What would a society that really paid attention to economic justice look like? Here are some thoughts on the philosophical underpinnings of such a society. The basic structure of my favored economic system is roughly welfare statism centers around merit, equity, progressive goals, and just desserts.
There is little of laissez-faire capitalism in this system, though, to my understanding, the welfare state needs to be based on an open market, with its emphasis on supply and demand, private ownership of the means of production, and due recognition of human nature, lest it be required to be too “State-heavy,” such as Marxist ideology would dictate. Laissez-faire doesn’t have to involve any large government (“State”). This article shows how a laissez-faire approach might work in the workplace. I like the quote that page uses to exemplify the philosophy: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”, by headstrong-yet-freedom-granting CEO, Steve Jobs.
I suppose if I had to use an analogy to describe the role of “the State” in my imagined economic system, it would be akin to a bowling lane – the gutters prevent the ball from going too far off-track, but within that range, one can toss the ball in whatever method one sees fit (i.e., business owners can do x or y, but then cannot do a, b, c, or d, and if they do r, s, t, or u, they must pay a certain price. However, my system would stop short of a true, radical egalitarianism, or Marxism/State socialism/Communism. Those systems are too pie-in-the-sky and frankly, just political impossibilities. Whereas many of the ideas Bernie Sanders touted during his almost-successful bid for the presidency are workable and politically possible, the State taking over all the means of production and taking private property from the oligarchs and plutocrats in this globalized system is a non-starter. Most Americans would not be in favor of a radically egalitarian distribution of societal goods, either. It just isn’t in our ethos. There is a lot we would be up for, and I will spell out my thoughts about economic justice in an ideal society.
There are at least three reasons in favor of my economic system. First, though it may be true that most Americans would not be in favor of a radically egalitarian distribution of societal goods because it just isn’t in our ethos, they do like certain social welfare programs – the classic “safety net.” The principles I favor are very similar to European-style welfare states, which have quite a bit of reasonableness, practical evidence, and citizen satisfaction to recommend them. In fact, many European welfare states got their ideas from us! According to Michael Moore, in the movie Where to Invade Next (2015), “welfare is a bad word.” However, the CEO of Ducati Motorcycles and he were discussing the differences between the Italian system and the American one as they surveyed the slow-moving conveyor belt of his factory, “It’s a good word. Of course, you pay more, but you take care of the welfare of the people. You take more, you pay more taxes for that.”
Thus, the first factor that recommends my favored system is that America already has certain elements in place that are pretty widely approved of. Social Security and Medicare come to mind. Paid vacation, paid sick days, the 40-hour work week are indispensable benefits to many. In fact, the Armed Services are very close to straight socialism and veterans, for one, tend to be happy with their healthcare. Overall, social services offered by the European social democracies are given satisfactory to excellent ratings by citizens living in those systems. Universal healthcare and paid maternity leave come to mind.
In fact, according to Robert Reich in Saving Capitalism: “For three decades after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.” Where did these gains go? The top 1% of the tax bracket (the moneyed class). The fact that Americans are somewhat familiar with the social welfare aspects of our history (contrasted with the modern, quasi-crony-capitalistic system it has become) and are amenable to many of the ideas that don’t violate norms around hard work, equity, social mobility, and meritocracy is a strength of my system.
Second, economic systems don’t exist in a vacuum. A truly laissez-faire economic system is virtually impossible in practical application. Free-market capitalism has been tried and found wanting – in this country and across the globe. It produces spectacular benefits and goods, and leaves many wtih a gross paucity of economic and social justice. Americans are growing restive and tired of the crony-capitalism that free-market ideology has spawned. They see, as Reich indicates, that back in the post-World War II era, “the CEOs of large corporations earned an average of about twenty times the pay of their typical worker. Now they get substantially over two hundred times.” This doesn’t function well, as many commentators such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty have observed as well. Reich goes so far as to predict that “…under such conditions an economy and a society cannot endure.” The fact that free market capitalism has virtually wrecked American politics, the American social fabric, and the planet itself are great weaknesses of a more libertarian-oriented economic system. That only leaves alternatives, of which my system is the next obvious one (as stated, radical egalitarianism or Statism are not particularly feasible in this country)(if any). Thus, welfare statism is strong in comparison.
The third strongest reason in favor of my economic system is that it is just, and more akin to a true meritocracy. That is, laissez-faire capitalism is unjust in so many ways, and luck and unscrupulous values can have a huge effect on a person’s success and material gains. As well, as indicated above, a market bereft of good government supervision and regulation easily leads to crony capitalism and a grossly unjust economy (due to the nature of the relationship between money and politics). Robert Reich: “Here again [re: Wall Street’s incredible brain-drain of the most talented young individuals and the success it achieved] economic prowess and political power feed on each other. As the big banks have gained dominance over the financial sector, they’re become more politically potent.” Though he points to Republicans as soft targets for an army of lobbyists with deep pockets, he shows that “Obama reaped far more in contributions – roughly $16.6 million – from Wall Street than did his Republican opponent, John McCain, at $9.3 million.” This of course is peanuts compared to the hundreds of millions that bad actors such as the Koch brothers sunk into recent elections.
This naked purchase of power and the way it grossly distorts our society is a fourth reason why a strength of my system is that it is more meritocratic and marked by more economic justice just than what one finds in the only other viable system in modern America: free-market capitalism. Hard work should equal reward; burdens should be distributed more evenly (as Nielson noted). The fact that 70% of Harvard graduates enter the financial services industry shows just how upside-down our economic system currently is. This is reminiscent of what the late, great Bostonian, Howard Zinn, said when he beheld the wanton scene he was witnessing in the American system: “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy; that things are all wrong; that the wrong people are in jail, and that the wrong people are out of jail; that wrong people are in power, and that the wrong people are out of power.” Indeed, they are. Here is an article about oligarchy, by which America has pretty much always been marked.
Thus, fifth, compared to libertarian capitalism, my system would be fairer, meaning more even distributions of wealth and income and less arbitrariness and nepotism; more functional, meaning less chance that the works would get all gummed up due to the myriad social problems that a society in which three people (Gates, Buffett, and Bezos) own as much wealth as half of the population, which recently made the news; and finally, it would be more likely to create the kind of society that is consonant with progressive goals, such as greater health, more well-being, and more positive freedom. When people go bankrupt due to astronomical healthcare emergencies and there is no safety net to grab them, bad things happen. Free-market capitalism is more like Charles Dickens’s London than modern-day London.
Sixth, as far as critiques of capitalism and the propagation of economic justice go, my system would recognize, like Piketty, that wealth earned from capital and property exceed the rate of return that a wage worker could ever possibly hope to achieve. I would, in general, be a proponent of the Marxist idea that a person’s value should be disconnected from the market value of their profession. For example, we need good teachers and responsible police officers and indefatigable sanitation workers and honest politicians; the value of these prosocial workers should be greater to society, and thus, reflect it in their pay, than what the market would dictate. Indeed, as Piketty noted, when wages stagnate, capital becomes accumulated in “the elites’” hands, and that becomes absurd after a point. The power such individuals can buy in this society is grotesque, especially after the landmark Supreme Court cases that have gone down in infamy: Citizens United, McCutcheon and Vallejo.
I am moved by this passage from Saving Capitalism, and it helps locate my system vis-a-vis critiques of capitalism:
…there are many alternative ways markets can be organized. However organized, the rules of a market create incentives for people. Ideally, they motivate people to work and collaborate, to be productive and inventive; they help people to achieve the lives they seek. The rules will also reflect their moral values and judgments about what is good and what is worthy and what is fair. The rules are not static; they change over time, we hope in ways that most participants consider better and fairer. But this is not always the case. They can also change because certain people have gained the power to change them for their own benefit. Such has been the case in America and many other nations in recent decades.
In sum, the free market is arbitrary, and hard work and merit are under-rewarded and undervalued in a time of vast inequality of wealth and income such as we are experiencing at this time. It’s not real justice when some, through not real fault of their own, are disenfranchised, and others are ostentatiously wealthy. Some have called our times a second Gilded Age, complete with our own robber barons and railroad tycoons. The forces of divergence, as Piketty calls them, and inequality, threaten democracy and imperil America’s well-being. He would call the current system unsustainable and unstable, and considering the big gap between productivity and wages, I agree.
The metrics that would be used to measure the justice underlying distributions in my system are basically: health, welfare, longevity, happiness, fairness, substantive freedom, income, poverty, educational access, relative peace, lack of indebtedness, well-being, and merit (what can be called a combination of productivity and social worth). In Amartya Sen’s word, capability would be primary as compared to a negative view of freedom. However, I would imagine that the point of this exercise is to create a more abstract and omnibus system than Sen is in favor of, given his relatively pragmatic approach. My system is not about “handouts.” It is about redistribution and social safety nets and entitlements to welfare. The future may mean more job insecurity and robots taking jobs, perhaps China growing to the size of an 800-lb. gorilla, and libertarianism is only going to perpetuate the current system that is rife with inequities and suffering for the many.
I do appreciate the Rawlsian idea of the contractarian approach, and the fruits that his “original position” can bear. I think I would be less orthodox about liberty than Rawls would, in that I feel if you grant the libertarians in society an inch, they will take a foot. I think freedom in my system would be more substantive than pure-libertarian. We want to cultivate potential and capability, not just allow everyone freedom to give a $20 million inheritance to their survivors. The idea was discussed in class that a person may be free per se to start a company or invent a new form of fertilizer, but if they have to walk two hours to get access to fresh water, their liberty is greatly constrained, and therefore, not substantial or robust. As President Obama noted, in my system would take note of the fact that rights are not “self-executing.” Society and government, therefore, should play a strong, responsible, and accountable role in ensuring that society as a whole benefits. You can call that utilitarian if you wish; I think fairness, like Rawls, would dictate that rules need to be set up such that it is only merit and the other metrics I noted that confer desserts and rewards on individuals, not position, influence, luck, or lineage.
My system would deal with unfairness of peoples’ initial position vis-à-vis Rawls’ difference principle in the following way. By initial position is meant, as I understand it, the fact that certain individuals are born with more or less resources based on family; or they are born more or less comely; or they are born more or less intelligent due to factors completely beyond their control. And so on and so forth. And that no action would be taken that would advantage the wealthy and powerful and evolutionarily advantaged without also in a proportional way “lifting all boats.” This is his robust sense of economic justice coming through.
First, in regard to assets, capital, and property, I would envision having a severe tax on inheritance such that amounts in excess of $2,000,000 would be taxed progressively. This would encourage philanthropy and charity among the living well-off as well. This could also assist in creating an amount of money that every child would receive, culminating after interest, in, say, $50,000 in 2017 dollars. This could be put to use for college (which would in my system be either free for certain majors or state-subsidized for every major save for the financial services type majors), or starting a small business (which would receive various incentives to facilitate start-ups and decrease the accumulation of money and power in the hands of corporations), or even caring for a sick relative (which would be made easier by the fact that there would be a public healthcare option available, much along the lines of Medicare, which is also used with much success in the U.S. Armed Services, and in almost every other advanced industrialized country on the planet nowadays). No person could be expected to have great health insurance, superior access to politicians’ ears, or avoid duties such as military or civic service while those less advantaged did not also benefit in some kind of proportional way.
In regard to matters of luck such as beauty and health and such, much of that is beyond the State to alter or mitigate. With intelligence, some of the initial position would be equalized by ensuring that adoptions were relatively easy and parents were supported somewhat, or that prenatal and postnatal healthcare was covered. Though Head Start has mixed results in the psychological literature, some program could be designed to make sure that the young can start on an even footing I am sure. In general, moral luck would be circumvented to a moderate degree. The kids who need a Head Start kind of program need economic justice and are too young and powerless to demand it.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz sees some relevant issues re: income disparities worth noting. Stiglitz notes that the ups and downs and booms and busts occurred to many countries – and I would note that it was more of a domino effect starting with the United States than some kind of “whack-a-mole,” to mix metaphors. He assures the reader: “But it is not inevitable. Is not the inevitable workings of the market economy. There are societies that have managed to things far better…. Those societies produce a standard of living higher than that of the United States for most of their citizens, measured not just in terms of income but in terms of health, education, security, and many other aspects that are key to determining the quality of life.” In some of the most inspiring language of his incredible book, Stiglitz writes this: “another world is possible. We can achieve a society more in accord with our fundamental values, with more opportunity, a higher total national income, a stronger democracy, and higher living standards for most individuals. It will be easy. There are some market forces pulling us the other way. Those market forces are shaped by politics….”
My system would attempt to deal with income disparities vis-à-vis the “free market” by creating incentives for various professions and deincentivizing others (e.g., teachers can have a free ride through college, and something like AmeriCorps would exist to encourage prosocial and positive contributions on the part of individuals so inclined). Essentially, “the market,” as Robert Reich describes in Saving Capitalism, is not a real and natural entity. It is always embedded in the rules that government sets up for how goods and services are to be bought and sold. He reveals: “The notion that you’re paid what you’re ‘worth’ is by now so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that many who earn very little assume it’s their own fault.” However, he points out that Steven A. Cohen, in twenty years as the CEO of SAC Capital Advisors, “amassed a fortune estimated to be around $11 billion. Was he really worth it?” No, he was not. There is no economic justice in that scenario.
No human being is “worth” that kind of pay in my fairer, more progressive economic scheme. In my system, that would be an absurdity that would never reach the light of day. I’m not an economist, but I would envision various mechanisms to even out the luck and arbitrariness and subterfuge and political machinations that lead to that kind of profligacy at the expense of the “Commons.” There would be a poverty rate of 5% or less, and nearly 0% among the infirm, aged, and young. If Scandinavian countries can do it, and we are the richest country in the history of humankind, why can not we? As to how this jibes with the difference principle, I would prescribe that many of the economic-political advantages that the well-connected and well-heeled currently engineer for themselves and their cronies would be impermissible because they would, in principle, leave “the great, unwashed masses” further and further behind. If it has put us in a real pickle in modern America, I wouldn’t want to reproduce that in my imaginary system.
As to disparities created by transfers of wealth through inheritance, and unfairness caused by having to pay proportionally higher taxes, I can say this. Transfers of wealth would be severely limited, with the principle being that it not only leads to the kinds of inequalities and savage disparities that we currently see in our crony-capitalistic system, but it reduces merit. How? Well, when one doesn’t have to work, as they say – idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Look at all the galaxy-class mischief Donald Trump got up to in his ignominious existence. This wouldn’t be as cruel a fate as the “nervous wealthy” would fear it to be because society would be much more egalitarian, and “horizontally-oriented” than it currently is. More justice for all is a good thing for the wealthy, as is the fact that more employment and better wages make for a better economy. In fact, the reason that a moderately wealthy person of conscience would fear say, a 91% tax on the highest income tax bracket (i.e., the Eisenhower years) is because America is fairly “dog eat dog” and bereft of sufficient safety nets. If we were more like Germany and Sweden, New Zealand and Great Britain, there wouldn’t be as low a depth that a functional and industrious person could fall.
There is less “wage theft” and gross social inequalities across the pond, and less “affluenza,” and therefore less anxiety. Thomas Geoghegan, in his interesting book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life, notes that such that “In a social democracy, everything is paid for. By ‘everything,’ I mean the pension, the health care, the education, etc.” He calls it “guided spending,” and compares a fictional woman in America versus in a European welfare state. He indicates that “The state taxes Isabel and spends her tax money on what she really needs. Barbara, by contrast, is pretty much on her own. Think of what the state ‘buys’ for Isabel: retirement, health, transportation, education, childcare. The state buys for Isabel, in bulk, in the most efficient way.” Thus, there is much less privation that a wealthy person’s poor, disenfranchised child would be subjected to in a system such as Europe (and mine). He also shows that “… the Europeans often take their productivity gains not in the cold-cash terms of higher wages but in the softer form: leisure.” As well: “They need not pay big tuitions – like $50,000 per year now at NYU – to send their kids to first-rate schools.” Freedom is very substantial, and positive, in such a system. Life is better for the majority. Think of how Norway scores on the SEDA.
This is also reminiscent of Jared Bernstein’s characterization (in All Together Now) of America as becoming increasingly “You’re On Your Own” (YOYO) as compared to times in its history, and in contemporary social democracies, which is more akin to “We’re All in This Together” (WITT). It should be obvious to all but the die-hard libertarian which is preferable, and which is consistent with Rawls’ difference principle. In sum, I would say it is consistent with the principle of economic justice and welfare statism that some would have to pay higher income taxes; if taxes in welfare states are around 40-50%, but the hallmarks of a good society are present to a much greater degree than in modern America, is that not worth it? Frankly, it is far lower than 91%, when America’s consumer-based economy was humming, union membership was upwards of 30% for the private sector, and a single wage earner could support a family. Today, Germany avoids “the race to the bottom” and is a top-notch engineering and manufacturing social democracy. There is much employee management and greater opportunity for a plurality and democratization of ownership there, as well. There would be much more equity in a society based more or less on Gar Alperovitz’s “Pluralist Commonwealth.” He, John Rawls, and I believe that the lucky, the skilled, the enfranchised – even the hard-working – should not be able to “lap” decent and hard-working people in the marathon that is our figurative economic life. Rawls is virtually a legend when it comes to theories about justice.
I would prioritize domestic poverty over international, though I would accept that doing so would have a couple drawbacks: increased illegal immigration, greater difficulty regarding trade and trade agreements, and moral concerns. I would imagine that if my system were as successful as hoped, that 2-4% of the annual budget could be used for United Nations dues, peacekeeping, famine relief, anti-poverty programs, and the like. Of course, selling arms to the rest of the world would be a non-starter.
Morality would be a significant factor underlying my system’s position on poverty. That is not to say that poverty does not have significant practical causes and effects and solutions; certainly it means life and death to some people in modern-day America. Indeed, the U.S. can certainly be criticized for having the most abundant and fecund economy in history, and yet, there are so many “losers” in this system. It’s really an indictment of crony capitalism and free-market capitalistic principles as compared to the welfare state that can be seen to function pretty well in many contemporary countries.
In regard to moral grounding, and true justice, I would say utilitarianism (the more that are better off, the better) with a recognition of fairness and negative liberty as a countervailing force. In other words, stopping well short of a utilitarianism bereft of any concern for minority rights. Conversely, though, one that does not fall into the trap of “If you can earn it based on the flexible and porous rules, congrats, you can keep 90% of it. Yay you!”, which is America’s credo. In general, I want citizens to take pride in knowing that each is connected to the other; that one’s neighbor extends from one border to the other. The economic strength will be tied to the moral foundation, and vice-a-versa. Consider Martin Luther King’s thoughts on this topic: “There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
As stated earlier, the guiding principles and measures of success in my system would be health, welfare, longevity, happiness, fairness, substantive freedom, income, poverty, educational access, relative peace, lack of indebtedness, well-being, and merit (what can be called a combination of productivity and social worth). One can easily see, then, that most of the immoral things America has let pass – Indian massacres, slavery, union-busting, giving syphilis to victims in U.S. Army experiments, imperialism, Guantanamo Bay prison, putting millions of African Americans behind bars for cocaine and other largely-preventable social problems, bailing out Wall Street after they wrecked the economy, and letting how many tens of millions die of malnutrition and preventable disease? – would not be permissible. Indeed, America has often chosen the most expeditious route, driven by sins such as lust for power and dominance, greed and nationalism. In our short, violent history, our ignorance has been matched only by our moral turpitude.
I would be influenced by both von Parijs (universal basic income [UBI]) and utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. They both are deeply concerned about justice. Singer’s view about charity, honor, and redistribution to the needy among us is well-taken. The idea of a universal basic income is also to be heeded, as America becomes more populous and yet jobs are harder to keep at home. Indeed, robots and automation and outsourcing are major concerns. Robert Reich notes that “The robots of the future, along with other breakthrough technologies…will take away good jobs that are already dwindling in number and replace opportunities already growing scarce. They will, in short, supplant the middle class that has been the centerpiece of our economy and society and which is already shrinking.” Reich also imagines “a minimum guaranteed income for all its citizens” being one way “to avoid this fate” (p. 216). He also shows that “an alternative would be to provide every citizen a tiny share of all intellectual property awarded by the patent office…which, as the economy grew and the value of the endowment compounded, would become a nest egg capable of producing a minimum basic income.”
One other utilitarian idea I would like to see instituted, along the lines of Singer’s utilitarianism, is that moneys currently focused on Americans’ last year of life be redirected to things such as prenatal care (we have a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba, for example). Like Sen and Rawls as well, I don’t see much room for poverty in my system when it is so preventable. Jeffrey Sachs made a big splash in The End to Poverty, noting how little of our GDP would be required to drastically reduce poverty, disease, and suffering in the world, if we only wanted to. I have to assume some men smoking cigarettes in some basement of the Pentagon has decided that a higher world population is not advisable, militarily, and since we clipped the wings of NASA, our chances of colonizing another planet are nil. Indeed, the future of the world looks as though it is going to be “[mostly] poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
My system would be fairly consistent with the justice Amartya Sen explicates with his capability approach. Given the following ideas, I think it makes a lot of sense: “…justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live.” “The freedom to choose our lives can make a significant contribution to our well-being…” “There is also a second significant aspect of freedom: it makes us accountable for what we do.” “…the total priority of liberty is too extreme. Why should we regard hunger, starvation, and medical neglect to be invariably less important than the violation of any kind of personal liberty?” Sen criticizes Rawls’ difference principle as “…without taking into account the wide variations they have in being able to convert primary goods into good living.”
So, in sum, my reading of Sen’s capability approach is a very robust, practical, deontological concern about being able to convert theoretical liberty into actual freedom to craft a life that one actually wants to live. Negative freedom is “You leave me alone and I will be good,” whereas the more substantive freedom that Sen proposes means more where the rubber meets the road, if you will. In other words, one should not merely be free to become a teacher if one wishes; one should actually have few external impediments to marshal their internal resources to make that goal happen. That is the real route to well-being for the 90% who are not as lucky, advantaged, or swift as the elite are. It is worth noting that few who are the dregs are happy to be “left alone to enjoy their freedom to become rich;” nay, it is usually those who appraise their chances of monetary and related success as good to great that wish to be left alone to eat their fruit. This has distinct moral aspects to it.
I would be happy to have my theoretical system subjected to Sen’s Global Comparative Assessment and other deep measures of the quality of life in a society. Modern America, unfortunately, would not do well in such schemes. In fact, we are 18 places behind the leader, Norway, in the results of the SEDA. In fact, some of the measures on which the U.S. is #1 are ignominious: arms sales, nuclear weapons, land mines, government data collection, money in politics, and rejection of global climate accords. We excel in much, but not in much related to social and economic justice. Think of how many Americans are behind bars, or who get out of prison and have no vote.
In regard to the metaphor of the claims on goods (the flute), a brilliant metaphor, with Anna being the only one who can play the flute, Bob being the only child without any toys, and Carla being the one who made the flute, I would come down like this. Anna’s claim, due to her skill, is important because we want the kind of society in which people who want to play the flute can dedicate the time and energy to become great at it.
Think of John Adams’ quote: “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” We have proceeded for centuries since Adams’ efforts, and we still have poverty, ungodly amounts of wealth in the hands of few, sickness, mental health problems, mass shootings, and ignorance.
When will America actually prize flute-playing? Indeed, Aristotle believed that virtue should be prized and inculcated and sanctioned if citizens are to become their best. Philosopher Michael J. Sandel points out that: “For Aristotle, the purpose of politics is not to set up a framework of rights that is neutral among ends. It is to form good citizens and to cultivate good character.” Philosopher Judith Boss indicates that “In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that living the good life – the life of virtue – is our most important human activity.” As well, Gar Alperovitz shows that “From Aristotle on, it has been obvious that democracy becomes meaningless if people do not have time to participate.” Good character should be encouraged and cultivated in a good society, so Anna having the flute is worthy.
Bob being without any toys is significant, as well. We want the kind of society in which children have their needs met, lest we be well-short of economic and social justice. This metaphor is a way of showing that some in a capitalistic society have little, and they do not have the power to have their voice heard above the din of the lobbyists and the bankers and the tech moguls. This is sad, regrettable, and morally repugnant. It is a gross eschewal of utilitarianism. It also follows a very thin, negative view of freedom. I can picture a cartoon of a man dressed like a robber baron saying to a child who is laboring away in a 19th-century factory or playing with pebbles in the street: “Go on boy, you’re free to buy as many flutes as you want; this is America! Land of opportunity. Here, take this book Horatio Alger, and go pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Then, echoing social satirist W. C. Fields, he bites his cigar, turns, and mumbles: “Now get outta here, kid, ya bother me.”
The fact that Carla made the flute is not insignificant. We want the kind of society where a person who has the intelligence and the will to create, invent, innovate, and discover to have the opportunity to do so. One of the greatest American success stories is not Thomas Edison patenting hundreds of inventions, but Jonas Salk creating the polio vaccine. It is worth noting what he did with it: he gave it away to the public domain. That kind of magnanimity is hard to find, nowadays. Even Bill and Melinda Gates have some secondary gain or even ulterior motives for their good deeds. Capability means that every child should be able to become a scientist, a playwright, or a small business owner because they have the capacity, because their capacity has been nurtured, and because they dedicate themselves to it. It’s not a free lunch, it’s a seat at the table.
As the metrics, goals, and goods underlying distributions in my system are: health, welfare, longevity, happiness, fairness, substantive freedom, income, poverty, educational access, relative peace, lack of indebtedness, economic justice, well-being, and merit (what can be called a combination of productivity and social worth), that is in a nutshell the sort of life that my system envisions everyone living. It would be market-based, but the graft, profligacy, and gross inequalities of condition that plague the modern American system would be deemphasized, regulated, and curtailed. In other words, you could start a small business and sell what you wanted for what price you could, but you would also have to pay your employees a living wage. Their healthcare would be covered by their (increased) taxes. Few loopholes would exist, and the legalized bribery that marks American capitalism would go the way of the Dodo bird.
I also mentioned the basic structure of my favored economic system is roughly welfare statism, centered around merit, equity, progressive goals, and just desserts. This means to me that merit is to be rewarded. If you teach children, your life will be easier than if you move money around to feather your own nest. Artists and other cultural creatives would be subsidized to some degree (perhaps double the UBI that I would like to see in place). If you invent useful items, you will pay a lower tax rate than if you are a CEO of a corporation. Folks who love business and outdoing competition will have the opportunity to compete and “win,” but they will not be able to retain much more than $1 million a year in income, lest it be so heavily taxed it would behoove the corporation to go ahead and plow profits back into the pay of the employees, R&D, or what have you.
Note that corporations will have their wings clipped compared to what we have to currently put up with in the United States. Note what Robert C. Hinckley says about corporations: “… corporate managers aren’t against the environment, human rights, and other elements of the public interest; they just don’t see these things as relevant to their job. Why? Because the corporate law says that their job is simply to use their best efforts to pursue profit on behalf of the shareholders. Human rights, social justice, and the environment don’t factor into that equation — at least, not directly.” Thus, I would envision something akin to Hinckley’s smart amendment to the typical corporate charter being in place to prevent gross rent-seeking behavior and encourage economic justice: A Director shall discharge the duties of the position of Director in good faith…but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public health or safety, the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of its employees.
Tangibly, I would imagine that the health of the person would be guaranteed with a smart version of a public health plan. A person could have a private insurance policy if they wish, but would still need to pay into the system. As there are probably 10% of the population wishing to work more or even to obtain work in America, in this fictionalized system I would like to see everyone who wanted a job and had the merit to do said job well be offered the opportunity. Perhaps a kind of a permanent public works project that would build or repair infrastructure, maintain cleanliness, produce public goods of various kinds, and the like. I don’t see why the elderly shouldn’t be paid a minimum wage to come to senior centers where preschoolers hang out and students can come after school. So much can be gained from putting those who have experience and time together with those who are in need. Daycare would be available in a subsidized manner for those who need it. Parental leave for childbirth and infant care, food stamps for the few poor that exist, and job training should be plentiful. College would be free for certain prosocial and needed occupations. As robots and other macroeconomic factors grow in prominence, my society would need important things to do that aren’t connected with the pursuit of profit or which involve wage slavery.
I have been influenced by Star Trek and its vision for economic and social justice, progressivism and freeedom, for a long time. Its view of the future pioneered by Gene Roddenberry would be a better guide to organizing society than would a vision held by Adam Smith or Milton Friedman! Writer Ronald D. Moore shares that view: ‘As I grew into an adult, and my political views took shape, I treasured Star Trek as a dream of what my country could one day become – a liberal and tolerant society, unafraid to live by its ideals in a dangerous universe, and secure in the knowledge that its greatness is derived from the strength of its ideals rather than the power of its phasers.” The actor who played the famous character, Spock, Leonard Nimoy, also sees such a vision: [Star Trek] is all about trying to make the world and the universe a better place. I’m proud to be connected with it. I think we need that in our lives. We need ethical, heroic people trying to do the right thing to help others and to improve life on this planet and in the universe.” In my ideal economic system, ideally we would phase out the war, the profiteering, and the selfishness and enjoy the fruits of a more peaceful and fair society. In Roddenberry’s words, we would have health and long life, and live long and prosper.
This is easily contrasted with the path America has taken. Take this Woodrow Wilson quote as evidence: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Indeed, he and virtually every other president since the “republic of virtue” begun by the first generation faded away, not only encouraged a plutocracy and oligarchy, but increasingly participated in an imperialistic America, backed by U.S. Marines doing their bidding by warring and toppling dictators and such. None of this nonsense would exist in my more economically just system.
Keeping everyone employed, or at least busy, is a major goal of my society. As Robert Reich notes in Saving Capitalism, globalization and automation are forces we have to grapple with. However, unlike his former boss, President Clinton, he has some very different ideas about how to fix America’s ill-fated economic and political systems. Instead of believing the world to be flat and opening up to free trade, he envisions something more progressive. In the book Alternatives to Economic Globalization, John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander (yes, I think that is really his name, and not an ironic joke!) tell this story about how we got here:
Sold to the world as a panacea for all problems, economic globalization has not lived up to its advertising. It has not lifted the poor; it has instead brought record to disparities in income and wealth between rich and poor nations, and rich and poor within nations. It has greatly inhibited democracy and social justice; it has destroyed local communities and pushed farmers off their traditional lands. It has accelerated the greatest environmental breakdown in history. The only real beneficiaries of globalization are the world’s largest corporations and their top officials, and the global bureaucracies they helped to create.
Economist John Maynard Keynes believed: “For the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Wow! He saw a very different vision from the one the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Jack Welch, J. P. Morgan, and Jeff Bezos do/did. In my system, where the realities of robotics are going to have to be taken into account (though I would be much less inclined to see corporations outsource jobs that Americans could do. In fact, Germany has a decent standard of living and sees good wages paid, due in part to in its highly technical expertise and the inclusion of workers in decision-making in a way that Americans can only dream of. This is real economic justice, and is merit-based as well.
Reich believes something similar to the need for Americans to prepare for the future using wisdom and foresight, and sees the writing on the wall: “Consider that in 1964 the four most valuable American companies, with an average market capitalization of $180 billion (in 2011 dollars), employed an average of 430,000 people. Forty-seven years later, the largest American companies were each valued at about twice their former counterparts but were accomplishing their work with less than one-quarter of the number of employees.” He sees labor-replacing technologies as well as knowledge-replacing technologies. It could get really out of control; Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking both caution not against unemployment woes, but literal domination by self-aware and virtually omnipotent artificial intelligence. I suppose it is just the natural evolution of Western civilization since the steam engine was invented and factories blotted out the sun with their coal smoke emitted from factories staffed by a sub-class of person, often well under age 16.
Reich cautions against one of the Democrats’ “aces in the hole”: education. Twenty-five years ago, Reich believed that education was the key to evening out the economic playing field. He writes: “I assumed that the remedy for job losses and for declining wages lay in helping more people get more and better education, especially access to higher education. I was only partly correct.” He admits that even the college-educated – not the majority of American workers, and definitely not the majority of German workers – have not seen their share of the economic pie in this time of unparalleled income and wealth inequality. As well, currently our educational and job-retraining systems range from somewhat satisfactory to abysmal.
As Thomas Piketty isn’t exactly sanguine about the chances of reducing inequality, and Alperovitz doesn’t see taxation-based wealth redistribution as a cure-all, we definitely need to do some thinking – imagining? – and find the political will to make needed improvements before we destroy ourselves due to greed, myopia, rent-seeking, environmental degradation, and the wholesale domination of the American political process by elites. We should be prioritizing a robust vision of economic justice. Part of the key probably lies in Germany’s model: excellent training and specialization in goods and services the world wants without dropping pay down to compete with workers in the Philippines. Something has to explain how they compete with the U.S. and
Part of the key probably lies in Germany’s model: excellent training and specialization in goods and services the world wants without dropping pay down to compete with workers in the Philippines. Something has to explain how they compete with the U.S. and still offer healthcare, free college, and six weeks of vacation! I have already mentioned Alperovitz’s largely worker-ownership-based model, “The Pluralist Commonwealth.” As per usual, it’s not that we don’t have the tools and the insight to know how to get out of the mess we are in, we lack the will, primarily because politicians are beholden to the sociopathic corporations and the wealthy that have megalomaniacal designs. It was said that Rome continued drinking out of leaden goblets even after coming to believe that doing so was harmful. Empires in which money holds unnatural sway are too conservative to make needed changes before it is too late. As Thomas Schulman had Robin Williams’ beloved character in Dead Poet’s Society say, “’Twas always thus, and always thus will be.” Ω
To continue, read the next blog, which is comprised of quotes on economics and economic justice: