Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The Ethical Capitalist

Zizek on the ethical commitments of the true capitalist:

“Look at an ideal capitalist – ideal type I mean. I know some of them, fanatical businessmen. Well all I can tell you is if ever I encounter a non-hedonist, a non-egotist guy it’s a totally dedicated capitalist. My god a proper capitalist is ready – I don’t know – to ruin his family life, practically not to sleep, work night and day just that there is circulation and expansion of capital. Capitalists are not hedonist egotists they are on the contrary extremely dedicated to some perverted quasi-ethical cause – capital has to circulate.”

The question is whether this ethical frame is or can be squared with Christian ethics. The reflexive answer in North America is “yes” but this description of the life of a true capitalist would seem to raise a challenge to that.

Is The Stable Two-Parent Family Now A Luxury Good?

When someone speaks of the lifestyles of the wealthy a number of images may come to mind involving luxury cars or big houses, but what about a traditional, stable two-parent family? Wait, what? Consider this article (by a self-described feminist) about how feminism has been co-opted as a wage-suppression tool – the labour pool is larger if both parents work and at the same time, if the expectation is that both parents in a family are in the workplace, then why should one person’s wage be large enough to support a family anyway? Then there’s Japan where young people are giving up on having families in part because the expectation of the husband to be a breadwinner is intense and, for many, unfeasible in an economy that has been stagnant for a couple decades now. It has been observed that those in the upper classes are more likely to marry and stay married, have children later and, by doing all of this, pass their opportunities on to their children.

Why are the working classes not following the same patterns? Charles Murray thought that this could solved by a stern lecture and the example of their betters, but David Frum thoroughly debunked Murray’s finding that not much else is needed. The reality is that our economic system privileges flexibility in production of goods and services, and family life makes flexibility difficult. Try making a parent-teacher interview working two jobs, or even shift-work. What if the better jobs are elsewhere? If one spouse is unemployed but the other is not, should they move? Should one spouse go where the work is and the other stay and effectively become a single parent? I do not know if anyone in our readership has considered that no-fault divorce has this sort of benefit of improving labour market liquidity, but it surely does.

It is natural for a Christian  to point out that they know a family from their own church perhaps who have stuck together in spite of economic challenges. The reality is it is possible to make such a thing happen, just like it is possible for someone of modest means to make other luxury purchases by scrounging and cutting back in other areas. By such means one can find working class car collectors, watch collectors, world travellers and so on. What we need to ask is whether it is wise or beneficial to be living in a society where people come to view these types of life choices as luxuries.

The Preestablished Harmony of Pop


Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt school, analysed pop music from the perspective of Critical Theory in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”. Among his many reflections on the subject (of varying worth), he considered the reason for the hold of popular music on the masses. Part of his answer was the following:

The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.

The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses “want this stuff.”

But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”. They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man’s holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.

What Kind Of Jobs? Ctd

So it seems that The Gospel Coalition has had their own take on how meaningful one’s job may or may not be. Overall their tone was much upbeat and they refrained from using the word “bullshit” even once. (An aside, if anyone in our readership thinks this is a vulgar word thrown about, please read this little book.) The sense I got from this was, “don’t worry, go about doing your job and don’t think to much about whether it’s important or not, you can’t possibly understand.” The money quote is here:

“Though some work may seem useless, Christians understand that all work is God’s work. Our work only seems insignificant because we fail to grasp the big picture. This is what economists refer to as the “knowledge problem.” The knowledge problem means we can’t always see the big picture because knowledge is dispersed among many people; no one person knows everything. In the vocational sense, this means we may not understand how our work is part of a much larger economic dynamic. If we can’t easily see how our work contributes to the common good, we may understate the effect of what we do.

Some positions make it difficult for workers to see the end product, but that certainly does not mean that their work is insignificant. Just because a factory worker doesn’t receive the instant gratification of seeing the final product that he helped to create doesn’t change the reality that his effort contributed to that product.”

Ironic, because in some ways a factory worker is best positioned to see the result of work. Moreover, there’s a big assumption here that all economic activity contributes to the common good. Moreover, one might ask about the cost of this work, look at Pete Campbell from Mad Men explaining his bullshit meaningful job:

In the last couple seasons of Mad Men it has become apparent that Pete hates himself as he destroys his marriage and grows in his resentment towards his coworkers his family and almost everyone else. Does Pete Campbell contribute to the common good? Is it worth it for how his job seems to contribute to his self-loathing? This is but one example, I’m not sure if there are others who find TGC’s view of work a bit glib.

What Kind Of Jobs?

Bullshit jobs. That’s right, you read it, bullshit jobs. I commend to you all this article on what many of us do for the majority of our waking lives and how it impacts our view of work and the economy. Dovetails somewhat with much of what Andrew and his TCI gang are saying about work and economics – at least I think it does, I hope they see the connection. Money quote:

“Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way […] to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.  Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.”

Interestingly, I read this article, and then I googled “bullshit jobs” to find it again and learned that this is not a completely isolated cultural observation, and indeed that there is a bullshit job title generator. Thoughts?

Andrew Coyne Debates Tyler Cowen On The Great Stagnation

I don’t know how I missed this. Tyler Cowen presents the thesis of The Great Stagnation, with Maclean’s editor, Andrew Coyne, providing the rebuttal. I haven’t watched all of it yet, but I know that it’s something that some of our readers might enjoy. Especially noteworthy are the comments that Tyler Cowen has about Canada starting around 23:00.


Objective Good, Economics, And Politics

There is at least one fundamental tension between the thinking of some Austrian economics and some libertarian political philosophy, and classical Christian social thinking. Consider this excerpt from von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Mises stands within a long tradition of thinkers assuming Hume’s separation of value and fact, a repudiation of the premodern tradition (in which Christianity finds itself) which said there was such a thing as an objective good and evil for human action, and that it could be known by everyone. In participating in the modern tradition, Mises assumed the modernists’ rejection of formal and final causes in the world, and so left humanity without any objective good purpose toward which it was intrinsically directed. What is left in the vacuum is bare will, and perhaps the passions, to which Hume said reason was always a slave. Certainly, there is no objective good that can be rationally discovered by all people of good will.

And, of course, Mises and likeminded Austrians (and libertarians) are not alone amongst the economic and political schools of today in holding this view of ethics and human nature. But they are all clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine at this point.

Morehouse on Immigration

Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies explains four bad arguments against immigration.

1) The Economic Argument – “They took our jobs!”

2) The Culture Argument – Protecting a nation’s cultural heritage.

3) The Welfare Argument – Immigrants and the welfare state.

4) The Safety Argument – Immigrants and criminals.

Finally, Morehouse gives this:

5) A Better Argument – Based on property rights.

Read the rest here.


Natural Law, Common Law (Naturally)

Since Fulford’s beginning what looks to be a great series on natural law at TCI, and because he just gave a quote about “vulgar libertarians,” I thought I’d link this video of Kevin Bjornson discussing the natural law basis of common law from 1970 (video here). Dig the suspenders!


Rand or Röpke

Joel Miller wrote a post on why Ayn Rand’s philosophy is “anti-Christian.” He then followed it up with another, offering a capitalist alternative to Rand that Christians would find more palatable. Namely the philosophy of Wilhelm Ropke, author of The Humane Economy. As Miller says, Ropke grounded his economic thought firmly in a Christian understanding of man and the world. After providing a number of quotes by Ropke, Miller says,

If Röpke is right, then the last thing that we need is more of Rand. We should also draw a critical eye to the materialist answers of consumerism, which today corrodes our society and numbs us to the realities around and within us as surely as does socialism.

Read the rest here.

[HT: Patrick Schreiner]