Tag: capitalism

Thinking Charitably about COVID-19 and the Economy

Flatten the Curve, or Restart the Economy?

I’m sure you’ve heard that a main point of contention surrounding social distancing is whether we ought to continue to stay home or not. Many, many scientists, medical professionals, and public policy professionals have indicated that we need to social distance for a long time to prevent us from hitting the max death predictions in various models. Here are some good overviews of this point of view:

The crisis is complex, but the goal is simple: reduce how many people that get infected all at once to “flatten the curve.” I.e., reduce how many people need critical care all at the same time so that we don’t run out of hospital beds, medical staff, and medical equipment (primarily ventilators, since this disease overwhelmingly affects the lungs).

Naturally, the social distancing we’re implementing has led to heavy negative economic impacts – by necessity. As people stop going to work, stop venturing out unnecessarily, and stop gathering with others, this reduces many people’s ability to make money as businesses are losing customers. And because of this we’re already starting to get some calls for backpedaling on extreme social distancing. My good friend Chad Graham (pastor by trade, economist at heart) shares these concerns. Here are some good articles reflecting these concerns:

In the long run, these authors argue, extreme social distancing will have a worse effect on the death toll (and on life in general) than if we were to loosen social distancing measures now (or much sooner than many medical experts are calling for). In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

Now, this may very well be true. I happen to disagree, because I think the movement of people back into public life is much more complex than simply letting those who are not vulnerable go to work while isolating those who are vulnerable. I myself am likely not vulnerable (I’m 30, I have no underlying health conditions, I am not obese, etc., etc.). But my daughter, an otherwise healthy child, suffers from asthma-like symptoms — primarily in the fall and spring when allergic reactions to pollen and particulate matter are at their highest. So what do we do with someone like me? What happens if I am exposed, show little to no symptoms, but later expose my daughter to a disease that could kill her? And that’s just a simple case. There are other people I could come into contact with that think they are not at risk, but in fact are.

How to Think Charitably

This isn’t even the point of why I’m writing. My main point is that I’m very concerned with the way I’m seeing these conversations play out online. Some are mischaracterizing those who support extreme social distancing as irrational, or as if they are pursuing this in bad faith as a way of removing Trump from office. On the other hand, I’ve seen people characterize those who want the economy to restart as heartless capitalists, or as “throwing a tantrum” so we can go back to normal (really, I saw someone say this on Facebook).

In his book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs argues that we have lost the ability to think charitably, and gives some guidelines for how we might start to regain this critical skill in the Internet Age. At the end of the book, he gives a “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” One of his guidelines is, “Try to describe others’ positions in the language they use…” In other words, when you reiterate someone else’s argument, represent it both fairly and with their strongest and best arguments.

That’s absolutely not what’s happening when we say someone is throwing a temper tantrum if they bring up questions about whether halting the economy is the best move forward when dealing with a global pandemic. Emotions are high, and the stakes are high. But if we cannot represent another person’s point of view fairly, we’re attempting to win policy arguments via social pressure and strong-arming rather than rational, clear debate. This reveals an unwillingness to deal honestly with facts and willingly reevaluate our assumptions and biases.

That is not to say I agree with my friend Chad. I’m personally willing to take the chance on extreme social distancing, because it seems to me that we have relatively more reliable data about the likelihood of a high death rate from COVID-19 deaths over the data on deaths from economic instability. But I also think that, at the bottom of things, Chad and I share the same concerns: we want as few deaths, for as little economic shock as possible. We simply disagree on how to get there. And I trust that his motivation for restarting the economy are noble in nature — not simply because he idolizes capitalism.

The Cult of Productivity

Being home has been a really interesting experience and experiment for me, personally. Of course, it has been interesting for my whole family. But I’m trying to process how it has changed my view of my purpose and what I should be doing every day.

The reality is, what I should be doing isn’t all that clear every day. It’s different all the time. There are some standards, of course. The kids are either going to school or being homeschooled every day. I’m trying to write at least two blog posts per week for Lane B Photography. I’m also writing two articles per month for Thinker Sensitive. And then there’s cleaning, cooking, and general house things.

In the midst of all that, it’s really easy to let the day sort of get away. Get through the morning with teaching the kids, fix and eat lunch, take a break, do some writing, then it’s time for dinner, family time, bed time, the next episode of Better Call Saul, and bed. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to have a better structure. Maybe I should wake up earlier? Maybe I should do morning pages, or meditation? Maybe I should do a better job about consistently exercising in the mornings? Maybe I should make a reading plan and set aside a specific time to read every day?

And then I’ve oscillated the other direction — Am I thinking about this all wrong? Why do I feel this drive to heavily schedule and routinize my life? The answer is that I highly value productivity, because I have been told to value productivity by society. If I am not producing something, then I feel worthless, useless. As if my life only contains value if I do stuff — in other words, it is not inherently valuable. That’s a problem.

There’s no clear answer to this binary. I don’t want my life to be controlled by the needs of the day; I don’t want to get to the end of the day and wonder what it is I have to show for my time and work that day. I also don’t want to be the kind of person that just accepts the status quo when I know I have potential to do good work. On the other hand, I don’t want to over-analyze my days, questioning my own value and worth. If I’m taking care of my daughters, teaching them, feeding them, caring for them — can that be enough some days?

I honestly don’t know. Because I’m working in a lot of different ways, I feel my attention being stretched in multiple directions, it’s easy to feel like I’m not getting really good at something. Maybe I need to sit back, choose a couple of things outside of the necessary things every day that I want to be better at, and dedicate intentional time to those things.

Or maybe I just need to stop thinking about it so hard.

Information without Meaning

In the Information Age (the one in which we are living now), it’s really easy to assume that more information is always better. More information means being more informed, which should theoretically make us better citizens, better friends, better human beings. It should lead to increased knowledge, and to having a more coherent picture of reality.

As the amount of information available to us grows every moment, however, I think it’s safe to say that access to more information has not led to these outcomes. More information, somehow, makes us feel less informed. It also seems to lead to less coherent and cohesive understandings of what the world is like, and what it should be like.

Neil Postman makes this argument in Technopoly:

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (69-70).

In other words, we live in an age where the overarching cultural assumption is that more information leads to progress — scientific progress, human progress, economic progress, etc. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The glut of information that overwhelms our senses on a day to day basis leads us to question whether we know anything at all. And because of that, it leads to a lack of a unified theory about what human beings are and what human beings are meant to be.

In this kind of a situation, information becomes its own end, and a not a means to some other end, which it ought to be. Postman again:

To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to access information. For what purpose  or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask (61, emphasis added).

When reading this yesterday, my first thought was that, in some ways, the way information seems to act of its own accord in society to grow for its own sake is similar to the way capital (money) acts of its own accord within capitalism. Within capitalism, money always optimizes for the growth of money. Within what Postman calls “technopoly,” information optimizes for its own growth.

Without some overarching system in place that allows us to set information or money up as a means to some actual end, both of these become devourers of our time, attention, and ultimately our lives.

Tax Rates and Building a Good Society

From FiveThirtyEight, on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of a marginal 70% tax rate:

…the idea is that once a person had made at least $10 million in a single year, every dollar coming in after that would be taxed at a rate of up to 70 percent. Many have dismissed the idea, saying it would be too radical and would damage the economy. But the Democratic representative from New York might have hit on something voters want.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Americans would support higher taxes on top earners given that tax rates on high income brackets were once much higher than they are today. The top marginal tax rate was as high as 94 percent in the 1940s, and throughout the 1970s, Americans in the top income bracket (which in 1970 was $200,000 and above, or about $1.3 million in today’s money) were taxed at a 70 percent rate, according to the Tax Policy Center.

The National Review, among other conservative outlets, dismiss the idea outright, saying that it would damage the economy, not raise enough money for the socialization of some sectors (health, education, etc.), and that those in the highest tax brackets would just find loopholes to not pay the required rate. The argument also goes that the wealthiest Americans don’t gain most of their wealth from earned wages, but from capital gains. Jeff Bezos is a prime example — his annual Amazon salary is a measly $81k per year, while the rest of his earnings come directly from investments.

I’m no economist, and I’m also not a policy wonk. I have, however, a few thoughts about this:

First, if the concern is simply that raising the tax rate on earned wages will not do much because most wealth is generated by capital gains (investments, etc.), then why wouldn’t we also apply the tax rate to capital gains themselves? I’m not necessarily saying all capital gains, just capital gains plus earnings over $10 million per year. Surely it can’t be that difficult (again, maybe I’m being naive here) to close loopholes like this so that Americans are simply required to pay high tax rates on exorbitant capital gains.

This brings me to my second point, which is a little more philosophical. These questions of tax rates always bump up against questions of liberty, governmental control over wealth, and socialization. The concern, I think, is two-fold: first, that high tax rates on larger incomes dis-incentivizes economic growth. In other words, if we tax too highly after a certain income, we prevent people from pushing for bigger incomes, which causes people to work less, produce less, etc. Second, the other concern is whether we, as a society, can trust our elected leaders to handle wealth well. How do we know that the government won’t use such an enormous amount of wealth for its own corrupt ends? This may be a fair point. I don’t really know.

Let’s come back to the philosophical question though, especially as it relates to liberty and growth. My question is this — what does it take to make a truly “good” society? What does it mean to seek “the good” as a country? Those are collective questions which we must answer, but which are directly related to the individual question about what exorbitant wealth does to us. I think it’s fair to say that $10 million dollars, gained annually is an “exorbitant” amount of wealth for a single individual. At what point is there simply “enough”? I daresay, most Americans would likely be happy, whole, and healthy at an annual income of far lower than that (ignoring, for the moment, that wealth doesn’t itself generate happiness). Is it unfair, then, to have such a high tax rate on income over $10 million? Essentially, we’d be saying as a society to people that gain that amount of wealth: “Thank you for the work that you have done. You are free to continue to live in extreme comfort, with all the pleasures you could ever want. Much of the extra wealth you’re producing is going to do a lot of good for your community, and for the people around you that are incapable of producing what you have produced.”

So, two concerns in a nutshell:

  • Tax both wages and capital gains over $10 million at the marginal rate of 70% (side note: rather than worrying whether this will stop economic growth, isn’t it possible that those earning above that tax bracket funnel more profit down to wage earners, thus still re-distributing wealth, albeit via the market rather than the government?).
  • Set a limit on what is an “exorbitant” amount of wealth for individuals. $10 million annually doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. This doesn’t dis-incentivize those who desire wealth, but also helps to economically create a society that cares for those who are less capable of supporting themselves and producing on their own.

This isn’t socialism, per se. Rather, it stems from a desire to build a good, just society, and to use American wealth in a way that helps all of us flourish.

Capitalism, Too

John Lanchester: article at London Review of Books

In recent decades, elites seem to have moved from defending capitalism on moral grounds to defending it on the grounds of realism. They say: this is just the way the world works. This is the reality of modern markets. We have to have a competitive economy. We are competing with China, we are competing with India, we have hungry rivals and we have to be realistic about how hard we have to work, how well we can pay ourselves, how lavish we can afford our welfare states to be, and face facts about what’s going to happen to the jobs that are currently done by a local workforce but could be outsourced to a cheaper international one. These are not moral justifications. The ethical defence of capitalism is an important thing to have inadvertently conceded. The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’

Kyle Williams: article at Comment Magazine

A lot hinges on whether capitalism has a history. To read about capitalism’s origins, to mark its inner logics, and to learn about how human beings assembled political economic structures over time—this is to be on the cusp of critique and maybe even action. But if capitalism is not an artifact of particular people in particular places and times, then it is much more like an object of nature. Its origins recede into myths about ancient markets and primitive exchange. If capitalism is an object of nature like gravity, then it is impossible to critique or change. To attempt it would be like tilting at windmills, or worse.

These are both reminiscent of what I just said yesterday about the Enlightenment. Lanchester’s article is a sweeping history/analysis of the Great Recession and its effects — basically, an economic analysis of the West from 2008-2018. Williams’s article is a review of The Moral Economists, and its critique of capitalism as the ‘natural’ manner that humans organize economies. I can’t help but wonder if Enlightenment thought (the capitulation to rational thought as the ultimate source of authority in determining truth) and thinking of capitalism as “just the way the world works” are somehow intertwined.

But if both systems have a history, as Williams says, then both are open to critique. Because this would mean that neither are flawless — that they were birthed from and owe a debt to prior systems of thought and action. And this kind of indebtedness is also a sort of nestling — there was something before, and there will be something after.

The question is: what follows?

A Government of the People

From Ted Chiang’s recent piece on AI and Silicon Valley, “Silicon Valley Is Turning into Its Own Worst Fear”:

What I’m far more concerned about is the concentration of power in Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They’ve achieved a level of market dominance that is profoundly anticompetitive, but because they operate in a way that doesn’t raise prices for consumers, they don’t meet the traditional criteria for monopolies and so they avoid antitrust scrutiny from the government. We don’t need to worry about Google’s DeepMind research division, we need to worry about the fact that it’s almost impossible to run a business online without using Google’s services.

This is perhaps my biggest concern with unfettered capitalism in the 21st century. I do not trust corporations to protect the common good, nor do I trust the three biggest corporations ever created to not exploit the marginalized/oppressed in society. Further, individual action is difficult to consolidate into meaningful action against such large entities. In situations such as this, when the dignity of humanity across the spectrum is threatened by faceless corporations or entities with limitless appetite for profit, we require a united front – a governing system controlled by the people to ensure the safety of its citizens – that limits the power of these corporations significantly.

The Dirty Enormous Secret

The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy Western capitalism. Whatever it takes, we must change this situation or stand condemned by subsequent history alongside those who supported slavery two centuries ago and those who supported the Nazis seventy years ago. It is that serious.

N.T. Wright – Surprised by Hope

Jesus is Lord and [?] is not

So what does it mean, in the present, to say – like the early Christians – ‘Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not’?

Certainly, we don’t have a dictatorial leader exploiting the helpless and demanding infinitely more than we can give.

…Or do we?

Perhaps this ‘Caesar’ is not the physical, in-the-flesh dictator we picture him to be 2000 years ago. Perhaps our ‘Caesar’ is more abstract. Ethereal, but all-encompassing. Seeping into our lives with every action, inaction, and reaction.

Does not capitalism fill Caesar’s role, and as a more immediate presence? It infects our decisions almost literally by the minute.

“What will I buy? How will I pay rent? Where will I work?”

In the meantime, the underprivileged, the outcast, the helpless are left to rot in the wake of our (infinite) consumption.

But if Jesus is Lord and [capitalism] is not, then this system we participate in should be resisted, subverted, overthrown.

The gospel is not prosperity and wealth or being financially blessed. The gospel is radical equality under the resurrected Christ. And if we do not live as such post-resurrection, then we follow the false god of capitalism. We chant, with the rest of the privileged, “Capitalism is Lord and Jesus is not.”