I’m not going to say told you so; but, told you so. From my vantage-point, the real tragedy here is not the loss of the Euro, although it surely will hasten the disintegration of Europe and therefore will heighten instability at a moment that cries for greater stability (see Ukraine, Syria, Kosovo, Turkey, Hungary, Serbia, etc.). The real tragedy is that the entire developed world will end up paying far more in security costs to pacify uprisings along this seam than they would ever have had to dish out propping up Greece. You say, well, “its the principle that matters. You can’t reward profligacy.” You mean the profligacy of financial institutions that, riding a wave of asset shy financial expansion, extended unrealistic credit to parties whose credit-worthiness was dubious? You mean the profligacy of financial institutions that benefited handsomely from these extensions of credit? This is not a moral lesson. It is an economic reality. And, soon, it will also be a military reality (it already is), and a human tragedy of monstrous proportions. Mark my words. I told you so.

Laudato Si’

I just now completed an initial reading of Pope Francis’ papal encyclical Laudato Si’. The encyclical seeks to restore the claim on and responsibility for all of creation that, since the 14th century, humanity has been increasingly willing to hand over to market forces. I have some criticisms of the encyclical, in particular Francis’ attempt to imbricate Rome’s peculiar reproductive ethics into care and protection of the environment. In this sense, the encyclical reiterates themes that, since the nineteenth century, have dominated Catholic social teaching: its suspicions of technology in general and, more particularly, of the manipulation of nature. I will return to these themes in a moment.

Broadly speaking, however, Francis brought together several related interpretive frameworks: the biblical recognition of nature as Creation; the biblical emphasis on the social and moral character of knowledge; defense of the poor and, so, the intimate relationships between economic policy, social justice, and Creation; and, ubiquitous throughout, Catholic social teaching, albeit read through, if not an explicitly Heideggerian, then at least an implicitly phenomenological lens.


Although Laudato Si’ is chock full of references both to biblical and to canonical authorities, it is accessible to readers lacking special knowledge either of Christianity or of religion. That is because it is grounded in the deceptively innocuous observation that everything is related. Our actions have consequences. Our convictions drive our actions, so they too have consequences. Our laws and regulations, which are themselves products of our convictions, shape our lives together in ways that have consequences. When we shape the natural world, the natural world, in turn, shapes us. These deceptively innocuous observations lose their banality when reinterpreted theologically, not as statements about how nature works, but as confessions about how God has made Creation work, the responsibility God has given to humanity to care for Creation, and as prayers for how religious practitioners might show forth their adoration for God in how they act towards God’s Creation.

The discreet elements of nature are intimately related to one another. And, since our own survival and well-being rest upon not only the bounty of the Earth, but also upon a bounty that is sustainable, we are obviously interested in how the elements of nature relate to one another. We have an existential stake in how they relate. Yet, when we add language about Creation to this formal recognition, we endow it with a sense of eternal significance. Creation, as Pope Francis noted, is going some place. It has purpose, divine purpose. Its grace extends beyond its function for us now. It has integrity in its own right. But this means that our obligation to Creation extends beyond its mere function for us. Creation is blessed.

This original integrity and beatitude was fragmented when, following creation, human beings elected to isolate their obligations to God, Creation, and to one another. A command from God can be considered independently from any one’s judgment and from what any one takes to be his or her best interest. “Did God say . . .?” is a question that arises from the thought that Creation, God, and humanity might have separate points of view. Originally, however, Creation, God, and humanity enjoyed integrity.

But we must therefore distinguish this original, primal, integrity from the gradual, progressive, social and historical integration to which nineteenth century European thinkers first called our attention. This latter integration can be ascribed to the emergence in the fourteenth century of a new economic form — capitalism — whose tendency was to bring all human action and all thought and nature into relationship with one another in a comprehensive, integrated, universal, and consistent market. Obviously differentiating these two is no easy task. And, indeed, we might want to pause to consider why so many radical religious political figures are so attracted to this alternative, capitalist, not divine form of integration. We might also ask why Protestant social teaching differs so remarkably from its Roman Catholic counterpart.

One fruitful avenue for exploration would note how Protestantism feels no theological obligation to integrate fallen Creation and the “fallen world” with the New Creation. Since Protestant social teaching embraces fragmentation within its initial point of departure — faith from works, spirit from body, Creation from nature — its posture towards Creation has proven much more problematic than the Roman posture. Protestants display much less distress isolating their economic activity or their scientific insights from their spiritual life. For Roman Catholics, by contrast, the integrity of Creation is foundational. And, indeed, this surely explains why Pope Francis went out of his way to differentiate his position from the views articulated by nineteenth century romantics, among whom were not a few Roman Catholics, whose opposition to industrialization and to capitalism was at least in some measure an outgrowth of the spiritual discomfort they experienced over the fragmentation and discord that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. Protestants, by contrast, have often faulted Catholic social teaching for what they believe is its implicit “works righteousness.” If God wants to save Creation, let God save Creation. If God wants to help the poor, then let God help the poor. Or, in its extreme form: we help Creation (or the poor) best by trusting that God’s will will be done; we dishonor Creation (and the poor) by believing (mistakenly) that their fate is in our hands.

The Roman Church’s emphasis on primal integrity is a powerful tool. Upon it Rome has erected an impressive superstructure of natural theology. It accounts for the Church’s opposition to capital punishment, its opposition to war, to private patents on biological organisms, as well as to the misuse of nature. But, upon it is also based its opposition to abortion rights, its opposition to women’s ordination, and the right of all people to marry. Indeed, as Francis seemed eager to show in his encyclical, you cannot simultaneously laud the Church’s commitment to battling climate change while condemning its defense of the unborn. In Francis’ mind, the two are of a piece. Thus, the encyclical makes clear that the theological foundation for the right to life, including its opposition to capital punishment, its commitment to combatting climate change, its opposition to women’s ordination, and its opposition to capitalism is identical. All appeal to God’s natural order, to Creation.

This may appear to pose a serious dilemma to those of us who are on board combatting climate change and opposing capitalism or capital punishment, but who also embrace women’s choice and women’s ordination. Are we picking and choosing? Are we being inconsistent?

Here, I would advise His Holiness to take a step back and consider an alternative way of inflecting the Church’s teaching. Let us suppose that there was an original integrity to Creation and that that integrity has been violated. And let us further suppose that despoiling Creation bears evidence of the Fall. Everything would then appear to rest on how we differentiate practices, dispositions and forms that were part of the original integrated Creation from practices, dispositions, and forms that arose on account of the Fall. At this point, however, His Holiness would also have to consider what is new about the New Creation that, since Pentecost, has been emerging within the natural, yet fallen, order. Finally, I would invite His Holiness to differentiate the sacred Doctrine of Creation from the everyday first century Stoicism with which it is not infrequently confused. Thus, for example, we have Saint Paul’s defense of Nero on what appear to be stoic grounds in Romans 13:1-7. Paul counts Nero (or Nero’s appointed local rulers) “servants of God” whose laws everyone should obey because, in Paul’s words, no one could rule without God’s will. The Apostle rests his case on the stoic conviction that the whole natural, social, legal and political order form a consistent, interconnected, whole from the very highest cosmic principle to the smallest grain of sand. Both Nero and his court, however, were profligate, immoral, and violent men dedicated, among other things, to temple prostitution, pogroms against Jews and Christians, and who not infrequently engaged in court intrigue involving poison, murder, and sexual impropriety at the highest levels. So, I would invite His Holiness to consider how this stoic principle that the Apostle relies on in Romans 13:1-7 differs, on the one hand, from the original integrity of Creation and, on the other hand, differs from the New Creation that God set in motion on Pentecost.

Are we to judge a woman’s disposition over her own body — which evidently would include not only her right to abort a fetus, but might also involve the dignity of the priesthood or marriage to another woman — a consequence of the Fall? Or might it not be a part of the original integrity of Creation or, perhaps, of the New Creation? For the problem we face here, as His Holiness was careful to emphasize, is that the “social” and the “natural” are not unrelated to one another. Indeed, what we count as “natural” or what we count as part of the “created order” has often been shaped by practices within the societies that define what falls into (or what should be excluded from) these categories. Could it be, then, that we count women’s ordination as “unnatural” only on account of the “science” that defined women in one way and not another? Could it be that we count fetus’ as potential adults because of a “science” that ascribes souls to the unborn (and, even here, not to feminine eggs, but to male sperm)?

Two observations in conclusion. The first observation is that current science does not dispute the role human beings are playing in climate change. Nor as a matter of fact does current science dispute the fact that human sexuality naturally runs a very wide gamut. It always has. One could, it is true, arbitrarily place the freedom of marriage, women’s ordination, and the right to choose under one category or another. But scientifically the fact of climate change falls in the same category as the fact that human sexuality has never been uniformly binary. The Church is on very solid grounds where climate change is concerned. It is on much weaker ground where its sexual and reproductive teachings are concerned.

The second observation is that there is nothing in the Church’s formal distinctions that would prevent His Holiness from counting opposition to women’s ordination or opposition to choice as consequences of the Fall rather than defenses of the the natural created order. Ultimately, that is good news.  For it means that, in principle, the Church could maintain the integrity of its principles while shifting its application of those principles. In its application to climate change Pope Francis has written in a manner consistent with these principles. In its application to sexuality, he has not.

Forced to Choose?

Perhaps you saw the full-page advertisement in the Washington Post this past Monday (June 15) — or USA Today or another national news outlet. The sponsors of the ad,, fear that the impending decision by the Supreme Court over whether the US Constitution protects the rights of all adults to choose their partners in marriage will infringe upon radical right-wing Christians’ right to impose their understanding of marriage on others. On this question, the jury is out.

But, as is surely the case with most pronouncements based on fear and ignorance, the advertisement is incoherent.

First, it is simply silly for anyone to claim that they hold the US Constitution above his or her highest ontological principles. Even those who believe that the US Constitution embodies the highest and most universal legal, moral, or ethical principles must have come to that judgment based on their own legal, moral, or ethical principles. So, although might like you think they are teetering on the edge of extra-constitutionality, so are all of the rest of us. Get over it. The only difference is that our highest principles tell us that republican institutions and values and democratic process are good things to preserve., on the other hand, believe that the freedom of marriage is the litmus test over which republican institutions and values and democratic process should be scrapped. (As I have mentioned before, this is not new. The anti-federalists hated the 1787 Constitution; as, of course, did the seceding states in 1861. Nothing new here.)

Second, even should the Supreme Court support the right to marry, this only means that everyone will have the right to marry whomever they wish. Nor will the law compel anyone to perform a marriage they feel is unviable. Ministers reserve the right not to perform marriages for a variety of reasons.

Third, evidently the signatories to the Open Letter have removed huge swaths of text from their Bibles. Hrafnkell Haraldsson identifies several of these texts in his article. He identifies several standards of biblical marriage that the US Supreme Court has failed to enforce:

Man + woman where bride proves her virginity or is stoned to death (Genesis 2:24); we have man + woman + concubines (Judges 19:1-30); we have man + woman + woman, the most common form of biblical marriage – polygyny (Deuteronomy 21:15-17); we have rapist + victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); we have son-less widow + closest male relative (Gen. 38:6-10); we have male soldier + prisoner of war (Numbers 31:1-18, Deuteronomy 21:11-14; we even have male slave + female slave (Exodus 21:4) and man + woman + woman’s female slave (Gen. 16:1-6, Gen. 30:4-5).

No doubt there are probably some religious people who would like the Supreme Court to uphold these biblical standards as well. Yet, the crux of the issue is whether religious individuals are obligated to uphold laws and rulers that are fundamentally at odds with their religion. For we can well imagine a form of religion that required religious practitioners to demand absolute orthodoxy and orthopraxy from civil authorities. Not only is this the current position of radical Islam, it was a heated issue in  late medieval/early modern Christian Europe as well. For biblical Christianity, however, this form of religion is hugely problematic. Here’s why.

To begin with there is a long list of references, mostly from the pastoral letters, commanding Christians to obey civil and domestic authorities: not only wives their husbands, or children their parents, but also slaves their masters and subjects their rulers. These commands are entirely consistent with first century popular Roman Stoic ethics and metaphysics, which held that anyone who enjoyed power did so only because the highest power, God, had made it so. Those who held power could not hold power without God’s will. That, after all, is the significance of Romans 13.1-4:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

By the late middle ages, most scholars had forgotten precisely who these passages were talking about — the secular, pagan rulers of Rome who were wpid-Washington-Post-AdFINAL-2015-06-17-13-37.jpganything but good Jewish or Christian rulers. Yet, late medieval and early modern Christian thinkers imagined — as John Calvin imagined — that the authors of Peter’s and Paul’s letters were referring to “Christian magistrates.” Well . . . no. Because in 70, 80, and 90 CE such a thing as a “Christian magistrate” didn’t exist. The pastorals were counseling Christians to obey laws and rulers who were thoroughly secular and pagan — you know, goddess cult stuff, temple prostitution and the like. Indeed, as a kicker, Paul even counsels the Christians in Rome to pay taxes, presumably to support policing the local Jewish population, upkeep and supply of pagan temples, supplying Rome’s soldiers who at the time were engaged in anti-Christian and anti-Jewish campaigns. That, Paul says, is why we pay taxes. “Because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due;custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13.7).

Herein lies the leading incoherence to’s statement. Not only is there no single set of rules governing marriage in the Bible — as though the Bible were a How To guide for believers. Where the crux of their argument lies — in whether Christians should obey laws and rulers who are fundamentally at odds with their beliefs — the New Testament is crystal clear. Yes you should (Romans 13.7). So, even has the details wrong — as though paying taxes that end up funding abortions or supporting pensions for elderly gay couples rises to the level of supporting temple prostitution or martial villainy of Roman soldiers, which is where the taxes paid by Rome’s Christians would end up.

So, how could get it so wrong? My guess is that their real god has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, Sarah, or Rebecca, or Miriam. My guess is that, as is so often the case, their real gods are local pagan gods, the god of America or the god of the Marines or the god of money. That’s ok. I’m fine with local gods, cultural gods. That’s simply where most Christians live. That’s where their religion comes from. What I find problematic is when, in order to defend their purely local, pagan, cultural deities, they pose as defenders of the God of the Christian and Jewish bibles, a God with whom their pagan deities have nothing in common.

Who knows how the Supreme Court will rule. They could rule on behalf of these faux Christian pagan deities. They could rule to eliminate the difference between the rule of these local pagan deities and the rule of law. Or they could rule to uphold the integrity of religious freedom and the rule of secular law, which is clearly where the Apostle Paul stood. In either case, however, no one is infringing on the freedom of these pagan Christians to choose whichever partners they like in marriage. No one is forcing them even to uphold the US Constitution. But, so long as they remain citizens, they will be held responsible for obeying the laws of the land. That’s how it worked in the first century and that’s still how it works today.


In an interview with right-wing radio talk-show host Roger Fredinburg, Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, told listeners that their Second Amendment rights were about removing government officials, such as President Obama, who violate their constitutionally guaranteed liberties. This suggests that the Second Amendment aimed to empower citizens who wished to threaten or kill government officials who they believed had overstepped constitutionally-mandated limits on their power. Anyone who has read the American Declaration of Independence will understand where Larry Pratt came up with this notion. Due to its conflicts with the French crown, the British monarch was burdened by ever increasing revenue shortfalls and believed its overseas colonies in the Americas could help it make up the difference. Successful American business interests, north and south, accused the British monarch of overstepping his authority. Yet the real victims were common laborers, farmers, and tradesmen upon whose shoulders the new taxes ultimately fell. Seeing an opportunity to gain full control over trade along the western Atlantic seaboard, southern and northern elites began to stir up discontent among those most burdened by British taxation policy. Since the British monarch was not keen on American insurgents using arms against Great Britain’s garrisoned troops, the right to bear arms became key to the struggle for American independence. Thus a virulent narrative arose surrounding the right to bear arms — a narrative promoted by the economic elites who wished to use an American revolution to gain control over Atlantic trade.

This is the narrative trotted out by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others. They are not making it up. It is real. And in 1776 it served its purpose. In ale houses and church basements all across the the western Atlantic seaboard, church women spent their evenings building IEDs and packing charges so that their men folk could engage in low-level insurgent activity against British occupying forces. They had a right to independence, a right a bear arms, and a right to rise up against those in authority with whom they disagreed. Its all there in the Declaration of Independence.

But then something happened that southern and northern business leaders had not anticipated. Those farmers and labourers and tradesmen whom the Declaration’s signatories had authorized to take up arms won a war for independence. And when their congressional delegations failed to follow through on such simple matters as compensating them for their service, protecting their land rights against wealthy speculators, providing a stable currency, or even granting them the right to vote, these same labourers, farmers, and tradesmen took up arms — their right — against their newly elected government.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MzM3NTcxMzM5And this is about the moment that Glenn, Rush, and Sean stopped reading US history. Because they don’t tell you what happened next. All of their heroes — Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, James Monroe? Not one of them was invited to the Convention in 1787. Not one. Why? Because they were all anti-federalists. And from top to bottom, beginning to end, the US Constitution was written and signed by federalists. Moreover, the instigating cause for convening a new convention and writing a new constitution was illegal activity by the very folk Glenn, Rush, and Sean celebrate. Daniel Shays was only the most infamous case of grassroots opposition to the new regime. Taxpayer and title revolts were legion across the states. And, just as they had in 1776, so in 1786, American citizens, only five-in-one hundred of whom actually held the right to vote, took up arms to get their way. It was after finally suppressing Daniel Shays rebellion that Congress decided to convene another constitutional convention and write a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

What was wrong with the Articles of Confederation? Everything. Here is what Edmund Randolph said when he introduced the Virginia Plan, upon which our actual US Constitution is based:

In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, he professed a high respect for its authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do, in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency of requisitions was unknown — no commercial discord had arisen among any states — no rebellion has appeared, as in Massachusetts — foreign debts had not become urgent — the havoc of paper money had not been foreseentreaties had not been violated; and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty.
He then proceeded to enumerate the defects: —
First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority. Of this he cited many examples; most of which tended to show theft they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular states might, by their conduct, provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defence on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.
Secondly, that the federal government could not check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.
Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United States might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation; such as a productive impost, counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations, pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c., &c.
Fourthly, that the federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states.
Fifthly, that it was not even paramount to the state constitutions, ratified as it was in many of the states.
He next reviewed the danger of our situation; and appealed to the sense of the best friends of the United States to the prospect of anarchy from the laxity of government every where–and to other considerations.
He then proceeded to the remedy; the basis of which, he said, must be the republican principle. (Elliot’s Debates, Vol 5, Tuesday, May 29, 1787)

So, what was wrong? It was difficult to collect taxes; it was impossible to regulate commerce; it was difficult to suppress popular rebellion (see Massachusetts); without the authority to tax, it was difficult to pay foreign debts; without a single, centralized, currency authority, havoc of paper money reigned — all from jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty. But that is not all. Congress was not authorized to declare war. But even did it have this authority, it could not muster troops and, without the authority to tax, it could not pay them. The federal authorities had no authority to mediate among the states or put down rebellion in any of them. It could not tax corporations. The federal government could not defend itself against the states.

At each point, the Virginia Plan and subsequent US Constitution went counter not simply to Daniel Shays’ sentiments, but also to the convictions of Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, James Monroe and their band of anti-federalists. And, now, Glenn, Rush, and Sean want you to believe that the Second Amendment was written to protect and empower Daniel Shays by giving him the authority and right to oppose with arms the duly constituted authorities? On every other point the US Constitution was federalist and republican; but on this point it was anti-federalist and anti-republican?

The Second Amendment empowered citizens militias to put down revolts such as Shays’. It creates the basis for defense of federal authority against vigilante justice. It does not authorize citizens to rise up against the federal government.

At least the early anti-federalists played fair. They agreed that the US Constitution was a federalist document. And they made it crystal clear that they opposed the US Constitution. Today’s anti-federalists use deceit and bald-faced lies, suggesting that the US Constitution is itself an anti-federalist document. How do they get away with it? First, in the absence of any federal standards for education, anti-federalist teachers are free to lie and deceive gullible students and, in the southern United States, are even encouraged to do so. Remember white, poor southerners have never quite owned up to how, from the very beginning, they have been played by white, rich southerners. (Freed slaves will take your jobs, your land, and your wives.) That means historically they have always been inclined to take positions against their own self-interest. Second, even those southern representatives who signed the US Constitution, did so with grave reservations and only with the addition of the 3/5ths clause that gave them greater representation in the House without granting “their property” actual civil rights and liberties. Why did they support the Constitution? Mostly because they wanted a stable currency, regulated interstate commerce, and, most important off all, they wanted northern states to commit to helping them put down slave revolts when, not if, these should occur. The 3/5ths clause sugar-coated the US Constitution for southern representatives. With the threat of emancipation, however, in 1861, most southerners reverted to their anti-federalist selves.

And that’s where guns come into play. Since 1786, the anti-federalists have harbored a not so secret hostility to the federal government. Are they traitors? Absolutely. Outspoken. They hate the United States. And they have always held in reserve the right to overthrow the government. Remember, they actually tried that in 1861 and failed. Of course, this didn’t prevent them from reintroducing nearly all of the institutions of slavery in the 1870s, or opposing federal law in the 1960s. So Platt’s threat against the President’s life is not so unusual as it might at first appear. Roughly half the nation is, on principle, opposed to the US Constitution, opposed to its federalism, and opposed to its republican ideals. Nothing would please this fifty percent more than an armed insurrection, just like 1776. And, so they can even fashion themselves as true “patriots.”

Yet, as Randolph pointed out in May 1787, these patriots, just like the original ones, were mistaken. The United States needed a strong, centralized, legal and political authority, which is what the US Constitution provided. In any other nation, folks like Pratt would be tried and locked up for open threats to the republic. In the United States, however, public opinion is divided. Roughly half the nation would scrap the Constitution. And apparently many would even take up arms to make it so.

The Cause of Earthquakes

A story reported by the BBC has four tourists — a Brit, two Canadians, and a Dutchman — on trial in Malaysia for causing an earthquake ( The four exposed and photographed themselves at one of the most holy sites in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu. The story took me back to my graduate school days at Chicago, when I came across the following passage in Max Weber’s The Religion of China:

With regard to innovations, the manner of mining was always thought especially apt to incense the spirits. Finally, railroad and factory installations with smoke were thought to have magically infested whole areas (anthracite coal in China was used in pre-Christian times). The magic stereotyping of technology and economics, anchored in this belief and in the geomancers’ interests in fees, completely precluded the advent of indigenous modern enterprises in communication and industry. To overcome this stupendous barrier occidental high capitalism had to sit in the saddle aided by the mandarins who invested tremendous fortunes in railroad capital. The wu and the shih, as well as the chronomancers and geomancers, were relegated more and more to tbe category of “swindlers.” But this could never have come about through China’s own resources (1959:199).

What struck me twenty-five years ago and still strikes me now about this passage is how Weber skirts the real issue. Perhaps we are inclined to do likewise. On its face, the Malaysian courts are behaving irrationally. Naked tourists, even naked British tourists, do not cause earthquakes. Silly Malaysians. End of story.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 14.50.58Back to China. As we know, high capitalism did eventually sit in China’s saddle with the result that China is now among the most polluted places on the face of the planet. Chinese authorities are now confronting this legacy. Still, it is important that we appreciate how what Weber felt was silly a century ago seems much less silly today. Communities that live off the delecate balance struck between human consumption and sustainable agriculture are inclined to count sacred the resources that high capitalism reduces to mere commodities. Of course, the earth cannot be plundered unless we deprive it of its sacredness. “For heavens’ sake, its just earth.” Right? Yet, as Weber correctly noted, depriving the earth of its sacredness is no easy matter. In this effort, just as the stoic and cynical mandarins were inclined to sell their birth-right, so today social elites must become complicit. And, as we well know, nothing destroys traditional spirituality quite as efficiently and effectively as capitalism. Just ask Weber.

So, what about the four nudists on trial? The jury is still out. And, yet, the facts are already clear. The Malaysians long ago made their peace with capitalism. Their economic welfare is now intimately connected to global trade and global tourism. There is no turning back the clock. Eventually Mount Kinabalu will be sold. It is already punctuated by hotels, resorts, andmonasteries  serving the needs (and emptying the wallets) of both western and native sacred tourists. How pleased the gods must be. No doubt the locals — kept poor and ignorant by conservative Malaysian ruling elites — genuinely believe that nudism caused the ensuing earthquake; much as conservative Christian snake-handlers and swindlers in the United States believe that 9/11 was caused by sexual misconduct. But, herein they miss the real earthquake, which may always have been the real point.

If I can make sure that the poor and ignorant folk focus on nude Europeans taking pictures at sacred sites, perhaps I can divert attention away from the real violence taking place in Malaysia where high capitalism has long been in the saddle. A century ago Max Weber missed the point. And we are again missing it today.

ECON 164 (FALL 2015) Capital: The Economic System of Karl Marx

This fall the Economics Department at Berkeley is offering a unique course: “Capital: The Economic System of Karl Marx.” The course is unique not only because, generally speaking, such courses have not been offered within university economics departments since 1989 when the disintegration of “really existing communism” appeared to render the need for such courses obsolete. The migration of Marxian economics courses from departments of economics to departments of sociology and geography was of course already well advanced in the late 1960s. But then something remarkable happened. Nineteen-Eighty-Nine, it so happens, did not lead to the Shangri-La promised in the neoliberal promotional literature. Instead, as Thomas Piketty has recently pointed out, it led to the largest transfer of efficiencies from the producers of those efficiencies upward to their beneficiaries ever in history, restoring the global economy to roughly the same income distribution that prevailed prior to World War I. All of the mechanisms we thought should have kicked in — mechanisms that should have “naturally” distributed income, information, opportunity, wealth, health, and education more equitably — failed to do their job. As a result, mainstream economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Piketty and myself have been sent scrambling back to our Marx to see whether, perhaps, he might have had some insights that we somehow missed.

wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-06-6-11-11.pngBut Econ 164 will also be unique because instead of reading Marx in the shadow of 1918 (Russia) or 1949 (China), economists are now free to read Marx (as he perhaps always should have been read) in the shadow of 1848-1849. An older generation of Marxists will recall the flurry of excitement surrounding the publication, in English, of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts were discovered and first published in the Soviet Union in 1927. They offered a snapshot of a young social theorist still wrestling with a hodgepodge of French socialism, British political economy, and German idealism, a theorist over whose thought the concept of “alienation” hovered imperiously. Not surprisingly, it was with this younger, tormented and troubled, philosophical Marx tucked under their arms that the generation of 1968 engaged authorities not only in Boulder, Austin, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Kent State, but in Prague, Budapest, Mexico, Paris, and Berlin. And it was with this Marx tucked under their arms that our professors, as graduate students, marched into battle to take on “the establishment” only to become disillusioned in the 1970s and then tenured in the 1980s.

Econ 164 gives us a rare opportunity therefore to ask what in 1848-49 brought Marx to turn his back on his earlier, more philosophical and more “alienated” self. What brought Marx to take a second, more intensive look at the British political economists? What brought him to take a second, more critical look at GWF Hegel’s transcendental philosophy? How are we to explain his increasing fascination with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what brought Marx to increasingly question the emancipatory potential of the industrial working class?

Clearly this was no longer the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. But nor was it the Marx of V.I. Lenin or Mao Zedong. In terms of his economic theory, the Marx of Das Kapital ends up much closer to the British and continental neoclassicals — Alfred Marshall, Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras — than he does either to preclassicals such as David Ricardo or Adam Smith or to later Soviet economists. And, yet, clearly he was doing something different with his modeling than what they were doing. Were they missing something? Was he?

Our plan in Econ 164 is to begin with a 60,000 foot overview of the traditional academic Marx — the Marx who for decades was taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Berkeley. We will then take a moment to look very intently at the historical and social context in which Marx composed, first his Grundrisse and then his Kapital. Next we will take a very close look at what Marx actually says in his Kapital, trying to reconstruct piece by piece why he took up the themes that he did, why he used the tools that he did, and why he reached the conclusions that he did. Finally, we will ask whether the Marx we have discovered has anything to say to us today. Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. But at the very least we will be in a position to differentiate our Marx from the various versions in circulation during the twentieth century.

Joseph W.H. Lough teaches Economic History and Theory in the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. A draft of the Econ 164 syllabus can be downloaded here.

Republicans: Stand Up and be Counted

Joseph W.H. Lough

I am always bemused during this season of Presidential campaign launches to note how seamlessly one Republican candidate after another announces his or her intentions to run, on the Republican ticket, for the highest office of the land. My source of amusement would have been duly noted and shared by most Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century. All of us would be slapping our knees and chortling uncontrollably. But today? Not a snicker.

So, why the bemusement? Well, as anyone enjoying a grade school education knows, Republican is a fairly direct transliteration of the Latin res publica, which means (and here is the joke) “the wealth we hold in common.” (I will pause to give you a chance to collect yourselves.) Because whatever our republican wannabes are peddling, it isn’t “the wealth we hold in common.”

The Virginia Plan

However, what would happen if republicans, true republicans — republicans who actually believed in securing, advancing and protecting the wealth we hold in common — were to stand up and be counted, lending their support to candidates who, with them, cherish republican values, ideals, and institutions? What would happen?

Whenever I ask this question I am transported back to my own grade school days when I first learned that our present Constitution was not our first constitution. Our first constitution, as the Virginia Plan clearly lays out, suffered from many flaws. This explains why the delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia selected the Virginia Plan as the working document guiding their debates. So, what, specifically, was so wrong with the first constitution? Don’t get me started.

Here are excerpts from William Randolph’s introduction of the Virginia Plan into the record of the constitutional convention in May 1787:

First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority. Of this [Randolph] cited many examples; most of which tended to show that they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular states might by their conduct, provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defense on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money (Debates May 1787:127).

In other words, because there was no public body to deliberate and execute decisions on behalf of the republic and no authority to tax the public to fund those decisions, there in effect was no republic.

Secondly, that the federal government could not check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.

The same problem. Since each of the states held equal, sovereign powers, but no entity held the superior powers necessary to adjudicate among them. As subsequent debates revealed, of particular concern in 1787 was not only the ever present threat of slave revolts along the southern seaboard, but taxpayer and militia revolts by armed vigilantes in the northern states. Here Randolph offered a notable back-handed concession to the framers of the the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation:

In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, [Randolph] professed a high respect for its authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do, in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency of requisitions was unknown — no commercial discord had arisen among any states — no rebellion had appeared, as in Massachusetts — foreign debts had not become urgent — the havoc of paper money had not been foreseen — treaties had not been violated; and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty (Debates May 1787:126-127).

Obviously the Massachusetts tax-payer revolt led by Daniel Shays, which caught fire in August 1786 and was not suppressed until February 1787 (a mere three months prior to the convention), was on everyone’s mind. But, its constitutional significance cast a long shadow over all matters under consideration at the convention. How could the republic put down rebellions if it had no authority to do so? How could it pay for a federal militia in the absence of a federal currency? How could there be a federal currency without the authority to “requisition” wealth from citizens? And to what did Randolph and his fellow conventioneers attribute these faults? The jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty.

But, Randolph continued:

Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United states might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation; such as a productive impost, counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations, pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c., &c. Fourthly, that the federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states.

The federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states? In the 1950s, Republicans performed an astonishing about-face. Until then, of course, it had been the Democrats who had been the fiercest defenders of states rights. Republicans, by contrast, had been the staunchest opponents of states rights. (Remember Abraham Lincoln and that slave thingy that preoccupied him? That was about states rights.) In the 1950s, however, just as northern Democratic candidates were warming up to republican values, ideals and institutions, the Republican Party saw an unprecedented opportunity to ease in on white voters in the south who objected to federal officials forcing their states to integrate. These “Dixiecrats,” who were still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War, were staunch anti-antifederalists. And their anti-federalism created a huge opportunity for the Republican Party. As recently as the late 1960s, when Richard Nixon was elected, there was still a sizable number of Republicans who actually believed in republican values, principles, and institutions and who were therefore deeply opposed to states rights.

So, yes, when the convention met in 1787, one of the delegates’ leading concerns was that the states would oppose the republic — which, of course, they did in 1861 — and that the republic was not empowered to defend itself against these states.

What would happen if the Republican Party returned to its historical foundations? Fiercely federalist and opposed to states rights. Strongly supportive of a strong, centrally controlled monetary and tax authority. Deeply opposed to any and all vigilante groups who jeopardize the ability of governments to collect taxes. Deeply opposed to local militias who threatened the integrity of the republic. And — as we learn later on in the debates — fiercely opposed to the 3/5ths clause that allowed southern states to include slaves in their calculation for representation, but would not permit them to become citizens.

What would happen if the Republic Party fielded candidates actually committed to republican ideals, principles and institutions? Well, of course, it would be nothing short of a political revolution. But, don’t hold your breath. Since no anti-federalist was allowed entrance into the convention, none in the current field of republican candidates would even have been granted entry into Constitution Hall. Each has loudly and boisterously denied his or her republican bona fides. They are the finest group of anti-republicans on the face of the planet.

Which is why I am bemused, and a bit saddened.

AI: The Zombie Apocalypse is Not Upon Us, or is it?

A story on today’s NPR Morning Edition raises the specter of the Zombie Apocalypse. So, too, do several Hollywood movies. I am not speaking about real Zombies. Instead I am speaking about our innate fear of and attraction to the liminal space between human consciousness and AI. Chappie, Ex Machina, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Transcendence all play with this liminal space. Are they dead or are they living? And what do they want to do with us?

One of the motifs repeated in many of these movies is the idea that AI will cost us our jobs or, in any case, deprive us of our need to work. And so we are fed images of police stations with humans, feet on desks, coffee mugs in hand, relaxing while AI does the real crime fighting. When needed for real action, the humans are completely unprepared. A similar picture is painted in Wall-E, where, after generations of being served by AI, humans simply vegetate.

And, yet, clearly there is a real issue at stake here. Which brings us back to David Kastenbaum’s report: “Experts Debate: Will Computers Edge People out of Entire Careers?” David’s report features two MIT professors: Andrew Paul Macafee, co-director of the MIT initiative on the Digital Economy and author of Race Against the Machine (2012), and David Autor, Associate Head of the Economics Department and editor of Studies of Labor Market Mediation (2009). Professor Kastenbaum warns that as machines get smarter, cheaper, and more skilled they will begin to supplant human labour, which, obviously, is already taking place. Professor Autor says not, but he gives an inapposite example for why not: folding laundry. The example is inapposite not only because of Alex Cartier, the high school student featured on Youtube who built a laundry folding machine. (There are hours of laundry folding machine footage on Youtube, Alex’s and others.) It is also disturbing to think that this might be the kind of work left to us once AI does take over. Now that’s scary.

I was truly saddened that David Kastenbaum failed to invoke the first expert on this subject: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It was Hegel (and not Adam Smith) who first pointed out why mechanization might not be so bad a thing after all. Hegel showed that as our tasks become ever more specialized, as we break them down into ever smaller and simpler units, we will eventually be able to hand these tasks off to machines:

At the same time, this abstraction of one man’s skill and means of production from another’s completes and makes necessary everywhere the dependence of men on one another and their reciprocal relation in the satisfaction of their other needs. Further, the abstraction of one man’s production from another’s makes work morf and more mechanical, until finally man is able to step aside and install machines in his place (Philosophy of Right §198).

Cool, huh. Only problem? Didn’t happen. And this gets to the heart of why Professor Macafee may be mistaken. Sure, today we produce more stuff, for a lower cost, for more people than ever before in history — largely because of technological innovation. But, then why are we not able to “step aside and install machines” in our place?

The answer lies in a misreading of why we work. The arm-chair philosopher answer to this question is: duh, we work in order to produce things that we need or desire, which other people can purchase because they work in order to produce things that we need or desire, which . . . However, cultural anthropologists such as Nurit Bird-David, now at Israel Institute of Technology, point out that most human communities work only so much as they have to and invest the remainder of their time on what would today be called community-building activities (see The Original Affluent Society). Once they had enough, they stopped. It is really only within the last five hundred years that human beings have felt compelled to arrange their lives so that, when they have produced enough, they find something else to produce. Assuming that hominids have been around for roughly 2.5M years, five hundred years is a negligible span. For roughly 98% of their existence on the planet, hominids have preferred not to work.

Were our society based upon satisfying human needs or fulfilling their desires, we too might anticipate an end to work, just as Professor Macafee fears. But let us suppose that we work not in order to satisfy human needs or desires, but rather in order to create sufficient efficiencies for people who don’t work. (And I am not thinking here about welfare moms who, let me tell you, work plenty.) I am thinking here about the top of the income hierarchy who live off the efficiencies produced by those beneath them. Yes, we could have a machine fold our laundry; but for two problems. First, there are some things that even machines won’t do. Wages and benefits may have been driven down so far that it is actually more efficient and less costly to hire a human being at a marginal wage to fold and press my shirts. Second, unless I am simply going to hand out money so consumers can purchase what I produce, I need to have consumers do something, anything — bagging, check-out clerk, soda jerk, retrieve my golf balls, make and serve me my meals, care for my lawn, my children, cater my parties — anything to maintain the dependent relationship between the 99% and the 1%. We work not for lack of plenty of technology that could do our work for us. We work because that is how social relations are mediated in our society. Or, put differently, we work in order that our efficiencies can be sent up the income hierarchy to those who don’t have to work.

So, not to worry. There will be plenty of work in the future even if AI takes over. Who knows, perhaps some day you and I will be lucky enough to work maintaining some Android at a standard of living to which she has grown accustomed. Perhaps we already are.

(Joseph Lough teaches Economic History and Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.)