David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “July, 2018”

The Problem with Anti-capitalist Ideology

In a previous post, I explained why I end up criticizing conservatism much more than liberalism in this blog.  To summarize, American conservatism has become so extreme, so dogmatic, so anti-scientific, that it warrants far more criticism than liberalism at this particular time.  Nevertheless, there is a problem inherent in all ideology, and that problem is an unwillingness to look at the evidence, openly and honestly.


Just as there is an almost religious faith among conservatives in the “free market,” there is an equally dogmatic rejection of capitalism by some on the left.  The system must be torn down to its foundations, these ideologues believe, and replaced by something, something supposedly more humane.  All business must be government-controlled.  The profit motive must be eliminated.  Private property must be abolished and replaced by collective ownership.

Of course, we have already seen plenty of experiments along these lines.  A few of them are still around.  North Korea.  China.  Vietnam.  Cuba.  Venezuela.  Nicaragua.  In every case, the original goals sounded very noble and humane – put farmland into the hands of peasant farmers, put factories into the hands of workers, operate the economy for the benefit of everyone, not to line the pockets of a few.  And in every case, the society soon degenerated into a repressive oligarchy which merely replaced the profit motive with an equally corrupt demand for loyalty – those who gave up their individualism and blindly obeyed the party line were rewarded, while those who demanded their freedom or criticized the government were marginalized, imprisoned, or killed.


Riding alongside an anti-capitalist sentiment, there often seems to be an anti-industrial sentiment, an uncritical attachment to what is supposedly “natural,” and a kind of vague nostalgia for a time when people were “close to the land,” eating fresh food and doing things by hand.  This conveniently ignores the fact that our ancestors who were “close to the land” faced the constant threat of cholera from drinking unchlorinated water, lived in hot, stuffy houses with flies, cockroaches, and bedbugs, often died in childbirth due to inadequate natal care….well, the list goes on and on.  Modern industrial society has given us vast improvements in education, health, and wealth.  Those who wish to give up chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and modern medicine can certainly do so on an individual basis, if they feel these are impediments to their happiness.

And speaking of happiness, in another previous post I discussed the Happiness Index, which is generated annually by the U.N.’s Sustainable Solutions Network.  Let’s see how the countries I mentioned above rate.  Well, North Korea and Cuba are not rated.  Their societies are simply too closed to allow an adequate evaluation.  Venezuela ranks a rather dismal 102nd.  Although social support is pretty good, freedom to make life choices is poor, and the perception of government corruption is high.  Vietnam is not much better at 95th.  Although China has made great strides over the last 70 years, it still only ranks 86th.  Nicaragua is considerably better at 41st place – but compare this to its neighbor Costa Rica at 13th place (ahead of America!).  Costa Rica has never rejected capitalism – it merely controls it.  Nicaragua is showing the strain, as many of its people are sick and tired of government corruption and repression.  Repression seems to be the only way such governments maintain themselves, because they invariably become corrupt.


Capitalist democracies such as Canada, Australia, and Germany rank highly on the Happiness Index.  Germany ranks 15th, Australia 10th, Canada 7th.  Even higher in the rankings are some of the Scandinavian countries – Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland occupy the top 4 positions.  High GDP per capita.  Strong social support.  High life expectancy.  Good freedom to make life choices.  Low perceptions of government corruption.  These are facts that cannot be ignored.

“But Dave,” some liberals might object at this point, “the Scandinavian countries have universal health care, strong labor unions, and plenty of government spending.”  Right.  They do not have unbridled capitalism.  They have CONTROLLED capitalism.  They have “mixed economies.”  The profit motive is alive and well.  CEO’s of big corporations make plenty of money.  Competition and trade are encouraged.  But the power of big business is balanced by that of strong, transparent government and organized labor.  There is plenty of government spending and a strong safety net.  The basics of life are ensured so that people are free to pursue the privileges.


“But Dave,” I can hear some liberals insisting, “you can’t deny that capitalism translates into tremendous economic inequality.  Just look at the parts of California that are booming.  A few live in luxury while others live on the street.”  This is the Scandinavian argument in reverse.  When capitalism isn’t properly controlled, ordinary folks get the shaft.  The solution is to establish the proper checks and balances, not rip the whole system to shreds.  It’s not an all or nothing.  Capitalism is much like electricity.  Untamed, it can be quite destructive.  Harnessed, it can improve lives dramatically.  An economy that works includes a strong safety net and investment in human capital.  Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how rich the richest people are, as long as everyone can depend on the basics.

There is one more argument that anti-capitalists will resort to, and that is that these happy, democratic, capitalist countries have achieved their happiness on the backs of poor, mostly brown people in considerably less democratic countries – that highly developed, technologically advanced countries depend on enormous amounts of raw materials and cheap labor provided by the third world.  The problem with this argument is that if anti-capitalism were the solution to this problem, countries like Venezuela and Vietnam would be shining examples of human well-being.  Venezuela is one of the founders of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and has enormous amounts of oil, ranking 11th in the world in oil production.  Norway ranks 15th.  Norway has used much of its oil wealth to create the largest retirement fund in the world, and its per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world, at $74,941.  (America’s is only $59,501.)  Venezuela is in the grip of rampant corruption, hyperinflation, food shortage, and civil unrest.  It ranks 81st in per capita GDP ($6684).


Vietnam has been under communist rule since the 1970’s.  For many years it was plagued by government corruption and inefficiency.  But in the 1980’s, the government introduced privatization and other market reforms.  Since then the economy has grown tremendously.  The government now describes the economy as a “socialist-oriented market” economy.  Interestingly, Vietnam justifies this “corruption” of socialism by arguing that it is a necessary transition – that ultimately, genuine socialism will take hold.  Even with all of its growth, Vietnam currently ranks 132nd in per capita GDP ($2354).

In other words, the very thing that is supposed to protect vulnerable third-worlders from exploitation by the first world, anti-capitalism, ends up giving them nothing but corrupt governments and impoverishment.  Market reforms, time and again, have shown themselves to lift people out of poverty and build the middle class.  Again, not unbridled capitalism.  Controlled capitalism.


In yet another previous post, I discussed Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.  These rights include the right to earn enough for basic necessities, the right to a decent home, the right to adequate health care, the right to a good education, and the right to economic security in old age.  These things did not make Roosevelt an anti-capitalist, any more than the Scandinavian mixed economies are anti-capitalist.  The happiest people on earth reside in countries that have achieved a balance – a heavy dosage of free markets and free trade combined with a strong safety net and powerful labor unions to protect workers.

It isn’t a matter of being “moderate” either, merely for the sake of satisfying both sides of an ideological tug-of-war.  If a particular position or policy happens to work, despite the fact that it happens to lie far to the right or the left ideologically, more power to it.  If you say you want universal health care, I say fine.  Why do I say that?  Not because I am anti-capitalist, nor pro-socialist, nor because I have a “cause” to defend.  My “cause,” if you insist on calling it that, is pragmatism.  I say fine merely because I look at the evidence, and the evidence tells me that universal health care seems to work.  If you say you want strong labor unions, good wages, and good retirement systems, I say fine.  Why?  Because these things seem to work.  If you say you want free college tuition and plenty of government spending on social programs, I say fine.  Because these things seem to work.  I do not run in terror from these things because some people slap the label “socialist” on them, nor to I embrace them because I’m enamored with anti-capitalism.


If, on the other hand, you say you want to destroy capitalism, because it’s the source of human misery and degradation, I say what is your evidence?  What is your evidence that CONTROLLED capitalism is a source of human misery?  Your Marxist professor told you so?  You’re gonna have to do better than that.  Ideologues of every stripe tend to suffer from absolutism, in a world where nuance and complexity rules.  The evidence tells us that neither pure capitalism nor pure anti-capitalism works.  Market economies generate proven results – provided they are properly controlled, with a balance of power.

Real Income

In comparing income levels across states and regions, the argument is often made that we need to take into account variations in the cost of living.  This is true as far as it goes, but how far does it go?  Does the higher cost of living in some parts of the country really cancel out the high wages?


The Bureau of Economic Analysis, part of the Department of Commerce, collects data on incomes and prices across the country.  Among other things, they measure real personal income, which takes into account regional variations in the prices of houses, cars, fuel, food, and so on.  States with high prices include New York, Connecticut, and California.  States with relatively low prices include Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Mississippi.

There is a correlation between regional incomes and regional prices, as you can see here:


States with high incomes also tend to have high prices.  The question is, do the differences in prices cancel out the differences in income?

Notice the state with the lowest median household income in the lower left.  This is Mississippi, where the median household income is $40,037/year.  Mississippi’s price parity, relative to the country as a whole, is 86.4.  This means prices in Mississippi are 13.5% less than the national average.  Now let’s compare these numbers to Connecticut.  Connecticut’s price parity is 108.7.  This means prices in Connecticut average 26% higher than in Mississippi.  But the median household income in Connecticut is $72,889/year, 82 PERCENT HIGHER than in Mississippi.


There are some other states that have very high prices.  New York for example.  Its relative price parity is 115.6, one of the highest in the country.  This puts its prices 34% higher than those in Mississippi.  However, the median household income in New York is $58,005/year, 45% higher than in Mississippi.  California is another example.  Its relative price parity is 114.4, only slightly less than New York’s.  So California’s prices are 32% higher than Mississippi’s.  But the median household income in California is $63,636/year, 60% higher than in Mississippi.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis uses real personal income to evaluate incomes in relation to the cost of living.  By this measure, Mississippi is near the bottom.  Only New Mexico is worse.  Of the bottom 15 states, 6 are in the South.  Of the top 15 states, 5 are in the Northeast, with Connecticut at the top.  The BEA estimates real personal income in Connecticut at $57,544.  Mississippi?  $37,222.  Real personal income in Connecticut is 55% higher than in Mississippi.  Higher prices do not eliminate the advantage of higher wages.


Now let’s compare 2 states that are often in the political news, California and Texas.  As I have said, the relative price parity of California is high, 114.4.  This is a common complaint about California.  Prices in Texas are considerably lower.  Its relative price parity is 96.9.  The median household income in California is $63,636/year, to Texas’s $56,473/year.  Do the lower prices in Texas compensate for the lower incomes?

According to the BEA, real personal income per capita in Texas is $43,148.  This puts it in 32nd place among the states.  California?  $44,562.  $1414 more.  About $118 per month.  This puts California in 25th place.  $118 per month might not seem like a lot to some people.  But after you’ve paid your bills, another $100 a month is quite significant.  Connecticut’s real personal income per capita is $57,554.  That’s $12,992 more than in Texas, more than a THOUSAND DOLLARS A MONTH MORE.

Here are the BEA figures for real personal income, for 3 northeastern and 3 southern states, from 2008 to 2016:


Even New Hampshire, a fairly rural state, puts all 3 southern states to shame.  Not a single southern state ranks in the top 15 on real personal income.  Only 1, Virginia, even ranks in the top 25.  What distinguishes these high-paying states are high levels of education.  36% of the people in Connecticut aged 25 and older have Bachelor’s degrees.  38% in Massachusetts.  32% in New Hampshire.  This compares to 26% in Texas, 21% in Louisiana, and 22% in Alabama.  The relationship between educational expenditure by state and real income is fairly straightforward:


The green dots are northeastern states.  The red dots are southern states.  Connecticut has one of the highest educational expenditures in the country, $17,745 per student.  Mississippi’s is less than half that, $8263 per student.

There is also the fact that high-paying jobs also tend to have better benefits – better retirement plans, better health care plans, paid transportation, even paid phones and paid business trips.  In other words, the more money you make, the less you tend to have to pay for the basics.  So the difference between states with higher pay and those with lower pay is probably even greater than the figures above would suggest.


The ridiculous notion that regions of the country with lower pay are equivalent to those with higher pay, because of the cost of living differential, is a fantasy that serves the purpose of business owners and their political enablers.  Higher wages more than compensate for higher prices, and higher wages are the product of higher levels of education.  This will become even more true in the future, as automation eliminates many low-skilled jobs.

The America that’s growing – and the one that isn’t

Economic growth can be measured in a number of ways.  We can simply look at Gross Domestic Product, which tends to grow over time, but that doesn’t take into account inflation.  So we can adjust GDP for inflation, and measure what some people call real GDP.  But there’s still a problem.  If the human population is growing faster than the GDP, production isn’t really increasing on a per person basis.  The population is actually getting poorer, not wealthier.

The solution is to examine real GDP PER CAPITA.  Overall, the recent history of real GDP per capita in America looks like this:


As you can see, there has been economic growth in the country over the last 20 years, although the economy took quite a hit right after 2007.  Although every region of the country has seen some growth, different areas have grown at very different rates.

If we divide the country into 8 regions, we see these patterns of growth in real GDP per capita:


As you can see, the Southeast, which already started with the lowest per capita real GDP in 1997, has had the poorest growth of any region.  New England and the “Mideast” were in the lead in 1997, and have been more or less neck and neck over time.  The best growth has been shown by the Far West, which may soon take the lead.  The other 4 regions, the Southwest, the Great Lakes, the Rocky Mountains, and the Plains, have done better than the Southeast, but still relatively poorly.

We can look at individual states too.  Let’s compare a Far West state, California, to a New England state, Massachusetts, and 3 states of the Southeast – Texas, Florida, and Mississippi:


Massachusetts started well in the lead and has held its lead, with strong growth – 43% in 20 years.  Mississippi has hardly gained at all.  Florida is an interesting case.  It is often thought of as a booming state, but the problem is that its population has grown very rapidly, and the recession hit the state very hard.  The result is that its real GDP per capita has hardly gained in 20 years, only about 14%, an average of less than 1% per year.

Texas and California are a very interesting comparison, because in 1997 their per capita real GDP’s were virtually identical.  But California soon pulled ahead.  Even though the recession hit California hard, it has recovered strongly and its real GDP per capita continues to beat that of Texas.  Texas does have some areas that are growing rapidly, such as the Austin area – but then so does California.


It’s not hard to see why some regions are growing and others aren’t.  It’s all about innovation.  In a previous post, I discussed the geography of innovation.  On the New Economy Index, 5 of the top 10 states are in the Northeast.  California ranks 4th.  Texas ranks 17th – but that’s actually high for a southern state.  6 of the bottom 10 states are in the South.  The New Economy Index is highly correlated with education levels by state.  Education drives innovation, which drives economic growth in the 21st century.


There was a time when resource extraction and manufacturing drove enormous economic booms in America.  Those days are long gone.  Automation is the future.  Innovation drives automation, and automation drives innovation.  It’s a positive feedback that will define America for years to come.

Girls and Boys, English and Math

Recently, a very interesting study came out of Stanford University on the subject of performance gaps between boys and girls.  The boys and girls examined were third to eighth graders.


On English tests, girls do consistently better than boys.  It doesn’t much matter what part of the country you’re looking at, or how wealthy the school district is.  Girls outperform boys by about ¾ of a grade level in English, on average.


But in math, it’s a different story.  In poor school districts, boys perform no better than girls on average.  In fact, in some of the very poor school districts of the South, girls actually do a little better than boys.  But as the wealth of school districts increases, this changes.  In the few very wealthy districts, boys perform considerably better than girls – half a grade level better.  The relationship is almost linear, with district wealth having a big positive effect on the performance gap between boys and girls.


Why?  Why should increasing wealth translate into poorer performance in math for girls relative to boys?  First of all, we have to understand that these are children, and wealthy children quite generally have wealthy parents.  Poor and middle class families often have 2 breadwinners, by necessity.  So children, male or female, often have 2 breadwinning role models to look at.  Wealthy families, however, often have a single breadwinner – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an executive.  That breadwinner is usually male.  83% of the top 1% of income earners in America are male.  97% of the top 0.1% are male.

Women in these wealthy families, of course, have the luxury of staying home, or engaging in volunteer work, if they wish.  Male doctors often work overtime and rely or their wives and/or hired help to take care of their children.  But the wives of most male workers, even those in health care, are usually in the workforce.  High-paying jobs are overwhelmingly occupied by men.  It stands to reason that in couples with such breadwinners, there tends to be a big income gap between husband and wife.


The income gap between men and women increases rather steadily as you move up the income scale, and labor participation rates for women fall.  Naively, we might think that poor families would tend to be more traditional, more male-breadwinner.  But among husbands in the bottom 10% of income, the labor participation rate for their wives is more than 80%.  By contrast, among husbands in the top 10% of income, the labor participation rate for their wives is only about 50%.

Whether or not the parents actively encourage their male children more than their female children, the fact remains that in wealthy families the children often have a male role model who is well educated, whose skills are in demand in the world of work, and who takes in enormous wealth, and a female role model whose skills are not in high demand, at least not in high-paying professions.


So much of what we learn and what we value is guided not by what we are told, but by the examples set for us.  In societies like Norway and Denmark, where women occupy many positions of power, the participation of women in the workforce is high.  In America, women in poor households often have no choice but to work – but they also have a hard time affording college, which is the ticket to high-paying jobs, such as those in medicine, law, engineering, and finance.  It’s those from wealthier households who tend to have the luxury of staying at home.


America’s low female labor participation rate translates into fewer women in positions of wealth and power, and therefore fewer examples for girls to look up to.  But this is slowly changing.  As with all developed countries, marriage rates in America are declining.  Unmarried women often have no choice but to get paying jobs.  So female labor participation rates will likely continue to increase, and we will almost certainly see more and more American women in positions of economic and political power.

Demographic Trends, Political Inevitabilities

In February of 2016, 3 political scientists, William Frey, Ruy Teixeira, and Robert Griffin, authored a study examining demographic trends in America and their effects on presidential elections.  This study was jointly published by 3 “think tanks”:

The Center for American Progress, a liberal organization

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization

The Brookings Institute, a centrist organization

It is fair to say that the resulting study is a non-partisan examination of electoral politics in America, and its implications for future American politics are quite interesting.  Since the study was published in early 2016, months before the presidential election, we can compare its forecasts for that election to the actual results.


At the outset, it should be noted that in 4 of the last 6 presidential elections, the Democrat “won” in the sense of getting the largest popular vote.  If we plot the popular vote results over that time, we get this:


Although there isn’t much of a trend here, what there is isn’t exactly encouraging for Republicans.  The average advantage among these 5 elections is 2.3% in favor of Democrats.  Year by year, America becomes less white, and non-whites tend to vote Democratic.  Year by year, white America must vote increasingly Republican to compensate.  How long can this continue?


The study examines presidential elections since 2000.  In every single case – 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, the number of whites voting for the Republican candidate was higher than that voting for the Democrat, while the number of non-whites voting for the Democratic candidate was higher than that for the Republican.  In individual elections, white versus non-white turnout is what really tipped the balance.  In 2004, white voter turnout was much higher than African-American.  The Republican, George Bush, won easily.  But white voter turnout was considerably lower in 2008 and 2012.  The Democrat, Barack Obama, prevailed.

The authors analyzed these patterns, along with demographic trends in the country, to create forecasts, including some for the 2016 election.  But instead of making a single forecast, based on a single set of assumptions, they looked at 6 different scenarios:

Scenario A – “2012 Forward” – This assumes that the turnout rates and voting patterns by demography will be similar to those in 2012, when Barack Obama won for the second time.

Scenario B – “2008 Forward” – This assumes that the turnout rates and voting patterns will be similar to those in 2008, when Barack Obama won for the first time.  This would be even more favorable to Democrats.

Scenario C – “2004 Forward” – This assumes that the turnout rates and voting patterns will be similar to those in 2004, when George Bush won for the second time.  This would be favorable to Republicans.

Scenario D – “Maximum Minority Turnout” – This assumes that non-white voter turnout will match that of whites in the future, something that has not happened in the past.  This would be favorable to Democrats.

Scenario E – This assumes that the turnout rates and voting patterns will be similar to those in 2012, except that Hispanic and Asian voters will show more support toward the Republican candidate.

Scenario F – This assumes that the turnout rates and voting pattern will be similar to those in 2012, except that support for the Republican among whites will be even stronger.

In other words, the authors are trying out a number of different scenarios based on different assumptions about how people will vote.  We can compare the forecasts under these scenarios for the 2016 election to the actual result:

Scenario A – Democrat wins by 4.8%

Scenario B – Democrat wins by 8.6%

Scenario C – Democrat wins by 0.1%

Scenario D – Democrat wins by 6.1%

Scenario E – Democrat wins by 2.5%

Scenario F – Republican wins by 2.4%

Actual result – Democrat won by 2.1%

Yes, the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote by 2.1% (which seems to be forgotten by many).  So the result fell between scenarios C and E, much closer to E.


The authors created forecasts for these scenarios all the way to the year 2032.  In every scenario, Democratic advantage increases over time.  In scenario E, this advantage increases from 2.5% in 2016 (again, the actual number was 2.1%) to 5.2% in 2032.  Even in scenario C, the “2004 forward” scenario, which is favorable to Republicans, the Democratic advantage increases to 3.4% by 2032.  (It is highly unlikely that a win of more than 3.0% would result in an electoral college loss.)  The reason is demographic shift – there just won’t be enough white Americans voting Republican to compensate for non-white Americans voting Democratic.

We may well see more elections in which the “loser” ends up winning in the Electoral College, because rural America is strongly Republican, and the Electoral College strongly favors rural states.  But at some point the Democratic advantage will become too strong.  Rural states will continue to lose votes in the Electoral College, and fast-growing states that are “red” will shift to blue.  Alabama, for example, once had 12 electoral votes.  Now it is down to 9.  Iowa once had 13.  Now it is down to 6.  Florida, meanwhile, has gone from 10 in 1960 to 26 today.  Texas has gone from 24 to 38 in that time.  Both states are becoming increasingly Democratic.  Texas is already majority non-white and by 2032, only 42% of its population will be white.


After 2032, there is simply no reasonable scenario for Republicans to win the White House.  Most of the baby boomers will be gone by 2040.  By that time the country will be close to majority non-white.  California is already strongly Democratic, and by that time critical states like Florida and Texas will probably be as well.  The Republican party, already down to 23% of the electorate and falling, will be no more by then – unless of course it changes dramatically.

There is also the fact that marriage rates are falling in America, as they are virtually everywhere in the developed world.  Unmarried women tend to vote strongly Democratic.  This will likely enhance the political effect of the browning of America.  It is also interesting that young Americans seem to have much less fear of the word socialism than older Americans.  There is increasing talk, even in America, of universal basic income and universal health care.


At the same time, automation will continue to accelerate, and will likely force a major rethink of our economic system.  The whole concept of work will have to change.  Old ideas will be discarded.  Change is the one constant in life, socially and politically.  I hope I can read these words 20 years from now.  It will be interesting to reflect back on them.


Freedom Revisited – Rights Versus Privileges

In a previous post, I discussed a president who is consistently ranked highly by presidential historians – Franklin Roosevelt.  Elected 4 times, he has been ranked number 1 in all 5 polls of presidential historians conducted by Siena College since 1982, even ahead of Lincoln.  Not a single president since has even come close.


During his final years, Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights,” arguing that the original Bill of Rights had proven inadequate to assure equality in the pursuit of happiness in an industrialized society.  Rights, of course, are not privileges.  We do not have the privilege of speech, the privilege of religion, or the privilege of assembly.  These are rights.  We do not earn them.


The pursuit of happiness is one of the fundamental rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  We have the RIGHT to pursue happiness.  Not the privilege.  The problem is, if you don’t have the basics, you’re not likely to be ABLE to pursue happiness.  If you’re hungry, or scared, or sick, or cold in the winter, or hot in the summer, you’re not so much thinking about becoming happy as becoming less miserable.  On the one hand we are guaranteed the pursuit of happiness by our founding documents.  But as a country we have never really come to grips with what this means.


Privileges are things you have to earn.  The problem is, even the basics are often considered privileges in America.  “Society doesn’t owe you a job,” is a commonly expressed sentiment.  Roosevelt disagreed.  “Necessitous men are not free men,” he said.  The very first item on his Second Bill of Rights is this:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.

The idea that you can’t be denied a job, that society must guarantee you this, goes very much counter to the strong work ethic of white Protestant culture.  America is a very young country, with a recent frontier.  Life on the frontier required a great deal of self-sufficiency.  But the frontier was already long gone by Roosevelt’s time.  His second item is closely related to the first:

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

Notice the language here – the RIGHT to EARN enough for the basics.  It might seem self-contradictory – if something is a right, you don’t have to earn it.  But in combination with the first item, the intent is clear.  Society owes you a job, a job that pays you enough for your basic needs.  Of course we can always argue about how much is enough.

Additional items on Roosevelt’s list are just as revolutionary:

The right of every family to a decent home.

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

The right to a good education.

The right to a decent home.  The right to adequate medical care.  The right to income security in old age.  The right to a good education.  You shouldn’t have to earn these things, because without them you are not really free to pursue happiness.  That was Roosevelt’s belief.  He had grown up under tremendous privilege.  And he insisted that a decent home, a good education, a good job, and good health care should not be privileges.


Where do we draw the line?  I don’t think there’s a magic point.  What constitutes a decent home, adequate medical care, a good education, and a remunerative job – these things are open to debate.  But poverty is like pornography – I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.  Once we agree on the basic principles, the rest is likely to follow.  Once we reject the fundamental notion that each person has to earn the basics of life, we will find that the details more or less take care of themselves.


The Protestant work ethic developed centuries ago, when human beings and animals did most of the physical work of production.  Those days are long gone in America.  Today, machines do the overwhelming bulk of this, and the day is coming when they will do virtually all of it.  The day is coming when we will have to confront the question of what is a right and what is a privilege.  I have no doubt that one day Roosevelt’s vision will be realized.

What society would look like if the powerful actually helped the vulnerable

Recently, I received a check from the State of Louisiana for more than $200.  It turns out I had overpaid my state income taxes.  But the check almost got thrown away.  Like most Americans, my wife and I get a lot of junk mail.  It often comes in official-looking envelopes.  I wonder how many checks actually do get thrown away, because people are so inundated with junk mail that they discard genuine official mailings.


Every day, scammers and solicitors invade our personal space, usually via the internet and the phone system.  In many cases they masquerade as security companies, trying to protect us from the very acts they are trying to perpetrate.  In other cases they use fear to try to intimidate us into giving them personal information.  Often they target the elderly or the vulnerable.  Some of it is illegal, but much of it is not.  There is a pervasive attitude in America that gives hucksters and charlatans a tremendous pass.

Worthless diet plans, worse than worthless nutritional supplements, ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes, absurd psychic friends networks.  These are only extreme examples of what is absolutely mainstream in America – trying to extract money from the vulnerable.  We have a strange tolerance of it all, a tolerance that we don’t show one-on-one with family, friends, and neighbors.  If someone burns his neighbors with a scam, word gets around.  There are consequences.  But somehow corporations and faceless “somebodies” out there get a pass.


Walk into most any supermarket.  Candy is usually placed near the entrance as well as at the checkouts.  Why?  Because candy is highly profitable, and children are vulnerable.  These days, supermarkets often promote “value meals,” discounted combinations of items that are placed conspicuously, like pizza and ice cream, or frozen dinners and bread sticks.  Again, these items are highly profitable, and low-income customers with children are desperate for discounts.  All of this is perfectly legal of course.  It is also quite unhealthful.  And our society gives it all a big ho-hum.

Of course there have long been attempts to protect consumers by law.  There is such a thing as fraud, legally.  But the line between fraud and legal exploitation in America is so fuzzy as to be virtually meaningless.  I think a lot of it has to do with America’s youth as a country – we still have a strong collective memory of the frontier, and the relative lawlessness that it implies.  America is very conflicted on the issue of sympathy.  On the one hand we show great sympathy for the vulnerable in some cases.  Sexual predators on children are considered the lowest form of human life.  Those who have “vulnerability labels” – such as the “mentally challenged” or “handicapped” are sympathized with – and those who try to exploit them are not given a pass.  But for those who are simply vulnerable, those who don’t manage to get a sympathy label, we tend to have the opposite sentiment – it is all about personal responsibility.  If they are exploited, manipulated, scammed, well, that’s just too bad.  They are supposed to take care of themselves.


Of course, the problem with this unsympathetic view there is no sharp line there.  It is all a matter of degree.  All of us are vulnerable if we don’t have the tools to navigate the world of hucksters and charlatans.  It requires tools.  Americans take compulsory education for granted.  Why do we have it?  If everyone is responsible for themselves or their children, why do we insist that children go to school?  Because without an education, most of us would be quite vulnerable.  Democracy REQUIRES an educated citizenry.

Compulsory education was just one step in the process of civilizing America – of transforming it from a free-for-all frontier country into a genuinely civilized society.  Other steps followed, many of them associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal – deposit insurance, old age pensions, the outlawing of child labor, limits on work hours.


How would our society look different if the clever and the wealthy actually tried to help the vulnerable, rather than take advantage of them?  For one thing, we would stop mindlessly counting every financial transaction as “production.”  If I buy and eat lots of unhealthy food, that’s production.  If I enroll in a worthless diet plan because I ate too much unhealthy food, that’s production.  If I have to pay hospital bills because I had a heart attack because I ate too much unhealthy food, that’s production.  And if my insurance premiums go up because I had a heart attack because I ate too much unhealthy food, that’s production.

Our economic approach provides few negative consequences for those who create negative effects – as long as they’re selling something to someone.  The alternative would be to factor in those negative effects, and use them to create negative consequences.  For example, there is something called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).  It takes into account the costs of such things as resource depletion, crime, and family breakdown.  If such negative effects are actually treated as COSTS THAT EAT INTO PROFITS, suddenly the economic incentives change dramatically.  Of course, this requires a system that makes the profiteers accountable.


For another thing, our education system would provide children with the tools to combat fraudsters and hucksters, legal or otherwise.  By the time they graduated from high school, each of them would be highly trained bullshit detectors, quite familiar with the schemes and scams waiting for them.  Every person would be an expert in the field of public relations, so vital to manipulators of every stripe.  Legal hucksterism would be as difficult to accomplish as illegal, because everyone would have the tools for defense.

And finally, realizing that so much in our society revolves around money, we would make sure that financial expertise was used, first and foremost, to ensure financial security for the vulnerable.  We already see this on a limited basis.  That’s what Social Security is – retirement insurance on a national scale.  That’s what sovereign wealth funds are – government funds that are invested for the sake of everyone.  That’s what the FDIC is – a federal insurance program for bank deposits, so that you can’t lose the money you deposit in a bank.  And in a way, that’s what a publicly-traded corporation is – an asset that is owned by large numbers of people, who profit from that corporation.  It is merely a matter of extending and expanding these concepts so that the financial system serves the interests of the masses of people, not a privileged few.


None of this fundamentally changes the capitalist system.  It is not about forced equality.  The rich could still get rich, CEO’s could still run their corporations, the equities and commodities markets could roll along.  The idea is not to eliminate inequality – merely to ensure the basics for everyone.  By ensuring the basics, we give people the freedom to pursue the privileges.  Like so many things in life, it is not an all or nothing.  We have Social Security.  We have the FDIC.  We have food stamp programs and WIC.  We have consumer protection law.  We have lots of people, including wealthy people, religious leaders, and politicians, who try to be of service to the vulnerable.  We simply don’t have enough of this.  The scales are tipped too far in favor of hucksters, manipulators, and exploiters.  This will change.

The Flaw

Recently, conservative David Brooks authored a NY Times editorial entitled, “Republican or Conservative, You Have to Choose.”  In it he argues that Trumpism has damaged the Republican Party beyond repair – that the party will now have to be remade, or perhaps replaced.  But much more than that, he gives a clear explanation of what American conservative ideology is really about.


In his words, conservatives believe that “There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order.  Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.”  This is one of the clearest descriptions I have ever read of what it means to be a political conservative in America.  He talks about the “sacred space” where individuals are formed – the family, the religious order, the neighborhood, the culture.

I think he makes a very good case.  Individuals are always the product of groups.  In fact I suspect most liberals would agree.  “It takes a village to raise a child,” is a popular liberal mantra.  People are happiest, healthiest, and freest when the group instills in them respect, sympathy, and affection for each other.  It’s not a magic trick.  It’s a societal order.  Order and freedom are not opposites.  Freedom and responsibility are not opposites.  In a community, they are merely different ways of expressing the same thing.


The problem, it seems to me, is that all of the conservative “sacred spaces,” every one of them, create unity by excluding someone.  There’s an us, and there’s a them.  And even within the “us,” there is an ideology of supremacy.  The family for example.  Conservatives are all about family.  But not just any family.  The traditional family.  The male-dominated family.  There is an inherent conflict between the values of supremacy and exclusion on the one hand, and those of equality and justice on the other.

The sacred space that really matters, the sacred space that is honored by the values of justice, equality, and tolerance, is the sacred space called the human family.  The sacred space that insists there is no them.  Only us.  This is the message of the Christian gospel, the golden rule, and the Declaration of Independence, the call of civilization that is still waiting to be answered.  Tradition for its own sake, tribalism, the desire for supremacy and exclusion, all of this stands in the way.


Brooks seems to be acknowledging that without a societal order that instills the values of sympathy and common decency, individuals fall into vicious tribalism.  What he fails to see is that ANY ideology that creates a “them” will inevitably collapse into viciousness.  Placing value on these “sacred spaces” invariably leads people to equate IDEAS with GROUPS OF PEOPLE.  The result is that challenging a bad idea is perceived as disrespecting a group of people – the family, the church, the neighborhood, the culture.

People should indeed be sacred.  That’s the whole point.  That’s where we start.  There is pain and pleasure, sickness and health, oppression and freedom, misery and happiness.  Of course we should hold human well-being sacred.  Ideas, on the other hand, SHOULD NEVER BE SACRED.  If an idea or belief is worth holding on to, it can stand up to honest, unflinching, ruthless examination.  If it can’t, it should be discarded.  Tradition for its own sake?  Why?  For the sake of group cohesion?  We know where that leads.  Discrimination and exclusion.  The whole history of America, and indeed the world, has been a process of hacking away at the distinction between us and them.  Of breaking down the walls of family, religion, and culture, and replacing them with the universal values – the civic form of modern individualism – that actually increase human well-being.


Brooks, like many conservative intellectuals, truly believes in welcoming any and all into the benefits of a free society.  What he fails to see is that grassroots American conservatives have never believed this.  They took to heart the core of conservatism, that there should be “sacred spaces” – that group cohesion is critical.  But they saw this as a legitimization of exclusion, which is what really matters to them.  For them there must always be someone who is excluded – people who can never be redeemed, people who must always be on the other side of the wall.  This is the fundamental flaw in conservative ideology, and why it falls apart in a highly interconnected world.


It’s the same flaw in liberal ideology, when it focuses on group identity.  When it achieves group cohesion by creating an unredeemable “other.”  There is no other.  There are only bad ideas, toxic ideologies, baggage masquerading as belief.  Question.  Everything.  Especially yourself.

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