Monday, November 30, 2009

Wendell Berry on the FM Dial

For those with an interest in Wendell Berry, he will be on today's Diane Rehm show at 11 a.m. If you don't receive the show on your local PBS station, the show is usually available on the program's web site within a few hours of the completion of the show.

For those who haven't heard of Wendell Berry before, here's a chance to improve yourself. Listen up.

UPDATE: The audio of the interview is now available online. While the interview waxed and waned, I thought Wendell was at his most intense toward the very end of the hour in answering a question about "mountaintop removal." He strongly asserted that this form of mining showed our contempt for the land, for our places, and for local people in those places. I wish he'd then said something to the effect, "and this form of mining is what we still consider to be 'clean coal.'" Just that we be clear that we don't deserve any sort of clear conscience simply because we stick the adjective "clean" and thereby avoid any further necessity of changing our behaviors...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thursday we commemorate the sacrifices and hardships of our forbears, and that first Thanksgiving feast that punctuated an otherwise difficult and often harrowing existence. We celebrate with tables that will (in many cases) overflow with food, and then with a weekend of shopping in anticipation of the gift-giving of Christmas. We give thanks for all that we have, in many cases, so much more than the Pilgrims whose rugged and threadbare lives we honor.

We know that these are hard times - with more than a tenth of the adult population out of work, with soup kitchen lines longer than living memory recalls, and shelters filled with the homeless. Yet, for many Americans, this is still a time of plenty: our tables will be fuller tomorrow, but not uncommonly so; we will have a greater selections of sweets and desserts, but not uncommonly so; our cars will be filled with purchased products on Friday, but not uncommonly so; our televisions will be filled with images of sports and entertainment, but not uncommonly so.

The contrast between our "feast" days and our regular days has faded nearly to the point of indistinction. In America today, we are more likely to contend with obesity than starvation, with binge shopping than asceticism, with adult diabetes than scurvy. I don't mean to minimize the genuine sufferings of the genuine poor, but many of our disadvantaged people today are far more wealthy and comfortable than even the wealthiest of the Pilgrims; poverty, "the middle class" and wealth are and have always been relative standards, points of comparison that reflect contemporary levels of material want or plenitude.

My friend and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, Charles Mathewes, has suggested that the problem we may face in the future (if not the present) is not too much want, but too much plenty. How do we, as a civilization, deal with the existence of so much stuff when our operative definition of the world and the economy has been based on the idea that nature is one of scarcity and we need, in response, an ever-increasing generation of more?

Much of modern philosophy - from thinkers ranging from Francis Bacon to Thomas Hobbes, from John Locke to Adam Smith - has held that nature is chintzy and that human freedom consists in extending our mastery over, and control of, the natural world. Freedom is the expansion of the human power to fulfill our wills and desires. Freedom today is so often defined as choice - but more, the power to fulfill choice. If we are so often dissatisfied, it is not that many of our desires go unfulfilled, but that new desires inevitably trail those that have been met, demanding new power and the further extension of mastery. As a result, our one official political policy - regardless of party or leader - is growth.

America has come to set the standard of what "the good life" should look like: as much as we are regarded with suspicion and even hatred around the world, our material standard of living (and our often ostentatious forms of consumption) are seen as the gold standard of what life should be like. When we speak of increasing "development" in the world, we implicitly mean that other parts of the world should eventually attain something like the living standard of the United States. And when we look at the example of rapidly developing nations such as India and China, we see countries that have thrown off their former reigning philosophies or religious guidelines of moderation, and have instead effectively adopted (if implicitly) the modern Western philosophical definition of freedom: freedom defined as the fulfillment of appetites by the expansion of power. When young Chinese and Indians come to American universities to study, they typically do not come to study English literature, philosophy and theology: they come to study science and engineering, those disciplines of applied technique that permit the increase of human power over nature.

I find this fact noteworthy - for it is our older inheritance, once embodied in our humanities disciplines, that offered a different understanding of freedom. By this older definition - found in our classical and Biblical inheritance - freedom is the attainment of self-government over our appetites. Ancient and religious thinkers (ranging from Aristotle to Augustine and beyond) argued that human appetites were infinitely expandable, and that submission to the pursuit to fulfill appetite was an endless and impossible task. To pursue their fulfillment was to make oneself a slave to one's appetites. True freedom, such thinkers argued, consisted in the governance of appetite. By extension, rather than seeing the world as one of scarcity that required our conquest, such thinkers saw a world of plenitude and as gift, one that offered us many goods and even plenitude and required of us in turn good stewardship and moderate appetites. The first Thanksgiving - for all the hardship experienced by the Pilgrims - was celebrated in this spirit, not one that despised the earth for giving us too little, but celebrated creation for offering so much.

The view of the world as miserly is becoming dominant in our world today. Even as America appears to be slipping from its top position in the world, its understanding of freedom appears to be increasingly dominant. Yet, is it possible that the very cause of our own national downfall has its source in our abandonment of that older definition of freedom? So many of the sources of our contemporary trials - ones that had their sources in excessive consumption, over-indebtedness, over-use of resources, excessive speculation, greed, concupiscence, and various other old-fashioned vices (or sins) - are quite arguably the result of our abandonment of that more ancient definition of freedom in favor of that of Bacon, Hobbes and Smith. And, viewing today the rising competitive threat from India and China, we conclude that we need more expansion of power to more fully conquer nature. Humanities are being further downgraded in favor of programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). We will command more techniques, but less wisdom and prudence in how to use them.

We will, I predict, continue to confront the problem of too much (though, I would also contend that the source of our contemporary plenitude is theft from the future, particularly the constantly accelerating exhaustion of planetary resources to the disadvantage of future generations). Our response, to date, has been to combat our excesses with the application of more techniques of mastery. Where we become too obese, we seek to find a drug to cure it; when we have exhausted most of the "easy oil," we seek to drill in new and more destructive techniques; where we burn too many hydrocarbons, we seek the invention of "clean fuels"; where we exhaust the topsoil, we clear cut rainforests. All of this is to say, there is growing evidence that our definition of freedom is leading us to a new form of captivity - a captivity of diminishing returns and ultimate want. The great challenge of our time is not to find the right "solutions," but to rediscover an ancient answer: the governance of appetite. The "solutions" to many of our contemporary problems do and have always lie with us, and not the intervention of science or government. We need an ethic of less. For those concerned with global warming: stay put and do more with less. For those concerned with excessive debt: buy less. For those concerned with lifestyle immorality: stop promoting cowboy capitalism. For those concerned with economic immorality: disavow the "if it feels good do it" ethic. We must get beyond our current partisan blinders and understand that there is a connection between an economy and a personal ethic in which everything is permitted.

Changing behavior is difficult, more difficult than getting legislation passed or inventing a new form of indigestible fat. Yet, it is a capacity given to every one of us. This is our challenge and our task. In this, we have much to learn from our Puritan forbears. Let us give thanks.

(Posted at Georgetown/On Faith)

Monday, November 23, 2009


"What a good country or a good squirrel should be doing is stashing away nuts for the winter. The United States is not only not saving nuts, it’s eating the ones left over from the last winter." WILLIAM H. GROSS

The New York Times reports on its front page today that annual interest payments on the national debt will exceed $700 billion by 2019, compared to $202 billion today.

In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports today that the price of an ounce of gold has hit yet another all time high, jumping another 2% to $1,170. Oil is back around $80 per barrel and the dollar remains in a slump, around $1.50 per Euro.

I feel like a broken record summarizing this recent news about the bankruptcy of America, but it needs to be stressed: we have decided as a nation to respond to finding ourselves in a deep hole by digging deeper. Not surprisingly, as our mothers used to tell us, if you keep digging a hole in the ground, eventually you'll find yourself in China.

The print edition of the Times relays what most of us know: there are only four ways out of the current morass - and only one, they report, is "painless":

1. Raise taxes/cut services
2. Inflation
3. Default
4. Growth

Every "leader" is hoping and praying for the last, but we should be clear about its prospects: almost all of the "growth" of the past several decades has been illusory, built on a firesale of America's mid-century wealth in a gambit to hold onto our top spot for just another election cycle. Every administration has simply kicked the can down the road while ramping up the outsourcing, the "globalization," and, above all, the borrowing. We have been a national version of Michael Jackson, living in "Neverland" while borrowing against the things of value that we once possessed from an Asian organization willing to "loan" until it owns us. Like him, we're having trouble sleeping at night, and like him we'd rather narcotize ourselves (if on our hundreds of cable stations) rather than face facts.

I think it's highly implausible that there are many more tricks that can be devised that can in turn pretend to be "growth." Our recent "boom and bust" oscillation that we call the economy has been a string of makeshift efforts to prop up a sinking ship. We have learned that the internet is a sink hole for money, since all it can "produce" are advertisements that can't ultimately sell products if its viewers are broke. We have already seen the result of the "financialization" of the entire economy, an economic design that ultimately had to feed on itself. We have sucked whatever nominal value from our "homes," the places that ought to be secure against the foolishness of the age. We have already sought to re-inflate the balloon one too many times, most recently not only by bringing interest rates to zero, but by printing and borrowing funds faster than three generations will be able to pay back. Like a hamster on an dirty-coal electric treadmill, we can't get off and we can't slow down, but the speed required to keep the contraption going is getting too fast for our small legs and tinier brains.

Frankly, the idea that "growth" is the one option that will prove itself to be "painless" is laughable, when we consider that much of our current pain is the result of illusory growth. And with our various gimmicks like "cash for clunkers," "socialism for the rich," tax "rebate" checks in the mail and so on, as the way we claim to re-boot "growth," one can only guffaw at the illusion that we can somehow permanently escape the hard bookkeeping of Reality's ledger.

Brutal honesty requires us to acknowledge that only three options realistically confront us: 1. less government for more money; 2. inflation; and/or 3. default. Any of these will leave us poorer and more miserable. Which poison will we be forced to "choose"? What will be the public response? The populace has grown so accustomed to having it all - demanding low taxes and cradle-to-grave nannying, electing Republican tax-cutters while insisting on the continuation of every program. Let us stipulate that they will be ill-disposed to hearing the bad tidings. If "tea parties" are the order of the day when we still manage to keep this creaky and leaking boat afloat, what will be the reaction when we begin to sink? When it's discovered that, once again, there are too few lifeboats? Will we stiffen our upper lip, allow the women and children their places, and sing "Nearer My God to Thee"? Or, will there be a mad scramble for the exits, in which the lucky will manage to get out by stepping on the corpses of those caught under the crush? Will our tea parties become "Black Fridays," with desperate consumers looking for that one last piece of the pie to consume, charged to their overextended credit cards, before the plate is empty?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Control of Nature

As reported in today's New York Times, New Orleans plaintiffs in a civil suit against the U.S. Government are elated at a ruling that has held the Government liable for the floods resulting from the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A federal judge agreed with the plaintiffs, holding the Army Corps of Engineers "negligent [in the] maintenance of a major navigation channel [that] led to major flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjacent St. Bernard Parish...." If upheld on appeal (which is not at all guaranteed at this point), the Times reports that damages could "add up to billions of dollars in compensation for residents."

"Katrina" has become synonymous with government unresponsiveness and incompetence. With this ruling, a judge has officially agreed with this widespread perception, not only expressed in the widely shared view that the government response in the aftermath of Katrina was woefully insufficient, but that the government was in fact accountable for the flood itself. The fault was not Katrina, or an "act of nature," but the Government!

This view calls to mind the very object of the modern project: the expansion of human power to effect the control of nature. Indeed, it is with the image of controlling the effects of torrential rain that Machiavelli signaled the beginning of this project:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her. [Prince, ch. 25]

Where humans once saw Fortune as fundamentally ungovernable by humans, Machiavelli argued that the only legitimate expression of Free Will was our efforts to master its effects - and, through his metaphor, closely aligning his conception of "fortune" to Nature. Arguing for boldness and mastery, Machiavelli concludes his famous Chapter, "Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her." Much of the modern project has consisted of extending our mastery even beyond half of Fortune, to governing her all and entire.

Yet, those who have been wary of this project have warned against hubris - in particular, have insisted that nature is not fundamentally governable by humans, and that efforts to extend our control in a tyrannical manner will fail. According to this view, Nature cannot finally be subject to our control; instead, our "free will" is best used in ascertaining its laws and conforming our activities within those laws. The insistence upon controlling nature is to break its laws, and such transgression carries with it severe consequences.

This view recalls to my mind a very fine book of several years' vintage - one that had a major impact on my intellectual formation - John McPhee's 1989 book The Control of Nature. The book has an entire chapter devoted to a discussion of the role of the Army Corp of Engineers in making possible the City of New Orleans, a completely implausible and even impossible city. For decades, the U.S. Government has been devoted untold resources to securing the city against waters that roll by or collect dozens of feet above sea level. In the process of doing so, it has effectively created conditions that not only cannot prevent eventual failure, but which will make failure even worse than had the efforts to extend our mastery in such an imperious way not been undertaken in the first place.

According to McPhee, the devastation of New Orleans can hardly be a surprise. The city was built in full knowledge of its susceptibility to flooding, and a succession of devastating floods occurred regularly from the time of New Orleans’s founding in 1718 throughout the 18th and 19th-centuries. Then, in 1879 the United States Government created the Mississippi River Commission which marshaled the resources of the government to control the tendency of the Mississippi river to overrun her banks. This Commission was perhaps most noteworthy due to the assignment of the Army Corps of Engineers to the task of creating a system of levees that would contain the Mississippi and protect the towns and cities along its bank – especially New Orleans.

Before its development by the French, the area that became New Orleans was largely deemed unacceptable as the location for any sort of permanent human settlement. As McPhee relates, the earliest moments of the settlement confirmed the ancient prohibition against building in that area: “The growth of New Orleans over the years since the creation of the Mississippi River Commission was due directly because of the ongoing success of the Corps to continually update and improve the levee system."

If government is to be held accountable, it could be argued that their culpability lies in the creation of the very levee system that had at once induced a sense of safety as well as the creation of certain unnatural conditions that turned New Orleans into a giant soup-bowl waiting to be filled. As a result of efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the mighty Mississippi River from “jumping” out of its bed to find a lower pathway to the ocean, the Corps constantly built new, artificial riverbanks – a system of earthworks and levees that required increasing height as the natural collection of silt in the riverbed caused the river to rise. Meanwhile, the lack of natural flooding of low-lying areas – such as New Orleans – meant that periodic silting of low-lying areas was prevented, while the natural features of New Orleans caused the city to sink at a constant rate. The conditions for a perfect storm were devised by the very "conquest of nature" – a perfect storm, not to be unexpected in an area prone to hurricanes. As McPhee writes, "The more the levees confined the river, the more destructive they became when they failed.”

The plaintiffs' case rests on the "unintended consequences" accompanying the ongoing building of the levee system. With each "victory" over nature, the height required of the levees to protect a sinking New Orleans increased the weight at water's edge, resulting in more erosion into the bottom of the water bed and the need for increased dredging. The need to increase the height of the levee and subsequent dredging required the widening of the waterway, leading to the acquisition of wetlands and compromises to the entire water ecosystem.


Ironically, Katrina itself may be further evidence of unintended consequences of the human effort to master nature: many believe that the strength of hurricanes has increased as a result of global warming, itself a consequence of our exploitation of ancient sunlight in the service of the massive expansion of human power. Our very capacity to exert control over nature has made it more dangerous. Yet, our belief that our mastery is near-complete has induced in us a sense of complacency and expectation that failures to exert control are the blame of culpable human actors.

To be clear: what is on trial is the very success of the U.S. Government (or, put more broadly still, the modern project) in "conquering nature," and the accompanying sense of expectation that nature should no longer inconvenience "the relief of the human estate." Lying defeated, in fact, was not nature (which has a way of reasserting herself), but common sense (don't live blithely beneath the sea level; or, better put, we should know what we're doing) and Stoicism (nature giveth, and nature taketh away). Can lawsuits against the Government for rising energy costs, depleted retirement accounts, and death itself be far behind?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

God, Notre Dame, Country

This past weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference at Notre Dame entitled "The Summons of Freedom." The conference was sponsored by The Center for Ethics and Culture, an interdisciplinary program founded and directed by Professor David Solomon of Notre Dame's Department of Philosophy. It was the tenth annual conference held by the Center, though the first I attended. Based on what I saw, heard, and experienced, it will not be my last. If there is to be not only a defense of, but a revival of, the full dimension of Catholicism in America today, I believe it will emanate from the work being done by this Center.

The Center for Ethics and Culture is deeply informed by the encyclicals and teachings of Pope John Paul II and, now, Benedict XVI. As the statement of Vision on the Center's website relates, "the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture aims to transform the culture in which we live into one where the dignity of human life is respected, the compatibility of faith and reason is recognized, and the connection between the truth and genuine freedom is understood."

The Center's main intellectual influences are pairs from the early Church, the papacy, and contemporary philosophy: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI (with attention as well to Pope Leo XIII, who is largely responsible for the revival of Thomism in modern times); and the Notre Dame philosophers Ralph McInerny and, above all, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre is philosopher-in-residence at the Center, and looms large in the discussions and guiding vision of the Center's work.

This weekend's conference attracted several hundred similarly inspired academics from across the nation and the globe for discussions of the conference's themes, "virtue, sacrifice and the common good." It is fair and accurate to say that the Center and conference participants are "traditionalist," and that - in matters of the "culture wars" - their work has been on the side of defending life, calling attention to the utilitarian philosophy that underlies many assumptions of the extension of modern biotechnology, and defending forms of traditional morality. The Center was in the middle of efforts to reverse the decision of Notre Dame to award President Obama an honorary degree, and helped organize "ND Response," which sponsored a protest rally coincident with the President's commencement address.

That said, there is further dimension of the Center - prominently present at the conference - that defies most contemporary notions of Left and Right. The Conference featured several panels that argued on behalf of a way of thinking about the economic life that might strike the casual observer as coming from the Left. Among the strong defenses of the central place of morality in human affairs was an insistence that an exacting moral code extend as much to the marketplace as the bedroom. Indeed, there was an overarching insistence - one informed by Alasdair MacIntyre, a former Marxist - that there is a continuity between the individualism and relativism of the market and "personal" lifestyles, a consistent relativism that erodes social cohesion, cultural continuity, a felt sense of generational obligation, and a the centrality of the virtue of self-governance and moderation of appetite.

Among the panels that were organized were sympathetic explorations of the thought of Wendell Berry, whose writings of several decades have severely condemned contemporary form of "absentee economy" populated by "itinerant vandals." These words were penned long before the current economic crisis, a crisis that he has essentially predicted based on a view of human anthropology and nature that cannot long be denied without severe repercussions. There was also a panel consisting of authors from the webzine "Front Porch Republic," a generally conservative online journal that has been strongly critical of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy (full disclosure: I appeared on the panel, and write for the site). Among its stable of authors are those arguing for a second look at the "Distributism" of Chesterton and Belloc and more local forms of economic organization.

In my view, the highlight of the conference was a lecture delivered by Michael Baxter entitled "God, Notre Dame and Country." Baxter reviewed the mid-twentieth century efforts of Catholic intellectuals to formulate a seamless synthesis of Catholic belief and American values - for instance, a work such as We Hold These Truths by the Jesuit intellectual John Courtney Murray. While Baxter sympathetically explored the felt-need of the oft-ghettoized Catholic minority in America to gain acceptance by the broader culture, he concluded that these efforts had gone too far, to the point of a degree of intellectual dishonesty. He argued for a more vigorous Catholic contrarian voice in the broader culture, one that is willing to call out the false premises of American liberalism (whether informing the contemporary Left or Right). He insisted that Catholicism refuse any longer to be drawn into the contemporary culture wars, lining up neatly on the Right or Left (or worse, Republican or Democrat) in complete mindless submission to the political demands of the day. He called for a more thoughtful consideration of a consistent Catholic argument that would be equally critical of both parties where they departed from the consistency of the Catholic teaching. Hence his proposed reorganization of a Notre Dame motto: not "God, Country, Notre Dame," but "God, Notre Dame, Country." That is a more properly Augustinian standard.

It was an exciting weekend and presentation, finally because in the contours of its basic premises and arguments one could see the beginnings of a revival of a truly dissenting Catholic voice in contemporary America. For too long Catholics have lined up in "conservative" or "progressive" camps in ways that have aligned too closely with the existing political parties. Those arguments have pulled the Catholic electorate to the left or right, becoming THE swing vote in national elections - but for that reason, also effectively splitting apart the consistency of the full teaching of the Church, and thereby obscuring its power and damaging its effectiveness in the broader culture.

What exists today are two parties that effectively adhere to one part of the Catholic teaching (whether they know it or not), with the Right insisting on the dignity of life in all of its forms and the Left adopting a stance of moral condemnation toward the greed and concupiscence that contributed to the economic crisis. However, the resulting divide allows each side to blame the other for their respective immorality (personal/sexual or economic), thereby obscuring the fundamental moral consistency that was bifurcated in the cauldron of Cold War American politics. The work of the Center on Culture and Ethics is clearly aimed at healing that divide, and - if its work continues to unfold with the success and vision that I witnessed - the "blame game" that has existed at the heart of American politics will be increasingly harder to play. The major players in the Parties will insist upon retaining the status quo, but the penetrating vision of this Catholic revival in the American heartland may finally be too powerful to ignore. One can at least hope.

(This post also appears at the site "Georgetown/On Faith")

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homo Economicus

On today’s campuses, the reigning principle on most academic matters is to avoid meddling in the affairs of others. Beyond very broad curricular requirements, we are to allow respective experts to patrol the boundaries and content of their own disciplines. It is considered to be bad form to snoop around in others’ business. But, this doesn’t seem to be a very good example of “critical thinking,” and one area in which I think we need more critical thought is the reigning approach to the study of economics.

Economics is today regarded as the model of the social sciences, the one “human science” that approaches the status of the natural sciences. Increasingly technical and mathematic, modern economics has developed powerful analytical tools that provide extensive data on which to base contemporary policy and even some impressive predictive models. According to the canons of the natural sciences, economics is the reigning example for the rest of the social sciences.

However, much of the explanatory strength of economics rests on a narrow and even unrealistic understanding of human behavior, particularly an understanding of the human creature as a utility-maximizing rational actor. Stripped of conflicting devotions, shorn of history and culture, reduced to a few basic motives (especially fear and greed), economic man became highly analyzable data point, but arguably only insofar as he has ceased to be truly human. As Paul Krugman has recently written, the economics field largely failed to predict our current economic crisis due to a basic disconnection from reality: “The economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty – clad in impressive-looking mathematics – for truth.”

Yet, even as economic assumptions can be questioned on the basis of whether they meet the standard of good science, there is a deeper problem with the modern study of economics: those very “unreal” assumptions have tended to be imperialistic in shaping much of modern humanity’s self-understanding. Far from being merely “descriptive,” the basic assumptions of economics – that human beings are acquisitive individual utility-maximizers living in a world of scarcity – deeply shape modern humanity’s view of itself. And, more than anything else, it is this view that lies at the heart of our current economic crisis – itself a spiritual crisis. A false anthropology – one in which humans are defined above all by their fears and appetites – undergirds a system that encourages materialism, short-term thinking and a utilitarian relationship to the natural world and fellow humans. It discounts bonds born in self-sacrifice and love, and the attendant social structures that foster and perpetuate those motivations. The root of our economic crisis was not narrowly technical – and not solvable by mere economic or regulatory reform – but fundamentally anthropological, denigrating an alternative understanding of human nature that places a priority upon the personal over the impersonal; on the sacrificial over the acquisitive; on love over lust; and premised upon a view of creation as a bountiful gift of a loving God rather than a condition of miserly scarcity demanding the conquest of nature.

Based on typical course offerings in most Departments of Economics, one would hardly suspect that there are other economic approaches that start with a fundamentally different set of anthropological assumptions. Especially relevant at an institution like Georgetown is a rich tradition of Catholic economic theory, from the tradition of Church Doctors to papal encyclicals to alternative economic approaches that include the Distributism of Chesterton and Belloc. In its orbit one would count the economists E.F. Schumacher and Wilhelm Roepke, authors respectively of Small is Beautiful and A Humane Economy. These authors stress the role of economics in sustaining good and stable communities and families, where the activities of economics are understood to be subordinated to a more comprehensive understanding of the human good. This was the theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Charity in Truth, a text that has received little official attention on campus.

Eschewing modern assumptions, this approach is equally critical of both big business and big government – arguing that any economy that permits organizations “too big to fail” will require a massive government that assists in their creation and maintenance. It was thinkers in this tradition who were generally more accurate in predicting the recent economic crisis. Basing their judgment less on sophisticated models than on the insight that human institutions that grow too large ultimately weaken our attachments and encourage narrow self-interest and irresponsibility, such thinkers warned of the likelihood of an economic (and ultimately, social) unraveling.

Recent events have shown that the modern study of economics not only misinterprets the world, but that it changes it in ways for the worse. It is time for a better economics, and – not limited to that end – time for a truer and reality-based understanding of human nature.

(This column appears in today's edition of The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Not the Matter With Kansas?

E2100Tonight I happened to attend a pair of extremely interesting, and strikingly juxtaposed, events. The first was a Bradley Lecture at AEI delivered by Peter Berkowitz entited "The New Progressivism." According to the description of the lecture - which is a fairly accurate summation -

"The original Progressivism, the Progressivism that arose in the 1880s and 1890s and flourished during the first two decades of the twentieth century, was marked by a paradox. On the one hand, it sought to democratize American politics, reforming American political institutions to make them more responsive to the will of the people. On the other hand, Progressives favored the creation of an administrative elite that would exercise substantial state power but without traditional forms of political accountability. It is one of the virtues of Progressive era that writers gave both opinions clear and emphatic expression. Like the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism, which arose in post-1960s politics and has been refined and taken to a new level by President Barack Obama, seeks to democratize American political institutions by making them more responsive to the will of the people. And like the original Progressivism, it has great confidence in the ability of elites to administer the state on the people’s behalf.

"In contrast to the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism does not give clear expression to Progressivism's awkward combination of egalitarianism and elitism. On the contrary, the new Progressivism strives to conceal Progressivism's paradox--the new Progressivism's academic wing has even developed a variety of theoretical and rhetorical approaches that conceal the paradox. Whereas the dependence on elites can be reconciled with self-government, this concealment has disquieting antidemocratic and illiberal implications."

Thereafter, I was caught up in a general exodus to a book party a few floors below AEI in the offices of the Weekly Standard, where revelers were toasting the publication of Matthew Continetti's latest title The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

Both of these events, serendipitously or not, were devoted to the exposure of Left elitism toward ordinary opinion. Both sought to highlight the close alignment of progressive elitism on the Left and populist sympathy on the part of the Right. Both partook of the longterm narrative that has defined the realignment of Populism from a Left anti-elite suspicion of economic concentration to a Right anti-elite suspicion of Statist concentration. And, both struck me - occuring as they were in the heart of the imperial metropole of Washington D.C., attended by the extremely well-heeled, cosmopolitan metropolites, that something was askew.

Peter Berkowitz's talk turned out to be revelatory: what he was in fact attacking was NOT the elitism of the Left per se, but rather the obfuscation of a paradox at the heart of the Left that at once presents itself as the party of the working man while also advancing policies (e.g., Gay Marriage) to which the working man cannot subscribe. This dynamic was at the heart of my study of "democratic faith," the belief that democracy could and should be embraced NOT because the lovers of democracy embrace the "people" as they are, but only as they should be. But this criticism of Left elitism does not one a populist make.

The modern Right has built itself on the exposure of this contradiction. However, it should not be confused that a criticism of this Left elite mistrust of the people translates into a Right elite embrace of the people. Berkowitz concluded his talk with praise for the "conservative liberal" position of the Framers and the Constitution, a conservatism of limited government and balanced powers. But this very accustomed invocation of the Founders should give pause, coming as it did in the midst of a lecture that implicitly excoriated the anti-democratic antipathies of the Left elite. For the Founders were no less fearful of the populist irrationalities of the populace as the contemporary elitist Left: pressed particularly on issues of economics, most of the audience in that lecture room at AEI would doubtless regard popular efforts to curb the excesses of Wall Street with no little horror and alarm It's worth recalling that William Jennings Bryan was hardly a friend of big business, after all, and particularly not Wall Street. Bryan populism tended to be more sympathetic to the use of State authority to curb private concentrations of power than contemporary Right embraces of populism would suggest.

The contemporary Right can trace its roots to the original American mistrust of the people, particularly seen in the frequent invocation of the wisdom of the Founders. The Framers were just as afraid of popular discontents and governance as the elites on the contemporary Left. The Federalist Papers - the official document that describes and defends the Constitutional order - is rife with condemnations of popular rule, particularly "democracy" that was pervasive in ancient settings. The Framers held the view that human irrationality came to the fore in group or crowd settings. As Madison argued in Federalist 55, "Had every Athenian been a Socrates, the Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." That is, even if every citizen of Athens had been a reasonable and philosophic soul, the fact that they came together in a crowd would naturally lead to the overcoming of reason in favor of irrational mob mentality. The Constitutional order aims to circumvent the creation of a widespread popular will.

Representation was to elicit in the leadership by a select class of distinguished individuals. Even as the contemporary Right condemns the elitism of the progressive Left - embracing instead the Founders for their rejection of basic principles of progressivism - it was Madison who declared that a properly constituted government would give rise to leaders who would rule in a manner wiser and better than the common mass of humanity. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10, ideal representation would "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose."

A populist suspicion of the elitist orientation of the new Constitution had motivated opposition by a number of the Anti-federalists, and was largely manifested in an anti-Federalist, anti-Whig, and eventually anti-Republican opposition party (Jeffersonianism, Jacksonianism, and the populism that motivated the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan). In the 1960s, the Democratic Party - increasingly a party of establishment Washington and educated elites - threw off their traditional blue-collar (and largely Catholic) electoral base in favor of a new coalition of anti-war activists, the college-educated, and feminists. The result was a political vacuum in which the "populist" wing of the Democratic party was without representation - until Nixon developed a strategy to bring them into the Republican fold. While old habits died hard - many still continued to vote Democratic - by the time of the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, many overcame old habits and thus became "Reagan Democrats." The transformation of Republicans as the party of the Northeast and financial elites to that of Joe the Plumber was complete.

But this accretion of populists into the Republican fold was never altogether comfortable: Republicans - the heirs of the old Federalist and Whig parties - had been, and remain, mistrustful of the unwashed masses. The masses were historically the great threat to the sanctity of PROPERTY, the very manifestation of the "diverse faculties of men" that Madison argued was in need of protection in the new Constitutional order. Republicans successfully adopted the old populist strain of American politics by turning its ire toward the pointy-headed professoriate and their dreams of a utopian political order, all the while pretending that the economic policies of Reaganism were friendly to the common man. Even as jobs were being shipped overseas under the new orthodoxy of Free Markets, Reagan cleared brush, George Herbert Walker ate pork rinds, and the Texan yahoo George Walker Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard MBA) said "nucylar."

Inviting the populist elements of the American electorate was - to use the Jeffersonian metaphor - a bit like having a wolf by the ears: they didn't dare to let go, but they knew the longer they held on, the more dangerous the beast. Even now efforts are afoot to keep the incendiary potential of a populist rage in control. This, I take it, is in part the purpose of Matthew Continetti's recent book on Sarah Palin - to "enlarge and refine" populism for the purposes of the Republican party. Thus he writes (in an excerpt published in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard), that there is a need of a new political leader who can separate "good" populism from "bad" populism. "The left-wing populists rail against CEO compensation, bank bailouts, and lobbyist influence in government. The right-wing populists attack the auto bailouts, government spending, and Obamacare. There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors.... All of which creates an opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism (championing free-enterprising individuals) from the bad (concocting loony theories and vilifying "enemies of the people")." That is, populism must be purified of its hostility to economic elites and instead directed at Left political elites. The way to do this is to assume the pose of sympathetic populist and denounce at the elitism of the Left. Even as one embraces policies which encourage "too big to fail" economic entities that should be largely unsupervised by a pared down government.

There is one quite revealing datum in Continetti's essay: "About twice as many people call themselves "conservative" as "Republican," which means that a large chunk of potential Republican voters are alienated from the national party." Perhaps this is another way of saying "We Won't Be Fooled Again." Not that Washington D.C.'s smart set won't try. Let's hope Kansas isn't buying.

More: let's hope that some cagey political leaders understand that the way to harness this populist anger is not by purging its Left or Right elements, but understanding its consistency - the anger toward private and public concentrations of power, the elimination of a dignified role for the citizen, the infantilization of the American freeman, and the looting of the Republic by power elites of all stripe, is cause for righteous and fervent anger. Inchoate and ill-directed, the Glenn Beck, "tea-party" movement reveals a justified anger toward both K Street and Wall Street. What good sense and manly indignation have put together, let no political maneuvering put asunder. It is high time for "a true and defensible populism."