Sunday, February 22, 2009

Immaterial World

Michael Gerson:

Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. "One reasonable hypothesis," argues James Q. Wilson, "is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime." Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes -- and that have decayed in our own. The Depression generation controlled the things it could control -- including its own consumption and character.

We see hints of this type of reaction to our current recession, which has such clearly moral causes -- the burst of a bubble inflated by irresponsible debt, consumerism and unaccountable risk-taking. During an economic crisis, Americans return to a language of morality. Perhaps excess and recklessness are vices that deserve social stigma. Perhaps frugality and prudence are personal virtues as well as practices that prevent economic collapse. Perhaps there is a distinction between securing our needs and being dominated by our wants.

It would be difficult for me to recommend asceticism, writing on my miraculous MacBook. But many Americans in this downturn seem to be finding that less costly entertainments such as family time are the most rewarding, that meals at gourmet restaurants are not always the most satisfying and that previously outsourced chores -- from landscaping to parenting to hair dyeing -- might be better performed themselves. (In commenting on this trend to the New York Times, however, one hairstylist cautions, "They do come in sometimes with some pretty orange hair.")

Suspicions about consumerism are being powerfully reinforced by economic realities along with environmental concerns. But the rejection of materialism is finally rooted in a spiritual view of human nature. Pope John Paul II warned of making "people slaves of 'possession' and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better." A less material orientation in life (assuming basic material needs are met) actually expands our horizons -- like an escape from the dungeon of our own desires.

It has always been a quiet fear of capitalists that the success of free markets would eventually undermine the moral basis for free markets -- that decadent prosperity would dissolve values such as prudence and delayed gratification. "Capitalism," argued economist Joseph Schumpeter, "creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own."

But capitalism may be self-correcting in this area, as it is in many others. A recession causes suffering that can overwhelm hope. It can also lead to the rediscovery of virtues that make sustained prosperity possible -- and that add nonmaterial richness to our lives. Sometimes grace can arrive through an unexpected door.

By citing Schumpeter, Gerson lets capitalists off a bit easy. While Schumpeter's "quiet fears" are more relevant than ever, there are important differences between the school he represents and today's breed of capitalists. Robert McTeer, then head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, shared his quiet fear in 2001: "If we all join hands and go buy a new SUV, everything will be all right...Just go out and buy something -- maybe a Navigator." Richard Fisher, his successor, said in a television interview in 2005:

Where would the world be if Americans did not live out their proclivity to consume everything that looks good, feels good, sounds good, tastes good? We provide a service for the rest of the world. If we were running a current account surplus or trade surplus, what would happen to economic growth worldwide and what would be the economic consequences? So I think we are doing our duty there.

Does it sound like McTeer and Fisher worried that "decadent prosperity would dissolve values such as prudence and delayed gratification"? That top officials at the Fed represent today's breed of capitalists is an important issue in itself.

During the Bush years, I often wondered how many on the Religious Right understood the irony in supporting an administration that unabashedly promoted an almost demonic obsession with the material world (Bush: "Go shopping"). Gerson embraces the effects of natural downturns in the economic cycle: cultural renewal, thrift, family commitment, savings, morality, frugality, and prudence. It appears some -- and I don't mean Gerson necessarily -- are rediscovering the importance of those things, and justifiably objecting to Washington's extraordinary economic measures as symbols of opposite values. Strangely, that rediscovery seems to have started in early November.

14 Comments:

Blogger Ben said...

This is one silver lining I'm looking for in this depression, and I hope the shift away from being owned by our things endures while urging people to refocus productivity on cleaner and more efficient energy, food production and distribution, communications, etc. The old model was severely flawed and needs replacement.

2/22/2009 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conservatives, folks like Larison and Phillips and Bacevich, have long been running a principled and astute critique of the consumerist/corporatist economy. A lying whore like Gerson is in another category entirely. He never bothered about the gaping chasm between "values" and gonzo consumerism for the simple reason that it didn't pay to do so, and while Gerson may be obtuse about most things, he's acutely aware of what the boss wants. I waded through as much of his latest emission as I could stand. Even for him, it's an extraordinary specimen of let's-have-it-both-ways special pleading.

To my mind, the only real value of Gerson's screed is that it shows how a certain class of Beltway courtier grapples with the end of the party. Gerson knows enough to sense that the old horseshit doesn't play well at all. What party line to spout now? Best to throw some new nonsensical shit against the wall, and see which of it sticks.

As a side note, Gerson's continued tenure at the WaPo is just another symptom of that sorry rag's looming end. A newspaper is only worth buying if there's some reason to believe it. WaPo management seems to think it can snow its readership -- in one of the most highly educated cities in the world. Clever.
-- sglover

2/22/2009 6:56 PM  
Anonymous KAIMU said...

ALOHA !!

Whats wrong with just getting rid of the US FED? Do we need a huge private banking cartel dictating to CONgress what US TAXPAYERS will pay for?

Why can't I use a Swiss Franc to buy bread at the grocery store instead of a US Peso(FRN-Federal Reserve Note). If the grocer does not care then why should anyone? What about using Yen to buy a car? Or Australian Dollars to pay for a movie? Or a gold coin to pay for shoes? Wheres the MONETARY competition? What we have now is a MONEY MONOPOLY! Why is it good to break up the Standard Oil monopoly but not the US FED MONEY MONOPOLY? Who died and made FRNs KING?

Here is a simple definition of REAL CAPITALISM ... which in my book died 90 years ago!

"Lack of State restraint on the decisions of producers ..."

The US government and US Banks only produce FRAUD. The real producers of goods and services that the masses truly rely on for their daily existence(food, water, shelter)is NOT produced by "paper shufflers"! PAPER SHUFFLERS are MIDDLE MEN! GET RID OF THEM!

In other words the more government intervenes on the behalf of their bank masters the less REAL CAPITALISM exists! CAPITALISM or "free markets" ... only free from government!

We officially have TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION! Our Founding Fathers went to WAR over that! What will we do? Get more food stamps?

Welcome to the USSA!

ALL OUR BEST VOTING GOT US HERE!

2/23/2009 3:05 AM  
Anonymous KAIMU said...

ALOHA !!

RESILIENT COMMUNITIES!

Google it ...

2/23/2009 3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across this documentary, "The Corporation". It can be bought or watched online at the site or the internet archive, the trailer and chapters at youtube.

James Galbraith, in "The Predator State" clearly describes, when Republicans talk about "freedom", they ARE talking about "freedom to shop". What did Bush say after 9/11, he rallied us to "shop". It will be interesting to see where this Robert Allen Stanford case goes, and Madoff, not to mention Wall Street executives.

"cultural renewal", "Depression pulled families together". Barf. Oh please. What a bunch of malarky. Ma and Pa Kettle, Ozzie & Harriet. We are different people today, it just ain't gonna happen. Besides, when those developers built all those houses & blacktop driveways, they forgot to leave a yard for a garden so we could produce our own food. ;-| Those folks in that article sounded more like drug dealers and pimps talking to addicts.

My parents talked about the depression. Their parents paid the mortgage, the neighbor bought new flooring and decorated instead. The depression hit, and the neighbor lost his house. They also talked about the abuse of alcohol, wife beating, back room abortions, polio, and workplace dangers. Yeh, the good ol'days. Not!

But you can't judge people today with yesterday's standards/morals. For one things, we are more educated, and the educated HAVE TO go where the jobs are. We went from agrarian, to industrial, to IT, to shoppers. There are few factories or locals where generations can work. If you are educated as an economist, accountant, writer, or scientist, you are more likely to move to get a job.

We need new measurements, like at Redefining GDP. I measure stuff I buy not only in dollars but units of time, and I always consider my carbon footprint.

A good program, Affluenza. The Republicans used the Evangelicals, but that didn't make Bush a Christian. One thing that always bothered me during the Bush years, was the portrayal of Christians as anti-environmentalists. Prof Calvin DeWitt appeared in this video.He was a founding director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and co-founder of the International Evangelical Environmental Network, and more. He believes that Christians are stewards of the Earth for all creatures. But you never hear about that in our media. Maybe the octo-mom can start wearing a WWF tee-shirt as the media chases her and her brood. :-\

A while back Bono was promoting some sort of "Red" program (interesting choice of words given the images "Red" conjures). You'd go to places like Gap, buy something that had a Red sticker on it, and a "portion" went to some "good" cause. This always bothered me. 1) No accting was done, so no one knew for sure how much and what %; 2) If something is "right" and "good", why can't we just pay for it straight out. Why do I have to buy a mp3 player to donate 1% to starving kids in Africa. We do have hearts and minds that consist of more than dollar signs; 3) Given the state of business accting and CEO ethics, this seemed more like another gimmick so the CEO could say, we sold more units, donated a .25% of sales, I deserve a 100 billion dollar bonus or something outrageous.

If you have ever been with a loved one dying with cancer, it isn't the "stuff" they talk about, or want more of. The greatest gift of all is, "TIME".

2/23/2009 3:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found myself quoting Schumpeter since this debacle began. He also wrote that corporations were bad citizens since their only consideration was profits for shareholders. We see that playing out today as the financial corporations prove they are more concerned about their survival that what is good for the world economy.

In times of national emergency we need to look to government to solve problems for the common good.

2/23/2009 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In times of national emergency we need to look to government to solve problems for the common good.

????????

what planet are you on?

our monetary system which is in NO WAY, shape, or form FREE MARKET has brought wealth transfer and destruction upon us.

2/23/2009 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poor and certain ethic groups already live multiple generations and families in a single dwelling. Me thinks these folks are out of touch with many Americans.

But, Every time you darn your socks, a child goes hungry. ;-)

Spend. No Save. Spend. Save. Save. My GOD SPEND! SPEND! Spend. You idiot, you should have Saved.

2/24/2009 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"While Schumpeter's "quiet fears" are more relevant than ever, there are important differences between the school he represents and today's breed of capitalists."

It seems many feel the same way you do.

To understand economics, we have to consider emotions too
"Rational sober conduct on the part of early capitalists was determined by a Puritan and ever-present fear of damnation. Such attitudes would no doubt make the job of the FSA far easier, but the business class have long since gone beyond Puritan values.

Over the last decade Anglo-Saxon attitudes have been dominated by what Weber would have called the values of adventurer capitalism, and the economist and sociologist Werner Sombart would have called the lust for wealth. Meanwhile we have been duped into believing that whatever happens in the marketplace is for the best of all possible worlds.

Aesthetics, harmony with nature, the ethics and politics of community - these need to be reasserted as values independent of and superior to market values,..."

2/24/2009 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

B Of A Heiress Blasts Bank Leaders As 'Idiots'
"A.P. Giannini gave away millions, but died with an estate of only $500,000. He turned down a $1.7 million dollar bonus that the bank wanted to give him, saying they should use it to help their customers instead." Wow!!! With people drowning in CC debt/fees and bank fees, would this be a tremendous action!

Another item of interest from this article was how the bank got started, "big eastern banks wouldn't lend to middle class immigrants like Italians". I've heard Russell Simmons say that "main stream" businesses/financial institutions wouldn't work with him or his idea (I believe he was referring to WS type businesses not wanting to work with the black community), so he went around them. It just makes you wonder, is it worth saving these big financial institutions if they are going to stand in the way, and worse, game and rob the system for themselves and their cronies.

A news program was discussing salaries in Hollywood. They are trending down because the "dumb money" has mostly gone. When asked to explain what "dumb money" was, they said hedge funds would dump money in Hollywood so they could showoff.

A business in Michigan, when the owner retired and sold, he split the profits with all his employees, prorated by years of service. In Ohio, a business owner kept on his employees rather than laying them off. He worked out a deal that they would have to be flexible in their work assignments. US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger spoke before Congress and said he is worried that decreased benefits and pay will keep qualified pilots away. You can save money by not training or maintaining, but who'd want to fly or use that service. Whether it's a pilot, doctor, auto repairman, or secretary, these folks require training and communication skills to deal with people and systems. I just don't see how a CEO is worth 500 times more and all these bonuses on top of bonuses, they keep taking from the employees doing the daily work, and giving to themselves. There are companies that don't operate with the WS mentality, but they are out numbered. Hopefully things will change.

What a good company looks like, Sustainable Industries, Patagonia (Casey Sheahan or Yvon Chouinard).

2/24/2009 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Daulton said...

Hey, I'm very happy to see TCR discussing the vices of materialism again, but this just makes me tear my hair out.

I strongly suspect that the "Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption" and the upper classes, in control of economic policy, who "debate about the influence of economic hard times on the nation's moral health", are two completely different groups. And never the twain had met.

The "decaying values" Gerson notices -- well after the fact -- is the unbridled greed of the ruling economic class, the minute it's freed from social responsibility by a philosophy of "lassaiz-faire". Poor people, who aren't allowed to bet on derivatives with money that doesn't belong to them, aren't actually the ones displaying moral lapse. Sure they used their homes as ATMs to buy frivolities, but where does that rate on the moral scale with 20-times-leveraged Credit Default Swaps? Wasn't Gordon Gecko pushing vice ("Greed is Good") about 30 years before the collapse? Where was Gerson's morality detector back then? This article is yet another attempt to blame the collapse on its victims who couldn't have averted it even if they'd known how. It's the ACORN argument in sheep's clothing.

'course I don't have demographic studies in front of me, but I would bet dollars to donuts that, for the most part:
1) the poor after the last Depression adopted asceticism and community values in order to continue surviving and working at their bottom-line, productive jobs, while
2) the rich, the powerful, the economic leaders, who had screwd the pooch with their avarice and fought all efforts at reform, lived off the fat of their padded savings accounts until the day when their "access" and "experience" brought them and their families back into positions of power.

Relevant numerical measures, such as social mobility and the Income Gap, didn't improve all that much between 1940-1960, compared to the way they worsened from 1970-2008, did they? I rest my case. The poor learn the moralistic economic lessons while the rich aristocracy fight to guarantee their progeny a finger in the pie regardless.

Gerson presumes, "Without question, the most acute social problems -- crime, illegitimacy, etc. -- are concentrated in areas of highest poverty." Can anyone still blithely maintain that street muggings and welfare (read: minority) babies are our most acute social problems when real estate gambling just destroyed $60 _T_R_I_L_L_I_O_N_ of wealth? How many muggings does that add up to?? Does tossing trillions of dollars down the rat-hole of pointless and bloody foreign wars show up in the "social problem" spectrum somewhere? Oh, no, that's foreign policy, it doesn't count as a social problem.

Who is Gerson's audience? Seems like it's the amoral speculators who are trying to tell themselves that it really wasn't their fault, and that their "moral vision" makes them the people best prepared to lead the nation back to prosperity. Prosperity for themselves, at least. Hammer of the Blogs dissects Gerson here.

2/25/2009 7:08 PM  
Anonymous rapier said...

The abandonment of traditional cloth coat Republicanism occurred with Reagan. Never should we forget his first inauguration, the Night of the Minks, as Calvin Trillin named it.

Conspicuous consumption and speculative excess became the hallmarks of Reagan's conservatism. The moral scolds remained but I think it's fair to say that they went pro.

In the past, Midwest conservatism, and the Midwest was the GOP stronghold before the Southern Strategy took hold, conservative morals were expressed in a lifestyle and tended to tolerance. Under Reagan and the new Southern conservatives professional moralists, often rich and decadent or trying to get there, used rhetoric to stoke resentment and self satisfaction among their political kind, which often eliminated the need to actually live lives of conservative style.

Being a 'conservative' was its own absolution. Their moral superiority a given. Often they were Gods chosen people. Nuff said. Excess was Gods reward for those who found success.

Well, I think a few books have covered it.

2/25/2009 11:35 PM  
Blogger res ipsa loquitur said...

Michael "Axis of Evil" Gerson?

Michael "Soft Bigotry of Low Expections" Gerson?

Please.

3/04/2009 5:48 AM  
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