Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Today's quiz: who wrote this warning about the dangers of capitalism?

Here it is:
The ... danger is in the subordination of belief to the needs of the modern industrial system. As this persuades us on the goods we buy, and as it persuades us on the public policies that are necessary for its planning, so it also accommodates us to its goals and values. These are that technology is always good; that economic growth is always good; ... that consumption of goods is the principal source of happiness; ... and that nothing should interfere with the priority we accord to technology, growth, and increased consumption.

We will be the mentally indentured servants of the industrial system. This will be the benign servitude of the household retainer who is taught to love her master and mistress and believe that their interests are their own. But it is not exactly freedom.
Who wrote this? Marx, Lenin or Trotsky? Nope. It was J.K.Galbraith in a 1967 essay "Liberty, Happiness... and the Economy", excerpted in the Atlantic Monthly 297:3 (April 2006) pp. 46f.

Galbraith has described a dystopian future that will surely follow if "we continue to believe that the goals of the modern industrial system and the public policies that serve those goals" always coincide with our life goals (emphasis added). This erroneous mentality, viz., that money not only makes the world go 'round but that it should, was already prevalent when he wrote those words.

But this prophet is not all doom and gloom. Like Moses and the 12 tribes at Gerazim and Ebal (Deut. 27.12f), or Joshua in his last sermon (Joshua 24.14f), he sets before us blessings and curses, life and death -- or at least freedom and servitude; he offers us a brighter future if we choose a better path:
If, on the other hand, the industrial system is seen to be only a part, and as we grow wealthier, a diminishing part, of life, there is much less reason for concern.... the industrial system will itself will be subordinate to the claims of larger dimensions of life. Intellectual preparation will be for its own sake and not merely for the better service of the industrial system.
The children of Israel didn't choose the better path, and neither have we. We have grown wealthier, but our country has become if anything more economically obsessed in the past few decades.

Here's an example of what I mean. Let's suppose for a moment that violent video-games lead to increased criminality in teen-age boys. You may not agree with this, but let's just suppose it for a minute. Let us also suppose that given a choice of videogames, teen-age boys prefer games with a lot of excitement and "action" -- that is to say violent games, rather than games involving a lot of thought and strategic planning.

Down at the local arcade, there are many video game machines. As the manager of such an outfit, you have some say in the selection of games. You have to make a profit, so you need games that bring in the players (and payers). Not only do you have to make a profit, you have to maximize profits, because your arcade is part of a chain owned by a public corporation. Your arcade's numbers -- marketshare, sales per square foot, average time on machine, etc. -- are compared with benchmarks. You have to make your numbers, which means you have to choose the games that the boys like to play. Do teen-age boys commit more assaults or strong-arm robberies in your community because your arcade (and all the others!) have so many of the violent games? Maybe there are, but those are externalities. These numbers (crime rates) are somebody else's numbers; your job is only to meet yours. If you don't meet your numbers, you'll be replaced by someone who will.

And who will fire you? Someone who'll be fired if his area/state/region doesn't make its numbers in the aggregate. And who would fire him? The executives, or the board. And all of them stand to be replaced if they don't maximize profits for their shareholders.

And who are these evil shareholders, whose only object is profit? You and I are! We own mutual funds, and the managers work for us to bring us the best returns, don't they? Why would you invest in some fund that you didn't think would maximize your return? Maybe you invest in some funds that are supposed to be socially responsible?

Pah! Do they own any shares of that company run by convicted illegal monopolists - Microsoft I mean? The appeals court struck down Judge Jackson's remedy, but they did not dispute his conclusions of fact or of law. Microsoft is run by unrepentant criminals, but who doesn't own some of their stock? How about pharmaceutical stocks? Of course your fund owns some shares of those drug pushers.

So this morning, Matthew 6:22 came to mind, unbidden. Ummm, here it is in context:
19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.23But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

It seems to me that our society, our nation, has bad collective eyes. We have somehow chosen to follow Money. But we do this gradually as a society, as a nation -- just as we do it gradually as individuals.

Think about it. Did anyone, in the last 40 years, say "As a society, let's have no national priorities beyond the priorities of modern industry. Art, science, music, literature -- their only value is in service of the modern industrial state"? What Senator or Representative would say that, even in private?

Or, since we're coming up on Easter, consider the priests and scribes who used the Romans to kill Jesus. Did they wake up one day and say, "Today, I'm going to close my eyes to truth and grace and mercy, and help kill a sinless man"? No, they liked their careers and their positions, and gradually, subtly, the career, the perks, the position, the prestige -- these, rather than the service of God, became paramount in their lives.

And how about you and me? When did you decide to buy into this system which grinds people under the wheels of capitalism? When did you decide to put your priority on money above all else? You didn't do that, did you? Neither did I. We just invested our money in what looked reasonable, we followed the advice of a financial advisor, or whatever. But that's it. Our savings are in mutual funds, and those managers are focused on making profits -- externalities be damned. Or ignored.

So what now? I'm not sure. Pull your retirement savings out of mutual funds? And do what instead with them? How much time do you have to manage that stuff?

No answers, only questions. Sorry.

The good news, though, is that Jesus is with us:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and theLord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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