Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Is that all there is?

This, by the way, is very interesting.  The story is about the Roman Catholic church recruiting priests from among Spain's unemployed.  If that sounds a bit mercenary to American ears, perhaps it's because we are still in what one professor in the article calls the "materialist phase:"

Gayle Allard is a professor at Madrid's IE Business School.

"They pass from a materialist to a post-materialist phase, where they start thinking more about quality of life and meaning of life," Allard says.

"The good thing about crisis is that maybe it awakens this other side of us, and helps us to step off the treadmill a bit, and think about why we're here — besides just paying a mortgage," she says.
Stepping off the treadmill would not be a widely accepted solution in America, where we are told the solution for our economy is consumer spending:  presumably on new houses, as well as iPods, iPads, TeeVee's, game boxes, and all the other paraphernalia that is supposed to constitute the successful life.  There's nothing un-American about the sentiment in the quote, by the way (hard as it is to imagine any American saying it for publication).  Over 150 years ago Thoreau wrote:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
The townspeople thought him irresponsible then.  But are we alive only to be able to pay the mortgage?  Or to engage in the right political thinking?  Or to have the acceptable ideas among our group?  Is that all there is?

And now, as if to prove nothing has changed since Thoreau's time, comes this:

 Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs. 

Conard is Edward Conard, who still works at Bain Capital, and gives Mitt Romney lots of money to run for President.  His thesis is that America needs more rich people:

 Unlike his former colleagues, Conard wants to have an open conversation about wealth. He has spent the last four years writing a book that he hopes will forever change the way we view the superrich’s role in our society. “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong,” to be published in hardcover next month by Portfolio, aggressively argues that the enormous and growing income inequality in the United States is not a sign that the system is rigged. On the contrary, Conard writes, it is a sign that our economy is working. And if we had a little more of it, then everyone, particularly the 99 percent, would be better off.
Which is only significant to me here because the only value Conard recognizes is the value of money.  For example:

He looks, in particular, at agriculture, where, since the 1940s, the cost of food has steadily fallen because of a constant stream of innovations. While the businesses that profit from that innovation — like seed companies and fast-food restaurants — have made their owners rich, the average U.S. consumer has benefited far more. 

Notice how that analysis doesn't take into account any of the other benefits of dining together, or the growing problem of obesity in America, a problem linked directly to fast-food consumption.  Or take this example:

Conard picked up a soda can and pointed to the way the can’s side bent inward at the top. “I worked with the company that makes the machine that tapers that can,” he told me. That little taper allows manufacturers to make the same size can with a tiny bit less aluminum. “It saves a fraction of a penny on every can,” he said. “There are a lot of soda cans in the world. That means the economy can produce more cans with the same amount of resources. It makes every American who buys a soda can a little bit richer because their paycheck buys more.” 

Money is the only value that is valuable.  But then, it's no surprise Conrad says this:

“God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy,” he said. “It’s not beautiful. It’s hard work. It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.”
Which runs so contrary to Genesis 1, you have to wonder which "God" Conrad is referring to.  But then, what Conrad espouses is basically Plato's Republic, with people of great wealth replacing the philosopher kings:

 At base, having a small elite with vast wealth is good for the poor and middle class. “From my perspective,” he wrote, “it’s not a close call.”
The closest the article comes to considering that we might be here for more than paying the mortgage is these two sentences:

This constant calculation — even of the incalculable — can be both fascinating and absurd. The world Conard describes too often feels grim and soulless, one in which art and romance and the nonrenumerative satisfactions of a simpler life are invisible.
And the first one sets the tone:  Conrad's weltanschaaung is not absurd or myopic; it is "fascinating."  Well, maybe a little absurd; but mostly fascinating.  Even the dissection of it is done in terms of economic theory, not in terms of the true value of human existence.   Nothing post-materialist here; not really.

How thoroughly American.....


  1. I imagine I am far more of a "materialist" (in many senses of the word) than you are. I certainly am more of a materialist than Thoreau. So when I read a passage like this

    In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.

    my mind tends to go to "practical" questions:

    (a) do those "extraordinary payoffs" actually tempt those who opt for stable jobs to "join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism" (as if all of this were a personal choice and had nothing to do with SES or anything like that)? after all, for many of us, the calculation is not one of "expected pay-off" but what happens if we don't win in the fierce competition: what some might call "irrationally risk averse", I might call being sensible. If you really think that the "art history majors" have more to contribute by becoming "entrepreneurs", why not do something to make the cost of losing less? Maybe a better way to approach the goal of getting more people involved in "the fiercely competitive economic mechanism" is not to raise the reward for the winners but to make it so that if you lose there is a safety net to catch you?

    (b) is it really good for society to reward people whose utility function is a straight up expected profit calculation? if we do succeed in getting more people to "join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism" by increasing the expected likelihood of profit from such a choice (by increasing the rewards), what we'll have is even more of our bounties going to people who are big risk takers (i.e. people who risk their livelihood on a small chance at a big reward -- i.e. gamblers) or who already have a high enough SES to not worry about what would happen if they lose (as is likely if the mechanism is indeed fiercely competitive). Does it really benefit our society to reward gamblers and upper class twits even more than our society already rewards such people?

    (c) why do those who seem to idolize the 1950s want to undo everything that made the 1950s of their imagination, especially New Deal economic management and most especially (for this discussion) the "man in the gray flannel suit" culture in which innovation was often achieved in larger organizational contexts and NOT by entrepreneurs?

    and finally

    (d) do we really want a society filled with more and more "chiefs" and fewer and fewer "Indians" (to use allude to a not so PC saying)? You want a society filled with go getters and self-made men and women working to accumulate wealth as entrepreneurs? try going to a third world country ...

    Just a few questions ...

  2. Alberich--

    Probably we need to discuss the concept of "materialism," especially since Xianity tends to go a bit far (despite the clear actions of Jesus) toward asceticism. I would prefer to lean more toward not finding ultimate value in the material, without tipping over the other way and Platonically declaring the material illusory.

    But I like your comment too much to set that up as an opposition to what you said. Now I'm going to go read it again....

  3. Of course, I was playing fast and loose with the term materialism too. Big-M Materialism and small-m materialism are not necessarily the same thing: as I am sure you would appreciate (and as any good dialectical materialist would tell you), small-m materialists, being obsessed with "big ideas" such as money and possession (property) are hardly actually Materialists. Of course, is not Materialism itself ironically a "big idea"? And not only when said Materialism is of the dialectical variety ...

    Anyway, thank you for the compliment ... and here I was worried that I was missing the point ...

  4. Windhorse2:51 PM

    As for the Catholic church attempting to recruit from among the unemployed, it's fascinating to see medieval history repeat itself. In an era of class stratification, little or no upward social mobility - and a lack of food and employment - all those monasteries weren't just filled with the devout. They provided food, shelter, and relative safety.

    These two stories dovetail beautifully, as they show how even today disparate entities have an interest in keeping most of the population poor while an ultra-wealthy elite run the show. In a new Gilded Age scenario the Catholic church gets vocations and Conrad gets control of a gigantic market in which he and his buddies get rich off the tiniest innovations employed on a mass scale and cheap, cheap labor. Access to his club is tightly controlled  and any attempts by citizens to spread that wealth more fairly among the populace is parried by the politicians in Conrad's pocket - many of whom themselves will appeal to religion (the need for individual bootstrapping, some idea of the Elect, or Catholicism's ethic of asceticism) to keep wealth out of the hands of the majority. It seems this authoritarian/elitist dynamic is destined to show up over and over again in history, despite (and sometimes even because of) the rise of democracy. Enough different demographics get payoffs from this system (wealth, power, privilege, sanctimony, thrills from oppression, satisfaction from compliance to the "right" authorities) that seeking it is a continuing temptation.

    As for Conrad's philosophy, there are about eighteen things wrong with it. If he's correct that we are suffering from a lack of innovation in this country (and I don't think he is) then, as Alberich rightly points out, absence of any effective social safety net to encourage risk-taking would seem to be the number one obstacle we face - and creating such a safety net is certainly not a priority for men like Conrad and his ilk who are presently trying to dismantle the elements that ARE in place. Once that social safety net is in place then implement universal health care, as the current patch-work system keeps people desperately tied to their "safe" jobs in order to maintain coverage. What country is currently a world leader in business innovation? Why it's that ever-present socialist bogeyman - Sweden. They even lead the United States in pharmaceutical innovation. Funny how it has managed such a feat without needing to resort to radical income inequality and super-concentrated wealth whilst dragging along the fearsome body of a comprehensive social safety net. My guess is that not only is self-described innovation guru Conrad not aware of these facts, he's likely not able to locate Sweden on an unmarked map.

    Based on his remarks, Conrad's book is an apologetic for his brand of vulture capitalism. The fact is that Americans ARE constantly taking risks, constantly attempting to innovate, and experiencing a high failure rate for all sorts of reasons. And often when they fail, Conrad's company Bain Capital comes swooping in, purchases their business or some share of their debt - and begins picking over the good pieces until nothing but a carcass remains. Conrad encouraging risk-taking is like a hungry crocodile encouraging dangerous river crossings because of all the exciting things to be found on the other side. Yes, we all benefit from innovation and continuous improvements are increasingly necessary to survive in an overcrowded world of diminishing natural resources. That's not the issue. The issue is openness of the playing field and the fairness of the payoffs. 

    Of course this doesn't even get into his antagonistic attitude towards transcendent values and the kind of world which ultimately results from a vision like his - a scarred dystopia drained of natural resources in which an ultra-wealthy elite govern a vast, impoverished populace who have few if any rights.

    In other words, the Middle Ages.