Saturday, July 22, 2017

Economists need to be honest and open about the racist origins of the ideas they champion

There is some scientific data, generated by Nazi’s, gained by experimenting on and torturing Jewish victims during the holocaust. Some of this data has been found to be useful to modern scientists, particularly studies on human exposure to freezing temperatures. Some of this data may save lives, but the ethics of using such data is difficult.

From the Jewish Virtual Library:

“Absolute censorship of the Nazi data does not seem proper, especially when the secrets of saving lives may lie solely in its contents. Society must decide on its use by correctly understanding the exact benefits to be gained. When the value of the Nazi data is of great value to humanity, then the morally appropriate policy would be to utilize the data, while explicitly condemning the atrocities. But the data should not be used just with a single disclaimer. To further justify its use, the scientific validity of the experiment must be clear; there must be no other alternative source from which to gain that information, and the capacity to save lives must be evident.

“Once a decision to use the data has been made, experts suggest that it must not be included as ordinary scientific research, just to be cited and placed in a medical journal. I agree with author Robert J. Lifton who suggested that citation of the data must contain a thorough exposé of exactly what tortures and atrocities were committed for that experiment. Citations of the Nazi data must be accompanied with the author's condemnation of the data as a lesson in horror and as a moral aberration in medical science. The author who chooses to use the Nazi data must be prepared to expose the Nazi doctors' immoral experiments as medical evil, never to be repeated.”

I wonder why the same criteria is not applied to economics.

We know that much of what we now understand about property right theory was developed out of American and European slavery, an evil on par with the Holocaust. We know that arguments for education vouchers were developed in Virginia in response to the desegregation of schools under Brown v Board of Education.

Why aren’t economists required to use such economic ideas only with “a thorough exposé of exactly what tortures and atrocities were committed” under slavery or Jim Crow? Why are economists allowed to couched their idea in neutral sounding, race-free verbiage, free of the moral evils that sparked such ideas?

Two thoughts occur:

1. Economics, as routinely practiced, is not a science.

2. Economics, as routinely practiced, is a worldview being defended by those who benefit from it most at great expense and without care for consequences or morality.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Humanistic Journalism is about people, not politicians

Larry Crudup
One way we can better practice humanistic journalism is to orient our coverage towards what is most important. A story I did almost two years ago illustrates this point, I think. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH) had a press conference to announce the opening of a new building, Veterans for Tomorrow, located in Providence.

On hand were a host of important political dignitaries: The Governor of Rhode Island, both Rhode Island Senators and both Rhode Island Representatives. The politicians were there to take appropriate (or maybe inappropriate) credit for helping to get these new housing units funded and built in the state. Politicians love to be known as caring for veterans: It’s great press.

But was "politicians take credit for helping homeless vets" really the story?

Wasn’t the story really about Larry Crudup, a homeless veteran who served ten years in the United States Army and ten additional years in the Army Reserves? A man who fell on hard times and became homeless and now, for the first time in a long time, actually had a safe and private place to call home?

“When I first saw the room,” said Larry Crudup, “I fell in love with it.”

For this story I didn't include any of the boilerplate comments from the assembled politicians. I noted their presence, but I concentrated on the words and emotions of Larry Crudup, a man who finally received the home he so richly deserved. (After all, everyone deserves a home.) To my mind, the story was: powerful economic forces prioritized almost everything over the plight of Larry Crudup, until one day, against all odds, Larry Crudup's housing needs were properly addressed.

I didn't quite get that story, but I got a small piece of it. And the small piece I got was so much better than the banal comments of politicians, however heroic their efforts might have been in securing funding for such a facility. When we point our cameras at politicians we'll hear about politics, economics and hard realities. When we point our cameras at people in need, we'll hear about love.

The star of our stories doesn't have to be the highest ranking elected official with something "important" to say. It can be Larry Crudup, talking about falling in love.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unmaking the Manifesto: Humanism and Economics

The various incarnations of the Humanist Manifesto stand as contemporary assessments of the current state of Humanism by some of the bests minds our movement had to offer. The manifestos seek to simultaneously define the present and speculate as to the future of Humanist thought. As human creations, the Manifestos are works in progress; they can never be perfect articulations of Humanism, they are instead the best approximations currently possible.

When the first Humanist Manifesto was written in 1932, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. The capitalist economic system was broken, and millions of people suffered the after effects of an economy where too few owned too much and the inherent failings of capitalism went unrecognized with disastrous results. The forward looking writers of Manifesto I were living in a culture of failed capitalism, so Article 14 is an unabashed call for some sort of socialist alternative, (indeed, the very use of the word "Manifesto" summoned thoughts of Karl Marx and socialism in most minds) reading,
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.

Flash forward forty years, and a socialized and cooperative economic order is no where to be found. Instead, western style capitalism was rescued by adopting Keynesian fixes, and the Soviet Union was mired in a slowly dying experiment with communism. In 1973 the United States and the USSR were locked in a cold war, and the competing systems of democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism presented the world with a false choice. Seeing this, the writers of Manifesto II included the following line in its preface, “Purely economic and political viewpoints, whether capitalist or communist, often function as religious and ideological dogma.”

Having rejected the false choice on offer from the competing world superpowers, the economic and political focus of Manifesto II seems to be on social democracy, with an emphasis on Keynesian economics and strong social safety nets. For instance, Article 8 says,
We are committed to an open and democratic society. We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations. Decision-making must be decentralized to include widespread involvement of people at all levels - social, political, and economic.
Article 10 is even more pointed, reading,
Humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups, minimize poverty and hardship, increase the sum of human satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life. Hence the door is open to alternative economic systems. We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good.
This is a smart, forward thinking and Humanist approach to economics. Systems of resource distribution should be judged on their ability to enhance human well-being, not on ideas such as growth or profits. Leaving the door open to “alternative economic systems” is scientific common sense and an acknowledgment that the future may be very different and that a new economic perspective might be needed.

Article 15 of Manifesto II is a call or more cooperation between governments, and possibly a call for a world governing body, a simultaneously pragmatic and utopian idea in 1973. Article 15 also addresses the problems inherent in Capitalism, such as rising wealth inequality, forthrightly enough, anticipating Thomas Piketty, and other modern critics of capitalism, saying,
World poverty must cease. Hence extreme disproportions in wealth, income, and economic growth should be reduced on a worldwide basis.

By 2003 Capitalism was in ascendance, and had reached its peak in terms of human utility. Over a decade had passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of history’s end, so the revised Humanist Manifesto III paid little attention to the previous calls for socialist revolution or economic reform. Instead, it made a far weaker claim, reading,
...we support a just distribution of nature's resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Putting aside the diminished expectations in focusing on "as many as possible" versus "all individuals and groups," Manifesto III leaves open the definition of the term “just distribution.” This is in part because this document was supposed to be shorter, it’s length pre-planned to “fit on one page” as one of the Manifesto writers once told me. But it occurs to me that the lack of a specific economic agenda also served to minimize the disagreements in Humanist thought between those of a libertarian or objectivist inclination and those with socialist or anarchist leanings. “Just distribution,” after all, is an almost meaningless phrase that can be championed by Objectivists and socialists alike to describe the effect of their economic theories.

This is how neoliberalism, or free market radicalism, corrupted Humanism. Not by defeating the arguments for socialist democracy or Keynesian capitalism, but by throwing the entire idea of a Humanist approach to economics into doubt. Crank economist Milton Friedman had hoodwinked a generation into wealth inequality and endless war, and instead of confronting this growing form of anti-humanism head on, Humanists attempted to reconcile with it by leaving the economic question open and abandoning an earlier, powerful commitment to social and economic justice through heavily regulated capitalism or socialism.

In the current world of imminent economic and ecological collapse, the lack of a coherent Humanist economic philosophy in Manifesto III has left Manifestos I and II as our best official statements on economics. I look forward to Manifesto IV (2033?) for a fuller, more grounded and more Humanist approach to resource distribution, but in the meantime our articulated economic philosophy dates from 1973.

This means that unfortunately, given our current crisis, mainstream Humanism has little to offer in terms of economic wisdom, and this is a shame because even in 2003, the weak and unscientific philosophical underpinnings of neoliberalism were obvious, and this could have been avoided.