Economic Shadows: How Capitalist Ideology Wrecked America
“My starting point is that our understanding of the world in which we live is inherently imperfect because we are part of the world we seek to understand.” (Soros, 2008, p. 3)
The United States is currently facing an economic crisis of monumental proportions. Reckless monetary policy, deregulation of the financial industry, and a culture of greed have brought about what has been called a “once in a century” fiscal emergency. A massive bubble in real estate values, fed by low interest rates, lax lending standards, and the securitization of mortgages, popped on August 9, 2007 when a large French bank, BNP Paribas, suspended three of its funds that were strongly tied to American mortgages. The European Central Bank (ECB) was consequently forced to inject 94.8 billion euros into the financial system (Kanter and Werdigier, 2007). This injection was worth, at the time, $130.1 billion, or 160% of the $81.25 million that the United States Federal Reserve used to buy securities the day after the 9-11 Attacks (Wilson, 2007).
Since the initial fiscal shock, borrowers have defaulted on their mortgages in increasing numbers, leading to a foreclosure wave that has moved beyond the sub-prime sector and sharply reduced property values across the board. Two major American investment banks, namely Bear Stearns and Lehman, have failed. Bear Stearns was sold to JP Morgan Chase in a government-brokered deal and Lehman was simply bankrupted. In addition, the country’s largest insurer, AIG, which had guaranteed real estate loans through credit default swaps, saw its stock price dive and its credit rating drop as the crisis expanded. Late on the evening of September 16, 2008, it was effectively nationalized because its failure would have led to systemic collapse.
On October 3, 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Emergency Economic Relief Act of 2008. It included provisions for the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase up to $700 million in distressed securities under the Troubled Asset Relief Program thereby injecting funds into the financial system and, hopefully, restoring faith in the banks. In a little over a year, the world’s most prominent free market system had been reduced to begging for a government assistance and accepting government control as part of the bargain.
A greater understanding of systems theory, particularly an understanding of how economic models affect the very socio-economic systems they inhabit, might have prevented the credit crisis. At the least, it might have warned more Americans about the crisis’s inevitable arrival. Even now, a more thorough knowledge of systems theory can help each of us maintain perspective and solvency through the crisis, and possibly help us find a way back to economic stability.
Systems Theory and Cognitively Adaptive Systems
Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field that attempts to describe complex arrangements and the interrelation of their components in the physical, biological, and sociological worlds. Although the ideas behind systems theory could be said to be embodied in pre-Socratic western thought and eastern mysticism, its formulation as a specific field of scientific study is credited to Ludwig von Bertalanffy (Capra, 1996, p. 46). Bertalanffy, a Viennese biologist, detailed his vision of General Systems Theory in a 1968 book by the same name. His first musings about the need for new ways of thinking in order to understand biological systems, however, date back to the 1920’s and his work with the Vienna Circle (Capra, 1996, p. 46). Bertalanffy took issue, in particular, with classical science’s inability to explain how living systems were able to increase their entropy, or energy dissipation, in direct disagreement to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Capra, 1996, p. 47). Thus Newtonian physics had reached the limit to which it could explain the world, and new models, which incorporated complexity, adaptability, and even chaos, were needed.
As detailed by Capra (1982 and 1996), Senge (1994), and others, a key component of these new models, which fell under the name of systems theory, were feedback loops. A feedback loop is a system mechanism which alters the original condition of the system based on the outcome of a system process. For example, a furnace heats a home until the thermostat senses an ambient temperature higher than what is desired by the home’s occupants. At this point, the thermostat signals the furnace to shut off, and the ambient temperature then falls. When the thermostat senses the ambient temperature is once again below what is desired, it sends a signal to the furnace to turn back on. This is an example of a negative feedback loop. Negative feedback loops regulate the system inputs in a way that stability is maintained. Positive feedback loops, such as when the publication of a bank’s troubles only motivates more depositors to withdraw their savings thereby further compounding the bank’s problems, produce rapidly deteriorating system stability, often referred to as a downward spiral.
Feedback loops, which can be relatively simple in some physical systems, become increasingly complicated in sociological systems. Part of the complication, as George Soros points out in the quote prefacing this paper, is that humans both create and participate in models of sociological systems. The following discussion investigates this effect.
Prior to the Copernican Revolution in the 1500’s the Earth was considered to be the center of not only the solar system, but the entire universe. Copernicus, in work spanning several decades, proposed a model that claimed that the Earth, and every other celestial body, revolved around the Sun. And while this new representation increased human understanding of the physical world, the changes upon human behavior were relatively small: astronomers and other scientists refocused their efforts, and certain elements of the general population may have looked upon the teachings of the geo-centric Catholic Church with increased suspicion. However, none of these changes in any way affected the relationship among the celestial bodies. This is an example of what I refer to as an insulated system: an increase in human understanding about the system has no impact upon the system.
Yet another phenomenological discovery had a much larger impact on human behavior. The well-known Milgram experiment, conducted in 1961 at Yale University, suggested that the average person, when directed by a person of authority, would inflict harm upon another despite his or her personal objections. Prior to the publication of Milgram’s results, most people probably had a higher confidence in their ability to uphold their personal values in the face of a pernicious authority. Once they were made aware of the results of Milgram’s experiments, people adjusted their views of themselves and were also less likely to produce the same results as original experiment. In other words, once the Milgram experiment had been conducted and publicized, there was considerably less likelihood of a comparable experiment producing similar results. Thus the human social system was not insulated from the models used to describe it. The human social system is what I call a cognitively adaptive system: the system changes, or more specifically evolves, as human understanding of the system increases.
George Soros (2008), writing in The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, describes this phenomenon in slightly different terms:
This brings me to the central idea in my conceptual framework: I contend that social events have a different structure from natural phenomena. In natural phenomena there is a causal chain that links one set of facts directly with the next. In human affairs the course of events is more complicated. Not only facts are involved but also the participants’ views and the interplay between them enter into the causal chain. There is a two-way connection between the facts and opinions prevailing at any moment in time: on the one hand participants seek to understand the situation (which includes both facts and opinions); on the other hand, they seek to influence the situation (which again includes both facts and opinions). (p. 7)
Soros refers to the two-way connection he describes, a bi-directional feedback loop actually, as reflexivity. His cognitively adaptive system makes neoclassical economics simple, static, and antiquated. Even more importantly, Soros’s principle of reflexivity means that the economic models by which the world currently operates are inherently flawed. Moreover, the world economic system is vulnerable to systemic collapse, which may, in fact, be occurring right now.
As with much of system theory, Soros’s views may not present us with a comprehensive model of a fully interrelated economic system, but they do show us the limitations of our current thinking. Perhaps mere exposure to Soros’ critical analysis will be enough to dissuade political and business leaders from their incontrovertible belief in neoclassical economics. Soros’s well-stated economic application of his principle of reflexivity should at least cause some of them to pause and think:
I came to realize that market participants cannot base their decisions on knowledge alone, and their biased perceptions have ways of not only influencing market prices but also the fundamentals that those prices are supposed to reflect. I argued that the participants’ thinking plays a dual function. On the one hand, they seek to understand their situation. I called this the cognitive function. On the other hand, they try to change the situation. I called this the participating or manipulative function. The two functions work in opposite directions and, under certain circumstances, they can interfere with each other. I call this interference reflexivity. (p. viii)
A Critique of Pure Capitalism
When I was in high school in the early 1980’s, I was instructed that were three major economic systems. One system was free-market capitalism, most admirably demonstrated by the United States; another system was controlled-market communism, sinisterly embraced by the Soviet Union; and yet another option, a middle-of-the-road socialism, was practiced by some western European countries. I don’t remember any textbook, any teacher, or any adult pointing out that the New Deal, implemented shortly after the Great Depression, introduced elements of a controlled-market economy to the United States’ financial system. I never heard anyone declare that the FDIC was government-sanctioned regulation and insurance of the financial system. I never heard anyone maintain that Social Security was a state-mandated disability and retirement plan. I would, however, quite often hear adults grumble about paying taxes. Their gripe was that they had to pay to take care of those who were “too lazy to work”; they didn’t see themselves participating in a progressive tax structure that increased overall economic activity—and economic security—through a rechanneling of wealth. Our country, as the prevailing thought of the 1980’s almost unequivocally asserted, was undeniably capitalist. The communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, were our diametric opposite: evil authoritarian regimes.
More than two decades later, and notably, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I happened to end up teaching a few economics courses at a career college. The assigned text, Economics by Design (Collinge & Ayers, 2000), clearly pointed out that the present day United States was a mixed system, containing both elements of a controlled economy and free-market capitalism. The text also included a chart that placed various countries along a continuum according to how much free-market capitalism the economy contained. To my utter astonishment, the United States was not presented as the epitome of capitalism. Situated just to the right of the United States was South Korea—a country that had less regulation and market control than the United States. My traditional students, those in their late teens and early twenties preparing for their first careers, readily accepted the concept of a mixed economy and considered the United States as representative of the category . However, the older students in my courses, many of whom had lost their defense related jobs after the massive scaleback in Southern California military contracts, insisted that there were only two diametrically-opposed economic systems: capitalism and communism. The small nations of Western Europe were, in their thinking, essentially America protectorates experimenting with socialist idealism.
I also remember the topic of externalities being covered in my high school economics course. Externalities are natural resource and social costs that are not included in the economic calculations. In some cases, the externalities, such as fresh water, were free and therefore excluded from cost-benefit and other analyses. In other cases the externalities, such as industrial production’s negative effects upon the local community’s health, were extremely complex and difficult to evaluate and therefore not included in computations. I don’t remember any discussion of efforts to enumerate externalities; they just weren’t accounted for—end of story.
Fritjof Capra (1982) asserts that the discounting of externalities is a basic flaw with contemporary economics. This discounting, as previously noted by Karl Marx, actually delivers natural resources to capitalist producers free of charge. Capra also asserts that dependence upon growth is another basic flaw in contemporary economics. Over the last fifty years, real growth in the United States’ Gross Domestic Product has averaged over three percent (U.S. Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis). What this means is that in inflation adjusted terms, there is typically at least three percent more goods and services produced in the United States each year. With the amount of goods and services steadily expanding at a rate greater than population growth, there is always more wealth to go around, and the United States can largely ignore the more intricate (some would say intractable) problems of economic distribution.
From a systems perspective, the United States is caught in a cyclical addiction to growth. When economic activity slows and the population demands more jobs, more opportunity—and more wealth—the government responds by enacting fiscal and monetary policies that stimulate undifferentiated economic growth. This is typically done without concern for underlying structural problems that perpetuate externalities and the uneven distribution of wealth. Peter Senge (1994), in his widely embraced managerial guide, The Fifth Discipline, classifies addictions such as the United States’ dependence on growth as “Shifting the Burden.” Senge’s definition of this particular systemic dysfunction matches closely with our nation’s reliance on growth:
An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problem to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem. (p. 104)
A recently passed bill authorizes $787 billion in fiscal stimulus through infrastructure spending, economic assistance payments, and tax cuts (Feller, Thomas and Krisher, 2009). True to Senge’s definition of Shifting the Burden, however, most of this recovery package is in the form of emergency relief from the symptoms of poor economic planning and not a wholesale reformation of the ideas and processes that brought us to such a dire situation. And given the United States’ overwhelming success with imperialism during the last six decades, neither this economic catastrophe nor its ineffectual cure will be limited to the fifty states.
Had not almost the rest of the world adopted the United States’ growth-centric economic policies and linked its financial systems to those of the capitalist champion, the recent financial crisis might have been somewhat contained. However, the American economic model and its chief beneficiaries—multinational corporations—have taken up residence in all of the developed countries and will soon inhabit those few pockets, such as Cuba, that have escaped global capitalism. This widespread adoption of the American way has not resulted in uniformly better conditions. John Perkins (2006), writing in the New York Times bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, summarizes the relationship between flawed economic models and an increasingly hostile world:
Some would blame our current problems on an organized conspiracy. I wish it were so simple. Members of a conspiracy can be rooted out and brought to justice. This system, however, is fueled by something far more dangerous than conspiracy. It is driven not by a small band of men but by a concept that has been accepted as gospel: the idea that all economic growth benefits humankind and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. This belief also has a corollary: that those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation. (p. xv)
As documented by Perkins and other anti-imperialist writers, increased economic growth can often result in a lower standard of living for the people who inhabit “emerging markets.” While people of South America may receive money to lease their lands to loggers, they also lose the ecosystem that has preserved their way of life. And while the people of Asia may receive wages for assembling footwear, they also begin to suffer from repetitive motion injuries and a breakdown of the family structure. In short, the advances brought to undeveloped peoples are always the advances that the system of global capital values. However, development, like revolution, is best when it is organic and internally-motivated.
The forces propelling capitalist ideology are unrelenting, pervasive, and well financed. They work though a variety of channels, individual and communal, conscious and unconscious, to promote uncritical adoption of free-market laissez-faire attitudes. According to Perkins,
In their drive to advance the global empire, corporations, banks, and governments (collectively called the corporatocracy) use their financial and political muscle to ensure that our schools, businesses, and media support both the fallacious concept [all economic growth benefits humankind] and its corollary. (Perkins, 2006, p. xv)
Shadows in the Classroom
Influencing classroom discourse is an essential tactic for those invested in perpetuating the fallacy of universally beneficial economic growth. David George, writing in a 1990 journal article, identifies three attitudes implicit in the discourse of mainstream economics texts but not supported by their transmitted theories: One, government is an intrusive alien; two, taxes are burdensome impositions; and three, inflation is a destroyer of goods. (George implies that there are rhetorically-embedded beliefs other than these, but he has chosen to focus his investigation on these three particular views in his survey of ten texts that account for more than half the market.) The implicit attitudes identified by George can all be associated with conservatism. Therefore, not only are mainstream economics texts bound by limited, analytical models, they also present those models with language that reinforces the worldview of their publishers: limit government involvement, reduce taxes, and prevent a rise in the price level.
A much more recent exposition, by Gilles Raveaud and appearing in Adbusters, not only corroborates George’s findings, but identifies one major economics text—N. Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics—as a blatant bullhorn for the uncritical adoption of fully unregulated capitalism. Raveaud summarizes his take on Mankiw’s text without temperance:
Gregory Mankiw is one of the most effective and talented propagandists of our times. His target: young economics students. But what is most worrisome is that Mankiw’s text presents economics as a unified discipline, entirely committed to the neoliberal agenda. Mankiw believes that markets are the solution to everything – and he would like students to think likewise. According to Mankiw, if a problem persists, it can only be for one of two reasons: the market is imperfect, or it is inexistent. No other explanation for persisting economic or social problems is permitted.
As asserted in the title of Raveaud’s review, “Economic Indoctrination,” presenting economic theories without discussion and debate of either their validity or efficacy is not education, it is brainwashing.
If George’s and Riveaud’s observations are accurate, then the logical follow up would be how are economic textbooks produced? Typically, a college instructor approaches a publisher with an idea for a textbook. Currently, a handful of large publishers (like McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, and Houghton Mifflin) serve most of the US market for secondary and post-secondary economic textbooks. These publishers, which are large growth-centric corporations themselves, evaluate the current market demand for a new text, solicit textbook reviews from a number of current instructors, and then decide whether to develop the new text. Afterwards, a major marketing effort, including winsome sales representatives and full-color mailings, is initiated to promote the textbook’s adoption. As the review and adoption of new texts are both reliant upon current instructors, textbooks tend not to vary much from current economic teaching. In addition, economics texts that deviate from conventional growth-centered attitudes are not necessarily in the interest of the corporate publishers and are derailed early in the evaluative process.
One notable exception, however, to the standard introduction of new texts is Howard Zinn’s (1980) A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s revisionist narrative dispels many myths of American noblesse and exposes the financial motivations behind the United States’ imperialistic policies. A People’s History of the United States is not in the format of textbook; it’s a trade paperback. Consequently, instructors who sought alternatives to the dominant narrative of United States history either added Zinn’s book as an ancillary text to their syllabus or had sufficient academic courage to substitute a trade paperback for a standard text. Today, the average cost of a textbook is nearly $100; Zinn’s paperback is available new for $18.95. It’s readily apparent which type of book the publishers would rather have instructors adopt, yet Zinn’s book has gone on to become an academic mainstay.
Keith Goetzman, writing in Utne Reader, acknowledges the influence of A People’s History, stating it “viewed U.S. history through the eyes of ordinary Americans and punched holes in some of the nation's most enduring myths: that Columbus was a gallant adventurer, for instance, that class and race divisions have largely been swept away, and that most of the country's wars have served the ‘national interest.’" Goetzman goes on to explain how Zinn has worked tirelessly and endured the wrath of many conservative commentators to go from being considered and “agitator from the fringe” to a staple of the history curricula with sales of his work exceeding a million copies. By incorporating other viewpoints into U.S. history, Zinn demonstrated that the national narrative was a multi-perspectivist system subject to the forces of its individual voices. Even if one were to take issue with some of the accounts in A People’s History, he or she would have to admit that the work provided the incentive for many to question the prevailing narrative and generated a much more engaging discussion about how our country came to be what it now is.
While A People’s History provided additional information about the role of market forces in U.S. history, a major “revisionist” economics text is sorely needed. Given that textbooks are currently produced by the very system that an alternative economic text would criticize, it is highly unlikely that such a book would be published by McGraw-Hill, or Prentice Hall, or Houghton Mifflin. Independent presses, which are inherently interested in promoting underrepresented viewpoints and not fixated on appeasing shareholders, are more likely to publish texts that present alternative—and perhaps more viable—economic models. The current financial crisis, as well as other recent unsettling events, may steer more readers towards the independents as they question why the mainstream media left them so unprepared for the turbulence. According to newsperson Lisa Sorg, “The political, social, and economic upheavals of the 21st century -- the 2000 and 2004 U.S. elections, the Iraq war, globalization, sexual identity, environmental degradation, religious fanaticism -- have prompted hungry readers to look beyond corporate publishing houses to such independent, progressive presses as Verso, AK, South End, Haymarket, and Beacon.” Yet a string of thinkers, from Karl Marx to Mahatma Ghandi to Small is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher, have presented compelling alternatives to neoclassical economics—without significantly altering the narrative of traditional economics textbooks.
Shadows in Literature
The perpetuation of economic myths comes not only from textbooks, but also works of fiction, most notably Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged masterfully weaves Rand’s espousal of uninhibited personal ambition into a suspenseful tale about a female railroad magnate, Dagney Taggart, who, while stymied by bureaucracy and cynicism, encounters the mystical John Galt. Galt professes a belief that those who contribute most to society should be rewarded proportionately. While espousing his individualist idealism, Galt leads Dagney to a community of high-producers who have gone on “strike” against the world’s collectivist, and hence defeatist, ways. Thus, Atlas Shrugged presents greed, which had previously been cast as a vice by fictional works such as Upton Sinclair’s (1905) The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s (1940) The Grapes of Wrath, as a virtue. The “greed is good” moral may not have won many more new adherents had Rand’s novel not been such an exquisitely crafted and engrossing book; its characters and storyline are capable of seducing even the strongest adherents of selflessness. Its yearly sales numbers, second only to the Bible, testify to the book’s allure.
Yet Rand’s magnum opus, while highly entertaining, does not hold up to serious philosophical scrutiny. Objectivism, its suggested viewpoint, is much more a theoretical exercise than a valid way for examining the world’s problems. Objectivism maintains that man’s sole purpose is to seek individual happiness through reason and productive work; that might have been an appropriate attitude for the American frontier, but it would hardly prove useful in today’s diverse, highly-interactive global community, which relies more upon communication and collaboration.
Still, many people with a either a rudimentary exposure to economics, or needing a rationale for their own avarice, hold Atlas Shrugged up as some sort of foundational work on finance. Rand’s books have cumulatively sold over 30 million copies. (The Ayn Rand Institute, in a move that contradicts its own stands, provides discounted copies of Rand’s books to professors for distribution to college students [Ayn Rand Institute, 2008].) Rand’s literary works are popular among college students and businesspeople, but her Objectivist philosophy is typically not recognized as a serious system of thought by most academics. Rand’s work and her philosophy have nevertheless influenced many powerful people, including Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. Greenspan was an avowed admirer of Rand’s fiction and a champion of her philosophy; Objectivism therefore directly guided the United States’ monetary policy for most of the last two decades.
The current financial crisis has, however, prompted many to review Greenspan’s previously unassailable performance as the nation’s leading banker. The real estate bubble was fueled by low interest rates and financial deregulation. Greenspan lowered the federal funds rate to 1% following the September 11 attacks and a continued economic slowdown; his efforts to free the market of government oversight were unrelenting. Yet, on October 23, 2008, at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Alan Greenspan testified, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” Not only had “the Maestro” admitted to his own fallibility, but the whole premise of Objectivism, and its associated policy of laissez-faire capitalism, had been offered for slaughter. The path of unfettered individual enterprise had led to widespread economic collapse. One online writer, Jacob Weisberg, deemed the financial collapse the end of such financial libertarianism and suggested its remaining adherents were “intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview […] absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school.”
Ideas can have effects. In the case of economic ideas, those effects can be disastrous. The United States and the nations it has effectively colonized through imperialism have uncritically accepted the tenets of unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism, even though both reasoned thought and experience have shown these policies to consistently lead to economic catastrophe. Our own welfare compels us to examine the economic models we use to describe the financial world and, when necessary, shine light upon the shadows.
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Welcome. It's been nearly five years since George W. Bush invented the Axis of Evil. That America didn't overwhelmingly reject such simultaneously bellicose and immature language coming from our highest elected official is evidence that our democracy is either decayed or distracted. I'm hoping its merely the latter.
These pages, a sample of my first literary experiments and minor publishing successes, might offer sanctuary from the cruel wordplay of these boisterous days. Perhaps they'll shine a cool light upon some of the many beautiful crevices of the American culture. Perhaps they'll reveal one or two of those wondrous trinkets lurking in the back of a dusty cupboard, or in a dank cellar, or at the bottom of a coffee can. Perhaps they'll demonstrate that what is, is not.
And if in some way I cause a subtle shift in consciousness in even one soul, then perhaps this country can awaken, rid itself of its contemptible leadership, and begin to make reparations to the world.