Easter for Non-Believers

Joseph W.H. Lough

The body is at the center of Easter. Easter is about the body.

As part of my Lenten practice this season, I have taken up the Marin Bible Challenge, a set of daily readings that promises at its conclusion to guide readers through the entire Hebrew and Christian sacred texts. Three weeks ago, while wading through Leviticus – yes, Leviticus! – I experienced an epiphany. Even if you are not too familiar with Leviticus, this may sound odd. Leviticus? Really? Yes, really.

For those of you who don’t have a clue what I am talking about, Leviticus is the third book in the Pentateuch, the five books traditionally ascribed to Moses, wherein we find the details of the Mosaic Law.

4And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days:5and the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if in his eyes the plague be at a stay, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more: 6and the priest shall look on him again the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague be dim, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is a scab: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. 7But if the scab spread abroad in the skin, after that he hath showed himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall show himself to the priest again: 8and the priest shall look; and, behold, if the scab be spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is leprosy.

9When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest; 10and the priest shall look; and, behold, if there be a white rising in the skin, and it have turned the hair white, and there be quick raw flesh in the rising, 11it is an old leprosy in the skin of his flesh, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean: he shall not shut him up, for he is unclean. 12And if the leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his feet, as far as appeareth to the priest; 13then the priest shall look; and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean. 14But whensoever raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean. 15And the priest shall look on the raw flesh, and pronounce him unclean: the raw flesh is unclean: it is leprosy. 16Or if the raw flesh turn again, and be changed unto white, then he shall come unto the priest;

You get the idea. In short, it prescribes how any faithful Jew should respond to nearly every conceivable situation she or he might encounter. The natural question is “Why?”

At this point, I do not want to haggle over when or how the Hebrew Bible, the Tenach, was composed. Suffice it to say that the kinds of prescriptions set forth, ad nauseum, in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were recognized and, where possible, practiced by all who called themselves Jews as early as the fourth century BCE.

My interest in these laws has to do with the body, because Easter is all about the body.

Now for my epiphany. My epiphany was simply this: were it not for the detailed knowledge if not strict observance of the Law, there is no question in anyone’s mind but that the people we call the Jews would, like all of the other Semitic tribes wandering through the Arabian Peninsula, almost surely have been completely assimilated. And they would have been assimilated no matter how unique, detailed, or intricate their theology. The Jews had to engage with their experience of the divine in a bodily form, through practice. For, absent this practice, which entailed the engagement of their bodies and not simply their minds, the Jews would have become simply one more Babylonian sect.

There it is. That is my epiphany.

Now, you are no doubt wondering, what has this to do with Easter?

Contemporary religion and spirituality have no bodies. To be a believer today entails no more than an inward change, a shift in my heart, my disposition. Similarly, I need no body in order to be spiritual. Indeed, having a body may even be a deterrent to true spirituality, for what I really need is to escape the endless cycle of pain, suffering, and becoming and dissolve into the peace where being and non-being meet. I must rid myself of the body-ego, must transcend its limitations. Or, should I desire somewhat more content, I can think or meditate my way into or onto the true path.

This is because, historically, the problem with faith and with religion was that they possessed bodies, and that meant that they had skin, walls, boundaries, limits. It meant that they were formed, shaped, structured, limited, bounded. It meant that they were one thing and not another, they said one thing and not another. Indeed, the problem with religion and spirituality, historically, is that they said anything at all; not only because language is limited, whereas everyone knows that the divine is unlimited, limitless, and beyond all expression, but also because once it achieves expression, the divine becomes subject to all of the limitations and misunderstandings and drawbacks to which all speech is subject.

This also of course holds for all laws, institutions, and procedures. Today therefore we celebrate religions – or, more properly, spiritualities – without walls, without rules, absent all or any institutional forms or fixed rituals or traditions.

So, what should we call this completely disembodied, disembedded form of social subjectivity? Shall we call it emancipation, total emancipation, so total that it includes both body and soul?

Historically I fall within a long line of activists who, ever since the French Enlightenment, have needed and who have even occasionally constructed what could be called a secular liturgy. By secular here, I do not intend anything bad or evil or sinful. By it I only mean a liturgy that is timely, saecularis, of time. And, so, periodically we invent a new timely liturgy. We did so following the French Revolution. We did so following the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions. And some would say that we did so following the American Revolution as well. It might even be said that the Beats constructed something of a secular liturgy.

Such liturgies, however, always suffer from the same deficiency, which may explain their effervescent, brilliant, spectacular, but always fleeting character. In every instance, such liturgies are constructed intentionally according to some sweeping, often quite detailed, intellectual vision of what we need to be and where we need to go: Bob Dylan as high priest, cantor, as liturgist.

What distinguishes the Law of Moses from Bob Dylan’s (or Macklemore’s or K’Naan’s) poetry is that the Law of Moses was not designed as a vehicle for anything. Rather was it a record of practices whose aim, if anything, was to preserve the practical bodily integrity of a particular community in its exile. And for this reason, they could not have been invented or constructed or developed with an aim to do anything else except to confirm and reinforce that identity.

We, by contrast, are not a people, not a movement, not a community; we are not in exile, but to the contrary are completely at home. Or, if we are not at home, if we feel alienated, we are completely at a loss as to what beyond therapy, meditation, and prayer or (quite literally) losing our selves we could possibly do to return home from exile. Because there is no home to which we could return. And, no, the present day Israeli state is no more a home than is present day America.

If we have a body, it is the commodity form and its immaterial value; which is, of course, no body.

But, as I said, the center of Easter is the body.

Walter Benjamin, who perhaps understood this better than anyone else, records the following in his second thesis from the “Concept of History”:

The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. Doesn’t a breath of the air that enervated earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones? Don’t the women we court have sisters they no longer recognize? If so, then there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Then our coming was expected on earth. Then like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim. Such a claim cannot be settled cheaply. The historical materialist is aware of this.

If the divine has a passable body, if the divine can suffer death and be buried, then and only then can sense be made of our exile or sense be made as well of our possible return. If, on the other hand, the divine is perfectly impassable, if it is not subject to death and to suffering, or if the aim of the divine is to emancipate us from this body of death – a death from which, according to tradition, the divine could not even emancipate itself – or if our present goal is to arrest and transcend the cycle that is so intimately intertwined with our bodies; well, then, of course, no amount of Midrash can possibly save us.

Repetition – telling the story over and over – standing, kneeling, bowing, praying, repeating, remembering, facing this way and not the other, listening, learning, arguing; all of these built, constructed, limited and delimiting bodily postures and expressions are what Easter is all about. It is about the body.

Without them we cannot possibly survive our exile. Without them we cannot possibly hope to return home.

The State’s Interest in Public Education

Joseph W.H. Lough

It is tragic that the only voices remaining to defend public education today are those of organized teachers. This fact was once again brought home to me by the lead story in today’s NYT (“With Vouchers, States Shift Aid for Schools to Families,” Thursday, March 28, 2013, 1A). But the larger question perhaps is why the state should take any interest in public education at all? Why not, as many free market advocates insist, close the Department of Education and restore this fundamental responsibility back to the private market place where families are free to choose?

This, clearly, is the implication of the opening paragraph to Fernanda Santos’ and Motoko Rich’s story:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

And if you hear overtones of the late Milton Friedman in this introduction, that surely is by design. Free to Choose was, of course, the title of Mr. and Mrs. Friedman’s hugely popular defense of free markets and privatization, among whose leading ideas was – you guessed it – school vouchers.

As I have noted elsewhere (Commonwealth), Mr. Friedman’s command of political history in general and US legal history in particular leaves much to be desired. Thus, although Mr. Friedman and his followers have gotten the notion that the US was founded on anti-federalist principles stuck to their brains, they hold this notion in perfect harmony with the fact that it was the US Constitution’s opponents who called themselves “anti-Federalists.” The point that needs making here is that the state has an interest in republican values and institutions; that is to say, values and institutions that defend and expand res publica, the wealth we hold in common.

Public education is of interest to the republic because we are all wealthier when we share a common foundation in public information and knowledge. This differs qualitatively from the kind of information and knowledge that benefits private interests, i.e., oikonomia. Economy has its roots in the private household or enterprise, the oikos. Here the despotes, (i.e., the master, pater familias, the head of the household, the CEO or Board Chair) has an interest in reproducing and, if possible, expanding the estate. And, in order to do so, he or she will cultivate different specializations among his or her staff and family and delegate different responsibilities to different members of the private enterprise. And, although the state has an interest in the success or failure of the private enterprise, it is forbidden from intervening in its internal workings, leaving to its administrators and owners responsibility for how the enterprise is operated.

Obviously the private enterprise is free to choose how it will operate. It need not charter itself to produce the highest returns for its shareholders. It could, instead, establish religious instruction as its goal, or charitable works, or instruction in some other form of knowledge or technique.

How does this oikonomia differ from politeia, from res publica? It differs in every possible way.

From the beginning, the republic must consider not the private interests of each private enterprise, but, to the contrary the shared interests of the political community. Moreover, whereas the private enterprise is, of necessity, governed hierarchically according to the specialized skills and different shares in the success or failure of the enterprise, the republic is, of necessity, governed by equally qualified and equally interested stakeholders whose differences with one another cannot be founded on private self-interest or private holdings, but only on their different views on what will best serve the public interest and general welfare.

And it is precisely here therefore that the debate over vouchers gets off track. If public education is actually an extension of the private enterprise, the private household, oikonomia, then those who want to close the Department of Education and completely privatize education are completely correct. In that case, since the state has no interest in the education of our children, not one cent of public resources should be directed to their education. It is a completely private matter.

If, on the other hand, the state does have an interest in the education of our children – if there is a shared universe of knowledge and information and skill in which we together, res publica, have an interest – then we would be ill-advised to grant any specific oikonomia, any specific private enterprise or household, a stake in the learning outcomes within public education, since this stake can only serve to promote the private interests of one or another private shareholder.

To be sure, the public’s interest in education does not abrogate or supersede the interests of the private oikos or household. I am free and remain free to instruct my children in the private knowledge and private information unique to my private enterprise, my oikonomia. I should even be free to withdraw my children from public institutions should I judge that they espouse knowledge or information that is harmful to my private interests. But, what I cannot do and must not do under any circumstances is grant private self-interest, private enterprise, an entry into public education. For to do so would confuse the public’s stake in education, with the stake of private shareholders.

The two are fundamentally different.

So, why is it tragic that organized public teachers are the only individuals who remain committed to public education? It is tragic because to the extent that all Americans ought to be equally interested in and committed to republican values and institutions – to the wealth we hold in common – all Americans share an interest in public education, in res publica, in the republic. That more Americans do not share this interest, that they instead see only their own private self-interest, at stake; that the education of their children has become a matter of the “pocketbook,” may therefore stand as a bitter and tragic harbinger of the health of the republic as a whole. We no longer share a common stake. We are no longer a republic. We are an economy.

The Stupidity Factor

Joseph W.H. Lough

Several decades have passed since “human capital” passed into the economic lexicon and into the models economists use to measure economic growth. My students will be familiar with “human capital” as a factor in long-term economic growth and in R Lucas’ version of the convergence hypothesis. According to that hypothesis, although several obstacles stand in the way of capital flowing “down hill” so to speak to countries that, all other things being equal, should attract capital, over time these obstacles have gradually been overcome so that eventually we can observe a convergence among all the economies of the world.

Convergence, in this instance, entails the removal of legal, political, administrative, regulatory, cultural, intellectual and social barriers so that capital, labor, and knowledge are free to migrate wherever in the world they will achieve their highest returns. Thus, for example, Lucas points to the increasing rationalization and internationalization of laws and regulations governing commerce since the sixteenth century such that in nations where once oligarchies enjoyed special privileges and kick-backs whose tendency was to reduce economic efficiency, increasingly these oligarchies and private laws are being replaced by a broad middle class whose members are all subject to the same transparent laws, regulations, and procedures that apply elsewhere in the world.

Up to a point, convergence increases the rate of economic growth globally. Still, in the long run, even global growth begins to flatten under the pressures of diminishing returns to both L (labor) and K (capital), while A (multi-factor productivity) has the opposite effect of steepening the slope. And, yet, even at tn the curve, though flattened, is still increasing in aggregate. And this means that the global economy is still growing.

Lucas plots the rate of global economic growth out to 2100, with a peak in the rate of growth in roughly 1972 and then a declining and flattening rate from there on out. This makes sense because as more of the world’s economies come into competition with one another, it is normal that this competition will exercise downward pressure in aggregate not on economic growth, but on the rate of growth.

Now, clearly, since the planet and its resources are not unlimited, if universalized by convergence endless economic growth could only result in collapse of all biological systems.

Which brings us to the stupidity factor, Sx, where S measures a quantum of stupidity and x is an exponent less than 1 that reduces the effectiveness of human capital.

I often find myself thrown back upon the stupidity factor as a significant variable for economic modeling whenever I learn of another instance where a combination of stupidity and meanness lead to undesirable outcomes. Such was the case this morning when I heard the NPR report “A Hot Topic: Climate Change Coming To Classrooms” (http://www.npr.org/2013/03/27/174141194/a-hot-topic-climate-change-coming-to-classrooms). Of course, it is good that public schools are finally taking up the science of climate change. But, as they do so, not surprisingly, the climate change denial industry is swinging into full operation.

According to the NPR report, “last month, Colorado became the 18th state in recent years — including seven this year — to consider an ‘Academic Freedom Act.’” “Academic freedom,” in this instance, does not entail the freedom of scientists to submit their research findings to peer-reviewed scientific journals, or the freedom of other scientists to disagree over how to interpret the results published in such journals. In this instance, “academic freedom” entails the right of public school teachers to peddle under the name of “science” views espoused by no scientist in no peer-reviewed science journal. As Joshua Younkin of the Discovery Institute explained, “It just gives teachers a simple right . . . to know that they can teach both sides of a controversy objectively, and in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body.”

Thus the stupidity factor.

Happily, where I live in Berkeley and in the San Francisco Bay Area more generally, Ph.Ds in science are a dime a dozen. And, not surprisingly, there are no “Academic Freedom Acts” anywhere on the horizon. But, this is not to say that Academic Freedom Acts play no role in Berkeley or in the San Francisco Bay Area more generally. And here is why: the horizon of my community and region is connected to and dependent upon the horizons of regions and communities all across the US where one would be hard-pressed to find a preponderance of voters with an Associates Degree from something other than a professional school, much less a Ph.D. in science. And since they are making the laws and setting the standards in these other regions and communities, it is not unlikely that their children will be learning “science” from teachers who are exercising their “simple right . . . to know that they can teach both sides of a controversy” such as climate change “objectively, and in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body.” And this means that my horizon is likely to be increasingly cluttered with the CO2 produced by manufacturers who have the good fortune to be located in regions and communities whose citizens have no meaningful understanding of climate science.

But, clearly, more is entailed here than levels of educational achievement or concentrations of individuals with advanced degrees in the sciences. As you move east from where I live – and one does not have to travel very far – you will witness a rapid transformation in the sources from which individuals acquire what they believe to be reliable information; from NPR, PBS, BBC, and the New York Times where I live to FOX, CBN, TBS, TNT, and any number of Murdock-owned entertainment delivery systems that are still legally permitted to describe what they deliver as “news” (although legally they are not news, but entertainment; see NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC., d/b/a WTVT-TV v JANE AKRE Florida Dist. Court 2nd Feb. 14. 2003 Case No. 2D01-529).

It would be easy to credit the relative success that climate science has enjoyed in Berkeley and the Bay Area to the wealth of its residents. And, yet, there are plenty of wealthy communities and wealthy individuals that are on the forefront of climate change denial.

Finally, it strikes me that there is something of a network effect at work in Berkeley and the Bay Area; just as there is a network effect in areas that deny climate science. That is to say, while I know no one – literally no one – who denies the validity of climate science, I am led to believe that there exist large swaths of territory in the US where I could wander for days and find no one who believed in climate science, no radio or television news source teaching climate science, and no public school teacher teaching climate science.

All of this, I think, is fairly straightforward and non-controversial.

My question is whether what I am calling the stupidity factor could be placed into an economic model such that by adequately and accurately weighting, e.g., the mean educational levels and concentration of advanced science degrees, the sources of political campaign finances that end up in the campaigns of successful candidates, the sources of political advertising, the viewership of various media outlets, the public expenditures on public education, the density of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, the relative ethnic and linguistic diversity, and the concentration of public institutions of higher learning, one could get an accurate read not only of where any given population will stand on climate change legislation, but, more importantly, how much of various kinds of resources advocates of climate science would have to devote to all of these factors in these regions over time so as to constitute a population that believes in climate change science.

Where is the tipping point in education, money, information, diversity, security, and so on that brings a community to stop behaving stupidly? Or, in the alternative, at what point have the the levels of these factors dipped so low so as to produce a quantum of stupidity likely to deny climate change science?

A Supreme Court Justice’s Right to Choose

Joseph W.H. Lough

Adam Liptak’s front page piece on the Supreme Court’s looming decision on same-sex marriage deserves close scrutiny, not because it exposes still another fault-line in the contest over same-sex marriage, but because of its brash (and tragically true) assumption that the Supreme Court is always legislating social and political policy, even (or specially) when its decisions undermine the very validity of the document its members are sworn to uphold.

In the ideal world imagined by the framers of the Constitution, the Supreme Court would be considering whether or not to allow same sex couples the right to marry not based upon a polling of whether one or another segment of the population believes that marriage between one man and one woman is a divinely ordained institution (it is not), or on whether such marriages are good or bad for children (they are good), but on whether they violate any given individual’s right to have the law applied to them in the same way it applies to any other individual, i.e., equal protection.

In the web of rights and obligations between public institutions and private individuals created under the law, there is simply no question but that laws preventing two individuals of the same sex to marry creates a circumstance where rights and obligations are applied unequally. In other words, the Constitutional question is an open and shut case.

But Liptak’s article calls our attention to another dimension of Constitutional law, the role that it invariably plays in constituting the very society out of which it is thought to have emerged. That is to say, Constitutional law not only reflects the society it upholds, but constitutes that society.

Most of the readers of this blog will immediately recall how the vast majority of Americans in 1787 were fiercely anti-federalist. The elite gathering of highly educated, wealthy, landed men in Philadelphia represented but a slender segment of American society. Their promotion of a rigorous, radical federalist constitution – federal currency, federal taxes, federal courts, interstate commerce – is evidence enough that these men had no truck with individuals who wanted each state to determine its own taxes, mint its own currency, establish its own supreme courts, regulate its own commerce independently from other states; even though the vast majority of Americans felt otherwise.

Perhaps Justice Ginsberg would argue that it was their rigorous, radical promotion of federalism that eventually provoked the radically anti-federalist southern states to pull out of the Union and thereby instigate the war between the states. Perhaps she therefore would have counseled the wealthy, educated, landed men gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to move more slowly – perhaps by inserting a 3/5ths clause into Article I of the Constitution. Or perhaps she would have had them explicitly state in the Constitution – as all Americans at the time (Anglicans, Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants) believed – that the soul entered the fetus only with the “quickening,” i.e., only at the sixth month of pregnancy and therefore that they should have explicitly established the sixth month as the month when a person became a person, a citizen.

But let us assume that the framers of the Constitution already went too far when they inserted the 3/5ths clause. Let us assume that they should have held firm to their federalist principles and resisted the temptation to make an exception for states with a preponderance of slaves. And let us further suppose that they were right not to pander any more than they already did to one or another of the many religious factions of the nation, by, say, inserting the Ten Commandments into the Bill of Rights or requiring that the Christian Bible be the official Book of the Nation, or requiring that the Lord’s Prayer be read at all public events and so on.

But, let us assume that the framers really did favor the rule of law, even if, by some estimates, ninety percent of adult Americans were opposed to their variety of federalism and even though in less than a century this same federalism would give rise to a bloody Civil War.

Insofar as the justices are Constitutionally bound to uphold (well) the Constitution, irrespective of whether or not it will or will not lead to social conflict (civil war?), it follows that the Court should be considering only the civil rights and liberties of those whose rights are being abrogated by the restriction of marriage to one adult male and one adult female.

However, Liptak’s article does raise another, darker possibility. For just as the framers of the Constitution felt authorized under social pressure to make an exception the universal human rights and civil liberties, so might the current justices also feel so authorized to deprive certain classes of individuals the same rights and liberties enjoyed by others.

And it is precisely here that Justice Ginsberg’s reasoning defies logic. For just as inserting the 3/5ths clause did not prevent an awful civil war, but only rendered it bloodier than it otherwise may have needed to be, and just as Roe v Wade ought not to have ruled only on the narrow issue of privacy, but on the broader issue of equal rights for women, so in this instance the Justices are ill-advised if they believe that by skirting this broader issue of human rights they can prevent the social discord or civil conflict they fear a broader ruling would ignite.

Instead, preserving the letter and spirit of the Constitution, they ought always to err on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties, without concern for how today’s anti-federalists may respond. My fear is that they will feel authorized and even emboldened, tragically by Justice Ginsberg, to insert their own nasty little 3/5ths clause into our laws and so ignite another round of tragic hardship, pain, and grief.

The GOP Leadership: A Small Child’s View of the World

Wouldn’t it be nice if roads built themselves, if cold and hot water appeared magically whenever we installed sinks in homes, or if cellular networks operated without towers, money without banks, courts without laws, or judges, or lawyers? Wouldn’t it be nice if food simply appeared in our supermarkets or on our tables? Yet, in the magical world where our GOP leaders live, the administrative, legal, regulatory, economic and commercial integration of the globe apparently happens just as small children imagine that it happens: without any laws, regulations, or administrators, and evidently even without any legislators or legislation or law-making.

If this all seems only too fantastic, you should take note that as of April 7, the FAA is pulling some 149 or so traffic control towers because, evidently, under the sequestration air traffic safety is also supposed to happen as if by magic.

Except instead of magic, perhaps we should instead speak of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. That is what the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole wants us to believe. According to Poole, “there’s a tendency over time to have Congress direct more money to small airports than would probably be economically justified” (NYT). We also direct more money to police and fire departments, to public hospitals, public schools, and public highways than would “probably be economically justified.”

Does it matter that Poole is an engineer and not an economist? Not in the least. Because the brilliance of a child’s eye view of the economy such as that entertained by Poole and his GOP admirers is that all a person needs is a little Carl Menger, a little von Mises, and a little von Hayek, and, presto chango, the whole world looks and works a lot more simply.

Now, needless to say, Poole, the MIT-trained engineer, probably would not want me designing bridges, high-rises, automobiles, or airplanes. But, the economy? It all works by magic.

No doubt, there are some starry-eyed, true believers – Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan for instance – who really do view the world through Hayekian-colored glasses, who believe that if we just kept our noses out of private enterprise all would be fine, just like those nice cellophane-wrapped vegetables in the produce section of Walmart, which simply miraculously arrive there. Oh, yes, of course, there is the currency printed by the Treasury and the Fed that governs its supply. And, then, there are the banks where store managers deposit cash receipts (where did they come from?). Oh, yes, and the roads and highways along which those huge Walmart trucks careen, publicly paid and laid asphalt crumbling under their weight. And there are the international laws and covenants that govern the transfer taxes and trades between China and the US and the international shipping laws and regulations that govern traffic on the high seas. But, aside from all that, its all just the purchaser and the seller, mano y mano, just as Milton Friedman said.

There are others, however, who are not so child-like as Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan. These others know full well what they are doing. They know that in the absence of municipal fire departments fires rage uncontrolled between the insured and uninsured homes, compelling those who can afford it to pool their resources to purchase private fire coverage in private neighborhoods because a fire department for all, irrespective of wealth, probably cannot be “economically justified.” They know that in the absence of well-funded, well-staffed public schools, the human capital of our entire community plummets, leaving only those with sufficient wealth to attend private schools with the human capital to create and invent and grow, while the rest of us pull levers and drive stakes for our diminishing hourly wage. And they know that in the absence of a well-funded, and well-staffed public postal service, the mail will still get through, just not to everywhere, not at the same price per package, and so, ultimately, only the wealthy are able to fully monopolize the information highways, paper, sound, image, and wave. And they know that privatization leads to the overall dis-integration not only of the economy, but of the society.

Paul Ryan and Rand Paul don’t know any of this. Its beyond them. They are children. Who can fault them.

But many in the Republican leadership know that airplanes will fall out of the sky when traffic towers are closed, that men and women and children will die horrible deaths, that airlines will close routes and field smaller more selective fleets, leading to diminished commerce, travel, and transportation in our skies. They know this and they don’t care because – and they are right – the only way to rid our country and our nation of those pesky political institutions that make laws and spend money and tax our wealth is to kill the programs and get rid of the laws that they pass, so that everyone will recognize that government is so dysfunctional that they will welcome the plutocracy that will displace it.

But this has nothing whatsoever to do with economics – liberal, conservative, left or right, Keynesian or neoliberal. This is politics pure and simple and cynical to the core.

So, let Paul Ryan dream his warm fuzzy dream of breakfast appearing by fiat on the table every morning. In the world where I live, economics is at least as complicated as engineering and might require more than a quick adolescent read of Atlas Shrugged to figure out. In the world where I live, where 87,000 planes fly through our air every day, traffic control towers might be a good idea. In the world where I live, where legislators are democratically elected to uphold the law of the land and enact and fund legislation their constituents have asked them to enact and fund, it is against the law for those same legislators, however childish they may be, to refuse to fund those programs with which they disagree.

But we are talking about children here.

Hegel, G v Schmoller, Lucas, and Structural Unemployment

It is an unquestionable article of faith among economists that capital flows downstream; which is to say that investors, who are ever seeking to economize, will automatically plow their investments into enterprises whose factors give them the highest return on their investment. If Mumbai offers me the lowest factors of production (land, labor, rent), then I will move my operations to Mumbai, caeteris paribus.

And since it is so unquestionable an article of faith, one might anticipate that so faithful a defender of these articles as the University of Chicago’s Robert Lucas would be among this article’s most unyielding defenders. He is not. And in a moment I will tell you why. But before I do I want to fill you in on a little history of economic thought, which is what I teach these days at the University of California, Berkeley.

Neoclassical economics, the brand of economics that is taught nearly everywhere nowadays (Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Chicago), distinguished itself from the German Historical School way back in the middle of the nineteenth century, by showing that no matter what it was the Gustav von Schmoller and his crowd were doing, it was not scientific economics. It was not scientific economics because it gave factors like social forces and political movements and regulatory environments an equal hearing alongside supply and demand and price, etc. The contest between the German Historical School and the Austrian Marginal Utility School broke out into a full-fledged Methodenstreit in the 1870s. But that was the end of the German Historical School.

Students in my ECON 105 History of Economic Thought class who have read both GFW Hegel’s Civil Society and Gustav von Schmoller’s Class Conflict will no doubt appreciate how and why Thorstein Veblen excoriated Schmoller as a “Hegelian,” i.e., an economist who explores the ways that social, cultural, and political forces shape economic forms. Veblen’s criticism stuck. For indeed it was accurate. After all, there can be little question but that von Schmoller, in the section on Class Conflict from his multi-volume Principles of National Economy, did how as the working classes and their Social Democratic political arm became more tightly integrated into Bismark’s and Wilhelmine state, they invariably abandoned their particular interests, exchanging them for the interests of all of society as a whole. Such integration, thought von Schmoller, was a necessary, but inevitable, prerequisite not only to political tranquility, but also economic growth. That is to say, von Schmoller, following Hegel, agreed that the more tightly integrated all elements of society grow, the better equipped they are to serve the interests of the whole, among which interests are included economic growth.

Back to Mr. Lucas. As my students will be aware, Robert Lucas offered an argument nearly identical to von Schmoller’s in his 2002 Lectures on Economic Development, there showing how it was the historical, political, social, institutional, and cultural idiosyncrasies of developing nations that prevented them from attracting capital and therefore prevented capital from flowing downhill.

Four observations. First, this argument is not new, not even among neoclassical economists, who have always argued that it is only through the rule of law and rational, predictable, and therefore stable political institutions that free economic markets can thrive. Second, when neoclassical economists (i.e., all economists) argue that public intervention into markets generates distortions and inefficiencies, they are, in effect, arguing that public interventions are instances when historical, political, social, institutional, or cultural idiosyncrasies are permitted to shape our relationships with one another in contrast to purely market forces. However, third, when pure market forces have the unintended consequence of enhancing and strengthening purely local customs and practices – for example, were these unbound market forces to so drive down wages, educational levels and the standard of living overall as to bring social actors to embrace and enforce traditional religious values, say, in blue laws or laws opposed to free medical choices for women –then neoclassical economic policy is found to generate economic and cultural formations that, rather than driving out market distortions, instead serve to enhance these distortions. And, fourth, when neo-Keynesians argue in favor of policies that increase the standard of living and educational levels of economic actors, their policy recommendations may end up removing or mitigating the effects of historical, political, social, institutional, and cultural idiosyncrasies whose persistence distorts market operations.

If I am not mistaken, Gustav von Schmoller, against whom Carl Menger leveled his most severe charges during the Methodenstreit, would in this case be found to agree with Mr. Lucas insofar as both believed that the elimination of historical particularity was critical to economic growth and development. And, in point of fact, the two do agree on this if on no other point.

Yet, insofar as neoliberal economic policies have promoted the proliferation of class differences and the expansion of particularity, they have actually promoted a cultural and institutional landscape that does not lend itself to economic growth and development. This, in turn, would suggest that in order to achieve the end towards which Lucas seeks to move – and which he believes he charts in chapters 3 and 4 of his book – we would have to adopt and advance the social welfare policies adopted by states during this period, policies that led to the outcomes that he finds most productive for economic growth and expansion.

This said, it might also be said that in pursuing this end – i.e., the wholesale elimination of effective historical and social particularity – Lucas is pursuing an end which is most illiberal, totalizing, and indeed totalitarian in form. But that is another matter.

Structural Unemployment: Further Considerations

No one will be surprised to learn that even an economist with liberal creds as unblemished as Paul Krugman’s must toe the neo-classical line on structural unemployment:

Given that minimum wages—that is, binding minimum wages—generally lead to structural unemployment, you might wonder why governments impose them. The rationale is to help ensure that people who work can earn enough income to afford at least a minimally comfortable lifestyle. However, this may come at a cost, because it may eliminate the opportunity to work for some workers who would have willingly worked for lower wages. . . . Most economists . . . agree that a sufficiently high minimum wage does lead to structural unemployment (Krugman and Wells Economics 2013:655-656).

Obviously this is not all that Mr. Krugman or Ms. Wells have written about structural unemployment. And, yet, it is nevertheless noteworthy.

It is noteworthy because nowhere in their decisive chapter on unemployment do M. Krugman and Wells do so much as footnote some of the other considerations involved in structural unemployment, in particular the Average Total Revenues, Marginal Costs, or Marginal Profits at which any sector is eager to maintain or even expand its operations.

To mention only the most obvious consideration, were wages the only or even the primary consideration in the Marginal Profit of any enterprise or sector, it is clear beyond doubt that no manufacturing whatsoever would take place in most of western Europe, Great Britain, Ireland, or North America. Clearly, however, manufacturers not only believe that they can earn better returns by locating their operations in these “high wage” locations, but that doing so improves their overall productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness. Are they mistaken?

No. These manufacturers and sectors know that “high wages” are balanced out by other savings – such as average worker productivity and proximity to end markets – that more than account for the “high wages.” Would these employers employ more workers in their plants or sectors could they offer them a lower wage? Not necessarily. In fact, they would only employ additional workers in the case that doing so could maintain or increase current rates of profitability, which would only be true if the cost of hiring an additional worker at a lower wage would permit them to lower their price sufficiently to attract per unit buyers sufficient to cover the cost of that additional worker. In other words, we would also want to know whether the sector or manufacturer could lower prices sufficiently to attract an additional buyer to cover the cost of producing an additional unit.

However, as M Krugman and Wells know as well as or better than anyone, the factors governing consumers’ willingness to buy an additional unit at a marginally efficient lower price is governed by a wide range of factors in addition to the wage of a worker who helped produce the item; not least whether workers in aggregate enjoy sufficient wages to purchase items even at a reduced price.

The (anti)Republican Sequestration Argument

Joseph W.H. Lough

In less than an hour, the President will issue a sequestration order that over time will draw $85B out of the U.S. economy and while experts debate the economic consequences that will likely follow for various sectors and average Americans – debates largely focused on the multiplier – such debates have diverted our attention away from the in many ways far more significant political importance of sequestration.

Just to be clear what we talking about, the Republican leadership is arguing that we are spending more than we have and so we must pair back or eliminate federal government programs so that they match our appropriations. Their argument is based on the model of private enterprise, where the CFO, CBO report to a Board of Directors, pull out the charts and point out that average total costs are exceeding average total revenue and so, eventually, the enterprise will fail.

And were the U.S. government a private enterprise, this would be a reasonable argument.

Yet, as the followers of this blog will already know, the U.S. is not a private enterprise. Quite the opposite. The United States is a Republic, a res publica, which means that, unlike a private enterprise, whose aim it is to make a profit and which therefore is obligated to fit its objectives to its resources, the United States first establishes its public aims and then appropriates resources to match those aims. Now, to be sure, legislators may have a moral obligation to lay out for voters the costs that will accrue from specific public aims. They should make clear that roads, transportation, safety, education, defense must be paid for. But, once the voters have expressed their wishes, once the public has established its aims – which they do every two to four to six years by electing representatives – it is then these representatives’ obligation to appropriate sufficient resources to achieve these public aims. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a res publica, a Republic.

What the Republican leadership wants is to run the U.S. government not like a Republic, but like a private business. But what does this really mean? At a time when all Americans were classically trained, when, at the very least, all graduating high school seniors had read the relevant excerpts from Plato’s Gorgias and his Republic and from Aristotle’s Politics, all Americans would have already known precisely what this means. They would have known the difference between a politeia and an oikonomia, a republican political community and a private enterprise, and so they would have known that while a politeia functions democratically, an oikonomia never does because it can’t. That is because the oikonomia – from the Greek word oikos – is by its very nature functionally differentiated and hierarchical. As anyone who has read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations will appreciate, this makes complete sense.

To the extent that all wealth creation is founded on the division of labor and to the extent that all entrepreneurship is at least in part based on a private owner’s willingness to place his or her private property in jeopardy, at least for a time, in hopes of realizing a return greater than his or her investment, it only makes sense that she or he would make business decisions based not on the principle of equal representation of all workers, but based on the specific skill sets of those individuals she or he has employed. We have names for individuals who manage or run a business. They are CFOs, CBOs, or CEOs.

The Greeks also had a name for such individuals. They were called despotes or despots. But, functionally, despots played the exact same role as our CFOs, CBOs and CEOs. That is to say, despots managed the activities of individuals whose collective activities needed to be focused around the common private project of making wealth for the investor.

The important point to note here is that there is nothing either democratic or republican about private enterprise, oikonomia, or, more commonly, economics. Only the shareholders get a vote. There is an equality among equal shares not among equal private owners or private employees. Nor is there any interest in protecting or promoting the wealth we hold in common, which is what res publica literally means.

So, what does this have to do with the impending sequestration? Just this: when the Republican leadership refuses to implement legislation the elected representatives of the people have elected them to enact; when they hold this legislation hostage to principles and reasoning that govern the private market economy, oikonomia, they are staging nothing less than a coup d’etat. They are refusing to honor the process whereby elected representatives pass and are supposed to enact legislation and are instead subjecting the public political process (politeia) to the private economic process of despotic rule.

Now, to be sure, publically elected representatives are fully within their right to overturn prior legislation, to pare back programs that their predecessors have enacted into law. And they are fully within their rights to take an alternative legislative agenda to the voters – every two or for or six years. But what they are not permitted to do – what they can only do by subverting or overturning the republican principles they have sworn to uphold – is to deprive those legislative agendas enacted by their predecessors the appropriations they require in order to be enacted into law; especially if the rationale upon which they are basing their coup d’etat is despotic in nature.

And let there be no doubt. The Republican leadership’s coup d’etat is despotic in nature. It is based upon the principle that the rules governing the oikos, the rules that hold for the private household economy, for private enterprise, need to be the same as those that govern a res publica, a republic, where not private, but rather public wealth is at issue. When the Republican leadership compels the institutions of the Republic to subordinate themselves to the principles that govern private enterprise, however, the result is nothing less than the complete abdication of republican government to private economic despotism.

Of course, were the Republican leadership classically trained, were they in the least familiar with or interested in the classical republican foundations of our form of law and constitution, or had they simply read my brief treatment of the classical origins of republicanism, they would already know this. But since I suspect that they are neither familiar with nor interested in these foundations, I leave them with the following opening salvo from Aristotle’s lectures on Politics:

It is an error to suppose, as some do, that the roles of a statesman, of a king (politikon), of a household-manager (oikonomikon) and of a master of slaves (despotikon) are the same, on the ground that they differ not in kind but only in point of number of persons – that a master of slaves (despoten), for example, has to do with a few people, a household-manager (oikonomen) with more, and a statesman (politikon) or king with more still, as if there were no differences between a large household and a small state. They also reckon that when one person is in personal control over the rest he has the role of a king, whereas when he takes his turn at ruling and at being ruled according to the principles of the science concerned, he is a statesman. But these assertions are false. (1252a7-1252a16)

What is at stake here is not merely a difference in opinion over how large or small the government should be or whether we should raise or lower taxes. What is at stake is whether we are going to be a Republic. Ironically, but tragically, the Republican leadership has loudly and unequivocally said “No.” And they may be right.