September 2014 Archives

Snap Out of What?



A week or so ago, David Brooks wrote one of his looking down his nose, scolding articles that instantly (or a week later) drives me to respond. With the headline, “Snap Out of It,” Brooks argues that life really couldn’t be much better.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

He should read his colleague, Paul Krugman’s column today about the invisibility of wealth in the US today. He would have better deemed our time in history as another gilded, not golden, age. The allusion to a golden age took me back to ancient Greece age the time of Pericles. I cribbed this short discussion.

The so-called golden age of Athenian culture flourished under the leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a brilliant general, orator, patron of the arts and politician—”the first citizen” of democratic Athens, according to the historian Thucydides. Pericles transformed his city’s alliances into an empire and graced its Acropolis with the famous Parthenon. His policies and strategies also set the stage for the devastating Peloponnesian War, which would embroil all Greece in the decades following his death.

I can find not a scintilla of comparison. Our influence has steadily declined in economic terms, but perhaps not in military strength. Our dominant position in the world has stagnated in many ways leading to an apparent decline by comparison with the rest of the world. But I do not think that is particularly relevant anyway. What have we done to erect a modern-day Parthenon. The closest I can think of is the Internet. The only difference is that we are worshiping the Gods of Technology, not those who inhabited Olympus. I am not at all certain that this is an improvement.

I looked at some data for our Defense expenditures over time. The trends since 2001 would argue against Brooks’s claim that all is quiet and peaceful in the world, and we have little to worry about from the outside.


Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

Our politics doesn’t accurately portray how the people would apportion spending priorities, so that a plebiscite might spend our national wealth differently, but there is no way to argue that we live in a peaceful, serene period in history. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. If our highway system is our Parthenon, it is nearly in as bad a state of disrepair and it is only about fifty years old, not 2500.

Brooks wrote this because he said he listened to a mood of despair and pessimism this summer. I am not sure whom he was tuned into. My guess is it is the punditry that surrounds him. It cannot be the poor; they have been downtrodden and hopeless for decades. Nothing especially new for them. Red Sox fans, perhaps. How could we slip from first to last in such an ignominious manner? The Koch’s? They are on a roll since Citizens United. Wall Street? The Market is setting records. He says, “We are living in an amazingly fortunate time.” He is using my teenage granddaughter’s favorite jargon word, amazing, with the same banal significance. He uses this to argue that we are having a “leadership crisis,” but fails to mention what leaders he is referring to. I think it is the seat of power in Washington DC, particularly the Congress and the Presidency.

He offers four fixes:

First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness.

Third, discredit political bigotry.

Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda.

It ain’t Nike here. These folks can’t or won’t just do it. These are not just a few nits in the system. If we do have a malaise, (and I think we do, but I am just one voice,) it is not about to be fixed by tweaking the system. Our values are wrong at the core. We have skidded to the extreme individualistic end of the me-community/others axis. We have pushed it beyond belief. Bigotry is just a form of extreme individualism. We cannot stop of thinking of the US as separate and different from the rest of the world. See climate change. Wrong! We are simply one piece of the planet and we are connected to the rest in a systemic mesh if interrelationships.

That’s enough. I still am unsettled by his column and I still am not sure why. Maybe it’s because the elite is scolding the elite, but trying to rise above the fray.

ps. One of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General called the remarks made by his female opponent, “unseemly.” He lost. The word was taken to be patronizing as I also read it here.

(Image: Raphael, The School of Athens)

Violence and Culture



Today’s Boston Globe had a “big” front page story, taking much of the space, covering Roger Goodell’s “apology” for his treatment of domestic violence among football players. The NYTimes coverage was smaller, but full of historical details about misdemeanors of all kinds and how they have been treated by Goodell over the past several years. What I saw in the stories was not just the holier-than-thou stance of Goodell, nor the details of the Rice incident, but the fundamentally violent American culture coming forth.

I may certainly be wrong, but American football, perhaps more than any other sport except hockey, has become an appeal to the bloodlust of Americans. The players are more like gladiators than talented performers. So, should it be surprising to find many involved with violence and other misdemeanors off the field? Coaches deny that they encourage the players to be violent, but that’s laughable. I find an undeniable connection to our passion for guns and media’s dominant violent depictions.

Discussing this over breakfast with Ruth, she asked whether humans are essentially violent creatures. Is violence genetically inherited? I have seen many articles that claim it is, but so what. It is not at all surprising to find violent genes because early hominids probably had to act in violent manners to survive. They lacked the means to employ any other strategy. But as they became more and more civilized, they were able to find other means to survive without resorting to violence. Agriculture brought adequate food for survival. I found this definition of “civilize” on the web: “To raise from barbarism to an enlightened stage of development; bring out of a primitive or savage state.”

The Goodell story, to me, is simply more evidence that we are still in the civilizing process. Although we tout ourselves as being civilized, we aren’t all the way and perhaps not far enough along to rest on our laurels. The process of civilization rests on the creation of institutions that enable humans to put their “barbaric” side in abeyance as it becomes, in theory, unnecessary for survival. Much of such a process has taken place over the millennia of human history, but seems unfinished or inadequate.

Another essential characteristic of human beings is unconditional love. Humberto Maturana argues that it is the most basic of human emotions. But it has not fared nearly so well as violence has from the “civilizing” development of human societies. Why? A critical question for our times as the world continues to become more violent. Perhaps over the long run, civilizing has reduced violence as Stephen Pinker argues in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Perhaps it is only the American fascination with it that makes it seem to be everywhere and increasing. But I believe the evidence shows no mater how we compare to history, it is still a serious issue.

One of my arguments for the continuing large presence of violence versus love is that emergent cultures promoted materialism in one form or another. On the large scale, it was in one form of imperialism or another. What is this but one nation going out to have what belonged to another. And what better way to get it but violent means. The measure of national status was materialistic and power. Imperialistic tendencies have diminished as nation boundaries became more fixed and stable, but it is not gone as the reading of any paper on any day will demonstrate.

Materialism also remains at the microlevel in the political economies of every non-socialistic state. Human well-being is measured by what one has. The notion of scarce resources remains in the economic theories on which societal institutions are based, even as we are overwhelmed by the quantity of goods in the marketplace. Life is a struggle to acquire ever more goods. The marketplace is the civilized answer to previously violent means of acquisition, but crime and riots still show up frequently in the news.

At the bottom of materialism is a belief that human nature incorporates a having gene that dominates our social behavior. We are driven to acquire more and more goods. Our identities are tied to the quantity and types of goods we own. I am taking a course on the origins of the U.S Constitution, and was reminded in the last class that early drafts of the Declaration of Independence began with “… certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Property.” Happiness eventually got substituted, but the intimate connection between the two remains.

My work always argues that violence and other social pathologies spring from this error, the assumption that we are havers by nature. It is not the place here to elaborate this notion. You can find it in my books and many prior blog posts. Modernity was predicated on the hopes that humans would continuously progress toward a more perfect state, given the institutions that were evolving. Another way would be to say that modernity is just another phase in the civilizing process that has been occurring over the millennia. Maybe so, but it is not the end by far as all this violence, big and small, affirms. In a nutshell, my work looks at how we can restart the process and end with a flourishing world where violence fades into the shadows,

Anticipating the High Holidays


chagall abraham

My wife and I had a breakfast conversation today as we often do triggered by the morning news. The lead article on the Boston Globe was about praying for three infants whose skeletal remains were found in a derelict home along with four other neglected children. Pretty gruesome. The prayers also included the mother who obviously needed help from somewhere. I was a bit surprised by the prayers for the dead infants whose innocence should carry them straight to heaven. Ruth and I have had a running conversation about what is prayer for some time and this turned it on.

My argument generally starts with pointing to the origin of the word, which comes from the Latin for entreaty or beg. I found this neat etymology on the web.

Before the 13th century, the word was preien “ask earnestly, beg”. By the late 13th century it had become praien “pray to a god, saint, etc.”, and by the end of the century pray had taken on its current form. The word entered English via Old French preier, which came from Latin precari “ask earnestly, beg, pray”. An old word for “please” is prithee, a contraction of “I pray thee”.

The ultimate Latin root is prex “prayer, request, entreaty”. Prayer too comes from Latin prex via an only slightly different route. The Indo-European root which gave Latin prex is *prek-.

Some interesting related words which descended from precari are deprecate and precarious. How can precarious be related? Interestingly, it originally meant “obtained through asking”. The meaning shifted and was applied to items “held by another as a favor”. Later the idea arose that the “holding” was potentially tenuous as the “favor” could be withdrawn, and that is how the notion of “uncertainty” entered into the word’s meaning. By the 18th century it had acquired the “risky” meaning which it has today. Precarious entered English in the 17th century.

If one examines the word carefully, it has no practical meaning without making explicit both the person or entity to whom it is directed and the substantive request. “I beg/pray to God that Joe will repay the note he owes me.” There is, as used, a sense of indirection as the request is made to some entity not responsible for the reason triggering the request. My example is a bit facetious because if I really wanted Joe to hand me my money I would simple demand that he does. As the quote above indicates, the current use of pray generally is directing the request to God or some other transcendent being. If I said I prithee to any real person, they would look at me askance.

Prayer has different meanings for the three main theological classes of God: theism, deism, and atheism. Theists who believe that God is responsible for all human action and wants only good to surround human existence pray to God to correct an error he (I pray you will forgive me for using a masculine voice) made in creating the less than good situation I am experiencing. Or it may be to ask God to forgive transgressions, errors I made, not God’s. Deists, who believe God created us and then left us to find our own ways in the world pray, only as a last resort, in hopes that God, after all, is listening and has a Plan B for every bad situation.

Atheists, which I am an example, are stuck when life confronts us with situations for which we cannot conceive of any way to deal with. Prayer can’t work because there is no one to pray to. If the situation is so dire that one cannot go on without terrible suffering, some atheists may recant and pray to God, perhaps returning to their state of unbelief when the crisis is over. Importantly, there is an alternative to atheists and also God believers: hope. Hope differs from prayer in that hope is always about the success of something I am doing. Hope comes only while my actions have not yet resulted in the state we had envisioned. If they have worked, there is nothing left to hope for. I am using the first person deliberately here. I believe that hope only refers to my actions. When I say, “I hope you will feel better” or something similar, there is no agency involved. I am not doing anything to make you feel better. I am using hope here only as an expression of sympathy.

We rarely, if ever, think that when we hope, we are asking some agent to act because nothing intentional happens without an agent. Hope is an entreaty to a transcendental, but impersonal, formless, mute power. At that moment, I have stopped believing that my previous agency will get the results I want. Hope is an expression of the unpredictability of the way the world works. It is a silent appreciation of its complexity, an understanding that anything may happen at any moment.

Hope is an entreaty to an imaginary metaphorical system operator sitting at the controls of the world. Not a God, but someone who knows how to pull every lever, like a genuine Wizard of Oz. Hope is a request for a miracle, something that is possible, but very unlikely to happen. A glass of water can start to boil spontaneously, however unlikely that is. We hope when we begin to suffer in the knowledge that our efforts are not bearing fruit. As long as our project is progressing satisfactorily, we are immersed in it and hoping is redundant. Hope transfers the responsibility for failure from us to some other entity. Hope does not let us off the hook, however. We must continue acting as long as we carry the original vision of the eventual outcome.

You might hear some slight defensiveness in what I am saying. The Jewish High Holidays are almost here and I will make my yearly appearance at the several ceremonies. Much of the time there is spent in prayer. Although Reform Judaism, my kind, accommodates all kinds of believers, the liturgy springs from a theist foundation. Our prayers are directed to God in any of his several names for a myriad of reasons. We call on him to bless our wine, our food, our sanctuary, our people, and to forgive us for our failings. The theist’s God will forgive our transgressions against him, but the deist’s God leaves us to seek forgiveness from those other humans beings who we may have wronged. The idea of sin is different in Judaism. As our rabbi always reminds us each year, the Jewish word, chet, often translated as “sin” has its roots in archery and means missing the mark, going astray. With or without God present, I become mindful of all the times I have missed the mark.

Ruth asked me this morning if I was being hypocritical in joining in the prayers in Temple. Tough question. I am in the sense that I am uttering the words of prayer, but I am not in the sense that I am expressing my solidarity with a community of fellow Jews. To be Jewish is to be a member of the Jewish community and live a Jewish life. It is not so much that I am praying to a God, but expressing my aliveness and connections to the world through the liturgy. In reciting the prayers, I do have a spiritual experience, but one originating inside. It is the circumstances of the Holiday tradition and the closeness of a crowd of fellow congregants that brings forth that spirituality for me; not a sense of a connection with God.

(Image: Chagall: “Abraham and the Three Angels”)

Flourishing Enterprise


FE cover

The title of this blog is also the title of a new book of which I am one of eight authors. We were a project team assembled by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. The Center is part of the Case Western Weatherhead School of Management. Our assignment was to examine the potential roles of spirituality in business firms. You might imagine that we undertook it with some serious trepidation. We sent out a survey early in the project’s life to managers and consultants asking what they thought about our mission. We got back widely divergent responses. A few managers thought we were completely crazy; a few were very strongly positive.

Our group struggled for several months over the meaning of spirituality and arguments for why it should be important. Taking the last issue first, we settled, after much discussion, of flourishing as the objective, the condition that we thought would characterize a health, robust, resilient, thriving enterprise. Going in, we were using sustainability as the endpoint, but moved away from it for all the reasons I have been writing about in this blog and elsewhere (see my August 11, 2014 post, for example). In a word, sustainability has become little more than jargon, lacking any coherent meaning. I rediscovered this cartoon recently that makes the point much better than my words do.

sustainability cartoon.jpg

When you read the book, you will see how we managed to find agreement about the first of these issues, spirituality. The eight of us plus a few doctoral students that were working with us offered probably a dozen different ways to think about and act toward spirituality. In the end, it didn’t really matter. What did were the implications of all of our senses for an enterprise. The book is a compilation of all these threads, tied together by Chris Laszlo and Judy Brown, two of our team.

The rest of this post is directed to my own thoughts about the topic. The idea of a flourishing enterprise as the goal makes complete sense to me, where sustainable business does not. People will argue forever about ways to measure flourishing, but that’s not the point. Flourishing is an emergent property of the enterprise as a system. It is no different from any other emergent property created by a complex system. It can be observed when the system is functioning in such a way that all the parts are working together, much like life itself. Life emerges when the organism retains its structure as it interacts with the outside world. Humberto Maturana calls this autopoiesis, from the Greek for self creation. Flourishing is a metaphor for life. A flourishing enterprise is one that continuously recreates its self (another metaphor for a living person).

Corporations have been defined as people for various legal purposes, but not in the sense that they are living organisms. Some management theories that use this metaphor have been around for a long time (see Gareth Morgan’s, Images of Organizations). But I am using it differently. When I say an organization has a self, I am delving into the philosophical domain. I have been writing about Being for many years; more recently I have using concepts I find in the existentialist field. I start from the premise than human beings create their selfs as they exist/live. Self here is the identity that an observer would ascribe to the person or, in the metaphoric sense, to an enterprise. Self is a conglomerate of the kind of work one will do, that is, one’s intentions; a set of values; and a vision of where the values and actions are headed. As long as one is living such that the vision, values, and identity are continuously recreated, they are flourishing, in my definition. Flourishing is independent of the exterior circumstances, but it is obviously more difficult is some instances than other. It comes from the free choices one makes and maintains.

A flourishing enterprise, for me, is analogously the same. It is an organization that has chosen a particular mission that constitutes its activities, a set of values, and a vision of what will show up as a result of its actions; and is operating on top of these day by day. I use the word particular intentionally; not any mission will do. Human beings flourish by successfully taking care of a set of worldly concerns: themselves, other human beings, and the non-human world, including the transcendent. Care is the operative word. For organizations to flourish, first, they must, like individuals, explicitly and freely create their mission from a set of these care domains. Their values will guide their choice. The vision must be that of a flourishing world. The world is just one very big, interconnected system; one part of it cannot flourish unless the whole system is. As an aside, this is one reason why the idea of sustainable businesses fails. There is little or no understanding that they are interconnected to the whole.

There are no numbers involved in the process of choice or in the creation of flourishing. It is a quality of the whole system in operation. A flourishing enterprise is more than a machine whose output can be and is usually quantified. It may be producing so many widgets a day and so much gross income, but that is never a indicator that it is flourishing. Flourishing is always only a judgment by some observer.

Spirituality, in my mind, is one of the basic domains of care. People need it to flourish. It is not some inner presence; it is a set of activities directed towards the mysteries of life itself and the awesomeness of the world. When done right, these practices can produce a sense of both presence and interconnectedness. Presence helps make the immediate world clearer and that, in turn, enables one’s actions to be more effective. Some define truth as that which shows up through presence. However you define it, a more concrete perception of the world will enable actions most fitted to it. A sense of interconnectedness is critical in overcoming the ubiquitous individualism, narcissism, and extrinsic values of our culture. Without it, one’s actions are only focused inwardly. Care in the sense I write, that is, directed outwardly to serving the existential needs of the other, is virtually impossible.

It should be clear why spirituality is important to a flourishing firm. Every manager knows that clarity about the moment gives one an edge, and avoids mistakes or unintended consequences. Companies spend a fortune on all sorts of information or data gathering, but frequently do not make the right sense of it and march off in the wrong direction. Presence and the clarity it brings can cut through the mire of too much data and find the right path forward. The notions of sustainability and corporate social responsibility are, in theory, about taking care, but have become much too formulaic and meaningless to be effective in caring. One must come to understand that caring has two explicit ends, the carer and that toward which the actions are directed. A clearer consciousness of the interconnections of the corporate body (again a metaphor) and those targets of its business will enable it to execute its strategy most effectively.

While an organizations may choose from a diverse number of possibilities, one domain of care that is critical in every case is the people who work there. If the people that constitute any organization do not flourish, the collective cannot. This means that those who come to work every day must be seen as living individuals, not just part of some impersonal labor force or other economic abstraction. The recent brouhaha over the Market Basket supermarket chain centered in Boston demonstrates the power of treating employees and customers as individuals. When a family quarrel threatened to displace the beloved CEO, the employees and many customers stopped working or buying until he was restored. Many described the company as a family, but in a practical down-to-earth interpretation, not just the idle words of a PR agent.

I can’t possibly condense the book into a few paragraphs but I have tried anyway. I will be writing more about it in the future. You can purchase Flourishing Enterprise at your nearby bookstore or online. The book will be showcased at an upcoming conference, Flourish & Prosper: Third Global Forum for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, October 15-17, at The Weatherhead School in Cleveland. Click here for more information.

Lost America


paradigm coming

Frank Bruni wrote a disturbing column about a week ago, titled “Lost in America.” After reading it I think it would be better titled, “Lost America.” It was based on a survey by the WSJ that found a surprisingly (both to me and Bruni) large number of dissatisfied people.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

His response to these data might turn an ordinary pessimist into a paranoid. I am going to quote more of his words than usual because I want you to get the full extent of the language he uses: surrender, helplessness, useless, pessimistic, apprehensive, sour, without hope. All of these in just a few sentences.

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

At the end, he added these words, again full of negativity: mad, unhappy, fear, can’t, sad. The last sentence to which I has added emphasis triggered this blog post.

“People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

That so many people are aware of the problems ahead is telling. The expression that your children are going to have less possibility than you had is one of the most comprehensive negative views of the future and of the current conditions possible. No one is trusted to solve the problems that are much clearer to the general public than the thought leaders of the country. The outlook is becoming dominated by big issues like climate change and inequality. But not just the name of these issues; what makes them newsworthy is the current impact on life. Its not inequality that is the problem for those at the bottom; it’s simply the lack of capabilities to flourish. It’s not the idea of climate change (although it should be), but the severity of the weather and its effects on daily life. Global drought is raising the cost and availability of essential foodstuff for perhaps a billion people.

Others and I have lumped all of this into a single word, unsustainability. For some to roll everything into a word is merely descriptive, a shorthand way of discussing the sweep of the problems. For me, that is so, but there is also another more compelling reason to have a single concept. That is my belief that all of this comes from a single cause that must be addressed as a whole. Attempting to unpack the word and deal with each item separately is doomed to failure. Perhaps that is what the public is sensing and is creating the overall atmosphere of negativity. I believe that we are witnessing the failure of our current, modern paradigm: the constellation of basic, foundational beliefs and institutions built upon them. We are at a point where only a new paradigm will permit us living in this modern world to get back to work, that is, to pursue routine activities that are effective in satisfying our existential human needs. Even the vision of eternal progress needs to be replaced with one as powerful and compelling. Not only is the dream, itself, outmoded, so is the societal machine that is supposed to turn the dream into reality.

Thomas Kuhn studied the progress of science, moving from one great discovery to another, but in a non-linear pattern. Progress in uncovering the secrets of the physical world stopped from time to time because the current set of theories (beliefs) and associated tools would not allow scientists entry into the next big secret. New theories and tools, that is, new paradigms, came forth as some scientist broke loose of the old ideas and found new ones that permitted progress to continue. Serious scientists might have felt much like the current masses polled in the WSJ survey: frustrated, helpless, angry, and so on. All of these are moods and emotions everyone feels when routine life gets detoured or stopped. I find the parallel remarkable and highly meaningful.

I have been writing for close to ten years that our paradigm is either badly wounded or completely broken. Bruni’s column suggests that most Americans feel what amounts to the same thing, although they do not have Kuhn’s work available as a mode of expression. Scientific paradigms are neat and clean. The theories can be expressed by simple rules. The most basic formula used to explain motion, Newtons First law, is, simply, force equals mass times acceleration. Technologies for exploration may be complicated and massive, but they are basically simple, designed for a single purpose.

Not so with social paradigms. They spring from the accretion of many ideas (theories) over time. So have the institutions which operate on top of these ideas evolved over time. Our modern structures date back four to five centuries. Technologies are ubiquitous, but have all come from one idea, applying scientific knowledge to forge progress. No one person was responsible as is the case in science where forward movement began again when some individual broke through with a new idea. Karl Marx might well be the last one to have offered a new socially paradigmatic idea, but his theories failed to solve the problems they were intended to. His critique of capitalism still remains valid in many aspects, including some of the issues Bruni wrote about in his column.

I believe, unlike science where paradigmatic ideas have to be new and distinct from the old, social paradigms can be constructed from old ideas that are distinct from the current ones. Distinctiveness is critical to avoid incrementalism within the same dysfunctional paradigm. And I also believe, as I have written, that such ideas do exist. The idea of a particular human nature drives the modern political economy. There are distinct alternatives available that have the same paradigm-changing potential. I find them in existentialism in the simple, but profound, idea that humans create their essence, that is, their nature, in the process of living, or, in other words, as they exist. I find an alternate way to describe the world back as far as the Greeks. Technically that way can be stated in terms of complexity, describing a system, like the Earth, that is forever changing in such a way that scientific abstractions and rules fail to describe it fully.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that, if you try to act, using a model of the situation in front of you that doesn’t quite fit, you are not going to happy with the results. This is the gist of the unease and dissatisfaction Bruni reports on. There is no way we can change our social institutions overnight to reflect these two paradigmatic ideas, but we can begin. This is the message in my two books, but I now believe that they do not express these thoughts clearly enough or with enough urgency. I am writing another that I hope will be more compelling.

In the meantime, I believe that individuals could begin to operate with the model of human existence I have already discussed. They can stop seeking satisfaction in the meaningless idea of material wealth. That is not to say that they not have to obtain the minimum capabilities to live free, authentic lives. Humans can and do change their internal paradigms instantly. One idea that is invoked to explain who you are and why you act the way you do can be replaced by a new one in an instant. I used “can” here because human beings, like institutions, resist embedding new ideas at the operating system level.

We still need the political, social, and economic infrastructure of modernity to live as a society. It is a reality that we cannot ignore, but within it we are free to chose what kind of human being we are to become. None of us singly is going to change the nature of the institutional structure that controls daily life. But, if enough of us, turn the mental switch from believing we are nothing much more than computers seeking to optimize our pleasure to autonomous creatures who can choose who they intend to become, these institutions will be sure to follow. Victor Hugo wrote about the power of an idea whose time has come. Never has his wisdom been so critical.

Why I Am Down on Economists



Thomas Edsall, a topnotch journalist, wrote a recent column in the NYTimes about why people are poor. My hook can be found in the first sentence.

Let’s imagine for a moment that there are no political pressures distorting our discussion of poverty and that we can look at it as a technical problem, not a moral one.

This is followed by a series of discussions of recent research done by a variety of economists, coming from the poles of political ideology. The specifics are irrelevant and not worth the lineage in the paper. He shows that economic studies reflect the political bent of the researchers. Duh. If you add the results of both sides, the picture that emerges is, at least, more comprehensive.

Despite the conflicting nature of these left and right analyses, there is a strong case to be made that they are, in fact, complementary and that they reinforce each other. What if we put it together this way? Automation, foreign competition and outsourcing lead to a decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs, which, in turn, leads to higher levels of unemployment and diminished upward mobility, which then leads to fewer marriages, a rise in the proportion of nonmarital births, increased withdrawal from the labor force, impermanent cohabitation and a consequent increase in dependence on government support.

Edsall suggests that if left and right could get together, we might make a little progress on the poverty front. I agree that this would be better, but there is still something missing. Economists are perhaps the most ideological social scientists toward their discipline. The models all use are more or less the same, except for the going-in assumptions, which tend to reflect their political leanings. Politicians don’t have to be ideological, but have become highly polarized about what works and what doesn’t. Neither has a stronghold on the right answers. The problem with applying ideological solutions to complex problems arises from what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Ideologies are rigid rules about right and wrong, whether it is about the physical or the social world. When these rules are being invoked, they inevitably miss the concreteness of the real world. It is not quite like the abstracted world the rules are presumed to represent. Every moment is different from the last instant. People do things that do not fit the economist’s or sociologist’s models.

The Greeks knew this, and separated the kind of knowledge, phronesis or prudence, necessary for governing from the kind of knowledge about the physical world, epistemē and technē. They would not, of course, have read Whitehead, but still knew it takes something more like wisdom than technical or theoretical knowledge to run the world. Before Socrates, they even had a sense of complexity, that is, lack of concreteness in the way the world works in practice. Heraclitus is believed to be the source of this famous aphorism, “Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” If the world is never the same from minute to minute, then no set of formulas or fixed ideas is going to fit precisely, but that is just what ideologues think. I consider scientists as a special kind of ideologues who think they can know everything about the world.

Edsall repeats the standard mantra of both economists and the politician they counsel.

Scientific and technological progress are likely to drive us toward a solution to the problem of poverty only if they take the form of innovations that have a deep impact on economic growth and employment opportunities. To really change things, this impact would have to be comparable to developments spurred by the Industrial Revolution or, more recently, the information revolution. Progress, if it comes, will inevitably bring its own distributive dilemmas.

He might change his tune if he would listen to the only economists I know that make sense. I call them the existential economists because they deal with actual human beings instead of the abstractions found in standard economics. One of these is well known, even winning a Nobel Prize. Amartya Sen argues that the basic function of an economy is to provide people with the capabilities to flourish (my word, not his). The key is the idea of capabilities, an existential variation of the formulaic utility function. He writes:

I have also made the constructive claim that this gap [in utilitarian equality] can be narrowed by the idea of basic capability equality, and more generally by the use of basic [existential] capability as a morally relevant dimension taking us beyond utility and primary goods.

The second is a lesser known Chilean economist, Manfred Max Neef who uses different words to express the same underlying idea. It is not poverty defined as some level of income that separates those who can enjoy some minimum standard of living from those who can’t. Still no human beings here because standard of living is just another number. Max Neef writes of poverties, plural, as the issue. Poverties are akin to the capabilities or, better, the lack thereof that Sen discusses. A third is Fritz Schumacher, who titled his famous book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

Small is indeed beautiful; it enables people to see other people as individuals, not as statistics. Employment figures fail to indicate the human aspects of work. We have been growing for a few years again, but jobs are less and less available to those who can’t do math or run a computer. Technology is likely to make life even more chancy for them. Instead of putting a cap on political contributions, perhaps we should think about putting a cap on the wealth of those who run for national office. I expect that people who have had to struggle to obtain the capabilities Sen proposes would be much less interested in numbers and abstractions than the wealthy who now occupy most of the seats in Congress. Max Neef was addressing the problems of developing countries, arguing that pouring money into an economy was not the answer. His writing is uncomfortably relevant to the US right now as we too have a poverties problem. Big time.