficiency? Those who control the increased profits resulting from greater efficiency. Who gains from equity? The rest of us.  Who gains from growth? Despite trickle-down and supply-side theories, there is no mechanism that ensures that the gains from economic growth will be widely shared across all sectors of society.  Price stability is highly prized by those who are lenders or owners of other financial assets, but a bit of inflation reduces the burden on debtors. Full employment empowers workers, but a “reserve army of the unemployed” (to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx) ensures  that the labor market will favor the owners over the workers.  What happens when unemployment is low? Well, for one thing, Amazon loses a union election!  And wages rise, as we have observed in the last six months, as employers have to compete for a dwindling supply of workers.

Who loses from creating mistrust in government, promotion of individualism rather than community, demonizing the poor and undermining democracy? Ultimately, all of us.  Economics has become a very short-sighted profession whose cost-benefit analysis does not lend itself to the promotion of peace, equality, democracy, environmental sustainability, and trust in one another, our institutions, and even our survival.

It was not always so.  As late as the 1960s, economics affirmed all six of those goals as qualified positives along with a need to find a balance in tradeoffs among them.  The government was seen, not as a power-hungry monster but rather as the check on the excesses of capitalism, a balancing mechanism that guaranteed access to the basic necessities of life and opportunity for all who were willing to work. No, it was not a golden age by any means, particularly in is failings of racism and sexism. But it was an era when the best minds went into science, engineer, medicine, teaching and other helping professions, not into finance.  As poet William Wordsworth observed, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Perhaps it is time to reclaim our society from the economists and restore the pursuit of material wealth to its proper sphere as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Weaponizing Capitalism

In my freshman year in college, I fell in love with economics and switched my major.  Like my friend and fellow economist Scott in a different time and place, I felt Aha! This is a tool that can be used to make the world a better place.  It is, indeed, a very useful tool.  But economics can also lead to worship of the golden calf and become an alternative religion. I have always  found that disturbing. Not only does greed fuel the system, but greed itself, or at least a narrow self-interest, becomes a virtue.  (Remember Gordon Gecko and Greed is good?) Like Putin’s Russia, a capitalist system requires government constraints to keep it from an unbalanced concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few (or as Russians say, the oligarchs).   

I held firmly to that view until 2022, but I confess that I am quite ready to make an exception. Capitalism is famous for its ability to innovate and turn around more rapidly than the cumbersome bureaucracy of government, as this nation learned when Henry Ford’s assembly line in World War II was retrofitted  to switch from producing cars to turning out planes.  Capitalism, dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, found the Achilles’ heel of the Russian system  to create a new nonlethal weapon of war, using the greed of the Russian oligarchs to undermine support inside Russia for the Ukraine war.

The initial Western response to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was to turn to conventional economic weapons along with arms and humanitarian aid.  Sanctions, which had been used with relatively little effect in Iran, included freezing government assets held abroad.  Many foreign business  firms ceased to do business in or with Russia. NATO countries reluctantly upped the ante by refusing to buy Russian oil and gas, a major Russian industry. Other nations cut off credit to the Russian government and to private borrowers inside Russia, including those who depended on their American and European issued credit cards. Russia was disconnected from the international banking system.  The ruble fell sharply, the central bank was unable to function, and the Russian financial system , tightly linked to the rest of the world through SWIFT and networks of lenders and borrowers, was reduced to as much rubble as the streets of Kyiv.

Those economic weapons were powerful tools, but they were not enough to dissuade Putin from focusing on his mission—to restore Russia to the good old days of the czars, territory included. The newest economic weapon is customized to Russia, although it could be useful elsewhere.  That nonlethal weapon is to seize the assets of the supporters of the government, the oligarchs who flaunt their wealth in yachts and villas and a sumptuous lifestyle financed by billions in ill-gotten assets stashed around the world. Governments in NATO nations and elsewhere are seizing those assets.  It is relatively easy to hide financial assets, although it has become harder when banks have been cooperating with governments to identify Russian-owned assets.  But it’s hard to hide a villa in Italy, or a yacht, or a personal jet airplane.  The extravagant toys that were the reason for oligarchs to support and enable Putin have become a means to detach many of these oligarchs from his side.

Putin has managed to restore the Western alliance, bankrupt his country, and alienate his support among the military and his wealthy friends.  He has made heroes of Ukrainians and their president. So on this side of the ocean, I suggest two cheers for capitalism for its contribution of creativity and innovation in combatting this unjust war, but still withholding a third cheer withheld to acknowledge the inequality and concentration of wealth and power that the market system has allowed to flourish here at home.

Original Sin and Original Blessing: Why Does It Matter?

Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there has been theological dissension over the nature of humans–whether humans are born bad who must be redeemed or whether we are born good, created in the image of God. It’s an important question, but framing it as binary or absolutes misses the point.  We humans like certainty, absolutes, right-wrong, good-bad, all those binaries that enable us to choose the “right” side of an argument.  The  most defensible  answer to the question of what is inborn, based on observation, is that we are all born with the capacity for good and evil in varying combinations, and our life circumstances and experiences may tip us in one direction or the other.

I take my philosophy from Aristotle and the golden mean, that every virtue lies between two vices, its opposite and its extreme, and we all find ourselves lying somewhere on that spectrum in our own thinking and behavior. I also take my philosophy from statistics, because I am more economist than theologian, and in statistics, most of a population lies within one or two standard deviations of the mean.  A little bit brave and a little bit cowardly, or a little bit brave and a little bit foolhardy. Generous on some days and stingy on others. Kind to our friends but not to our enemies.  Accepting of people who look and talk and think like us, less tolerant of those who are different.

When we choose to create a public policy that maximizes safety and security, we lean to the original sin view of humankind, like the harsh anti-crime measures passed in the Clinton administration  The result has not been redemption, but overcrowded prisons, convictions that are or should be overturned, and no rehabilitation. Released back into society with no skills and unable to find a job or housing, many of these people wind up back in jail after release, affirming the conviction that some people are just born bad. (If you haven’t seen the original or new version of West Side Story, this dilemma is the basis for one of the best songs in the movie and play, the one about Officer Krupke.)

A policy based on redemption would probably make the opposite error and turn some irredeemable people loose to do more harm—remember the Willie Horton ads devised by Lee Atwater for the 1988  presidential campaign?  Both sides of the debate want to limit the discretion of judges, because the same offense gets widely different sentences depending on the judge. But they can’t agree on guidelines that meet their polar opposite views of humanity.

The harm done by binary thinking is not just about crime. It’ is also, for example, about whether people will be motivated to work for a living if the government provides them too much, or whether they will be unemployable or unable to earn an adequate living if the government gives them too little (education, health care, access to decent housing). That abstruse theological debate about original sin and original blessing lies behind many of our public policy dilemmas.

It is the task of democratic process to honor both of those views , each of which contains a grain of truth, and to craft policies that empower and encourage the best in each of us while constraining the worst.  We can begin that process by examining our own conception of original sin, original blessing, and the possibility of redemption.