Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Happy Empire Day!
So I've been trying all day to figure out what I should write about the 4th of July (American Independence Day for any international readers) but nothing is coming to me. So in lieu of a new post, let me direct you to my reflections from a few years ago in my post "Why I'm Not Patriotic". I've pretty much said everything I have to say on the subject in that one.

I'd also recommend Bob Hyatt's classic "Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July" for additional reading, as well as Julie's current reflections on the day and the ironies of comparing our current president's behavior with the complaints listed in the Declaration of Independence.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 6:55 PM | Permalink |


8 Comments:


At 7/04/2007 08:34:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

"And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property."
-- R.W. Emerson, Self-Reliance

For good or bad, the whole point of government is stability. Or more accurately, for good and bad, the whole point of government is stability.

or when our commitment to American free market capitalism overrides Christ's command to serve the poor directly and tangibly

To be fair, that's selfishness, not capitalism.

 

At 7/04/2007 10:14:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property."

IMHO both property and self-reliance are overrated. I'd much prefer that we could actually get back to valuing community and relationships over self or things.

"For good or bad, the whole point of government is stability. Or more accurately, for good and bad, the whole point of government is stability."

Do you really think that's the case? When in the history of humanity has the main concern of those with power simply been stability?

"To be fair, that's selfishness, not capitalism."

Is there a difference?

 

At 7/05/2007 10:59:00 AM, Anonymous Miko

Do you really think that's the case? When in the history of humanity has the main concern of those with power simply been stability?

Er... This probably isn't the most useful answer, but I'd say always. The status quo and the predictable are always beneficial to the powerful and the rich.

Is there a difference?

Of course. Capitalism is the idea of using resources to create profit. Selfishness is the idea of taking care of one's self with no regard for others. Capitalism has a lot of evils, but it in no way encourages selfishness. If you look at the richest capitalists in the U.S. (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, etc.), they're almost all huge philanthropers as well. Capitalism does quite a few good things. Microloans, for example, are almost certainly going to do more in the fight against poverty in the Third World than donations of food, etc. will. Those other things are necessary too, of course, but that's no reason not to use capitalism as a force for good. Selfishness, on the other hand, is, simply put, categorically bad.

 

At 7/05/2007 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

It's been a while since I've read Adam Smith, but isn't Capitalism fundamentally based on the principle of self-interest - that we all act not for the communal good but out of our own self-love? And that somehow (by Smith's "invisible hand") this just happens to come together for the common good as well?

Not to mention that today's economy is based on the principle of accumulating more and more stuff. Do you really think that if everyone suddenly put into practice Jesus' words about living simply and sharing your wealth with others (rather than using it to accumulate more wealth for yourself) our economy could really survive? Shoot, I was just reading an article in Newsweek that said our economy would crash if Americans just started saving 5% of their income instead of using it to buy more toys.

You may be right that Capitalism doesn't "encourage" selfishness, but it certainly depends on it.

 

At 7/05/2007 07:46:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

It's been a while since I've read Adam Smith, but isn't Capitalism fundamentally based on the principle of self-interest

For Smith, yes. That's been somewhat modified by the work of Nash, who came up with game theoretic justifications for cooperation (although still because it benefits each individual best). But for that matter, socialism is based entirely around individual self-interst as well. You're not going to get away from that unless you do away with the concept of money altogether.

Do you really think that if everyone suddenly put into practice Jesus' words about living simply and sharing your wealth with others (rather than using it to accumulate more wealth for yourself) our economy could really survive?

Living simplify would probably have a negative impact on the economy, but using wealth to help others would boost the economy since it would involve more spending.

Shoot, I was just reading an article in Newsweek that said our economy would crash if Americans just started saving 5% of their income instead of using it to buy more toys.

Could be, but I find the claim unlikely. Saving the money would reduce demand for certain types of products, but as long as people aren't saving it by putting it undert their mattresses it's still going to be available for investments/loans/etc. which would cause other segments of the economy to boom. It's all a big give and take and it's all too easy for reports to focus on a drop in one area without following through to the corresponding gain that will pop up in another area.

You may be right that Capitalism doesn't "encourage" selfishness, but it certainly depends on it.

Perhaps. I thought something similar about a decade ago. Back then I was basically a socialist, but I've changed my views since I've learned more about how capitalist systems function. I won't get into too much detail since this isn't a financial blog, but capitalism is much more nuanced than I was expecting it to be. Obviously, capitalism has flaws and is going to do less for someone who's struggling to survive paycheck-to-paycheck (also due to the fact that such people often don't really understand how to make capitalism work for them). But blaming capitalism for not helping the poor is similar to attempts like blaming Darwinism for not helping the poor: it's an attempt to extract moral guidance from a theory that itsn't intended for that purpose. And it's almost always done by people who've decided what conclusion they want the theory to support (i.e., "I should be selfish") before they've looked at the theory.

But I'm a mathematician, not an economist, so I could be wrong about any of this.

 

At 7/05/2007 10:54:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Well, I'm not trying to extract moral guidance from capitalism or expecting it to conform to my values. I'm just saying that the kind of person that Jesus teaches me to be seems to run counter to the kind of person that capitalism says benefits the system the most. In other words, if we all started living God's economy and practicing the values taught by Jesus, capitalism wouldn't work.

In my opinion it wouldn't be such a bad thing if capitalism stopped working. Ecologically speaking capitalism is setting us up for a train wreck. Economic growth is dependent on ever increasing consumption, but how long can we go on consuming the earth's resources before we run out? If every person in China or India started consuming on the same level as Americans do today, the planet couldn't sustain it. And what if everybody started consuming as much as we do? If we keep on this way and don't figure out how to transition to a sustainable, green economy I give our civilization about another century, maybe two, before we run headlong into the brick wall of complete ecological melt-down.

 

At 7/06/2007 05:13:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

In other words, if we all started living God's economy and practicing the values taught by Jesus, capitalism wouldn't work.

Perhaps it wouldn't; I can't say. But seeing as the U.S. is 75% Christian and close to 100% capitalist, y'all must be doing something seriously wrong if that's the case. ;-)

In my opinion it wouldn't be such a bad thing if capitalism stopped working.

Capitalism last stopped working (on a large scale) in the Great Depression. (Of course, it also caused it in a way: the laissez-faire doctrine is really quite a bad idea.) It's not really something I'd like to see an encore of.

Economic growth is dependent on ever increasing consumption, but how long can we go on consuming the earth's resources before we run out?

This one's mainly related to population, not capitalism (although it is true that you can predict how the market will do by looking at the birth rate 30 years back). Sure, we're probably consuming more. But the fact that there are more of us is having a much larger impact.

If every person in China or India started consuming on the same level as Americans do today, the planet couldn't sustain it.
... which is why there's an inverse relation between economic success and population density.

If we keep on this way and don't figure out how to transition to a sustainable, green economy I give our civilization about another century

I'd posit capitalism as a potential way of doing this, as you've mentioned in a previous post. Hybrid cars came out of capitalism when the market was ready to support them. Renewable energy is going to skyrocket as soon as we get a Democrat back in the White House. Capitalism is a symptom of society; once we get society back on track, capitalism will follow on its coattails.

And don't forget supply-and-demand. Even if people aren't willing to go green voluntarily, capitalism is going to force them to do so as gas climbs towards 10$/gallon and beyond.

 

At 7/06/2007 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"But seeing as the U.S. is 75% Christian and close to 100% capitalist, y'all must be doing something seriously wrong if that's the case. ;-)"

Yup, we are. Very few Christians actually live the teachings of Jesus anymore, myself included.

Anyway, I do think capitalism can be harnessed to produce better results, as you point out. But the free market's not going to go there on its own, the change has to happen in our individual and societal values (which is why I think religion is still so important). Laissez-faire capitalism is a really bad idea, and those who trust the free market to automatically fix any problem are exceptionally naive, IMHO.

 

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