from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Relevant in light of Cunningham 

but worth reading under any circumstances is the annual lecture for the John Woolman Memorial Association of Mount Holly NJ given by Dan Seeger.  Entitled Commerce, Community, and the Regulations of Universal Love, it is a pdf file with pictures.   Since this would take over 5 minutes to download on a dialup line, youu can choose instead the stripped down version without the 17 photographs and illustrations.  

Let me give the opening paragraph to illustrate

Ruin is the destination to which the United States is rushing headlong.  We look at our political leadership and see that everything is for sale, that all political decisions are reduced to economic decisions, that indeed we are on the verge of having no political system, only an economic system.

Seeger's lecture is an appropriate offering in memory of John Woolman (1720-1772), a Quaker tailor who lived in Burlington.  As you can read in Wikipedia he was a major influence in persuading Quakers that they should not keep slaves, and himself refused to do any work that might be involved with slavery.   He followed the Quaker teachings on simplicity in his own life, and he abided by the Frfiends Peace Testimony by opposing the French and Indian War.

Here is a snippet from the Wikipedia article

In 1754 Woolman wrote Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. He refused to draw up wills transferring slaves. Working on a nonconfrontational, personal level, he individually convinced many Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. He attempted personally to avoid using the products of slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves were used in the making of dyes. Whenever he received hospitality from a slaveholder, he insisted on paying the slaves for their work in attending him.

Woolman worked within the Friends traditions of seeking the guidance of the Spirit of Christ and patiently waiting to achieve consensus. He went from one Friends meeting to another and expressed his concern about slaveholding. One by one the various meetings began to see the evils of slavery and wrote minutes condemning it.

In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in the United States; however, his personal efforts changed Quaker viewpoints. In 1790 the Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery. The fair treatment of people of all races is now part of the Friends Testimony of Equality.

Most relevant to the Seeger lecture is Wooman's famous essay A Plea for the Poor or A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich, which if you have never read you should.  I will offer only one selection from this relatively brief and yet quite powerful piece of writing:

If a wealthy man, on serious reflection, finds a witness in his own conscience that there are some expenses which he indulgeth himself in that are in conformity to custom, which might be omitted consistent with the true design of living, and which was he to change places with those who occupy his estate he would desire to be discontinued by them--whoever are thus awakened to their feeling will necessarily find the injunction binding on them: "Do thou even so to them."

Enough of introduction.  Let me offer a few selections from Dan Seeger.  I regret lacking sufficient time to make this a throroughly organized diary.  I do want to make people aware of the work, and to encourage them to read Seeger's piece.  Thus I will offer selected passages with little commentary.

Relevant given what has just happened with Duke C:

Politicians, lobbyists and economic operators have become interchangeable. Businesses pay to play.  They kick back contributions to the political parties, give key political hacks lucrative jobs in their firms, and support the party program.  In return they receive tax breaks, the loosening of regulations, helpful treatment from government professionals, access to the nation's common resources which they then sell at enormous profits, and permission to use a repertoire of tricks to suppress the market and limit competitive pressure.  

After going through a number of troubling economic statistics from others, Seeger offers the following:

A very troubling aspect of the situation is that even the measure of economic wellbeing which remains in the United States seems to depend upon our continuing aggression against the earth itself, the ultimate provider of our survival, and on an ever more desperate need to go to any lengths to ensure a flow of natural resources like oil and minerals to ourselves from the poverty-stricken political communities which sit on top of these resources in foreign countries.  

Most of the lecture is derived from reflecting on the Woolman essay about the poor, and Seeger will focus on 3 key points.  I will try to give a sense by offering Dan's words, without overburdening you with too much text.

W oolman unequivocally states that our possessions and our prosperity are gifts from God, and that the resources we find at our disposal ought to be treated as a trusteeship which we must employ to further God's purposes in human society. It is, of course, common in Christian worship, and when asking the Lord's blessing before a meal, to give thanks for what we have, and to credit God as the source of everything.  These are, after all, commonplace sentiments of Christian piety to which Woolman is giving voice.  But to what extent do Christians actually believe these sentiments? Once grace is over and the dinner table conversation about worldly affairs begins, are not we more apt to regard our assets as just deserts for our own hard efforts, and do we not ascribe to ourselves an absolute right to dispose of these resources as we see fit?  This sentiment which so contradicts the professions we made when saying grace is apt to be most starkly expressed when the subject of taxes arises.

 So let us consider the nature and origins of wealth.  

Remember that Woolman had seen how much of the wealth upon which many depended in the US was dependent upon the labor of slaves, and had been troubled by it.  I will note that many of us today often do not stop and think how much of our olwn spending goes for products and services that are produced in conditions that are the modern equivalent of slavery.  And even when we attempt to shop wisely perhaps patronizing outlets that sell the goods produced in 3rd world cooperatives, the conditions for those overseas do not seem to change.  After all, many people overseas work long and hard hours.  Why are they not able to "succeed" and build fortunes?

The problem is that economic transactions in these Third World settings are limited to what are called self-enforcing transactions - transactions the gains from which are realized by each party at the moment and in the place that the transaction is made.  and order and currency, even by millions and millions of such transactions.  Selfenforcing transactions are ubiquitous in societies which remain impoverished.  How does a poor market economy of peddlers in bazaars become a rich market economy like that of Western Europe?  

Here the role of the government will become increasingly important, according to Seeger.   I will not quote his entire analysis, which you should read on your own.   But I will offer this:

All private wealth is a creation of the community; without the government and the community individuals may have possessions only in the way a dog possesses a bone, but that is all.

Economists, in their turn, are naive in their tendency to deal with economic questions as if government were some sort of outside force, instead of understanding that government and economics are intrinsic to each other.   They are naive in their tendency to over-emphasize the "privateness" of property, without duly recognizing its inherently social character.  They are naive in their assumption that there can be sensible conversation about economics which is value-neutral, which does not in some final sense allude to the proper use of things, as John Woolman repeatedly does in his writings.  

I am beginning to run out of time to work on this.  Therefore I will conclude this very disorganized diary by simply offering several more quotes from Seeger, and again urging you to go and read the entire piece.

Economists like to present the free market system as a meritocracy - it rewards those among us who are brighter and who use their superior talents to make a greater contribution to community well-being.  This supposition contains the germs of two very difficult questions: how does a value-neutral discipline such as economics pretends to be test this hypothesis "scientifically" without a concept of community wellbeing or social good; and even if it is shown that rewards are allocated according to social contribution, how can it be shown that the rewards are commensurate in some way with the resulting good?  But leaving these questions aside, the meritocracy idea, while it has some measure of validity, simply ignores the degree to which factors of merit are outbalanced and overwhelmed by the degree to which a modern market economy is a kind of lottery.  

I said earlier that the discipline of economics, imagining itself to be a kind of science, seeks to function without reference to ethical values.  There is however, one respect in which values do enter conventional economic theory, in that it does value efficiency, and without declaring efficiency to be an "ethical" value, does nevertheless act as if it is the highest good.  Whatever will increase wealth most efficiently is deemed the best course.  For a nation considered as an aggregate, this measure of wealth production is known as the Gross Domestic Product.

There are a number of problems with this commonly used measurement often employed to lull citizens into complacency with assurances that everything is getting better.  For one thing, the index will measure as positive economic production all the rebuilding which will occur as a result of hurricane Katrina, but it will not take account as a deficit of all that the hurricane destroyed. The GDP would also count as a positive value the overexploitation in the present of a limited resource, which upon exhaustion will leave people impoverished in the future.  

But the most telling shortcoming of this often bandied about number is that it takes absolutely no account of inequality.  It uses wealth creation as an index of the success of an economy without giving any attention to distributive justice.  More and more wealth going to fewer and fewer people, even to such an extent that the living standards of a majority were falling, would show as a positive GDP.    

There are three observations that must be made about the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons.

One is that although the problem is framed in terms of pastures and livestock, it is by no means a problem confined the segment of society which deals with farms and animals.  Fisheries, forests, oil and mineral deposits, public highways, and national parks are all commons.  The air in the atmosphere and the water in lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean are treated as commons.  Some of these commons are used for their extractable resources, some are used as waste dumps.  Some are used for both purposes.  In the cases of some commons, what is extracted is renewable provided it is not over-exploited; in other cases the resource is strictly finite - once used it is gone forever.

The second observation which should be made is that we have been habituated to thinking of the commons as infinite in comparison to human need.  In many historical circumstances this was true.  It hardly mattered how a lonely frontiersman in North America disposed of his wastes.  But even in the past the natural world was not as infinite and inexhaustible as an idealized view of the golden olden days might lead us to imagine. There have been many times in history when populations have collapsed and civilizations have vanished due to the overexploitation of the natural resources upon which they depended. . . .

The third thing that should be observed about the problem of the commons is that one of capitalism's most dangerous flaws is that it has absolutely no inherent method of dealing with it.  No all-wise invisible hand of the marketplace steps forward to tell us when to refrain from over-exploiting the environment.  

A verting the calamity towards which our nation and world are heading due to a dysfunctional political economy will depend upon a reform program which expresses the following seven perspectives, at least:

  1. Wealth must be understood as the product of the political and social arrangements which made its accumulation possible, and not be viewed solely as the creation of the individual or small group which may claim it as a private possession.

  2. Government and economic activity are intrinsic to each other.  Government both makes economic activity possible, and provides the necessary means for guiding such activity in directions which serve the common good.

  3. Every economic transaction, every economic arrangement, every economic policy has an ethical dimension which must be made explicit and which must be evaluated in the process of determining the reasonableness of the exchange. The idea that economic study can be carried out as a morally neutral science is a myth.  John Woolman puts it succinctly: We cannot discuss property rights without a concern for what is righteous.

  4. Given the essential role of government, taxation is a good thing, and paying taxes may be one of the best uses we can make of our money.  While citizens need to be engaged to be sure that government resources are used wisely and effectively, there is no evidence that, in general, government is less efficient than the private sector, where the costs of numerous extravagances and dishonest practices are routinely passed on to consumers.

  5. Markets are a useful component of the economic order, but there are profound economic issues and problems which markets are incapable of addressing and which must be resolved by other means.  Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon (democratic government regulation) is a key item in the armamentarium of additional coping mechanisms.

 6) The earth is the ultimate source of all wealth.  It is finite, and is in imminent danger of being irretrievably over-exploited.  All economic activities must be pursued in a way which guards the longer term sustainability of the planet's resources.

7) Maintaining regimens of government regulation which are effective requires constant vigilance.  Rules governing the regulation of an industry should be simple and equitable.  Complexity is the enemy of honesty.  A firewall needs to be established to prevent staff rotation between the regulator and the regulated.

Finally, here is Seeger's conclusion:

To quote John Woolman: "The Creator of the earth is the owner of it. . . His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and to increase the happiness of the creation. . .Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and here oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soil."

Devising a just economic order for the future will be an exercise in social ethics and spiritual vision.  It is a work which will bring joy and fulfillment, but it will involve effort. God, the creator and owner of the earth, both enables us and requires things of us. The economic system of the future cannot be rooted in greed and self-centeredness, but must acknowledge the divinely ordained interdependence of all parts of the earth. Let us, then, strive to ensure that human laws and arrangements become consistent with the fundamental truth of things, so that they express what John Woolman calls "the regulations of universal love."  

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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