If the Great Recession of 2008 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t detach economic prosperity from moral issues. Greed, imprudent spending by individuals and by government, debt, all of these things brought our economy to where we are today. As I’ve said many times on BreakPoint, our economic collapse is the result of our moral and ethical collapse.
We don’t teach our kids that there are such things as right or wrong, and we wonder why they grow up to cheat and steal.
And the social costs of disintegrating traditional families in terms of crime, divorce, juvenile delinquency, are truly staggering.
You don’t think supporting traditional families — and marriage — matters? Well, then you’ve never been inside a prison, like I have. You haven’t met the thousands of young men and women I have who have told you about their missing fathers or their drugged-out moms.
No society that rejects the moral good can possibly stay solvent. The price tag for moral corruption, as we have learned, is simply too high.
Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed this piece to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up here for the free, weekly email newsletter.
Humility in a Time of Recession
By Samuel Gregg
Since 2008, there has been much discussion about the contribution of unethical behavior to our present economic circumstances. Whether it was borrowers’ lying on mortgage-applications or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s politically-driven lending policies, there seems to be some consciousness that non-economic factors played a role in facilitating what we already call the Great Recession.
Unfortunately evidence is emerging that some people have learned nothing. A recent report, for example, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal illustrates that “losses from mortgage fraud—ranging from falsified credit reports to identity theft—rose 17% last year after declining 57% in the two years after its 2006 peak.”
Of course wider adherence to ethical norms against lying and stealing won’t solve every economic problem. There are heavy technical dimensions to many economic dilemmas which require technical solutions. Nor does every policy-error constitute a moral failure.
Nevertheless those making economic decisions are human beings, and our virtues and vices do shape our purchasing, selling and policy choices. Many such virtues could be highlighted, but one needing extra-attention today is humility.
The word “humility” derives from the Latin humilitas. This in turn comes from humus which means earth or soil, but is also related to homō, meaning man. For the Greeks and Romans, the word underscored the idea that humans are not God or gods. Likewise for the Jews and early Christians, humility was about remembering that humans are fallible creatures who come from and return to the earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some first millennium Christian writers, such as St. John Chrysostom, even described humility as the mother of the virtues, as it prevented vanity from corrupting every other virtue.
So how might a renewed embrace of humility help us to rethink our approach to contemporary economic life?
In the case of consumers, a good dose of humility might well encourage some acceptance that the meaning of life is not simple and is certainly not to be found in how many material things we possess, as important as wealth can be in helping us to live dignified lives. To this extent, greater humility might temper the “I-want-it-all-right-now” mentality that helped generate such high household-debt levels in America and Europe.
Likewise, businesses could benefit from a renewed appreciation of humility. The financial wizard the late Sir John Templeton once wrote that humility was crucial if business was to maintain the open-mindedness that is essential to successful entrepreneurship rather than rest upon their past glories. To this we might add the insight of another prominent entrepreneur, François Michelin, that humility helps business leaders in a market economy remember that the customers are the real masters. More humble business-leaders would also be less-inclined to succumb to the “Masters-of-the-Universe” hubris that helped destroy any number of banks in 2008.
Speaking of hubris, humility also has a role to play in encouraging mainstream economists to accept economics’ limits as a science and acknowledge that not everything about markets can be explained by mathematical models that were supposed to fail only once in a million years. As George Mason University professor of economics Russ Roberts has wisely observed, while “facts and evidence still matter”, economists “should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday.”
But perhaps those who could do with the biggest bout of humility during recessions are politicians and governments. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that governments should admit many economic problems are beyond their control, and that any claim by politicians to be able to “manage” trillion-dollar economies is arrogant nonsense.
Instead politicians should be modest enough to concede that (1) the seemingly disorderly process of market exchange resolves many challenges that governments cannot; and (2) government overreach invariably causes new problems. Here they would do well to read Adam Smith’s famous warning concerning the “man of system” who “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is so often enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”
The fear of the Lord, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom. Contrary to received opinion, this verse has nothing to do with frightening people into religious belief. Instead it reminds each of us that we are not the center of the universe and that the sooner we grasp this, the wiser our choices will be. All of us—consumers, business-leaders, and politicians—need to be sufficiently humble to reassess our actions in a time of recession, acknowledge our errors, and then live out the necessary correctives.
To this extent, the virtue of humility may well be a key to understanding our pre-recessionary past and a way of illuminating our path to a better and more economically-prosperous future.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.
The Italian online daily Ilsussidiario.net recently turned to Rev. Robert A. Sirico with a a couple of key questions about the financial crisis: “So what went wrong with our culture that turned up so badly in our markets? Or were the cause and effect reversed: something went wrong in our markets that turned up badly in our culture?”
Here’s part of the exchange:
Have moral or cultural causes contributed to the financial crisis? If so, what are they?
One could point to a wide variety of moral and cultural failures that precipitated the current financial crisis. These would be the same kind of moral failure that we could find in all of social interactions. A late friend once wisely noted something to the effect that the market would always manifest every vice and virtue that men exhibit in free inter-action, because that is in fact what the market is.
What is different in this case is that through a series of political inducements, people have been tempted to act in ways that they might not have otherwise. In the economic literature this is called “the moral hazard”. Moral hazard takes place when people are unable to see the risks associated with their actions because of some obstruction or distortion by a third party which has introduced an information asymmetry.
This is what happened in the US, which quickly metastasized internationally, in the housing market. Intervention into this market through the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – both of which incidentally were and remain government-sponsored enterprises) essentially induced people to take out loans they could not afford and banks to offer loans to people who did not have a credit history indicating they could repay them. I might also add that a number of Congressmen and Senators saw Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as vehicles for using taxpayers’ money to build up reliable voting constituencies.
Read “The Cultural and Moral Failures that Precipitated the Crash” on Ilsussidiario.net.
As Kishore Jayabalan noted yesterday, the fallacy of “broken windows” is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in discussions of public finance and macroeconomics. Though we are told that government spending and public works have a stimulating effect on economic activity, rarely are the costs of such projects discussed.
Such is the case with several stimulus projects in my own hometown of Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on a list that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Tim Coburn drew up, criticizing wasteful stimulus projects throughout the country:
Their list includes Georgia Tech professors who received federal stimulus funds to understand how jazz, avant-garde art and Indian classical musicians improvise. The report cites an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that describes the $762,372 study, which involves using brain imaging to learn how musicians do their work.
[….] The senators also highlighted a $677,462 research project at Georgia State University to study “why monkeys respond negatively to inequity and unfairness.” Asked about the project, the university sent the AJC a news release from last year that said the research “will hopefully answer questions about the evolution of responses to reward inequality — including those responses in humans.”
Georgia Tech has fired back:
Georgia Tech issued a statement in response, saying such research is “necessary for the long-term economic success of our state and our nation.”
But how can one verify such claims? As Kishore has pointed out, the mere fact that money is being spent is not enough to claim that the economy benefits from such expenditure. The hidden costs of stimulus money are the jobs and services that would have otherwise been funded by the private sector.
In order to actually determine whether an investment is truly beneficial to the economy, one must be able to subject it to the cost-accounting of profit and loss. A product or service that makes losses has consumed resources that could have otherwise been put to more productive uses in the economy. But since government expenditures are funded not through any kind of voluntary market exchange, but through taxation, this kind of mechanism cannot be used to evaluate them.
So we can be pretty sure that stimulus projects, in fact, are not as conducive to economic growth as we have been led to believe, since such projects would probably not withstand the profit-and-loss test of the market.
But this is not to say that funding any of this kind of scientific research is not worthwhile. Activities such as philanthropy and charitable giving do not produce any kind of profitable return, but are nevertheless recognized as noble and praiseworthy. There may be good reasons for funding these projects, but economic growth is not one of them.
The extent and persistence of the global economic and financial crisis has caused many people to start asking if there is any alternative to the current monetary system of fiat money overseen by central banks which enjoy varying — and apparently diminishing — degrees of independence from politicians who seem unable to resist meddling with monetary policy in pursuit of short-term goals (such as their reelection).
Most arguments about the respective merits of fiat money, private money, or the gold standard are couched almost entirely in terms of economic efficiency. Over at Public Discourse, however, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has penned an article outlining the principled case for a return to the classical gold standard. Gregg draws upon economic history and ethical analysis to argue that there is a strong more-than-economic case for the classical gold standard that rarely receives much attention. As Gregg writes:
There were several economic advantages to the gold standard. . . . A number of principled considerations were, however, also operative. The gold standard placed a high premium on economic security by reducing the uncertainty and risk that flows from fluctuations in the value of money that have nothing to do with the relative valuation of different goods and services. . . .
Another commitment at stake was the conviction that stable money meant greater economic prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Greater monetary certainty spurred productivity and investment, not least because many long-term contracts benefited from a confidence that prices would remain relatively constant over time. Then there were the ways in which the gold standard bolstered the economic well-being of particular marginalized groups. Monetary stability helps, for example, those who lack the financial sophistication to navigate the shoals of inflation, or who are on fixed incomes (e.g., the elderly and disabled).
At the same time the gold standard also encouraged governments to promote the common good instead of narrow sectional interests. Within nation-states, for instance, the gold standard diminished opportunities for the state to manipulate monetary policy in order to favor those with an interest in inflationist policies.
Likewise, the gold standard also generated a commitment on the part of governments to promoting the international common good. As the German economist Wilhelm Röpke once wrote, the gold standard relied upon the unwritten agreement of central banks and governments “to behave in matters of monetary and credit policy in such a way that this fixed and free coupling remained an undisputed permanent institution, irrespective of trade fluctuations”. This required central banks and governments to prioritize the global economy’s long-terms needs over the short-term exigencies of national economies. It also entailed a willingness to resist popular pressures to revert to a type of monetary nationalism in the face of the fluctuations in employment and growth sometimes generated by the gold standard’s adjustment mechanisms.
There is, Gregg notes, bound to be considerable opposition to any move away from fiat money. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, politicians, central banks, or Keynesian-inclined economists being very willing to give up a tool that — or so they believe — is a vital element of macroeconomic management. Gregg points out that there are also plenty of groups with a vested interest in the type of easy money policies (what’s euphemistically called “quantitative easing” these days) which are always an option under fiat money regimes.
Despite this opposition, Gregg says that going back to gold is certainly worth a second look — if only because no one seems especially satisfied with the present system.
For more from Gregg on this subject, see The Gold Standard: A Principled Case.
Sell! Sell! Sell!
This week’s Acton Commentary:
Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.
Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.
Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.
Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.
Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”
Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.
Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.
Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.
So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”
Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”
But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.
In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.
This week’s Acton Commentary from Baylor University economics professor John Pisciotta:
Americans have less confidence and trust in government today than at any time since the 1950s. This is the conclusion of the Pew Research Center survey released in mid-April. Just 22 percent expressed trust in government to deliver effective policies almost always or most of the time. With the robust expansion of the economic role of the federal government under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Pew poll is evidence of an opportunity for advocates of freer markets.
That Americans distrust their government is not unadulterated good news. An effective rule of law, one aspect of which is a government that can be trusted to act justly and equitably, is a necessary precondition of the free and virtuous society. Still, in the context of the extraordinary extension of government control in areas such as finance and health care, news of political skepticism offers an opportunity for those who recognize that both the moral and economic wellbeing of our nation depends more on the health of individuals, families, and other institutions than on the engineering of bureaucrats. The apostle Peter advised Christians to “always be ready to give an answer” to those who ask for “a reason of the hope that is in you” (I Pt 3:15). This advice is relevant for defenders of private sector reliance. We must not merely repeat slogans regarding private enterprise. We must express the reasons why we defend decentralized, voluntary organization of our economy over centralized control. Here are my top 10 reasons, in reverse order, for the hope that is within me.
10. Difference in competition. Competition is at work in both government and private markets, but the competition in markets is more civil and evenhanded. Business competition is similar to golf. Each competitor works to improve his own performance. Political competition—between parties, between candidates for office, and among legislators—is more like basketball. While a competitor works to elevate his own game, participants also attempt to undercut, debilitate, and intimidate opponents. It is common to see political advertising that is hostile, even to the extent of lying about the opponent. Combative ads are the exception in business appeals to consumers.
9. Enterprise expansion. In private markets, a business venture has to be profitable to expand, whereas expansion is “in the DNA” of government ventures and programs. Program beneficiaries and bureaucratic suppliers work in collaboration with elected politicians to expand particular government programs. The basic idea is this: If a government program is good, an expanded program would be even better.
Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg is quoted in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial on Goldman Sachs:
The most shocking moment in Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Goldman Sachs wasn’t Sen. Carl Levin’s repeated use of the big investment house’s scatological description of its own dubious offerings.
No, it was when one of Goldman’s high cluckety-clucks actually said that it has no ethical responsibility to tell clients that it is betting against the same investments it recommends.
That really is (expletive deleted).
Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute reminded in 2008 that it wasn’t merely loose monetary policy, massive bank overleveraging, the subprime mortgage implosion and government-backed social re-engineering programs that landed the economy in a pickle.
“(I)f the current financial upheaval teaches us anything, it should be how much market capitalism depends upon most people developing and adhering to some rather uncontroversial moral virtues.”
We are learning the hard way that “prudence, temperance, thrift, promise-keeping, honesty and humility — not to mention a willingness not to do to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us — can’t be optional-extras in communities that value economic freedom,” says Dr. Gregg.
“If markets are going to work and appropriate limits on government power maintained, then society requires reserves of moral capital,” he adds.
It’s clear the financial sector has lots of work to do.
The Gregg quote is drawn from his October 2008 Acton commentary, “No Morality, No Markets.”