Saturday, July 28, 2012

Policy Prescriptions

The Skidelskys sugget a number of policy prescriptions. In essence, they want to share the benefits of productivity growth more widely, and to reduce pressure to consume.

  • reducing inequality, partly by raising public sector pay.
Thus the problem which Keynes identified in 1930—“our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour” has not been solved in the way he envisaged. Automation in manufacturing has led not to massive increase in leisure but to a massive transfer of labor to the lower-paid service sector where people have to work longer hours to make ends meet; while those not reabsorbed in the service economy have become unemployed, under-employed or casualized.
We need to reduce inequality of income, because average hours of work will continue to fall only if the real incomes of the majority are raised relatively to those now enjoyed by a minority. ..A sustained effort should be made to raise the share of income received by teachers, doctors, nurses and other public service professionals.
  • A basic income, an idea, they say, with a long history. It could be either a capital endowment of suffiicent assets or a guaranteed income, paid unconditionally. It is neither unaffordable, nor would it necessarily destroy incentives, they argue. Nobel Winners in Economics including James Meade and Milton Friedman have suggested similar schemes. Some places, like Alaska, already make payments to citizens. There could be more capital endownments, like Gordon Brown's since-cancelled plans for "baby bonds." Just like heirs, there could be limits on "blowing" capital endowments, like restricting access before the age of 30. And there should be more "education for leisure." A basic income would 'liberate work from the tyranny of the job."
  • Less emphasis on the financial sector, "the real driver of contemporary capitalism" and the source of as they see it "socially useless" financial innovation. This could involve Tobin taxes on financial transactions and discouraging the growth of financial derivatives.
  • More taxation of consumption rather than income (and a backwards glance at the sumptuary laws of the middle ages).
  • reducing the tax deductibiity of advertising. People do not come to advertising with fixed preferences, they say, but advertising helps form preferences and inflames the pressure to consume.
  • "honest paternalism" by biasing people's decision in favor of the good life, instead of obscuring or ignoring the ethical choices which are already being made in any case. The state cannot simply maintain that it is acting in the interests of an isolated consumer.
  • A retreat from integration of the world economy.

The conclusion we draw is that in order to satisfy the requirements of the good life we will have to retreat from the further shores of economic integration, at least until “catch-up” has become a fact, not an aspiration.

So, as they admit, it adds up to a very "European" way of looking at things, which might not seem that attractive when Europe is in a dire situation (albeit for other reasons.)


The material basis for our updated version of Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities” is rooted in the logic that gave rise to his possibilities in the first place: the long-term decrease in the demand for labor resulting from continuous improvements in labor productivity. We can either turn this to our advantage by greatly expanding the domain of shared work and leisure—a solution that at least some European countries have adopted—or continue with the Anglo-American system of want-creation powered by insatiability, maintained at the cost of growing job insecurity and income inequality, and heedless of humanity’s future.

One consistent theme in their approach is they want to be non-coercive - no one should be forced to alter their behavior, given the Skidelskys' basic goods of respect and personality. State powers may be used to promote the basic goods, but "only insofar as this does not damage the central good of personality." Personality is their version of liberal autonomy, with a slight polish of Catholic social teaching.

I think this ducks the issue of incentives, which lurks beneath all of this, and which is their main weakness in the face of libertarian attacks. As with Marcuse, they ignore the fact that some kinds of behavior ought to be actively discouraged. They continually criticise the liberalism of economics, but cannot quite take the step of acknowledging many of the same problems afflict political liberalism as well. Their arguments point away from the liberal shore but they want to stay on land. No doubt conversations at high table would be too difficult otherwise.

I still identify with the grandeur of the liberal project, but we have to ask deeper questions again. I have to think more about how and to what extent autonomy is still important as the prime value.

They identify the right questions to ask the philosophical reasons for our problems. But they give very social democratic answers. They are reasonable arguments, but they are not the only potential answers.


Why did growth become the main objective of policy?

We're still talking about the Skidelsky's new book, starting here. Economic Growth has not always been the main goal of policy, they say.

It is worth recalling that the ideal of economic growth as an end without end is of fairly recent origin. When British prime minister Harold Macmillan told the voters in 1959 that they’d “never had it so good,” he was echoing the widely held view at the time that the capitalist countries of the West were rapidly approaching a consumption plateau, and the main problem of the future would be to ensure that the fruits of the new abundance were democratically distributed. Galbraith’s hugely influential The Affluent Society (1958) with its image of “private affluence, public squalor” caught this mood.
So why did growth become the overwhelming aim of policy, just around the time that the economy was already reaching mass affluence?

The simple, though surprising, answer is that, with the assumed achievement of permanent full employment by policy, there were no other objects of economic policy left. In these circumstances, economic thinking was free to concentrate once more on the efficiency with which output was produced. This was more congruent with the maximizing spirit of economics, getting the most use out of a given stock of resources.

There were some additional reasons, too.

That growth could become an object of economic policy was in large measure due to the development of national income statistics—GDP—which enabled comparisons between countries’ economic performance. And, in the aftermath of two supremely destructive wars, to make peoples richer, rather than nations more bellicose, seemed an eminently civilized object of striving.
Growth was also more necessary in the face of the arms race and military challenge from the Soviet bloc, however. Something had to pay for all those F-111s and troops in the Fulda Gap.

Economic growth also offered a way to improve the position of the poor without taking resources away from the rich. It was "a way of circumventing the facts of power".



Inclusiveness and Collapse

Here's a completely different angle. The Olympic opening ceremony was about high-thinking metropolitan elite opinion in London proclaiming its progressive values and inclusiveness to the world.

There have been a slew of articles recently asking why the mainline liberal Protestant denominations are collapsing in North America, like this Ross Douhat column in the NYT. Margaret Wente writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail today that no one cares what the United Church of Canada thinks any more.

Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive. They figured that was the way to reach out to a new generation of worshippers. It was a colossal flop.

Is there a deeper problem here? Liberal utopian communes and new social experiments generally collapse, while religious orders sustained monastic communities for centuries. Liberal high-mindedness seems to be producing terrifying decline in Europe. Half of young Spaniards are unemployed. Thirty-year olds still have to live with their parents in Italy. In the US, the golden state, California, is shutting parks and cutting back programs. Blue New York is dividing into the hyper rich and the poor, with the broad middle squeezed out. The liberal academy in the humanities has stuffed students with high debt and is steadily losing ground to business studies ( which ought not to happen.)

This is where a politics of gesture leads.

There is a deeper problem for left-liberalism in sustaining community and institutions. This may be because, if you follow Jonathan Haidt's arguments, liberals are not closely attuned to moral intutions which promote community as well as equality and fairness. It is a blind spot.

So there are many in the press who praise the opening ceremony's cool liberalism symbolism of nationalized healthcare, multicultural immigration on the Windrush, and Frankie goes to Hollywood. It's the civic religion of Islington and Notting Hill and SW9. It's not necessarily a good thing.

The UK past in the ceremony was Shakespeare. The present is Mr Bean, with extra fireworks, and a slight hint of Bladerunner about it.

This isn't to yearn for the past, or even necessarily to be socially conservative. It's to recognize civic religions and values have consequences. And they are not always benign.


Atrocious Opening Ceremony in London

The Brits are congratulating themselves on their "breathtakingly bonkers" opening ceremony which "wowed the world", although, as a Guardian reviewer said, " I'm still reeling that a country that can put on a show that hilariously bonkers is allowed nuclear weapons."

We weren't wowed in our house. We looked forward to it, despite NBC showing it with a three hour delay. We rooted for it to be successful.

What we saw was self-indulgent and juvenile, shapeless, frequently ugly and graceless, and with some exceptions boring. G and I, who know Britain well, watched in increasing bafflement.

The thing to compare it with is not "authoritarian" Beijing's ceremony, but Vancouver two years ago. I watched some of that again on YouTube, and there are many moments of visual splendor and poetry in the BC Place Stadium.

The UK show was not "creative." It was tone-deaf and inappropriate - for the scale of the stage and the global audience. It was incoherent and hard to follow. It was like they threw fish-and-chips together with tikka massala, a broken bottle of Newky Brown ale and Sainsbury's frozen shepherd's pie, gave it a half-hearted stir, and then proclaimed it daringly creative haute cuisine.

Somebody gave the fifteen-year old "cool kids" clique in high school twenty-seven million pounds to show how right-on and righteous they were. We got cringing consciousness-raising gestures, creepy political correctness and awkward emotional lunges.

At least Monty Python was smart. This was leaden, ugly cliche.

Not all was bad, of course. The fiery rings and the cauldron petals at the end both worked, and were beautiful. The queen's Bond entrance was at least a good idea, if not that well executed. The oligatory fireworks looked wonderful.

But the rest was just confused and cliched. It was a mess of paleosocialist prejudice and blob-like milling around. It promoted a multicultural London that actually seemed fascist, in the tradition of aestheticized politics and torchlight parades to influence the masses.

It really makes you wonder what is going to happen to the UK. This was a Britain which seemed like it in deep in its Weimar Republic phase, unsure of what it stands for and drifting You can see where the riots came from, G said on the sofa beside me.



Marcuse and the Sixties

The Skidelskys also look at the experience of the sixties. Western economies came to the brink of abundance. Social utopianism broke out. But then new social movements collapsed in the seventies and eighties. Flower power begat Reaganism.

Like Brink Lindsey, whose book we looked at here, the Skidelskys see Herbert Marcuse as one of the main figures who exemplifies what went wrong.

The most obvious reason was the failure of Western economies to sustain the promise of general abundance. In practice, the protest movements of the 1960s were rapidly followed by the collapse of the Keynesian state on which the expectations of imminent abundance had been built. This killed off utopianism. Marcuse became a museum piece in the West (though not in Latin America) even before his death.

Why did things go wrong?

Marcuse’s fundamental error was that of all utopians: he closed his eyes to the obvious fact of “original sin.” It was this that allowed him to view all the evils attendant on sex—jealousy, pornography, sadism and so forth—as products of its repression by capitalism. Remove that repression, and sex would revert automatically to the condition of childlike innocence. This was a facile philosophy, which Freud himself never embraced. Sexual desire is bound up at its source with power and vulnerability, meaning that its regulation is not a transitory phenomenon but a basic condition of any civilized existence.

It is in fact a more general problem with seeing freedom as simply autonomy.

Abundance leads to many more choices and possibilties. But in its first glimmering iteration we blew it so badly that it delegitimized taking advantage of the possibilities for fifty years. It produced distintegration, rather than freedom.

And this is where so much of our general liberal approach goes wrong. Liberalism frequently erodes the very institutions that give people the ability to live meaningful lives, as Charles Murray argues.

I summed up Murray's view about the arts here: "Without some conception of the good, art tends to become vulgar". That also perhaps applies more generally, including to what the Skidelskys are saying. Without conception of the good, our wants become vulgar - unrestrained, tawdry, self-defeating - and socierty becomes vulgar - divided, skeptical, inclined to debt and short-termism. The state can crowd out the other institutions which let people seek their own good. It "drains the life out of life."

I don't think the Skidelsky's basic goods approach deals with this sufficiently.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How much is enough? The Good Life and Neutrality

I'm talking about How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life .

There are many other points in the book. They attack happiness economics at length as being too concerned with mental states.

To go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another. Our proper goal, as individuals and as citizens, is not just to be happy but to have reason to be happy. To have the good things of life—health, respect, friendship, leisure—is to have reason to be happy. To be happy without these things is to be in the grip of a delusion: the delusion that life is going well when in fact it is not.

I won't go into this in detail, although they devote most of a chapter to it, because I think positive psychology is already moving on from a simple focus on happiness as a mental state.

They express deep reservations about current environmentalism. In fact, they are not, as I had expected from reading initial reviews of the book, just looking to go back to a kind of 1970s anti-growth environmentalism. They just think GDP measures are increasingly divorced from the good life.


Virtue and the Good Life

Instead, let's focus again on their philosophical discussion in a little more detail, because they do it so well. They have a fascinating discussion of how the rise of economics overtuned older virtue ethics. Mandeville's Fable of the Bees was a turning point.

Enter Virtue: prosperity dwindles, and the hive is ruined. This depiction of a slump in fortune brought on by an onset of frugality delighted Keynes, who quoted several passages from The Fable in his General Theory. Mandeville’s moral is plain: you can have riches and vice, or poverty and virtue, but not riches and virtue. Which do you want?
Adam Smith continued the process of deemphasizing the old virtues.

Smith’s doctrine of self-interest did more than just turn avarice into a virtue; it turned classical virtue into a vice. ...Smith’s economics was a triumph of intellectual economizing—an ingenious application of Occam’s razor to man’s social behavior. The turbulent passions were reduced to the single motive of self-interest. This gave economics its unique analytic power. It would not have to worry, as did the political science bequeathed by Machiavelli, about understanding and managing the varied and contradictory passions. One master motive, the self-interested pursuit of wealth, subsumed all others. ...The value-neutral language of “utility” and “preferences” renders capitalism’s Faustian bargain necessarily invisible.

It also meant there was no independent stance to judge the nature of those preferences.

As economics developed, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish wants from needs. In this respect, Keynes was heir to the neoclassical tradition, which is why his idea of “satiety” seems quaint.

And without a way to judge those preferences, without any reference to older virtues like temperance, it is hardly surprising that our wants appear insatiable.


The older idea of the good life has (they argue) been replaced with liberal neturality.

For all its vestigial resonance, the idea of the good life no longer forms part of public discussion in the Western world. Politicians argue their case in terms of choice, efficiency or the protection of rights. They do not say, “I think this policy will help people lead fruitful, civilized lives.” Private discussion has tended to follow suit.

Rawls has set the terms of the current debate.

Ever since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971, liberal thinkers have insisted on public neutrality between rival conceptions of the good. The state, they claim, should not throw its weight behind this or that ethical outlook; rather, it should leave citizens free to follow their own moral lights, insofar as is compatible with a similar freedom for others. Needless to say, this philosophical ideal has never been fully realized in practice. The French state is not neutral in its treatment of hijab wearers, nor is any liberal state neutral with regard to heroin. But at the level of argument, the Rawlsian ideal has triumphed. ... The principle of state neutrality is now so well established that we sometimes forget how revolutionary it is.

And Economics is methodologically wholly opposed to looking at the nature of needs or preferences.

“Nothing in economics so quickly marks an individual as incompetently trained,” wrote J. K. Galbraith, “as a disposition to remark on the legitimacy of the desire for more food and the frivolity of the desire for a more elaborate car.” Economists are all for the satisfaction of wants, at least within certain limits. But as to the wants themselves, they maintain a fastidious indifference.

This skeptical standpoint has passed into mainstream economics under the slogan “the givenness of wants.” Desire is no longer, as it was for the ancients, an arrow capable of hitting or missing its mark; it is a bare psychological fact, guiltless and inerrant. There is no intrinsically desirable life, only a range of desired lifestyles. Once this keystone of pre-modern economic thought is removed, the other blocks fall rapidly to the ground. First to go is the distinction between needs and wants. Needs, on the classical conception, are objective; they refer to the requirements of life or the good life. Wants, by contrast, are a psychological phenomenon; they are “in the mind” of the wanter. Needs and wants are independent of one another.

If we think about this, education or character are supposed to elevate or develop the nature of wants, at least on an older view. That was to a large extent the aim of a "liberal education." A more vocational and instrumental view of education in recent years makes it difficult to conceive of different kinds of wants as well. And that leaves "taste" to be unchallenged cultural capital of the upper middle classes. Many of the things we care most about have to do with the non-givenness of wants.

Of course, I agree with their arguments here. I've argued at length similar points before - here's one recent example. In fact, I've been continually surprised at how often discussion of core economics issues leads me back to these foundational matters of ethics and philosophy. There is rot the foundations of how the economy works for us.

My natural arena is bond yields and interest rates and payrolls and exchange rates. So the fact I keep being drawn to the philosophical underpinnings as the source of much that has gone wrong interests me. I've talked a lot about virtue ethics. The Skidelskys put it very well from the other direction as well - problems in economics' conception of utlity and preferences.

Basic goods and Autonomy

Rawls does admit "primary goods,", "goods that a rational individual will want whatever else he wants."

Rawls’s list of primary goods includes civic and political liberties, income and wealth, access to public office, and “the social bases of self-respect.” Primary goods are not themselves elements of the good life, but rather the means to achieving any possible version of the good life. They are the external conditions of autonomy. A liberal state must ensure that they are fairly distributed among its members, but should not take a view on the uses to which they are put, for that would be to violate its cardinal principle of neutrality

The real focus of modern liberal theory is autonomy, however, not flourishing. The same applies to the "capablities" approach and measures of quality of life developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. (We looked at Sen here).

For all their disagreements with Rawls, Sen and Nussbaum share with him an overarching concern for autonomy. It is this very concern that prompts them to go beyond his list of primary goods...The desire to safeguard autonomy explains Sen and Nussbaum’s focus on capabilities rather than actual functionings.

This is a smart and well-taken point. In effect, autonomy is preferred to most other values. But there is no inherent reason to prefer it to more connected or communitarian notions of the good.

The Skidelskys put forward their own, different list of seven basic goods - health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. These are the good life, they argue. And here is the key point:

The continued pursuit of growth is not only unnecessary to realizing the basic goods; it may actually damage them. The basic goods are essentially non-marketable: they cannot properly be bought or sold. An economy geared to maximizing market value will tend to crowd them out or to replace them with marketable surrogates. The result is a familiar kind of corruption.

Many of the things we most want are non-marketable. That should not be taken as a condemnation of the market. Instead, it is an issue about the scope of the market.

Use-Value and Basic Needs

The Skidelskys also note the older conception of "use value", which has also been subsumed by utility.


Last not but least, modern economics has dispensed with the central concept of use-value. For Aristotle, as we saw, the use-value of an object is its particular contribution to the good life. Wine, for instance, enhances food and friendship, both central human goods. It therefore has use-value, whereas crack cocaine (which enhances neither food nor friendship nor any other good thing) does not. That I prefer crack to wine does not alter this fact; it simply shows me to have corrupt taste.


Use-value was a central part of economics until the marginalist revolution of the late nineteeth century.


Aristotle’s concept of use-value was taken over by Smith, Ricardo and of course Marx, who put it to sturdy critical work. But in the late nineteenth century, and partly in reaction to Marx, economists set about dismantling it. “Value,” wrote Carl Menger, a pioneer of the new approach, “is nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, nor an independent thing existing by itself. It is a judgement economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal.” This new conception of value, better known by its English name of “utility,” has since become standard in the discipline. Utility is a purely descriptive concept; it expresses what I want, not what I ought to want. If I prefer to spend my money on crack rather than wine—well, then, crack has more utility for me.


Without a separate concept of use-value, there is no independent anchor for the system. Any judgement or anaylsis of needs falls away.

I find this interesting just because I am also working my way through a little bit of Marx, simply to grapple with some of the original classics - including Smith and Schumpeter. And use-value is of course fundamental to Marx's system. I'll come back to this in a few weeks or months.

Index and metrics

One other point they briefly make is also potentially of much wider importance. Metrics can be signals rather than measures of welfare or transactions.


growth might interest us as an index of something else we value. ... Growth, in other words, might function like a cardiograph—in itself a trivial gauge of something important. But it can perform this function only if (a) it is reliably correlated with economic freedom and (b) economic freedom is itself an overriding good.


I think this notion of metrics as indices or signals represents the future of economic statistics, as a diagnostic aid rather than an aim in itself. Accountants look at ratios when they analyse companies. Companies will look at operational data relative to their business, such as aircraft turnaround time for an airline or time through the sorting facility for FedEx, or customer sastisfaction indices. Doctors will take a high temperature as indicative of sickness, even if it is just a byproduct or associated phenomenon. We'll come back to this idea in future posts as well.

Working Hours

Finally, the Skidelskys discuss at some length why working hours have not fallen, as Keynes had expected. They present a whole variety of explanations , which I will not go into here in any detail. One, however, is a shift in the proportion of service jobs.

In Keynes’s day, manufacturing in developed countries accounted for 80 percent of output, services for 20 percent. Today this ratio is reversed. Service jobs on average are less well paid than the manufacturing jobs they replaced, partly because they cannot be automated to the same extent—think of schoolteachers, nurses, hairdressers, taxi drivers—and partly because they cannot be unionized as effectively.

This is a serious structural problem, There are deep problems with expecting a viable future economy to come from personal services. For one thing, productivity will be too low to make it viable - too expensive for people to want to hire services in most cases, and too poorly paid for most people to want to do it. Not everyone can survive on being personal trainers or dogwalkers.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Much is Enough?

I noted before that a new book by father and son Robert and Edward Skidelsky looked important. I now have had time to read it, and I am convinced it is indeed a very significant book.

How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life raises some of the same core issues I have been talking about over the last year on this blog, and it does so in a serious, intelligent and graceful way. Not surprisingly, given one of them the writer of a massive and much-praised three-volume biography of Keynes ( the elder Lord and Professor Skidelsky), the book is historically smart and well-informed. It also deeply engages in philosophy and ethics as well. It covers an immense amount of ground in a relatively short book, so much so it is diffcult to condense it in a blog post or two.


Their main point is a little different from my view, however. They stress above all the insatiability, the limitless wants of modern capitalism:

This book is an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition that prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying “enough is enough.”
I'm not persuaded about this argument. Yes, capitalism generates plenty of wants, but the Skidelskys don't really consider the production side for the most part. Their argument is more about limitless demand than problems with supply. However, the main issues we face are more about supply and institutions and purposes. We converge very much on some of the basic philosophical starting points, but diverge somewhat on where to go next.

The problem for me is not so much that wants are unlimited, as the nature of needs and wants is changing in ways that have much deeper implications for the economy. It's not so much about the insatiability of wants as the kind of things we want.

The Skidelskys commendably note economics does not pay any attention to the nature of goods or needs, simply covering everything under "utility". But in the end the Skidelskys' response is a new list of "basic goods" which can be a metric for sufficiency. The list of basic goods is their measure of the good life.

I think we need more of a return to virtue ethics and encouraging human flourishing, rather than simply supplying basic goods. Their solutions are more or less classic social democratic, a moderate left approach to changes in taxation.

Instead, I think abundance means the nature of our needs is changing, towards more need for connection and "self-actualization" in Maslow's awkward term. Insatiability is not an option for future growth even if we wanted it to be, as so many of the new wants are not material - but psychological and available at zero marginal cost. That requires a deeper rethink of institutions, including the labor market and incentives.

One of the most important things for me is the issues inherent in the hierarchy of needs. The Skidelskys barely touch on this, beyond acknowledging most of their list of basic needs is "non-marketable". What does that imply for the market economy? They don't say.

Status and Positional Competition


Much of their worry is a shift to relative wants, to positional goods and status relative to others:


The main sociological explanation of insatiability hinges, therefore, on the relative character of wants. At no level of material wealth will I feel satisfied with what I have, because someone will always have more than I do. Once competition for wealth—or the consumption by which it is normally signified—turns into competition for status, it becomes a zero-sum game, because everyone, by definition, cannot have high status.
It used to be most spending was on essentials.

Today, that situation is reversed: the bulk of household expenditure, even by the poor, is on items that are not necessary in any strictly material sense, but which serve to confer status. The very notion of a “material good” has broadened to include anything that can be bought or sold, including ideas, scraps of melody, even identities.

Many more goods are "snob goods", which "cater to the desire to be different, exclusive, to stand apart from “the crowd,” or Veblen goods, desired because they are expensive and which effectively serve as advertisements of wealth. Many goods, like degrees from top universities, are socially scarce. (We've talked about Fred Hirsch's arguments about this here).

This is all true, and keeping up with the Joneses is going to be a feature of any society. But insatiability is likely less of a problem than they think because status and positional competititon is increasingly plural. There are more greasy poles to climb than before, more subgroups and subcultures. If material goods are increasingly abundant, they are less of a distinguishing factor between people. That is already the case in clothing, for example. One hundred years ago a glance at the street could tell you who was working class and who was rich. Now they might both be wearing Gap. The ways we get status are increasingly plural.

The Good Life and Neutrality

Where I most agree with them, however, is their call for a substantive return to discussion of the good life. They do very much clarify how the abandonment of the older tradition of virtues in favor of utility has obscured any clear discussion of actual needs. Without any conception of purpose or the "good life", there is no standard or metric to even think about sufficiency.

This book is not about the principles of justice, but about the constituents of the good life. Most modern political theory starts from the consideration of what is just, or fair, in the abstract, and proceeds to derive from this “just” social arrangements. Our approach is different. We start with the individual and his needs, from which we try to build up a picture of the common good. Questions of distribution, which lie at the center of modern discussions of justice, while vitally important, are only so to us in the context of the requirements of the good life.

They argue strenuously against the idea that the state and society should be neutral between different conceptions of the good life.

The last, and deepest, objection to our project concerns its supposedly illiberal character. A liberal state, John Rawls and others have taught us to believe, embodies no positive vision but only such principles as are necessary for people of different tastes and ideals to live together in harmony.

They think this is is misplaced.

It is a superficial conception of liberalism that sees it as implying neutrality between different visions of the good. In any case, neutrality is a fiction. A “neutral” state simply hands power to the guardians of capital to manipulate public taste in their own interests.

I think in fact it is a deeper problem with liberalism (in the broad sense, which includes most of our current politics), as I've argued. It strips people of purpose and leaves them to drift. It sees the main human problem as legalistic coexistence rather than flourishing, as we were discussing the other day in the context of virtue ethics. It was a humane intention, but leaves an empty shell where a positive vision ought to be.

The discipline of Economics

If the Skidelskys think the problem with liberalism is superficial, they certainly believe there is a deep problem with contemporary economics, however.

Perhaps the chief intellectual barrier to realizing the good life for all is the discipline of economics, or rather the deathly orthodoxy that sails under that name in most universities across the world. Economics, says a recent text, studies “how people choose to use limited or scarce resources in attempting to satisfy their unlimited wants.”

They believe that is now clearly wrong:

We are condemned to dearth, not through want of resources, but by the extravagance of our appetites.

Efficiency is no longer the primary problem.

Over time, such a shift is bound to affect our attitude to economics. To maximize the efficient use of our time will become less and less important; and therefore “scientific” economics, as it has developed since Robbins, will be demoted from its position as the queen of the social sciences. It can bring us to the threshold of plenty, but must then retire from its oversight of our lives.

This is surely true. I've got much more to say, which reflects the detail and inherent interest of their arguments. I'll do that in a few subsequent posts.



Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pain in Spain

More bad news out of Europe this morning, where UK Q2 GDP came in much weaker than expected, at minus 0.7%.

Often it is the persoal details that really bring it home to you, rather than GDP statistics or debt yields. This is a sad but illuminating story in the NYT written by a New Yorker who owns a restaurant in a little town just north of Barcelona. Spain's glorious bar and restaurant culture is in sharp retreat.

If watching your own restaurant slowly starve to death is hard, watching them all waste away in a town of more than 20,000 people is shocking. The face-saving excuses I used when there was no money to buy food or drink are universal: "The delivery hasn't arrived." "I didn't like what was at the market." "The tap is broken." ..
So many colleagues have lost their entire life savings already, and many more will. We know the worst is yet to come.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Big Sky Ideas' First Birthday!

This blog is one year old today! I started it with this post in a Manhattan coffee shop last July. That was 439 posts ago.

I've got a lot of pleasure out of writing, and I think I've covered a lot of ground and learned something over the year.

It's another beautiful July morning, and I am about to head out to ... A coffee shop. Blogs come, mornings go, coffee is eternal.

Art and Evolution

We were discussing why people want to produce art last week. Here's a long article in the New Republic on whether our art instinct can be explained in evolutionary terms.

Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience—not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental. This dimension is defined in many ways—by its love of the hypothetical, of order and symbol, of representation for its own sake, of the clarity that comes from suspending the pragmatic; and it has, perhaps, as much in common with theoretical knowledge and contemplation as it does with sensory enjoyment. The “usefulness” of this whole way of being is what must be explained, if there is to be a plausible Darwinian aesthetics. Even if there were, it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight

The article leads off from Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, which I haven't read yet but hope to get to.