Meaning

Let's Be More Productive

Mark D. White

In The New York Times over the weekend, Tim Jackson contributed a piece titled "Let's Be Less Productive." In it, he decries the modern obsession with productivity gains, while recognizing the role it has played in increasing standards of living. He cites necessarily stagnant productivity in the arts, services, and craft industries, which William Baumol noted years ago, terming it the "cost disease" (because wages would have to remain competitive while productivity stayed the same), but cautions against increasing productivity throughout the economy because of other detrimental effects--specifically on jobs, if higher productivity is not accompanied by growth.

I have no problem with tempering the push for higher productivity, especially in areas in which it can hardly be expected. Productivity is a means to an end and therefore it is only valuable insofar as it actually serves that end. But I think there is an end which can benefit from higher productivity that Jackson doesn't see: a less work-centered conception of meaningful life. Instead, he sees higher productivity as a threat to full employment:

Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.

On a certain level he's right; if we produce the same amount of output more efficiently, that means less resources will be required, including labor. For people who want to work, who need to work, this is of great concern, which makes this an important matter to discuss during these dire economic times.

But more generally, we should consider if work is a means to an end or an end in itself. It's the former for most everybody, of course, but the latter for only some. It's a cultural stereotype that Americans live to work while Europeans work to live, but it is based on a kernel of truth. Some people find their life's meaning primarily in work, but others find it more in other aspects of life, such as service, art, family, or love. Higher productivity may result in fewer jobs, yes, but insomuch as some people find a job a burden--and have other means to support themselves, such as a spouse or a partner--they can enjoy other aspects of life if they have other means of support, due to higher productivity.

There are other benefits to this aspect of higher productivity. It would relieve the modern necessity of the two-earner family, either allowing a two-parent family to live on one earner's income, or a single-parent family to live more comfortably on one income. And higher productivity can also--if you're so inclined--finance a stronger welfare state, to support those who want to work but can't find a job, and have no partner or other financial support. Even without growth, higher productivity enables a state to fund social welfare programs. (Just look at Sweden, where a fairly unrestrictive regulatory environment for business has led to productivty gains and growth to support their extensive welfare state.)

There is plenty of room to bemoan the single-minded focus on productivity espoused by many in business and government, and at the same time to recognize that the loss of jobs it creates (in the absence of corresponding growth) has some broader societal benefits, including lessening our reliance on our jobs and careers to give meaning to our lives and relaxing the economic burden on families. Work to live, indeed!


Morals without God

Jonathan B. Wight

Frans de Waal, in “Morals without God,” argues against the view of some people of the cloth that without God there would be no morality.  Rather, morality arose for evolutionary purposes and is thus more ingrained in the human psyche than cultural and religious conceptions of right and wrong.  The evidence for this is in fellow primates.  De Waal states:

I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary….DeWaal

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others….  A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick.

While God isn’t needed for morality, according to de Waal, religions serve important purposes in society that should not be dismissed.  Hence, de Waal is sympathetic to religions and their morals, which provide a framework for social advances over the centuries: Monkeys

And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch….

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality….It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion.

Hence, this leads to the conclusion:

[W]hat would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

De Waal thus provides a defense of religion as a foundation for justice, which it certainly is.  But there are other defenses that rely on the pleasure created by religious practice itself—as in mysticism.  That is a topic for another day.

 

 


A fascinating first-person account of the health care reform battles

Mark D. White

Regardless of where you stand on the law, economics, or politics of the Affordable Care Act, I highly recommend Ilya Shapiro's new paper "A Long, Strange Trip: My First Year Challenging the Constitutionality of Obamacare" (forthcoming in Florida International Law Review), in which the CATO scholar details his year of writing, speaking, and debating various legal issues involving the health care reform legislation.

For those of us in academia, the paper provides a wonderful view into the world of think tanks and advocacy--and may even spur some thoughts on the meaning and purpose of the academic life, as it certainly did for me.


Ronald Dworkin on the Good Life

Hedgehogs Mark D. White

In the latest New York Review of Books (Feb. 10, 2011), Ronald Dworkin asks "What Is a Good Life?", offering an answer drawn from his book, Justice for Hedgehogs. From the article:

We have a responsibility to live well, and the importance of living well accounts for the value of having a critically good life. These are no doubt controversial ethical judgments. I also make controversial ethical judgments in any view I take about which lives are good or well-lived. In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.


Should Science Determine Our Values?

Jonathan B. Wight

David Hume be damned, the answer is "yes" according to Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010). Harris argues that all values reduce to "facts" that science can provide.

Harris is a utilitarian, seeking to reduce "needless human suffering." In his view, science allows "us"—that is, well-educated liberal Westerners--to decide on the meaning of "moral progress." It should be clear, he argues, what human flourishing means and that we can adopt a definition and measurement using scientific methods. In short, there is an absolute moral standard of right and wrong, as illuminated by the "science" of human well-being.

Aside from Harris' arrogance, there is a huge dose of condescension. There is no fair conception here of what the human experience means in non-Western cultures. To Harris, the measure of human progress appears to be externally-driven by caloric intake and clothes (he rails against the "sacks" that Islamic women wear). I haven't read the book, but I am curious if Harris is aware of Nozick's Experience Machine that could make and keep us perfectly pleasured. Is that an ideal life? It would seem so to Harris.

If you don't want to buy the book, you can get the essence of his message in this TED talk.


The Tucson Tragedy and Moral Imagination

Jonathan B. Wight

Via Paul Krugman’s blog, we get these quotes from President Obama:

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame [in the Tucson shootings], let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” (Jan 12, 2011)

“I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes.” (May 1, 2009)

Queries: Has Obama read Adam Smith?  Is Obama a virtue-ethicist?


Christmas, Religion, and a New God

Jonathan B. Wight

It’s Christmas Day, and snow is falling gently in Richmond, Virginia.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—if shopping malls are any indication.

Santa rules, but is there a God?  This is the subject of John Shelby Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell (2010).  Spong is the controversial Episcopal bishop and prolific author who argued in previous books that Christianity had to modernize or die. Religion’s dogmas are deadening because they conflict with science and current common sense.  “One cannot restore life by doing a facelift on a corpse,” he wrote, in one of the memorable lines (p. 142). 

This isn’t particularly new; what is new is that an Episcopal bishop (now retired) is writing this.  Spong is speaking tomorrow in Richmond at my church—and the church he previously led—historic St. Paul’s Episcopal.  This is the church where, according to local legend, Robert E. Lee set the tone for the post-Civil War society by kneeling alongside a black man at the altar to receive communion. 

Spong is also willing to break with the past to forge a new direction for understanding religion and ethics.  Spong’s conclusion is that there is no God, at least not one of heaven and hell.  Rather, we must understand God (or love) as an internal link with the evolving consciousness of humanity.  This conclusion ends up being startlingly similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis in his remarkable work, The Phenomenon of Man (1955). 

One is reminded of Adam Smith’s doctrine that belief in an afterlife is required if people are to develop self control needed for justice.  Is that an outdated notion?  Will humanity outgrow needing the threat of an afterlife (whether in Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism), by adopting a new universal consciousness?

Merry Christmas and happy dreams for the future…


Bourgeois Dignity and Humanistic Economics

Jonathan B. Wight

 You don’t have to wait to get Deirdre McCloskey’s new book, Bourgeois Dignity (2010) to get a strong taste of what’s inside. 

 Found here is a short summary that McCloskey provided last month for Cato Unbound.  The key message is one Keynes would find understandable: namely, that ideas and beliefs are the most important commodities of value, and explain economic success or stagnation.

 While markets give rise to a higher material standard of living, McCloskey attacks economists for adopting a materialist viewpoint.  In the Cato Unbound post, McCloskey calls for the creation of a new science of humanistic economics:

We will need to abandon the materialist premise that reshuffling and efficiency, or an exploitation of the poor, made the modern world. And we will need to make a new science of history and the economy, a humanistic one that acknowledges number and word, interest and rhetoric, behavior and meaning.

 Deirdre’s use of “humanistic” is likely to arouse ire, since “humanistic” economics is associated with E F Schumacher’s Buddhist economics of limited wants (Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered).  It also is a title by Mark Lutz and Kenneth Lux, Challenge of Humanistic Economics (1979) that develops somewhat similar ideas to McCloskey on the role of a non-materialist approach to economics.

 I think that McCloskey has it exactly right:  to defend capitalism we need to see competitive markets as providing an opportunity for humanistic development in its broadest sense—for self expression, for personal growth, for meaning, and for community connectivity.  The fact that markets also generate higher material standards is quite amazing—but an exclusive focus on this aspect can lead to unfortunate dead ends. 

 What drives entrepreneurship—and what supports its existence among the populace—is something far grander and ennobling than economic efficiency: it is dreams of discovery and the desire for beauty in order.  Not surprisingly(!), this topic is covered by Adam Smith in TMS (IV 1). 


McCloskey on Why "Life in the Market Is Good for You" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)

Mark D. White

As we approach the climactic finish of our chapter-by-chapter preview of Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems (now available), we come to Chapter 7 by Deirdre McCloskey titled "Life in the Market Is Good for You." (You can use the following links to find previews of the chapters by White, Meadowcroft, Gwartney and Connors, Baker, Blevins, Ramirez and Wight, and Garnett, as well as the book's preface.)



Adapted from her landmark book The Bourgeois Virtues, McCloskey's chapter discusses common misperceptions about the propriety of market work, in particular trade but also "menial" labor, and how intellectuals throughout the ages have dismissed its importance to the good life. Of course, throughout the chapter she references literature, poetry, theatre and film, as well as economists, philosophers, theologians, and more.

It is difficult to pick out a passage to quote, but here's one of my favorites:

Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times or the opening scenes of Sillitoe’s angry-young-man novel The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959; movie 1962) say that many factory jobs are monotonous. Granted. I have not worked in a factory. But the monotony is of course pretty common in nonindustrial society, too. Planting rice is never fun. The idiocy of rural life is not always better for the soul than the idiocy of urban life. I have worked as a farm laborer. Ironically, only since Romanticism and the rise of prosperous, healthy cities—London stopped killing more people than it bred by the end of the eighteenth century—have Europeans looked fondly back on their village roots. (p. 160)

(And I'll always thank her for teaching me, in The Bourgeois Virtues, how to pronounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, another highly recommended book - see p. 156 for that!)

BD And I would be remiss if I didn't mention McCloskey's new book, published this month by Chicago, titled Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. I expect it to be as rewarding and deeply pelasurable as was The Bourgois Virtues, and I hope discussion of it will be forthcoming on this blog (hint, hint).

 


Quick introduction to Richard Moss, The Mandala of Being (New World Library 2007).

In constructing an ethical theory, one consideration is: who has ethical standing?  That is, whose interests “count” when considering “right” behavior?  Utilitarians like Bentham (and today, philosopher Peter Singer) feel that all sentient animals—all creatures capable of feeling pain—are due equal respect and consideration.  No preference should be shown to humans or to Americans or to people of my particular family line. 

Adam Smith would not go along with that.  He argued that we owe greater duty and respect towards those closest to us:  our duty to our own mother, for example, is greater than our duty to an unknown elderly women on another continent.  Moral preference is necessary in some situations. 

The issue of boundaries of ethical obligation is quite important, particularly when we consider global warming, whose greatest impacts will be in 100 years when few currently alive will be around.  Issues of intergenerational justice are a huge problem.  Should we consider those who live in two generations receive equal moral consideration to those living now?  To economists, discounting future generations’ interests makes logical sense, but may put us on difficult ethical footing.

This brings us to a fascinating book by Richard Moss.  The Mandala of Being is about how humans construct identities that create walls between people and different groups of people.  But it is more than an analysis, it also has a prescription for gently disengaging one’s feelings, beliefs, and thoughts from the notion of identity, and by doing so, getting us closer to the experience of who we are in essence. This essence, he claims, allows us to be on an equal footing with others on the planet.

In Moss’ view, we form “identities” as a survival mechanism.  Thoughts, feelings, and actions arise in particular contexts in which a child encounters stress.  Our identities grow out of how we react to perceived threats.  Identity is essential for survival and motivation, and cultural ideology and mythology are key parts of that identity. 

But identity is also what keeps us apart from others who are different.  Hence, tolerance only comes when we are able to step outside identity and the thoughts, feelings and actions associated with it. 

Moss explores a psychological mechanism that will be familiar to practitioners of Eastern philosophy—the practice of living in the “now” of awareness. Awareness happens when we are able to gently let go of thoughts of past and future, of ego and of others, and simply “be.”  Moss notes that he believes this is the essence of a human being.  There are a multitude of techniques for getting in this state of original awareness, such as by focused breathing, meditation, repetitive physical activity (“runner’s high”) or playing games. 

From this state of awareness one has a very different conception, Moss claims, of our relationships with others.  From this place of blissful awareness we are far more likely to be tolerant of those who are different—because we can see that differences arise out of identity creation and not inherent or intrinsic disparities. 

By contrast, Moss argues that moral absolutist are trapped in an identity that limits their experience of the now awareness.  That explanation may be insulting to moral absolutists, but Moss has a much gentler way of getting to this point than I have. 

At a future point I will describe the Mandala—essentially a psychological visual chart that relates past to present and subject (ourselves) to objects (others).  Whether you agree or disagree with Moss, his work is interesting to economists because he is directly addressing the meaning of happiness that has been the object of much attention recently.