Friday, December 16, 2011

The Conscience of Capitalism

The conscience of capitalism? It was never very much. But what little there was seems to have begun and ended with Adam Smith.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, at its most basic, economics is an inalienable concomitance of production and distribution. It does not require rocket science or a PhD in ethics to grasp that the purpose of economics should be to fulfill the consumption-related needs and desires (physical and mental) of a population, individually and collectively. In other words, the wealth and resources of our world should be developed for the welfare and happiness of all. Both production and distribution must serve that end.

Adam Smith recognized the important role that distribution plays in any economy, but he failed to develop a scientific approach toward it. To conceal that lacuna - and perhaps to cozy up to the rich -  he declared that the  requirements of distribution are largely met automatically. (As discussed elsewhere, Smith's notion of distribution was that it is adequately - or almost adequately - managed by "an invisible hand", the work of Providence far more than any market force. This was expressed by Smith in both The Theory of Moral
(1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).) Today, 250 years later, it is patently clear that either Adam Smith's "invisible hand" does not exist or it is not wielded for distributive justice to the extent that Adam Smith maintained.

Although Adam Smith mentioned "an invisible hand" only once in The Wealth of Nations (TWON), it is arguably the most well-known assertion that he made. Perhaps that is because an invisible hand is almost all that Smith offered on the subject of distribution. On the very few occasions when Smith talked about "distribution", he mostly referred to a "natural distribution" and never a "just distribution" or an "equitable distribution".

Though Smith repeatedly condemned the rapacious greed of the wealthy, he became almost apologetic whenever he discussed any methodology that might tend to reduce the huge gap in income and lifestyle between the rich and the poor. For example, while discussing a tax on the rent of houses, Smith said: "It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." (V.2.71, TWON).

With such a beginning, is it any wonder that modern capitalist economists still tend to focus far more on production than distribution (assuming that they even consider distribution at all)? Talk about economic justice, and some wealthy capitalist economists merely laugh it off as idle speculation. Mention a principle like
production for consumption, and they will dismiss it as ill-conceived. What they won't tell you is that Adam Smith himself firmly endorsed that principle. Smith said: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for
promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it." (IV.8.49, TWON)

As a consequence of the mind-numbing influence of capitalist economics, only one out of two essential elements of economics has been developed. And even that one element has only been developed partially and, indeed, highly inadequately. A one-eyed focus on production, almost entirely ignoring its inalienable partner (distribution), is the consequence of capitalist dogma. Because of capitalist dogma, when Warren Buffett suggested taxing the rich, it was hailed as a new and noble idea. And when Bill Gates finally launched a charitable foundation and then chose to run it as a private business, he was hailed as a great philanthropist.

Adam Smith's notions of free trade conflicted with prevailing notions of mercantilism. But at the end of the day, free trade has proven to be no less elitist than mercantilism. Ultimately, both free trade and mercantilism fall under the dimension of economics that PROUT labels "commercial economy". Both free trade and mercantilism have their good and bad points. But commercial economy is only one dimension out of four in respect to a healthy economy. And a healthy economy is only one concern out of five in respect to a healthy society.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Rudderless Ship

The Occupy movement has begun targeting American West Coast ports. It is a demonstration of numbers and momentum... and a complete lack of strategic sense.

The persons likely to suffer the most from this ill-conceived operation are the dock workers, truckers, and other ordinary people whose livelihood or convenience is dependent on goods exported or imported through those ports. In short, the top 1% will not feel the pinch nearly as much as the 99%.

The justification for this self-destructive drama is a vague hodgepodge of Marxist and Gandhian fantasy. Very few of those adversely affected are likely to appreciate the rationale for this action, assuming that they can even comprehend it.

It is high time that the Occupy movement took a step back to get its bearings. The movement cannot go forward, much less succeed, without a clear ideology, a concrete platform, cohesive strategy, and capable leadership.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Concealed Hand of Adam Smith

For many years I have been hearing economists refer to a modern version of the invisible hand as if they are merely extending the original argument of Adam Smith. The fact is that Adam Smith's invisible hand was always a fairy tale based on religious, ivory-tower speculation about the world. When Smith talked about an invisible hand, he meant Providence (or God).

In 1759, Smith introduced the concept of an invisible hand in his book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". The concept of an invisible hand is found in Paragraph 10 of Part IV Chapter 1. (Part IV consists of only one chapter/section.)

Below I reproduce the entire Paragraph 10 with its preceding Paragraph 9 for further context. A careful reading reveals that what Smith describes has nothing to do with market forces. Smith talks about two things: (1) the contemptible greed of a rapacious elite and (2) the physical capacity of a human belly. In psychological and economic terms, what Smith writes is arrant nonsense. He posits that unfeeling wealthy landlords produce huge fields of grain only because their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Smith then asserts that those greedy landlords have no alternative but to distribute what they cannot eat to others (rather than maximizing their personal profit based on supply and demand, even if that means letting grains rot in silos).

As I said above, what we read below is just religious, ivory-tower speculation. It has little or no relation to what actually happens in real life. In real life, the distribution of wealth is not at all "nearly the same distribution... which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants", not even in respect to the "necessaries of life" which Smith was specifically talking about. But when we go beyond the necessities of life - addressed by PROUT within a broader dimension of people's economy - then the distribution of wealth becomes even less balanced.

It is interesting to note that Adam Smith addresses, albeit inadequately, some subjects that modern capitalist economists like to sweep under the carpet. Smith talks about "the sentiment of approbation". Indeed, that is the very subject of Part IV of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". This "sentiment of approbation" is precisely what PROUT stresses when it comes to law (or property rights). According to PROUT, accumulation of wealth should be determined by the approval of society.

It is also interesting to note that Adam Smith recognizes the critical importance of distribution in economics. Smith also understood that justice in respect to distribution means that everyone must receive the "necessaries of life". In other words, Smith recognized that distributive justice means a more equal distribution. Of course, Smith's economic analysis is incomplete. The goods and services produced by any economy go well beyond the mere necessities of life. Economies also produce many amenities (in PROUT, atiriktam), and over time those amenities tend to become recognized as part of the current minimum requirements for all (a broader concept than the necessities of life).

Modern capitalist economists have managed to develop some elements of what PROUT classifies as commercial economy. Unfortunately, however, they have lost sight of even the little bit of humanity that Adam Smith showed in his recognition of the importance of people's economy and the need for distributive justice. Modern capitalist economists promote the slogan that everyone should be free to choose as a means to make the wealthy elite free to exploit.

Part IV

Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation

Consisting of One Section

Chap. I Of the beauty which the appearance of Utility bestows upon all the productions of art, and of the extensive influence of this species of Beauty



But though this splenetic philosophy, which in time of sickness or low spirits is familiar to every man, thus entirely depreciates those great objects of human desire, when in better health and in better humour, we never fail to regard them under a more agreeable aspect. Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and oeconomy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or oeconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.


And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Although the prisoner swap is absurdly unequal, celebrations are going on among both Palestinians and Israelis. However, the mathematics is disturbing, not just to Israeli utilitarians.

On one side, Hamas appears to have achieved a great victory. Hence its popular support will increase. In addition, from the Palestinian prisoners who are released as well as from others inspired by this uneven prisoner exchange, Hamas will add a huge number of cadre to its militant ranks almost overnight.

On the other side, Israel must now take extra security precautions against an enemy force that will be greatly increased. In addition, Israel must arrest or capture another huge number of Palestinians to be ready for brokering the next release of an Israeli captive.

Is this a good deal for the Palestinians? Will it increase the chances of an early peace in the region? I doubt it.

To my thinking, the biggest problem I see with the uneven trade is what it reveals about the collective Jewish psyche. To the Jewish mind, one Israeli Jew is worth more than 1,000 Palestinians. This extreme superiority complex fosters huge injustices and even occasional massacres.

For example, in 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on unarmed Muslims in prayer, killing 29 and wounding another 125. At the funeral of Baruch Goldstein, who was overcome and beaten to death by the outraged congregation, Rabbi Yaacov Perrin said in his eulogy: "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."

Unfortunately, many Jews do think like Rabbi Perrin. And, because of the vastly unequal value commonly ascribed to the life of Palestinians, many if not most Israelis are blind to the apartheid practiced by the Jewish State.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Scientism and Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan often repeated the catechism: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." On the surface, the assertion sounds reasonable. But think a bit deeper, and it becomes evident that this is not just irrational but a justification for fascism (or, perhaps more accurately, scientism).

First, is there any objective measure of what is ordinary and what is extraordinary? Is this a black and white dichotomy, or do we have ranges of events and ranges of experience? For example, in the case of homeopathy, on what basis would it be decided that a 200-year old medical science, well respected in many countries of the world, is extraordinary? I submit that in this world, everything is natural - nothing is supernatural. So even the extraordinary events (including experiences) - events that fall outside of what is common or expected in a particular locale, at a particular time, or for a particular community - are natural.

Second, what qualifies as extraordinary evidence, and how much extraordinary evidence will suffice? Demanding extraordinary evidence is a recognition that the already existing evidence would be sufficient to substantiate conventional wisdom. At what point does the demand for extraordinary evidence become just an excuse to suppress knowledge and propagate dogma?

Third, even if a reported event is extraordinary, why should it require more evidence than anything else? An extraordinary event is bound to be a rare event, at least, for the person(s) reporting the event or for the person(s) receiving that report. So already it is likely to be difficult to acquire even ordinary evidence for an extraordinary event. In my estimation, acceptance of probable validity should ordinarily require evidence that is very substantial. Why set a higher standard than that for an event that is extraordinary, in other words, uncommon because it is outside the range of someone's day-to-day experience? Does this not set an unreasonably high hurdle for progressive innovation?

Fourth and finally, who decides what is ordinary and what is extraordinary (or what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is decent and what is indecent)? Would it benefit society to have an ardent advocate of national socialism in such a role? Clearly, it would not. So then who would be the appropriate authority to classify anything as extraordinary (assuming that such a classification serves an important purpose - something beyond the awarding of a gold medal to an exceptional athlete or the sentencing of a serial killer to prison - which I do not)? In my estimation, an authority with that much power would have to possess extraordinary qualifications. Only an extraordinary person would be capable of determining what is extraordinary and what is ordinary. Such an extraordinary person would have to be not just intelligent but also worldly wise and courageous. Most important of all, s/he would have to be a moralist with a universal social outlook. Giving so much power to anyone else could do immeasurable damage to society.

EU Legislation on Herbal Remedies

The fact is that this legislation recognizes the efficacy of herbal remedies. That is a good thing. But once you recognize the efficacy of the remedies, you have to worry about the way in which those remedies may be abused and also the way in which those remedies may conflict with other drugs that a patient may require or be taking. Hence, regulation is required, and the EU recognition of that need is ultimately a recognition of herbal remedies.

The main problem is with the regulatory process, which is very costly and largely devolves upon the consumer (via the small to medium scale producer or distributor). Medical care is a fundamental requirement of life and hence the cost of medical care should be borne by society as a whole and not by the individual citizens. Unfortunately, due to capitalism and considerable variation in the laws of the EU member states, the way in which the EU legislation is enforced will largely depend on the system of medical care in the EU member states.

Protesting the EU legislation is not a solution. And taking up that protest across Europe is a pointless and possibly counterproductive measure. What is needed is the establishment of PROUT to ensure a patient-oriented rather than profit-oriented medical system.