Sayers on "work"

697 days ago

The modern tendency seems to be to identify work with gainful employment; and this is, I maintain, the essential heresy at the back of the great economic fallacy which allows wheat and coffee to be burnt and fish to be used for manure while whole populations stand in need of food. The fallacy being that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of Society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.


If man’s fulfilment of his nature is to be found in the full expression of his divine creativeness, then we urgently need a Christian doctrine of work, which shall provide, not only for proper conditions of employment, but also that the work shall be such as a man may do with his whole heart, and that he shall do it for the very work’s sake. But we cannot expect a sacramental attitude to work, while many people are forced, by our evil standard of values, to do work which is a spiritual degradation — a long series of financial trickeries, for example, or the manufacture of vulgar and useless trivialities.

from Creed or Chaos?, by Dorothy L. Sayers (1940).




containing multitudes

700 days ago

Dreher has this post on how the “Western world” would react if an African pope is elected. It’s wonderful. There’s this amazing panoply of rhetorical amazingness within. It’s primarily a blockquote of something Mark Shea wrote, wrapped in more fireworks.

First, I love the use of the “how can you claim to be tolerant when you’re actually intolerant of intolerance?” argument, every time it appears. It’s like a wonderful medieval weapon that bashes two heads at once: allowing the wielder to simultaneously criticize someone for being both too tolerant and not tolerant enough. The food is terrible and the portions are too small!

I also enjoy the (quoted) criticism of some (unnamed, hypothetical, imagined) liberals for believing themselves to be superior to both Catholics and “natives of Skull Island doing the Kong Dance”. Nobody’s actually said any of this stuff yet, or ever, or whatever, but might as well start criticizing people for doing it in advance. The problem, in these guys’ minds, isn’t that these Western liberals feel smug, enlightened, and above “primitive savagery and mystical mumbo jumbo” — that appears to be fine. It’s that they lump Catholicism in with real savages. The problem, as Shea identifies it, isn’t smug self-satisfaction, it’s smug self-satisfaction about the wrong people. We’re supposed to feel superior to some people, but not to those people. It’s a great twist on the old intolerance-of-intolerance move: “You say you don’t think you’re better than anyone else, but actually you do think you’re better than anyone else, and what’s more, you’re twice wrong, because actually we, not you, are better than anyone else.”

Instead of having the old argument about who is the best, we get to have like a third-order argument about whether espousing the view that nobody is the best actually implies that I think I am the best.

Billy: I bet my dad can beat up your dad.

Timmy: My dad probably wouldn’t fight your dad. He says that dads shouldn’t get in fistfights with other dads.

Billy: Oh yeah? Your dad thinks he’s better than my dad, huh?

[I’m thinking this might be an even higher-ordered argument. Do I think I’m better than you because my Dad rejects the idea that whether he can beat up your dad is a relevant metric of whether I’m better than you? Head asplodes.]

Then there’s also this reference to Gandhi’s views on contraception, and there’s this intimation that someone’s being inconsistent or irrational by agreeing with Gandhi about non-violence and liberation but not with everything else he espoused. I love the deployment of the thought, but hardly see the relevance. Did his views on the procreative act figure centrally in his life and mission? Did he make the resolution of political or moral questions of contraception the centerpiece or even a minor, ancillary point of his efforts on behalf of peace, freedom, and human dignity? No. As I understand it, Gandhi’s teachings on contraception and marriage were not central to his political acts in the manner that they’ve become central to Roman Catholic politics. It seemed to Gandhi (and I’m willing to be corrected here) that there were more important problems in the world to deal with than “for man to allow his most precious possession to run to waste.” (precious bodily fluids indeed!) It’s perfectly reasonable, rational, and consistent to hold Gandhi up as a very important thinker and excellent model of some saintly virtues without agreeing 100% with everything he said, especially about ancillary issues.

Further, Gandhi’s opposition to contraception isn’t even consistent with Catholic views on the subject. It was his opinion that the sex act has has only the generative and not the unitive function. Here, he even out-Pauls Paul: “Once the idea that the only and grand function of the sexual organ is generation possesses man and woman, union for any other purpose they will hold as criminal waste of the vital fluid and the consequent excitement caused to man and woman as an equally criminal waste of energy” (again with the vital fluids! Is this an ayurvedic medicine thing?) And further, he’s even wrong (as far as Catholics are concerned) about marriage: “Rightly speaking, the true purpose of marriage should be and is intimate friendship and companionship between man and woman. There is in it no room for sexual satisfaction.” So, what is the point Shea is trying to make? And why not make the point by referring to Gandhi’s vegetarianism? Look at all of these half-hearted Westerners who say they idolize Gandhi, but just look at the way they treat cows! I guess they don’t agree with Gandhi that cow protection “is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution.” Well, I wouldn’t get to google for those amazing “vital fluids” comments, so there’s that.

It looks like the “cafeteria” metaphor beloved by conservative Catholics is taking over the world. First, liberal Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose among the Church doctrines, and by extension, now nobody is allowed to pick and choose among the ideas of any thinker. Must I accept Aristotelian cosmology when I advocate for Aristotelian ethics, or risk being called inconsistent and hypocritical? Good heavens, what if I agree with Rod Dreher about the excesses of consumer culture and the baleful influence of corporate power (things he very seldom seems to write about anymore) but disagree with him on whether crawfish are better than shrimp? My whole worldview is shattering!

Pointing out that “[some people] love to idolize [some person], but not to actually listen to [his/her] words when they go against what they want to believe” is applicable to everyone, on all ends of every spectrum of every kind of thought. It’s just so useful.




more economics-speak

706 days ago

From Modeled Behavior, again:

Imagine if tomorrow we produced the optimal education system and elevated all workers to their highest and most economic valuable level of human capital possible. Does this mean that we would no longer need immigrants or guest-workers? No, the economy is not a peg-board full of holes called “good jobs” and “bad jobs” that we need a static number of workers to produce. Even if you hold everything fixed, there will be workers elsewhere in the world who at given the current supply and demand for labor in the U.S., and the resulting market wages, will find it optimal to move here and be hired. There will always be employers who find it optimal to hire them. There is no level of domestic education where foreign workers would move here, look around and say, “Gee, all the jobs are taken. I guess they have everything covered here.” and then go home. [emphasis in the original]

Yes, you could write it that way, and it sure sounds like economics. All very rational, understandable, and it certainly sounds inevitable. My economics education is spotty, but I know enough that I’m pretty sure that an economist says “supply and demand” you can replace that obfuscation with “price”, “cost”, or “wage”. And when he says “find it optimal” you can replace that with “reduce costs” or “increase profits”.

So, applying these operations, you get: “Even if you hold everything fixed, there will be workers elsewhere in the world who at given wages in the U.S., will increase their pay by moving here and being hired. There will always be employers who will reduce their costs and increase their profits by hiring them.”

Look, American workers, this is saying, there’s always going to be someone willing to do your job for less money. And your employer is always going to want to pay someone else less money to do your job. Intimated, but not often clearly expressed is that this is both empirical and normative. It’s not just the way things are, it’s the way things are supposed to be. Any sort of economy that wasn’t predicated on everyone attempting to undercut everyone else, well, that would be inefficient. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and that’s the way some folks like it. Makes the data fit the models.




economic moral logic

742 days ago

Over at Modeled Behavior at Forbes, there’s a recent post on “Is Outsourcing American Jobs Wrong?”, and it caught my eye. I’m not precisely sure why I subscribe to Modeled Behavior, but it might have something to do with watching the thinking of economists at work. Anyway, this post caught my eye because it sounds like it’s going to be about ethics or morality, and I guess it was, though in a very economistic “let’s just add up all the utils and call it a day” kind of moral theorizing.

So, the argument is presented as a dialogue, and the meat of the thing looks like this:

[After a short discussion of how an American with disposable income is not morally blameworthy for choosing to donate the money to poor Chinese peasants instead of spending it on American-made goods and services]

Mr. Ricardo: And neither is outsourcing. But more importantly, rich world charitable donations to China also aren’t lifting hundreds of millions out of desperate poverty like our willingness to trade with them and outsource to them is. If charitable donations to China were driving as much of an improvement in lives as trade, would you be arguing I am morally obliged to stop these charitable donations?

Mr. Gephardt: No, I suppose I wouldn’t, but charity isn’t stealing jobs.

Mr. Ricardo: So let me get this straight, if I shut down a factory, sell the parts, and donate the money to China is that stealing American jobs?

Mr. Gephardt: Um… well, kind of.

Mr. Ricardo: What if instead of the factor owner I am just a large consumer of the goods made there and I stop buying the stuff and donate the money instead to China, and as a result the factory must shut down and be sold for parts. Is that stealing American jobs?

Mr. Gephardt: Well… I’m not really sure.

Mr. Ricardo: Then I think you’ve accepted my point that outsourcing is not wrong.

Okay. There’s several things going on in this little post, and they’re all interesting.

First, we’re waving the magic wand of economics and turning every relationship between humans into a market interaction. It’s all arms-length — there are no special moral obligations in this scenario. So, we’re free to ignore any distracting little details like whether employers owe any moral duties to their employees; whether business owners owe any special moral duties to the locations where they site factories or shops; or whether citizens of one town, state, or country have any special moral obligations to citizens of the same place. That’s all clearly off the table as the sort of thing that impedes the proper working of markets. We sweep all that up as inefficient, distortionary, and irrational.

Second, even though all sorts of potential sources of moral obligation are out of bounds in this scenario, there’s this ghostly fiction floating over the whole thing that someone, somewhere might be motivated or inspired or influenced by the fact that offshoring American jobs might be good for Chinese peasants. Which, if it’s true, would be totally amazing. I would love to see some video of all these Bain guys sitting around a boardroom talking about how much good they’re going to do for the Chinese. “Mitt, I get that your plan will make the business 3% more profitable, but will it improve the living standards of Chinese peasants?”

Here they are, celebrating another successful charitable effort on behalf of the Shandon province. (I should note that this picture is embarrassing and objectionable not because all these guys are white and have nice haircuts and suits, but because they’re posing with all this money but nothing else fun. Lingerie models, bottles of expensive booze, fancy cars — heck, even just poker cards and chips — that would make sense to America. This picture looks like these guys are excited about money as an end in itself, which is disgusting and creepy.)

Third, we’re characterizing the objections to offshoring as simply “stealing American jobs”. So we get to poke and prod at the “theft” notion, and obliquely make the argument that if anyone really deserves the job, it’s not the American in this scenario. Which is a pretty fun argument to use in a defense of capitalism, since we’re getting awfully close to conceding the point that it might even be morally right to take things from people and give them to people who need or deserve them more.

You’d think that saying:

Mr. Ricardo: So let me get this straight, if I shut down a factory, sell the parts, and donate the money to China is that stealing American jobs?

Mr. Gephardt: Um… well, kind of.

…would open us up to “Well, what if the government came and took the factory, retained the American employees, and donated the profits to China — wouldn’t that be a morally superior outcome?”

And of course, the answer is “No, the factory owner has property rights in the factory that the government is obligated to respect.” Which means that the converse must also be true: the American job holder doesn’t have any rights to their job that the factory owner is obligated to respect. Also, the American city in which the factory is located doesn’t have any rights which the factory owner is obligated to respect.

And, having thrown that on the table, all of this Chinese peasant stuff can just go away — it’s not doing any work at all. The job doesn’t belong to the worker, it belongs to the employer, and he can do with it whatever he pleases. (How can he possibly steal his own job?) Move it, end it, pay more, pay less, pay nothing. Whether the outcome is morally preferable is completely irrelevant — after all, it’s not as if the owners of these factories are Bill Gates, trying to decide between buying another yacht for himself or mosquito nets for sub-Saharan Africa.

But maybe it suits their interest to think of themselves that way. And maybe that’s why logic like this appears in a blog at Forbes.

Hey guys, that thing you’ve chosen to do for your own self interest? Yeah, the one that’s really painful and wrenching for a bunch of the people you’re in existing, long-term relationships with? It turns out it’s pretty okay for a bunch of other people you don’t know. So, don’t feel so bad about it, okay? You’re doing the right thing.

On the other hand, we have that noted trade-unionist and radical Pope John Paul II, writing (in Latin!) things like:

When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency. In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business.

The historical experience of the West, for its part, shows that even if the Marxist analysis and its foundation of alienation are false, nevertheless alienation — and the loss of the authentic meaning of life — is a reality in Western societies too. This happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way. Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.

This sort of thing wouldn’t fly at Forbes. Might make money seem less fun.



Who voted against the Thirteenth Amendment in the House?

752 days ago

Mr. Spielberg doesn’t want you to know.

“If you go through the names that we call out on the vote, you’re not going to find a lot of those names that conform to history,” he said in an interview with CBS last year. “And that was in deference to the families.”

These names ought to be remembered. Voting has consequences.

James C. Allen (IL)
William J. Allen (IL)
Sydenham Elnathan Ancona (PA)
George Bliss (OH)
James Brooks (NY)
James S. Brown (WI)
John W. Chanler (NY)
Brutus J. Clay (KY)
Samuel S. Cox (OH)
James A. Cravens (IN)
John Littleton Dawson (PA)
Charles Denison (PA)
John R. Eden (IL)
Joseph K. Edgerton (IN)
Charles A. Eldredge (WI)
William E. Finck (OH)
Henry Grider (KY)
William Augustus Hall (MO)
Aaron Harding (KY)
Henry W. Harrington (IN)
Benjamin G. Harris (MD)
Charles M. Harris (IL)
William S. Holman (IN)
Philip Johnson (PA)
William Johnston (OH)
Martin Kalbfleisch (NY)
Francis Kernan (NY)
Anthony L. Knapp (IL)
John Law (IN)
Alexander Long (OH)
Robert Mallory (KY)
William H. Miller (PA)
James R. Morris (OH)
William Ralls Morrison (IL)
Warren P. Noble (OH)
John O’Neill (OH)
George H. Pendleton (OH)
Nehemiah Perry (NJ)
John V. L. Pruyn (NY)
Samuel J. Randall (PA)
James Carroll Robinson (IL)
Lewis W. Ross (IL)
John Guier Scott (MO)
William G. Steele (NJ)
John Dodson Stiles (PA)
Myer Strouse (PA)
John T. Stuart (IL)
Lorenzo De Medici Sweat (ME)
Dwight Townsend (NY)
William H. Wadsworth (KY)
Elijah Ward (NY)
Chilton A. White (OH)
Joseph W. White (OH)
Charles H. Winfield (NY)
Benjamin Wood (NY)
Fernando Wood (NY)



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