Should We Choose the Economy or the Life of Senior Citizens? Ethicists Respond

I can’t believe we are asking this question right now. It seems like some kind of dystopian movie. Sadly, it is Christians who seem to be taking the lead here.  See our post on R.R. Reno here.

By this point you have all heard about Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick:

Patrick is an evangelical Christian who says his faith influences his political decisions.

I am glad we have Christian ethicists to give us perspective. Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post talked to some of them. Here is a taste:

We cannot define people in terms of their age or their perceived usefulness,” Moore said.

Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Boston College, said people are talking about the economy and the coronavirus-directed shutdown in ways that don’t make sense.

“We’re talking about a planned moment of rest. We’re not talking about an uncontrolled crash,” she said. “The economy is important because it allows people to flourish. It isn’t a demigod we sacrifice human beings to.”

Faith, she said, can offer people a bigger framework for how to think about the crisis.

“Faith gives you hope that this can be worked out with time, patience and ingenuity,” she said. It also offers “a sense of finitude of knowledge of science, the sense that we’re fragile.”

On the policy front, Arthur Brooks, who was formerly president of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said policy analysts will need to find a balance between economic and health concerns, just as they did between national security and the economy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“The big question is: Who’s going to win? The economists? Public-health people? And the answer is both and neither,” he said. “The ethical thing to do is how to think about the balance between these policy poles.”

Read the entire piece here.

But the Economy…!

Trump thunbs up

I recently had a long(ish) discussion with an evangelical Trump supporter.  This person was not a fan of Trump’s brash style or his tweets, but he was planning on voting for him again in 2020 as long as the economy remained strong.

I have never been one to believe that a president alone is responsible for a good or a bad economy.  Would we have had this kind of economic growth if another president was in the oval office?  Perhaps.  Would the economy be even better if we were not in the midst of a Trump-induced trade war?  I have no idea.  But I asked my conversation partner the following questions:

  • Is a strong economy more important than the rule of law?
  • Is a strong economy more important than having a president who obstructs justice?
  • Is a strong economy more important than having a president who regularly lies to the American people?
  • Is a strong economy more important than a president who shows no racial sensitivity and claims a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those trying to oppose white supremacists?  (Good people on both sides)
  • Is a strong economy more important than a president who separates immigrant and refugee families at the Mexican-border?
  • Is a strong economy more important than a president who shows no interest in addressing climate change?
  • Is a strong economy more important than having a president who disparages women?
  • Is a strong economy more important than having a president who believes Vladimir Putin when he says he did not interfere with the 2016 election despite the fact that all his intelligent agencies tell him that Russia was involved in the lecture?

I could keep going.   Sadly, this conversation partner’s answer to almost all of these questions was “yes.”  Economic determinism is alive and well in Trump land.

An Alternative to a Border Wall

Wall solar

Over at Big Think, Stephen Johnson writes about a plan that might help with border security, create jobs, and bring green energy to the United States.  Here is a taste:

“What should the U.S. do about The Wall?” is a question that’s destined to divide many Americans. But there’s one proposal for the U.S.-Mexico border that, at least in theory, seems agreeable to everyone.

A consortium of 28 engineers and scientists has proposed that – instead of building a simple barrier along the approximately 2,000-mile border – the U.S. and Mexico could work together to build an industrial park along the divide that would include desalination facilities, solar energy panels, wind turbines and natural gas pipelines. The plan would not only provide the region with border security – considering it’d be a continuous train of heavily guarded industrial facilities – but also energy, water and jobs.

In a white paper, the team called it a “future energy, water, industry and education park” that “will create massive opportunities for employment and prosperity.”

“Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the Interstate system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century,” Luciano Castillo, Purdue University’s Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems and lead of the consortium, told “It would do for the Southwest what the Tennessee Valley Authority has done for the Southeast over the last several decades.”

Read the entire piece here.  Interesting.  This deserves bipartisan consideration.

Why Does Trump Want to “Bring Back Coal” When He Could be Bringing Back Used Cars and Bowling Pins?

According to this piece in The Washington Post, 76,572 people work in coal miners.

Are they people?  Yes.  Do they have dignity?  Yes.  Should they have a voice in our democracy?  Absolutely.  Should we build the economic policy of the United States around them?



We Need More Grace


Victor Tan Chen believes that America’s capitalist economy is in the midst of a spiritual crisis that can be remedied by heavy doses of grace.  Here is a taste of the Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist’s article in The Atlantic:

The concept of grace comes from the Christian teaching that everyone, not just the deserving, is saved by God’s grace. Grace in the broader sense that I (an agnostic) am using, however, can be both secular and religious. In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an obsession with excusing nothing, with measuring and judging the worth of people based on everything from a spotty résumé to an offensive comment.

While it has its roots in Christianity, grace is prized by many other religions—from Buddhism’s call to accept suffering with equanimity, to the Tao Te Ching’s admonishment to treat the good and bad alike with kindness, to the Upanishads’ focus on the eternal and infinite nature of reality. Grace can thrive outside religious faith, too: not just in the abstract theories of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, but also in the humanism of scientists like Carl Sagan, who, inspired by Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth as a tiny speck, wrote that this “pale blue dot” underscored the “folly of human conceits” and humans’ responsibility to “deal more kindly with one another.” Unlike an egalitarian viewpoint focused on measuring and leveling inequalities, grace rejects categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, and offers neither retribution nor restitution, but forgiveness.

With a perspective of grace, it becomes clearer that America, the wealthiest of nations, possesses enough prosperity to provide adequately for all. It becomes easier to part with one’s hard-won treasure in order to pull others up, even if those being helped seem “undeserving”—a label that today serves as a justification for opposing the sharing of wealth on the grounds that it is a greedy plea from the resentful, idle, and envious.

At the same time, grace reminds the well-educated and well-off to be less self-righteous and less hostile toward other people’s values. Without a doubt, opposing racism and other forms of bigotry is imperative. There are different ways to go about it, though, and ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin. Yet many of the liberal, affluent, and college-educated too often reduce the beliefs of a significant segment of the population to a mash of evil and delusion. From gripes about the backwardness and boredom of small-town America to jokes about “rednecks” and “white trash” that are still acceptable to say in polite company, it’s no wonder that the white working class believes that others look down on them. That’s not to say their situation is worse than that of the black and Latino working classes—it’s to say that where exactly they fit in the hierarchy of oppression is a question that leads nowhere, given how much all these groups have struggled in recent decades.

Obama, a Christian, has hinted at his belief in grace quite frequently, mostly in urging people to be more tolerant of outlooks different from their own. After the Charleston church shooting in the summer of 2015, however, he was more explicit. In praising the parishioners who welcomed their alleged killer into their Bible study, and the victims’ family members who forgave him in court, Obama invoked grace—the “free and benevolent favor of God,” bestowed to the sinful and saintly alike. “We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other,” he said. “But we got it all the same.”

Read the entire article here.  I think we could all use a little more grace and we can also try to show a little more grace.

Some Helpful Stuff on Trump’s Carrier Deal


Kudos to Donald Trump.  He negotiated and saved about 1000 jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana this week.  Indeed, there will be 1000 people who will have a better Christmas because Trump did this.

But we historians have a nasty habit of understanding events like this in larger contexts. We tend to look for a bigger picture.  We think about the implications of political decisions and about cause and effect.  We take the long view.

One piece that has provided a start point for helping me understand the implications of Trump’s job saving efforts as Carrier is Matt Yglesias’s piece at Vox.

Here is a taste:

Now, the overall scale of this move relative to the size of the American economy is pathetic. In Indiana alone, there were 672,000 manufacturing jobs at the 1999 peak, falling to 425,000 in the summer of 2009 and bouncing back to 513,000 as of this fall. Which is just to say that broad Obama-era policies aimed at overall economic recovery have “brought back” almost 90 times as many jobs as are at stake in the Carrier deal. Getting all the way back to the Clinton-era peak would require Trump to pull off about 160 Carrier-scale moves in Indiana alone, to say nothing of the millions of manufacturing jobs in other states.

But the very small-scale nature of the Carrier situation is part of what makes it such appealing public relations. It’s true that something abstract like a 0.25 percentage point cut in the federal funds rate or a temporary partial suspension of the payroll tax would do a lot more to create jobs than jawboning a single company about a single factory. But Trump’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the problems of one American community indicates an obsessive focus on boosting the fortunes of working-class Midwesterners — even as his administration’s big-picture policy focus remains on deregulating Wall Street, enacting an enormous tax cut for rich people, and slashing spending on assistance to the poor.

And this:

Trump has done a good job over the years of making his Twitter feed livelier and more exciting than Obama’s feed. But it’s still the case that allowing him to set the media agenda via Twitter is an enormous win for him. Very few people will be affected by the Carrier move — many fewer, for example, than the million or so people impacted by Obama’s leave for contractors initiative — whereas huge numbers of people will be affected by things Trump doesn’t like to tweet about, including rolling back Dodd-Frank and slashing taxes for millionaires.

Touring the country looking for factories to cheerlead or small interventions to help particular communities is a perfectly legitimate thing for a president to do. But a PR stunt is a PR stunt, not a major economic policy initiative.

If Trump actually does try to make this kind of stunt the centerpiece of his economic agenda, that will be a disaster. But the much more likely scenario is one in which he continues with his stated policy agenda of tax cuts and deregulation while using a handful of PR stunts to maintain an image as an champion of the working class. The big question is will he get away with it?

Read the entire piece here.

Does America Need More Welders or More Philosophers?

Philosophers around the country will have something to talk about in class today after Florida Senator Marco Rubio unleashed this gem at last night’s GOP debate:

What is it with Florida politicians taking pot shots at the liberal arts and the humanities? Governor Rick Scott did it. So did Jeb Bush.  Now its Rubio’s turn.
Three comments:
First, we need both welders and philosophers.  I made this argument a few years ago.
Second, who is attacking vocational training?

Third, Rubio might be interested in learning that philosophers make more money than welders.

"If Government (and, God forbid, Obama) had anything to do with the revival of the U.S. auto industry, let’s not dare be happy about its comeback"

E.J. Dionne nails it again.  In this column he compares the Mitt Romney campaign (and the Santorum resurgence) to the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad for Chrysler.  There a lot of good zingers in this pieces, but here is one:

As for Eastwood, his Super Bowl ad for Chrysler led many conservatives to reveal themselves as whiny complainers incapable of celebrating the achievements of American enterprise and public policy. To paraphrase the late Jeane Kirkpatrick’s effective 1984 jab at Democrats, Republicans always blame American government first. If government (and, God forbid, Obama) had anything to do with the revival of the U.S. auto industry, let’s not dare be happy about its comeback.

Never mind that Eastwood was right to offer his lovely tribute to American resilience. “It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times,” Eastwood said. “The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.”

This is a partisan message only if one party embraces the role of advocating “division, discord and blame.” And, bless him, that’s exactly what Karl Rove chose to do. He grumbled on Fox News that the ad was “a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best wishes of the management, which has benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they’ll never pay back.”

Let’s put aside that most of the money from the Chrysler bailout has already been paid back, and that the initial loan to Chrysler was advanced by the Bush administration, for which Rove once worked. Rove’s normally sharp political instincts failed him here. Why not celebrate Detroit’s resurgence as an American victory and move on?

That’s what Rove’s Fox colleague Bill O’Reilly did, arguing that Eastwood was “trying to get Americans saying, ‘We’re coming back, we’re gonna rally around. We’ve got bad times; we’ll work our way out of it like we’ve always done.’ ” It’s not my habit to agree with O’Reilly, but good for him for recognizing that maybe it is morning in America, or at least the end of a long, dark night. You don’t have to be for Obama to feel good about that.

E.J. Dionne Wonders if the Pope Will be Joining Occupy Wall Street

The recent statement by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sounds a lot like some of things the Occupy Wall Street folks are saying.  Dionne explains:

Will we soon see a distinguished-looking older man in long, white robes walking among the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York’s Zuccotti Park? Is Pope Benedict XVI joining the protest movement? 

Well, yes and no. Yes, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a strong and thoughtful critique of the global financial system this week that paralleled many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are echoing through Lower Manhattan and cities around the world.

The report spoke of “the primacy of being over having,” of “ethics over the economy,” and of “embracing the logic of the global common good.”

In a knock against those who oppose government economic regulation, the council emphasized “the primacy of politics — which is responsible for the common good — over the economy and finance.” It commented favorably on a financial transactions tax and supported an international authority to oversee the global economy.

But Vatican officials were careful to say that their report was not a direct response to the worldwide demonstrations. “It is a coincidence that we share some views,” said Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the council. “But after all, these are proposals that are based on reasonableness.”

Read the rest here.

Consumer Spending, Not Private Investment, Stimulates Economic Growth

James Livingston, a historian at Rutgers and the author of the forthcoming Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment and Your Soul, writes today in the The New York Times:

As an economic historian who has been studying American capitalism for 35 years, I’m going to let you in on the best-kept secret of the last century: private investment — that is, using business profits to increase productivity and output — doesn’t actually drive economic growth. Consumer debt and government spending do. Private investment isn’t even necessary to promote growth. 

This is, to put it mildly, a controversial claim. Economists will tell you that private business investment causes growth because it pays for the new plant or equipment that creates jobs, improves labor productivity and increases workers’ incomes. As a result, you’ll hear politicians insisting that more incentives for private investors — lower taxes on corporate profits — will lead to faster and better-balanced growth.

The general public seems to agree. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in May, a majority of Americans believe that increased corporate taxes “would discourage American companies from creating jobs.”

But history shows that this is wrong. 

Read the rest here.

I am eager to read Livingston’s book (it will be released next month) to see how he makes the argument that consumerism is good for one’s soul.  I am intrigued.

What Are the Wall Street Protesters So Angry About?

Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider and a former top-ranked Wall Street analyst who has worked at Prudential Securities, Oppenheimer & Co., and Merrill Lynch, thinks that those participating in the Wall Street protests have a lot to be angry about.  Here is his recent post at Business Insider.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests are gaining momentum, having spread from a small park in New York to marches to other cities across the country.

So far, the protests seem fueled by a collective sense that things in our economy are not fair or right.  But the protesters have not done a good job of focusing their complaints—and thus have been skewered as malcontents who don’t know what they stand for or want.

(An early list of “grievances” included some legitimate beefs, but was otherwise just a vague attack on “corporations.” Given that these are the same corporations that employ more than 100 million Americans and make the products we all use every day, this broadside did not resonate with most Americans).

So, what are the protesters so upset about, really?

Do they have legitimate gripes?

To answer the latter question first, yes, they have very legitimate gripes.

And if America cannot figure out a way to address these gripes, the country will likely become increasingly “de-stabilized,” as sociologists might say. And in that scenario, the current protests will likely be only the beginning.

Read the rest here.

HT: Russ Reeves

Is Obama a Class Warrior?

Writing at The New York Times, Mark Landler suggests that Barack Obama seems to be embracing the “class warrior” label that Republicans are trying to pin on him.  He is fighting Tea Party and libertarian populism with some good old-fashioned economic populism.  Here is a taste of Landler’s article: 

Reprising the populist themes of recent speeches in Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, Mr. Obama repeatedly challenged Republicans to pass the jobs bill. Extending the cut in payroll taxes would put $1,700 into the pockets of a typical Colorado working family, Mr. Obama said, and refusing to do so would amount to hitting them with a tax increase. Cries of “pass the bill” competed with chants of “four more years.”

Far from rejecting the Republican accusation that he is waging class warfare, Mr. Obama now seems to revel in it.

“If asking a millionaire to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a class warrior, a warrior for the middle class, I will accept that; I’ll wear that as a badge of honor,” Mr. Obama said. “Because the only class warfare I’ve seen is the battle that’s been waged against the middle class in this country for a decade now.” 

As I read this article, and thought a bit more about Obama’s job package, I recalled the scene from the movie “Dave” where the title character, played by Kevin Klein, tries get his own jobs bill passed.  You Tube would not allow me to embed the video, but you can watch it by going to the link above.

Was Marx Right About Capitalism and the Middle Class?

During periods of economic difficulty the voices questioning the capitalist system in the West tend to get louder and, depending on your willingness to listen, more convincing.

At the website of the BBC News Magazine, John Gray argues that Karl Marx may have been wrong about communism, but he was right in his prediction that capitalism would eventually suck the life out of the middle class.  Here is a taste: 

…As capitalism has advanced it has returned most people to a new version of the precarious existence of Marx’s proles. Our incomes are far higher and in some degree we’re cushioned against shocks by what remains of the post-war welfare state.

But we have very little effective control over the course of our lives, and the uncertainty in which we must live is being worsened by policies devised to deal with the financial crisis. Zero interest rates alongside rising prices means you’re getting a negative return on your money and over time your capital is being eroded.

The situation of many younger people is even worse. In order to acquire the skills you need, you’ll have to go into debt. Since at some point you’ll have to retrain you should try to save, but if you’re indebted from the start that’s the last thing you’ll be able to do. Whatever their age, the prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity.

Tea, the American Revolution, and Some New Books

The New Yorker is running a piece, written by Caleb Crain, entitled Tea and Empathy: Did Principle or Pragmatism Start the American Revolution?

Crain concludes:

In the mid-twentieth century, historians trying to make sense of the paranoid style in American Revolutionary politics suggested that it derived from essayists on the fringe of the Whig Party in England who saw themselves as heirs of the men who had launched the English Civil War. Though marginal in England, these conspiracy theories seemed cogent in America, where colonists lived under governors with strong executive powers but no local constituency. Still, historically informed descriptions of what people believed don’t explain why colonists stood up for their principles only some of the time, and why they disagreed so acrimoniously that they were willing to dip one another in tar barrels. In a 1972 article, “An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution,” Marc Egnal and Joseph A. Ernst suggested that the Revolution may have been triggered by the growth of British capitalism, which for decades flooded the colonies with easy credit and with manufactured goods that were better and cheaper than Americans could make themselves. The British were doing to us in the seventeen-sixties more or less what China is doing to us today. Merchants were the first to make their discontent political, because they were the first to see that the economic predicament could be eased if the colonies had the autonomy to, say, print paper money or trade with other nations. The people, for their part, may have hoped that boycotts of imported luxuries would limit their personal spending and encourage American manufacturing, which might, in time, employ them. But the people’s enthusiasm for the boycotts far outran the merchants’. In banning such items as funeral scarves and elaborate mourning dress, the colonists seem to have been admitting to powerlessness, as if their desire for British goods were itself the instrument of their subjugation.

Crain’s essay includes a discussion of three recent books on the American Revolution.  They are:

Timothy Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots

Benjamin Carp, Defiance of the Patriots

Richard Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country. 

The New Economy Needs Liberal Arts Majors

Richard Greenwald, the dean of Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University, makes a compelling argument for the liberal arts.  Here is a taste:

The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way….

For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.

It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.

In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success…

Humility and the Economy

We are interested in virtues here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Humility is one of them.  Samuel Gregg has a nice piece on humility and marketplace at the blog of the Action Institute.

Gregg writes:

In the case of consumers, a good dose of humility might well encourage some acceptance that the meaning of life is not simple and is certainly not to be found in how many material things we possess, as important as wealth can be in helping us to live dignified lives. To this extent, greater humility might temper the “I-want-it-all-right-now” mentality that helped generate such high household-debt levels in America and Europe.

Likewise, businesses could benefit from a renewed appreciation of humility. The financial wizard the late Sir John Templeton once wrote that humility was crucial if business was to maintain the open-mindedness that is essential to successful entrepreneurship rather than rest upon their past glories. To this we might add the insight of another prominent entrepreneur, François Michelin, that humility helps business leaders in a market economy remember that the customers are the real masters. More humble business-leaders would also be less-inclined to succumb to the “Masters-of-the-Universe” hubris that helped destroy any number of banks in 2008.

Speaking of hubris, humility also has a role to play in encouraging mainstream economists to accept economics’ limits as a science and acknowledge that not everything about markets can be explained by mathematical models that were supposed to fail only once in a million years. As George Mason University professor of economics Russ Roberts has wisely observed, while “facts and evidence still matter”, economists “should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday.”

Document What is Beautiful

This is what Alabama conservationists are telling volunteers as they all await the arrival of the BP oil spill on their shores. Here is a taste from today’s New York Times:

But as the oil slick made its way inexorably here toward the barrier islands at the mouth of Mobile Bay, with forecasts for a swath from Mississippi to the beaches of Pensacola, Fla., later this week, the mood was of the last days.

“You guys are our first line of defense,” Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, a conservation group, told about 50 volunteers gathered in a room filled to capacity. “Your job is to document what we have here that’s beautiful. BP will have to make it right.”

They had come to train as field observers, taking photographs and notes on the conditions of the shoreline before the oil arrived. Now, suddenly there was an urgency to their preparations. Over the weekend, isolated tar balls had washed ashore on nearby Dauphin Island, interrupting a busy beach holiday.

“It’s starting,” Ms. Callaway said. “The first groups today took beautiful pictures of the western shore of Mobile Bay. But there are fish kills everywhere. One of our friends was on Dauphin Island when the tar ball washed up. Her 12-year-old daughter just started crying.”