Posts Tagged 'economic justice'

ABOUT JUSTICE

John Dewey wrote, “We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, Justice, or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, unique.”

Alexander Saxton wrote, “To move from the particular to the general is an exercise in humility because it forces one to recognize the particulars – even those privileged details one’s own individual existence – remain meaningless and essentially useless to other people unless they can be shown to typify, or illuminate larger streams of human experience.”

For a word that has been chiseled into stone monuments for centuries we could reasonably hope society would by now have the practice and understanding of Justice down cold. However, more often than not, as Justice is experienced personally but spoken of generally we struggle to find understanding in the “larger stream”. Justice is variously defined as being fair and being fair defined as being just and just as being fair and so on. For centuries thinkers and doers have tried to grasp and define Justice in all of its manifestations concretely. This philosophic and semantic project has haunted virtually all societies throughout history. Almost every philosopher from Plato’s argument via Socrates about just persons and a just state to Aristotle and onwards across centuries to John Dewey and Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Alexander Saxton among recent others, has given us a take on Justice.

If, over so many centuries, so many brilliant people have struggled for so long and so hard to arrive at a definitive exegesis of Justice what they have been seeking may not exist, at least not in a form they were hoping for. Justice in all its manifestations seems to be like beauty, living in the hearts and minds of the observers be they beneficiaries or victims. Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just? Only in the eyes of the perpetrators. It seems to me there is no such thing as Justice except as an everlasting quest for justification. In that case Justice will remain always a fluid and beautiful idea, an aspiration at that, but in the end there will be no absolute, it will always be, “ … specific, concrete, unique” to the moment.

First and foremost it is necessary, I believe, to acknowledge that Justice is a construct – a moveable definition which, not unlike a sheen of oil on water, changes century to century, culture to culture, moment to moment, observer to observer. Like belief systems, Justice is fluid, always in motion. There exists no concrete, immutable, definition of Justice – no demonstration you can point to, take to the bank, or teach the young. What is Justice for you can be injustice to your neighbors. It remains, however, the most appealing and illusive of ideas and much like quick-silver, “Liberty and Justice for all … ” slips away at the touch.

A few quick police pistol shots and an unarmed 12 year old named Tamir Rice received an instant irreversible summary Justice not found in a court of law but in a public park. By late 2015, police in the US had summarily shot and executed 1103 “suspects” of whom 161 were unarmed. In the US, police summarily execute people, generally people of color, nearly on a daily basis. Once dead the “suspects” no longer have access to any semblance of Justice. Why then do we pretend Justice for all exists? Because we must. Like Equality, Justice is an essential myth an illusion without which our social contract would be impossible .

Injustice is not only the taking of lives but the diminishing of lives as well given an economic system that systematically concentrates wealth to a very few and harms many. Throughout the United States economic injustice manifests concretely in hunger, access to medical care, education, legal representation, and opportunity often determined by the color of one’s skin. Like any manifestation of inequality, lack of Economic Justice is corrosive disease and eats at the heart and soul of society. In Louisianna the Governor recently removed 31,000 jobless people from receiving food stamps, in Wisconsin that Governor removed 15,000, in Indiana 50,000,  and in Maine 40,000. Whose definition of Economic Justice is this?  Whose definition of morality, humanity, and common sense? Adults, and even more, children who are not well fed and well housed cannot possibly thrive and succeed are thus condemned to a diminished existence and, as a consequence, with what kind of commitment to a social contract? 

In courts of law Justice has fast become the last thing sought – winning is the goal. Prosecutors, with a firm thumb on the scales of Justice, are especially fond of, ex parte proceedings in police shooting cases where no contrary testimony is permitted. I once surveyed a fairly disparate group of lawyers with the question: “At trial what is most important to you – winning or Justice?” Needless to say, I suppose, winning was the winner. So much for Justice. How is this? Well, if you are a lawyer who works for insurance companies, for example, you make your living and your reputation defeating liability claims. It’s a no-brainer. Also, keep in mind that at trial the only participants who do not swear to tell the truth are the lawyers. It’s all about winning not about Truth and certainly not about Justice. It’s about profit.

We live in a time when sociopathy permeates society. The question is not how much worse can it get but how much longer can it go on without a total breakdown of civility and and order? There are, after all, consequences. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, put it this way: In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s  good for man, there can no longer either be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.”  The possibility of a civil society is foreclosed.

Larger Questions

Americans would do well to recall a caution from the great philosopher of democracy, Aristotle, that it is much easier to establish a Democracy than it is to preserve it. We are presently at a crossroads in our life as a democratic society, as a civilization, as a future. Our social contract, in place essentially since the Great Depression, is under attack by an over-reaching security apparatus, the very wealthy, politicians, and right-wing television networks. The plutocrats, as plutocrats are wont to do, act in service to their own wealth. Plutocrats serve themselves, politicians serve the plutocrats, and we, the American public, serve them all. The public in all of its disarray and confusion is managed and manipulated into smaller and smaller competing factions.

Separating people from a sense of community and identity with each other breaks the bonds of a civil society. It is clearly a barbaric and classic “divide and conquer” strategy for taking down a polity. This was a vision promoted by Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971, Powell Memo, a game plan commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic social ideals are clearly under attack.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do. They have done so since the dawn of civilization and for much the same reasons. Recall, for instance, the Romans, Mayans, and Chacoans — large, complex societies, in business for hundreds of years. Gone! Disappeared. Judging from the torrents of political writing these days it is reasonable  to ask why so many writers and thinkers sense an impending collapse. To more than a few thoughtful observers the collapse of American society is an open question. As the collapse phenomenon has been historically frequent and persistent, calling out the concern contemporaneously isn’t exactly “Henny-Penny” panic. Is the sky falling now? Maybe – maybe not, but then, “See it – Say it” seems an appropriate and thoughtful response.

When 97% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population it is not a “rich” society as we are often told the US is. That is propaganda. And when the 1% isn’t satisfied with 97% of the wealth but actively engage in acquiring more the problem is even worse, it is no longer merely a matter of perception. It isn’t just that the 1% has so much of the wealth — it’s what they are doing with their wealth that is dangerous. Greed has never been recognized as conducive to a healthy social contract. It doesn’t matter if greed is for material wealth, public attention, notoriety, or power, it hoards the goods of a society away from the commons to a few.

While greed was’t invented last week it certainly seems to exist on an outlandish scale these days in a dangerous game of extractive overreach. Unless greed is a virtue, and it certainly is not, Capitalism has no recognizable moral order and I challenge any Nobel laureate economist to refute that. Capitalism and Democracy are not interchangeable terms. Something else is needed – populism perhaps?

Social corrosion is more than joblessness although that is significant enough. The taxonomy of greed extends to voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits, and public education to mention a few. An even more egregious example was the bailout in billions of dollars of the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and who, after causing financial ruin for millions, walked away richer than they were previously. Not one of the villains has been charged with a crime. If anything the miscreants have been lionized.

Meanwhile, on Main Street millions of Americans cannot find jobs to support themselves much less families. Many have dropped out of the workforce and out of the statistical reckoning of employment thus distorting unemployment statistics. Congressmen have added further injury by terminating extended unemployment benefits.

A larger question, I propose, is what became of the millions of jobs that have disappeared? The good paying jobs are not coming back because they have gone overseas. Unless Americans are willing to work for poverty wages such as those paid by McDonalds and WalMart or for what people in the Bangladesh sweat shops are paid there is no work. In another bit of irony, the government subsidizes McDonalds and WalMart providing corporate welfare in the form of food stamps and so forth for their underpaid employees.

So  here is a bottom line question: What kind of country do people like the Kochs, Steve Forbes, the Walton family, and others like them and their mouthpieces, Fox television commentators, and politicians like Ryan, Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell want to see? Is their fantasy something out of the 1930s with soup kitchens and families lined up for a hot meal?  Would they be amused perhaps to watch people of the lower classes fighting amongst themselves in some version of Hunger Games? There is little doubt we are at a defining moment in the history of this country, this society, and the egalitarian political philosophy it was founded on. Can it be preserved? I quote Alasdair MacIntyre: “ … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossroads: We Dare Not Call Its Name

It’s time to drag a beast out of it’s cave—it’s time for a national dialog about the most vicious and most pernicious of the so-called Animal Spirits, the one that has for millennia sunk into oblivion every society and civilization afflicted by it. The expression, “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” has been around for a long time to define the attitudes and demeanor of certain people. When these people buy secondnd base and then first it becomes their ballgame, they make the rules, and they always win. This analogy well represents what is happening in the US and in the world today. Even the pope has taken notice and has expressed dismay over what he calls “unfettered capitalism.” A bad case of pleonexia, the ruthless and arrogant assumption that others exist for one’s own benefit, with complete disregard for any considerations of common humanity. Doesn’t sound good, does it?

 Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do and have from the dawn of history. The story of civilization is littered with failed states.  When societies become excessively extractive in nature— when wealth has been redistributed unequally between the many and the few, collapse has inevitably followed. This is the story of extractive overreach.

In their book, “Animal Spirits”, Nobel Prize winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller explain the dynamics which drive the world of economics from pillar to post but never name the “beast.” I will venture to say that it wasn’t because they don’t know the beast, rather that it must not be spoken of. Lying at a comfortable remove from the name we dare not say, “Animal Spirits” is their euphemism of choice. (Alan Greenspan gave us “irrational exuberance.”)

Denial has become a style—don’t actually call things what they are but find ways to sanitize or neutralize them. Orwell called this “newspeak.” There are very good reasons for this: if we called some things what they really are, the social consequences would be dire. For example, Rebecca M. Blank, a first-rank candidate to serve on the Obama Council of Economic Advisors, was rejected for having said several years earlier, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.” For having used the term “redistribution,” Ms Blank was not appointed.

It’s going to be a rough ride for this country as we establish just what kind of society we are becoming, what we are being driven to, against what we want to be. From Wisconsin to Texas, from one coast to the other, legislation to restrict voting rights, health care, even a simple resolution in Wisconsin to honor the children and teachers who were shot to death at Sandy Hook, could not pass the partisan legislature. Heartless, yes, and heartlessness of the sort that beggars the imagination—callow heartlessness that serves no purpose other than to attend a depraved, mean-spirited social agenda. The intellectual and moral polarization this represents is stark. Sadly we haven’t had leadership in recent years that measures up to the task at hand, to staunch the bleeding of social commitment, to truthfully explain to the country what is happening and why. Neoliberals are no more prone to truthfulness than Neoconservatives, and the rest of us are stuck in the middle.

It is, at times, impossible to grasp the many fronts in the assault on the American social contract. For example, the pawns and agents of the Animal Spirits are attacking society’s commitment to educate children. Schools are but one pawn in the game; there are many others: middle-class Americans who are in the process of becoming lower-class Americans are fair game. Like wolves, the Animal Spirits are circling with the scent of money in their snouts. Republican/Tea Party loyalists are howling about health care, unemployment, veterans’ health care, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. Our Neoliberal president seems willing to throw those to the curb to achieve his “Grand Bargain.” The beast wants to tear down this edifice of civilized regard for others that has been built over the years to provide aid and comfort, food and medical care for the part of society that isn’t wealthy and never will be. The beast wants to maintain low wages so low that employers like Walmart will, out of the goodness of their hearts, sponsor food drives for their underpaid employees who can’t afford groceries enough to feed their families. The American middle class is fast becoming what an 18th-century Dutch economist called “the laborious poor.”

The Animal Spirits rise again and again. They are indefatigable. Economists offer euphemisms and technical terms because it is safer to frame the question as an economic abstraction when, actually, it is concretely moral. Greed is what we are talking about here. Greed has always been a moral question.

When the world reaches a point where the pope feels compelled to speak out about greed it is certain we have turned a significant corner in the human condition and the civil society. If we never call things what they are we will never deal with them. The arc of greed throughout history has only ever led to the collapse of every society so afflicted. Let’s call it what it is—pure, simple, old-fashioned, down-and-dirty greed. It should have been a four-letter word.

December 6, 2013

Midnight in the Land of Fear and Greed

In his 1896, “The Law Of Civilization And Decay,” Brooks Adams states: “Thought is one of the manifestations of human energy, and among the earlier and simpler phases of thought, two stand conspicuous – Fear and Greed. Fear, which, by stimulating the imagination, creates a belief in an invisible world, and ultimately develops a priesthood: and Greed which dissipates energy in war and trade.”  I wonder what Adams’ take would have been on today’s United States, driven by both fear and greed.

Scores of Americans are willing, out of Fear, to surrender freedom for the illusion of safety. Greed manifests in the relentless pursuit of profit by corporations, bankers and individuals through tax-evasion strategies and manipulation enabled by legislators gifted with PAC “donations.” The population dominating the economy promotes deregulation and tax relief for themselves, claiming “trickle-down” economics, which Kenneth Galbraith once characterized as allowing a horse to gorge on oats such that something will go through for the sparrows.

Corporations like Apple Computer utilize cleverly rationalized off-shore tax dodges, squirreling millions out of reach of the American tax system, thus withdrawing the energy represented by that money from the very society from which they derive their profits. The end result of this behavior is that the burden of taxes falls on an ever-diminished middle-class struggling to keep its head above water. Unless people believe in the fairness of the social contract as they live it on a daily basis it will be undermined.

The “priesthood” of the CIA, NSA, FBI, FISA, and IRS cite an “invisible world” they can’t tell us about but which they are a part of. Sounds like a religion, doesn’t it? Tapping your phones, reading, recording and storing your private e-mails and internet searches, photographing your mail, recording your book purchases, making “unintentional mistakes,” and storing all of this indefinitely without your knowledge or your permission, they are making you “safe” in the land of the free and the home of the brave. According to the Washington Post, “The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy.” We have descended into the same domestic spying we condemn elsewhere.

From the moment the first buckled shoe set foot on this continent, the United States has been a racist, classist, religiously bigoted  country dominated by business interests. Could it ever be different? This is a Darwinian world, and so long as there is a “getting ahead” or “having more” there will be people stepping on others to get their “more.” For their part, the polity would rather blame others – however characterized by disability, poverty, skin color, birthplace, intellect, or any quality that distinguishes them as “other” – instead of their own unwillingness to shoulder responsibility for social and economic equality, and they are encouraged in this behavior by the insatiable 1% and their puppet politicians.

What will our country look like if the sociopaths succeed? Will we be back to soup kitchens? People languishing in the streets and gutters? Will our world resemble the Middle Ages? Will there be rampant disease and lack of sufficient food, cleanliness, and health care? Is this the vision the oligarchs financing the assaults on social services, schools, and society in general have in mind?

Because, in Ronald Wright’s words, “… all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures there can never be enough to go around,” all civilizations throughout history have ascended and declined, evolved and devolved through a process of similar dynamics. This is not a new idea. Polybius, a 2nd-century BC Greek historian, noted the cycle of states as being growth, maturity and decay. This “rule” applied to sophisticated and primitive societies alike, especially those that invested heavily in their militaries and engaged in endless warfare, the Roman Empire being a good example.

The list of failed societies is long and extends to the furthest reaches of human history, and destructive energies of Fear and Greed drove those ancient societies to their collapse. They were, to paraphrase Shelley, the greatest nations that ever were. Beyond the boast, their greatness, subject to the resources of their commons, ultimately served them no further purpose; the wages of hubris.

Civilization is a recent development, something on the order of a mere six thousand years or so, consequently civilization remains, by any measure, an experiment. As with all experiments, there are no right or wrong answers—only results. The United States’ experiment is clearly at a crossroads in its history, the outcome of which is uncertain only to the extent of our collective ability to conquer fear and greed, to imagine, create, and maintain a just society. No small task.

 


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