Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is Greed Good?

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Gordon Gekko: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."

Those words were written satirically by Oliver Stone in “Wall Street,” his damning portrait of the 1980's and I don't doubt the validity of his parody. Even those on the right recognize that consumerism as a cultural force in society assails our most basic communal ideals; our traditions, our standards, and our societal bonds between each other.

When I walk into a shoe store and gravitate towards a Nike trainer is it because I intrinsically need that shoe or the specific elements of its design? Or maybe, is it because my predisposition towards Nike, and my recognition of its consistent brand elements, fuel a desire that has been cleverly manufactured via an emotive and long standing marketing campaign?

Isn't that true of a great deal of what we consume? As somebody who has worked in PR and marketing I recognize that everything from candle stores, to fast food, to popular music isn't simply driven by our natural proclivities as consumers. The dirty secret of Capitalism is not that it impoverishes huge sways of the population, but that the fabric of our societal needs and desires are cleverly coordinated by the "manufacturing of demand."

And yet, while I look around the areas where I grew up and see an entirely different world than the one I knew as a child... devoid of active local communities and thriving small businesses, I still recognize the inherent truth of this quote from Churchill:

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"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."

I recognize that the rapid progress we have made over the past few decades is primarily fueled by enterprise, or, for lack of a better word, greed. The rise in standards of living, cures and treatments for disease, and an individualized world where we retain more, and not less autonomy to determine our own destiny... is a direct result of the freedom's we acquire from a liberalized economy. We increasingly have the autonomy to make our own decisions about our careers, about whether we attend college, and about when we get married and have children. We have earned the internal fortitude to determine our own faith, lifestyle, and political inclination in a way that transcends the traditional social constructs of the past.

I know now that even though I'm 26 I can still effectively be anything that I want to be. I can come up with a business plan tomorrow and search out investment... I can go back to school and gain qualifications to pursue a myriad of occupations. This wasn't the case for my parents or their parents.

From a philosophical perspective, if we recognize that happiness is an individual endeavor that we undertake for ourselves and not a utopian ideal that government provides... we recognize that freedom and opportunity is absolutely essential to our ability to realize our dreams... freedom and opportunity that isn't as manifestly abundant in other nations with alternative modes of governance.

Just consider these three benefits of free enterprise that we take for granted:

1) GDP per capita in the United States is considerably higher than most other nations especially when you take into account the cost of living (PPP). Planned economies that are heavily taxed, regulated, and that subsidize their industries have stagnant growth, higher unemployment, and a relatively poor standard of living.

2) Technological and medical advancements have transformed our lives. Within seconds you can surf online and connect to somebody on the other side of the world. Within hours you can be cured from diseases that 50 years ago would have killed you within days.

3) The interdendence of the global economy promotes peace and freedom. Most nations now depend so heavily on the respective economic successes of their neighbours. Just look at Russia and China or check out this story from Dubai about the way commercialism promotes freedom.

I'm certainly not arguing that free markets equate to a perfect meritocracy, and I believe that government should be involved in rectifying the inequalities and inadequacies of the market. But, in my opinion that involvment should serve to protect our primary and most effective force for progress and prosperity: free, unrestrained enterprise. The benefits for us all far exceed any alternative method of governance, or as Bill Clinton adeptly said, "the era of big government is over." As always, let me know your thoughts :).

An interesting aside which I will explore further in a future column is whether a liberalized economy endowing us with greater self-determination is consistent with the rigid brand of Conservatism that seeks to constrain our natural progress as individuals, freely determining our own value systems, religious affiliations, and expressing our sexuality in ways that are not consistent with our traditions. Perhaps via the force of progress that Republicans stimulate with their economic theories, they create the instability and fear of uncontrollable change that makes some of their aggressive social values that try to constrain progress so appealing.

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Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

I don’t know graham the inequalities have maybe raised certain expectations over the years but the division is actually causing a deeper divide in who really can and can’t do things such as go to college.
I don’t particularly look at say Verizon for instance a virtual monopoly at this point if you want good cell phone service and seeing how they have everyone virtually by the balls and think “this is good”.

The global economy as I understand it functions in tandem with but not necessarily in direct proportional relationship to ours and as as I only took the basic required econ course and plan to take no other, I really don’t understand it all.

In a world advancing, one would expect it not to stay economically the same forever.. it would lead to more equality for all not a more derisive socioeconomic situation. More may be able but the ones not able are seriously too are separated from those who are.

Graham said...

Hey Alice, I was just writing on your blog.

You're definately right. Monopolies and all kinds of other things, like getting drugs and stuff to poor nations really sucks. I just feel like the bigger picture is better because of the fuel enterprise provides in society. We've come along way. But, that's just my take.

I don't know if more equal is necessary as long as the standard of living increases to really decent standards for everybody. If the incentive of huge profits helps rapidly progress society in certain sectors then maybe that's a good thing, I'm not sure.

I've got a lot of conflicting feelings on these issues, but, ultimately see no other alternative.

Thanks for the comment :).

Graham said...

btw, T-Mobile rocks. Or at least it did in LA.

Lisa said...

I think we mostly agree on this post. There are a few points that I would like to disagree with, however.

I don't know about the idea that consumerism "assails our basic communal ideals" unless you are making the case that having money and blowing it on unnecessary expensive things allows us to ignore societal problems. There are more likely causes to blame for changes in traditions, standards, and societal bonds. Conservatives would argue that the breakdown of the family structure has more impact on those things than consumerism, as you call it. Standards are defined by society. Societies are made up of families, or at least they were in the past. I'm not sure to what extent you can blame consumerism for the lack of the active communities, although it does bear some responsibility for the decline/disappearance of some small businesses. I think that it has more to do with the breakdown of the family structure and the choice of technology (TV, XBox, computers, etc) over socialization IRL. (Not that I would be in a position to criticize anyone for this choice or anything...) However, in a free market economy, businesses must adapt to changes in what consumers want and need. If a business and its business model remain static, it cannot survive in the current environment.

You can't separate marketing from consumerism, as you have all but acknowledged.

Freedom and opportunity are two of the main key benefits of free markets. Admitting that happiness is not a utopian ideal that government provides is the first step toward recovery from the rest of your whole belief system. :P You do make an excellent point about GDP. If more European governments, specifically Germany, understood what you just wrote there and made some significant changes in their economic policy, they would be shocked at the difference it would make. But I am pessimistic that they will ever understand this.

You're linking to NRO. Nice. There's no question that the global spread of technology has numerous benefits. So in that context we agree. However, I would have to draw the line on that interdependence of the global economy with the caveat that each country should be able to set its own economic policy/interest the case of the UK, independent of the EU.

How far do you want to go in rectifying inequalities and inadequacies of the market? I'm not sure what type of measures taken by the government could be effective in doing this. Does a truly free market system lend itself to government correction? I don't know the answer to that.

I will be very interested to see what direction you go with that future post, and will have a comment on that thesis at that point.

Graham said...

I think we basically agree. I've explained the small and effective ways government can rectify the inadequacies of the market in the past... ways that don't require the type of growth of spending that we've seen under this Republican congress. Retraining programs, welfare to work schemes with employers, its a declaration of principle rather than any sizemic shift in gov't policy that makes a tangible difference. There's whole center left think tanks devoted to these types of strategies that require minimal investment, or intervention with the way the market works, and actually helps stimulate the economy further, and guarantee its long term stability, especially in terms of employment and lowering poverty.

Plus I think there's a role for government in bigger projects. Millions and millions of children don't have healthcare coverage in the US. I think a more fiscally sound gov't could do something about this. I think a child shouldn't be held responsible for the failings of his/her parents. I feel very strongly about this. Even if you are against socialized medicine you recognize it requires gov't involvement, and that the market by itself won't solve this problem, neither can some of the poorest individuals.

In terms of the ways that consumerism and free markets assail our basic communal ideals... I think that can be seen everywhere. As we earn greater self determination we have the ability to define ourselves by our own experiences, conclusions, and less by our communal, inherited notions. As a result our traditional value systems recede.

For instance, a twenty year old today will rarely quote a parents' pearl of wisdom, while he/she probably would have done more frequently thirty years ago. This isn't because he/she doesn't love his parents, it's just because from the age of fifteen/sixteen onwards he/she has so much more autonomy psychologically to think freely for himself than past generations.

Just surf a blog explosion thing like livejournal or myspace where there's lots of kids and you can see just how remarkably independent and beautifully different young people are today. We get the scare stories about guns and violence, but in reality it just means more vibrant human beings IMO. That for me is the real engine behind the creative progress that enterprise in society is starting to bring us now. As a result of the liberalization of Reagan and Thatcher we have generations with so much more initiative on their own personal exploration. It's quite ironic really.

Spirituality also is something different to what it was 50 years ago. We have more autonomy psychologically to think more about our relationship with God on our own, outside of the context of scripture, to not go to Church and think that doesn't makes us a bad Christian, to have sex before marriage or use contraception etc.

We have much more autonomy as indivduals as a result of our psychological experiences within a more liberalized, accessible society. It's because less of our future is planned as a result of the limitless opportunity that is now available. When my parents grew up they knew they couldn't go to university and they knew roughly what type of job they'd get, and that they'd rent from local government. There is a psychological shift in individuality that gives people the strength to make up their own minds about their identity, when before we relied upon societal constructs for our identity.

We also interact more in a liberalized economy. In big cities we're exposed to people of different lifestyles, on the internet we're exposed to people from different parts of the world. Intolerance recedes as a result, and a broader acceptance has led to people being able to express themselves more as individuals. We just had civil partnerships for instance begin a couple of days ago in the UK and there wasn't a single bad word, because we all experience the reality of that as a part of our societal fabric. We've had gay people win Big Brother, and gay people on our soaps, and gay people who are pop stars, and gay people who are our friends next door to where we live, or at university where we study.

This wasn't the case thirty years ago, and this new law would have been protested like crazy as a result. But now its not at all, and what has changed really has been our liberal economy and the way it has liberalized our culture. It's no coincidence to me that the most prejudiced, racist, homophobic societies tend to be heavily planned and controlled. You have no idea how racist countries like Greece and Portugal are for example. Traditional value activists like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson really belong in nations like that, and have much more in common with socialists than they'd like to admit.

What is Conservatism if it isn't a socialistic ideal? If you seek to promote values from government, or enshrine them, aren't you inherently recognizing that society exists, and aren't you using government to constrain the natural course of individuals? Get rid of the ACLU, and all the special interests and we will stil have a more liberal society in five years, and another five years and so on and so on.

The religious thing also stems from the ways in which our economies were heavily liberalized in the 80's IMO. I'm sure most religious leaders will wax exponential about the ways consumerism assails value systems and culture, even though they might think of it in different terms than me. It's not a political point and I think it is a commonly held perception from both sides of the political spectrum. + there's lots of religious people on the left.

Our value systems and beliefs, have less to do with what is passed down by our parents or families now not because people don't have parents or families but because the individual has greater automy throughout his/her life experience. The real force for individuality and change in values doesn't stem from broken homes, or poverty, in fact individuality like I've described is arguably less prominent there, or at least the constructs of the past and traditional values are more prominent... instead, it stems from young people who have a lot more psychological power over who they are than they used to have in our parents day.

+ You can see where traditional cultures retain their communal values and communal identities better in places where there is less emphasis on the individual... most notably in the middle east, but also to a lesser extent in continental europe where they don't experience the shifting cultural etes to the extent that more liberalized economies like the US & UK do.

Anyway, I really rambling now and I could go on forever... but instead I'll save for it my next post. But, while I might increasingly believe in a very liberalized economy, I'll always be a liberal. I don't know if that's so much a belief system, but a trust in individuals to chart their own course in terms of their identity. I don't want to tell anyone who they are and how they should behave beyond the rule of law, and being socially responsible in a basic way.

M A F said...

AH, the wonderful system of capitalism. Or not? Definately not.

Things I have learned from capitalism:

*Capitalism is a religion and its only tenet is greed (is good).

*Poverty is evidence of capitalism success.

*The market is not consumer driven, but market driven. (Your mention of shoes is an excellent example of how the market drives the consumer as was the pet rock. But I digress.)

*Bill Clinton was wrong, there will always be big government, as it is required to maintain US corporations.

*There is no such thing as a "free market economy." (Re: Clinton)

With regards to planned economies, which governments are you referring to? And of these which are client states to the US? Or that the US seeks to impose economic sanctions?

The very definition of greed, from my perspective of the notions found in points 1, 2 and 3. My reservations regarding these points generate more questions than they were intended to answer. But I'm stubborn that way.

I cannot disagree with the premise that greed is good for capitalism.

Lisa said...


I have yet to see a government program that doesn't end up taking up a huge chunk of the federal budget eventually. This is not to say that retraining programs and welfare to work programs are not worth that level of investment. There is a good argument to be made that programs like that, if successful, would end up saving the government money in other areas. So, even though I have a strong distrust of government generally, these kinds of programs make sense.

Having socialized healthcare for the U.S.-- you bet I disagree with that (as you well know). I think there are plenty of reforms that need to be made in the current healthcare system, and we need to get serious about making and implementing those reforms. If you want to blame the Republican Congress for not making this a priority, that's a fair criticism. It is a shame that Bill Clinton only had eight years, or this obviously would have been taken care of by now. :P

Let me go on record as saying that it's a bad thing when traditional value systems recede. It's generally cheaper to learn life lessons from parents and other family members, than it is to learn from the school of hard knocks. There are less consequences that way. I'm all for independent thought...I'm a blogger after all. :) There's nothing wrong with trying to reconcile the traditions you grew up with and your own real-life experiences. That's a process we all have to go through at some point. But I'm not sure that fifteen and sixteen-year old young people have the capacity to fully process and react to all this free-flowing information the same way that we can. That said, I will agree that the overall effect of this autonomy is beneficial to those kids.

Our views differ dramatically on spirituality, as you would expect. So I'm not going to go in depth on this here.

I like the limitless opportunity, when it exists. Sometimes I wish more of my future was planned, because then I would know what to expect from it. However, it is a positive development that we don't have as many roadblocks to defining success for ourselves, and that we don't have to let others define it for us.

America's tolerant, diverse society also happens to include traditional value activists (interesting terminology, BTW) such as Dobson and Falwell. You can violently disagree with their POV, but they have just as much right to be heard as anyone else. I think America is a strong enough country to tolerate both Falwell's side and yours, because Americans can make up their own minds about what they believe about homosexuality and what place Christianity should have, if any, in the public square. We should have that choice. It doesn't benefit either side to exclude anyone from that discussion. I'm sure in some parts of this country racism, homophobia, and intolerance are surviving and thriving, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule.

You have a much more positive view of the natural course of individuals than most philosophers would have. I think that some checks on that natural course are not an unreasonable burden on humanity.

Both traditions and individuality are important. We shouldn't discount traditions and values completely, because we can only learn so much from our own experiences.

I have nothing else to add. :)

Girl on the Blog said...

Once again, a brilliant post. Damn your good!

I can't imagine what my child's "economy, technology, Medical etc..." is going to be like for him in the future. Like you said... "I can come up with a business plan tomorrow and search out investment... I can go back to school and gain qualifications to pursue a myriad of occupations. This wasn't the case for my parents or their parents." Can you imagine what are children will be able to do that we aren't able to do? What is left? This is what boggles me. To think of how our whole "society, government, economics etc..." has changed since we have been alive... WOW! I can't imagine what is left!

Girl on the Blog said...

I meant "our children"... sorry! :)

John said...

Very well said.

Many people are fond of saying that things are worse today. But by any physical standard, our lives have never been better.

And economic freedom is the reason for that.

Many of us have been so sheltered that we forget that.

Anonymous said...

Hello there. Came to this via a Crooks 'n liars post so it's unlikely that I'd be considered "neutral." But I do want to make a number of observations. First, we're living in an age where capitalism (or as I prefer to think of it, modified cronyism) is the closest thing we have to a universal religion. This is especially relevant in regard to the link below. It is true that it's better than the alternatives we've tried in the 20th century, but it doesn't follow from those failures that it is the best idea ever. Second, I think the US is a great place--if you aren't poor or something bad happens to you. Is this the inevitable consequence of internalizing "market" norms? Jury is still out on that, I think, but it seems increasingly clear that the hegemony of market ideology drives out any other value system. Third, I have yet to meet anyone who says things are worse today. In other words, such sentiments strike me as straw man arguments. There is one significant exception, though. That exception is the reality that most Americans below a certain income have to work much longer hours than they used to. Now, we may decide that's a good thing. But we might decide to work less (to, for example spend time with the family we're doing all this work for) and have some time back. Except that in a market ideology like this one, you can't opt out. The notion that freedom consists of the freedom to make money is a rather narrow notion of human potential. Freedom to make money isn't the only kind of freedom--except in the US. Finally, we are, at the moment, living in a bit of a fool's paradise here. Every day, we spend quite a bit more money than we make. We can get away with this for a while, but not forever. Someday we will become the next Argentina. Oh, and by the way, as this reprint from the WSJ demonstrates, there's more social mobility in parts of the "bad, backward" EU these days than in the US.

Jason Allum said...

this article, and a healthy number of the comments upon it, could only have been written from a perspective that has never known abject poverty... this doesn't make the ideas presented wrong, per se, it just limits their scope of applicability to middle-class folks, on up. let's take a good look at the reality of it for a large portion of our citizenry:

- irrespective of avarice, all but the most academic or athletic of the truly poor have little or no opportunity for higher/further education.

- the tedium of a hand-to-mouth existence tends to crush out the spark that leads to the much-vaunted "business plan."

- the relative cost of failure is high. to some, even a few hundred dollars can be too much to risk, if it means their children could go hungry or homeless.

- public transportation in most parts of the country is awful. it's hard to get ahead when a significant portion of your day is eaten up just moving around.

- lending institutions are by their nature, classist. independent of the quality of their ideas, if someone is poor and has the additional misfortune to look the part, they will be lucky to receive an audience (much less a check) from a traditional lender.

- public ordinances and licensing requirements have explicitly removed small, private commerce from our public square and moved it into the shopping/strip malls., before people start the attack, let me just set this straight: i don't think that capitalism is inherently wrong... but i do think that our current, narrow-minded application of it is.

now, i was taught to never raise a complaint without also presenting a solution, so let's talk for a minute about what could be done to actually fix the problem (within the framework of capitalism), and what the government's role might be within that solution. here are a few ideas:

- private micro-finance. often, what's needed to get things going is a specific, targeted, small loan. after all, you can't really sew without materials, and you can't weld without equipment. these are things that are not terribly expensive, but can have a serious impact on a person's income potential.

- public market. once goods are produced, or if services are to be offered, then there needs to be a place where the customer can meet up with our budding merchant. we need to find room within our communities for this kind of space.

- relaxation of regulation. OSHA (and the like) are institutions that look out for the health and welfare of people in an established workplace, but compliance with the bewildering array of rules and regulations can stand in the way of an extremely small business.

- public transportation. a robust system of publicly supported transportation will be necessary as long as we continue to build sprawling communities. this goes doubly for routes to and from the aforementioned public market.

- public (re-)education. our current model completely fails to account for the need to retrain people later in life. this education needs to be affordable, and/or subsidised publicly. after all, an educated populace is in everyone's best interest.


Anonymous said...

I'm the person who left the comment immediately above yours. I agree with your suggestions, but I would also suggest that if everyone assumes that everybody wants to be a small-time enterpreneur (forgive the spelling), I think that's a mistake. Only a certain subset of the population in this or any country is willing to go that route. I've worked in corporate America and in the small business universe, and while none of the small-scale capitalists (me too) wanted to work for a large entity, I never encountered anyone at the large organizations who wanted to venture out on their own.

I really really urge people to stop thinking of America as a mythical land of small venture capitalists. It's a nice story we like to tell about ourselves, but all we're doing is changing the myth of the American as the small independent farmer to today's small businessperson.

Interesting factoid: The SBA considers any business that employs fewer than 500 people to be a small business. I suppose that's how they arrived at the conclusion that 52% of Americans are employed by a small business. I don't know about you, but I don't think a 450 person entity is a small business.

Anonymous said...

I read your article, and I would agree with somebody else above. Greed is good for capitalism, and the question is whether this is good for people as individuals and as members of society.

I happened to have the TV turned on as I read this, and there was a program about advertising of prescription drugs, and they showed a clip of an industry conference. The speaker was talking about marketing to boys, and he said "anti-social behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing."

I think this backs up your point about consumerism breaking up social structures, whatever objections some free-market ideologues might have.

Anonymous said...

One thing I would point out is that a great deal of the advancement of the last decade has also been driven by greed-free "business". For example, this Internet thing you are posting on succeeded, in large part, to an existing "free" design (TCP/IP, UDP) rather than competing proprietary protocols funded by competing interests. Web browsers have been free. Open Source Software drives a lot of the web sites you visit. The content you read, like this website, is largely "free", and although advertising may sit in the margins, that's a long way from the 3 minutes of advertising injected between TV programs in the pre-Tivo era, or the $2 sunday paper.
In fact, if you look at the way business is evolving, especially in regards to technology, "greed" is being cast aside for "gratuity". Free wifi, free email, free search. Why? To ingratiate the user and hope they will click on an ad, or tell a friend, or pay for customization or an improved offering.
Leave the digital world, a world where the cost of distribution (and increasingly, with open source, 'creation') is practically free, and yes -- greed keeps driving things. But consider what would happen to our society if energy was free and labor was free. I'd say that's less than 50 years away, provided we last that long. And at that point, I think "greed" can start being driven out of "real world" business as well.

Graham said...

Hey everybody, and thanks for all your comments. I'll try to respond to all of your points :).


Like I said before, I'm not suggesting that free, unrestrained markets, without any government intervention at all, equates to a perfect meritocracy, and a just society. I believe government has a role in trying bring about equality of opportunity... but I don't see how you can say that poverty is inherent in capitalism, without comparing it to other types of governments.

Surely GDP per capita, proportional to the cost of living, shows that free markets help lift people out of poverty and create more social mobility in a much more effective way than any other form of economic governance. If stability, stagnancy, security is the answer to curing poverty then obviously I'm wrong. Personally, I disagree with that. I think growth, and the progress that comes with that, is more beneficial. And then within that context government can do more. That's just my take.

I do think it's a process, and I don't think underdeveloped nations should just open up their markets to free trade... because that's not the way we got to where we are... but, the alternative, of nations isolated, employing protectionist measures on all their resources and industries, tarrifs on imports, heavily regulating their econmies I think would actually hinders a lot of the progress that we take for granted. Our standard of living is remarkably higher today than what it was thirty years ago, and our opportunities more plentiful.

Graham said...


Government programs don't need to all take up huge chunks of the budget. I actually intend to do a post breaking down the US & UK budget because it's interesting where money actually gets spent. One example I can give is literacy programs for very young children. This cost a few million dollars, which is like a drop in the ocean, compared to some Republican pork programs, and yet really makes a difference to helping poor children perform better academically. This is the kind of thing I support to help foster equality of opportunity.

Like you I feel very strongly about healthcare, and particularly children not having healthcare coverage. I don't see how ethically that can be justified, or how the market can rectify that. I don't see how a child who is born with congential disease, or incurs injury, should be held responsible for his/her parents. This is something that government can redress if government was fiscally sound. I also don't think socialized medicine is appropriate for the US. But, the market left to its own devices is creating a dire situation for many who can't fend for themselves. This is something I'd like a Democratic Presidential nominee to put at the heart of his/her platform... to rectify the budget deficit and pay down the debt, and then look towards guaranteeing the future of social security and health coverage for children.

It's a difficult argument about traditional value systems. America is a more tolerant society than it was fifty years ago, and its traditional value systems recede. There you go putting words into my mouth. I never said people with traditional values aren't tolerant. However those examples of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell are examples, IMHO, of intolerance towards individuals pursuing their own course in life. They're intolerant towards people with other faiths, lifestyles and homosexuality. I don't believe this is universally true of their ilk, but those are bad examples, and we can argue about those individuals further if you like. I don't disagree with their fundamental ideas, or faith, or even that they believe their faith should be the heartbeat of society's progress, I just disagree with the way they try to influence government and influence individuals, especially some of their aggressive stances towards homosexuality. Why do attack Ford for advertising in a gay publication? Why do you tell an individual wrestling with his or her sexuality he's going to hell but can be "cured."

I'm not arguing that traditions should be discounted. I'm saying that when you liberalize an economy, you liberalize a society, and the greatest force undermining traditional values, and our communal ideals, is an economic force. And, I find that ironic, because the greatest exponents of economic liberalism are also the fiercest proponents of social conservatism, or better put, value conservation.

It's just interesting :). You're right, I do have a rosey philosophical view of our individual course... although I didn't fully expound upon it in my previous comment. Personally, I believe that people are fundamentally good. Although, sometimes I think I'm in a minority of one, thinking this way.

Hope you're good Lisa :).

Graham said...

Okay, I'll respond to some of the other points together:

I do resent the notion that because I believe in some of the benefits of free markets this means I have never known abject poverty. Ironically, from my experience, the reverse is true. Most of those who argue passionately against capitalism rarely are the poorest in society, and tend to have a rather sheltered, wealthy life. That has just been my experience, however, and I am not generalizing.

Personally, you're wrong. I wouldn't consider the environment I grew up in poverty stricken, but I grew up on a council estate surrounded by even poorer council estates. You wouldn't want to walk around the areas I grew up on your own, especially at night. London, however, is a little more complicated. Unlike the US, it is so densely populated that rich and poor live in and out of each other's pockets. You can have million dollar homes next to tenement blocks for example. Nobody is really imune to the reality of poverty here in quite the same way that can be true in big US cities where races, and wealth can be heavily segregated simply because of the amount of space you have available to you.

A council estate is government owned housing in the UK btw. I was fortunate in so far as my parent's were on an upward curve, but the notion that my priveleged environment is responsible for my belief system is entirely false. I grew up working class, to working class parents. It sounds so trite it's a joke. I just resent being referred to as some kind of socialite.

You make a great logical insight that just because Captitalism is the best manifest example thus far of how society can be structured it doesn't mean that it is ultimately the right course.

That's a good point, but you have to understand the way trade works. Trade is how we haved lived from even our very beginnings to acquire our comprehensive needs as individuals for food, for shelter, for clothes.

We had the option of either getting together as a community and planning the way we structure all the work that is done, and how everything is rationed, so everyone's needs are met...or we had the option of allowing individuals to function on their own, letting supply and demand tend to those needs. I think for all the alternatives that's what it ultimately comes down to, and for me, the benefits of latter, outweigh the noble intentions of the former. Although maybe the notion of a safety net makes it a mixture of the two. There are no magic solutions beyond the state of communities controlling the flow of goods or letting market's operate freely.

I agree with you that the prospects for human potential far exceed the bounds of our heavy working hours, and the pressures, and stresses of working life, but, to be honest, the opportunities to "opt out" as you say and pursue a different course are much more plentiful in the US than elsewhere from my personal experience. You can contribute to society in lots of different ways creatively, or emotionally, or spiritually, but within the context of the market it needs to be justified by customers that are interested in what you do. That sucks for sure, but, it really isn't the worst test to apply to our endeavors. In fact, I can't think of a better system justifying great writing, great artwork, great music, or other alternatives... I think sometimes people's opportunities are more plentiful than they want to see, or because of their environment and conditioning are capable of seeing.

Graham said...

The argument about pharmaceuticals is immensely more complicated. The reality is that commerical incentives are the engine behind medicinal research in our time, and are primarily responsible for the extent of the progress we see. That is arguably the best example of the point of this post. It isn't about greed... greed is an emotive term... it's about the benefits of how our societies work. Do we need to work harder to get drugs to the poorest parts of the world... absa-fraggin-lutely dammit.... but the reality is that without commerical incentives some of these drugs wouldn't even exist in the first place, and many who already benefit wouldn't have... and that is because that, whether we like it or not, some of our most selfish inclinations, afford us the ability to take some of our greatest selfless strides on behalf of others in need.

Thanks for all your comments :).

Lisa said...


I look forward to reading that post...just as much if not more than the other ones. :) I am certainly not making an excuse for the Republican pork programs (although I do believe that the distribution of pork cuts across both parties). Again, if there is an effective government program that has measurable success, especially in the area of literacy, I would be willing to consider it.

I have no problem with reforming healthcare. It's way past time to do that. We shall see if the Democrats are smart enough to follow your advice on a platform.

I do think that's a logical connection to make between more tolerance (more words and actions considered acceptable to society) and a recession of traditional values (where actions and attitudes are viewed in more black/white terms). I was addressing your point specifically about the two people you mentioned as being intolerant, and not making any blanket assumptions that you believed that all people with traditional values act this way. You brought up Falwell and Dobson, and suggested that societies with more prejudices, racism, and so forth would be better places for them to live. You would be interested in some of the current statements by Falwell, re: gays and lesbians...I can pull the transcript of some of that if you want to see it.

I don't think influencing government has been the exclusive domain of the "religious right". Ford also has the right to make their own business decisions, and in fact their advertising has been scaled down in other magazines as well. For those who see homosexuality as sinful or wrong, there's a better way to make their argument than the example you mentioned. It's just that tolerance should cut both ways, and it doesn't seem to in this country right now. That's all I'm going to say about that...and I will allow you to have the last word on this. :)

I would like to think of people as fundamentally good...there's just too much evidence on the other side, IMHO.

I've had better days...and this one's over. :)

Jason Allum said...


from my dictionary, abject: extremely bad, unpleasant, degrading.

now, if your parents slaved away on a combined income of US$23,000 (or less) per annum... managing to properly feed, clothe, house and provide healthcare for you and your siblings, whilst simultaneously shielding all of you from the dim reality of that situation -- then they deserve your sincerest thanks for their sacrifices, and much applause for their hard work.

sadly, this describes the situation for many, many families here in this country; bastion of capitalism that it is. even more saddening is the thought that much of it simply doesn't have to be this way.

so, why don't we spend a little less effort on our "personal outrage" and the polishing of rosy-colored glasses, and a little more on solving the serious problems that confront us?

- how can we restore the promise of america for those living in poverty?

- how can we combat poverty in a way that also honors our core beliefs in hard work, responsibility and family?

- how can we find ways to build more homes and fewer shelters, more small businesses and fewer minimum wage jobs?


Graham said...

Hey Jason,

If you read through my blog you will see I care very much about the questions you ask, and finding solutions to those problems is fundamental to what I believe in... I just believe part of that is harnessing the benefits of free markets and economic growth... + you were being presumptuous about my circumstances which I don't think was fair. I think I missed the outrage part.

It is important to note that the United States does not have a monopoly on poverty. The standard of living you evoke in your "bastion of capitalism" is a ubiquitous blight on most nations.

I don't suggest I have all the answers to those questions, but I would say this:

The market is not perfect, and government should be involved in lifting people out of "abject" poverty, by incentivizing investment, creating and publicizing education programs, and maybe also really decentralizing some efforts to community action groups, while properly funding them. One of the things I've encountered that is effective is how in the UK local government gives money straight to committees of resident's in local government council estates. Those committees have to reach a certain criteria of participation and professionalism, and there are lots of checks and balances, but their budgets are quite large. Some of the accomplishments of residents in attacking crime, getting drug dealers evicted, refurbishing buildings, and creating play areas for kids is astonishing. It just shows what real people, as opposed to bureacrats, can do given the chance.

I think you have to allow states to find ways of getting much more private investment into struggling communities. I think states can't borrow too much, right? So I think maybe some mechanisms to allow private companies to take over projects in poor areas, or allowing communities to get together and work closer with private companies might help generate more money for poorer areas.

Obviously allowing public schools to fall apart in poor areas is unacceptable. If anything schools like that require more resources, but I don't think it's just a question of money. I don't know enough about educating young children, but for me, that is where it has to begin. You can't have class sizes that are too big, and you can't have a really rigid curriculum that dehumanizes teachers. But, I don't know enough about this.

I think you build more homes by states saying to developers that with big projects, they have to build a certain amount of low cost housing.

All I would say is that in spite of all of this, there are amazing opportunities in your "bastion of capitalism" Jason. Opportunities that people in other parts of the world would kill for. I think that is an integral part of lifting people out of poverty.

Thanks for your comment :).

Graham said...

Hey Lisa :),

Sorry your day sucked :(. You're right in that their shouldn't be blanket judgments about who is and who isn't intolerant. I think it's about respecting an individuals autonomy, and I certainly respect people's faith, and even if I don't personally respect the idea that homosexuality is sinful, or wrong, I do respect somebody's right to believe that or even express it freely. I guess being tolerant means even being tolerant of what I consider to be "intolerance." I guess it's a similar situation with those Nazi's protesting today... sometimes I struggle in those situations, but in the end I think it's best for their to be an open dialogue, rather than controlled speech.

The problem for me is when those intolerant notions amount to practises of intolerance like civil partnerships. Why can't two people who love each other, commit to each other, and enjoy the legal benefits other couples do, who do the same. Take religiosity, and marriage out of the equation... why do people who hold a view of how society should "ideally" be have a right to individuals how to live, or tell states they can't allow civil partnerships? There's this "morality socialism" on the right that I find hypocritical sometimes.

I think when we're true to ourselves and our ability to understand and emphathize with others, or when some guy or gal goes out and works their ass off for their kids, or when we make sacrifices and compromizes in our relationships... I think our greatest capacity for happiness is found in our investment in something larger than simply ourselves, sometimes family, sometimes friendship, sometimes love... that's what really matters in the end I guess, and that's why I think people are ultimately good. Sometimes you have to look past stuff, be humble, and look real hard to see their goodness, admitedly, but, usually it can be found. We're all trying in our own way.

Lisa said...

Ok. That last paragraph was beautiful. It's also good advice. :)

Jason Allum said...


it's beyond obvious that america has no monopoly on poverty, and that the poverty as experienced in america is "somewhat less crushing" than the poverty to be experienced in other countries -- i was simply restraining my commentary to the country you held up as a capitalism reference standard (i.e. america), and how that system affects it's poorest inhabitants. (the economy of the world and how it relates to poverty is, though equally worthy of discussion, a different matter completely.)

The market is not perfect, and government should be involved in lifting people out of "abject" poverty, by incentivizing investment, creating and publicizing education programs, and maybe also really decentralizing some efforts to community action groups, while properly funding them.

i agree with this basic premise, and i'll add that the market is far from perfect. it's uplifting to hear of the improvements that can and have been made to the council estates of which you speak... arguably, better surroundings can lead to better feelings about one's lot in life, but nowhere in there did i hear anything about how that enables people to find and secure better jobs, start businesses, or otherwise achieve capitalistic bliss.

I think you have to allow states to find ways of getting much more private investment into struggling communities. I think states can't borrow too much, right?

the particular rules vary from state to state, but they are generally allowed to issue bonds and incur debt if they pass referenda. counties and municipalities are similar in this respect.

anyway, generating the money is not usually the problem, it's more a problem of what to do with it. you see, giving it to private companies is of limited use, since they have no motive to actually "eradicate" poverty. why, when there's a ton of money to be made in the maintenance of it?

So I think maybe some mechanisms to allow private companies to take over projects in poor areas, or allowing communities to get together and work closer with private companies might help generate more money for poorer areas.

this has been tried before, with varying levels of success. the problem is this: private companies are interested in maximizing profits, not in the welfare of the inhabitants of a project or neighborhood. this difference in goals can (and usually does) lead to something called "gentrification." needless to say, the problem doesn't really get fixed... it just gets shifted to another place.

you see, the biggest "problem" with poor areas, is that there's very little money to be generated from them. "respectable" private companies follow the market rules, and go where the money is... this leaves the poorer neighborhoods to be colonized by more "predatory" businesses like check cashers, pawn shops, liquor stores, tittie bars, gun shops, etc. as you noted before, our poor neighborhoods are generally quite separate - and that's largely what makes this possible.

Obviously allowing public schools to fall apart in poor areas is unacceptable. If anything schools like that require more resources, but I don't think it's just a question of money.

public K-12 schools in this country are widely considered to be failing. math, science, history, geography, and language skills are all sorely lacking. you're absolutely right in saying it's not simply a matter of spending more money. (i'd love to outline what's wrong with them, and how it could be fixed, but that's really another discussion.)

I think you build more homes by states saying to developers that with big projects, they have to build a certain amount of low cost housing.

they can and do. this is nothing new. the problem is that developers are loath to use choice land for such developments (profit motive, remember?), and as such they're relegated to the fringe, and poorly supported by public transportation. people who live in them have limited job and education prospects... leading to a generally predictable pattern of decline and blight. it's not been pretty.

All I would say is that in spite of all of this, there are amazing opportunities in your "bastion of capitalism" Jason. Opportunities that people in other parts of the world would kill for. I think that is an integral part of lifting people out of poverty.

agreed; this is why i expressed such sadness with the status quo. take a minute to go over my first post, #12, and look at the problems and solutions that i'd outlined. maybe you'll see them in a new light.


Riss said...


Graham said...

Thanks for your well thought out comments Jason. Thank you also for going through some of the ways in which I thought a difference could be made.

My point about the US not having a monopoly on poverty was, while obvious, directly responding to the very powerful way you described poverty in the US. My point was that you have to acknowledge that poverty blights many different forms of governing nations, and sometimes in considerably worse ways than in the United States. That was my point and I think its very relevant to criticisms of free markets.

Ultimately, my argument is that the benefits of free markets stimulating growth and progress in society needn't deprive us of our ability to attempt to redress the injustices you describe. In fact, with sound fiscal policy, and increasing tax revenues, we're actually better placed to try.

I disagree with your criticism of the "profit motive." Yes, inherent in all private involvement is the ulterior motive of making money, but that doesn't necessarily make it the worst possible solution to finance projects in poor areas, in fact, sometimes it is the only effective solution. Yes, it doesn't happen on its own, and government has to get involved to create incentives, or structure things properly, but from my experience it can make a real difference to people's lives... there are benefits as well as draw backs to private sector involvement.

Ultimately government is always restrained by its resources, and its resources are always limited. The extent to which increasing taxes dramatically undermines growth and inturn tax revenues, plus potentially creates more unemployment I think actually hinders government's ability to invest in lifting people out of poverty. I do support raising taxes, but only by modest amounts to help close the deficit, and start paying down the debt. I think we have to look at our budgets and start to examine where we spend all our money as an electorate.

I am not an expert on policy or potential solutions like you seem to be, and I would be very interested to read your thoughts on education, and improving US public schools (you need a blog Jason! :) and yet I do believe, very strongly, that there is a great deal that we can do as a society right now to make a different... I do think we need to start pre-occupying ourselves with ways to redress the imbalances of the market, and the lack of access to the market some people experience.

I know you mentioned this again (jobs) in your response... the truth is that the world is changing, and job security will never mean again what it used to mean twenty/thirty years ago... that's just the reality of the pace of change, not just in the US, but everywhere around the globe. Work forces in developing nations are constantly acquiring new skills and offering their services... you have to recognize some of these things on a fundamental level. The world is changing.

Getting people jobs, and good jobs at that, with prospects and a future can be helped by welfare to work schemes involving employers... where gov't pays employers to employ people while they learn skills on the job. It's a scheme called "The New Deal" in the UK and it has been a huge success. Unemployment has been at unparalelled low levels, almost constantly decreasing for the last ten years or so.

I think you have to help retrain people who have been suddenly left behind by the changing economy... I think these things need to be localized, so communities can effectively control the way schemes are implemented to benefit people better.

I think that's the most important thing... communities need the mechanisms to come together, get funding, and help improve their areas... that for me is the ultimate way to give people power to start improving their lives. Because when you cut crime, improve the environment, your chances of attracting business, and jobs are much improved, especially if you have a work force with decent IT skills and stuff like that. In many ways, when entire communities get segregated like they do now, you get an economic apartheid of sorts and I do concede that point.

Of course this all requires gov't representatives with the right priorities and at the moment that is certainly not what we have. I am not a proponent of trickle down economics. I'm not arguing that all we need to do is keep cutting taxes, allow the economy to grow, and the poor can enjoy the scraps that fall from the table. I believe government should be actively involved... I just believe a liberalized economy is ultimately for the best, and government's involvement should reflect that.

But there ARE solutions. I don't have them all, but there are lots of creative, smart ideas to help deal with these problems. We just need politicians in power who think government can be used for more than a pork project, a defense contract, or a tax cut. Hopefully 2006 and 2008 might see that occur.

I read through your list and I think the most important point you make is a question of psychology. I had some Hispanic friends in LA and the constant theme they articulated to me was that their fiercest hurdle was a psychological hurdle, of having the requisite self esteem to take the strides I described in my post. Inherent in their communities were expectations that didn't always serve their best interests.

That goes for everybody. The poor kid in the ghetto, or the forty year old whose been laid off. Self esteem fuels all of our strengths to make something of our life. And ultimately that's what it comes down to, affording all people the opportunity to make something of their lives. I think this involves systemic cultural perspectives that unfortunately require real leadership to confront. In fact it goes to the heart of the American dream and the idea of winning and losing.

The US is not a meritocracy... and people need to start making this fact plain.

OK, I've rambled enough Jason. Thanks again for your very provocative thoughts on my post :).

Chris said...

I think I might be greedy.

Graham said...

Well you've always struck me as someone who is generous in spirit MJ, for what it's worth.

Hope everything is going cool for you :).