January 31, 2010
We certainly have enough, already, of almost everything conceivable, and an agreed excess of quite a few – foods, houses, cars - come to the public mind almost daily in one scandal of indulgences (obesity?) or another (Macmansions?) or another (exec remuneration?). These are remarkable for all being material excesses. We do not suffer an excess of probity, transparency, honesty, ….pick a virtue and we ain't got it much, in public at least, except for celebrations like Australia Day rituals of reward which are not media magnets for the rest of the year. So much for virtuous role modelling.
And we know we cannot constrain greed (because it's somehow incentively associated with the virtues of private enterprise and personal choice), but we will "quarantine" some benefactors of the public purse from spending their meagre takings on the needs and indulgences of their choice. They are to be quarantined for not knowing enough to buy right (see Our public moral base below for the thinking which sustains this discrimination). Can the alleged ingrained bad buying habits of the poor be any different, as habits, than those of their material betters who flourish in the greed slaking disciplines of high finance and corporate leadership?
That we over-provided for many parts of our society is undeniable, except by those who believe that there is no such thing as greed or excess – that is, that there can never be too much of anything. Many of us are confused about this. We know that people who should know better ("the best and brightest"), are unable to control reaching for luxury and that there are no objective performance constraints on them from doing so if they can put out their hands towards them. The very public case of Cherie Blair is analysed here. Further UK background is here in a report called "Sinking and swimming: understanding Britain's unmet needs". An Australian approach is outlined in The Road Home.
We also know that continued lifestyle improvements and increased acquisitions do not raise perceived life value (i.e. happiness and its affiliates like self-esteem). See AC Grayling for the insides of this apparent fact. Meanwhile, executive remuneration remains uncontrolled by performance outcomes and increasingly distant from workers' pay. It can no longer be argued that these levels are required for competitive reasons, since those have been scorched by the GFC. In addition, They are sustained by spinoff 'industries' (for example, luxury car, boat and golf club) sales. This pattern is not an artefact of the last ten years. The insights can be found in Keynes (below) and pre-configured in Adam Smith's full works which constrain the economy to a supporting cast of the human story, not the star.
"... Here I think Keynes comes closest to answering the question of why his "enough" will not, in fact, be enough. The accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the "good life," becomes an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living. Beyond a certain point – which most of the world is still far from having reached – the accumulation of wealth offers only substitute pleasures for the real losses to human relations that it exacts."
Robert Skidelsky - "How much money is enough?" Sunday 22 November 2009
I believe that any human organisation of sufficient wealth to over-meet the basic needs of most of its members owes the remaining members the guarantee of a minimum sustainability – a basic needs fulfilment platform. This should be available without any implicit reproach like over-zealous policing of access or controlling of use of services provided. This would be more than a safety net. It would also be a 2 or 3 generation program, since recovery from many of the embedded deficits of intergenerational poverty are social system change matters, not individual enterprise and guts ones. This is to some extent implicit in current approaches to homelessness in Australia. A concurrent supporting argument comes from An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK
I don't think this proposition is a covert Nordic nostrum, a snowbound socialism converted for our sandbox, but maybe it is. That we under-provide for noticeable populations like the homeless is certain. A similar domain of human obligation negotiation is the climate change accountability/ability to pay equation. The Australian's "Ask the Philosopher" column proposed:
This is becoming all too apparent as the Copenhagen conference enters its second week. Developed countries may indeed have historical outcome responsibility for climate change and its effects.
Yet do they bear a special ethical burden?
Before we can allocate remedial responsibility, we must first determine whether countries have exceeded their fair quota of natural resources. This is, for many reasons, a much more difficult proposition.
A work program for such an ethic would cover the systematic glitches and lacunae in our basic human services – health, education, and accommodation. One obvious step would be to mandate job creation until there is no gap between employed and demand for employees – everyone has a job of some kind.
Our public moral base
The 'enemy' of such thinking about accountability / responsibility is found in many places. I'll look at two recent examples and a public counter-example next.
One, John Armstrong recently argued in the Australian Financial Review that "It's OK to be wealthy - the trick is to also be worthy". For a philosopher this is a disgrace. He conflates the question of exec remuneration into a "value for money" principle which he characterises as "a question of efficiency, not of ethics". There are two muddles here: first, no one in business (except perhaps money managers) thinks that efficiency is a standalone criterion of value. Electricians (his example) and their clients certainly do not. Effectiveness is usually the second term of the value equation. Second, the powers of electricians and executives to influence the terms and the interpretations of their respective remuneration agreements are near to wholly incommensurate!
Further, he later concludes: "A person is morally entitled to exactly the quantity of resources they can use for their finest flourishing." A kind of aesthetic ethics - notable for its patent individualism, or, slightly better, familism. Armstrong mentions beautiful houses and interesting holidays as soul nourishing intrinsic goods it is morally right to buy if you appreciate them properly (who's the judge?) Matters of taste have not long been a core capacity among well-being needs. For him there is no in principle limit to acquisition, and the moral case for right to acquire is subordinated anyway to his version of the value for money principle.
I can barely imagine the enjoyment corporate leaders will get from quoting a philosophy professor in residence at Melbourne Business School in defence of their reapings of our realms.
Two, a similar line is taken by Michael Keane in "Lifestyle-altering strategies more likely to reduce liberty" where he takes an ethical hammer to efforts to manage the debilitating health side-effects of late modern living. Here we are presented with the choice/legitimacy argument, a variation on Armstrong's. The field of play is bigger – the whole of health provision – than executive salaries. And the underlying interpretive assumption is the same as Armstrong's, expressed by Keane thus: "..our society is built on deferment to the fundamental ethical principle of autonomy" which is expressed in individual choices.
Strangely (?), the Armstrong/Keane thesis never recognises that people are differently able to decide sensibly. The first among these differences is pre-programmed expectations ("top of mind" choices for which billions are spent yearly to sustain automatic, thoughtless choosing in the major domains of required expenditure – food, health, clothing, transport…). I guess the advertisers, and marketers directing them, know they are getting something for their money and it isn't what Keane/Armstrong mean by rational choice.
Three, a coincidental counterpoint comes from Catherine Bennett discussing bariatric surgery as a public health offering in the UK. Working a corner of the terrain Keane commands, she explores the complexities of the boundaries between disease and social undesirability in the case of obesity – a classic case of 'consenting' adults making decisions which are guaranteed to make their lives shorter, less fun, more oppressive, less comfortable…the list is terminal. Why should the public subvene their indiscretions? She doesn't have refuge in an ideological distinction between individual and social responsibility.
My Australian readers may notice an excess (from our viewpoint) of foreign sources in my proceedings. I noticed it myself just now. The reason, I realised, is that the key terms of the discussion of these issues derive from elsewhere – notably the US and UK, with parts of the euro zone in attendance. The ethical and political arguments are framed in the big economies and traditional sources of Western life. Take a look at the lag and inappropriateness of recent citations of Joel Klein as a model for Oz school reform – a man speaking from a place where local control is not even mentioned because it's the only thing there is in education in the USA!! Translate that for our local and what have you?