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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Economics–The Only Way To See The World

Marx said “Man is an economic animal” and the only way to observe and understand human and social behavior is through an economic lens. Human nature is self-protective and self-interested – aggressively so – and our every motivation is based on an economic calculus.  Gains and losses whether figured on a spreadsheet or calculated as opportunity cost are economic in nature.  Actions to increase and protect social standing, marital parity, sexual favors, family integrity are all economic in origin and motivation.

The Atlantic in partnership with the Aspen Institute is putting on a regular event called the Aspen Ideas Festival, and one of the topics discussed was what Leon Wieseltier of the paper described as economicism:

"There's economics and economicism," Wieseltier said. “Economics is ... well, you know what economics is. Economicism, on the other hand, is allowing the language and the frameworks of economics to permeate other fields. The "ism" version of "economics" is, Wieseltier said, "raising economics as a source of wisdom in realms that have nothing to do with economics."  (Megan Garber, The Atlantic 7.1.14)

Wieseltier goes on to say:

This deprives us of a more nuanced and humanistic—you might even say spiritual—understanding of the world and our place within it. "There isn't the cultural answer to an economic problem," he said, "and there isn't an economic answer to a cultural problem."

Wieseltier misses Marx’s point.  By understanding Man as an economic animal, motivated by self-interest and engaged in a perpetual calculation of personal benefit, one can be more realistic about the limits and potential of human behavior.

Families bartered and traded children in marriage based on dowry, family name, and earning power. The children of these families were valued economic commodities, for their labor was essential to subsistence if not profit. Romantic love was unknown in the world before given poetic visibility by Petrarch and the notion was only possible among knights and courtiers who could afford to inject a bit of the illogical in what was always a a contractual agreement. 

Romeo and Juliet was the only love story that Shakespeare ever wrote.  All the rest of his 37 plays were cynical about love, marriage, and intimate relationships.  He did not doubt the human folly behind sexual attraction, but knew that it must always be contained within the rigors of a practical, economic-based treaty between men and women.

Today’s marriages take this notion of contract and treaty far beyond even that of the 16th century.  Marriages are entered into only with ironclad prenuptial agreements. Choice of residence is governed by state tax laws and regulations concerning communal property.  Men and women, for all the blush and exuberance of weddings, are deeply suspicious of each other, certainly as much as in Shakespeare’s time.

Sexual equality – economics again – is the template for marriage.  Division of labor is used as much to define housework, men’s contribution to childrearing, leisure choices, and place of residence.  It is human nature to exert influence, control, and dominance in any social relationship whether in marriage or collectively in social groups, regional organizations, or national government.  The legalization of marriage is simply the modern way of dealing with highly-motivated self-interest and neutralizing aggression and aggrandizement.

What is to be made of Wieseltier’s reference to spirituality?  Surely the spiritual is beyond the reach of accountants and lawyers.  Yet religion, like marriage, has always been first and foremost an economic enterprise.  One has only to look at today’s Islamic radicals calling for a Muslim caliphate; or the intense and brutal rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites to see how religion, political power, and economic gain are tightly woven. While there is no doubt that many Muslims who endorse these geopolitical ambitions have spiritual ones as well, it would be hard for them to distinguish between the two. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice in the spread of Islam will be rewarded in the next life. 

The same was true of Christians in the Crusades.  Many if not most believed in the glory of God and Jesus Christ, but thundered towards Jerusalem for very military (economic) reasons.

Today’s challenges to the concept of the nation-state and to liberal democracy itself are yet other examples of economic forces at work. Separatism and organization by religion and ethnicity are economic phenomena.  Sectarian factions simply were not getting their due under corrupt nation-state governments, and democracy was diluting their factional interests.

Certainly charity, caring for others, and selfless giving are not subject to economic laws! That would squeeze the very soul out of humanity.  However, these supposedly ‘other-directed’ actions are very much related to our own economic self-interest.  Hindus believe that giving alms is a way of improving one’s karma – speeding up the Wheel of Becoming a bit, limiting your incarnations and hastening your way to nirvana.  Christians are no different.  Giving is a way of following Christ’s example, getting in his good graces, and speeding your way to Heaven.

Charity is also a social marker.  Helping out at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter adds to your ‘progressive’ credentials, takes the glare off of your wealth, and shows that you can be trusted more than the K Street lawyers and One Percent Wall Street marauders who care only about money.

What about art, music, and culture?  Surely no economic calculations there.  While there is no doubt that many of us are moved by Bartok, Sargent, or the Bolshoi; we are just as anxious to display our cultural bona fides by displaying our season’s subscription to the Kennedy Center or to the Met. 

Symphony orchestras are becoming outdated, appealing only to an older, wealthier, and elite audiences.  Patronizing them with a portion of net worth makes good business sense and may help keep them around for a while.

A Hopper or a minor Miró over the mantelpiece screams wealth, taste, privilege, and class.  The art market is as hot as ever; and for all the dreamy expressions over Water Lilies, one of Monet’s series just sold for $27 million at a Christie’s auction.

What’s left? The workplace, despite its collegiality and social environment, is a battleground for fiercely competitive people – i.e. all of us. Maybe we are not all the aggressive climbers clawing our way to the top of the corporate mountain, but we are easily aggrieved and slighted if a co-worker gets what we perceive as preferential treatment.  Work is all about protecting and advancing personal interest.

I used to work for companies in the International Development field – i.e., helping the poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged in the Third World.  Most of my younger colleagues chose this line of work because they wanted to ‘do good’, to give back to others, and to work towards the higher ends of world peace and equality. 

While this is no doubt true, they soon found that the world of humanitarian and development aid was as cutthroat as any other.  Organizations both for-profit and non-profit were all after their cut of the US government pie, and young, idealistic minions worked their fingers to the bone to secure lucrative contracts.  Most fought to retain their idealism and moved out of the known sweat shops to more enlightened institutions; but were as conscious of money, benefits, advancement, recognition, and status in the move as anyone else.

The point is that ‘doing good’ had dollar signs attached. In principle a company could only win successive contracts if it performed well and efficiently.  Pleasing the client – the US Government – was the bottom line of all operations.  In focusing on contract performance and program efficiency, companies may have better served the poor; but that concern was certainly secondary.

The biggest philanthropies – Gates, Buffett, Hewlett, and others – give millions away; and corporations like Exxon Mobil and Shell are in the corporate social responsibility business in a big way. The giving is as important as the results, and they are no different than the US Government in that regard.  There is economic rewards to be gained by giving whether it is for geopolitical recognition, burnishing the capitalist image, or assuaging guilt (Robert McNamara was tireless in his development work at the World Bank and elsewhere, seemingly trying to atone for his Vietnam sins).

Leon Wieseltier is but one of a million ‘progressives’ who wish that money would go away and human beings would return to the Garden of Eden in a new age of innocence and goodness.  It is important to keep the capitalist lions at bay, they feel, and let the good people of America be themselves, express their charitable and spiritual side, and lead the country back to its founding principles.

Capitalism – or better put, the exploitation of human nature – has been around since cavemen bartered and traded jaw bones and trinkets, raided neighboring communities, took women and slaves, and hacked the heads off of foreign invaders. Cooperative communities grew up as means of expanding and solidifying collective self-interest.  The rest is history.  Civilizations came, grew, and went as aggression, defense, conquest, retreat, and submission played out over the centuries.

Capitalism will not go away; and Marx of all people knew that better than any philosopher after him.  “Man is an economic animal”, he said, and how right he was.

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