August 31, 2011

The Common Good -- No Consensus

Group vs Selfish Interests

One ethical argument is that group interests should have priority over selfish interests. An investigation of ethics must consider this argument and develop metrics for the common good. No-one should assume that it is easy to define the common good. In political battles, clearly divergent, if not contradictory ideas of the common good prevail and efforts to achieve consensus are difficult to impossible. The ethical implications are profound.

Michael Sandel asks What’s the Right Thing to Do? He teaches political philosophy at Harvard and offers a popular course -- Justice. One of his intellectual anchors is Jeremy Bentham who wrote Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780. Bentham proposed a utilitarian test to evaluate the morality of any action: ask the question will my action produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people? John Stuart Mill later argued that respect for individuals rights as "the most sacred and binding part of morality" is compatible with the idea that justice rests ultimately on utilitarian considerations. In simple terms, the two arguments compare individual interests with group interests.

Sandel also reviewed the philosophy of Immanuel Kant who argued that reason tells us what we ought to do, and when we obey our own reason, only then are we truly free. Kant’s ideas seem oddly unrealistic in the 21st century. Reason is in short supply. Every person assumes that he or she is more reasonable than others who disagree. There is no consensus about the “common good.” We know that some humans are bad and will harm others as a matter of course; their behavior will not be altered by rational argument or laws and must be constrained by force. Some of these bad people arrive in positions of authority and power. Some bad people are elected, even to the highest positions in government where they can do much harm without insight or remorse.

We know that the audience, the "public", is made up of different groups with vested interests that conflict. We know that everyone invents stories that support their own point of view. Everyone deceives others and there is no absolute truth. We know that the voting public contains individuals with different mental abilities and that most humans have distinct limitations on what they can and will understand.

Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of local group survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that there can be no enduring civility without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex.

From the Good Person - Ethics and Morality by Stephen Gislason. 

August 23, 2011

Does Capitalism Really Work ?

The term capital means money. In a root sense, money is an analogue of work and goods. In the best case, monetary policy develops a value-based connection between work, industrial productivity and monetary rewards; between industry and goods for sale. However, money is weak analogue of value and monetary policy has become increasingly abstract as countries grow larger and richer. Now, you would be challenged to demonstrate a valid connection between money and real value.

Money has become numbers stored in computer databases. The numbers are not connected to real things in the real world. If everyone with numbers demanded real goods for their numbers, the cost of real goods would skyrocket and the stores would be empty. The "economy" is an abstract number machine with inputs and outputs and prolific, complicated transactions that require fast, global computational networks to proceed at a frantic pace that defies understanding.

Idealist versions of capitalism still persist among people who are both wealthy and content and among people who have aspirations but little understanding of the realities of capitalist economies. A capitalist might argue that every newborn has the opportunity to become rich, even if his or her parents are poor. The trick is to master the techniques of using money to make money, leaving behind any quaint notions of trading time, effort and skill for money. One basic strategy is to buy for less and sell for more. Another is to purchase property and services that others will rent or consume on a continuing basis, so that you make money while you sleep. Another strategy is to use some money or capital assets as leverage to borrow and invest more money, increasing your net worth.

Borrowing money or credit is perhaps the greatest strength and the greatness weakness of capitalism. Credit promotes spending, construction and expansion. Individuals enjoy assets such as a cars and homes that they do not own. Corporations buy supplies and build new factories on credit. The credit aspect of capitalism only works if the borrower can earn money and payback the lender.

In the US, Adam Smith declared the virtues of capitalism in the “The Wealth of Nations,” which established a new economic theory in 1776. Sloan suggested: “Smith’s treatise was as transformational as the American Revolution and established the intellectual foundation of capitalism, free markets and individual choice. Smith’s thesis is that setting people free to pursue their own self-interest produces a collective result far superior to what you get if you try to impose political or religious dictates: “Free people allowed to make free choices in free markets will satisfy their needs (and society’s) far better than any government can. Smith believed passionately in free trade, both within countries and between them. He felt that allowing people and countries to specialize and to trade freely would produce enormous wealth, because freeing people and nations to do what they do best will produce vastly more wealth than if everyone strives for self-sufficiency.”

Smith’s vision is idealistic and, if you consider the US as an experiment in his theory of free markets, then you have all a lot of data to disprove his thesis. To advocate capitalism, you have to believe in the regulatory magic of a “free market.” Supply and demand determine the price of goods and services. Consumers become the regulators of corporate behavior by rewarding companies that provide good service and good products at a reasonable price. It does sound reasonable, but in practice there are complications.

You could argue that capitalism is a good system if you are rich and a bad system if you are poor. Capitalism is really about, making and hoarding money. It is about investing money to make more money without working. Capitalism is about controlling resources including the human resources needed to make and sell goods so that capitalists have more money to make more money and grow wealthy. Problems in a “free market” economy include risky credit, gambling, reckless pollution of the environment, exploitation of natural resources and exploitation of workers. Regulation by government is necessary to constrain reckless and sometime criminal behavior of individuals, corporations and government agencies.

In capitalist countries, free markets hardly exist. If there is an ongoing argument, it is not about what kind of economy you favor, but how much government regulation you support. Economy Watch stated: “The US government makes full use of economic tools such as money supply, tax rates, and credit control, among other things, to adjust the rate of economic growth. The US Federal Government also regulates the operations of private business to prevent monopolies. The government renders a number of direct services in the form of providing support for national defense, monetary aid for research and development programs, and funds for highway construction, and infrastructure in general. In 2008, the US federal debt stood at $9.2 trillion, 67% of GDP. Each taxpayer owed $79,000 of government debt that must be added to personal debt to get a reasonable idea of the problem. American consumers typically also have a crushing burden of personal debt.”

The US government debt continues to grow and will likely increase for many years, even with disciplined fiscal restraint. If you are an optimist, you will argue that with low interest rates the burden of debt is manageable; with economic recovery and growth in GDP, government incomes will rise and deficits will eventually be eliminated.

The economics of capitalism became ideologically attached to democracy, although the connection is neither inevitable, nor even workable. I write from a perspective of a comfortable, safe citizen of a country (Canada) that combines capitalism and socialism with relatively good results. While Canada is not perfect, it is a country that looks viable in the long term, given stability of its neighbor, the USA. The US, in contrast, fell into deep recession in 2008 with a failing infrastructure and out of control government spending on futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - all based on paranoia, lies and promises that could not be realized.

The benefits and vices of a “capitalist” economy are most clearly manifest in the USA. Prior to the great collapse, the Economist reported that eight out of ten Americans thought their country was heading in the wrong direction (they were right): “The hapless George Bush is partly to blame for this, but many are concerned not so much about a failed president as about a flailing nation. One source of angst is the sorry state of American capitalism. American house prices are falling faster than during the Depression, petrol is more expensive than in the 1970s, banks are collapsing, credit is scarce, recession and inflation both threaten the economy and consumer confidence is an oxymoron. Many Americans feel as if they missed the boom. Between 2002 and 2006 the incomes of 99% rose by an average of 1% a year in real terms, while those of the top 1% rose by 11% a year; three-quarters of the economic gains during Bush’s presidency went to that top 1%. The rich appear in Barack Obama’s speeches not as entrepreneurial role models but as modern versions of the “malefactors of great wealth” denounced by Teddy Roosevelt a century ago: this lot, rather than building trusts, avoid taxes and ship jobs to Mexico. Free trade is less popular in the United States than in any other developed country, and a nation built by immigrants is building a fence to keep them out. “

By the end of 2010, economic recovery appeared to be a wish, a fantasy, a delusion more that a realizable goal. Economist Krugman summarized the plight of the US: "We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness."

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

August 4, 2011

The Real Meaning of the Arab Revolts

A responsibility to protect resolution was passed by the Security Council in 2011, authorizing military intervention to protect civilians in Libya. This resolution led to NATO nations joining together to bomb Libya over many weeks, shifting their resolve from protecting peaceful demonstrators (who became armed rebels) to removing the dictator and his supporters from power. Even when a final outcome is uncertain, it is obvious that responsibility to protect is an idealist's notion with no possibility of practical application

Libya was just one Arab country among many to erupt in civilian protests with peaceful demonstrations leading to property destruction and wanton killing. Beginning in Tunisia, citizens' street protests became a revolutionary passion that spread to adjacent Arab countries. The Arab uprisings had implications for the rest of the world.

Idealists who promoted democracy and freedom were quick to support popular uprisings that demanded reforms or removal of dictators. This distant idealism paints a pretty picture of the benefits of democracy and recommends elections as the ultimate goal of reform. The reality, of course, is very different.

Democratic states are in decline everywhere and their citizens, protesting in the streets, are subject to paramilitary police suppression. The transition from autocratic states with corrupt institutions to fully functional states whose institutions serve the best interests of the people would take, even the best case, centuries to achieve. The basic dynamic of street protest is that citizens with diverse needs and interests will unite in opposition to a common enemy. While the brief interlude of apparent consensus is impressive, cohesion vanishes as soon as the common enemy is defeated.

The Economist Intelligence Unit report in February summarized the emerging revolutions in Arab states: 'The recent momentous events have been extraordinary in several respects. The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were sudden and unexpected, occurring in seemingly infertile territory. The revolts were home-grown affairs led by secular forces. They have overturned a host of stereotypes about the Middle East and North Africa region and have caught the outside world unawares. In Egypt, the head of a regime with one of the biggest repressive apparatuses in the world was toppled within a few weeks. Authoritarian regimes elsewhere share similar characteristics: human rights abuses and absence of basic freedoms; rampant corruption and nepotism; the presence of small elites that control the bulk of a nation's assets; and poor governance and social provision. Economic hardships in the form of stagnant or falling incomes, high unemployment and rising inflation have affected many countries. Some authoritarian regimes have young and restless populations. Long-serving geriatric leaders are another common feature. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak had been in office for 29 years; the former Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was in power for 23 years. Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen since 1978 while Libya's Muammar Qadhafi has been in power for more than four decades. The longer ageing autocrats hang on to power, the more out-of-touch and corrupt their regimes tend to become, and the more of an anachronism and an affront they become to their peoples."

In his description of protests turned armed rebellion in Libya, Solomon Stated: "A post-Qaddafi Libya could easily be roiled in internal battles, ultimately dividing into several smaller countries, each dominated by local tribes. That could make life better for some Libyans, and it could make life worse for others; it would almost surely be problematic for Western companies with oil interests in the country. Modern Libya is an artificial construct, a remnant of colonialism. The glue holding it together is failing, and the warnings of chaos are real. The choice between chaos and oppression is always a tricky one, but this population is tired of oppression and corruption, and chaos may look more attractive to them."

In Egypt, Mubarack was deposed, but street protests continued, hoping to persuade military leaders to proceed with democratic reforms. The apparent cohesion of the crowds lasted only a few weeks and then violent clashes resumed between Christians and Muslims. Shadid and Kirkpatrick wrote: "But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. In an arc of revolts and revolution, that idea of a broader citizenship is being tested as the enforced silence of repression gives way to the cacophony of diversity. Security and stability were the justification that strongmen in the Arab world offered for repression, often with the sanction of the United States. But even activists admit that the region so far has no model that enshrines diversity and tolerance without breaking down along more divisive identities. In Tunisia, a relatively homogenous country with a well-educated population, fault lines have emerged between the secular-minded coasts and the more religious and traditional inland."

If civilians in any country needed protection, it was in Syria, but no help was forthcoming. A New York Times editorial summarized the deplorable conduct of a failing dictatorial government: " Many courageous Syrians have been slaughtered since pro-democracy demonstrations began in March (2011). On Wednesday, after three days of shelling, President Bashar al-Assad ordered his military to storm Hama, the city where his father killed up to 20,000 people three decades ago. Where has the international community been? Shamefully paralyzed. The United Nations Security Council finally issued a statement condemning “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities” — but with no threat of sanctions. For two months, Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa had blocked any action at all. It is going to take a lot more pressure to persuade Mr. Assad that his time is up — or to persuade those enabling him to switch sides."

Early in this chapter (On Law), I discussed the irregular if not random distribution of ethical conduct. If ideal justice involves the fair and impartial measurement of human behavior and more or less equal treatment for all citizens, then ideal justice is impossible. The eruptions in Northern African and the Middle East are not signs of progress towards civil societies and justice for all. They are recurrences of inevitable social chaos that arises from increasing populations and decreasing resources to sustain those populations.

There are many mechanisms that cause inequitable distribution of resources. The combination of wealthy, armed dictators, expanding numbers of poor and defenseless citizens, with the overwhelming adverse forces of nature creates death and destruction on a grand scale that has no obvious solution. With diminishing resources worldwide, the prospect of wealthier countries, rescuing failed states seems less and less likely. In Somalia, Ethopia, and Kenya today a prolonged drought is producing a famine crisis with 11 million humans at risk. Somalia has been a failed state for decades. No input of emergency food aid will solve such a profoundly systemic crisis.

Events so far in the 21st century point away from all idealist visions toward the harsh realities of human conflicts and suffering that have prevailed as long as humans have walked the earth.


From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason.