Category: Business and Society

Blog author: johnteevan
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
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I was reading an essay that I found in an old book I bought in Vermont. Dr H.J. Laski (Oxford and Yale) wrote, “The less obvious the differences between men in the gain of living, the greater the bond of fellowship between them.” In other words the less we talk about differences between the rich and poor, the better we will all like each other and get along. In the Depression which began as he was writing, nearly everyone was poor.

Those more cheerful days of fellowship ended with Michael Harrington’s The Other America written in 1962. Harrington described and defined the poor in America not as the lower working class (think coal miners back then) or as ghetto dwellers, but as The Poor. We declared a $7 trillion War on Poverty during 1960s, apparently with no adequate outcome as we still have 48 million people poor enough to be on food stamps.

The “bond of fellowship” has little chance today as it faces a daily reminder that the rich are very rich and that they are a sort of enemy of the poor. If the rich, the argument goes, would give up a small fraction of their immense profits or wealth then the poor would all be earning a “living wage.” That’s the energy behind the talk now of the $15/hr minimum wage.

KOPPITZ 0010Reading this profile of UPS’s “Mr. Peak,” Scott Abell, is an enlightening exercise, particularly after the close of this holiday season. Mr. Peak is the guy in charge of making sure that the thing you ordered the Friday before Christmas gets there by Christmas Eve. Or as Devin Leonard puts it, “It’s become so easy for people to shop via computers and smartphones that they frequently delay their purchases until the last minute. Mr. Peak’s job, in effect, is to fulfill the Internet’s promise of instant gratification.”

In my Christmas commentary, I wondered about what a civilization organized around the principle of instant gratification might look like. It wasn’t a pretty picture: “A society that sows the gratification of its material desires everywhere and always, without limitations of rest or Sabbath, will reap a harvest of barbaric sensualism.”

If the Internet promises instant gratification, is the world wide web a force for barbarism rather than civilization? No, but perhaps only if we are willing and able to adjust our expectations. The civilized thing to do might be to order your Christmas presents with more than a few hours to spare. It would certainly make life a bit easier on Mr. Peak. He had a pretty rough season this year.

Mr. Peak “tries to get his family to avoid Internet shopping altogether after Thanksgiving. ‘I’m not going to tell them not to shop,’ he says. ‘But I tell them that they should do it early. Early’s better.'”
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The following is a letter written in response to a post from my friend Brad Littlejohn on the topic of the minimum wage

Dear Brad,

Thank you for your thoughtful and substantive engagement on the question of the minimum wage. I don’t think the conversation we had on Twitter earlier did justice to your work here, so I’m offering this response in hopes of furthering the conversation. I hope you find it fruitful. I certainly have. I should also note that I have been assuming the context of policy proposals to increase the minimum wage at the federal level in the United States. There are certainly aspects of what we’re discussing that apply to a greater or lesser extent in other contexts and at other levels of government, but at the level of individual states, for instance, the stakes are somewhat reduced and ameliorated by the realities of federalism.

You write that you “want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.” I have significant concerns with equating someone’s worth with the economic value of their labor in the marketplace. I do not argue that the laborer is only worth his or her productive work. I argue that a worker’s work is only valuable in a market setting insofar as someone is willing to pay for it. I agree that there is a subjective element to work that is in some ways intimately identified with and inseparable from the person doing the working. But I do maintain that the worker and the work can, and indeed must, be distinguished. Perhaps what we disagree about is that you think the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person is valued. I think that the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person’s work is useful to others.
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Related to some recent discussions about the market for Christmas trees, an irreducibly commercial aspect of the holiday, I ran across this delightful post about a little-known poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.”

In this piece, Eliot introduces the Christmas tree as a source of wonder for children, a source which can be cultivated into maturity so that at the end of times the fullness of the Christmas message might be harvested. As Maria Popova introduces the verses, they “speak to a very secular concern: our struggle to hold on to our inborn capacity for wonder, that same essential faculty that fuels both science and spirituality.”

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Thus, for Eliot, as the poem opens,

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder…

Read the rest at “T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.'”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 27, 2013
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keep-calm-and-christmas-on-169In this week’s commentary, I examine the link between delayed gratification and civilization. I use the image of children waking up on Christmas morning to a cornucopia of presents under the tree. But for many this year, the delivery of presents was delayed.

Ray Hennessey writes over at Entrepreneur that our consumption habits and expectations, which exemplify an ethic of instant gratification, have a lot to do with delivery failure. As he writes, there is plenty of blame to go around, but the buck stops, so to speak, with we the buyers: “consumers taking to Twitter and Facebook claiming the shipping giants are modern-day Grinches should spend a moment this Boxing Day examining what role their own habits had in stopping Christmas from coming.”

My advice if your presents didn’t arrive by Christmas morning? Keep calm and Christmas on. There are, after all, a whole eleven days after Christmas morning to continue the celebration!

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, December 26, 2013
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utopiaShannon Love reminds us that what great-great-grandparents would consider utopia is what we consider modern life:

Star Trek is often used as a starting point for musing about this or that utopia because everything in Star Trek seems so wonderful. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of New Frontier democratic socialism evolved to a utopia so perfect that individuals have to head out into the wilds of deep space just to find some adventure. Watching Star Trek, one naturally begins to wonder what it would be like to live in a world so advanced that all of the problems we deal with today have been resolved or minimized to insignificance.

Well, we don’t actually have to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek-like, radically egalitarian, technologically advanced, “post-scarcity” society because we live in a Star Trek-like utopia right now, right here, in contemporary America.

How can I say that? Simple, Star Trek the Next Generation takes place 353 years in the future from 2364 to 2370. If we were to think of ourselves as living in a futuristic science-fiction society we would likewise look back 353 years in the past to 1658.

Image what modern America would look like to the people of any of the world’s major cultures back in 1658! Any novel, movie, TV or comic book set in day-to-day middle-class America would read like astounding science fiction to anyone from 1658. Our society looks even more utopian in comparison to 1658 than Star Trek world 2370 looks to us today.

I’m not just talking about all the amazing and frightening technology like nuclear power/weapons, spacecraft, cars, cell phones, computers, the Internet, etc. I’m also talking about issues of want, individual dignity and social/political equality.

Read more . . .

Blog author: jcarter
Friday, December 20, 2013
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[Note: A version of this article ran last year around Christmastime. I'm posting it again because I love talking about Frank Capra and everyone else seems to love talking about Ayn Rand.]

Frank Capra and Ayn Rand are two names not often mentioned together. Yet the cheery director of Capra-corn and the dour novelist who created Objectivism have more in common than you might imagine. Both were immigrants who made their names in Hollywood. Both were screenwriters and employees of the film studio RKO Pictures. And during the last half of the 1940s, both created works of enduring cult appeal, Capra with his film It’s a Wonderful Life and Rand with her novel The Fountainhead.

The pair also created two of the most memorable characters in modern pop culture: Howard Roark and George Bailey. To anyone familiar with both works, it would seem the two characters could not be more different. Unexpected similarities emerge, however, when one considers that Roark and Bailey are variations on a common archetype that has captured the American imagination for decades.

Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s book, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, George Bailey, the hero of Capra’s film, is an idealistic young would-be architect who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in his hometown of Bedford Falls.
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Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 20, 2013
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Newburgh, ME Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm1

A couple of further points in reply to Micah Mattix’s response on buying Christmas trees, based on his original post here.

1) I think Mattix’s characterization of the buyer as “selfish” goes a bit too far, and is not an accurate characterization of a good deal of market activity. “Self-interested” would be more accurate, and would allow for selfish actors, but would also allow more generally for benevolent actors. For instance, a nun who runs an orphanage has decided that her wards need spiritual as well as material sustenance, and has allotted a portion of the budget to purchase a live Christmas tree. But for every dollar she spends on the tree, one less bowl of gruel will be served. Is she acting selfishly if she gets the best deal on a tree that she can get? She may not be regarding the interests of the seller on the same level as her own (which include the interests of her wards), but it seems to bias the discussion too much to simply describe all the players involved as necessarily selfish. The same would apply mutatis mutandis to the father providing a tree for his family. In fact, buying a Christmas tree is usually a pretty unselfish activity.

2) Related to the above point, and developing it a bit further, certainly the buyer ought view the seller as someone to whom he or she has moral obligations. But to expect the seller to haggle up seems wrong. Perhaps the seller is perpetuating injustice by simply trying to sell trees even at a loss. Perhaps like the poet in Frost’s work they would be better off doing something else with them besides dumping. But they key here is that the buyer and the seller are in the best position to judge for themselves. It should also be noted that the tree seller isn’t just selling a single tree. Earlier sales of higher priced trees may subsidize and offset the costs of selling later trees at a discount. Mattix largely seems to want to argue for conscientious consumption, and I am all in favor of that. Let your conscience be your guide, and let your conscience be informed. But all too often things move beyond this to legislation of some kind of baseline. I realize that Mattix is not arguing for this, but the dangers of a mandated price floor for Christmas trees should be apparent.

3) We do agree “that a market economy is a good system that takes into consideration certain truths about human nature” and we also agree, as Mattix concludes, “that as a buyer price should always be the only determining factor.” I am certainly not defending an ideal of perfect prices. Prices are not perfect, and they are not sacrosanct. But they are often the best device we have for sorting out all of the complex realities that lie behind market transactions. The dynamic of this issue shares similarities with the disputes over fast food as well as, more broadly, the debates over fair trade. Here’s how Victor Claar sums things up, and I’ll close with this thought: “If you purchase ‘fair trade,’ buy it because you like the good or the service. Do not do it out of mere charity. Instead, give generously to charities that you know are effectively working for human rights, development of human and physical capital, and opportunities for the poor to discover increasingly valuable ways to serve others in the global marketplace.” Otherwise you might just be helping perpetuate the poverty-trap of Christmas tree sales.

Concepts you should know about explained in five minutes (or less).

Leo Linbeck III, President and CEO of Aquinas Companies, provides an explanation of competitive federalism and how competition and governance relate in society.

See also:

5 Minute Explainer: Subsidiarity

351px-Ballot1_227c8The phrase “Separation of Church and State” is not in the language of the First Amendment, and the concept was not favored by any influential framer at the time the Bill of Rights was drafted. So how did it become part of the jurisprudence surrounding the First Amendment?

As Jim Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern, explains, the Ku Klux Klan had something to do with it . . .

7. The first mainstream figures to favor separation after the first amendment was adopted were Jefferson supporters in the 1800 election, who were trying to silence Northern clergy critical of the immoral Jeffersonian slaveholders in the South.

8. After the Civil War, liberal Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment to add separation of church and state to the US Constitution by amendment, since it was not already there. After that effort failed, influential people began arguing that it was (magically) in the first amendment.

9. In the last part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, nativists (including the KKK) popularized separation as an American constitutional principle, eventually leading to a near consensus supporting some form of separation.

10. Separation was a crucial part of the KKK’s jurisprudential agenda. It was included in the Klansman’s Creed (or was it the Klansman’s Kreed?). Before he joined the Court, Justice Black was head of new members for the largest Klan cell in the South. New members of the KKK had to pledge their allegiance to the “eternal separation of Church and State.” In 1947, Black was the author of Everson, the first Supreme Court case to hold that the first amendment’s establishment clause requires separation of church & state. The suit in Everson was brought by an organization that at various times had ties to the KKK.

11. Until this term, the justices were moving away from the separation metaphor, often failing to mention it except in the titles of cited law review articles, but in the last term of the Court they fell back to using it again.

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