Economics As Morality


Italy is now about to join Greece, becoming effectively a dependent colony of the EU governed by appointed "experts" from Brussels and from various central banks. Whatever dysfunctions peculiar to the way Italy has run its affairs over the past century, the experts will impose severe austerity measures that ultimately do nothing for Italians, but assure the banks that their losses will be minimal. The various leaders of Europe from Angela Merkel to David Cameron will trot out the usual sermons about "responsibility" and "consequences" and say nothing about the willingness of banks to lend despite their own knowledge of the risks and despite their own dubious lending practices.

In this country the suggestion that people might be poor because of the way society is so ordered is rank heresy. That people are poor because of their own fault is the conventional wisdom, and has been since the mid 19th century. And now, it's the fault of people that they are only middle class in a world where being middle class counts for less and less, where professionals are frequently reduced to the status of wage earners. This is an extremely convenient and self-serving world view if you are loaded with money and assets. It absolves you of any responsibility toward your neighbors and allows you to turn a deaf ear to their sufferings.

This point of view fails to take into account something that has always been true, and is still true. People never choose the circumstances into which they are born and that the playing field of life is never level or fair, and never was. Those who have will always tilt the tables and rig the game in their own favor and at the expense of those who have not. The very rich among us do this at the expense of all the rest of us, and we do this together at the expense of the rest of the world, and we do this without even thinking.

The real morality play in this world is not the irresponsible debtor, but that our ease and convenience always depends on someone else's misery. The sugar that I put in my tea always came at a high human cost. Modern slavery began in the 16th century in order to satisfy the insatiable sweet tooth of Europe. My insatiable sweet tooth still requires the hard brutal labor of harvesting and processing sugar cane, and the setting aside of sustenance crops for a lucrative cash crop.

What we call history, society, and even civilization is frequently nothing more than the natural struggle for survival and supremacy projected into the social realm. We should remember that the phrase "survival of the fittest" was coined not by Charles Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase not to describe the natural world, but the economy. Cornelius Vanderbilt described labor as a class to be sacrificed for the good of civilization. The novelists of the 19th century from Dickens to Thackery to Edith Wharton wrote about the savagery that lay just underneath the thin brittle veneer of respectability in the Victorian world. That savagery still lies at the heart of our own world, and still inspires writers to draw back the veils of our own social conventions. It seems to me that so often what we call "values" are ultimately survival skills. Our leaders drone on and on about "values" in a capitalist world that denies the very idea of "value," that anything has any intrinsic value apart from use and exchange.

Despite all of our technology and all of our political and social progress, we are still miles and miles away from the Great Good Place where we can all be happy, one and all.

Police beat a striking child garment worker in Bangladesh.