Ethics and Complex Systems

Normally when I write a post, I have a well formed idea of what I want to say, even if I have some uncertainties (I try to make those explicit in case informed readers can shed further light).

Here I am starting a process of working through what amounts to an intellectual intuition. I’ve had these in the past; it’s sort of like seeing something in your peripheral vision. I’ve almost always been able to prove them out. I’m now in what a call the “milling about” stage, where I need to define the scope of the matter better, and gather more information so I can plot a path through the problem. So bear with me.

While this discussion could be enlarged to include certain aspects of legal thinking and political science, let’s stick with economics, since economists remain the only social scientists with a seat at the policy table, and they’ve served as effective propagandists for moving the values of this country in a way that has helped corporations and the top wealthy secure more political and financial advantage relative to ordinary citizens.

The way economists frame and analyze questions make it well-nigh impossible to incorporate matters of ethics. As we discussed in ECONNED at some length, mainstream economics has fetishized the use of mathematics, and consideration of fairness aren’t easily integrated into reductivist models. Even the accepted heresies, like information asymmetry and principal-agent problems, show how markets can fail to deliver desirable outcomes but those sub-optimal results are usually characterized as inefficiencies, not as “unfair” or “bad”. Narrowly speaking, someone who is studying a phenomenon should try to look at results dispassionately.

However, economists in practice want to have it both ways. While their discipline has scientific aspirations, most economists have a clear point of view on what they think the measure of success of economic policies should be, whether it is narrow commercial terms (growth, GDP, interest rates) or broader social outcomes. But even economists who care about the latter (as in they care not just about the level of growth but also how resources are shared), often think of the problem in a combination of distributive and mechanistic terms.

The weakest form of the “greater social welfare” arguments think that the first consideration should be growth and if we have more growth, the distributive problems (who gets how much) are easier to solve. Some who argue more fiercely social welfare oriented policies sometimes do so from a vantage of human dignity, but more often, their arguments are efficiency-based. For instance: poverty leads to poor childhood nutrition, which means they will grow up to be less capable workers; poverty creates cognitive load which makes people function as if they are stupider than they are; poor people are less likely to be able to escape poverty due to lower educational attainment, lack of exposure to settings where they learn the right social cues, etc, and had they been born in a different economic strata, they would likely have been much more successful (waste of human capital).

So another way to think about this problem is that economists effectively put unfair economic outcomes in the same box as externalities like pollution. And just as companies often fight with the public at large over how much pollution is acceptable, so too is there debate over how much unfairness is tolerable. Again, keep in mind that some pundits contend that point of view is nonsensical: any outcome of economic interaction is almost treated as if it were natural and is therefore assumed to be virtuous. Others point out how many actors have or are able to get the rules of the game rewritten in their favor, so looking at results is as important, if nothing else because too much unfairness undermines social stability (witness Arab Spring and our own increasingly frequent mass shootings).

I contend that this perspective is inadequate and in fact has done great harm. Over the course of my life, one of the side effects of the increased infiltration of economic-style thinking into more and more walks of life has been a decline in a sense of social responsibility among what passes for our elites. To the extent that anyone is tasked to see that outcomes are fair, it appears to default to government (food stamps, early childhood education programs, prohibitions agains workplace discrimination, etc). But at the same time, we’ve also been on the receiving end of a forty-year campaign to discredit, co-opt and shrink government. One proof of this pudding is that formerly competent regulators like the SEC and FDA are shadows of their former selves.

The reason the lack of concern with ethics as a focus is that ethics are an important, perhaps the most important, guide for managing complex systems. One of the points that John Kay argues persuasively in his book Obliquity is that most systems are so complex that we cannot map an efficient path through them. He’s taken pairs of companies in the same industry, similarly endowed, one of which focused on maximizing shareholder value, the other which set a richer set of goals which seldom included making shareholders wealthy. The ones with the loftier aspirations also did better for stockholders.

We now live in a world where, at least for those of us in advanced economies, our lives are under the sway of large organizations. We depend on lots of infrastructure that we don’t think about much unless it starts working badly or abuses us: road and transportation systems, water and power utilities, communications and information networks, payment systems, food and clothing providers, to name a few. Many of us also work either directly for large companies or provide services to them. As Doug Smith pointed out in his book On Value and Values, place, as in the community you lived in, provided your most important relationships. Now once you get outside your immediate family, we increasingly interact with other people through networks, organizations, and markets.

It is much harder to discipline bad conduct through systems of weak and transient relationships. The fragmented roles and responsibilities that a world of impersonal transactions, extended supply chains, and short job tenures produce is one ripe for looting. So it should be no surprise that that is what we are seeing on a large-scale basis.

This is another yet to be proven leap, but my gut is that the shift from communities to depersonalized networks and sprawling organizations also increases the risk of collapse. It’s not just that highly interdependent networks, when run for efficiency rather than robustness, will be breakage-prone. I recall being very dissatisfied with the way Jacques Tainter in his book Collapse argued that societal decay resulted from the rising costs of complexity in energy terms. While that’s a persuasive argument, he dismissed all theorists who argued from cultural causes basically as Romantics who were decidedly lacking in rigor. The problem, however, is that Tainter ‘fessed up in an aside that the elites in some societies that started on a collapse trajectory were able to pull themselves out of the nosedive and others failed. Yet Tainter had no explanation as to why. If it wasn’t culture, what was it?

I think the issue here is that highly complex societies don’t simply have rising energy costs, they also have increasingly high information and communication burdens. Those larger spans of control and the difficulties of monitoring make it hard to get incentives right. It’s brutally hard to define rewards and checks well when you have to manage from afar, through reports, infrequent meetings, and results that depend on environmental and competitive conditions, not just skill and effort. There just aren’t good substitutes to the owner who grew up in a business, knows the industry well, knows his people and their job requirements intimately, and can reprimand bad behavior and give rewards based on direct observation.

So the conduct that is promulgated within the systems, both the entity itself and society-wide, is a critically important governor of operations, yet it’s one that has been largely thrown in the wastebin for the last 30 years. And we are reaping the results.

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134 comments

  1. Gerard Pierce

    A lot of what you describe as “highly interdependent networks” was discovered in early software engineering techniques. Back then it was called “tightly coupled systems”.

    One of the ways to reduce system problems was to build routines with one entry point and one exit point and as little decision power as possible within the routine.

    When you build “human” organization under these same rules, you get people with no decision-making power, no flexibility and no understanding of what “policy” originally meant.

    You wind up with an organization that is highly efficient and can’t et anything useful done.

    1. anon y'mouse

      or you get McDonald’s…

      where the cash register tells the cashier to say “good afternoon” to the customer.

      because they can’t be trusted to say that on their own. lord knows they make no other decisions!

      an inactive brain at work seems to be what is being striven for in almost all areas. just solve this task, just press the button when the light flashes monkey. some jobs are a bit more complicated than that, but that seems to be what is being aimed at. no volitional power for the employee. no way to improve the system (suggestions are viewed as unwanted griping/boat rocking).

    2. hunkerdown

      Was that before or after Donald Knuth called premature optimization the root of all evil?

      Was that before or after Conway observed that organizations that produce systems are constrained to producing copies of the organization’s own structure?

      Also, computers don’t socialize unless something’s very wrong.

  2. middle seaman

    I am unsure about my comprehension of this post. What follows is my understanding based mainly on work in complex organizations. Ethics and complex systems or economics remind me of religion and science duality. One can be a great physicist and believe in god. The a great physicist may also be a non-believer.

    Complex systems are a well studied multifaceted field. Some complex systems have distinct behavior. What I gather from Krugman and your posts is the macroeconomics has well established models. Ethics are not part of the complex system; they are another system that coexists with the complex system. Human behavior must enforce Ethics as the infrastructure for the complex system.

    1. WI Quarterback

      The field of study in complex systems has yielded many useful insights, but I would caution that it also has an inherent blind spot if one is not aware of it.

      Much of the field is focused on discovering undesired artifacts of process and outcome typically based on the micro issues of interface and fitness, form, and definition assumption difference between actors in the “system of systems”. The blind spot of the discipline is that is not used enough as a tool for building symptomatology that the philosophies that the systems serve have fundamental flaws.

      Technology can enable philosophies to play out at scales or speeds that were otherwise impossible, therefore revealing flaws that would not otherwise be revealed; and to be fair, might not otherwise be even relevant.

      Complex systems can often have an effect of being ‘Reductio ad absurdum machines’ for the philosophies that our societies our built upon, and therefore dependent upon. We should not overlook the utility of system of systems analysis to provide insights into the potential flaws in the bigger picture assumptions.

      I believe that what we are beginning to observe of undesired economic and social outcomes is less about system of systems artifacts than of the fundamental flaws of capitalism and the thousands of years old concepts of property ownership when these principles are allowed to play out at speed and scale.

      Flaws in fundamental philosophies at sufficiently small scale and speed, can go by unnoticed with imperceptible negative impacts or mere “rounding errors”, but at speed or scale can result in eventual catastrophe.

      What can make these flaws so illusive is that flawed philosophies and systems can serve great purposes and provide benefit and foundation for future development up to the point that their fundamental failings play out. People and societies that have vested interests from past results of the status quo and the (unknown flawed) assumptions that speed and scale will have no impact, will unsurprisingly put up an enormous fight to keep the machine on its present course.

      1. Saddam Smith

        Very well said.

        I’d like to add living systems theory to your wonderful stew and hope I don’t spoil it.

        I think we are now confronted, across the globe, with the impossibility of unwinding and rebuilding now defunct institutions that have co-evolved and bedded down under the influence of multiple erroneous ideologies and core beliefs. In other words, each institution co-evolved in a web-of-life way with underlying, almost invisible world views. They are thus ‘congenitally’ (living systems theory) incapable of being appropriate vehicles for implementing and furthering any ‘new’ philosophy that contradicts their origins and fundemental natures. What is now appropriate or wise in terms of economics, politics, science, etc., can only be perceived as an existential threat by our ruling institutions. Ironically, it is this refusal to adapt which ensures their demise.

        Breakdown must therefore precede needed change.

        The question is how messy that breakdown will prove to be, and how open-minded it makes us.

      2. from Mexico

        Part of the Modernist faith is that science is some silver bullet which will “make man master and possessor of nature by developing a mathematical science that could provide a picture of the true world” and which, in accordance with the humanism, “asserts the independence of the human will and the capacity of man to make himself master and possessor of nature by coming to understand and manipulate her hidden powers” (Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity).

        Of course not everyone buys into this myth. One such person was Nietzsche:

        Thus, though metaphysics is an illusion from the point of view of science, science in turn becomes but another stage of illusion as far as absolute truth is concerned. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche already attacks the scientific optimism of his time under the guise of “Socratism.” The “theoretic man” pursues truth in the delusion that reality can be fathomed, and even purged of evil, by rational thought applications. But faith in the omnipotence of reason shatters, for the courageously persistent thinker, not only on the fact that science can never complete its work but chiefly on the positive apprehension that reality is irrational.

        –GEORGE A. MORGAN, What Nietzsche Means

        This from the historian Joyce Appleby is also germane:

        BILL MOYERS: I’m taken with this sentence from the book. “Passing from amateur passions to sober investigations of biology, geology, and astronomy, [curiosity] upended the grand Christian narrative of the origins of life and the place of our planet in the universe.” With what consequences?

        JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the consequences, I suppose, are you and me.

        BILL MOYERS: A frame of reference, right?

        JOYCE APPLEBY: Right. There’s also a real intellectual difference. Because the enemy of curiosity is dogma. Dogma is certain, this inerrant, “this is truth.” But that’s not true about science.

        Scientists, inquirers, these amateurs, they know it’s a process. And what they’re finding is tentative. It might be replaced or returned by someone, or modified. And I think that’s why today those people who are dogmatic have so much trouble with science. Because they think that science is like dogma. It’s inerrant. They’re saying, “Absolutely that this is true,” when they’re really saying, “This is as much as we know now. But we’re going to know more.” It’s a very different intellectual approach.

        BILL MOYERS: The church was trying, at its best, to protect believers and everyday people from the terrors of the unknown, from hell, from fantastic creatures that occupied the seas. They were trying to protect believers with the safety of dogma.

        JOYCE APPLEBY: And that’s what’s so interesting about the beginning of the science is that they produced a different kind of stability. They produced the stability of, “Well, there weren’t sea monsters out there, maybe there aren’t sea monsters. These fish aren’t going to do something I don’t expect a fish to do.” You know, so that there is a slow replacement of the stability of dogma to the stability of at least knowing something, of having the world friendlier.

        http://billmoyers.com/segment/joyce-appleby-on-curiosity/

        However, the practitioners of science have no special immunities from dogmatism, as another historian, Naomi Oreskes, has amply documented:

        http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtuallyspeaking/2012/04/12/naomi-oreskes-tom-levenson-virtually-speaking-science-1

        1. erichwwk

          “mainstream economics has fetishized the use of mathematics, and consideration of fairness aren’t easily integrated into reductivist models.”

          Another was Kenneth Boulding:

          “Mathematics brought rigor to Economics. Unfortunately, it also brought mortis.”

        2. diptherio

          To the extent that scientific knowledge depends on mathematics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems would appear to ring the death knell for the scientific dogmatists:

          The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” (e.g., a computer program, but it could be any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers (arithmetic). For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems

    2. Banger

      As a student of systems analysis and complex systems I have to say that ethics is a critical in any human system. In economics “self-interest” is an ethical issue–the fact that economics defines self-interest in a way that they believe transcends ethics is simply just another indication of the intellectual weakness of Economics as a field of study.

    3. Susan the other

      I agree, Middle. Your comment, “Human behavior must enforce ethics as the infrastructure for the complex system” is what I got out of Yves’ essay too. And I agree with this completely. But I hate to call anything so streamlined by industrial capitalist corporatocracy “complex.” I think their famous efficiencies are all the result of simplistications. (I think I just made up that word.) Because nothing has been simplified, obviously. In order to simplify all the complexity in modern systems a great deal of complex understanding, and the clear communication of it all, must be achieved. So naturally nobody wants to do that, takes too much time and thought and the contradictions are mind boggling. And if this were actually done, we might produce a model for ethical economics.

      1. anon y'mouse

        yes, your highlights are good.

        ethical economics would require an attitude of abundance and security. that way, subtle coercion can’t take place.

        thinking, coercion in the same way that ethical research with human subjects is conducted. you can’t slily induce coercion by offering something that someone really needs or wants into the equation and then call yourself ethical. you are motivating their participation when it otherwise would not occur.

        or, the blind spot of “free markets” is that one has to be free to not engage. if you’re not free to skip the whole thing and go without (no food without work), then it is an atmosphere of coercion and steps must be taken to redress the balance of power.

    4. hunkerdown

      The a great physicist may also be a non-believer.

      I offer Fred Brooks, project manager at IBM and father of the System/360 mainframe and others. The Mythical Man-Month has a lot of useful and intriguing information and viewpoints on the creation of systems by organizations, if you can get past his Pharisaic piety on every third page.

  3. vlade

    Yves,
    While I agree with some points, my pet theory is that it’s actually much simpler. Ethics, discipline, trust and similar are, in essence, survivorship mechanism. In a small group with mutliple threats, adopting most of them is a must for long-term survival.

    For better or worse, we’re now at point where pure survival is not something one has to worry every day about (in pretty much all of the West, and to be honest, even large part of the whole human population). Thus the corrective mechanisms which worked as enforcements for the above (you died, or put others at risk, which could amount to the same) don’t work anymore.

    Indeed, survival strategy (at least financial, if not literal) in a big centre of population is easier with lack of trust, unethical behaviour etc.

    Put it in one sentence – our society evolved much faster than our psychology (including the good and the ugly). That doesn’t mean we should not strive to change it and match it better, but it’s a long run slog.

    1. from Mexico

      vlade says:

      For better or worse, we’re now at point where pure survival is not something one has to worry every day about (in pretty much all of the West, and to be honest, even large part of the whole human population).

      I disagree. The stakes now are higher than ever.

      Tony Haymet, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, identifies a number of ways in which not only the survival of the individual or the tribe is now in jeopardy, but of humanity and even the entire biosphere as well:

      http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-candles-in-the-dark/tony-haymet

      The need for cooperation, and on a scale heretofore unheard of, is greater than ever. It’s a monumental task, but we should not give up hope and fall into a fit of despair, surrender and defeatism. As the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson consoles us in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society:

      Confront a human group with a novel problem, even one that never existed in the so-called ancestral environment, and its members may well come up with a workable solution.

      1. Saddam Smith

        I agree.

        The scale of the challenges we face is unprecedented, and even though over 99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct IIRC (i.e. extinction is not uncommon), giving up hope is inferior to walking the harder path. To paraphrase Gandhi: be the change you want to see in the world. That way you get to uphold your dignity and honour, and contribute to a (possibly) vastly improved future.

      2. Banger

        Of course you are right. While hunger is not a major danger for most people in this country, malnutrition, disease, particularly stress-related illnesses are increasing not decreasing. We are, as you point out, playing Russian Roulette with the environment and because we haven’t yet clicked on the chamber with the bullet in it–certainly it is like that within the next few decades that just might happen.

        The fact is, we have learned to close our eyes particularly if we live a cushioned life–some of us don’t and are more aware of the wolves that are waiting outside the door.

    2. anon y'mouse

      i disagree with the branding of a system of ethics as merely a subsumed type of rational self-interest.

      that may be why we developed moral codes. but any moral code which merely reinforced what makes us better able to use each other for survival & comfort is reducing ethics to what we already have–a system of incentives.

      ethics would do what is just, regardless of self interest. Kantian ethics asks if you should allow one innocent man to be killed simply to preserve the health, welfare and perhaps social cohesiveness of the greater community. under your proposed way of viewing things, the answer would be that this is justified as it aids survival of the group. an individual might be able to make the self-sacrificial choice, but our society has already gone down the road of justification of harm-doing to some being acceptable in the name of advancing the “common” good.

    3. Paul P

      Society evolved faster than our psychology.

      We’re running 21st Century software on ancient hardware–Ronald Wright. The cerebrum evolved faster than the medulla oblongata.

      Superimposed on our complex society is the psychology of tribalism. Us verses them. We sacrifice our young, cooperate in waging war, and do it without question. We also commit atrocities on a massive scale in the name of our tribe, and the endeavor involves cooperation and sacrifice.

      I remember a panel of Vietnam Invasion national security intellectual policy makers held at Georgetown Law School. When Daniel Ellsberg’s name came up during questions, the panel acted with a collective disgust and dismissal, moving on without having addressed the question.

      How dare the whistleblower speak the truth? How dare someone try to insert ethics within the fierce bonds of market theory? How dare one expose market theory to falsification?
      The tribe does not allow such action.

      I don’t know whether tribalism comes up later in the string, but I thought I’d mention it now, as I have to go.

      This discussion has me jumping around like a kitten chasing a ball.

  4. AllanW

    Congratulations on the lucidity of your post on this most important topic, Yves. Sketching the sweep of the terrain to be considered and raising the issues that are paramount is a difficult feat to pull off when considering vast, complex interconnected human systems. Bravo.

    I understand and appreciate all you have written here and applaud it. There are a couple of points you might consider;

    Your comment here; ‘my gut is that the shift from communities to depersonalized networks and sprawling organizations also increases the risk of collapse’ is an important insight but in my opinion an elision of two concepts, one sociological and the other systems-based. Clarifying your thinking might help you burrow closer to fundamental ways forward. Refresh your understanding of ‘alienation’ in the sociological literature alongside that of ‘resilience’ in systems terms and I think you’ll realise that, with the basic component of these systems being individual human beings, empirical data on the psychological basis for behaviour in certain contexts points towards anchoring and mobbing as determining factors. And this kind of consideration should guide any redesigning activity. Resilience to shock can be improved and is a good target to aim for so long as sufficient flexibility for long-term development of social system is incorporated as a rider.

    The other point you might consider relates to your point here; ‘It’s brutally hard to define rewards and checks well when you have to manage from afar’ and in my understanding concerns feedback and control mechanisms. One way forward to help with the problem might be to treat certain sub-systems as black boxes until sufficient understanding of the internal complexities enables a more thorough and confident diagnosis and plan of action. This involves operating in a manner ‘from the outside in’ or being satisfied with only curbing or correcting systems outputs that occur at the unwanted margin, exception reporting and control in other words, rather than micro-managing the detailed circumstances. I’ve found that this approach can get one over the seeming-impasse of ‘not knowing everything there is to know about the contents of the box before implementing action’. I’m not advocating reckless activity just an appropriate use of known tools when they are called-for. To successfully control a black box situation only requires a thorough knowledge of systems inputs and outputs not the most granular understanding of the inner mechanisms of how those flows are produced and allow one to make progress in the absence of full knowledge. An analogy being the ability to design and utilise microwaves in successful technology before we really understood what they were.

    I look forward to the development of this thread.

    1. peace

      Yesterday there was a link “Terror: The Hidden Source by Malise Ruthven New York Review of Books (furzy mouse)” This discussed tribal reaction against the incursion of urban and Western values, mores, laws, and systems of justice. Similar reaction was suggested to occur at the borders between urban / rural areas. I feel that Austin Texas has transitioned from rural values to urban values. Anti “globalization” sentiment among tribes and among tea party folks seems to relate to this too.

      Yes! re: alienation, anomie and related topics. I thought of anomie when reading the above article.

      Apologies for unelaborated post and my only partial reading of this thread (time constraints here!). I hope this helps.

  5. Clive

    I think what is being covered in this feature is an example of a reasonably well known theoretical concept known as Anti-reductionism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antireductionism

    As the name implies, it is a reaction against the self evidently limited (but all too often tested to and beyond breaking point) idea of Reductionism.

    In my view, like tabasco, a little bit of reductionism is a good thing in some cases but too much is unpleasant. I would suggest that always and everywhere, over compliexification (another of my made up words) which is a kissing cousin of reductionism squeezes out ethics because ethical actions or decision making is inherently complex. As ethical behaviour cannot be simplified into a straightforward set of decision trees, it ends up on the cutting room floor of any system which is complicated.

    Theoretical stuff over, moving swiftly on to an anecdote (I’m on much safer ground here). I used to submit requests for grant funding to grant givers who might be willing to support community initiatives for the treatment of addiction. I tried my best but it was demoralising and pretty hopeless so I gave up on it. Some trusts or grant givers adopted a largely “faith based” (not in the religious sense, more in the sense of what seemed to the committee (and it was usually a committee)) decisioning system for what they thought was a good use of their funds.

    But over time, more and more started coming up with a points based scoring system (there were many variants but they all tried to do the same sorts of thing) which attempted to determine what £X worth of funding would product X% worth of “benefits”.

    For drug dependency, the stats are abysmal. Relapse rates are sky high, treatment approaches not standardised, there are many schools of thought about how to help addicts and even more measures about what constitutes a “good” result in treatment.

    The best case I could ever make was more or less an appeal to help ease suffering. A listening ear, a warm place to stay if needed, regular nutrition, information on treatment centres and self help options, links to employment support and so on. Nothing in any of the above could in any way guarantee “recovery”.

    So, I stood no chance at all against, say, a research laboratory with snazzy PowerPoint presentations saying how funding investigations into Wonder Compound Sigma showed signs of changing the face of (insert icky sounding disease here). Either that or generic research, that was always popular.

    Of course, I could have just made stuff up to produce a convincing “numbers” (or “evidence”) based approach. But that would have been, umm, unethical.

    Best example I ever had about how ethical decision making comes unstuck in the face of ridged systematic — “scientific” even — complex approaches to tacking problems.

  6. John Merryman

    This topic covers so many issues, from cultural and ethical, to evolution, physics and natural aging processes. I thought I’d raise a very abstract point that I get into in physics discussions;
    I think we see time backwards. It’s not that the present “moves” from past to future, but that the changing configuration of what is, turns future into past. To wit, the earth doesn’t travel(or flow) from yesterday to tomorrow. Rather tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. The reason different clocks record different times is for the simple reason that they are different actions, in different circumstances. If time were really a progression from past to future, you would think the faster clock would travel into the future quicker, but the opposite is true. It ages/burns quicker and so travels into the past more rapidly. So when you have situations where everyone is rushing about, thinking they are getting somewhere faster than others, it is also just burning through the available energy that much quicker.
    Then there is the fundamental premise of capitalism that money is a commodity, rather than a contract, so that the entire society and environment gets turned into a process of producing ever more of these notational promises, until the whole bubble blows up, at much cost to society and the environment. If people understood money constituted a form of public medium, much like the roads, they would be more careful how they used it, thus returning value back to social connections and environmental health.
    Another issue is monotheism. Logically, the absolute is basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. This goes to the whole top down vs. bottom up debate, yet those running society have long realized it is useful to have this spiritual legitimacy flow down, rather than rise up. The whole divine right of kings, etc.
    When the reset button gets pushed in a big way, these are some of the questions that might be looked into.

  7. Skeptic

    For a long time now, I have believed that Complexity by itself, let alone a lack of ethics, will do in the Human species, just like it is destroying so many species itself.

    One take on this is by Bill Joy, ex chief scientist at Sun Microsystems:

    “As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide. ”

    Many more disturbing observations on Complexity and Ethics by Bill Joy in Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us:
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

    Fukushima and Whirling Derivatives are demonstrations that our ability to create Complexity is spinning out of control. Let alone what goes on behind the closed doors of thousands of mainly unregulated bio and nano tech labs.

  8. DakotabornKansan

    Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, asked what kind of ethic does bureaucracy produce in middle managers? In the context of their jobs, managers had a separate moral code, what he called the “fundamental rules of corporate life.”

    “What becomes of the social morality of the corporation, the everyday rules-in-use that people play by, when there is no fixed or, one might say, objective standard of excellence to explain how and why winners are separated from also-rans, how and why some people succeed and others fail? What rules do people fashion to interact with one another when they feel that, instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats?”

    “Bureaucracy transforms all moral issues into immediately practical concerns. A moral judgment based on a professional ethic makes little sense in a world where the etiquette of authority relationships and the necessity of protecting and covering for one’s boss, one’s network, and oneself supersede all other considerations and where non-accountability for action is the norm.”

    “…what matters in the bureaucratic world is not what a person is but how closely his many personae mesh with the organizational ideal; not his willingness to stand by his actions but his agility in avoiding blame; not what he believes or says but how well he has mastered the ideologies that serve his corporations; not what he stands for but who he stands with in the labyrinths of his organization.”

    “…bureaucratic work causes people to bracket, while at work, the moralities that they might hold outside the workplace or that they might adhere to privately and to follow instead the prevailing morality of their particular organizational situation. As a former vice-president of a large firm says: ‘What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

    “In short, bureaucracy structures for managers an intricate series of moral mazes. Even the inviting paths out of the puzzle often turn out to be invitations to jeopardy.”

    1. Clive

      Wow, that’s one book I really must get.

      Would also save me a lot of work writing my autobiography; looks like it’s already been covered by that author :-)

      1. James Levy

        Take a look at Chapters 13-15 in C. Wright Mills The Power Elite. People then and since have fixated on the title, and gotten into all sorts of arid arguments over whether you could “prove” that there is a Power Elite (Hint: what would the world look like if there was a Power Elite, what would it look like if there wasn’t, and what do you see around you). But the real deep issue of the book, rarely commented on then or now, is Mills’ concept of The Higher Immorality, the loss of compass among elites because the only thing they cared about was immediate utility and the only strata they recruited from were people who made themselves useful to the Elite. These new cadres would have to absorb the ethic of “getting the job done by any means necessary” because in the process of proving that you would do whatever it takes to advance the interests of the Elite, you would be admitted to elite status yourself.

        People at the top would have no moral center because the system didn’t foster a moral center, it fosters instrumentalist thinking that sees everything as an object to be used and manipulated to advance the bottom line (and the perpetuation of the system that puts the elite into the elite).

        Yves, if you are looking for an outline of how this worldview develops and perpetuates itself, take a look at The Power Elite and you will not be disappointed.

    2. DolleyMadison

      Wow. just…wow. That is so spot on. I have struggled to reconcile what I know about people on a personal level and how they behave at the office…(and how they seem to feel no sense of conflict over it). This it exactly. Because if you don’t survive in the corporate world, you won’t be able to support your personal life. Hence the raping and pillaging MOn-Fri., spending the spoils on Sat., and atonement (at least in the South) on Sunday.

    3. washunate

      Well said. It’s the system that produces unethical behavior.

      If we had a working legal system and safety net, these problems would disappear virtually overnight as massive numbers of whistleblowers with detailed knowledge implicated those above and massive numbers of other workers simply quit.

      But as things stand right now, morality is essentially irrelevant to survival in authoritarian structures. As long as our political system grants employers immunity from the law and a monopoly on income for workers, this is how things will be.

    4. jurisV

      Many thanks for the recommendation of Jackall’s book. Your comments really struck a chord with me, and brought back memories of the 1986 Challenger, Space Shuttle disaster. The subsequent investigation was enlightening — especially Dr Richard Feynman’s summary that was published in Physics Today because the chairs of the official investigation refused to include it in the final report. My take on his conclusions was pretty much what your comments described.

      The Challenger destruction was fairly personal because I was involved in the aerospace business at the time and had been at the launch site in Florida in the week before the scheduled launch.

      By the way, I just bought the Kindle version of the book on your recommendation.

    5. Doug Terpstra

      Ah yes, situational, compartmentalized ethics. Dilbert encounters such corporate ethics in cubicle hell at a level even I could grasp—and was almost always bewildered (as I am). I’m in constant state of bewilderment now because ethics and morality have drifted so far rightward with the Overton window that we’ve reached the apex of might-makes-right—almost anything goes if you can get away with—rampant outright fraud, aggressive, imperial wars, war crimes, presidential murder, you name it.

      This makes Jamie Dimon a hero because he can break multiple laws and never have to pay any real penalty or lose his freedom because he was savvy enough to buy a president. And as long as he makes a profit, the board wouldn’t think of replacing him, no matter what crimes he commits. I keep thinking must be at the point of breakdown, as in nervous breakdown, but it keeps getting worse.

      In The Banality of Systemic Evil (NYT), Peter Ludlow explores Jackall’s Moral Mazes (and Hannah Arendt), in our current context relative to Aaron Swartz, Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other whistleblowers like Kiriakou, Tice, Drake, and Binney. WRT Snowden, Ludlow highlights the moral relativism of what passes for our “elite” — moral pygmies like David Brooks, John Bolton and others. (might’ve been an NC link last week?):

      David Brooks made a case for why he thought Snowden was wrong to leak information about the Prism surveillance program. His reasoning cleanly framed the alternative to the moral code endorsed by Swartz, Manning and Snowden. “For society to function well,” he wrote, “there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.”
      […]
      The former United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, argued that Snowden “thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than other 299, 999, 999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.”
      […]
      Just as Hannah Arendt saw that the combined action of loyal managers can give rise to unspeakable systemic evil, so too generation W has seen that complicity within the surveillance state can give rise to evil as well — not the horrific evil that Eichmann’s bureaucratic efficiency brought us, but still an Orwellian future that must be avoided at all costs.

      I think we’ve almost reached Eichmann’s horrific evil. People in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan might have that POV.

  9. craazyman

    things really aren’t that bad. the roads really can take a beating and eventually get fixed. the electric grid actually is rather atomized and managed by states, regions and individul utilities. it’s been working remarkably well for 100 years.

    then there’s fast food. I think McDonald’s would survive not only an alien invasion but also a supernova. there’d be one floating around outside the solar system if you had a space ship of your own and could escape the blast. they’d have probably a few years worth of food — no doubt due to excellent planning by McDonald’s university graduates.

    Due to entreprenurial zeal, there’d probably be a Burger Kimg only a few million miles away. And some sort of frozen yogurt shop too

    things are pretty robust really. You can cruise the roads for fast food and then hit the mall for fun and games. The power will be on all night. food comes from all over, so if your region gets hit by a Dust Bowl style drought, you can stay fat and happy at dinner

    think how bad it was back in the Upton Sinclair days with kids working meat factories and rampant social injustice. it wasn’t the good old days, even though it was community based. People were mean.

    I think things could collapse but the problen is it would be hard to tell unless they collapsed on top of you, Because there’d be gleaming cities like the Land Of Oz and smiling people in cafes and shiny cars and subways that run on magnetic levitation, and then there’d be the slaves. That’s collapse. that’s the way it is now in lots of places. Maybe that’s our future too. ecce homo

    1. craazyboy

      Well, not sure if the Pluto McDs franchise will stay open long enough for our billionaires in their private spaceships to stop in for a Value Meal. That’s why I didn’t invest in it when the Jehovah’s Witness dude came by and asked me for my capital.

      But when you think about it, most of our earthly problems can be solved by sorcery. Sure, ethics still can be a problem – plenty of bad witches around – but the key is figuring out which witch is which. (that was harder to type than it is to pronounce) But knowing that good witches dress in white and bad witches dress in black, the simple solution is to burn all the black witches at the stake!

      1. craazyman

        I’d log this one in the chicken little category. It’s funny how nostalgia works. When you live through days you hurt and cry, then you look back upon them from the vantage point of time and they seem like red wine and you drink them in your mind and you smile. I don’t know why that is. But I think it’s probably a delusion that helps us endure.

        I wonder if all these dudes and ladies who study “complex systems” can tell one when they see one — and I don’t mean years later from a library. Their mental categories might be too complex for the task. Things get complicated and then they get more complicated and then they reach a point when they have to be simplified at a considerable loss of information, just so somebody in a library can think about them without getting too confusesd — that’s when they name them “complex systems”.

        1. craazyboy

          I think most people that talk about understanding complex system are full of crap. They’re probably doing yoga, meditating, or just day dreaming, not figuring out complex systems, would be my bet. Why else wouldn’t they be done yet? If they ever went outside and saw one, then someone told them to program a model like TRON or something – they would probably turn to stone.

          Take the Greeks. They had lots of heady dudes. We already can read what they said. At least the ones that lived long enough to publish. But what if most of the really smart ones started getting complex systems mostly figured out, then got confronted by that evil bitch Medusa and said something like “I don’t like your hair” and BAM – turned to stone. I think that’s why there are so many Greek statues.

          1. psychohistorian

            skippy and I were communicating in comments here about systems a few years ago and found out we had both read General System Theory by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

            There is some meat for you…grin

            1. skippy

              Yep… all the reductionist looters are covered in blood.

              Skippy… Yves said “Heisenberg principle” WRT human systems, IMO its orders of magnitude higher than in mathematical or software hardware.

              PS. Love – you – Yves! oh manly shoulder bump for you Psychohistorian :]

  10. Foppe

    I hope you don’t mind if I riff off your discussion a bit. My comments are not intended as a rebuttal, but I sometimes draw a few contrasts with your own remarks in order to work my way towards what I want to say.

    First off, as you note, accepting the focus on efficiency means losing half the fight/ceding half the discussion already. That said, I wonder how much of the ‘we no longer live in communities’ (coupled with the liberal insistence on legality as the only check on behavior) is a credo, just like the ‘we simply cannot compete against emerging economies’ lower CoL’. Because the ‘complexity’ argument seems to me equally suspect.

    Consider how astoundingly easy it is for management (and PE firms) to run companies into the ground, deliberately destroying the jobs of their employees, without there being any way to prevent this, and without the workers being able to claim compensation for this; and consider that nothing has yet been done to prevent this from happening over and over again.
    Second, consider the ascent of career social climbers/sociopaths, who are often protected by higher-ups on their way up even though they should have been found out if there had been healthy-intra-company discussions/updates on what’s going on, hint at the importance of hierarchical organization (a disinterest in listening to those beneath you combined with learned helplessness from employees, who know their grievances won’t be addressed), to this cultural change.

    What both of these examples show is that what’s going on is much more strongly a case of studied disinterest from above — perhaps justified by ignoring the resilience/efficiency tradeoff — than it is truly a problem of loss of shared values and peer pressure abilities* via ‘loss of community’. And while one could of course narrowly argue that the ‘exit’ option is more viable (abused employees might leave more easily than they did 30-50 years ago), but that ignores the fact that most people really dislike being forced to change employers, and that exit is a move born of desperation, rather than a preferred strategy. Also, while community size increases may make it easier for place-based community chieftains to ignore the complaints of normal people living in their neighborhoods (because people have more trouble figuring out who they could approach in order to get redress, because it is easier to avoid people who want your attention, and because access is regulated/formalized more), and while it may also increasingly be the case that local chieftains have no influence wherever it is the abuse is taking place, I am not really convinced that the situation today is all that meaningfully different from the situation 50-60 years ago. What’s missing today are not caring mayors, but the unions (and perhaps the churches), and this isn’t because of increased geographic dispersion of workers, or urbanization (though it is to some degree, and it certainly is when we look at the world as one large system), but because of repression. And therefore, the issue of getting the incentives ‘right’ isn’t a knowledge or control issue, but a (counter)power issue.

    As such, I am not at all convinced that increasing societal complexity is antithetical to the existence of ways to control behavior; what is at issue, though, is the organization of the system, and the question whose experiences of what living in the system is like matter. The more hierarchical the society, the easier it is to get away with organization towards instability (a trend which seems self-reinforcing). So I would not call it a question of ‘ethics’ mattering, but of the experiences of everyone mattering.

    * Because at least on paper, in a nation such as the US, the geographic distance between looters and looted should be irrelevant, assuming redress can be achieved in an appropriate forum. (Say, an economic court that considers mismanagement claims.) As such, social control (via the legal system) could still be exerted, and cheaters punished. What this presupposes, though, is a system in which employees can make far more stringent demands wrt justification of management decisions than they can currently.

    1. James Levy

      When Joseph Welch said “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” such a plea resonated 60 years ago. Today, I think it would sound like a tree falling in a deserted forest. I can’t see the American people responding to it, and I can’t see a single Senator being discomfited by it. Back then, it had an impact both on the HUAAC and public. So I don’t think things are exactly as they were, and I would argue that in some cases, they are worse.

      The thing I came away with seeing those Bank CEOs testifying before Congress was how confused they were by questions of ethics and right behavior. I don’t think they were faking this. I think that Dimon, Blankfine, et al. think like all American elites do: what can I get a brigade of Harvard lawyers to convince a judge is NOT illegal. In other words, what can my wealth and power let me get away with. The thought that their activities were unethical never entered their heads. They never did a single thing to be evil or hurt people. They did it all with depraved indifference to the consequences so long as it served their immediate needs.

      And that’s the mindset we have to fight. I wish us luck.

      1. anon y'mouse

        this attitude is even more evil than direct malevolence. at least someone who hates you is considering their effect on you. under this ‘disinterested’ self-interest, most of us are like a can of refuse on the curb that you have taken away weekly.

      2. Foppe

        Most certainly. And of course, the reason why it ‘resonated’ back then, was because there were value systems other than money that were taken seriously, and seen as important. ‘Sense of community’ means caring — or perhaps not being able not to care — about the value judgments of the rest of your community, and/or its designated leaders. And the widespread acceptance of the fact that you simply had to be part of one specific community (the church) also led to those banker types (and senators/congresscritters) being repeatedly exposed for years to reprimands, old ladies berating them, and to people in their social circles experiencing the same thing. Such constant reminders that other people care about how you act, and that other people will judge your actions, came with the automatic acceptance (for better or worse) that they had a right to do so. (In this sense, clubs with mandatory membership such as religious communities can be quite helpful socially: even if fear of exclusion will not deter everyone, it will at least mean that less people will participate quite so openly as they do today, with so many happily claiming that everything done in pursuit of gain is thereby justified.)

        Yet at the same time you should not forget that during those same decades children could be beaten and sexually molested by relatives with impunity, intramarital rape was allowed both legally and ‘morally’, abusing your employees, roughing up union organizers, etc., were all allowed, if not spoken about in polite circles. So while it may be true that people could be publicly shamed more easily than now, I would suggest that appeals to a sense of shame only had a meaningful political impact in very few cases. It was only in exceptional cases that it was possible to appeal to elites’ sense of shame directly, and with this having meaningful consequences.

        1. anon y'mouse

          you make a good point. but it leads me, perhaps mistakenly, to think that the two naturally went together.

          if there was a realm of private shame which people didn’t tend to speak about, then shame was possible. not saying that the price we must pay for ethical behavior in some realms is rape & child rape, but as these issues have been brought out into the light they have become legal matters. a sense of personal ethics has been replaced by what you can legally get away with.

          I would hope that we didn’t have to return to society where people were privately victimized to ensure that some could not get away with victimizing others elsewhere, but it is worth exploring. also, it has been said that the field of intelligence is not only to know about one’s enemies, but to know about one’s friends and find out the private shames of both for greater leverage. why, in a period which knows very little shame (but a lot of outrage) is our intelligence field growing so large? most people share intimate details of their personal lives on facebook now. it doesn’t really take a massive spy service to ferret out what is going on in people’s bedrooms.

          weird how things tend to lead to their opposite.

      3. Banger

        So how can you fight something like that? Particularly when that attitude is widely shard across class lines. People without moral codes are increasingly seen as heroes in movies and TV shows. We are in a interesting cultural moment when even the idea of morality is questioned, and I suggest to you, without morality there can be no society.

        1. JL Furtif

          Becoming an adult. Freud once said – IIRC – that babys are ‘polymorphic perverts’. They are perverted in that they only look at their own wellbeing, disregarding any effect that may have on their environment on their parents.
          It is only when they grow up and learn about the world surrounding them, that they learn to wait, to cope, to adapt.
          Apparently, that bunch of sociopaths never grew up.

  11. Erik

    It’s also a matter of individual capacity for complexity. When we talk about “merit” in our modern society and those who “have the right skills”, etc. etc., what it really boils down to is increased ability to handle ever more complexity (and ambiguity).

    I think that the average person has an innate capacity for abstract, complex, and ambiguous thinking. While that average capacity has increased over the last 50 years, the average degree of complexity involved in business, government, finance, science – everything – has accelerated at a more rapid pace than the average person’s capacity for complexity.

    As a result, those who can handle it, prosper and become (or already area) the elite. Everyone else struggles ever more.

    The impact on ethics is that the elite, in their own bubble, tend to succumb to group-think. If they all understand a few dangerous basic principles of economics, they can (and have) built up an ethos that justifies their actions, such as tales that they tell themselves about how layoffs (really done to boost this years short-term bottom line and their bonuses) make the company stronger in the end, despite the suffering they may cause. Or that offshoring jobs will help raise the economies of 3rd world nations and therefore all boats, including their ex-workers in the US. The elite will come up with systems of thinking that help them sleep at night.

    Normally, it would be the masses that would keep the elite ethics in check. However people have limited capacity of willpower, and analyzing complexity requires a form of willpower. By the time you work 10 hours, feed the kids, etc., most don’t have willpower left for the important decisions in their own lives, much less to analyze the complexities of things they aren’t involved with. So, most check out and leave it to the elites. Others latch on to more simple moral narratives that ignore the complexity and are horribly incorrect (Tea Party!).

    The result is that you have a combination of no enforcement of ethics from the bottom-up, the elite justifying their own less-than ethical behavior in their echo chamber, and the remainder applying the wrong lessons.

    The depressing part is that there is no solution I can fathom as long as our society keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping… into the future. The only one is a shift to a zero-growth, stable world where the level of complexity has a chance to stabilize and let people catch up. That seems unlikely to happen. Like the financial markets, things are most likely to crash before leveling out.

    1. from Mexico

      Erik says:

      The result is that you have a combination of no enforcement of ethics from the bottom-up, the elite justifying their own less-than ethical behavior in their echo chamber, and the remainder applying the wrong lessons.

      This. There is as we speak, as Cornel West put it, no “correction from below.”

      The pursuit of absolute moral truths seems Quixotic, but achieving a more equitable balance of power seems to be a more within the realm of possibility.

      The balance of powers, however, at the moment is really screwed up.

  12. JL Furtif

    Two meandering thoughts.
    What would it take to burn a blank CD in the middle of, say, the Amazon forest? You’d need a CD, hence plastics, hence petrol, refineries, chemical industries, etc. You’d need a CD burner, again, plastics, optics, fine mechanical parts & motors. To link it all you need building, roads, power plants, so even more heavy industries and specialized technology fields. You’d need people trained in many specialties, and trainers, and trainers of trainers, and cooks, and cleaners, and lots of people to keep it al running.
    Whatever aspect of modern life you look at, you’ll end up with a similar – unmapped – complex network of high-brow and brute technologies, smart and ordinary people to make it work, and everything distributed around the globe.
    What scares the hell out of me is that one those components might disappear or become very rare, and everything would come tumbling down, perhaps fast, perhaps ever so slowly (devolution, anybody?).
    But this bears no relation to ethics.

    Marx in Das Kapital starts out with defining what ‘value’ is, what ‘stuff’ is, what ‘money’ is (and he already knew that the ‘gold standard’ of his time was neither gold nor standard). But value has to do with transactions. If my stuff has no value to you, then it has no value at all (even if I might consider it worthwhile; there is a semantic important distinction between the ‘worth’ of an object and its ‘value’). And, IIRC, he defines political economy as the organisation, distribution and manufacture of stuff and values.
    Again, there are no ethics here. My ‘pursuit of happiness’ – a constitutional right for all American citizens – has no value to you, and hence is not subject to economic analysis.

    So you have the wrong playbook: complex systems or economics don’t need – and indeed, don’t have – ethics.

    Let’s start over with two tentative definitions. ‘Morality’ is what protects society from the individual (‘Thou shalt not steal’). Inversely, ‘Ethics’ is what protects the individual from society (we don’t kill – yet – old or disabled persons for lack of productivity). This is regulation, plain and simple.

    If there is a law against lying to people when selling a contract, that is because our society considers it unethical to do such a thing. And so, the last 30 years of deregulation are in reality a removal of any ethics in society. Modern society has become “anethical”, i.e. without ethics (which is not the same as unethical – against the commonly accepted ethical framework of the society), because the only value it respects, is the monetary value of things. As Marx already wrote, money has no value. Money is the measure of value, and can’t have any value by itself. An inch is the measure of length, and so can’t have any length (what would the length of an inch be?)

    So, the first question is, what kind of values is society willing to bestow on individuals? Back in the old days of the New Deal, or the ‘welfare state’, one could say that society guaranteed all citizens a roof, minimal healthcare, minimal retirement into old age and stuff like that. But today, what commitment is society willing to make to individuals, and what punishment is it ready to mete out to people that do not respect such a citizen contract?

    If e.g. society agrees that we are renting this planet from our children and grandchildren, and we have to hand it back in good shape, then e.g. mountaintop removal becomes by itself an illegal act.

    What we see, though, is a society with less and less ethical values, and more and more laws imposing somebody else’s moral values on all citizens. And looking again, stuff like NAFTA, TPP and the like are deals to making it ‘legally’ impossible to ever have some ethics again. That was, imnsho, the great value, and hence danger, of the Occupy movement: they were ethical.

  13. Kate

    “…if nothing else because too much unfairness undermines social stability (witness Arab Spring and our own increasingly frequent mass shootings).”

    pairing the Arab Spring and American mass shootings, in relation to unfairness…..makes no sense to me

    1. Massinissa

      It makes sense: The Arab Spring wasnt really a spring at all, except a wellspring of social instability. Very little of anything positive came out of it.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? Most other societies have a tradition of people taking to the streets when conditions get bad. There have been mass protests in Europe over austerity, although they are barely reported in the US media.

      MIddle class people in the US don’t do protests. We are all supposed to be winners and protestors are malcontents and losers. The major exception was the 1960s, and there the big protests were by out groups (blacks and to a lesser degree, women) and anti-war (due to the fact that middle class kids were being sent to Vietnam to die).

      So without an outlet to channel frustration and despair, some people crack and start shooting. I’ve been saying for some time that the result of the continued attack by the elites on the economic well-being of what is left of the middle class will be more random outbreaks of violence, not large-scale protests. It would be much better for us as a society if I were wrong.

      1. Kate

        Yeah, well, I disagree with you. I think American mass shootings are not responses to economic inequities.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I was very precise in my use of terms in the post: fairness, which includes but is not limited to income inequality.

          Go read Mark Ames’ Going Postal, which is the most comprehensive and astute study of mass shooters to date. You need to get past your blind spots on this one.

          1. Kate

            There’s some good reading here, too:

            http://www.motherjones.com/special-reports/2012/12/guns-in-america-mass-shootings

            http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/09/washington-navy-yard-mass-shooting-data

            I said nothing about income inequality. There are all kinds of economic inequities, unfairnesses, injustices, as you well know. Your post and the comments interest me very much. It’s your placing something like overthrowing Mubarak (decades of corruption and police state sponsored violence, countless corpses, a rotten regime supported by American $millions) in the same parenthetical clause with American mass shootings (varieties of settings, characters, stories, many “unfairly” dead bodies littered about) that throws me. The sudden switch in scale and topic, as though the actors on those stages are the same, responding to the same cues, reads absurdly to me. Keep in mind the numerous mass shootings that are not “going postal,” that are not in any way workplace related, and perhaps you’ll see my point. Perhaps not.

            1. skippy

              @Kate – consider the last 100ish years and the Edward Bernays effect (economically driven imo) and the trend line derived from it. People get crazier, security forces do, electards do, everything accelerates to a point of singularity.

              Religion used to be a hand brake – control tool, but, they broke it by commercializing – politicizing it (it didn’t deliver its promises – to much fraud like everything else). Although like any ideologue mob, will do, they’ll keep bashing with it till their arm is a stump.

              Skippy… the economic reductionists will never capitulate, their – belief – in it – is pure uncritical religious fanaticism.

              PS religion – markets are interchangeable.

      2. Nathanael

        “MIddle class people in the US don’t do protests. We are all supposed to be winners and protestors are malcontents and losers. The major exception was the 1960s, and there the big protests were by out groups (blacks and to a lesser degree, women) and anti-war (due to the fact that middle class kids were being sent to Vietnam to die).

        So without an outlet to channel frustration and despair, some people crack and start shooting. I’ve been saying for some time that the result of the continued attack by the elites on the economic well-being of what is left of the middle class will be more random outbreaks of violence, not large-scale protests. It would be much better for us as a society if I were wrong.”

        That will change — generationally.

        The children of the 1990s & later know they’ve been cheated by the system, and they do not have the taboo against protest which you speak of. They do not protest for *strictly practical* reasons, the same reason there were few protests under Joseph “Stalin”. That does not mean they are not going to protest — it means that they are going to be very, very organized before they make any moves.

  14. LAS

    It seems where there is great inequality, some people are more vulnerable (with fewer resources) and others are less vulnerable (having great resources to deploy at will). More vulnerable people are then seen by less vulnerable people as having in some vague sense “worse” lives. Soon less vulnerable people say the more vulnerable people have lives that are less worth protecting and respecting (because they are worse lives). Then, since some persons now have lives less worth protecting/respecting, they have lives more available for exploiting, rejecting … the cultural ediface surrounding inequality is huge, but at its core it is criminal thinking first, second and last. It always comes around to putting less value on others than self.

    Unless we see and share the value in each vulnerable life, none of us has any chance of security. For tomorrow we will be vulnerable if not today.

    1. anon y'mouse

      your outline does not match what we appear to have.

      less vulnerable people are viewed as vulnerable because they are less fit in some way. they either are genetically, culturally or intellectually inferior. they lack smarts, discipline, or any number of other traits and tendencies that would have brought them success.

      this may be how the elites view the rest of us, but my more favorite theory is that this type of Darwinism is the ethical system that they want the rest of us to adopt in order to be more psychologically comfortable with the inequality that this entire system of power, money and inequality create. perhaps that is too “evil mastermind stroking his cat”. perhaps the masses developed this ethical system for their own psychological comfort much like economics was developed for the psychological comfort of the rich (efficiency is all. growing the pie makes everyone’s piece bigger).

      at any rate, your outline does not address this. i firmly believe half of our society views “the vulnerable” as creating the very problems that they are suffering from.

      1. nobody

        “The secret is to stop thinking an immoral and corrupt version of Homo SAP is normal and expected. That is how we have been gamed to not question the absolute rejection of common decency by our political and media presstitutes and oligarchic [lackeys].”

        “Stop believing that Social Darwinism is scientific. It’s not. It’s a pseudo-scientific construct by the oligarchs. It’s Madison Avenue S&M cheap psychology con artist crap to convince you that Sadism is natural for the top position and Masochism is natural for YOU (i.e. the bottom position). BULLSHIT! It also conveniently pits you against your fellow slaves in a dog eat dog envy contest to get to be a top sadist. That is the ‘method’ in oligarchic ‘madness’.

        “Cooperation is far more important among species in nature than predation. That is the part that the Gilded Age assholes conveniently left out when they ‘adopted’ (coopted is more like it!) the Theory of Evolution tenet labelled ‘survival of the fittest’ to explain their brutality and inhumanity to man and the biosphere. These suicidal fucks are doing away with our life support system and calling it science!”

        http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2012-10-03/guest-post-its-not-america-anymore#comment-2853365

  15. Walter Map

    I’m not seeing a clear statement of goals here. I’m also not seeing any statement of ethical parameters for achieving those goals. I expect that if you could come to basic decisions on the practical, ethical nature of your actual ends and means then at least some sticky reductionisms would fall away and the rest would work much more in your favor and much less against you.

    For example, decent persons might reasonably aspire to establishing a “just, peaceful, and prosperous society”. I daresay that the U.S. has no such society because that is not at all the goal. Instead, the goal is to enrich the wealthy regardless of the costs, and it has been very successful in achieving this goal in large part because this is the goal. Hardly an ethical goal, but then, ethics has been strictly and purposefully eliminated from its formulation. By contrast, Denmark has much more of a “just, peaceful, and prosperous society” in no small part because that is its goal, rather than to enrich the wealthy.

    “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.”
    ― Henry David Thoreau

  16. Richard Lyon

    I have done some reading on chaos and complexity. I can’t say that I have a really firm understanding of it, but it does offer some interesting perspectives on human systems. However, such advanced theory is not really needed to see that neoclassical economics is perversely simplistic and reductionist. I don’t really see any reason to focus exclusively on economics in considering issues of ethics. You are correct that the neoliberal regime has elevated it to the status of holy writ.

    Richard Posner, who is a lawyer by trade, illustrates the tendency to use it as the exclusive perspective in developing legal philosophy. There are plenty of good intellectual tools available in the traditional realms of such disciplines as philosophy and law to examine ethical outcomes. It can be done without building advanced computer systems.

    The primary reason that economics finds itself at the end of a blind alley is not primarily because of intellectual paradox. It is because it has become devoted to producing spin to support the interests of the economists paymasters. A bit of intellectual integrity would go a long way toward revealing vast reaches of neglected inquiry.

    1. diptherio

      Regarding economics and intellectual paradoxes, I always found it troubling when a professor would tell us that “economics is a positive discipline, not normative; we talk about how things are, not how they should be.” I would point out that the determination to avoid normative considerations in economics was itself a normative consideration. Then I got the blank stares, then I said “never mind”…

      1. anon y'mouse

        how can THAT be? any time you apply a model that is not simply descriptive of data you have collected, you are setting norms. the only way they get away with this is by claiming that the simple model was only meant to understand complex situations. but then, they revert to talking about how it “should” occur according to the model again and use it as a guide to their thinking.

        goofball!

      2. Nathanael

        I never had professors claim that economics was a descriptive discipline. Why? Because I could come up with counterexamples to every single economics 101 theory *off the top of my head*, and I did so in every class. Eventually the professors started to say the equivalent of “Economics is normative, not descriptive, stop bothering us with the facts….”

    2. from Mexico

      Richard Lyon says:

      …neoclassical economics is perversely simplistic and reductionist….

      The primary reason that economics finds itself at the end of a blind alley is not primarily because of intellectual paradox. It is because it has become devoted to producing spin to support the interests of the economists paymasters.

      This can’t be repeated enough times. The fact of the matter is that

      Economics, no less than other social and historical sciences, however much they use what appear to be morally and spiritually sanitized formulas and complex econometric models, bear within them values in a subtle mix with facts, moral presumptions in a complex blend with argument, matters of faith interwoven with matters of analysis. In fact, ethical, religious, and specifically theological assumptions are not foreign to economic life or economic thought, but pervade them.

      –MAX L. STACKHOUSE, Economics as Religion: from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond

      I would just add that not only is the practice of economics grotesquely reductionist and simplistic, but that the great majority of its practitioners are first-class dogmatists as well.

  17. Andy Heath

    Hi,

    I don’t have time to write a lot but I think you are conflating control and communication in your argument and I think it would be improved if you looked at them separately. As some have pointed out there are results from computer science on coupling/cohesion and communication that apply. For example, distributed networks (i.e. with low coupling between the nodes) can be more resilient than centrally-controlled ones. How does that relate to your argument about loosely-connected communication/relationships ? (I think the answer will be revealed if you consider communication and control separately). Also some of your arguments seem to require a control mechanism (profit driven) for good behaviour – there are other ways of modelling behaviour that are very different.

    I am of the view that we *do* need ethical systems that reach across all the others and override other considerations. Green arguments fit within that, so do arguments about wars. But if you are considering how ethical systems can exist across networks (which I think you *are* musing about) – i.e. how the mechanics can actually work, then there is more than control to consider. For example how do philosophies spread ? How do religions spread ? What about ideas spreading from person to person as in memes ? Where does buddhism fit in this, how do emotions relate ? There is more than behaviour in the world!

    I hope this is helpful – I get the feeling you are a person with high ethical values struggling for a way to fit these things together. That’s good.

    andy

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks. This may be an important distinction in computer science, but I am less convinced as it applies to management of complex organizations, which is the kind of system I’m interested in. One of the most basic nostrums of management is that if you start measuring something, the troops will start worrying about it. They will assume, correctly, that it is or will be a management metric. So gathering information about the process and transmitting information about the process influences behavior, unlike in computer systems. Organizations exhibit an acute version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

      1. WI Quarterback

        Yves,

        I have spent most of my adult life consulting to organizations with a significant technology and innovation component. Several of my clients (including my current) have been multinationals. I tend to believe that, for at least the technology sector, big and small organizations suffer from the effects of a radical (and likely permanent) change in paradigm that has not yet been absorbed into their management theory. I believe that this shift effects big and small organizations, but the number of disparate interactions in multinationals create a great lab environment for observing.

        I refer to this paradigm shift as the transition from “white box” to “black box” engineering. The terms drawn from computer science metaphor, where white represents a system or component where all of its internal workings are known, and black being one where only the interfaces and inputs/output are known.

        Up until relatively recently, even the most complex systems of their period involved a much more limited number of integrated parts. For something even as complex as a 1950’s railroad system, it was possible (at great expense) to fill a (albeit large) room with enough smart people that together could intuit their way through how every component interacted and affected each other. System inefficiencies and desired improvements could be analyzed end-to-end and a well executed requirements process could (very often) produce predictable outcomes.

        Fast forward to today, and we live in a world where something like a toaster might connect to the internet, a smart electric grid, and the bread, butter, and jam supply chain. I think it is save to say that the number of integration points is likely to continue to go nowhere but up.

        The problem is that a majority of engineering and R&D organizations still function as if the white box paradigm is still operative. Their may still be small pockets where it still valid, but for most of the technology sector; ‘sorry guys, but its over.’

        The problem with beating this dead horse, is that white box engineering considers “missing requirements” as the sin that causes all system failures. It pains me to watch organizations pile on endless process overhead to futilely attempt to capture every possible requirement. What actually results is a hugely expensive and laggard process relying on data that is often outdated before it is even consumed. The market tag line could be “Solving today’s problems, with yesterday’s technology, tomorrow.”

        Modern technology organizations need to adjust to the new black box world, where it is necessary to limit focus to the interface and integration requirements of all but a core, manageable, set of components or systems. In a black box paradigm, failure to understand the behaviors of blacks box components interfacing with your system is, to a large extent, expected; therefore there is no need to apologize for missing aspects of its behavior that may impact your system. What does warrant contrition is failure to consider what the acceptable interface boundaries and vulnerabilities of your own system, and how to identify variances so that mitigation of negative effects can be implemented. The black box approach introduces previously unnecessary overhead to building substantially paranoid interfaces, but it is the price to be paid to leverage the expansive and rapidly evolving value of black box options in the marketplace.

        I believe that this concept may also hold true in more geneic management theory in todays economy that increasing leverages outsourced services workforces dispersed over wide geographic, cultural, and intellectual boundaries.

        1. anon y'mouse

          this kind of thing is well over my head.

          it appears to me to justify ignoring a multitude of externalities simply because they are not under one’s direct control or supervision, and the time/money constraint of figuring them out would be too costly to try to do in order to make a workaround.

          how would you apply this kind of engineering to a system that has to take into account its effects on actual human beings, the environment, the future, resource flows in light of all of these?

          1. AllanW

            No, you misunderstand. Nothing is ignored, it’s just that an absolute and definitive explanation of how the outputs or effects of particular sub-systems occur does not need to be in hand before one can work the problem.

            Millions of people benefitted over a hundred and fifty years by being immunised with cow pox basilli before the exact mechanism of how vaccination worked to help the body fight smallpox was understood. I’m sure many people said ‘but why does it work? Shouldn’t we hold-off until it’s all understood?’.

            Luckily for those inoculated they were ignored.

            1. anon y'mouse

              so, we are constantly moving towards a solution even without understanding all of the elements of the problem (or solution)?

              interesting.

              and yet, what I think Yves is trying to work out here is a foundational ethics in order to move towards a solution. if you just start moving a mass of people with the “change” mantra, well…you see what we’ve gotten. change to what, for what, and who will benefit? hopefully a noncontradictory ethical system grounding it all will make it stronger and more likely to know when we’ve hit the target that we’re moving towards.

              probably still confused on my end. thank you for explaining regardless.

              1. AllanW

                Ah! You’re welcome. I’m glad to have been of some help but I find I’m not in agreement with you here;

                ‘what I think Yves is trying to work out here is a foundational ethics’

                I think she already has a pretty well formed foundational ethic (I’d hazard a guess at ‘golden rule’, ‘science informs policy and education’, ‘secular public square’ but I’m not sure of the last point in that list) and it’s the ‘in order to move towards a solution’ part of your comment that she’s working on now.

                The problem she seems to have hit is of needing some more information and more sure assessment of options which is why this thread is couched in the terms it is. I hope the comments here have been useful to her in pointing out some topics she might investigate further in order to satisfy her requirements.

                If there were one more I’d add to her list it would be Poppers fallibilism approach to knowledge which leads to a policy sphere of what one might call ‘betterism’ rather than ideological perfection or absolutism.

                http://www.iva.dk/jni/lifeboat_old/Concepts/Fallibilism.htm

        2. Nathanael

          WI Quarterback: by “black box thinking”, you’re referring to what is classically known as “modularity”, and indeed, “modularity” is basically the *only* way to keep complex systems functioning.

          Only the interfaces and “outside behavior” matter. How it works inside, we don’t need to know, as long as it fits the interface, and the interface should be as generously defined as possible.

  18. REDPILLED

    Catastrophic climate chaos has introduced a factor most economists do not consider: the suicidal peril of continued growth. Even “progressive” economists assume that continued material growth is necessary for a fair and equitable economy. But continued material growth is based on infinite material resources, which we now realize is not only impossible, but a threat to sustainable existence.

    As we realize more about the complexity of interrelated ecosystems, both local and planet-wide, this scientific dilemma also becomes an ethical one. How can we design economic systems which are not only fair and equitable, but sustainable? How can we make limited resources compatible with the ethical growth necessary in a climate-changing world?

    This is a level of complexity, ethical as well as scientific, not faced before in human history.

    1. James Levy

      Jared Diamond argues that these perils have been faced before, by the Anasazi, the Maya, the Greenland Norse, and the people of Easter Island, and they all came up craps. The Mayans survived by returning to a much less complex state of existence, abandoning most of their cities and forgetting their high culture in favor of survival. The Greenland Norse went down to destruction preserving their essential sense of self by refusing to mimic the survival strategies of the hated Inuit. My guess is that the next century will see aspects of all these stories replayed, plus a few surviving city-states and some good sized warlord dominions (Putin’s Russia will probably survive better than most polities because it has already gone through the first state of this process and remains standing).

  19. Banger

    Economics as a separate field has little intellectual justification. Economics is a division of political science and does not and cannot stand on its own. Ethics is the key ingredient to all human systems and underlies all study. of those systems. Even deciding that studying anything at all is important as an ethical choice. The fact economists try to exclude ethics from their calculations is an ethical choice and one that has had direct ethical consequences. Measuring value through money is an ethical choice that choice has had very deep consequences on society.

    We in this country have made money and wealth the ultimate moral value. People may declare that they are Christian or something else but when push comes to shove most people choose money–not because they are personally what we would call immoral but because that is the only reliable moral arbiter and as members of society they are, in a way, duty bound to consider our collective values at least to some extent.

    Yves, thanks for giving this your attention.

    1. diptherio

      And let us not forget that Adam Smith’s first writings on economics appeared in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Even more than a branch of political science, I think economics is rightly understood as a subset of ethics (currently, the subset which denies that it has anything to do with ethics).

    2. Richard Lyon

      I could not agree with you more. Economics is supposedly about allocating finite resources. Before any operational model for doing that can be developed, there must be political assumptions made as to the purposes for which they are being allocated. Those are always about making choices among different sets of interests. There is no metaphysical determination of which of those must prevail.

      1. Banger

        If you want to confound market fundamentalists and libertarians just ask them how a market can exist without a political structure. There is no answer beause there is no such thing as the “free” market they all talk about and, in fact, such a thing can not exist in the real world unless we live in a world of saints. I have yet to experience any refutation of what I just said.

        1. jurisV

          Nicely said Banger –

          No refutation of what you said is possible! The Bowels of the economics profession used to be familiar with the concept of the ideal “free” market — even Adam Smith appreciated its caveats. As you said it needs to be regulated by a political structure because, in the “real” world of ours currently, we live with monopolies, duopolies, and particularly oligopolies. “Free” markets only exist in that fantasy world of zillions of producers and zillions of buyers. You’d have to be Zaphod Beeblebrox to buy there !

  20. Furzy Mouse

    Intent is at the heart of all interactions.

    How can we make decisions that rely on others fulfilling an agreement without trust? Need we burden our every transaction with lawyers and spies? How do we determine intent and trust?

    In years past, we traded cargoes of sugar with an agreeable handshake by telex…a known and trusted community of traders whose word was “gold”,… or they were out of the club.

    Of course, sugar brokers are hardly a complex society…but we were scattered across the globe, maybe having some face time once a year…

    So I see the ethics problem as one of “no consequences” for bad behavior,…and haven’t we seen an awful lot of that? If a mortgage company foreclosed fraudulently, and the judiciary slammed them in jail pronto, how many more frauds would there be? And such legal action does not seem overly complex. I can see that complexity, like entropy, does create a drag on the community, but does not necessarily disable it.

    Furthermore, the paradigm, or frame, I would like to change is the demand for incessant growth. Why must we have continuous “growth” even at the expense of the only planet we have to live on? Can we not aim for a steady state, where production more or less equals consumption?

    Are all the hoo-rahs and PhD papers just to boost the dividends of stockholders, the incomes of the !%? Why can’t economists frame for Gross Domestic Happiness and Health?

    I do like the hint that obliquity gives us…it suggests that we should head down the best possible path at any given time, but keep making adjustments, checking the feedback, trying to take care of all factors involved, human, economic, environmental, etc.

    There is creeping complexity due to the increasing demands, and diminishing cooperation between our various entities…personal, corporate, etc…but this discussion of complexity seems to cover up the fact that most interactions are essentially one on one.

    I acknowledge the decline of social responsibility by the mucky-mucks, the loss of truly liberal main stream media and the depersonalizing rhetoric of quant economists, yet a vibrant interpersonal community still exists at many levels, with intense communication and revelation, where people help people with no strings attached, and we can easily see this reading and participating in Naked Capitalism’s efforts to enlighten we mere mortals.

  21. tim s

    the complexity of our systems is nothing compared to the complexity of topics like this. To try to formulate a response will be like trying to herd cats as so many thoughts come flooding at once when considering this, but here goes nothing.

    I feel that the tendency is to come up with complex theories on subjects such as this when the roots of a good answer are probably very simple. I think Yves is correct that the fulcrum about which a system ascends or declines is in the culture of the system. This is not something that is imposed from above or from without. It can only come from within, and not even from consciousness (so good luck on coming up with a plan on how to bring about good culture).

    What is so difficult about our decline is that the physical structure of our society appears to be the same as it has been for generations. We still have a divided/balanced government (in form only, but that’s what I’m pointing out), our institutions appear the same, we still have family and neighbors, etc, etc..

    Yet, these are not the same at all in substance. Followers of this blog know that the government no longer even partly serves the public. The business institutions that once provided decent employment for the local community and therefore a tax base as well as a very good living for the leaders of those businesses now focus mainly on shareholder gains and overboard executive compensation, with the workers and community not even a consideration.

    Meanwhile, our families grow distant. In western white culture particularly, and western culture in general, extended families are divided to the point that there is little if any meaningful communication and help in living through the life cycle from birth through old age, which of course stresses everyone out. Everyone benefits in general when multiple generations work together.

    How many neighbors in the typical subdivision or apartment complex actually know each other? I am currently moving from a subdivision I’ve lived in for 8 years and I can honestly say that I don’t KNOW any of my neighbors. Friendly aquaintances, quite a few, but that is all, and is no foundation of a “culture”. Meanwhile, I am moving to a semi-rural community (within the larger Houston area, no less, WIN-WIN) and I have within a couple of weeks met neighbors on each side that in the very old-fashioned sense of the word “neighbor” have offered invaluable help and advice on how to restore our much neglected new “country” home to good condition. These people have nothing to receive from me in return for their efforts other than a potential good, healthy and happy neighbor who will be good as a neighbor to them. If a whole community of people act this way in general, it is a healthy culture. Yet, this is not the result of a top-down system that is imposed on a people. They do this out of the “goodness of their heart”, which of course comes from within.

    When the focus of a community, large or small, changes from a mindset of helping others (or at least not considering them prey) and the community as a whole to one of individual ambition above all else, there is no ethical system that will save that community. Any ethical system in place will be a hollow, ineffective shell.

    As I see it, the only way for this community to become ethical again is by a shift in the culture, that I see happening in no other way than the people of the community NEED each other once again for many of the basics of life, as well as for healthy congregation.

    As always, the success of a healthy culture leads to atomization of the individuals and its eventual decline, which again allows for the recombination of a new, healthy community.

    All of the many self-serving individuals are just unwitting agents of mass destruction, and we are certainly living in a time of great destruction. Hopefully we will witness the rise of a relatively ethical system within our lifetime. I’m sure that anyone looking on small scales will see the roots sprouting around us even now.

    Cats herded?? – I doubt it. Hopefully this made sense in some way.

  22. diptherio

    Yves said:

    “There just aren’t good substitutes to the owner who grew up in a business, knows the industry well, knows his people and their job requirements intimately, and can reprimand bad behavior and give rewards based on direct observation.”

    Well, there is the substitute of worker-ownership/management, where often the workers know the industry well and reprimand/reward each other based on direct observation and working together. That’s a more ethical system as well, since it reduces the dis-empowerment of continually being under the control of another.

    1. anon y'mouse

      behaviorism is a sign of elitism? sometimes I think so.

      not trying to claim that behaviorism doesn’t work. if you beat someone enough, they will do what you want and surely enough they will begin to anticipate your needs so that there is little chance of getting beaten.

      perhaps we need a new outlook. one of guidance towards developing expertise. sharing knowledge gained over time. the reprimand/reward thing is just like that article on the Punishers and the waiters, isn’t it?

      people want to do well. but they don’t want to do well for someone who treats them like a tool, doesn’t care about them, or is even openly hostile to them. some still want to do well regardless of all of these, because it is tied up in their package of total self-worth & work ethic, but most people treated in such a way will eventually give only what they’re getting, and escape to somewhere more genial.

      in a reward/punish system, only the most desperate and/or brainwashed stay. only those who are convinced that the devil they know is likely better than what is “out there”.

      that seems like the system we have, yet don’t want.

  23. John Mc

    Thoughtful piece here. I would like to add to the conversation the ecological lifecycle concepts(human, familial and business). Specifically four eco-systemic concepts that span life:

    1) Emergence
    2) Growth
    3) Maturation
    4) Decay

    Whether it is human life or a new start up business, it seems that time and space have been altered culturally (Neoliberal) to form new “set points”. We see this with technology, communication patterns, our own reactivity, finding ways to remember or just slowing down our physiology. Nevertheless, my point here is that each of these four processes has been financialized to such an extent that time/space/system dynamics are altered:

    A) Identify/Capture Emergence
    B) Prolong/Expand Growth Beyond Limits
    C) Change/Obscure Standards for Maturity
    D) Cleave & Dispose of Decay

    This leads to short-term profit seeking incentives or behavior (Gresham’s Dynamic). Also, there are unrealistic systemic expectations for permanent growth. Third, we see the power sources operating opaquely representing themselves as benevolent, mature caretakers (theoclassical economics). Finally, we see the ecological output, human disposibility, and waste in this system building up daily while a new lever of emergence begins again.

    Complex and ethical systems need to account for patience, a holistic view of resource growth, a humble internal awareness (feedback loop) that is responsive, and the continuity between system parts versus lauding the most shiny profitable aspect of a system….

    1. Alejandro

      Excellent. Re-contextualizes the meaning of Growth. There’s almost a fluid analogy with the four seasons. The S-curve might be the only math required. Eco-nomists can learn a lot from Eco-logists, imho.

      The only thing I would humbly suggest is replacing the word system(s) with interactions. It has the effect of clarifying our interconnectedness vs. detachment.

      1. John Mc

        Alejandro,

        Urie Bronfenbrenner would be proud of your analysis (i.e. system(s) are interactions):)

        We agree about the importance of ecology in todays world. I tend to think of ecological concepts as a glue between social sciences (cultural, economic and political) which grounds us in the importance of lived experience and the practicality of simple interactions.

        All the best

  24. anon y'mouse

    not being an expert on history or anthropology, I can’t say this with certainty but it is my opinion that growing the pie has NEVER resulted in more equitable distribution. those with power always profit off of those who don’t. even the standard of living that is spoken of as either laudable wonder of the world/wasteful excess & sign of status seeking was only brought about because certain members wanted to sell the masses microwaves. not because they needed or were crying out for microwaves.

    and yes, I realize that not ALL goods/technologies have been like this. it just seems that we’re fooling ourselves into thinking that our progress (tech. development) has made our lives so much better. it has made our lives different. i’m still wondering who is pushing technological development and why (and yes, I understand humankind’s “need to know” but that would ideally come after we have solved all of our other problems, when instead what we’ve done is increased them along with our knowledge/tech. base) and can’t come up with any better answer than that you can make money off of it, and that Deus ex Machina has taken the place of religious hope for salvation.

    1. anon y'mouse

      reviewing what I wrote, since it is early and i’m thought-streaming:

      borrowing from John Lennon, imagine a world where we could not bribe, cajole, force etc. each other to carry out our ends and what that would look like. i’m trying to imagine a system where each person has equal power to determine what they will do, when they will do it and for what reason. this appears the exact opposite of our system. I believe our system is set up in this way specifically to force individuals to work for other, more powerful individuals’ ends. sometimes the goals align but most times, and with greater divergence between, they do not.

      the only reason many people get out of bed in the morning is because of what might befall them if they don’t. yes, originally hunter gatherer groups interacted and cooperated for better survival, but Diamond points out repeatedly, in that kind of society a 12 year old can survive nearly as well on their own with the entire tribe wiped out as they could with the tribe. cooperation had clear benefits, and the greatest one was probably just the comfort of not being alone. now, we are in a system where cooperation gets you, what? a small chance at survival, and an even smaller chance at being able to become powerful enough/well placed or paid enough so that you can become self-determined.

      the gaping chasm of “failure” has grown, as well as the cliff one can fall down. I think this system was deliberately set up this way—to harness individuals fears around survival/starvation so that they could be tied to another individual’s ends. yes, we’ve developed amazing things and some of us have been fortunate enough to pursue knowledge for its own sake, but far too many of us are simply tools for another’s use which grants us the benefit of survival. when our usefulness wears out, either as makers or as consumers, we’re put in the dustbin.

    2. charles sereno

      @ anon y’mouse: I think you would agree with James Speth —
      “We have heard for decades that America must keep growing, or, otherwise, we will face the need for income redistribution. Well, for the most part America has kept growing, and the need for redistributive policies has only grown more acute. The growth-instead-of-redistribution argument has failed in practice, and in a world where growth will be increasingly constrained, it also fails in theory. It’s time for America to face the need explicitly and directly to redistribute incomes.”

      1. James Levy

        Except that such a program is impossible under the current Constitution and anathema to a vast majority of Americans.

        That’s not saying you are wrong and I disagree with you. I don’t think you or the author of the quote are wrong, and I don’t disagree with you. But I also see no mechanism for achieving the goal of redistribution within a sustainable economy that you set. None. In theory, an enlightened elite might set up a Green, Fordist, and social democratic political economy that allows them to retain certain perks and advantages but brings society to a stable condition of zero population growth (that would have to be part of the equation, and liberals hate that idea with a passion) where the rich are no more than 10 times richer than the poorest worker, and work is guaranteed. Could the elite pull that off? Maybe, with incredible opposition from the rest of society. It would not be a democratic choice. It would have to be forced down the throats of millions, and in some places face armed opposition.

        But they ain’t gonna do it. They are going to try to game contraction, to master decline by keeping the lion’s share for themselves and their offspring (although sometimes I don’t think they even care about their offspring). Pray I’m wrong, but you know chances are I’m right.

        1. charles sereno

          I make no judgment about the quote except in this respect. It capsulizes the problem that many of us see as central. As to the solution, I join you in “prayer.”

        2. Nathanael

          Incomes were redistributed under Eisenhower. (And to a lesser extent under FDR and Truman.) It’s clearly possible in the US.

  25. washunate

    “While this discussion could be enlarged to include certain aspects of legal thinking and political science, let’s stick with economics, since economists remain the only social scientists with a seat at the policy table…”

    Very interesting discussion, both post and comments.

    For me, the root of the problem is the act of trying to separate economics from politics. Rule of law is the ethics of political economy. I don’t see what sense economics makes in a vacuum isolated from the governance of the political system.

    Plus, the more we rely upon informal ethics rather than formal legal thinking, the more room we give to the psychopaths eager to exploit that market failure.

    The abject failure of our medical community, academia, legal system, journalism, and other institutions to remotely check or ostracize bad behavior demonstrates quite plainly the limits of ethics in complex systems.

    “…one of which focused on maximizing shareholder value, the other which set a richer set of goals…”
    “…highly interdependent networks, when run for efficiency rather than robustness…”

    I would offer an additional perspective on this. Rich goals are how you maximize shareholder value. Robustness is how you build efficient systems. These are complementary values, not conflicting ones. It is far more efficient to maintain infrastructure, for example, than to defer maintenance until emergency repairs are necessary. In order for something to be efficient, it has to accomplish the goal. Failing to meet the goal isn’t cost-effective; it’s fraudulent.

    That contemporary management often abuses terms like maximizing shareholder value and maximizing efficiency to hide their real goal – maximizing their own personal looting – is a separate issue about the governance of our institutions, not a problem with the concepts of the profit motive or cost-effectiveness.

  26. charles sereno

    I wonder how many readers stopped and took a closer look at the 2nd paragraph of Yves’ post as I did. Unspoken yet implicit there is the notion that “solving a problem” is an always present, involuntary, reflexive process. We’re driven to do it and, amazingly, it turns out to be the highest form of human fulfillment — “Getting to Heaven IS Heaven.” That’s what I like about this site.

    1. anon y'mouse

      the knowledge of the many is always many times what each individual is bringing.

      there’s a caveat there, though. it’s an idea that is termed the Lowest Common Denominator in public. it is discussed in one of the final chapters of “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” and i didn’t quite understand what Ranciere was trying to make, but something like:

      even though collectively we are all smarter than we are individually, and individually we are pretty darned smart, our scope of action collectively/politically is constrained to the lower limit of what any individual is capable of handling.

      some people view that as a negative. it looks more like a failsafe. an understanding that setting the bar lower down ensures success & stability. can that be done while simultaneouslyd keeping the aims high?

  27. Schofield

    In his excellent book “Hierarchy in the Forest” the American anthropologist Christopher Boehm writes one very succinct sentence on pages 75 – 76 which is as follows:-

    “The foragers’ dilemma is to make use of the wisest heads available, yet prevent these gifted people from gaining undue political influence or power.”

    Once you’ve mulled this over, added in the not so wisest heads and above all figured out why human beings have been set up with this dilemma in the first place you’re ready to understand why we have no choice but to move towards establishing a single ideology that reconciles the political, economic and ethical or moral issues arising from this dilemma.

  28. Eureka Springs

    Ethics in a nutshell.

    The golden rule.

    I for one would NOT have others leave me a world with 8 plus billion humans inhabiting it upon my arrival. Nor have I procreated in such a manner.

    I would not leave hundreds of additional Fukushima’s all over the planet or a US military industrial complex or a paranoid secret NSA up everyones butt…. or the complexity of a political/legal structure which allows for these things.

    All of which first and foremost demands an end to a bribe based political and electoral / legal system.

    Nine times out of ten cries of complexity is BS, the elixir used to evade ethics.

  29. docg

    Congratulations, Yves, on a thoughtful, insightful, responsible and in every way excellent post. One measure of your success is the very lively and intelligent commentary it has elicited. I have a feeling you could be on your way to another book. I hope so.

  30. dutch

    The natural economic system is the law of the jungle. The strong consume the weak. Justice and fairness are unnatural and only exist to the extent that people have contrived to create them. No system of political economy will be just unless policy makers decide to make it that way. Human values must be enforced by continuous intervention in the natural order.

    1. James Levy

      Individual human beings suck in the jungle. They fall asleep, get sick, break bones, and then the ants and jackals come and eat their flesh. People always lived in groups, and the worst punishment ancient societies could impose was banishment from the group, for that meant a terrible solitary death.

      Your vision is a silly construct of the worst notions coming out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (Robinson Crusoe and all that). Strong groups may gobble up or oppress weak ones, but individuals cast into nature without support from or the tools of civilization have no long-term future.

    2. Banger

      This whole notion of the “law of the Jungle’ aka “survival of the fittest” has been pretty much debunked as the artifact of mid to late 19th century ideology Dickens spoofed in “A Christmas Carol” in fact as Darwin noted, cooperation and synergy are deeply embedded in nature. Modern research has shown this to be the case.

      We now know that human beings are hard wired for connection not competition.

      1. Jim

        But we also know that human beings are experts at acquiring bad habits.

        Unfortunately virtue seems to be only one possible habit among many others.

        Our record of attachment to the really abhorrent (i.e. gymnastic performances in North Korea and Nuremburg rallies)seems to raise the important question of whether we can be taken out of bad habits and under what circumstances can we succeed in finding a new foundation in good habits?

        I happen to be hopeful about this issue but it would require that the progressive/left community begin to take a careful look at habits and how they tend to grow through mimetic behavior(good and bad).

        The Left has tended to be satisfied with the conclusion that I am what has me. (i.e. class and a sense of inertia)

        But now it seems necessary to make a move beyond this largely passive mode of existence?

        1. AllanW

          I enjoyed your comment and Banger’s so a couple of points you might consider, Jim.

          Banger’s comment here is perfectly correct and empirically supported;

          ‘We now know that human beings are hard wired for connection not competition.’

          The process of evolution has equipped us far more for social and co-operative behaviour than isolated and individual. We can indeed as you say form an ‘attachment to the really abhorrent’ but the key point to bear in mind is that our behaviours are largely situational. We understand and react to our circumstances far more than we wish to acknowledge.

          Our implicit and widely-shared model of how we function, that we are entirely separate and functionally isolated individual thinking mechanisms, is operationally far more wrong than it’s right. We do have a cognitive ability to think for ourselves, to think rationally and to reach independent and non-shared conclusions but these conscious cognitive behaviours occupy far less of our time than the instinctive, non-rational, context-influenced cognitive form. We typically spend eight to ten times more time operating in unconscious mode than conscious mode. Read Daniel Kahnemann ‘Thinking fast and slow’ for the detailed information. One can of course attempt to change this proportion but very few people do.

          Looked at in this way it’s not hard to see how the recent history in our developed world (of accelerating non-investment in public and social goods and institutions, of ideological success in dismantling the size and shape of government as a check to large corporate power and of warping the legislature to assist the process of skewing the legal and political spheres towards one dollar one vote and away from one person one vote) has created the environment in which more people act and react in selfish and greedy ways. The encouraging fact about this process over the last thirty years is that it took a very small number of people pushing in the same direction consistently (whether in concert or just by coincidence) to create this huge shift in our culture; which should tell us that it should not be impossible to reverse and rebalance it once again without requiring everyone to pitch-in.

          Which leads me to an answer to your question;

          ‘under what circumstances can we succeed in finding a new foundation in good habits?’

          By shifting our developed environment back towards a recognition of our shared existence which involves reinforcing our inherited behaviour for empathy between people and actively searching for, penalising and attempting to reform the abberant behaviours indulged-in by those on the margins, at both ends, of our society. Clunkily you might call it ‘reforging the circular ring of how to live from the straight bar of iron our society has become’.

          It only takes a very few people to decide to do this work for its success to become more likely.

      2. dutch

        One cannot look at the increasing mal-distribution of income/wealth in this country and not conclude that the strong are making every effort at consuming the weak. Without intervention to force a redistribution, the 99% will be reduced to a state of penury not seen since Dickensian England.

      3. Justicia

        There are economists who are trying to make their field less ‘autistic’and more wholisitic. Consider this utilitarian view of morality as social capital:

        “The number and types of transactions that occur are influenced by transaction costs (Coase 1960; Calabresi 1968). The extent to which a group’s moral rules reduce transaction costs and hence facilitate mutually advantageous dealings between group members as well as between group members and outsiders represents the community’s moral capital: members of the group have an
        economic advantage that results from the objective prevalence of the observance of certain moral rules.”

        Suri Ratnapala, Moral Capital and Commercial Society,
        The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy
        2 (2003):215.

        (Thank you, Yves, for one of the most interesting discussions I’ve read in many a day.)

  31. Hugh

    One strategy in the class war being waged against us is to split economics from the social purposes which underlie it. These purposes concern the kind of society we wish to have for ourselves and each other. For most of us, this is a just and equitable society. Once these are taken off the table or replaced with spurious substitutes like growth, GDP, stock market prices, and unemployment rates, then any level of wealth inequality can be justified.

    I don’t think the ethics of complex systems are that hard if we re-introduce and stay focused on their social purposes.

    1. susan the other

      You might be right. The problem that always arises is the great contradiction in our bedrock social contract, which is that both liberty and equality are validated. So we have competing claims to both. Capital has made its claim against labor for freedom; labor makes its claim for equality. There needs to be a minimum level of equality for everyone before freedom can make a claim. That has never happened at a satisfactory level. It has never been debated. It has never been legislated.

      1. AllanW

        I appreciate your contribution to Hugh’s comment but struggle to understand it fully, I’m afraid. I’d appreciate some further clarification.

        I grasp the fundamental dichotomy in the social contract between liberty and equality but thought that Rawls for one (there are plenty of other social theorists at whom you can shake a stick) had pretty significantly tilted the table in his direction; we consciously sacrifice individual liberty for notions of shared public good. With the consensus of cultural expression being the metric for where the line stands on any particular issue. For example, the tide cganged on same-sex marriage recently in the States as it did earlier in other places at different times on social issues like slavery and emancipation.

        But I’m not sure I understand your point here;

        ‘There needs to be a minimum level of equality for everyone before freedom can make a claim. That has never happened at a satisfactory level. It has never been debated. It has never been legislated.’

        and would appreciate any help you could give me. Thanks in advance.

    2. AllanW

      Agreed. I read this article as attempts by Yves to understand the interfaces between developed-world economic, political and legal systems as a precursor to formulating a practical way forward to rebalance society towards more fair aims.

      I think the philosophical goals are taken as read; golden rule, informed by science, secular public space. Part of the reason this thread has been so interesting is that it tries to focus on the ‘what next’ part rather than the ‘this is where we are’ part but bumps up against an information lack and Yves is trying to fill that.

      I hope we have given her some topics to feed into her research.

  32. Jim

    Yves said:

    “So the conduct that is promulgated within the systems, both the entity itself and society wide is a critically important governor of operations.”

    tim s at 11:06 A.M.stated:

    “I think Yves is correct that the fulcrum about which a system ascends or declines is in the culture of the system. This is not something that is imposed from above or from without, it can only come from within and not ever from consciousness (so good luck on how to bring about good culture.”

    If we assume, for a moment, that Foucault is right, that in modern society there may be no locus of power (a conclusion extremely upsetting to the classic/traditional left) although this same grouping tends to define neoliberalism as pluralistic and decentralized and framed by an entrepreneurial logic through which the state is supervised by the market—then it may be necessary to entertain the notion that there is really no outside to power (another concept of Foucault) and that we may have to, at least, suspend our thinking of politics as simply consisting of repressed subjects struggling from emancipation from Big Capital, Big State and Big Bank.

    But where does such a conclusion leave us politically?

    It could possibly mean switching the focus of the left from its current obsession with the functioning and apparatus of power to begin exploring politics more as a realm of freedom(despite oppressive elites and outdated ideologies such as neo-Marxism)– and here is where we might potentially find a huge constituency for engaging in practices of self-transformation leading to cultural and societal changes.

  33. kevinearick

    Stupid Economics: Equal Empire Rights

    Empire seeks an equal right to labor productivity cultivated with middle class peer pressure and confirmed by legacy capital law. Now, it has an equal right to nothing, labor productivity within the empire.

    Empire reserves the right to change its mind, defined by scholars employed to plead its case, but the door swings both ways. Consume it all.

    Empire convinced America to accept its mantle, to continue extorting participation among legacy populations, but that does not oblige the rest of us to be stupid as well, regardless of who holds the bully pulpit hostage in DC.

    Empire cooks the books until it can’t; it’s as simple as that. Pick a monetary theory and spin the wheel. Prizes go up as participation goes down. Keep raising those rents at the turnstile as corporate tourists pass through with their entitlement credits, until you can’t.

    Empire wants you to believe life is a one-way blind alley from which you may not escape. Its money is like toilet paper; treat it accordingly. Don’t discount labor with rent, especially your own, and expect not to be held captive by stupid.

    Anything can be money. Only you can give it value. The middle class is to labor as financial engineering is to silver, a lever built to snap. What are you being paid to buy, with credit inflation?

    Why would you pay a grower $100k/yr cash and a free McMansion on the hill for an unnecessary drug, who pays you $25k/yr minus $800/mo rent on a ghetto alley house and food inflated by the same real estate ponzi to deliver his food? That is pretty f-ing stupid.

    That is the State of California, a ‘victim’ of its own technology, Facebook Real Estate valuation, demanding more equal rights. By all means, keep buying that crap wine and all the other crap products that launder the compounded money back to Wells Fargo. The value of the dollar for Warren Buffet is the stupidity of the users it controls, paying first responders to organize the drug trade and lecture their children on drug use in school.

    Which is the dumber crook – the Fed, Warren Buffet/Wells Fargo, the grower selling pot at $500/ounce, or the pot buyer surrendering a year’s purchasing power? The criminals are parents failing to provide their children with a basic understanding of economics before handing them over to the State for indoctrination.

    Keep chasing that money, and declare war on labor. The US Supreme Court defined corporate property as a person with bankruptcy privilege, outlawed labor with Family Law, shredding the mythology of the US Constitution, and now the machine is devouring the middle class, big surprise, like that is not a common feature of common law in every empire. Try, try again monetary nazis.

    Labor is always paid; the only question is interest and penalties. Electronics cannot be secured, nor can a house or any other building. Insurance is a lie. Look at all the money being poured into NSA Spyquarters, which can’t be secured. Demanding more equality is pretty damn stupid given that there is only one 2 on the number line and the empire cannot add 2 and 2 to get 4. Your home is where your heart is; careful with whom you entrust it.

    The proton must shield itself with a neutron. If you bear tangent to the proton, the neutron must bear around, temporarily shielding each from each other, when value may be altered. 2 minus -2 is 4.

    I don’t need my kids to beat these morons; they drop the bombs I design for them on each other, competing for control. If you do not want to evacuate empire gravity, that is your business. The more clone control devices in line, the greater the resonance. When you wire around this crap with ac, to give yourself a new dimension of channels, leave the dc a channel to compute itself.

    The ship turns on how you choose to define your self. Employ time effectively, or sell yourself short, as you wish. Legacy capital breeds the middle class on technology to consume power under its control, and fails every time. There is nothing wizardry about Wall Street. Main Street wants to be fooled, until it can no longer avoid the bill.

  34. Mark

    As Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of a procedure is to keep you from thinking.” Any system is just a set of procedures. And one definition of a complex system is one so large no one person can understand it. Those two ideas are very powerful when standing alone, but in a world where “value” is strictly a mathematical construct, I think your intuition is right on and it is rather terrifying.

  35. Kim Kaufman

    “…we’ve also been on the receiving end of a forty-year campaign to discredit, co-opt and shrink government. One proof of this pudding is that formerly competent regulators like the SEC and FDA are shadows of their former selves.”

    Discredit and co-opt government, yes, but shrink government, no. Throughout recent history, Republicans who have screamed “smaller government” has enlarged government and deficits and then screamed when Dems get into office about “huge deficits” and “big government.” What Thom Hartmann calls the “two Christmases” – Republicans give out favors when they’re in office and make the Dems pay for it. As for cuts to the SEC, etc., that’s nothing compared to the cost of Homeland Security which Baby Bush created. It’s all about priorities and who’s getting theirs. For the last 40 years, it’s been the 1%. The 99% needs better messaging. “They’re” winning with the “poor are poor because they’re stupid and lazy” meme that the msm repeats ad nauseum.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is not fully accurate, but you are correct to point out that the right has successfully waged war on taxes by calling it war on government. But if you pulled out military spending, I would hazard government ex that is indeed smaller. And the SEC has been budget-starved for at least 20 years. I’m not as clear on how much of the fall of the FDA is budget-related and how much is cognitive capture.

      If you look from 1980, when the Reagan/Thatcher campaign against government size became earnest (Carter did set the ball rolling but it did not get very far) as a percent of GDP (you see it went sideways in the 1980s, fell strongly in the 1990s, and crept back up in the new century prior to the crisis, but came no where near its 1980 level. The reason for the reversion was Middle East military spending. It exploded after the crisis as a direct result of the crisis. And it’s now back to the level of the early 1980s.

      And this is TOTAL government spending, Federal, state, and local:

      http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/the-non-surge-in-government-spending/?_r=0

      This is from the OMB:

      The 1950s began a steady spending increase to about 36 percent of GDP by 1982. In the 1990s and 2000s government spending stayed about constant at 33-35 percent of GDP, but in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008 spending has jogged up to 40 percent of GDP.

      http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/us_20th_century_chart.html

      You may recall that Reagan also spent heavily on military…..

      1. Kim Kaufman

        “But if you pulled out military spending, I would hazard government ex that is indeed smaller.”

        I don’t think you can pull out military spending (at least not for my argument!) – especially under Reagan. Also, the privatization of the military/intelligence is a huge increase I think because not only is it bigger it’s more expensive because the wages/profits are much higher than government workers – but is still being paid for by government money because it’s government work.

        “And the SEC has been budget-starved for at least 20 years. I’m not as clear on how much of the fall of the FDA is budget-related and how much is cognitive capture.”

        I don’t know but I don’t think even if these two agencies were as fully funded as we’d them to be, their budgets were be nowhere as big as Homeland Security (which now also includes the INS) is. This is ideology at work not smaller government, imo.

          1. washunate

            Yeah, I hope Yves responds to you or perhaps develops her thoughts in a stand alone post on this some time.

            From my vantage point, it has seemed pretty clear that government overall has been growing in size and power – and that the GOP is an integral driver of this – so I’m curious to hear a different perspective on that.

  36. hillcountry

    thanks Yves for inspiring such a thoughtful discussion!!!

    last but not least in expressing our hearts and minds on these weighty matters is our musical culture – a leaven beyond compare to many of us. Where would we be without our troubadours?

    enjoy in peace,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwSqJjQ1vJ0

  37. Dan Kervick

    I tend to think that moral norms are formed and re-formed spontaneously and effectively in a group so long as there are large, guiding ambitions or ends about which there is widespread and emotionally committed consensus in the group. Then possible ways of behavior are constantly evaluated relative to those ends in a common-sense manner, and praised or sanctioned accordingly. When social consensus about the purposes for which the society exists breaks down, all that is left is certain minimal, formal conditions and coordination principles for social living: things like “preserve civil peace” or “when all else fails, do what we always did before.” But when ideas about the fundamental purposes of the society are too varied, moral norms become a Babel of conflicting and weakly held directives. This is perceived by the society’s members who respond with anxiety, and instigate efforts to articulate a new Big Idea, or form a new political cult, or religious cult or military cult around which to organize the society. This can happen; societies do sometimes successfully re-invigorate themselves with various kinds of renaissances, awakenings, revolutions, reformations, coups, etc.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Under what conditions does the “social consensus about the purposes for which the society exists” break down? Or, to put flesh and blood on it, who are the actors who break the consensus, and what do they do that breaks it?

      What do you think of the premise that the “social consensus about the purporses for which American society exists”–AKA “the American dream”–has been this: it exists so that all who come here can get rich quick. Or the premise that it is breaking down for the same reason that all Ponzi schemes break down?

      The natural rights/social contract philosophy of the American state papers has long seemed utopian too me. It seems to be founded on the premise that human beings can create a thriving national community and just economy out of disparate peoples drawn from all places and cultures of the world, based on nothing but law. No common history or culture is required. No common religion. No common agreement about anything except Lockean thinking about natural and imprescriptable rights. And no ethics are required beyond the exent of civil obligation–that is, the duties the law recognizes that we all owe to each other–except that we usually only ever hear about the “civil rights” side of the civil obligation coin.

      If anything about this is right, then we shouldn’t wonder that the social consensus is breaking down. The wonder is that it has endured so long as it has, owing to the power of wishful thinking.

      1. Nathanael

        “Under what conditions does the “social consensus about the purposes for which the society exists” break down? ”

        I don’t know, but the previous consensus (which to be fair was full of total insanity) has broken down here and now in the US, and frankly in Europe too. People are now competing to provide the Big Idea which will win and reform society.

        The previous consensus included a lot of wacky ideas like “the US is the policeman of the world” and “Greed is good”.

  38. Jeff N

    This makes me think of two things

    1. the products of 30 years ago, say, a VCR made in Japan in the mid-1980s. The outer shell was metal, the VCR was heavy. Today, a product designer would be laughed out of the room if he/she suggested DVD player involving any metal whatsoever.

    2. For 30+ years, we’ve been taught this: if a company has a choice of saving $0.01 by throwing their feces in the back yard instead of flushing it down the toilet, then it is the company’s RESPONSIBILITY to throw that feces in the back yard and return that $0.01 to the shareholder.

  39. Bernoulliplein

    Dear Yves, wonderful post and I thoroughly enjoy your daily blogging!! This post took me straight back to my master’s degree obsession with systems theory. I totally relish the subject but in the end it also got me a bit frustrated as I remember vividly the befuddledness of most of academia’s populace when confronted with a blend of economics and ‘the social stuff’. There’s a great and IMO incomprehensible divide between the two that absolutely won’t be bridged by behavioral economics. I’ll look forward to your next post on the matter!

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