Michael Hoexter: Without an Effective Macroethics, Our Civilization is Doomed

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

Lambert here: Those wishing to conceptualize “public purpose” might be better served by appealing to the discipline of ethics, rather than economics (let alone accounting).

* * *

In a previous post, I outlined how leaders in positions of political power, especially at the national level, are chosen to fulfill a unique ethical role that differs from that which is appropriate for private individuals and business leaders.  Because of the power that accrues to political leaders and the hopes attached to them by their constituents, politicians’ actions in office have much greater repercussions than, for the most part, the actions of individuals and individual businesses in the private sector.  Once elected or appointed, political leaders have choices to make, often with room for their own discretion, which draw upon values they hold, values that are in part conditioned by, though not entirely reducible to their political and political-economic ideology.   These decisions most often are concerned with policymaking, budgeting, and legislation that impact an entire nation or the international system of nations.

Effective political leadership and government action are realized often via the fiscal policy of government, the spending decisions of government and the resulting activities of government and non-government sectors via that spending. I have called the process by which political leaders budget and justify their budgeting decisions and overall economic policy “macroeconomic accounting”, a name which indicates that while some of the conventional business accounting rules apply to government finance, most do not.  A formalization of this activity into a new practical discipline “macroeconomic accounting”, would provide a means by which the popular will (between elections), professed allegiances to various ethical ideals, as well as the findings of social and natural scientists could feed formally into government decision making, at least in best-case scenarios.  Most importantly to introduce such a set of norms via this discipline would make it less likely that politicians would ignore, in addition to the popular will, the data of macroeconomics, or at least some future version of economics that is relevant to statecraft, and just as importantly the social and natural sciences overall.  Ultimately each regime or government would compose its own version of macroeconomic accounting but the pre-existence of such a discipline would increase the likelihood that lawmakers would pay attention to a richer set of the relevant facts in making decisions and be held accountable to stated popular ideals.

To give a sense of the scope of what macroeconomic accounting for the 21st Century might look like, it helps to outline what would be the parameters which national-level politicians will use to guide policy decisions on the broad socioeconomic issues that they must face.  Below is a preliminary list of the decision parameters:

1)    Appropriate accounting (nomenclature and numerical representations) of monetary operations of (monetarily sovereign) governments (making clear the similarities and differences with business and household accounting) e.g. can true “deficits” within its own national currency exist for the fiat-currency issuer?  Is a balance sheet the correct accounting format?

2)    Ranking/list of priorities of government according to popular opinion

3)    Ranking/list of priorities of government according to technical and scientific opinion

4)    “Size of government” – i.e. what functions should be public services, what functions should be publicly funded but privately administered, and what goods and services should not be funded and delivered publicly.

5)    Unemployment

6)    Income Distribution/Poverty Rate

7)    Effective Tax Rates

8)    Inflation

9)    Exchange Rate Regime

10) Balance of trade/Management of trading relationships

11) Sovereign Bond Issuance and Management

12) GDP and Alternatives to GDP (measurement of overall economic performance of both private and public sectors combined)

13) Carbon Footprint and Carbon Intensity

14) Ecological Footprint

15) Energy Intensity and Fossil Fuel Dependence

16) Material Sustainability (Water, Food Production, Waste Management)

17) Measures of Health and Well-being

18) Cultural, Scientific and Educational Goals

 It would seem these factors (and more) would all be worth considering in the formulation of government’s fiscal and regulatory policy.  Still, even an elaborate “formula” based on these variables would require a great deal of choice in construction, discretion in inputting data, care in maintaining and judgment in interpreting the output and finally judgment and energy in executing the resulting policies.   Such is the complexity of human societies and economies that no model of them constructed out of these or other parameters could ever be considered complete or optimal without the application of human judgment.  

As the harrowing political and economic incompetence of the last few years has shown, better analytic and technical solutions are required in the areas of the policy-relevant social and natural sciences and their consideration must be made mandatory in political-economic decision-making.  The idea of a macroeconomic accounting provides the outline of such a set of technical solutions.

Yet technical and analytic solutions alone will not take the place of better choices on the part of leaders and their technical staff, as well as the choice in the first place to adopt rational assumptions and rigorous data analysis as fundamentals of good policy.  Ultimately a public discussion of what is “the good” and what are better means to achieve the good is required to choose and structure technical solutions to our society’s massive challenges.  These operations and activities fall under the broad category of “ethics”.

What is Ethics?

According to the (peer-reviewed) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ethics “involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior”.   The philosophical discipline of ethics comprises the study of ethical systems from the point of view of their construction, argumentation and logic, describing ethical systems as they exist in the world (e.g. an anthropology of ethics), and also putting forward normative principles and judgments of right and wrong, good and bad.  The latter is the “public face” of ethics, as it encompasses the activities of various “ethics committees” as well as the sense that people have that ethics and morality are about judgment of oneself and others according to some standards of proper conduct.  More importantly, the law and jurisprudence can be thought of as a subdivision of normative ethics.

To assume that ethical impulses exist and have social and economic weight, contradicts the assumption of amorality embedded within neoclassical economics which shears off the notion of human ethical impulses or institutions premised on ethical principles having a productive or positive effect on economic activity.  There are people who don’t seem to have consciences, whom we now call “sociopaths (or psychopaths)”, that make up perhaps 2% of the population.  For them, ethical impulses are either incomprehensible or are viewed coolly as merely a tool to manipulate others and social institutions to get what they desire.  Conventional neoclassical economics has normalized sociopathy in economic life by assuming the “utility maximizing individual” at every turn, which aids sociopaths in gaining positions of power and influence in our contemporary society.  In the political science derivative of neoclassical economics, James Buchanan’s “public choice theory”, politicians are assumed to be as fundamentally amoral as neoclassical economics’ model of the person, which has the effect of excusing or making invisible political corruption.   To its great credit, the recent Modern Money Theory school of economics, assumes that there exists a “public purpose” which economic policy serves, providing a respite from the atomistic and non-moral view of humanity promoted by mainstream economics.

Macroethics and Microethics

Recently, the term macroethics has been applied by engineering ethicist Joseph Herkert to describe collective action problems in engineering ethics:  how local technical solutions can make situations worse if systemic issues are not addressed.  In my view, the term “macroethics” and its contrast with “microethics” solves a classification problem we have in understanding the different scopes and scales of ethical action more generally, as well as qualitative differences in normative ethical principles.  The ethical analogue in the distinction between macroeconomics and microeconomics is important and highlights the role of different discrete perspectives in social phenomena:  one can look at society from a large-scale aggregate view or from a more granular view and come up with different and sometimes conflicting information and prescriptions for ethical behavior.

Macroethics could be construed itself to be a broad category but two main defining concepts can immediately be called out:

1)    Macroethics is the broadly shared ethical framework of a “people” or nation as applied to group and national behavior: what is correct or right behavior for the group, what is the broad social contract or norms for communities and larger groups of people.

2)    Macroethics is specific sets of ethical rules that apply to people interacting with supra-individual systems, like the national or international economy, the polity, the climate system, the biosphere etc.  Macroethics is the ethics of constructing, maintaining, changing and disrupting systems.

By contrast, microethics is a more recognizable and traditional concept in our society:  microethics is the study of, recommendation and promotion of standards of right behavior for individuals and simple social groups and organizations that may be treated as individuals.

Within microethics as opposed to macroethics, individuals are more “empowered” and commensurately there are higher expectations for the individual to have control over (micro-) social outcomes.  By constrast in macroethics, the degrees of freedom of ethical action are constrained by the affordances and tolerances of the relevant social systems, which are by their nature larger than the individual. In addition to the rigidities of large systems constraining the individual will to do good, “good” or “better” actions in macroethics are often beset by collective action problems where individuals need to persuade others of the recommended course in order to act in a more effective ethical manner.  While individuals may be less empowered in macroethics, the effects of successful, coordinated action guided by macroethics can be longer lasting and have more profound and wide-reaching effects.

The domain of ethical action and thinking that is appropriate to political leaders, particularly at the national level, is essentially macroethical.  Individual and interpersonal ethical actions are, in some sense, not the specialty of a politician, who is supposed to act as the avatar of his or her constituency.  Politicians are chosen to act within the political and political-economic system for the benefit of this constituency, persuading other politicians to follow a particular course that he or she believes are correct.  Furthermore, a purely ‘interest-based’ view of political power and bargaining overlooks the universalizing potential of politics and human interaction more generally: politics and policy-making have at least the potential to be more than “horse-trading” between interest groups, even though the exchange of political favors is almost inevitable.  The more fully grounded in a widely shared macroethics, the more likely a politician can have profound and long-lasting effects for the good of the region or nation, especially as regards the interests of those in the future and the non-human environment, as yet unrepresented in the polity.

The contrast between microethics and macroethics is highlighted by effective or principled politicians and activists who lead less than exemplary private lives.  Eliot Spitzer is a recent example of a politician of high principle in the area of macroethics (a zealous prosecutor of Wall Street crimes among others) but who made some poor decisions in his personal life and marriage.  Franklin Roosevelt, a President who acted effectively in the national and international arenas with an apparent passion for his macroethical duties, had a number of affairs in his personal life.  While there are individuals who may be considered to be ethically scrupulous in both micro- and macroethical realms, the contrast in some individual cases points to different human capacities in these two areas of ethical life.

Outline of an Effective Macroethics

As macroethics is concerned with large scale systems there are three important boundary conditions to assess whether one’s macroethics has the potential to be an effective guide to ethical action.

1)    Emotional investment in the welfare of a greater-than-self, inclusive social group – An effective macroethics requires that individuals be emotionally invested in the welfare of a large and inclusive social group; macroethics is the mental and social-discursive space to better guide collective action or leadership of a larger-than-self grouping.  The concepts of “the people” or “humanity” are some of the most valuable anchors for a macroethics, though these are often difficult to represent and operationalize.  Efforts to marginalize or exclude groups from the group to which macroethics is attached, make one’s macroethics less relevant to a world which is increasingly internationalized and multi-ethnic. Despite a movement and bias towards inclusivity, some groups or individuals may act in a way that is antagonistic to the general interest and they may need to be fought against in order to achieve what most have determined to be “the good” for society or humanity as a whole.

2)    Deontological commitment to truthful representation – As large scale systems are often difficult to perceive via sense-data and are also more or less changing, one needs to know the state and trajectory of the system in which one is participating in, in order to effectively act in it.  To assume that one can via intuition or introspection alone arrive at a correct course of action can lead to an egocentric bias which will in many situations lead to erroneous conclusions and damaging outcomes.  Therefore as a potential actor one needs to have a deontological (duty-bound, rule-based) commitment to truthful representation and one is, as well, dependent upon other people likewise committed to truthful representation.  Not all ethical actions can be derived from data or data analysis but without truthful data one is most often disconnected from the field of action.

3)    Locating the critical system of focus in hierarchy of natural/social systems – In dealing with “larger-than-self” phenomena it is crucially important to know where one is located in relationship to natural and social systems that may or may not be in a critical state, therefore requiring action.  There are probably two meaningful ways to locate the relevant system, starting either from the macroscopic or the microscopic.  As we are discussing economics, economic systems are mostly macrosocial systems that are based on smaller systems studied by psychology and anthropology and bigger systems like the biosphere, the climate system, geological systems and astronomical systems.  On the same level of economics in terms of size of system are social systems studied by sociology and by political science.  Economics in some future form could be meaningfully integrated with either the study of politics or the study of society more generally.

4)    Search for and timely application of best available or soon-to-be-available solutions – Good intentions and fine plans are not enough for an effective macroethics: an effective ethics leads to effective action.  Existing solutions may not suffice, so pushing for new solutions to large scale problems is important with the proviso that the “perfect not become the enemy of the good”.

The Austerity Campaign Confuses Microethics and Macroethics

Neoliberalism, from which the austerity campaign has sprung, is a political-economic doctrine that, taking off from Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand in Wealth of Nations, assumes that macroethics is an appendage of a narrowed microethics, a microethics shorn of group-oriented impulses and oriented towards pursuing individual enrichment and self-interest.  The notion of the invisible hand of the market which serves the highest common good by not imposing any transcendent ethical principle on social interaction, suggests that macroethics is not an important differentiated area of ethical concern.  Progressives who want to salvage Smith for a more progressive politics point out that in Wealth of Nations as well as in his previous work of moral philosophy, Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith himself seems to contradict or supplement a “self-interest oriented microethics-only” view of optimal economic and ethical development.  However, it is not my interest here to either rehabilitate Smith or revise what has become a dominant misreading of Smith that is at the foundation of neoclassical economic and neoliberal political economics:  methodological and ethical individualism.

Margaret Thatcher, one of the prominent early neoliberal politicians, phrased the basis of neoliberal ethical cosmology most succinctly when she said “there is no such thing as society.  There are individual men and women, and there are families”.  While more “left” neoliberals such as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, dilute their neoliberalism with calls to service to the common good, in critical areas of economic and social policy, the neoliberal trend towards individualized solutions to social challenges continued in full force in their policy prescriptions and perverse ideological loyalty to their nominal political opponents on the Right.

After the initial panic surrounding the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 subsided, an opportunistic brand of neoliberalism emerged that continued neoliberalism’s attack on government as a stabilizing, moderating force in society.  This re-energized brand of neoliberalism advocates fiscal austerity and balanced government budgets, “worrying” that public bond issues floated during the economic stabilization process were “unsustainable” debts.  That the prime drivers of fiscal austerity were representatives of the financial industry, which had just been bailed out by government and had gotten themselves into trouble via high levels of private “leverage”, has so far escaped the notice of most sectors of the press in Europe and the United States and therefore the consciousness of the public.  Furthermore the potential future advantages to that same industry of austerity’s selective shackling of government’s ability to create and control the liquidity of the economy have also, so far, escaped the notice of a gullible press and by extension a good portion of the public.

The fundamental premises of austerity go against the re-discovery 80 years ago by John Maynard Keynes of the ancient paradox of thrift, that if everybody tries to maximize savings in an economy at the same time, the economy itself shrinks.  The virtue of being thrifty, of saving, has appeal to each individual both micro-economically and also in terms of conventional morality.  The paradox of thrift is one of the foundations of the distinction between macroeconomics and microeconomics and also of there being an equivalent macroethics by which leaders and the people who elected them attempt to guide their society overall.  Resistance to Keynes’s discoveries and to the existence of a distinct macroeconomics has for the most part come from people who insist that personal and business experience are the only models for economic management and for economic morality.  At basis, the resistance to Keynes may be viewed fundamentally as a denial of the idea that “more is different”, that at larger scales, social and natural phenomena require a different lens that is not necessarily a direct translation from day-to-day experience.

While the economic rationale for austerity is non-existent when viewed from the perspective of the economy as a whole, the austerity campaign operates on the level of political and (misguided) ethical argumentation.  Austerity campaigners like Pete Peterson and Congressman Paul Ryan either are subject to and/or foment in others a fundamental ethical confusion between individual ethics and the macroethics of economic and political leadership.  Repeated over and over again is the equation between a business or household budget and a national budget.  So persistent is this mantra and so well placed its ideological sponsors that austerity’s perverse infliction of economic pain without gain seems to be hidden from politicians who delude themselves to think that the morality of political leadership is identical to the morality that applies to that of business owners or householders.

This fundamental moral confusion may be mere pretense in the sociopaths and Machiavellian political operatives who are no doubt crucial to the success of the austerity campaign. Yet their (fallacious) ethical argumentation has swept along more gullible political leaders who have not paused long enough to consider the uniqueness of their role as leaders of governments.  These leaders, with the exception of the Euro-Zone countries, can move their governments to issue currency to bail their nations out of any real or imagined financial bind (though finances do not necessarily solve real economic difficulties).   Either believing that the fiscal reality of currency-issuing governments was identical to that of a business or a household or fearing that their constituents would view them as immoral if they did not treat the national budget as that of a household, politicians have, so far, acted as if they do not recognize their distinct macroethical duties as regards the national budget.

Civilization and Macroethics

Neoliberalism and austerity mania have led to a perversion of the macroethics of government where politicians take as their primary ethical object conserving the virtual resource of the currency, mistaking dollars or pounds as a limited vital resource, while leaving almost entirely to one side the welfare of the real people and the state of the physical assets of the country that support their welfare.  There are two flavors of macroethical and macroeconomic blindness to choose from in the political spectrums of the US and other countries but the people of the United States and European countries should not be confused:  their welfare and the integrity of their economies is being overlooked or damaged by both sides of the traditional political spectrum as well as the compromising “centrists” in the middle of that spectrum.  In the midst of a long economic downturn with private households unable to earn and spend adequately to fuel economic recovery and reconstruction, it is up to government to spend and reshape economies so that they can function and face emerging realities like climate change and the huge energy transition that it demands.

Without an effective macroethics our civilization and economy cannot survive; strong macroethical commitments by political leadership and a large swath of the population are not optional.  Macroethics provides the implicit framework within which people give consent to government to represent them and lead them as well as to each other to behave in a manner that is respectful of the interests of one another.   Broadly construed concepts of what is the “good” and what is the “bad” guide people to accept lawmaking that is more or less in their favor and to participate in large scale projects that in some way or another incorporate their hopes and aspirations.  We face in climate change and human alteration of the natural basis of life, collective action problems of enormous dimensions.  The civilization and global economy that have emerged in the last century and a half has been premised upon the availability of copious non-food energy used to power mechanical and electrical devices, which now must be sourced in an almost completely different manner than has been the case for that the last century.  The fossil energy we have used endangers the stability of the biosphere from which we have, in turn, been able to produce the food that we need to survive.

If, persuaded by the neoliberal indoctrination of the last 30 years and the austerity mania of the last four years, political leaders and their constituencies believe that a widely shared macroethics is impossible, we will be unable to act in concert and retool civilization to face the upcoming challenges.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Chris Engel

    This is probably a major source of my own personal disillusionment.

    When everyone else around you is getting ahead in their careers by sucking up to the status quo narrative and not challenging assumptions and models developed by guys who have already shown how wrong they can be.

    When everyone else just jumps into the groupthink instead of taking a contrarian approach to a proposition or project, and you’re singled out and dismissed because of providing a different view that challenges the company narrative.

    The revolving door in Washington with the hop-skotch between Wall Street and K Street that leaves people like me in their 20’s wondering “holy shit, is that really legal?”

    And if you don’t want to sit idly by while observing these things you’re viewed as a speed dump rather than a valuable intellectual contribution to the team.

    There’s a total loss of ethical standards. Footsoldiers in consulting firms, political staffs, and banks don’t care about the consequences, they care only about the myopic incentive structure. Nobody wonders what the systemic effects are of projects, only about the short-term payoff that follows.

    There’s no ethical considerations whatsoever in the modern system of power players: just greed, personal profit, and manipulation of the system that paves the way for all this absurd monopolistic rent-seeking behavior amongst the oligarchs.

    1. Chris Engel

      I’d like to add that in my undergraduate and graduate economics education I only took one course dedicated specifically to ethics (as a subtopic it was interwoven into many other subjects studied).

      I’ve got friends who went to less prestigious schools in business programs who have _NEVER_ taken a SINGLE course in ethics, and this is AFTER Sarbanes-Oxley!!!

      This is as much a problem on the university level (where we’re supposed to be training the power players) as it is a failure of morality in our modern society.

      And then once you throw these new grads into some corporate position they develop their ethical standards based on whoever their higher-ups are, and anyone who has worked in banking, law, etc. — the back-slapping and dinners aren’t about discussing ethical conundrums and pondering the future and outcomes of the system, it’s all about BING BANG BOOM fast money, give the client what he wants, don’t rock the boat, etc.

      The entire frame of reference of the new generation is Hollywood and worthless celebrity crap. Nobody can cite the dilemmas that are painfully repetitive that go back to the the Greeks up to the enlightened philosophers that offer valuable lessons to the disgraceful behavior present by the people in power today.

      People have become so overly specialized in their disciplines that there are “economists” out there that I’ve talked to at conferences who barely have a grasp of the banking system, because “oh, I’m a labor economist, so I’m not supposed to know about that stuff”. Really? REALLLY??

      We’re so caught up in just mastering our small niche, the little building block in the system, that we lose sight of the greater consequences of the specific vehicle we are in for interactions between society’s institutions, and how we are contributing to the outputs of this system.

      The only thing people care about is generating an income, to hell with personal integrity of principles. Is it legal? Who knows…who cares? Observe the boss and follow his lead. That’s the modern course in ethics that the new generation gets.

      1. Brindle

        Chris Hedges wrote this back in December 2008:

        —“Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms.

        They go to the same class reunions.

        They belong to the same clubs.

        They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement.

        They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

        These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elites cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system.

        They will feed the beast until it dies.

        Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.”—


          1. Brindle

            In another piece Hedges says that Ivy League schools, and in particular Harvard, are producing sociopaths.

          2. tts

            Which is pretty accurate. That those institutions have been producing mini Gorden Geckcos since at least the 80’s is pretty much common knowledge.

        1. jake chase

          Those who have not attended these august institutions of what Veblen called The Higher Learning in America cannot imagine the extent to which they are dominated by a culture of money. Fully half the student body consists of slow witted progeny of our inheritor class and its corporate protectorate, selected solely on the basis of who their parents and grandparents are. Middle and lower class students selected for their brain power and/or football skills quickly come to realize who is calling the tune, and most learn all the required dance steps, because the only thing ninety percent of them really want is a ticket into the clubs that will never admit any of them except as waiters and caddies.

          Well, we’re all just people after all. Not many turn out to be Ghandi, although it just might pay to become comfortable with a spinning wheel for when the oil runs out.

      2. from Mexico

        Chris Engel said:

        We’re so caught up in just mastering our small niche, the little building block in the system, that we lose sight of the greater consequences…

        That is by design.

      3. mac

        By the time you are graduating from University you should have acquired ethics from your family, neighbors, church and where you were raised.
        It should not require those teaching an advanced degree to teach you ethics!

    2. from Mexico

      Chris Engel said:

      There’s no ethical considerations whatsoever in the modern system of power players: just greed, personal profit, and manipulation of the system that paves the way for all this absurd monopolistic rent-seeking behavior amongst the oligarchs.

      The psychologist Andrew M. Lobacewski called it “pathocracy,” a polity in which psychopaths, sociopaths and a larger group (about 15 to 20% of any given random populaiton) of lesser characteropaths have come to rule.

      Those like long-time commenter Hugh employ less medical vernacular and more moral-ethical vernacular, calling it a “kleptocracy.”

      But whether we want to call it diseased or criminal, it is nevertheless a dysfunctional polity, and will eventually destroy everything it comes in contact with, including its inner circle of adherents.

        1. from Mexico

          Well I suppose that for the true believers in violence, who hold that with enough violence and coercion anything can be changed, including human nature, that is a valid question.

          But there exists another tradition and another vocabulary no less old and time-honored. When the Athenian city-state called its constitution an isonomy, or the Romans spoke of civitas as their form of government, they had in mind a concept of power and law whose essence did not rely on the command-obedience relationship and which did not identify power as rule or law as command. It was to these examples that the men of the eighteenth-century revolutions turned when they constituted a form of government, a republic, where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man.

          In this tradition the strength of opinion, that is the power of government, depends on numbers; it is “in proportion to the number with which it is associated,” and tyranny, as Montequieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and least powerful of forms of governemnt.

          1. jake chase

            You need to spend more time with LeBon, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Crowds are manipulated by emotional appeals, not motivated by reason. Crowd opinion will always be wrong. Democracy in Salem, Massachusetts, burned witches little more than 300 years ago. So much for community. Democracy in a continental Empire produced the War on Terrorism. Perhaps you forget how popular this was in 2001-2. I don’t.

        2. from Mexico

          @ jake chase

          And if one reads more of Lobaczewski, one will see that he argues that Obama and his assorted lot of neoliberal and neoclassical psychopaths, sociopaths and other characteropaths may succeed in the short run, but they will not and cannot succeed in the long term:

          The phenomenon of pathocracy matures [when] an extensive and active indoctrination system is built, with a suitably refurbished ideology constituting the vehicle or Trojan horse for the purpose of pathologizing the thought process of individuals and society. The goal — forcing human minds to incorporate pathological…methods and thought-patterns, and consequently accepting such rule — is never openly admitted. This goal is conditioned by pathological egoism, and the possibility of accomplishing it strikes the pathocrats as not only indispensable, but feasible. Thousands of activists must therefore participate in this work. However, time and experience confirm what a psychologiest may have long foreseen: the entire effort produces results so very limited that it is reminiscent of the labors of Sisyphus. It only results in producing a general stifling of intellectual development and deep-rooted protest against affront-mongering “hypocrisy.” The authors and executors of this program are incapable of understanding that the decisive factor making their work difficult is the fundamental nature of normal human beings — the majority.

          The entire system of force, terror, and forced indoctrination, or, rather, pathologization, thus proves effectively unfeasible, which causes the pathocrats no small measure of surprise. Reality places a quesiton mark on their conviction that such methods can change people in such fundamental ways so that they can eventually recognize this pathocratic kind of government as a “normal state.”

          — ANDREW M. LOBACZEWSKI, Political Ponerology

          1. jake chase

            Yeah, I can see it has been a total failure. That’s why 1% of the population owns 50% of the wealth, and 1/10% owns 25%.

            Here’s a better tip: buy Johnson & Johnson, Coca Cola, McDonalds, Apple Computer and Schlumberger. Never sell any of them. If IBM ever dips, buy that too.

          2. from Mexico

            What can I say, jake?

            You see the world all in black, and I see it in shades of grey.

  2. steve from virginia

    Ummm … I dunno, this looks to be an academic exercise filled with jargon and bullet point lists.

    What is needed is leadership and application of laws. Prosecuting criminal financiers would be the place to start, this wants only courage.

    Instead we have micro-courage. Serves us right, I suppose.

    1. Yves Smith

      I bet any amount of money you are under 40.

      You can’t go after crime if the elites engage in it. Courts follow prevailing social values. In youth, regulators were feared and resented. Now they are cowed. That’s due to the aggressive marketing of the “free markets” ideology, of a concerted propaganda campaign to depict regulation to prevent harm to individuals and communities (pollution, predatory lending, petfood with melamine) as a restriction on freedom. And with that radical implicit definition of freedom (pretty much tantamount to anarchy) it leads to might makes right.

      Look at this verdict as an illustration of the problem. You need to reconsider your position.


      It’s hard for anyone below the level of a president or a mass leader to have an impact on values. and the ones we’ve had since Reagan (except for HW Bush who was sorta neutral, not much of a bully pulpit type) have all moved the needle in the wrong direction.

      1. David Lentini

        “That’s due to the aggressive marketing of the “free markets” ideology, of a concerted propaganda campaign to depict regulation . . . . And with that radical implicit definition of freedom (pretty much tantamount to anarchy) it leads to might makes right.”

        I agree with your statement, but I’ve come to see the push for “free markets” also as a symptom as much as the underlying disease. I think much of the free market-Randian philosophy was pushed because it was convenient to the monied classes who detested the New Deal and wanted to regain their plutocratic hold on society. But the public still had to be susceptible to that siren’s song. Given the incredibly bloody and destructive history of the first half of the twentieth century, why did the public fall so easily for the likes for Hayek, Friedman, and Rand? Why did the American public fall so easily for the Democratic cabal that replaced Henry Wallace with Harry Truman, and ended the party’s commitment to FDR’s Four Freedoms and economic reforms?

        Much of American cultural history reflects a swinging from collective action to rugged individualism atop a platform of anti-intellectualism and millenialist thinking. The higher sense of a collective ethics for a democratic culture that came after the Revolution The gave way to the Jacksonian populism and westward migration starting the 1830s. The Civil War and Reconstruction ideas of social justice and union collapsed in the face of the Gilded Age, which then itself swung back to the higher ideals of the populist and progressivist movements of the early 19th century that fell, in turn, to the laissez-faire mentality of the Roaring ’20s. Perhaps that’s the price of a democracy–balancing one’s freedom of thought and relative freedom of action with the responsibilities to society needed to maintain its democratic foundation.

        I also think part of that answer is that the war propaganda of Americans fighting for “freedom” corroded the collectivism that had started to take root in the 1930s as the Depression ground on. In 1943, then U. Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins gave a series of lectures at LSU on the need for reform in higher education (published in the volume Education for Freedom). In a speech titled “Education at War”, Hutchins’s argued that in using terms like “freedom” so casually and thoughtlessly, Americans were losing sight of what we were fighting for. As American colleges and universities abandoned the classical approach of introducing students to the great philosophical ideas of Western culture, instead focusing more and more on material gain, American students were losing sight of that “freedom” required intellectual and ethical discipline. Without that discipline, Hutchins argued, we would lose sight the good life as one that seeks wisdom, justice, and equality–the common good as much as the personal good:

        “Freedom from discipline, freedom to do nothing more than pursue the interests that the accident of birth or station has supplied may result in locking up the growing mind in its own whims and difficulties.”

        Without cultivating intellectual discipline, we are prone to intellectual and ethical relativism; all thoughts and ideas are reduced to mere opinion; force then becomes the only arbiter of differences; “right is on the side of the heavier battalions.” “Justice is the interest of the stronger.” Our lack of clarity of moral thinking and principles leaves us “like confused, divided, ineffective Hitlers.” He goes on to note:

        “In a contest between Hitler and people who are wondering why they shouldn’t be Hitlers the finished product is bound to win.”

        After the War, as Vance Packard describes so well in The Hidde Pursuaders, the nation was gradually lured into the very trap described by Hutchins. As the generation who really lived through the Depression got older and their memories faded, our politics and culture became dominated by those born during the Depression and the Boomers, whose memories really started after the War, with our propaganda of Hutchins’s empty “freedom” ringing in their ears. Gradually, we replaced the idea of colletive action to reach the ideals of wisdom, justice, and equality, with the illusion that all of these things could be reached effortlessly if the government would just leave all of us alone. And our would-be plutocrats smiled.

        1. jake chase

          It all boils down to the triumph of propaganda over thought.

          All of our institutions are subservient to big money, and they have been since 1791, except for brief interregnums only one of which occurred after 1865.

          In 1932 we elected a President who surprised everyone, possibly including himself, by addressing some (but definitely not all, particularly including monopoly) of the problems associated with Big Money. It has been said that he did this to attack JP Morgan and shift scrutiny away from his patron, Rockefeller, who hated Morgan as much as he loved money. FDR’s attachment to Rockefeller may also explain his determination to involve America in WWII.

          In any case, the War ended the Depression (even if the New Deal didn’t), and Big Money quickly climbed back into the saddle, hiding behind a trumped up bogey of Russia to erect the National Security State. Once Russia collapsed it needed a new bogey. Enter ‘terrorism’, which justifies perpetual war in which you don’t even need an identifiable enemy.

          To see American politics in any sense grounded in ethics is to misunderstand American history to an extent which would be shocking if anybody was still capable of being shocked.

          1. from Mexico

            jake chase says:

            It all boils down to the triumph of propaganda over thought.
            All of our institutions are subservient to big money, and they have been since 1791…

            Ah yes. The manifesto of the New Left.

            It is, as Robert Huges wrote in a book by the same name, one of the pillars of the Culture of Compaint.

            “For these theorists,” Huges observes, “all human life was ruled by repressive mechanism embedded, not in manifest politics, but in language, education, entertainment — the whole structure of social communication.”

            “The intellectual, under these conditions,” Hughes continues, “is thought to be as helpless against power and control as a salmon in a polluted stream, the only difference being that we, unlike the fish, know the water is poisoned.”

            Huges adds:

            It would be difficult to find a worse — or more authoritarian — dead end than this. John Diggins, in The Rise and Fall of the American Left, put it in a nutshell: “Today the intellectual’s challenge is not the Enlightenment one of furthering knowlege to advance freedom: the challenge now is to spread suspicion. The influence French post-structuralism enjoys in American academic life…answers a deep need, if only the need to rationalize failure.”… It is mostly an enclave of abstract complaint.

            — ROBERT HUGHES, Culture of Compaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America

          2. jake chase

            Mexico, you and this guy Hughes (who I never heard of, because I would never read anything called the Culture of Complaint- I find Christopher Lasch boring enough) may keep blaming the Left for not committing suicide. Go ahead, cross over the border, grab an automatic and do your Sartre imitation if you want to have an exciting five minutes and your (unrecognizable) picture on the network news. Today your ideas might resonate with twelve other people spread out from Maine to San Diego, and every one of them wants only to be in charge.

            Before people can organize they have to wise up. All they know so far is that the time between fill ups for their SUVs and pickups has shortened, and the equity in their houses has vaporized. They blame this on an avalanche of entitlements and trust that will be corrected by Senator Foghorn and Congressman Claghorn, with the help of Jesus.

            I cannot decide about AA. It’s been a dog for over a year, but it’s so cheap! What do you think?

        2. John

          David, you wrote;
          “I also think part of that answer is that the war propaganda of Americans fighting for “freedom” corroded the collectivism that had started to take root in the 1930s as the Depression ground on.”
          I have asked a million times to a wide swath of the public just what freedoms our military is protecting. I have never received any sort of coherent answer, mostly just moronic stares, as if to say, “why, if you dont know, how can I possibly explain it.”
          The few who do understand propagandas role are able to answer truthfully. Its simply freedom for corporate america to steal resources and labor around the world at will. I do think maybe most of the others understand this also, but they can’t get past their ‘patriotic’ brainwashing far enough to articulate it.

          1. Brindle

            Freedom for many Americans is articulated (heh) as being not being bound or fenced in by government.

            Freedom also is a word used to disguise and defend racism and sexism.

            The words ‘freedom’ and ‘values’ are often used nearly interchangeably, as in “our values are freedom” and having “the freedom to protect our values”.

            It’s all a bit of mush that when stripped away reveals a large reservoir of hostility to other humans, whether they live in your own community or half way around the planet.

      2. Old Soul

        Yves: I am over 60 and I still refuse to accept that “you cannot go after crimes if the elite engage in it.” As an enthusiastic follower of your blog, particularly when it exposes the models and systems by which the FFIs (financial fraud institutions) subvert the fundamentals of the laws against forgery, perjury and fraud on the courts, as you have done frequently with exposing the National Mortgage Settlement–coverup (taken as allowing theft of homes on false paperwork with a 1% tolerance), the OCC’s abrupt settlement of similar fraudulent conduct on the deadline for submission of the complaints upon which findings could be made–coverup, and the excellent recent piece on Wells Fargo document fabrication, please do not underestimate the ability of the honest citizens to oppose the acts of the criminal elite. It has been done before and may be done more powerfully now, as long as we have international information sharing through internet publications, such as yours. While I despair from time to time as courthouse doors swing shut against the citizens exposing the crimes and “the system” persecutes those who seek to expose truth, we must encourage one another to uphold the only values upon which our civilization can be maintained and progress: the simple principle of the Golden Rule.

        I think the real problem is that the monetary system itself is merely a belief system, which can be perverted to reflect the degraded values at this time. Money is a medium of exchange which relects our values. All the elites have is a monopoly to privately create the money supply and try to force us to believe that their private creation of debt is the lawful medium of exchange. This does not have to be believed and cannot long endure. In other words, the ultimate crime is a private, debt-based money system which has hijacked our sovereign prerogative to a debt-free medium of exchange.

        In the process of standing up against the crimes of confiscation of our property and liberty on false debt claims, some will perish in the short-term, but if we use the approaches of Ghandi and King, the purveyors of oppression will not prevail. It took the Dutch 80 years to gain freedom from Spain in the 16-17th centuries and their rallying cry was, paraphrased from William the Silent, “One does not need hope to persevere.” When false hope fails, perservence endures. In other words, we will persevere and endure to “the last syllable of recorded time.”

        1. jake chase

          If he was indeed William the Silent, did they find out what he said by reading lips, psychoanalysis, or what?

      3. from Mexico

        Yves Smith said:

        It’s hard for anyone below the level of a president or a mass leader to have an impact on values. and the ones we’ve had since Reagan (except for HW Bush who was sorta neutral, not much of a bully pulpit type) have all moved the needle in the wrong direction.

        While I certainly agree with that statement, and that it was Reagan who was the first to supercharge the wrongward movement of the needle, I would nevertheless argue that the needle began moving in the wrong direction well before Reagan.

        Johnson, for instance, had a very mixed legacy. But in addition to the Civil Rights laws, he did give us the Vietnam War and sewed the seeds of what Andrew Bacevich calls “the New American Militarism.”

        According to Peter Dale Scott, it was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzenzinski, who first unleashed US police terror on the world in such an unprecedented way. And it was Carter who fired the first volley in the War on Labor, as Christian Parenti explains in Lockdown America:

        The crisis of the seventies was finally dealt with in 1979 when Carter appointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve; it was the opening salvo of a “new class war.” Late in 1979 Volcker dramatically tightened the money supply by boosting interest rates, thus cutting borrowing power and buying power, and diminishing economic activity in general…

        In the eyes of Paul Volcker this was a good thing. For the economic stagnation and low profits of the seventies to be vanquished the American people would have to learn how to work harder for less… As Volcker told the New York Times: “The standard of living of the average American has to decline… I don’t think you can escape that.”

        And who was it that first began the drumbeat of “The virtue of being thrifty, of saving” that Hoexter speaks of above? Wasn’t it also Carter who fired the first salvo in that war with his crisis of confidence speech in 1979?

        As Bacevich recounts of Carter’s speech:

        The nation as a whole was experiencing “a crisis of confidence,” he announced. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” This erosion of confidence threatened “to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

        Americans had strayed from the path of righteousness. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” the president continued,

        too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

        — ANDREW BACEVICH, The Limits of Power

        But the rub is this: at the same time Carter was preaching the virtue of being thrifty and saving to the masses, he ushered in an era in which:

        The wealthy, meanwhile, were enjoying a state-subsidized renaissance. By 1987 Regan had delivered the richest 1 percent of the population a net tax saving of 25 percent, while the poorest tenth of workers saw 20 percent more of their incomes “swallowed by taxes.” The combination of tax cuts, welfare gutting, assaults on labor, and the deregulation of banking and finance created an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 new millionaires and gave “untold added wealth to the nearly 500,000 people who already belonged to that elite circle.”

        — CHRISTIAN PARENTI, Lockdown America

        1. jake chase

          The New American Militarism began with Truman in Korea. That was the opening salvo of the National Security State. Eisenhower was too smart for them; he stuck to golf. Kennedy was smart too, so he went the Garfield route.

          Johnson had spent 30 years as the Senator from Haliburton. What could you expect from him? Nixon was too busy enriching himself to be bothered with foreign affairs. All he did was cozy up to the Chinese and the Saudis and enrich the bankers and oil men. Carter was so dopey he probably believed half the things he said, but Reagan didn’t do anything but read what his writers wrote for him. After all, he had never done anything else, right? I’ll stop there. What could I say about the last four guys that wouldn’t be an understatement?

        2. the idiot

          I agree with this from Yves. There is no such thing as trickle down morality.

          “It’s hard for anyone below the level of a president or a mass leader to have an impact on values. and the ones we’ve had since Reagan (except for HW Bush who was sorta neutral, not much of a bully pulpit type) have all moved the needle in the wrong direction.”

          1. Carla

            “There is no such thing as trickle down morality.”

            Then it’s going to have to spring UP, from below.

            Someone earlier in these comments said something to the effect that if you haven’t learned “ethics” by the time you go to college, you shouldn’t expect to learn it there.

            However, the much-maligned and ridiculed liberal arts teach a great deal about living an ethical life, without preaching it. In the quaint study of great literature and art, music, philosophy and history, we begin to glimpse the grandeur and the tragic failings of the human soul. Some of us continue that investigation, even after “graduation.”

            But I don’t think you get that in B-school…

            Many thanks to Yves for her remarkable work on this blog.

    2. anon y'mouse

      sounds like “tl/dr” to me.

      you can’t be truly serious. rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic all you want. if you have a system of incentivizing bad behavior in the way that is fully outlined above, those who excel at it will naturally come to power.

      the creme/scum will continue to rise to the top. this is just like locking up the corner drug dealer, when one knows full well that the punters never go away and there are many other enterprising individuals who will avail themselves of one fewer competitor on the street.

      the problem is a systemic one. unfortunately, it seems to be tied up with our entire civilization and has been evolving for a few thousand years now.

  3. David Lentini

    From the Wikipedia article on The Great Learning:

    The Way of the Great Learning involves manifesting virtue,
    renewing the people, and resting in supreme goodness. (…)
    大學之道在明明德,在親民,在止於至善 (…)

    The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the
    world, first ordered well their own States.
    Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.
    Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.
    Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.
    Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.
    Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge.
    Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

    Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
    Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
    Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
    Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.
    Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
    Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.
    Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.

    From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must
    consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. (…)
    自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以修身為本 (…)

    1. ArkansasAngie

      It’s called moral hazard and it isn’t some quaint concept that isn’t applicable any more.

    2. Susan the other

      The Chinese version of the Shakers, Quakers, Puritans, Mormons, even men of the Enlightenment in 1776 – like all of them – but without the Calvinist imperative to create prosperity with their own work ethic. Once again it’s the group in conflict with the individual – even with this analysis of macro v. micro ethics.

      This is a good start. Let’s decide what we actually want to be as a society. And prioritize our list. Keeping in mind that social movements that go along and get along survive better even tho’ they are vulnerable to corruption. The Mormons are very practical and they are still doing well. The Shakers were also very practical, in terms of work and industriousness, but somehow their sociology was too elaborate. They were overtaken by history because history embraced a more forgiving ethic. We might want to look at a positive model: a minimum-well-being lifestyle, and living below that level will not be allowed as a reflection of our most important ethic. If that is the trump suit, and if it is well defined, a lot of other tricks fall into place. Including safeguards against exploiting the environment. Right now all we do is analyze and pontificate about poverty but we do very little to stop it.

      1. David Lentini

        The Shakers were also very practical, in terms of work and industriousness, but somehow their sociology was too elaborate. They were overtaken by history because history embraced a more forgiving ethic.

        I live near several old Shaker communities, and I love visiting them. And Mother Ann’s writings are quite interesting. But I think what really doomed the movement was not a severe ethic so much as sex and money.

  4. the idiot

    I grew up in a strict religious right-wing home where ethics and morality were a type of currency. But the disconnect I always saw when it came to macroeconomics was always a befuddlement to me. We were taught to give to the poor and needy as individuals, but doing it as a collective country or people or government was met with hostility.

    Is this a case of the the “moral majority’s” ethics being sacrificed for the Republican parties economic goals? Perhaps, and perhaps they are just hypocrites. The successful, free-enterprising, type-a, workaholic, rich Christian businessman or woman, and the example of Jesus I learned when I was a growing up were polar opposites to me. But I really think it doesn’t occur to the average religious person in the States to base their economic world view on their moral world view.

    It was as if economics and economic policy and even politics had become a separate part of life that the religion and ethics never informed. This duality hurt the very people that these churches probably could have made the most headway with. Recently Ralph Reed tried very hard to make the case that Jesus was a capitalist. Ralph Reed is an idiot, but I realized that hearing somebody try to make such a stupid case was so rare because most people in the States don’t think their ethics and their economic beliefs have anything to do with each other. And they are worse for it.

    1. Really?

      Ralph Reed is an idiot, but I realized that hearing somebody try to make such a stupid case was so rare because most people in the States don’t think their ethics and their economic beliefs have anything to do with each other. And they are worse for it.

      Pretty damn wise for an idiot – although you probably shouldn’t be drawing Ralph Reed into the fold (“Ralph Reed is an idiot…”) in that case. Perhaps we need more idiots today? We act unashamedly selfishly because our economic beliefs, which rules our religious beliefs, informs us that greed is good and god loves winners. Small wonder. Sounds like a piss poor conception of god to me.

  5. Break80

    “Macroethics” has been part of the Catholic Social teaching from the beginning. In fact, any Aristotelian-guided ethic will involve a conception of the common-good and of a social ethic. The problem has been that 100 years of legal enforcement of “privacy” has resulted in a lack of capacity to think of morality as anything beyond personal, or individual, values. Think of how the law of privacy, from abortion to the current gay marriage litigation, has short-circuited the type of social discussion of the common good and what is necessary for human flourishing needed in order to have a real “macroethic.”

    1. anon y'mouse

      how do you square forcing your particular morality about personal matters with negating someone’s free will?

      it isn’t up to you to save the individual person from their actions, and as hard as it is for you to accept, most people who choose those actions have a moral code closer to yours than you want to believe. much immorality is born out of poverty, hopelessness and an environment that shows no one any respect unless they have ‘earned’ it through conspicuous material wealth.

      as for impersonal, legal concepts and procedural details to carry out the ‘business’ of living, from corporations to businesses, as others here have said it better: do they serve the people, or are the people supposed to serve them? is money and power our god, or do they just operate for us while we work towards our individual conceptions of god/godhood? i don’t think you can ever get away from the fact that people’s ideas of what god is or what striving towards that is are going to be as different as they are. unless you want to clone us all to have the same body, and mind and pump us out in graded classes a la Brave New World or something to ensure as little variation in thinking as possible.

  6. from Mexico

    While this analysis is light-years ahead of a neoclassical anaysis, it is nevertheless a manifesto of neo-Platonic dualism, which was reborn in the Cartesian “Mind-Body dichotomy.” This Cartesian dualism, according to Stephen Toulmin, is what became “the chief girder” in the “framework of Modernity.”

    Neo-Platonic dualism asserts that man can be cleaved into two parts. One half consists of a material, reasoning, economic man. The other half consists of a spiritual, emotional, irrational and moral man. These two then do battle with each other.

    Classical economics accepted the neo-Platonic dichotomy, played up the material, reasoning, economic man and assigned the spiritual, emotional, irrational and moral man a bit part.

    Neoclassical economics also accepted the neo-Platonic dichotomy, but dealt with the spiritual, emotional, irrational and moral man by trying to erradicate him, destroying him root and branch.

    Hoexter also accepts the neo-Platonic dichotomy (i.e, cleaving the policy sphere into two sepatarte realms — “macroeconomic accounting” and “ethics”), but wants to give a greater role to the spiritual, emotional, irrational and moral man, maybe even a more significant role than the bit part he played in classical economics.

    Opposed to those who accept the neo-Platonic dichotomy, however, are those like Martin Luther King who insisted that politics and religion deal with with what he called “the whole man.”

    A great deal of recent scientific research in the fields of behavioral economics, neurosicence, psychology, anthropology and others bolsters King’s view. “Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality,” asserts the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all…. Reason and emotion must work together to create intelligent behavior.” (Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis.)

    The dead giveaway that Hoexter has drunk the neo-Platonic/Cartesian dualistic Kool Aid was his invocation of “collective action problems.” But, as Dan M. Kahan explains:

    The Logic of Collective Action has for decades supplied the logic of public policy analysis. In this pioneering application of public choice theory, Mancur Olson elegantly punctured the premise — shared by a diverse variety of political theories — that individuals can be expected to act consistently with the interest of the groups to which they belong. Absent externally imposed incentives, wealth-maximizing individuals, he argued, will rarely find it in their interest to contribute to goods that benefit the group as a whole, but rather will “free ride” on the contributions that other group members make. As a result, too few individuals will contribute sufficiently, and the well-being of the group will suffer.2 These are the assumptions that dominate public policy analysis and ultimately public policy across a host of regulatory domains — from tax collection to environmental conservation, from street-level policing to policing of the internet.

    But as a wealth of social science evidence (much of it appearing elsewhere in this volume) now makes clear, Olson’s Logic is false. In collective action settings, individuals adopt not a materially calculating posture but rather in a richer, more emotionally nuanced reciprocal one. When they perceive that others are behaving cooperatively, individuals are moved by honor, altruism, and like dispositions to contribute to public goods even without the inducement of material incentives. When, in contrast, they perceive that others are shirking or otherwise taking advantage of them, individuals are moved by resentment and pride to retaliate. In that circumstance, they will withhold beneficial forms of cooperation evenif doing so exposes them to significant material disadvantage.3


      1. Joe Rebholz

        He didn’t knock out any part of Hoexstra’s thesis. Hoexstra’s analysis does not depend in any way on Cartesian Duality, etc. The distinction between microethics and macroethics is very important and most people don’t get it. The goals and rules for the operation and evolution of a “good” or “humane” macro system like an economy (macroethics) will almost always be different from those for microsystems. The rules for running an economy are not the same as the rules for running a household.

      2. from Mexico

        I don’t know. At this point I have a lot more questions than answers. But it seems the gap between the old doctrines and reality is growing too wide for the old fairy tales to be believed any longer.

        It seems to me one of the first things we must do, though, is to ditch the 2500 year-old doctrine of neo-Platonic dualism, which we now know is not factually realistic. We must attempt to apply some of the knolwege regarding humans we’ve acquired over the last two and a half millenia.

        The other thing is the contest between microethics and macroethics is a sideshow. Even though it is light-years ahead of the self-interest axiom, it nevertheless offers no answers to the most transcendent of moral questions, for at least two reasons:

        1) Group selection, as the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes, “does not eliminate conflcit but rather elevates it up the biological hierarchy, from among individuals within groups to among groups within a larger population.” Moral groups do not necessarily extend their blessings outside the moral circle. This might be a disappointment for those searching in evolutionary biology and group selection, that is in scientific materialism, for a universal morality that transcends group boundaries.

        2) And in fact, religious, racial and ethnic groups, as well as groups known as business corporations and nations, are well known for their in-group morality and out-group immorality. This was the basis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

        [T]he facts of man’s collective life easily rob the average individual of confidence in the human enterprise. The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to thier conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man’s group behavior, about which we shall have much more to say later, expresses itself not only in temrs of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolises one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

        1. Joe Rebholz

          I agree with much of what you are saying. The old doctrines are not enough. We must also use all the past and present scientific knowledge we can understand and put together. For one thing the concepts of evolutionary biology are not enough. There is a whole other evolution that has occurred and is now accelerating and that is cultural evolution.

          Yes the concept of ethics turns off many people probably because it is hard for them to think about ethics without thinking about old religious dogma. But actually Hoexstra’s article could be rewritten without any reference to ethics at all. Ethics can be replaced by: Rules we set for ourselves to attain certain goals we set for ourselves. All systems operate according to rules particular to each system. A personal life is one system (a microsystem), an economy is another. The rules we adopt for our personal life come from our culture and of course most of these rules are about how to interact with other people. And for macrosystems the rules are about how organizations are structured and interact with one another and with individuals, what the goals of the macrosystem are or maybe what we think the rules should be in order for the system to attain the goals we somehow agree on. And we need a system to determine the goals (eg democracy).

          So we don’t need ethics. We need cultural evolution to continue in the progressive direction it is now going in (See Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”). And we can all keep pushing cultural evolution in this direction as Hoxstra’s article and most of the commenters here do.

    1. Valissa

      Touché… only I’d say “The dead giveaway that Hoexter has drunk the neo-Platonic/Cartesian dualistic Kool Aid” is the title of this post. “Civilization is Doomed”… ZOMG, not another academic doomer…oy vey…

      Some good doomer cartoons in this collection http://www.grinningplanet.com/funny-cartoons/sustainability-resilience-collapse-cartoons-comics-com.htm

      To SAVE us… who ya gonna call http://smg.beta.photobucket.com/user/KidGrain/media/doomers-1.jpg.html

      Life is a cabaret my friend http://losangeles.bitter-lemons.com/files/2012/05/Doomsday-cartoon-brighter-300×480.jpg

      1. Michael Hoexter

        Actually, this post has a pretty big positive side to it…I’m showing a way how civilization might NOT be doomed. But it requires thought and work…not just sitting back and watching the scene go by.

        1. Valissa

          Michael, I appreciate your efforts and idealism, and many readers of NC undoubtedly will agree with your point of view. It sums up alot of current memes of the righteous green left, and has a certain sermonizing utopian quality which I’m sure many people will quite like. Personally I am not a fan of doomsday attitudes, with or without proposed solutions. Too Manichean for my tastes. I think we all wish for noble and wise leaders, but I have become a realist as I’ve gotten older. I have become an ex-utopian (or maybe a recovering utopian) and I don’t think that political or social change comes out of preaching ethics or morality, whether from the right or left. For more along this line of thinking I recommend John Gray’s book “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia”.

          As a student of history I think that asking/demanding for leaders to be more ethical is a waste of time, and I see no historical evidence that countries, or empires or civilizations were successful or unsuccessful due primarily to the ethics or morality of their leaders. It’s much more complicated than that and heavily effected by the many historical trends of the day. I don’t have the time today to go into more detail, but IMO being realistic about the workings of human nature, institutional inertia, power and money is a necessary basis from which to develop strategies to attempt political or social change.

          1. Michael Hoexter

            The world cannot be trimmed to your or my tastes… that is idealism.. I am suggesting that an ethical attitude is exactly paying attention to the truth…not just the assumed political truth that you claim is foundational. There are natural systems that make that politics possible..natural systems that it requires an empirical attitude to study and include in your analysis…again not idealism.

          2. Joe Rebholz

            We don’t need to talk about ethics. I doubt Hoexstra expects our present politicians to become ethical any time soon. He has produced a list of criteria or rules to measure how well a system (our future system?) is doing etc. and much more.

            This article is profound and important though somewhat abstract. I think it is critical to think in terms of systems almost everywhere but especially in such big and complicated ones as economies, political systems, environment.

            Maybe the article would be better understood if it were recast without using the “old” ethics meme.

          3. Valissa

            Joe, IMO the article is more than somewhat abstract. I have developed an aversion to policy level abstraction, and to the whole process of reduction-abstraction-reification that is so endemic in the academic and policy worlds, because I no longer believe that process is effective for problem solving (I call it PowerPoint Reality). There are so many great ideas out there for new rule systems to “make the world a better place”, such as this post, but the problem I see is getting THERE from HERE. The system we have now is what it is, for better or worse, and cannot be changed whole hog by attempting to institute new rules en masse. Who is going to actually implement these envisioned changes, and how are you going to make them do it correctly? Deus ex machine? This very basic practical issue is NEVER addressed.

          4. Joe Rebholz

            Valissa, Sure the present system is a big problem and paying attention to the present details of corruption, kleptocracy etc. can be and has been very depressing. But for me, Hoxstra gives me a lot to think about what other systems might be possible and ways to think about possible better systems.

            In no way do I believe in utopias. Nothing is perfect. Ever.

            And of course we cannot change to some other system all at once. The only way to get to better systems is to change incrementally, step by step, toward goals enough people agree on (majority?). And of course it can be and almost surely is a big job just to get enough people to agree on goals, etc. It’s not easy or simple or quick. But if we are going to change anything we have to have some ideas, goals we work towards. Hoxstra clarifies much for me.

        2. Joe Rebholz

          Valissa, let me address your specific question: “Who is going to actually implement these envisioned changes, and how are you going to make them do it correctly?”

          First in my view you cannot ever make anybody do anything correctly. We are human. Everything is trial and error. We would go from “here to there” step by step — change something and see if it seemed to get us closer to some goal (eg reducing poverty). If it didn’t work, reverse the change and try something else. This is the only way I see. I don’t believe in any grand theories. It’s gotta be trial and error all the way. This is what we try to do now but we don’t have consistent goals and we often don’t measure whether a change brought us in the direction we had set. Also this has to be an evolutionary process since it cant be done all at once, and thus we can expect goals to change as we go along. This sounds complicated, but as far as I know the only alternative is to do nothing.

          Who would do this? Legislators I hope. But first we have to get our democracy back. I guess that will have to be one of the first steps.

    2. Chris Engel

      Interesting point, I totally missed the implications of what was being used as a basis for his analysis.

      I initially interpreted the collective action problems to asymmetrical information (i.e., not being informed of what the right thing to do is), but now that I re-read it, it seems to actually be about the exact notion of rational-vs-emotional “collective action problems” that is rooted in a flawed dualistic philosophy.

      Excellent input as usual!

    3. jake chase

      For the details about King’s ‘whole man’ you would have to interview God only knows how many women. I suspect they would tell you talk is cheap. Better stick to Montesquieu.

      1. Doug Terpstra

        Yes, let’s not quote any skirt-chasers. Chasing skirts generally invalidates a person perspective on pretty much anything. That leaves out MLK, FDR, the Kennedys, and a host of men.

        OTOH, by narrow microethical conservative standards,
        Montesquieu is an okay quote source:

        “Although contemporary liberal theorists often argue that it is illegitimate to regulate private sexual behavior, the early modern liberal theorist, Montesquieu, takes the opposite view. In Spirit of the Laws , he argues that governments dedicated to liberty ought to legislate sexual morals according to the standards of natural laws and rights.

        “…On the subject of his sexual morals, his essential view is that sexual behavior should be reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and that sexual practices outside of marriage are violations of natural laws, rights, and the political and civil needs of free societies.”


        He also called homosexuality “a crime against nature” and “He denounced homosexual acts as ‘infamous’ offenses meriting “public horror.”

        So I guess it’s safe to quote him.

        1. jake chase

          Keep looking for moral leadership from men who use women like Kleenex. What makes you think a guy who can’t control his own d**k can be trusted with a whole country?

          1. Doug Terpstra

            You’d have to ask the women in question on the control issues, but it seems like an obtuse micro-moral standard for a leadership test. Plus I’m always a bit suspicious of GOP-types pointing fingers at others private lives —ususally as an irrelevant distraction. I always wonder what strange things are hiding in their closets.

    4. Michael Hoexter

      You seem to be generalizing about what my philosophical beliefs are as well as what the overarching framework that this analysis might or might not contain from my use of the words “collective action problem”. I am not adopting Olson’s framework, only the notion that people need to organize in groups to act in concert. My analysis, which is not a complete statement of any philosophy, is compatible with either a dualist or a monistic perspective on the mind-body continuum. If you are a mind-body monist, you could use this analysis to say that most people have in their combined mind-body, a conscience which produces behavior that seems to involve following rules of “good” and “bad”. To note that people have consciences doesn’t mean that that conscience stands outside the body. On a biological level we have both appetitive and inhibitory processes which are built into our physiology. An ethics attempts to organize the appetitive and inhibitory processes to serve what the community of reference believes is “the good” (with which there may be disputes and conflicts).

      Given my own thoughts about these issues as well as the content of this piece, I would say you are jumping to conclusions on very slim evidence.

      1. from Mexico

        Michael Hoexter says:

        You seem to be generalizing about what my philosophical beliefs are…

        Given my own thoughts about these issues as well as the content of this piece, I would say you are jumping to conclusions on very slim evidence.

        Oh really? Then what does this from your post mean?

        Most importantly to introduce such a set of norms via this discipline [a new practical discipline “macroeconomic accounting”] would make it less likely that politicians would ignore, in addition to the popular will, the data of macroeconomics, or at least some future version of economics that is relevant to statecraft, and just as importantly the social and natural sciences overall.

        What we find here is the juxtaposition of the “popular will” with “economics” and the “social and natural sciences overall.” Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what you are saying here: that the popular will on the one hand, and the will of economists and other social and natural scientists on the other, are different? Why should the layman arrive at different priorities than the economists and other social and natural scientists? And why is it “most important” that that the will of the economists and other natural and social scientists not be ignored?

        What you have done is bring us full circle back to Plato’s elitist “natural right” philosophy, which is predicated on neo-Platonic dualism. Rationality is posited as the most important and defining element of human existence, and aristocracy is legitimate because some men are more rational than others, and the more rational (the “philosopher kings” in the vernacular of Plato) should govern and dominate the more emotional and irrational.

        And if that wasn’t enough to confirm your belief in neo-Platonic dualism, this later passage from your post where you juxtapose “technical and analytic solutions” and “rational assumptions and rigorous data analysis” with “ethics” removes all doubt:

        Yet technical and analytic solutions alone will not take the place of better choices on the part of leaders and their technical staff, as well as the choice in the first place to adopt rational assumptions and rigorous data analysis as fundamentals of good policy. Ultimately a public discussion of what is “the good” and what are better means to achieve the good is required to choose and structure technical solutions to our society’s massive challenges. These operations and activities fall under the broad category of “ethics”.

        The thing I find most disagreeable about your post is that, in an era in which technocrats, eurocrats, scientific managers, scientist kings, or whatever you want to call them completely dominate public policy, and the layman and the popular will have been all but excluded, why do you believe it is “most important” that economists and other natural and social scientists not be ignored? Quite the contrary to your take, I think they need to have their wings clipped a bit so maybe they won’t fly so high.

        1. jake chase

          Don’t blame a guy who hasn’t figured out that toadyism pays, and that economics is just theology souped up with equations. Just tell him to read Stendhal and think about Greenspan as Julien Sorel with better luck.

          1. jake chase

            Just go to the public library and start with “A”.

            I knew a guy who did that in high school. He got to “c” by graduation, then went to Yale. I never heard of him again.

        2. Michael Hoexter

          Even in the passages you quote are contradictions of your assertions about “my views”. I would suggest careful reading of the words on the screen to get the basic propositional content before, in addition, attempting to infer what I think. You seem to be using me as a projection screen for your fears…you may feel free to distort what I write but I don’t think that anything of interest will come out of our dialogue here if you do so.

  7. briansays

    and on as single/narrow an issue as gay marriage
    as a story from today shows
    in the words of another blog post

    “So maybe if he had poor people in his family, he’d back raising the minimum wage. If he had sick, uninsured people in his family, he’d back universal healthcare.

    If only conservatives had just an inkling of what the real world is like, maybe we’d finally get somewhere… You can’t buy life experience, I guess.”

  8. Reader2010

    The whole system has been set up for the accumulation of capital. Ethics, according to postmodern philosophical thinking, is a relative thing.

  9. dbak

    The only way to break the grip of money that decides our national policies is to remove the leverage the wealthy have to control our political leaders. All of the high sounding talk about ethics will have little effect as long as running for office costs an arm and a leg. It’s easy to castigate our politicians but if they want to have a say in the affairs of state first they must be elected. I’m sure that most of them start with good intentions but without the funding required they don’t have a chance in hell. Public financing of campaigns might not be a cure all but it couldn’t be worse in what we have now. I’m always supprised that that so few of the suposedly sophisticated commentators on this blog never mention this.

    1. JEHR

      Your topic about money in politics has been mentioned on NC many, many times. The comments here are referencing the article that they have just read which isn’t about money in politics.

    2. jake chase

      You think they start with good intentions? I think they start with one intention: self aggrandizement, and settle for getting rich.

  10. kevinearick

    Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

    You may not know that the insurance companies divvy up consumers by demographic category. Like every other industry, it’s a monopoly computing itself. Have you ever spent a few minutes listening to Buffet? He tells you straight up that the only business is building the monopoly on the margin. The only difference between the USA and the USSR was the expansion rate of misdirection, the acceleration rate of make-work, courtesy of Hollywood, global advertising, and dc technology.

    America, like every other empire before it, is a feudalistic society based upon patronage. The resulting occupations are called jobs, for which the majority is always screaming for more. At the end of the day, however, somebody somewhere has to do some real work to make the system spin, and economic slavery only slows down the empire discharge, until it doesn’t. When was the last time you saw the work ethic being rewarded?

    Gavin Newsom is just the latest government whore to tell the rentier REIT, affordable housing, oxymoron, make-work robots on drugs what they want to hear, and he is being promoted accordingly. Yes, they have found someone dumber than Jerry Brown. They always do. Of course GM workers go out to their cars on break and do drugs. Humans don’t compete to watch machines do stupid.

    Backlash occurs 1 in a billion times, unless external systems funnel it into a subsystem. The empire is a subsystem; it is not all encompassing. The US middle class is contracting accordingly. After protecting the emperor all these years, the emperor is discarding it for another, same as always. If you want a job, go to where the jobs are. Otherwise make something useful out of all the crap currently being discarded.

  11. from Mexico

    jake chase says:

    You need to spend more time with LeBon, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Crowds are manipulated by emotional appeals, not motivated by reason. Crowd opinion will always be wrong.

    What you are regurgitating here is the subtext of Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary, The Century of the Self.

    Let me cite the following from Scott Noble — a dissident, independent filmmaker who isn’t on the corporate dole — to knock that ball back at you:

    There was a great review of The Century of the Self published by Media Lens. In it, the author quotes a passage from the film:

    “Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

    The critic goes on to state:

    “As you’ll know, if you’ve read Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s study of the period, Alex Carey’s work, and countless books by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, and many others, this could not be further from the truth. Post-1945, as now, the real fear of politicians and planners was the existence of dangerous +rational+ desires and fears – popular desires for equity, justice and functioning democracy; popular fears that unbridled capitalism and militarism would once again lead to horrors on the scale of the two world wars. Freud’s theories were incidental – useful in refining traditional methods of popular control perhaps, but a sideshow.”

    In Curtis’ film, Bernays is presented more as a cause than effect. In reality he was joined by all sorts of other like-minded mind managers from the time period: scientists like John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, for example, and Ivy Lee, the unsung hero of embedded journalism, crisis management and the press release. Public relations evolved as a means of rescuing corporations from the wrath of public opinion, most notably in response to events like the Ludlow massacre.


    1. VincentP

      Of course, the real causes of the holocaust (and all wars) are deeply rooted in child abuse (not just of Hitler, but of the whole German culture). Hitler’s father was a cruel angry man who beat Adolph regularly. At the age of 10 Adolph was in a coma for a week due to one of these episodes. Adolph sang in his church choir, loved to paint and wanted to be a priest. His father refused to allow him to follow his wishes and told him he must join the military. Stalin had a similar life. His father had broken most if not all of his bones at least one time. Stalin wanted to be a writer, sang in his church choir with similar intentions of becoming a priest. And yet again the father said no.. he was to be in the military. Check out DeMausse’s The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust for more on this:


      “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.”

      Its so funny; people talk about ethics as being the solutions to the problems of humanity, but nobody wants to look at (or discuss) the actual root cause of so many of the problems we face: the horrific and unceasing abuse of children. I implore anyone interested in this absolutely critical issue to explore DeMausse’s work. I think you, like myself, will find it absolutely shocking.

    2. jake chase

      Sorry, Mexico, I can’t regurgitate films I never saw or books I haven’t read. This guy thinks those planners (whoever they were) were on the up and up? They just understood Freud (actually LeBon) was useful for crowd control. Of course they feared democratic demands. Their weapon of choice has been propaganda, and, here’s the thing: it works!

      1. Really?

        Me thinks ‘from Mexico’ needs to spend a bit more time living and bit less time reading, if that’s what he actually does.

        Effete? If the shoe fits. No apologies this time.

        Although, I must say, I’m impressed by the quotes. And I do enjoy the nearly constant intellectual upbraiding (implied or otherwise) too. God knows, some of us need it. WHIP ME sir, for I’m an intellectual midget before ye!

        Oh shit! Here I go again. Into time out again!

        1. Chris Engel

          I think he’s an absolute treasure on the discussions here.

          I seriously have gotten at least four books from the references he makes here, and downloaded another three.

          It’s fascinating how the history of thought weaves into current values and principles of societies and people. It helps put things into perspective with a guy that has that kind of encyclopedic knowledge in a subject area.

  12. Jim

    Michael Hoexter:

    When you use the terms macroethics and microethics aren’t you really talking about the role of culture in a particular society.?

    And when we are discussing culture aren’t we also evaluating the degree to which individuals in a particular society are internalizing the particular cultural norms( of what one may or may not do) of that particular society.

    If one assumes that our individual psychological development occurs primarily through a socialization process then isn’t a large part of our internal psychological repertoire obtained from our culture rather than being innate.

    Shouldn’t your post title be reformulated as: Without an effective culture our society may be doomed?

    My guess as to why your formulated your title and analysis in the way you did is that you believe that reason can provide its own normative guidance without needing to rely on the cultural traditions in which your particular reason is situated.

    Do you believe that it is possible to adopt a reflective position prior to the very cultural traditions of which you are a part?

    1. Michael Hoexter

      “Culture” is too inclusive a term for the distinction I’m trying to highlight here by using the terms microethics and macroethics. Culture includes both micro- and macro-ethics but doesn’t take account of the specific challenges associated with interacting with and changing the large scale systems that only emerge when cultures produce (complex) societies. In complex societies, you start to have leadership groups, structures of accountability of those leadership groups, and various specialists who deal with constructing and maintaining the various sub-systems in the complex society. “Culture” includes both hunter gatherer cultures, peasant society cultures, and the cultures of complex industrial societies, some of which have become so systematized and influence by technology and bureaucracy that they don’t appear to their participants as cultures.

      So I would say that using the word “culture” papers over the problem of recognizing the ethics involved in interacting with and influencing large-scale systems.

      1. JTFaraday

        Well, it is true that “culture” is a term that is used primarily in Anthropology in the university system, so I can see how one might associate it with the small, “primitive” and “pre-modern cultures” that anthropologists initially took as an object of study.

        That doesn’t mean ostensibly more complex modern “societies,” the word preferred in the study of European culture(s), don’t have a culture.

        Nor does it necessarily mean that bureaucracy eliminates culture. It could be that bureaucracy enforces culture.

        In fact, the disciplinary distinction originally drawn in the study of modern western cultures in Sociology Departments and primitive, pre-modern cultures in Anthropology Departments would seem to do exactly that.

        1. JTFaraday

          On second read, I see you basically agree with us that complex societies have “culture.” So, I’m not sure why you object to Jim’s use of the word.

          1. Michael Hoexter

            It’s not an “objection” to using the word culture…I just think that the word culture needs to be supplemented when talking about large scale societies with an acknowledgement that those cultures contain enormous systems..systems that take on a life of their own… So this piece is not just about having a more effective culture as was the original comment above but a culture that deals specifically with macroethical issues related to maintaining, changing and disrupting systems. So if we just left it at “culture” an important element would be lost.

    2. JTFaraday

      I’m inclined to suspect along lines similar to that of From Mexico, above, that this exercise in thinking about micro/macro economics/ethics is leading in the direction of a dictatorship of the Economist King and, further, that this economist king looks a little like Lord Keynes.

      I also agree with you that this is a deeply cultural matter. Lord Keynes’ style economics seems to be all about continually creating and recreating an economistic culture within which everyone’s primary purpose in life is working their way out of poverty.

      I’m not dissing His Holiness, Lord Keynes, in particular here. A product of his culture, I’d say this kind of moralism constitutes at least 90% of Anglo-American (not “Calvinist”) “ethics-morality” over the past 200+ years. Karl Polanyi came to basically the same conclusions in arguing for “protectionism” and I like many aspects of his economic analysis.

      This excellent article discusses this Great Moral(istic) Conflict of our Times between “conservative” and “liberal” economistic liberalism in a way that speaks to Hoexter’s micro/macro framing:


      It is an interesting question to consider if you countered the Economist Kings of all stripes and opened up politics to the public, as the never fulfilled promise of our American democracy suggests we should, if they would manage to evade this economistic moralism.

      I’m inclined to think they wouldn’t, and you’re right that this is a cultural matter. We see this at every single Presidential nominating convention, in both political parties, where our politicians drag out that old hoary economic hag, “The American Dream.”

      I do think that people want “work life balance,” however, and I think that requires some other framework that permits us to expand the 10% morality that evades both work and “economics” and which may enable us to better speak to life.

      1. JTFaraday

        On second thought, maybe I am picking on Keynes and Keynesianiam a little bit.

        To the the extent that they continually center their morality on “work,” it seem to me they inhibit the other side of the work-life equation.

        I guess I do like Polanyi a little better than your typical “Keynesian” on this count, as he points out that the protectionist response to self regulating market “utopianism” was a diverse effort to protect the earth and people from its destructive effects.

        He also points out that some of the premier “protectionists” were capitalists out to protect their concrete business interests from their own theories, or at any rate, the theories of the economists.

  13. Westcoastliberal

    We live in a nation that massacres innocents on a regular basis with helicopters and drone strikes. And when anyone steps up to shed light on this holocaust (Bradley Manning for one) he/she is suicided, imprisoned, or at the very least ostracized for their efforts.
    While I appreciate the idealistic nature of these posts, the idea of “might for right” instead of “might makes right” has long been subverted in our culture. Keep in mind the U.S. is the only nation thus far in history to use nuclear weapons.
    What it may take to get back on the right path is beyond my ability to determine, however it just may be impossible without some cataclysm or unforeseen event that destroys most of our civilization. It will be up to the survivors to consider the ethical nature of society moving forward.

  14. mac

    I am not religious person, but the 10 commandments if you skip the Religion parts make a very good start on ethics.
    This issue is not as complex as many seem to want to make it.

    1. Piltdown Man

      Yeah, I seem to recall that something like 99.6506% of the world’s population has signed onto a specific set of ethical rules that apply to people interacting with supra-individual systems. Funny that it didn’t come up, since what you might call the whole frickin world has been beavering away at it for 70 years now. So I’m not too worried it’s impossible. It’s more like somebody coughUSAcough has been fighting it tooth and nail, by subverting it and by erasing it from national consciousness with immersive indoctrination. This indoctrination may explain why technocratically-trained Americans reinvent this wheel over and over. It’s like you’re inventing triangular wheels and square wheels and pentagonal wheels and icosahedral casters and elliptical sledge rollers, while carts are going by a hundred times a day. You have no idea how weird it looks.

    2. Really?

      How about something like this:

      1. Don’t screw over your fellow other humans for personal gain. PERIOD. EVER.

      2. Don’t screw over your fellow animals for personal or species’ gain. PERIOD. EVER.

      3. Don’t screw over the plant or material environment you live in for personal or species’ gain. PERIOD. EVER.

      4. This is actually number 1. Everyone on planet Earth shares a common fate, although few are wise enough to realize it. Do what you will to one another, but realize that in the end you do it to yourself as well.

  15. Hugh

    Social purpose, that is what kind of a society we want for ourselves and each other, is the necessary base for any macroethics. Think about it what does it mean to act in a macroethical fashion other than to accomplish in a good and relatively efficient way this purpose.

    More than this, Hoexter is constructing a system that looks a lot like more and better elites with measures that are as abstract as they are unnecessary. It is we the people who will build the society we want for ourselves and each other, not elites. Therefore, we don’t need a macroethics for elites because we don’t need elites. We can see whether we are on track for the society we want by what is happening in our own lives and those of our friends and neighbors. We do not need a macroethics of the onhigh. What we need is to sustain the commitment we make to each other and our sense of participation and investment in building a fair, decent, and equitable society.

    1. Really?

      It is we the people who will build the society we want for ourselves and each other, not elites. Therefore, we don’t need a macroethics for elites because we don’t need elites. We can see whether we are on track for the society we want by what is happening in our own lives and those of our friends and neighbors. We do not need a macroethics of the onhigh. What we need is to sustain the commitment we make to each other and our sense of participation and investment in building a fair, decent, and equitable society.

      Or, simply: Do what you will to one another, but realize that in the end, you do it to yourself as well. Golden rule, or something like that? SHIT! I wish I’d have thought of that!

      ‘from Mex?’

    2. Michael Hoexter

      It’s easy to be an anarchist as an anonymous commenter on the internet. It is less easy to actual defend that position with your real name in actual writings.

      Leaders exist and need to be held accountable. I don’t think I have made clear enough in this piece that macroethics is something that must be broadly shared by the population in order to be effective. It is not the property of a club of an elite… It is the means by which the people can hold leaders accountable to a shared ethic.

      But the behavior of leaders matters…that is why it is extra important to focus on the role that people in leadership positions do. If you have invented a functioning leaderless complex society, you would probably be famous by now…

      1. Hugh

        Apparently, I hit a nerve. Anonymity is one of the democratizing elements of the internet. It isn’t about who you are here, but the quality of your thoughts which counts.

        You can not detach yourself from elite thinking. In elite dominated societies, alternatives which do not require elites and which are not validated by them are shut out. So you propose this interesting Catch-22. Those of us who do not seek or care for fame can not have valid alternatives because we do not seek or care for fame, a fame which in our current system in the here and now would come only when it was validated by the very elites it challenges.

        It is not anarchism to be a small “d” democrat. It is not anarchism to be populist. If we are clear about what our social purposes are, we have no need for a macroethic. We have no need to maintain a privileged elite class which can game this macroethic just as they game everything now.

        There is also this assumption, fostered by our elites, that knowledge is only held by them, that they are absolutely necessary to any solution. What we know, in fact, is the opposite. They created and serve this kleptocracy we live under. Their claim of knowledge is just an excuse to do evil. This does not invalidate knowledge, just their false dominion over it.

        1. Michael Hoexter

          You applied the term “elite” to my post and saw it as a piece of elite boosterism…it was a misreading of it or at least the intention of the piece. So I corrected you. If you would like to flatter yourself that “hit a nerve”…that is up to you and your own assessment of your own reading abilities.

          I have noted that you (or maybe the other people who comment here under the pseudonym “Hugh”) specialize in ad hominem attacks in your comments, at least on my pieces. You always make a point of using my quite unusual last name in your comments and then attaching it to some statement about how I am part of the problem and not the solution. In my mind these are often misreadings of me and my intentions if not the actual words on the screen. Yet I or others are not free to criticize you similarly…putting you in a position that appears to be moral cowardice. You are putting practically zero on the line in terms of a reputation yet seemingly attempting to smear me with your fears and prejudices. And or, in the manner of a troll, attempting to provoke me, which your “hit a nerve” comment suggests is your intention.

          As to the content of your comment, in order for the people in a democracy to have real traction with the direction of policy and the government there must be something like a social contract, which is a type of macroethic. You can call leaders elites or you can call them not elites but they are still up there in power and the people need to be able to get them to do things or hold them accountable based on things like reputation and conscience. Social movements run on macroethics in my opinion…you might want to invent another word. If in your reading of a what a democracy is this isn’t necessary, you are going to have to re-write a whole bunch of political theory, which will take you a long time.

          1. Hugh

            I think you are trapped by the limitations of your own constructs. Like a fish in a fish bowl, the world ends at the surface of the bowl and the fish can not conceive of anything except in terms of it own private fish bowl. Your language is littered with neoliberal holdovers. For you, “being in power” is severable from the social purpose which created that power and needs a “macroethic” to keep it under some semblance of control. I say no. Social purpose should be welded to the power which it creates. That union should be manifest at every point and in every action both to those who use that power for a little while and those who create it.

            It is precisely in the space created by the separation of power from social purpose that self-serving elites form and take root. So basically, I disagree with your whole calculus of power.

            For the rest, as I said, it should be about the ideas. I am not sure what reputation means anymore in thoroughly discredited fields like economics and politics. What does it mean to be validated and credentialed by charlatans, indeed the very people who have done so much to create our current problems? If that is reputation, I can live without it. As for my reputation on the web, I am quite comfortable with it. And this gets to a final point. I do not think you have done your reputation any favors reacting as you have. If you are lucky, not very many people will read this exchange.

          2. Michael Hoexter

            Hugh, well if it IS about the ideas, your style of commenting is quite personalized, again behind the cover of anonymity. So you are contradicting your professed intentions within a few paragraphs of each other.

            I am quite happy with what I have written here…you again, in the manner of a troll, seem to be taunting me from behind the veil of anonymity. If you think of yourself as a moral person, which you seem to, you should give up this style of commenting and instead first understand what is written and then engage with the ideas…that is if you want a dialogue here.

            Otherwise, if you don’t want a dialogue with me because you deem me or other writers here to be “part of the problem”, I would encourage you to write a blog post length piece about your ideas about “social purpose” and “kleptocracy” and ask Lambert or Yves to publish it here. You cannot expect others to use your language or ideas if you are not willing to brave putting them out there for others to comment on.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        To the narrow point of anonymity (or, more precisely, the use of handles) on the Internet: I seem to recall that the Federalist Papers were authored by one Publius….

        1. Michael Hoexter

          I don’t think the Federalist Papers were primarily devoted to attacking someone else’s ideas or reputation. “Hugh” seems to specialize in ad hominem attacks, at least in his comments on my pieces. So not all anonymous contributions to discourse are equally admirable…

  16. dbak

    A commentator rebukes me for straying off the theme of this article stating it was not about money in politics. But despite all the the flowery talk about ethics by the regulars who participate in this blog they miss the basic point. I’ve heard of so many opinions that wander all over the map that it’s not supprising there is no coherent approach to solving what ails the country. We need to focus on a single issue at a time, and what would be better than the corrosive effects of money in politics?

  17. F. Beard

    Let’s get real. Our money system is based on stealing the poor’s and other less creditworthies’ purchasing power and lending it out for usury.

    From the Bible:

    1) “Thou shalt not steal.”
    2) Deuteronomy 23:19-20.
    3) The Lord takes a very dim view of oppressing the poor and has destroyed nations for that sin.

  18. cripes

    I take a very dim view of “leadership,” at least as practised. However, we must find ways to constrain the corrosive effects that power and access occasion in the hands of those people who are privileged to exercise decision-making authority. I’m all for pushing decision-making downward, and when i was able to practice that ethic as middle manager in a human services organization, i can tell you that our success was met by executive “leadership” with vicious re oppression; more concerned with maintaining elite privilege than organizational performance. We have much work to do in this arena.

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