That Wasn't Capitalism

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

In a Forbes piece on California's "Third Brown Era," Joel Kotkin paints the following portrait of Edmund "Pat" Brown, father of that state's current governor.

Pat Brown was a committed progressive who actually believed in both social and economic progress. He did not focus on re-distributing wealth or expanding bureaucratic controls; his priority was to use government to help generate greater opportunities for Californians.
Really?

Kotkin contradicts his claim that the elder Brown did not redistribute wealth or expand his state's bureaucracy in the very next paragraph!
Under Pat roughly 20% of the state budget was devoted to capital outlays. He expanded wealth creating infrastructure such as freeways and the State Water Project, which created vast expanses of new, highly fertile farmland. He also increased the state’s parklands so that middle-class Californians could enjoy the state’s unmatched natural beauty.
This may be Kotkin's idea of contrasting father and son, but I'm either seeing a blank page or a polar bear sleeping in the snow here.

Using state money for "capital outlays" unrelated to the proper purpose of government -- and such improper outlays include such things as highways, schools, and parks -- is a form redistribution of wealth to the extent that such money comes from taxation, and the state running (or supervising) any given sector of the economy necessarily entails a government bureaucracy. That the recipients of the loot aren't all darlings of the left does not alter those facts.

Our recent election results indicate that the American people are not comfortable with the government confiscating our wealth or running our economy. But to get that monkey off our backs, we have to be very clear about the exact nature of the problem. The last thing we need to do now is bless off the above laying-of-groundwork for massive government expansion as economic freedom -- any more than we should be fooled by mere changes in the form of government control, such as many that are passed off as "privatization."

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Corrected a typo.

19 comments:

Andrew Dalton said...

This reminds me of the recent David Brooks column:

"The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does."

This sounds good so far. But just when you think that David Brooks finally gets it, he, true to form, doesn't get it:

"The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?"

Gah!

kelleyn said...

Unfortunately, the clarification that you call for seems unlikely to happen here. I hear people constantly complain about our politicians, but when I try to explain that handing them the power to run our economy and our lives only encourages them, they glaze over. The assumption that government shapes the world is so ingrained that people aren't even aware they're making it.

(p.s. Sorry if this is the nth submission--my Google account is acting strangely.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Andrew,

For some odd reason, it seems oddly apropos to respond to your last as if I were still in the Navy: "Gah, aye!"

kelleyn,

That's a huge problem. In the sense that some people can't (or won't) consider a radical alternative, there's nothing you can do. But in the sense you can reach others (or help stop the ones you can't reach), doing what you can when you can to hone your message and get it out to as many different people as you can can work wonders.

Gus

Jason said...

It's funny you mention that David Brooks column Andrew; I read it this morning and was thinking of briefly mentioning it on my blog. Though he's an explicit collectivist and statist, I generally like reading his writing for its intellectual substance.

For example, from the editorial:
"This hasn’t been a case of government corrupting capitalism or vice versa. The two have worked hand-in-hand. The government has erected a welfare state that, as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has pointed out, spends vast amounts on consumption (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest on the debt) and much less on investment (education, research, infrastructure), while pushing the costs on future generations. Meanwhile, the private sector has encouraged a huge increase in personal debt to fuel a consumption bubble. The geniuses flock to finance, not industry."

The latter part about the private sector and finance can be meant to mean the culture is one of short-term whimsical gratification devoid of value-achievement. Though he doesn't have the correct terminology or explicit ideas at all, he usually implies solid insights.

This is compared to the typical editorial by any stock conservative or liberal, like Bob Herbert's thoughtless remark in his NYT editorial today ("Get Ready For a G.O.P. Rerun") of "[Republicans] are about making the rich richer." I don't care for conservatives at all, and think they are actually much worse even on a sense of life level than most liberals, but Herbert's droning simple-minded conservative-styled type of analysis is devoid of intellectual substance.

If people took to the smart, calm, methodical *method* of Brooks's writing, we'd live in a much better society.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are reading into Brooks what you want to see.

While it is true that our culture is riddled with ideas that encourage short-term gratification, the contrast Brooks is drawing is between the government (aka the public sector) and capitalism (aka the private sector). Brooks plainly blames capitalism for encouraging whim-worship. If he meant to say otherwise, he does have at least some of the terminology: He could just say something like, "The culture encourages short-range thinking." You don't need to read Rand to come up with that.

Furthermore, Brooks is missing the government's role in encouraging irresponsible consumption: What has the Fed been doing all this time by artificially setting interest rates to near-zero?

Jason said...

I think this is too long for Blogger to allow as one comment, so I’m splitting this into two.
Part 1:

Gus,
My point is that sense of life trumps one's explicit ideas, and that Brooks has a pretty good sense of life as reflected in his writing, which makes it worthwhile.

Some more brief evidence from the column of Brooks's concern with big ideas, human philosophy and psychology, and moral issues:

"National destinies are not shaped by what percentage of G.D.P. federal spending consumes. They are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens. The crucial issue is not whether the federal government takes up 19 percent or 23 percent of national income. The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?"

And:

"The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does. The budgeteers and the technicians may not like it, but it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most."

As a contrast, yesterday, I was briefly listening to Sean Hannity on the radio and for at least ten to fifteen minutes the most in-depth point he and his guests could make is that general spending cuts, tax cuts, holiday sales, and vague, unspecific, undefined "limited government" spur economic growth. Intellectually, this does not even scratch the surface of the political and cultural issues involved.

That being said, there is some value to even his (Hannity's) program, but Brooks's approach to political issues is exponentially more valuable and actually does much more to *implicitly* advance freedom and capitalism even if he explicitly paints these as problematic and needing to be tempered.

Jason said...

Part 2:

Brooks's previous column "The Arena Culture" (Dec. 30, 2010) is another good example of his sophisticated, smart, moralistic (in a benevolent, serious, subtle way) sense of life. Even though his explicit anti-individualism and mysticism is completely wrong, the manner/method in which he describes things is good, intellectually astute, and compelling.

From the column (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/opinion/31brooks.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss):

"Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.

I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies."

Gus Van Horn said...

If, as you hold, "sense of life trumps .. explicit ideas," then why isn't America a capitalist paradise. Indeed, why did it ever sway from being one when the sense of life of most of its citizens was far more benevolent than it is now?

Obviously, I disagree with your notion that Brooks can advance freedom on a consistent basis (if at all), given his explicit ideas. In fact, if Brooks is as benevolent as you hold, that would potentially make him very dangerous -- by being able to make very bad ideas appealing to the people most in need of good ones.

Jason said...

The short answer is that Americans (or any culture in human history for that matter) never had a great sense of life.

If they had, during the founding of the country, one example of it would have been that they would have immediately abolished slavery. That may have led to a civil war just after the founding, or if such a policy was pursued during the revolution, a lesser amount of the populace available and willing to fight against the British monarchy, and a much more hectic and disorderly revolt. There would be political risks involved in such a policy, but that's what a great sense of life would have brought about. Or, the political and intellectual leaders would have been able to convince the populace to give up slavery.

As another example, just to stick with the founding era, if they had a great sense of lie, some much better philosophy (something resembling Objectivism, but somewhat less developed though still very good overall) would have been developed around the time.

The intense focus on politics and business to the neglect of philosophy and art (especially literature) is evidence to the sub par sense of life of the time. No matter the political conditions, a culture with that great sense of life pours just as much if not more effort into philosophy and art as it does into politics. The founding Americans failed on this account because their sense of life was not good enough.

Of course, the founding American political and intellectual leaders and Americans during that time in general had some legitimate and significant merits for us to admire, but it was hardly enough.

To point to one example of good-but-largely-falling-short Enlightenment art, there's "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo. I very much like this novel, but it largely lacks the intense characterization specificity and pinpoint, thrilling plot coherence that is evident in even the worst crime thrillers today.

Great art presents complex characterization crafted into a gripping, logical progression of events. "Les Mis" falls way short on characterization. Plus, if a great sense of life did exist, this type of esthetic theory would have been developed and spread during the time, and it was not.

Jason said...

One thing to correct. Regarding that last sentence, about developing esthetic theory; I meant something different; they would need philosophy to develop the esthetic theory, though as I said, they should have largely developed philosophy.

Michael said...

rational philosophy trumps sense of life every time. As far as brooks is concerned he is a big government conservative and just as bad as paul krugman is. I don't waste anytime reading his irrationalities such as this one:

Gus Van Horn said...

Jason,

First, you say that sense of life trumps explicit ideas, and then, on the basis that the early Americans didn't abolish slavery, you claim that they didn't have a great sense of life. That's a circular argument, and your example, if anything, is better for my point in favor of explicit ideas. (And, on top of that, my same question applies equally well to the ancient Greeks -- or do you think they also had a bad sense of life? Why didn't they advance further? Why aren't we all toga-clad and speaking that beautiful language today?)

Many people in that era did not see Africans as fully human, and so did not think they deserved equality. Others saw that so many people had such opinions (or were concerned about simply freeing people they thought ill-prepared for freedom en masse) and did not think the time ripe for doing so.

Gus

Jason said...

To show two radically different senses of life of people with the same basic ideas (and how sense of life defines them), I direct you to glance at two videos that showcase the person's sense of life. One is of Dick Cheney. The other is of George Bush. These videos are completely typical of their personalities.

Cheney:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayN7vKhqTWo

Bush:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ2-1IcVCEw

They hold the same basic explicit ideas, but Cheney comes across as mentally sharp, methodical, genuine, calm and quietly confident and firm in his convictions, and as a serious thinker. Bush, on the other hand, comes off as going through the motions of stock phrases, not sharp or intensely focused, phony and folksy like a gameshow host--he does not look stupid, he just does not come off as intensely active-minded in the way that Cheney does.

People should be primarily distinguished by their sense of life, not by their explicit ideas. Cheney is the type of person I'd like to surround myself with. Plus, we are much more likely to change a person like Chaney's ideas by recognizing his sense of life. In a way, his mannerisms remind me of Rearden.

People like Bush are followers and don't have original thoughts. People like Cheney, even if their ideas are wrong, are the stronger types who have more to offer culturally and personally.

If the person is a writer or professional intellectual, like David Brooks, one should praise and advocate his work even if it is ideologically incorrect, which you can point out in your recommendation. In the case of public figures, I think much more cultural progress is made by you working and allying with him (the person with the better sense of life) rather than someone who superficially mouths better ideas without depth (e.g., Bush). Plus, that person with the better sense of life is much more likely to improve his ideas by you allying with him to some extent. It's more difficult to do and requires a lot of maturity, but much more rewarding and productive in terms of cultural change.

The best sense of life people need to recognized and rewarded, not lumped in with the mediocre people who happen to hold their same bad explicit ideas.

Andrew Dalton said...

Jason-

You are being fooled by all of the non-essential aspects of David Brooks' writing, while missing the substance. Ideas matter, a lot. Brooks is an anti-conceptual, anti-morality, anti-rights pragmatist.

I recommend the recent book by Yaron Brook and C. Bradley Thompson, Neoconservatism: an Obituary for an Idea for lots of quotes showing just how bad David Brooks is.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are making absolutely no sense here.

If, as you assert, "People should be primarily distinguished by their sense of life, not by their explicit ideas," then why bother to, "change [their] ideas?"

Regarding the following:

"If the person is a writer or professional intellectual, like David Brooks, one should praise and advocate his work even if it is ideologically incorrect..."

Nope. I'm not going to promote something I know to be wrong just because the person gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. I've already discussed why in an earlier response to one of your other comments.

You are seriously mistaken about the relationship between abstract ideas and reality, both in terms of how one determines whether such ideas are true, and in terms of how one uses such ideas to survive in the real world.

Jason said...

Sense of life basically determines one's manner, or method of thought, which in writing means ones style. Here's a brief excerpt from Rand's "The Romantic Manifesto" on style (i.e, method) in artwork (which can be applied to non-fiction writing and a person's intellectual and creative work in general), which explains why I care so much about it:

"Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision--a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity--a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man's consciousness and demands its constant functioning.

...Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings in Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism." Pg. 31, Ch.3, "Art and Sense of Life."

And a brief point on the importance of style in non-fiction writing, from Rand's "The Art of Nonfiction":

"Colorful writing is important. It makes your thought clearer and more dramatic, and therefore has both an intellectual and emotional appeal to the reader." Pg. 106, Ch. 8, "Style."

I find writings like David Brooks's and Thomas Friedman's, and media like Slate Political Gabfest podcast, the Dennis Miller show, and NPR, to generally be of a much much greater intellectual precision and to deal with more complex cultural issues and ideas. It is their relatively complex and clear style that I am responding to.

Though, ironically, it's media like Limbaugh, Hannity, Pajamas Media, Forbes, etc.--i.e., the ones who give dull, vague, unspecific lip service to good ideas--that I do occasionally turn to for that more recreational or entertaining so-called "warm and fuzzy" feeling.

Jason said...

Not sure if it went through; it said it was too large, so I'm gonna split my comment into two. If the first big one comes in, you can leave out the next two split ones.

Part 1:

Sense of life basically determines one's manner, or method of thought, which in writing means ones style. Here's a brief excerpt from Rand's "The Romantic Manifesto" on style (i.e, method) in artwork (which can be applied to non-fiction writing and a person's intellectual and creative work in general), which explains why I care so much about it:

"Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision--a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity--a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man's consciousness and demands its constant functioning.

...Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings in Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism." Pg. 31, Ch.3, "Art and Sense of Life."

Jason said...

Part 2:

And a brief point on the importance of style in non-fiction writing, from Rand's "The Art of Nonfiction":

"Colorful writing is important. It makes your thought clearer and more dramatic, and therefore has both an intellectual and emotional appeal to the reader." Pg. 106, Ch. 8, "Style."

I find writings like David Brooks's and Thomas Friedman's, and media like Slate Political Gabfest podcast, the Dennis Miller show, and NPR, to generally be of a much much greater intellectual precision and to deal with more complex cultural issues and ideas. It is their relatively complex and clear style that I am responding to.

Though, ironically, it's media like Limbaugh, Hannity, Pajamas Media, Forbes, etc.--i.e., the ones who give dull, vague, unspecific lip service to good ideas--that I do occasionally turn to for that more recreational or entertaining so-called "warm and fuzzy" feeling.

Gus Van Horn said...

Jason,

Andrew Dalton makes an excellent couple of points in his second comment, which I recommend you read.

In addition to his contention that you are "being fooled by all of the non-essential aspects of David Brooks' writing, while missing the substance," I would add that you are latching on to part of what Rand says about sense of life that appeals to you and yanking it out of context.

Generally, you seem to be saying that Objectivists should attempt to recruit people based on their sense of life, and that such efforts should include promoting their work, regardless of merit, as a means of encouraging them.

This is badly mistaken on many levels. Here are a few that I see off the cuff: (1) What is Objectivism for? While, yes, it would be great if more people understood it and accepted it, an individual's main focus should be better understanding it for himself, in order to be able to live a better, more satisfying life. (2) While it is likely that someone with a good sense of life is more likely to be receptive to Objectivism, people have free will: many people with good senses of life will fail to understand Objectivism (or simply decide they don't accept it) for any number of reasons. (3) How can one meaningfully accept ideas one doesn't understand, anyway? If you "encourage" someone by saying "Amen" to whatever happens to spew from his mouth, how will he even know you actually disagree with him -- or ever become motivated to check his ideas? (4) Understanding of the ideas can trump sense of life. In some respects, I think my sense of life is awful, but I was interested in philosophical ideas when I first encountered Rand. Oh, and I wasn't a famous intellectual spreading awful misconceptions in a charming manner: I was a student who happened to read the right LTE at the right time. (5) Again, and you seem to have repeatedly missed this point (e.g., my question above about the Greeks, and about the whole point of "encouraging" intellectuals you think have good senses of life): What's the point of getting people to agree (profess agreement with?) with Objectivism (?) when, as you say, ideas don't matter that much?

Finally, I have to ask: What are you trying to accomplish in this comment thread? If you're trying to change my mind, you're failing and ignoring your own advice at the same time.

Gus