March 2017 Archives

Beware of "Trust" as a Sign of Performance

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broken_promises

Our class at HILR this week revolved around looking at a lot of data expressing trust in government as a potential explanation for the recent election results and some longer-range trends reflecting societal satisfaction. The survey documents were not available so I have to guess what kind of questions these data were based on. The labels on many of the figures suggest that the primary label was “government,” whether at the federal, state, or local level. For me, this means both the data and the discussion are suspect.

The first problem comes in the use of trust as the operative concept. Trust is always some sort of assessment about the truthfulness of an actor, whether an individual or an institution. Most simply, it is the answer to the question, “Can I count on you to keep your promises?” Promises, here, refers to the truthfulness of delivered facts or to manifest actions in the world. An assertion of facts is a form of speech act and carries the same validity conditions as an act involving material satisfaction.

Assessments of trust are based on three kinds of evidence. One is direct observations of the outcomes of promises made to the individual, another comprises indirect evaluations based on the reputation of a generalized or stereotypical institutional actor, and a third is simply intuitive or ungrounded. The consequences of assessments of trust determine the future nature of coordination of actions between a questioning, speculative actor and some individualized person or impersonal institutional actor.

If we come to trust someone or some institution over time, we are more likely to accept their promises without questioning and engage in consensual actions without needing some form of coercion or new form of incentive. This end is essential to avoiding conflict and domination. This form of trust is central to the notion of communicative action, espoused by the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, and forms the basis of his defense of modernity and the primary role of reason in holding societies together.

Most of us do not need such a high-powered theorist to lead us to the same conclusion. We all have people in our lives that we trust deeply and without question. Why some and not others? Some thought would lead to a history of past promises that have been kept and assertions that have turned out to be true. We come to see such trusted people as “named” individuals whose trust lies entirely in our specific history.

Most of our life, however, is spent in coordinated actions with actors, although also people with names, who represent an institution, say, a school, business, governmental agency, religious institution, medical establishment, and on and on. If you are so inclined, stop for some time and make a list of the institutions and their representative actors you engage with routinely. It will become a very long list. Some representative human actor will always be involved because only people can actually make promises, although over time institutions may become reified and appear to act as a person. Such is the situation with corporations in the US today; they are treated as if they have a voice and so can, in theory, make promises. Cheating is a broken promise referring back to an implicit or explicit promise to play by the rules.

In any rigorous study of trust it is essential to accurately connect the “promise” with the institution. If the target is the government, for example, the assessment needs to refer to something some government entity has promised. In the case of facts (assertions), the connection is easy to make, but, if it is with some actual result, the direct connection is usually tenuous. And further since complex institutions, like governments, have many functions, it is important to be specific. In the absence of specificity, respondents will tend follow the second or third process listed above, making the assessment based on some stereotypical description floating around in the background or on intuition.

Again simplifying, I suspect that the data in the article about trust in government results from a generalized dissatisfaction arising from the difference in one’s actual social conditions compared to some expected standard, say, as represented in the metaphorical American Dream or as promised by some political leader or party. Any direct connection to a single institution is bound to be misleading and, if used as the basis for some remedial actions, likely to end in disappointment.

The reason is simple. An individual’s societal condition is the result of the workings of a very complex system of which government is but one part. Marx and Engels (and others) popularized the term, political economy, to refer to the whole system that provides the resources necessary to achieve economic and social satisfaction. Questions about trust directed at any component part of the system are likely, in the absence of specificity, to dump assessments of generalized dissatisfaction on it. Scholars and planners are, then, likely to try and fix whatever institution was named. Such fixes are notoriously poor at getting rid of the problems and, worse, defocus attention from the real cause that are systemic or lie in deeper structures on which the institutions are based.

In some cases of larger and more persistent problems, for example, income inequality or climate change, large parts of the political economy may be perversely connected. Economic growth is the dominant policy among industrial nations as the solution to most problems. To get this, governments tend to adopt free market policies on the theories that growth is easier to produce in less regulated and taxed circumstances. Most economists and the politicians they advise generally accept this model, by itself, as valid. So far so good, but other theories suggest that unregulated free markets, without some form of income redistribution, are the cause of income inequality. The economics, one institution, and the government, another one, are irrevocably and perversely coupled. Asking people whether they trust government or the market as best place to solve big problems can only lead to the wrong place.

I will stop at this place and summarize. The point I have been trying to make is that asking the public questions about who or what you trust or not is a poor way to identify the social institutions that are responsible for dissatisfaction. Lying is an exception because lies are broken promises about telling the truth and are always made by someone. The effect of lying spills over to the institution to which the liar belongs. When the President lies, the presidency takes a hit. When a Congressman lies, the Congress takes a hit. The level of trust of the Congress is extremely low right now. Much of that rating lies in the failures of the Congress to play its expected (promised) institutional role in governance.

Some of these breakdowns can, in theory, be repaired or mitigated, but that will not change, I believe, the general level of trust in “government.” The basic malfunction lies at the level of the beliefs on which the modernity rests, or in the modern “paradigm” as some would term it. We need new institutions. Some may have features in common with those that are familiar today, but with different structures and objectives.

The first step would be to replace economistic and psychological norms, say wealth and happiness, with the existential vision of flourishing. It would take some time to come to a societal consensus of what flourishing entails since it is qualitative, unlike our metrical modern ends, but that should not stand in the way of getting started.

Part of that process should be a critical examination of the nature of work and the institutions that constitute and contain it. I recently noted, in this blog, the observation of Ugo Mattei that modernity is increasingly turning humans and the rest of the world into commodities, a distinction at odds with our deep-seated ideas about the uniqueness of humans. Capitalism, itself, needs to be examined in terms of its ability to produce flourishing. What might happen if we separate the economy as a means of production of goods and services from the processes that produce the satisfaction of human beings? Such an analysis demands that we rethink the deeply entrenched models of human nature that have been with us since Adam Smith and even earlier.

The arguments I make above call for a more careful analysis of our institutions, especially avoiding the modern tendency to focus on the parts of complex systems instead on the whole. Acting responsibly to govern big systems like those that define any national polity demands a lot of talk and questions. Behaving as if there was a simple (generalized, ideological) solution is folly, at best, and borders on the immoral or criminal, at worse.

This last part of the post is the basis of all my recent work and my books. We are looking for the lost car keys in the wrong place. If we do not stop and look deeper, we are risking making our socio-economic-environmental system ever more rigid and subject to unforeseen large changes. While making for interesting reading, the discipline-bound work of scholars can be distracting. One such article got me started on today’s rant. Trust is an accurate indicator of expected performance only when the performer is very clearly defined.

Piercing the Smithian Veil of Invisibility

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wizdorothy

One of the most familiar ideas bandied about in both academic and popular conversations is Smith’s “invisible hand.” This concept is almost solely responsible for the rise of libertarianism, in particular, and free market economics, in general. It simply removes all responsibility for one’s acts by arguing that some magical force guides uncoordinated acts toward providing some common good. No one need to bother worrying about anyone else: just act as if you were the only person in the world and you will be contributing to the benefit of everyone else.

One consequence of thinking and acting in this way is a worldview of isolated, autonomous individuals, in the last analysis devoid of any surrounding ethical framework. Another is the absence of any legitimating institution to provide such an ethical structure to fill in the gaps should the market fail to act as it should in theory. Even doctrinaire economists (well, almost all of them) understand that markets are never perfect in the Smithian sense so that the invisible hand cannot do its job alone and needs a visible foot to produce the common benefits, including the prevention of harms. This point is being largely missed in the political economical conversations going on today in many of the more developed nations, certainly in the US.

I need this short pointer back to Smith to get to what I want to write about. Smith’s model of homo economicus has become one of the principal embedded story lines that drive most modern, developed economies. Even China is strongly influenced by it. The invisible hand is a powerful metaphor, but I believe that a different one is the actual power behind social life. Stories are what power societies and their smaller nested institutions forward. Stories represent the myriad of beliefs we carry in our cognitive systems, Whatever actual configurations and functions of neurons do the job of transforming human intentions into worldly acts can be discussed as stories we would tell if asked why we did what we just did.

Before I move on, I note that stories as prime movers of human action belong to the disciplines of anthropology and sociology (and literature) rather than to economics. Homo economicus has the equivalent of a fully programmed computer in the brain; Homo caritas (the name I will give to human beings instead) have a storybook instead of a computer embedded in the brain. That storybook is unique for every individual and is written by capturing the meanings of every moment of conscious life. Language provides the medium by which the story is written, which starts off slowly, reflecting the early pace of language acquisition. In the two disciplines I mentioned just above, stories are accepted as a useful metaphor underlying human interaction.

One’s story is composed of all the brute and institutional facts about the world that are transformed into beliefs, all the values that enable choices among possibilities of action to be made, opinions about who to trust, and whatever else is required to make sense of the immediate gemisch of raw sensory data and plot a plan of action to convert the present moment to a future scene. Smith’s model of a self-interested human who can act in social situations without regard to others’ needs is a part of the modern human story that, unfortunately, I believe, plays a much larger part than it should have if the collection of life on Earth is to flourish.

Everyone, including economists, does know that actions may be motivated by other that self interest. Even Smith believed, at least for a time, that care about and for others was a primary motivating force for action. Families are held together by care for one another. Economists sometimes ignore that, ascribing even caring behavior as the most net beneficial choice to the actor among other possibilities. Altruism is the name economists give to such exceptional behavior. I prefer to call such actions, care, reflecting the possibility that this name captures the fundamental cognitive processes behind such acts as having clear benefits for the target of actions as the story line, rather than accruing primarily back to the actor.

I do not understand exactly how the brain chooses to follow one story line rather than another, given that every situation has a large number of associated possible responses. Antonio Damasio uses the metaphor of “biological value” to represent the method by which the brain highlights the relatively more successful or effective stories with some sort of marker or map in the brain. Maybe it is strongly correlated with repetition. That would explain how advertising has maintained the Smithian self-interested story during the modern era. Seduction is just another name for turning on the processes that record high “value” for some action, like buying something. Computer app developers have figured out how to do the same thing. This process explains why some people now access their social apps hundreds of times every day. Drugs do this job directly.

Sherry Turkle, in her recent book, tells of families sitting around in the same place (I am deliberated avoiding using the word, together) with everyone gazing at the screen of their mobile device. One of her stories is about a young person who confessed to wishing for meaningful conversations with her family. Conversations are critical to human beings. They comprise the frameworks for developing meaning. The stories in our brains are conversations we have with our selves. The ones with others are what Turkle notes as essential to our species, “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”

Caring can be seen as the result of a conversation with or about another entity (including non-humans) that asks what would push the other closer to flourishing, that is, to one’s full potential. Such conversations can occur out in the world or in one’s brain. In the latter case we ascribe the result as empathy, a sense of the other’s immediate needs. Conversations about care remove the Smithian veil of invisibility and reveal the world and our interconnections with it.

They also reveal human beings as ethical actors with responsibility for our actions. Once again, economists would simply argue that acting toward the other has a higher benefit than any other immediate possibility. They would argue further that one’s preferences are sui generis or endogenous or self created, and, as a consequence, no one or no institutional set of rules should interfere and impose some commonly held set of (ethical) standards.

Here is where I depart about as fast as I can. I, along with Turkle and many others, strongly believe that humans are sense makers and storytellers, in particular, a tale in which we understand that we are a part of a highly interconnected world rather than isolated, autonomous nodes. The story that makes sense in explaining the magic of our unique species is fundamentally one of connections. The times when we can make sense as autonomous entities are, conversely, few. Turkle blames technology as playing a role in blinding us to our true selves.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

The stories we tell to ourselves are not only important in shaping our individual lives. They become the foundations of structures of the institutions that guide social activities. Economic-model-based stories eventually reduce all objects, human and otherwise, to commodities—meaningless objects, interchangeable merely in terms of their relative economic value, and serving purely as a means to some otherwise chosen end. Kant strongly demurred about this when it came to humans, writing:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

As an end, a human being is a unique living organism, whose biological and cultural needs toward flourishing, that is, toward their full potential, are the result of their genes (biology) and their own stories that provide them with meaning (cultural). The first part could, in theory, be addressed wholly through objective knowledge of someone’s unique genome. We seem to making very tiny steps towards that ethically fraught place. But we can interact with the cultural, meaningful parts only if we act out of care and empathy, not through some commoditized basis. Care is the descriptor of our intentional arrow—where do we want the result of our act to show up. Empathy describes the conversation we must have if we are to understand what actions will be effective over there. The conversation can be real and bilateral or imaginary and unilateral in our brains, but, in this latter case, based on context that informs of what to do in situations like this where we lack explicit knowledge.

This last paragraph contains all the basics anyone needs to rebuild our modern world around care and flourishing. I recently read the bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance. It’s a story about how one person was able to escape from a social setting that has entrapped so many others. Vance, like others telling similar stories, argues that his success was largely due to the presence of a caring person in his otherwise pretty miserable upbringing. Economics had virtually no role other than pointing to the poor straits of his early life.

I will finish today’s post with a challenge, the same one present in all my work: How can we reconstruct our institutions around the story of care? How can we reverse the process that has converted humans from early caring, although economically poor Home sapiens, to commodities? Turkle offers a step along the way for every family; reintroduce the art of conversation the medium by which we can come to understand others and ourselves. This process can also be applied to small groups in almost all institutional settings. Temper the rough edges of larger institutions that have been shaped by a focus on efficiency, itself a story that commoditizes.

One of the headlines in today’s news crowed about President Trump appointing his son-in-law to head a Commission to make Government run more like business. Horrors! The market can take care of business, if carefully reined in, but the Government is needed to apply those reins and to support the attainment of ends not available in the market: flourishing, joy, health, positive freedom, safety, natural beauty, transcendence, and so on. This news is simply more evidence of, as I wrote some days earlier, the frightful cruelty of this new Administration. The only real glue that makes us a worthy nation is embedded in our stories. Care can create such glue; neither power, false promises, nor rising GDP can.

(Image for the younger: Dorothy revealing the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain)

High Crimes and Lies Misdemeanors

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pinocchio

Shut your eyes for a minute and imagine living in a world without valid facts. If you are not sure what a fact is, you can stop right now because what follows will not make any sense. Well, maybe not. Read the next few paragraphs very carefully as I try to define “facts.”

There are only two kinds of facts and they are very different from each other. The first are what the philosopher, John Searle, calls brute facts. They are verbal descriptions that correspond to some part of the real material world. I am a male is an example. So is that the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun. Brute facts are very important in life as they are part of the context of existence. Our intentions are formed, in part, by the circumstances comprised by the brute facts that pertain to the immediate situation. If I believe, that is, embody some fact as a truth about the world, for example, that I am standing on the ground level of a building, when I am actually at the edge of the roof hundreds of feet higher, I will be in very serious trouble if I decide to take another step forward.

The second class of facts is what Searle calls, institutional facts. These are facts that have been created by some human utterance and do not necessarily have any relation to the materiality of the real world. The facts obtain “materiality” only according to the legitimate power of the utterer or by the acceptance of the listeners. Institutions are the distinctive arenas of action in which human existence is played out. They are arenas like family, business, government, marriage, bowling leagues, chess, and virtually everywhere else we act that has a name associated with it. Institutions have been described as games with a set of rules that create them (constitutive) and govern action within them (regulative).

The President of the United States exists only by virtue of the US Constitution, which says so. The same Constitution and associated body of laws regulate the process by which we endow some ordinary human being with the title, President. Private property is an institutional fact that imposes sets of rules on what would otherwise simply be some ordinary material object. Money is another very important institutional fact. Money first came to life as material objects of some intrinsic value, then as a piece of paper with an associated set of rules, and now mostly as immaterial bits in some computer. In any case, try to imagine living in a world without money, but, also, remember that humans did exist for quite a long time without it.

If we ignore institutional facts when we act, we are just as much in danger of being disappointed by the results as in the case of brute facts, except that the punishment will come at the hands of other humans, rather than via Mother Nature. If we speed and are caught, we will be fined by some body authorized to do so. If we pass a company secret to others, we risk being fired. If we cheat at poker, we may be asked to leave the game. Some breaches of the regulative rules are deemed insignificant, so we take chances, but the consequences of others may be very severe.

One class of institutional facts, scientific facts, is especially important because they have become indistinguishable from brute facts, and have the same consequences if ignored. Scientific facts are the result of a very special methodology that produces theories explaining some observations about the way the material world appears to behave. They are not exactly the same as brute facts because they are always subject to be superseded by facts that do a better job at explaining based on the fidelity of the results of the actions we take based on them. When planning and acting out individual or collective actions, it is always as risky to ignore or deny scientific facts as it is for brute facts. It is also very important to make sure all scientific facts have been produced by following the method rigorously.

Facts are, very importantly, distinct from beliefs. Facts are existential statements about the world out there. Beliefs are the collection of “truths” anyone carries around in the brain, and, subsequently, bases intentional actions upon. Beliefs may be based on either of the two classes of facts, above, or may arise based on opinions: fact-like statements that purport to describe or explain the world. Scientific facts are really opinions by this definition except we honor them as brute facts because they have been generated by a very special methodology that has become accepted as sufficient grounds for the facts. Opinions lack such grounding. If we act on the basis of opinion, there is no grounded expectation that we will get what we intend.

Wisdom or trustworthy are assessments we make of someone whose opinions have, in the past, turned out pretty well in terms of the intentions. Untrustworthy is an assessment we make on someone whose facts or opinions cannot be verified or produce untoward consequences. Faith refers to often very strongly held beliefs, based on opinions that are largely ungrounded because they would be extremely difficult to ground.

Institutional facts comprise an extremely important part of the structure that holds societies together. Searle called these facts, “the glue that holds civilization together.” A myriad of regulative rules guides our actions in ways that allow us to interact and coordinate in effective ways with others acting under the same institutional umbrella. Faith allows us to follow regulative rules even if we do not hold the constitutive basis as grounded; for example, one does not have to believe in God in order to live according to the Golden Rule, for example.

As long as the actors are playing by the established rules, life can go on pretty smoothly. Most intentions will be satisfied. Some will not because the opinions regarding the specific situation will not conform closely enough to the real world. Now let’s get back to my thought experiment I posed at the beginning. What would the existential world be like if we could not count on the facts to represent our institutional worlds truthfully?

Thomas Hobbes, whose philosophy played a major role in creating our country, portrayed the “natural condition of mankind” as existing in a state of nature, absent any institutions and their associated rules. Life for mankind was correspondingly, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To alleviate this condition of constant “warre,” humans would enter into “mutual contracts” or as I have been calling them rules of the game or institutional rules. Modern life is composed of many different institutions each with their own set of regulative rules.

Playing by the rules over time has two important outcomes. First, the intended outcomes shared by all the players tend to be satisfied most of the time. Second, the players/actors develop trust in the other actors. They begin to trust the others to play by the rules, which also means to proffer facts grounded to some reasonable degree. Misstating brute facts, that is, telling lies about topics important to maintaining the institutional integrity, destroys trust and can easily bring action to a stop. To the extent that the facile-fact actor has roles in other institutional activities, the loss of trust may and does spillover, impeding cooperative or consensual action in other arenas. Action may continue, but now will require some degree of coercion because, without trust, actors will stop acting consensually.

Having facts that can be accepted and agreed to as the basis for action are essential to maintaining some sort of consensual ordering in all institutions, large and small. President Trump’s practice of uttering completely ungrounded opinions affect everyone, both those who believe in their truth and those who do not. Sooner or later they will bring action to a halt, possibly endangering a move that is critical to the situation-at-hand. I expect that his claims of being wiretapped eventually will have some negative consequences in areas where he is still held as trustworthy. But think of your response if you are asked by the President sometime in the future to make some sacrifice based on his claim of the truthfulness of some fact. Power without trust is a very dangerous combination.

Taking the Presidential oath of office, Trump committed himself “to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Telling the truth is clearly necessary to honor this oath. The Preamble, below, adds more specificity to the purposes of creating an institution to create order in the land.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The truth is so important to “insure domestic tranquility” and to “secure the blessings of liberty” that I would be very tempted to deem any deliberate lie by the President, other that one made reasonably to protect the Constitution, as a “Misdemeanor,” which is a ground for impeachment. I want to be very careful to limit my opinion to brute facts. These facts are very different from opinions about outcomes of some future action. Predictions of the future are always merely opinions, other than in situations entirely governed by accepted scientific facts. We accept such opinions as grounds for action based on the trustworthiness of the speaker and the quality of the grounds offered. Unlike brute facts, we have no certain ways to judge their verity until after the fact.

By the way, the ultimate responsibility for truthfulness or not rests with the speaker of some purported fact, as others have, famously, observed. I will finish with a couple of relevant quotes. The first is from Nietzsche, the second from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Given that Rand is a darling of the far right, it bears careful reading.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you. (Nietzsche)

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all. (Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

Another Step Down the Slippery Slope and Back Again

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sear catalog

One of the headlines today pointed to a bill bubbling up in the US Congress that would require employees to provide genetic testing data on themselves and their families to their employers. It is tied in with wellness programs, which I do not quite understand.

House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program. From the NYTimes today (3/11/2017).

What I do understand is that this fits into a long slide that is taking the human beings that comprise most of the United States from citizen to consumer to commodity. I have taken these last words from an interview of Jill Lepore, Ugo Mattei, and Roberto Unger by Christopher Lydon on December 15, 2016. Mattei offered this pattern.

The article suggests that companies want to see the employees as a genetic profile to determine if they are a health risk, rather than as a living, unique human being. I see this practice wrong on two accounts. One is moral going back to Kant’s imperative: never treat a human being as a means, only as an ends. The other is factual: genes, by themselves, do not accurately predict the appearance and course of many common diseases. Ironically the working environment is an important factor.

Each step represents a major shift in the distribution of economic or political power. The role of citizen springs from the Enlightenment that took this progression in reverse order by establishing the idea of human rights. Prior to that, most individuals lived as feudal serfs or subjects of monarchs and owed their existence to them. They were largely born into their place in life and never moved from it. The idea of nation states was developing at the same time in which individual rights were associated with the place one was born or settled in. The idea of citizen carried with it a set of rights that varied from nation to nation, but always carried the basic idea that humans possessed some set of natural rights.

The United States was clearly founded upon this belief whether these rights were actually to be found in all people within its borders or not. At the beginning, they were not, but eventually by war and amendment they were, in theory, accepted as universal. The word, citizen, has appeared widely in public conversations during the early development of the US, but has been dropping for about 100 years. The following charts, obtained by using Google’s nGram program that plots the frequency of a word’s usage, based on a vast collection of published material, show a very interesting trend. This first chart searched on source anywhere in the entire English language.

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The next searched only on American English sources.

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The decline over the past 100 years is much more evident. Not being a social scientist, I will not try to analyze the causes of this behavior; it stands for itself. In the past 100 years, we have referred less and less to ourselves as citizens, but more and more as consumers as the next chart, based on American English shows. The one for all English shows virtually the same pattern.

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Just to add more grist without any particular outcome, the next graph plots the word “customer” over the same period. I don’t have an easy explanation why it continues upwards where “consumer frequency” starts to fall around 1980.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.58.56 PM.png

I also searched for and found some data (not shown) on the growth of GDP per capita from 1900 to 1940. The growth during this period was almost linear, so the growth of the use of the term, consumer, far exceeded any direct correlation with the size of underlying economy. I attribute this to some sort of cultural factor. There is one fact that might be interesting.

Completely serendipitously, a few weeks ago I watched a documentary on Julius Rosenwald, the man who made Sears Roebuck into the giant it was once. He bought into the company in 1895 and was in complete control after about 1908. He made Sears into the largest merchandiser of his times, the Amazon of the early 20th century over approximately the same time as the in the big jump. All of a sudden, people in the US heartland could become consumers in the modern sense of the word. The upward trend continued right through the Depression, again showing a disconnect between the word and the economy.

The early part of the 20th century followed a period of consolidation of economic power. Although Theodore Roosevelt broke up the largest of the massive corporations, 44 by some counts, their overall power still continued. Unger did not distinguish workers in his use of these three terms, but, given his overall philosophy, would have, I think, seen them in an equally diminished role in the same sense that Marx did. He agreed with some of Marx’s ideas that humans’ view of themselves was subject to historical constraints. Workers became commodities in Marx’s view of capitalism, alienated from the meaningful fruits of their labor. Before addressing why Unger might argue that we have all become commodities, I need to explore a little of his ideas.

Unger believes that humans have infinite possibilities but become limited by the roles given to us by our social context. We are, in his terms, both “context-bound and context-transcending” The human being has no intrinsic nature. I would compare this to the existentialist Sartre’s famous saying, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. There are philosophical differences here, but not any that would lessen my point. Unger claims that social institutions do constrain and shape us, but we can always change and transcend them. This “both and” conjunction may be true but is a bit paradoxical at the same time.

My own work is based on the same general idea. Humans have no fixed nature in the sense of Homo economicus or original sin, but tend to lead inauthentic, meaningless lives guided by the immediate norms and power structures of the society. As far as a biological nature is concerned, we are merely the same as animals, except for our immense cognitive powers. What makes us different is that we have meaning available to us through language. We can gaze on the same bit of reality—the world outside our bodies—and tell an infinite number of stories about it. Other animals except for a few, can only react to it in the same way every time.

Language is not neutral. It does more than merely describe the world. Some stories have rules attached. All the stories about the institutions that form the frameworks for our social lives have such rules. They are the context that Unger refers to. They are powerful and do constrain our actions and our beliefs about ourselves. What Unger refers to as our ability to transcend context is that we can change the stories and the rules that go with them. Some humans, very few, are sufficiently wise and powerful that they can escape the social constraints and become more than the rest of us. Occasionally, some tell a new story that is so powerful in terms of what it envisions that institutions and their constraints themselves change and free us to aspire to a new level of human existence.

I believe that language, which evolved over millennia within social structures based on caring—direct interaction with others and the world-at-large—has lost the context of that period due to the workings of powerful human and technological forces, particularly in our modern era. The unlimited possibilities for human existence has become diminished by a kind of resignation resulting from the stories about modern institutions, particularly economic and scientific and, as Mattei and Unger now argue, political.

That’s where his move from consumer to commodity may arise. At least that how I hear it. We have become nothing but inert items in the political market place there to be manipulated by those with political power. Of course, there is a connection, in liberal theory to be avoided, between economic and political power.

The very idea of “citizen” carries a sense of sovereignty. I have a right in shaping the institutions that govern my life. If not, how could I ever really become whatever I want to be. Now, I am not arguing that we should or could become whatever we want. That is an impossibility in a finite world, but the call to become more than I seem to be able to be under the present circumstances does seem possible and relevant.

I am sure all of you have been reading about threats to freedom as one result of this last election. I see this language as saying the same thing. Freedom is a description of the ability to express one’s own unique existential intentions. Commodity is a word meaning just the opposite. Commodities are materials or goods that are valuable just as lifeless stuff; one pound is just as valuable as the next. Where Unger may be importantly different from most of what I have been reading is that he sees this election as a opportunity to change the story. That has usually been his tune about significant societal shifts. 


It would be pure hubris to argue that the changes I have been proposing in my own work are the right ones, but I do think that we are at a moment when we must look elsewhere than our own histories for possibilities. I have had a chance to examine that history in a course I am taking about the US Presidency in its historical political context. I do not find anything that holds much promise to prevent a further slide in the direction we have been going. Unger’s phrasing has given me another argument for the relevance of flourishing, care, and complexity in today’s world. It could reverse the order of his three descriptors and jump directly from commodity to become flourishing human beings.

(Image: 1902 Sear-Roebuck catalog page)