Archive for September, 2011
This is another post inspired by my honors first year seminar, “Explorations of the Western Canon.” So far we’ve engaged the “age of religion” from Augustine to Aquinas, as well as humanism such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus. The Church reconciled the challenge from Aristotle by making him an authority, and embracing “faith and reason.” Yet by making the material world now something worthy of consideration, they opened a Pandora’s box.
Nowhere was this more true in Italy. Thanks to double entry bookkeeping and connections across the continent, the Medici family in Florence became the bankers to Europe, bringing lots of money into an already prosperous Florence, Italy. With this money came a shift towards realism. Rediscovering the classics led people to desire the good things – better clothes, homes and food. Life increasingly became defined by the material rather than the spiritual, humanism gave way to the realism of scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).
The Church fell into this head first. After a crisis of a divided papacy in the 1300s, the Church by the 1400s was corrupt, led often by Popes who killed rivals, had illegitimate children, and cared little about the Christian faith. As corruption grew, disagreements with Christians north in the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” intensified. The pious in the north saw what was happening in Rome, bristled at efforts to control them, and started to question whether or not devotion to God required devotion to the Church.
By 1517 this was a powderkeg. Ideas from people like the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wanted to reform the church (but would oppose breaking from it) could be passed along more easily than ever, thanks to the printing press. Discontent grew, especially as Rome undertook a major new project: to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica and have earthly splendor to rival it’s claim of spiritual authority. Should not the center of God’s home on earth demonstrate that glory with the most spectacular structures in the world?
That rebuilding gives us what we see today when we visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s — a grand cathedral, an ornate square, and a sense of majesty that overwhelms both the faithful and non-Catholics. Yet building this monument to the Church and papal authority was not cheap. They had to outshine every other cathedral and square in Europe; this had to be the centerpiece of western civilization. The church had to raise money.
Luckily the printing press helped. The Pope had often given something called an ‘indulgence’ to people who had done great favors for the church. It amounted to time off from purgatory, the place where you worked off your sins before being admitted to heaven. To the average materialist of the era, this meant license to sin a bit — pay the church and you can break God’s laws, at least a little.
Up in the more pious north in the German town of Wittenberg, an Old Testament Professor at the Church University was appalled at the practice, especially when an unscrupulous guy by the name of Tetzel came with a printing press ready to raise money for the Church (and take his own middle man’s share).
This professor, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), was not your average monk. Not only was he devout, but he lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved. He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him. He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day (no doubt irritating some of his colleagues). When he heard what Tetzel and the Church were doing he was enraged. If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God. The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.
Angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door. At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powderkeg exploded. This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church.
It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith. When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation. God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word. The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God. For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God. For him this made the Pope the anti-Christ, trying to intervene in his relationship with Christ.
Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority. Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose. Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.
When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era. They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church. The political power of the church collapsed. Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers. The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed.
Martin Luther no more caused the reformation than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I. His actions ignited a powderkeg that would have gone off sooner or later — dissent and dissatisfaction with Rome had reached a point that the system was doomed. Luther happened to provide the spark.
This also marked the end of an era. It was not only the end of Catholic dominance in the West, but also of the marriage of faith and humanism exemplified by Petrarch, Dante and even Erasmus. While Luther himself distrusted reason and preached a more Augustinian emphasis on faith, the lack of a clear authority opened up paths to question knowledge about the world without risking heresy. During the wars of reformation Aristotelian scholasticism would give way to Francis Bacon’s scientific method (1608), Galileo would challenge the Church’s sole capacity to interpret scripture (1615 – letter to Grand Duchess Christina), and we would move from the age of faith to the age of reason. The world would never be the same.
1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January. Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House. But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.
On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars. It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs. Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though. Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.
Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown. Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success. In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country. Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games. 3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.
On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion. Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball actually undersold Equinox. The release was met with a yawn. The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall. Then suddenly it took off to the top ten. The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act. They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.
Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970. Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed. It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world. The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.
What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought: Everything in this book may be wrong. Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience. Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.
Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’ Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end. We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions. From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives. Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.” The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.
Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions. We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine. On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.
It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected. It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances. That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.
Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view? I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant. Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch). More importantly, there is a purpose. Life isn’t meaningless. Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage. Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.
The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung. I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics. I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.
Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny
In 1983 the Democrats were sure they had a candidate that would send Ronald Reagan, whose approval ratings reached as low as 38% that year, back to Hollywood. Walter Mondale was the consummate politician. Polished, careful, and connected, the former Minnesota Senator and Vice President had been successful at every level. His professionalism, intelligence and poise would be the perfect foil for Reagan. Reagan had proven himself not ready for prime time by a series of gaffes and an apparent inability to handle the recession.
The problem with Mondale can be best summed up by a Bloom County comic from 1984. The Meadow Party is about to nominate Bill the Cat for President, even though Bill had apparently died. At the same time, the Democratic party is starting its convention. A Mondale supporter with a sign and Mondale pins and stickers comes up to Opus the Penguin:
“This isn’t the Democratic Convention?”
Opus: “No. That’s across the street behind you. We’re the Meadow Party.”
Mondale supporter: “Yeah? So who have you guys got to go up against Reagan in the fall.”
Opus: “A dead cat.”
The Mondale supporter looks behind him, thinks, then enters the Meadow party convention saying, “Oh, what the hell.”
In short, Mondale was such a professional politician that he was boring. He was connected, a Democratic insider, had all the credentials, but ultimately when people looked at him next to the rugged, charismatic and charming Reagan he didn’t stand a chance.
President Obama, like President Reagan, inherited a deep and serious recession. Unlike President Reagan, he inherited high debt levels, a massive current account deficit, and total foreign debt of over $12 trillion (now at $14 trillion). Reagan came into office with the lowest debt to GDP ratios since WWII, a current account still in surplus, and little foreign debt. As oil prices fell, naturally stimulating the economy, Reagan could afford to mix low interest rates with a huge jump in deficit spending and debt to hyper-stimulate the economy. Obama doesn’t have that luxury. This suggests that even if the economy improves in 2012 the “morning in America” ads proclaiming the end of the recession for Reagan in 1984 aren’t in the cards for Obama.
Right now, Obama is considered likely to be re-elected because of the weakness of his opposition. While Reagan could mix conservatism with charm and pragmatic appeal, today’s Republicans fall short. Reagan was popular not because he stood on principle, but because of his optimism. It was contagious. You could tell he believed Americans could achieve anything, and that’s something people wanted to hear. Obama doesn’t have the same kind of charm, but he’s an inspiring speaker, performs very well in debates, and can still inspire hope.
From the GOP the negativity coming out of the various camps is palpable — Rick Perry’s book is called Fed Up, crowds at GOP debates boo a gay soldier and then cheer someone dying because he didn’t have insurance, and a kind of angry frustration shapes their message. Knowing that the primary voters and convention goers want red meat, the politicians fall over themselves trying to sound more true conservative than others. Jon Huntsman, who refuses to go that route, gets ridiculed and even demonized by some on the right.
Standing above it all at this point is Mitt Romney. Romney is an unlikely front runner. His health care program in Massachusetts is much like the Obama plan the GOP condemns, he’s a Mormon (distrusted by some evangelical groups), and he’s seen as the ultimate insider — connected where it counts, but lacking in deep convictions. In the first election after the tea party sweep of 2010 many in the Republican party hoped for that special someone who would come and be the perfect mix of conservative principles and charming electability — another Reagan.
To be sure, the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would be positively left wing by the standards of many in the tea party today. But the former actor turned politician focused on optimism and a disarming charm to convince people his ideology wasn’t as scarey as the left claimed it was. Bachmann, Palin, Perry, Cain and Santorum seem petty and pessimistic by comparison. They can be scary without help from the left. While Santorum battles google over what gets shown when his last name is googled on their search engine and the others try to position themselves just to the right of all the rest, only Mitt Romney has been able to rise above the fray. Add to that his popularity in New Hampshire, and he could quickly position himself as not only the clear front runner, but the only one with a chance at beating Obama.
But will he be a repeat of the Mondale candidacy — an insider who is seen as a safe choice against as supposedly weak opponent, but one who does not inspire loyalty and intense support? Will Obama end up not getting the kind of blowout that Reagan got in 1984, but a win that seems unlikely given the mood of the country now, in 2011?
That’s a question impossible to answer now. If the economy ticks upward in the next year, Obama could well be a shoe in. If it plummets deep into a double dip he might lose to even Bugs Bunny. If things remain on the edge this could be a year where the campaigns truly matter. That should make Republicans nervous. While Romney is a smarter campaigner this time, and isn’t leaving a trail of land mines behind him set to go off during the general election campaign, it will take a lot to match and counter the Obama machine. Yes the big funders are hesitant and the small donations aren’t coming in as fast as they used to. But Obama had to fight Hillary in the 2008 primaries; now virtually all his money will go to the general election.
Obama has already begun to arouse his base — even as the Republicans scream it’s class warfare. As the campaign heats up, image, style, and even substance will all make a difference. Is Mitt up to the challenge? He’s no Ronald Reagan, the Republicans realize. He’s too aloof, east coast and intellectual for that. He’s more comfortable in the board room than on a saddle. But is he a Walter Mondale — an insider with connections and political finesse who cannot arouse the interest, imagination and devotion of the voting public? Assuming the dynamic of the primary season stays steady, that’s a question we’ll be in a better position to answer next year.
My honors course for first year students (HON 101: Explorations of The Western Canon) is emerging as one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve ever taught. I’m teaching it as an intellectual history course, delving into how the civilization known as “the West” came to be what it is today. We don’t spend a lot of time on Plato and Aristotle and jump instead to Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church. In fact in these first weeks of class you’d think we were in a religious setting there is so much talk about God and faith.
That is important — you can’t understand the West without understanding the religion that defined it for over 1000 years. Although it sounds political incorrect, western civilization is a Christian culture. This doesn’t mean people are all devout Christians, only that the history of and development of the Christian faith has done more to shape the West than anything else. Even a radical atheist has cultural views and values that come from Christianity, it’s embedded in our culture.
We’re currently on the fascinating period at the end of the medieval age when Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian thought and logic into church theology — faith and reason became the motto of the Church. This shifted focus away from the Augustinian view that the material world was essentially worthless. To Augustine all that mattered were spiritual issues and preparation for the afterlife. Trying to succeed or progress in this world was meaningless and even dangerous — you could become addicted to ‘things of the flesh’ (wealth, power, material comforts) and lose sight of what brings true happiness. Augustine’s view defined the early Church and helps explain why for hundreds of years Europeans did not progress. Tradition and custom defined the proper way to behave, and material progress was not a goal but in fact something to avoid.
Aquinas discovered Aristotle through the work of Islamic rationalist philosophers, especially Avicenna and Averroes. But it wasn’t just Aquinas — Aristotle’s works were spreading through Europe among intellectuals, causing a potential challenge to church authority. Aquinas is important because he provided the framework for the Church to adapt to the change and accept Aristotle’s ideas. Since taking Aristotle too seriously would mean that church authority could be called into question, the church decided to make Aristotle an authority about material matters. Aristotelian scholasticism became the academic norm. Aristotle’s logic would be used to examine and prove facts already known to be true rather than to question authority.
The Italian poet and philosopher Petrarch is often called the ‘father of humanism.’ Living from 1304 to 1374, his writings explored human emotions, driven by his muse, the ever intangible Laura. Yet he had one foot in the new humanistic world inspired by re-discovering old Roman and Greek literature, and one in the medieval world of Augustinian asceticism. The class read some of Petrarch’s letters to the Romans like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca, expressing delight and admiration at the beauty of their ideas and literature. They opened up a new world to Petrarch, one that moved him and filled him with awe. He couldn’t really communicate with them, but the letters allowed him to transcend the centuries with his imagination.
Yet he also carried with him a copy of Augustine’s confessions. We read a conversation Petrarch imagined between himself and Augustine as he pondered deep in his soul the allure of humanist love and Augustine’s insistence that only the spiritual mattered. When Petrarch defends interest in the material side of life — why would we be in a material world if God did not mean for us to partake of it — he imagines this response from Augustine:
“O man, little in yourself, and of little wisdom! Do you, then, dream that you shall enjoy every pleasure in heaven and earth, and everything will turn out fortunate and prosperous for you always and everywhere? But that delusion has betrayed thousands of men thousands of times, and has sunk into hell a countless host of souls. Thinking to have one foot on earth and one in heaven, they could neither stand her below nor mount on high.”
From Augustine comes the message that earthly delights and material goods cannot bring happiness. Humans delude themselves in pursuit of them, addicted to a desire for more pleasure, more power and more wealth. People believe that they can “have it all,” succeed at all times, and thus set themselves up for despair and failure. The deeper one falls into the material world, the more trapped one becomes, addicted to the pleasures, pains and competitions of the day, losing sight of the soul’s only path to real happiness — for Petrarch and Augustine, that would be through the Christian God.
Yet Petrarch cannot simply embrace Augustine’s rejection of earthly matters. He laments in his letters to the ancient Romans the manner in which people pursue silver and gold rather than the beauty of literature and philosophy. There is something profound in the human experience, even if one agrees that materialism alone can be dangerous and addictive.
In class we discussed what Augustine and Petrarch might think if they were to visit the 21st century. We talked about how they might feel sorry of the people of this age, seeing us wholly addicted to material pursuits, suffering the highest rate of depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and discontent in history — even as we are the most prosperous. To them we’d given up the true path to happiness and instead embraced delusion. Even religious folk tend to treat their faith as a sidelight, their material pursuits dominate their actions. The competing forces in Petrarch’s soul are still relevant almost 800 years later.
Yet Petrarch also suggests a solution: appreciation of true beauty, such as poetry, literature, art or the highest of human emotions. There is joy and beautify in friendship, love, companionship and human experience. That is more real than collecting material possessions or winning a competition. And while devout faith in a religion may be impossible for many of us (including myself), an openness to the spiritual gives perspective. Our lives are just a tiny speck in the expanse of time. Everything we touch, everything we do, all that we take seriously fades. What seems profoundly important now may be forgotten next week. If we rely on the material world for our joy or for meaning we will be disappointed because by nature the material world is transitory.
Many of Augustine’s ideas came from Plotinus, whose neo-Platonism he adapted to Christian theology. Plotinus had a purely intellectual view of spirituality, and we can still use our minds to contemplate deeper meaning and the purpose of existence. Even if we don’t find answers that satisfy us the way Christianity satisfied Augustine, the intuition and perspective spiritual contemplation provides can make life joyful rather than painful.
It’s easy in the modern “we want it now” world of forward looking progress to think that we can ignore the past. I hope in this course to help students appreciate that we can better understand ourselves and the nature of our cultural reality by looking back at those who came before, including the great humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca. Knowledge can bring a richness and joy to life that material possessions can never provide.
Thanks to government policies we’re unlikely to have bread lines and unemployment reaching over 30%, the current “recession” is looking more and more like the kind of economic event that heralds the end of a particular economic era. We will get through it and a new era will begin, but things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. The reason is politics: people interpret the world through their political lenses and so far have not yet been convinced that real change is needed.
The boom of 1948 to 2008, sixty years of prosperity and growth, can be divided into two parts. The recession of 1979-83 marks the break between the two. In the first part the industrialized West produced as much if not more than it consumed, budgets were for the most part in balance, debt accrued in the war was being paid down, and income disparities were narrowing. The standard of living went up, political stability grew. However, since the great recession ending in 1983 the industrialized West has gone further into debt than had ever been imaginable, production has shifted to the third world and a series of bubble economies have created the illusion of sustainable prosperity. In those three decades imbalances were being built that would ultimately ignite a global economic crisis. It’s far worse than 1980 because debt is massively higher, infrastructure much more out of date, and globalization has altered the nature of the global economy.
Globalization is a mix of the internationalization of global capital and the growth of information technology. Before 1980 it was difficult to merge companies across borders, invest in foreign markets, and go anywhere on the planet to find the best return on investment. Now capital has been unleashed from its national borders meaning that business and capital no longer had national loyalties. Whether this is good or bad is hotly debated. What is clear is that the global institutional structure that worked so well up through the 80s is no longer adequate. It was a state-centric approach now serving a world where state sovereignty is weakening. Current institutions were created when the dominant economies were in the West, closely linked, and relied on the US as the global hegemon to assure defense, provide the global reserve currency (the dollar) and promote free trade.
That old order began with a meeting of economists at the New Hampshire resort of Bretton Woods in July 1944. They were determined to completely reorganize the entire global economic system. Their goal was simple: save capitalism. Capitalism had been thought to have led to the great depression, fascism and systemic collapse. They believed that with US leadership and the proper institutional infrastructure capitalism could lead to true prosperity. The resulting “Bretton Woods system,” including fixed exchange rates (through 1971), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT – now the World Trade Organization), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Together these institutions formed the foundation of this new system. Free trade was the lynchpin and the key to igniting the most impressive economic expansion in world history.
Those institutions are no longer adequate. The gold standard and the fixed exchange rates were jettisoned when they’d served their purpose in the early seventies. Once trust in currencies was strong enough so the market could handle currency valuation, there was no need for the gold standard. The rest of the institutions were built on two principles: a) state sovereignty; and b) American hegemony.
Hegemony is long gone. The dominant role of the US had faded by the late 60s, and since then the rise of the EU, Japan, China and others has created a real counter balance to US economic strength. With $14 trillion of foreign debt and a large current account deficit, the US no longer can snap it’s fingers and expect the world to comply with its wishes. Sovereignty is vastly overstated. True sovereignty never really took in much of the third world, while even the develop countries find that globalization vastly limits their capacity to develop national responses to problems. If the problems are global, a national response is inadequate. The US used to think that our size made us immune to this; the current crisis shows that is not the case.
The world needs a recasting of global economic institutions designed to function in a world of complex interdependence, powerful non-state actors, and the need for coordinated policy.
If we learned anything from the Great Depression, it’s that markets alone don’t magically fix a broken economy. To address the current imbalances, there needs to be a global effort to stimulate the economy and adjust the structural imbalances. This might include a new global reserve currency, acceptance of a weaker dollar, and a massive well orchestrated global intervention in the economy designed to stimulate growth and regenerate markets. That won’t happen until the situation gets much worse than it currently is.
In the US a huge chunk of the political discourse is run by people who equate any kind of government activism with “socialism,” an absurd charge but one which so tinges the political atmosphere that President Obama can’t even propose higher taxes on the wealthiest without being charged with class warfare. Right now the Republicans are waging class warfare on the poor, telling them to suffer unemployment and want while protecting the elite who are doing very well. The Democrats have to make that case boldly, with no apologies. They have to note that cutting spending stifles economic growth far more than tax increases on those wealthy who now pay historically low rates.
Despite the sloganeering, the goal is not to build socialism, but to correct imbalances that now prevent markets from functioning adequately. Markets have always needed a regulatory structure of some sort to work — even Adam Smith realized that. That structure could be a set of local customs and norms in a small setting, state laws and regulations in the post-war setting, and now transnational agreements and policy action.
At some point it will happen. If President Obama were to lead a call to bring top world economists back to Bretton Woods to plan a new global order, and states had the will to make it happen, it might quickly be as successful as the original Bretton Woods system. More successful, even, as now third world states would be part of the solution to global problems. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, thanks to a political mindset that still thinks primarily in terms of independent states rather than an interdependent global system. That mindset may be strongest in the US, but it exists across the planet — old ways of thinking resist change, even if the world is clearly in transition.
Last time it took a 10 year depression followed by a bloody six year war before the world embraced a new order. The success of the original Bretton Woods system is clear — never before has so much wealth been created so quickly. There is no reason to think this can’t be done again, this time involving the resources and dynamism of the entire international community, not just the West. First there has to be the political will to make it happen. Things will have to get a lot worse before that political will is evident. How much worse? Ten years of depression and six years of war like last time? I hope not.
…too much technology
machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
— Styx, “Mr. Roboto” (1982)
In the nearly thirty years since Dennis DeYoung of Styx penned those lines, the growth of technology has multiplied. In 1982 the internet was an unknown form of communication between science departments of a few large research centers. The personal computer was on the market, but still rare and without operating systems that made use easy. Satellite phones were rare, expensive, large and clunky. Most people had never seen one, let alone used one.
On television cable programming was just beginning to expand. MTV had already debuted, as had CNN. At this point they were still experiments, no one knew if they would succeed. There were news reports that the Japanese were developing the capacity to put music on discs that could be laser read, but if you wanted music you either had to put on a record album or cassette tape. VCRs were the new high tech toy. Not only could you tape your favorite shows and watch them again later, but places renting movies in VCR form were popping up, meaning you could watch an old film without commercials at your leisure. People no longer were limited to watching what happened to be on television at the time they wanted to watch. When you photographed people or places you took care to try to get a good shot. Developing film was expensive, and you wouldn’t know how it turned out until you got the prints back from the camera shop.
At the time, of course, we thought we were living in a world filled with technological wonder. The VCR is hyper-cool if you don’t know about DVDs, streaming video, or DVRs. The Minolta SLR camera with different lenses and filters made it easier than ever to take high quality photos. Color TVs were increasingly affordable as the old black and white sets disappeared and Sony’s new expensive “walk man” allowed you to play cassette tapes in a small portable device with headphones. One could conceivably jog and listen to music at the same time. How cool is that! So much for transistor radios! Home movies were really are (and the equipment expensive and bulky), but a few people had a screen and projector to look at slides.
Some cars even buttons to roll down windows or even lock the car. That seemed a bit excessive — one can easily roll a window up and down (and the car didn’t have to be on) and why have a labor saving device for something as simple as pushing down a car lock!? Pinball machines were still king, but Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and other “video games” were becoming popular. The Atari company even put out a machine you could hook to your TV to play such favorites as “missile command.” Video games on your television? Wow!
One good thing about being 50 is that I got to experience first hand this remarkable era of technological advancement. The last thirty years have seen life become fundamentally altered. As a student in high school and college I’d go use the IBM selectric typewriter my dad’s secretary had whenever I could. That had a button that would erase a mistake (white out the error) and it was easy to type on. Alas, I often had to re-type whole pages thanks to a typo or margin error, and if anything was revised it would often mean retyping the whole paper.
In college researching a paper required a trip to the library. One became adept at using card catelogs, knowing the library of congress scheme of arranging subjects, and plugging dimes into the photo copy machine to copy magazine or journal articles. I was lucky to be a fast typist — most boys hadn’t learned to type. I was one of only a few in my typing class back in 8th grade, wanting to someday become a sports writer. Girls learned to type to become secretaries. Boys, of course, would be the bosses using Dictaphones (which were already making short hand obsolete).
So while my friends tried to cajole their girl friends to type up their papers, I could just sit at my type writer and work. Yet we were the pinnacle of technology, a TV and small refrigerator in every dorm room, and nice stereo systems – the best had components, a tuner, amp, a couple large speakers, a nice turntable and a tape deck.
My girlfriend at the time was studying computer science — learning languages like Basic, Pascal, and Cobol. I’d go into the computer lab sometimes and try to create programs — one where the computer asked questions and then came up with a personality profile was my best. Of course then Bill Gates would come and create an operating system that took away the need to program your computer (remember when one had to know html to write a web page in the early nineties?)
Now my kids can’t comprehend why the TV at a hotel can’t be paused or set to record shows. They have told me we should be able to watch on demand any show on the program guide. “In a few years,” I replied, realizing that may indeed be the case. Students can revise papers constantly without even printing them out. Almost any question can be answered via google, while youtube provides videos of just about anything you might want to watch. You can do better research from a poor rural university than you used to be able to do at all but the best schools.
Music is now portable, you can have a vast array of music on demand on gadgets as small the adapters one used to have to use to play 45 RPM records on a turntable. Everything can be downloaded, traded, and even movies and TV shows can be watched on devices one carries in ones’ pocket. Where once we had to call each other, meet at the mall or library to hang out, or as teens cruise downtown to run into friends, now there’s facebook and texting. We used to be able to escape our parents easily — once we were out the door, we were out of touch (and out of reach). Now there are cell phones, tracking software, and constant contact. The internet allows communication across cultures and contexts.
Is there too much technology? Does all of this dehumanize us? At one level yes. All technology even going back thousands of years removes us a bit from the state of nature. Yet with all due respect to Rousseau, this only means that we are able to alter what is human, perhaps even changing human nature. It may be de-humanization compared to what we were before, but since we humans are constructing our new selves, it’s still human. And while the computer, texting and social media are altering who and what we are, the book, telegraph and postal service did that to earlier humans. So, though Dennis DeYoung’s lyrics are often prophetic, I don’t think there is too much technology — now or in 1982.
Rolling Stones reporter Matt Taibbi’s book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con that is Breaking America is not only a must read book, but his writing style makes it immensely fun to read. His argument is essentially that thanks to de-regulation and out of control capitalism, a small elite has been profiting handsomely by rigging the game in their favor. This not only has led to a massive shift of relative wealth to those at the top, but has undercut the very foundation of American strength and productivity. The result is a real threat that America’s best days may be behind us, unless we can reassert the capacity of the state to regulate the market so that it functions for everyone, and can’t be hijacked by the moneyed elite.
The book itself is worth reading, even if you disagree with it (in fact, those who are skeptical of his argument should read it — we all should read books from a perspective we disagree with). My favorite chapter is the second, entitled “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe,” which is about Alan Greenspan. A taste of his writing style, starting on page 38 as he describes Greenspan’s flirt with the pseudo-religion ‘objectivism.’:
“It is important to spend some time on the seriously demented early history of objectivism, because this lunatic religion that should have choked to death in its sleep decades ago would go on, thanks in large part to Greenspan, to provide virtually the entire intellectual context for the financial disasters of the early twenty-first century…
“One of the defining characteristics of Rand’s clique was its absolutist ideas about good and evil, expressed in a wildly off-putting uncompromising bombastic rhetoric that almost certainly bled downward to the group ranks from its Russian emigre leader who might have been one of the most humor deprived people to ever walk the earth…” (p.38-39)
After mocking Atlas Shrugged he goes on, page 41: “According to objectivists, the belief in ‘objective reality’ means that ‘facts are facts’ and ‘wishing’ won’t make facts change. What it actually means is ‘When I’m right, I’m right’ and ‘My facts are facts and your facts are not facts.
“This belief in ‘objective reality’ is what gives objectivists their characteristic dickish attitude: since they do not really believe that facts look different from different points of view, they don’t feel the need to question themselves or look at things through the eyes of others. ..the real meat of Randian thought (and why this all comes back to Greenspan) comes in their belief in self-interest as an ethical ideal and pure capitalism as the model for society’s political structure. Regarding the latter, Randians believe government has absolutely no role in economic affairs; in principle government should never use ‘force’ except against such people as criminals and foreign invaders. This means no taxes and no regulation.
“To sum it all up the Rand belief system looks like this: 1. Facts are facts, things can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong, determined by reason. 2. According to my reasoning, I am absolutely right. 3. Charity is immoral. 4. Pay for your own fucking schools.
“Rand, like all great con artists was exceedingly clever in the way she treated the question of how her ideas would be employed. She used a strategic vagueness that allowed her to paper over certain uncomfortable contradictions.” (Taibbi goes through and tears Rand apparent by pointing out clear contradictions in how her ‘theory’ could be applied)
Page 42: “A conspicuous feature of Rand’s politics is that they make absolutely perfect sense to someone whose needs are limited to keeping burglars and foreign communists from trespassing on their Newport manses, but none at all to people who might want different returns for their tax dollar. Obviously it’s true that a Randian self-made millionaire can spend money on private guards to protect his mansion from B and E artists. But exactly where do the rest of us look in the Yellow Pages to hire private protection against insider trading? Against price-fixing in the corn and gasoline markets? Is each individual family supposed to hire Pinkertons to keep the local factory from dumping dioxin in the county reservoir?
“Rand’s answer to all these questions was to ignore them. There were no two headed thalidomide flipper-babies in Rand’s novels, no Madoff scandals, no oil bubbles. There were, however, a lot of lazy-ass poor people demanding welfare checks and school taxes. It was belief in this simplistic black and white world of pure commerce and blood sucking parasites that allowed Rand’s adherents to present themselves as absolutists, against all taxes, all regulation and all government interference in private affairs — despite the fact that all of these ideological absolutes quietly collapsed whenever pragmatic necessity required it. In other words, it was incoherent and entirely subjective. Its rhetoric flattered its followers as Atlases with bottomless integrity, but the fine print allowed them to do whatever they wanted. This slippery self-serving idea ended up being enormously influential in mainstream American politics later on.”
He also recounts how Rand used Stalinist like methods with her group, showing her to probably be one of the most depraved “thinkers” of the 20th Century. To this day so-called “objectivists” even try to pay philosophy professors to use Rand in their courses, even though her thinking has no philosophical weight.
The sad thing is that this kind of anti-government attitude led to a weakening of the structures of the state meant to protect us from the dangers of unrestrained greed, and caused even the working poor to somehow think the brokers earning multi-million dollar bonuses selling worthless mortgage backed securities shouldn’t pay taxes or have their work scrutinized. The current financial collapse is an indictment of de-regulation and a belief that somehow capitalism can work without a strong state. It’s one reason why America lacks true conservatives — conservatism sees the community and its health as important. American conservatives have strayed from that ideal.
Taibbi investigates this through the mortgage scams, the run up of oil prices due to commodity speculation (controlled by a few big financial institutions), the health care reform act (which he says helps the insiders) and the economic “bubble machine.” Does he overstate the extent of the problem? Probably. But his facts are eye openers, his real life examples show how average people suffered thanks to de-regulation and insider abuse, and even the skeptical will come away from this book realizing that “business good, government bad” view (reminiscent of Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs bad”) is insanely simplistic. Moreover, when government is essentially controlled by big money, we all pay the price. Both left and right should be able to agree on that!