Sunday, October 2, 2011

Among the Nobel Laureates II

Among the Nobel Laureates II.

The philosopher Martin Buber once wrote the “stopping one’s ears so as not to hear the voice from above breaks the connection between existence and the meaning of existence.”

It is difficult to think about modern American politics without also taking into account the role that religion, or at least professed religion, plays.  Of the current crop of Republican candidates, three, Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, make faith an integral part of their appeal to the voters and two others, Romney and Huntsman, studiously avoid the subject because of their Mormon beliefs. 

This weekend, pastors are engaging in a coordinated large-scale act of civil disobedience-they will explicitly talk about politics from the pulpit, which, in theory, puts at risk their IRS exemptions.  The New York Times has a report on this at

In contemporary American politics we associate religion (largely Evangelical) with hard-right Republicanism.  It hasn’t always been this way.  In the past, churches were often at the forefront of the civil rights movement and were associated with emergent environmentalism.  And, as Ron Paul noted in one of the primary debates, religious institutions often dedicated themselves to the care of charity cases, both through direct subsidies and affiliated hospitals.  But as liberalism has become associated with mushy do-gooders and a permissive attitude about personal choices, the most powerful religious movements have lined up on the conservative side.  The fundamentalism that expresses itself on social issues (abortion, contraception, prayer in schools, gender issues, evolution) has also made common cause with conservative business values.  Thus conservative religious organizations now see a faith-based link to low taxes and regulation, to doubts about global warming, to energy exploration and immigration policy, etc.  This isn’t necessarily monolithic, but it is the dominant movement right now when it comes to political expression.  Some of us (on the Left, mostly) may fail to see the theological underpinnings for the objections to cap and trade, but as Lincoln said in a different context, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Two of the most tantalizing comments in last week’s conference merged economics and religion; Mark Taylor’s equating Calvinism and the Scottish political economists such as Adam Smith, and Edmund Phelps's almost throwaway remark that a government policy that favored the wealthy was not in and of itself bad: if part of the object of government was to help foster an atmosphere where the individual may achieve self-realization and growth, the rich were citizens too.

I have to say that by focusing on an isolated comment by Ned Phelps, I’m not doing justice to his work at all.  For more depth, please look at his Nobel Speech in 2006: you can find it at
In that presentation, Phelps finds a dichotomy that supports both the under-included and recognizes and incentivizes achievement and creativity.  “In the West, it is believed by many, with no foundation I know of, that a fiscal policy aimed at broad economic inclusion would substantially preclude ample economic dynamism and thus a vitalist society. I have argued that, on the contrary, suitably designed employment subsidies would restore the Bourgeois culture, revive the ethic of self-support and increase prosperity in low-wage communities. That would boost a country’s dynamism, not weaken it, and also strengthen popular support for capitalist institutions.”

But, during his remarks at this conference, Phelps asserted the value of government policies that seem to disproportionately (although perhaps coincidentally) benefit the affluent, if it leads to greater happiness by that group.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed Phelp’s remark.  He spoke just before a coffee break, and while I was on line looking for a cookie and a Diet Coke, I was questioned sharply by a woman who had formerly worked in a senior position at the World Bank.  Had I heard what Phelps said?  Did he not realize that most of the world’s governments were kleptocracies, in which the powerful and influential derived all the benefits? 

Her concerns were apparently echoed the following day by some of the participants. Jianguo Wang presented a paper on the instability of China stemming, in part, from massive influence peddling, unbridled exploitation of natural resources without effective regulatory and safety controls which have led to wide-spread pollution and poisonings, and the extraordinary amassing of wealth. And Saskia Sassen echoed these concerns in her paper discussing the U.S. (particularly in relation to the sub-prime lending fiasco) as well as other economies.  “In the last two decades there has been a sharp growth in the numbers of people that have been “expelled” from the economy in much of the world. The active expanding of a middle class in that earlier period has been replaced by the impoverishment and shrinking of the middle class. This holds in extreme form for particular countries, notably the United States and several African countries that once had strong manufacturing economies but now have become mainly extractive economies.”  Sassen goes on to say, “We have left behind the varieties of Keynesian periods that thrived on the accelerated expansion of prosperous working and middle classes -- though not in today’s emergent economies, especially in Asia. Keynesianism’s valuing of people as workers and consumers was critical for the deepening of capitalism.”  You can find both Wang’s and Sassen’s papers in the links below (they are 5 and 6).

Of course, if Phelps is correct, then Sassen must be wrong, because, presumably,  Phelps must be anticipating a neutral impact on the rest of society when the government adopts a policy favorable to the wealthy. He trusts the democratic process to provide equity where the kleptocrats do not.

Phelps, in his Nobel speech, says, “(I)t is axiomatic that one’s conception of the good economy depends upon one’s conception of the good life. For Calvin (1536) the good life consisted of hard work and wealth accumulation. For Hayek (1944) and Friedman (1962) the good life was a life of freedom.”

That conception of the “good life”, the Calvinist “hard work and wealth accumulation” and Friedman’s “life of freedom” would surely be something that Republican Presidential candidates would support.  Most of us would.   The real question is whether the reality of American economic life lies in Phelp’s hoped for neutrality or in Sassen’s observations about the marginalization, exploitation and "expulsion" of large swathes of American society. That's clearly open to debate.

But, to return to the opening paragraphs of this post; Martin Buber and the overwhelming support of conservative and Republican policies by the Evangelical Right, would it be moral to enact "pro-wealthy" policies,  even if they would require higher taxes on everyone else to make up for lost revenue, or the reduction in programs that benefit the rank and file citizen or the poor?  And, if you feel, as many conservatives do, that we are simply correcting a government imbalance that currently gives too much to the poor and middle class, would it still be moral if Sassen were right? 

In short, from a purely moral perspective, does government policy that overtly favors the wealthy and "expels" others from the economy fail the Buber test; in adopting it, are we “stopping one’s ears so as not to hear the voice from above breaks the connection between existence and the meaning of existence.”

Once again, for the links to the conference/papers, please go to: