Why the Bankers Are Trapped

Few seem to grasp that we have arrived at an historic turning point: a nation and a world confronted with profound structural change.  The hope to recover the past will not be helpful. We must pick ourselves up, hit the reset button, and respond to a rapidly changing reality.

I cannot accept assumptions about political policies or intentions without asking practical questions. I want to understand a complex transition that is having an immense impact on us all.

There are many aspects to the changes we are experiencing, some with immediate implications, others longer-term.  To seek solutions we must recognize structural change.

I have given attention to the continuing financial crisis in recent posts because I believe that is where the closest danger lies.

So, I begin here with a financial question with structural implications: Why is the Federal Reserve unable to return the economy to some semblance of fairness and order? Or, to put it another way: Why have our financial liabilities not been corrected since the crisis in 2008?

The short answer is that they want to believe they are dealing with a cyclical crisis rather than a structural crisis.  Again, why?

Because the truth represents an unbearable existential threat.

Here we find a powerful example of the problems presented by structural change.

The economy has shifted into a long-term deflationary trend, which presents banks and governments with an impossible situation.

I refer you again to James Rickards’ best-selling book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.  A monetary economist and former banker, Rickards has been advising the Pentagon and CIA concerning financial warfare and terrorism.

Using simple math, Rickards’ explains how, “in effect, the impact of declining prices [deflation] more than offsets declining nominal growth [GDP] and therefore produces real growth.”

Most of us would think this is a good thing.

He writes: “Despite possible real growth, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve fear deflation more than any other economic outcome. Deflation means a persistent decline in price levels for goods and services. Lower prices allow for a higher living standard even when wages are constant, because consumer goods cost less. This would seem to be a desirable outcome, based on advances in technology and productivity that result in certain products dropping in price over time….”

Why is the Federal Reserve so fearful of deflation that it resorts to extreme measures to oppose it? Rickards gives us four reasons.

First, deflation has a severe impact on government debt: “U.S. debt is at a point where no feasible combination of real growth and taxes will finance repayment…. But if the Fed can cause inflation…, the debt will be manageable because it will be repaid in less valuable nominal dollars. In deflation, the opposite occurs, and the real value of the debt increases….”

Second, deflation impacts the debt-to-GDP ratio, causing foreign creditors to lose confidence in the dollar and demand higher interest rates. This is an urgent problem because the debt is continually increasing. Budget deficits require new financing, and interest payments are already being financed with new debt.

Third, deflation is a major problem for banks. As Rickards’ puts it, “deflation increases money’s real value and therefore increases the real value of lenders’ claims on debtors…. But as deflation progresses, the real weight of the debt becomes too great, and debtor defaults surge.”

The fourth problem with deflation is about taxes. When a worker receives a raise, the additional income is subject to taxes. But, if the cost of living drops by the same amount, the worker in effect receives the same raise and the government cannot tax it.

“In summary,” writes Rickards, “the Federal Reserve prefers inflation because it erases government debt, reduces the debt-to-GDP ratio, props up banks, and can be taxed.”

“Deflation may help consumers and workers,” he says, “but it hurts the Treasury and the banks…. The consequence of these deflationary dynamics is that the government must have inflation, and the Fed must cause it. The dynamics amount to a historic collision between the natural forces of deflation and the government’s need for inflation.”

Such are the challenges of structural change.

Tom

Note to readers: You can support this blog and the book project by suggesting that your friends and associates take a look.  And, watch for the next post on or about November 3.

When Money Dies

Americans experienced a major financial crisis in 2007-8.  Some would argue that it began far earlier, and clearly it is ongoing today.  We may be more aware of this crisis than others because it confronts us daily.  In preparing for what is to come, we would do well to listen to those who saw it coming and who continue to warn of its’ inevitable consequences.

Beyond all the foolishness and greed running rampant in the financial world, one great threat hangs over our future more than any other: The greatest expansion of debt the world has ever seen.  This is in large part due to non-stop deficit spending by governments.  Corporate borrowing has recently exploded similarly.

However, we need to understand that this has been made possible by a credit-based monetary system.  Easy access to credit, which is money created out of thin air, has led to the belief that credit is wealth.  This fantasy has infected society from top to bottom.

When a credit-based monetary system functions the way central bankers wish, the money supply should expand only slightly faster than economic growth.  Enough additional money must be created to cover the growing cost of servicing the expanding debt.

But, since 2008 the central bank (which we call the Federal Reserve) has expanded the monetary base almost four-fold while the economy has grown very little.

They call this “money”, but it is mostly debt.

The arrangement is extremely profitable for banks and the wealthy elite.  It allows for all kinds of mischievousness.  And, it depends on inflation, which is a long-term problem for the rest of us.  If it sounds to you like a Ponzi scheme, you are not alone.

In managing the money supply to avoid the growing threat of another banking crisis, the Federal Reserve has facilitated repetitive cycles of booms and busts, each more severe than the last.  This has perpetuated major social and economic distortions and dislocations.  It has stifled any possibility of restoring normalcy to the lives of ordinary Americans.

The economy has not been permitted to return to a normal and balanced condition.  Nothing has been fixed.  Extremely low interest rates have encouraged rapid growth of corporate and government debt, so the situation has been steadily worsening.

At such extreme levels, there are only two paths forward: default or devaluation.

Debt must default and be liquidated before economic productivity can recover.  But, the immediate pain of bankruptcy is too great for the bankers and policy-makers to bear. Consequently, they are struggling to gradually devalue the currency in relation to the cost of goods and services.

The government hopes desperately to meet the nominal cost of Social Security, Medicare, and other long-term budgetary obligations without defaulting.  This means the value of the dollar must fall significantly.

By altering the method of measuring price inflation, rising prices have been masked and social security payments held to a minimum.  Only those who live in the real world know the truth.

The devaluation of currencies is taking place around the world as budget deficits grow. Central banks attempt to minimize the interest costs of huge debt loads, while at the same time trying to avoid the failure of banking institutions that depend on interest rates.

Monetary economist and former banker, James Rickards, has written that “financial crises have supplanted kinetic warfare at the center of complex system dynamics. Financial crises in 1998 and 2008… are warnings – tremors ahead of a misfortune beyond imagining.” (“The Road to Ruin”, 2016, p.204)

The consequences of all this are profound and unpredictable.  We face a deepening crisis that will exaggerate all others, severely limiting the capacity of businesses to grow and create jobs, undermining our standard of living, and making it impossible to address pressing needs without worsening monetary instability.

The dependability of a productive, self-sustaining economy has been sacrificed to the tyranny of selfish interests.

Strangely, however, the wealthy elite have behaved like parasites that destroy their host.  They have wrecked the healthy economy upon which their profits depend.  And they have exposed themselves, as well as the rest of us, to the evaporating value of credit-based money.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about October 6.  We will take a look at the problem of complexity, and the realities of financial markets and other systems that have vastly exceeded the human capacity to fully understand or control.

In This Time of Danger

I have addressed my concerns to Americans for two primary reasons.  I believe we have entered a period of severe, successive and interacting crises that promises to be deep, grinding, and long-lasting.  And, I am concerned that the bitter divisiveness and disunity current among us will limit our ability to respond effectively to the danger we face.

Many of you know that the present disorder has been gradually escalating for decades. We now find ourselves with a pervasive loss of respect for civility and moral responsibility, (both public and private), a frightening loss of social coherence and stability, and a broad deterioration of economic well-being for ordinary Americans.

We now stand at an extraordinary turning point.  Do we want the United States to be preserved as a constitutional republic?  Are we personally prepared to rise above our differences to make this possible?

There are pragmatic solutions to these questions, but they will be extremely difficult.  I have never said it would be easy.  I have said I do not think we have a choice.

With closed minds and hardened attitudes our circumstances are becoming increasingly extreme.

We face a formidable array of complex crises.  The challenges are diverse, profound, and mutually reinforcing.  Some will impose themselves suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge as they impact upon our lives.

What is most extraordinary is the number and variety of crises that are emerging into view at the same time: social and economic, moral and material.

An abbreviated review is offered here to demonstrate this diversity.

1) Increasing social instability characterized by a dramatic loss of civility and unrestrained anti-social behaviors that include accelerating incidences of brutality and mass murder.

2) A banking and monetary system that favors the financial elite rather than the American people, and which has become dominated by self-serving individuals who appear incapable of recognizing that their risk-taking behavior threatens the well-being of everyone, including themselves.

3) Massive government, corporate, and private indebtedness, which constricts the economy and threatens to precipitate a significant devaluation of the US dollar.

4) Old and deteriorating infrastructure, which we depend on every day: bridges, municipal water and sewage systems, and the electrical grid.  These cannot be upgraded or replaced by national, state, and municipal governments that are hobbled by indebtedness and shrinking revenues.

5) An exponentially increasing global population.  With this comes rapidly increasing risk of war and global epidemics, as well as food shortages caused by falling water tables and the ongoing loss of arable farmland.

6) The rapid development of advanced technologies without a commensurate advancement of ethical maturity or a commitment to moral responsibility.

7) Degradation of the natural environmental systems that provide us with clean air and water, the consequence of population pressures and the long-term aggregate build-up of toxic substances derived from motor vehicles, household products, and industrial pollution.

8) Last, but not least, the loss of ethical integrity and moral responsibility on a massive societal scale.  This deterioration is overwhelming the values and norms upon which social stability depends.  It is a crisis weakens our ability to respond to all other crises.

During the past 100 years we have seen the emergence of integrated global systems that include transport, communication, and surveillance technologies, and an interactive global monetary system.  No crisis can take place anywhere without disrupting the whole interrelated system.

However dark the immediate future, we will always be presented with opportunities.  The most important opportunity for us lies in a disruption so broad and profound that it alters our perspective and challenges our assumptions.

We will find ourselves thinking differently to survive: How well do we actually know our neighbors? What are our priorities?  How important to our future is the idea and vision of America?

Local problem-solving will once again become paramount.  Safety and food security will depend on a diversity of local knowledge, skills and experience – regardless of our politics or religion or the color of our skin.

Discovering safety and strength in diversity will change us.

If we can build dependable communities we can also begin to talk – to identify shared needs and shared values, and to re-imagine a shared vision of the future that we can respect and believe in.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about 8 September:  “A Confluence of Crises”

Finding Our Balance in the Storm

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity.  Add to this a sense of moral responsibility, and life can be imposing!  The conditions we will face in a serious social and economic crisis will create unexpected challenges.  It will be easy to stumble and fall

So, let’s think about how we can respond to extreme conditions with courage and fortitude.  How can we meet adversity in a way that can actually serve as a springboard for constructive action and community-building?

All of us sometimes feel inadequate.  Courage fails us.  It can be difficult to find our footing and focus our energy productively, especially when we are confused or surprised.  And, it can sometimes feel impossible to be supportive of others, many of whom we seem to have little in common with.

Preparing ourselves will be important as we navigate through one of history’s great turning points.  Our ability to function responsibly under difficult circumstances will be challenged again and again.

I believe we have entered a period of upheaval that will be unparalleled in character and global in its dimensions.  I will explain in my forthcoming book why we can expect to experience “a confluence of crises” in the coming years, an extraordinary convergence of inevitable and seemingly unrelated crises.

It is imperative that we meet our tests with dignity, and above all not to give in to fear.  Democracy is by nature unpredictable, and it will be severely tested in the coming years.  Our future will depend on steadfast patience and forbearance if we are to preserve the open discourse and cooperation that liberty requires.

The American Republic is and always was founded on core human values and a positive, constructive attitude.  We cannot stand by and watch our future descend into chaos.

Those who are alive today have been chosen by history to bring America through this critical passage in time.  Preserving the essential qualities of the American Idea will be our great responsibility as we transit the upheavals of a great storm.

We must keep our balance, keep our hearts and minds focused on our ultimate purpose and not allow ourselves to be dragged down by rancor and bitterness.

We will prevail if the means we employ are harmonious with the ends that we seek.

I offer you symbolic imagery below for our place in history – a metaphor for freedom’s truth.  What follows are the final lines of a eulogy I delivered for my father at his memorial service, and a testimony to what I learned from him.  Please think about it:

“He gave me one truly great thing above all else…. And, this he did by teaching me the ways of sailing boats.  He taught me to fly on the wind.  He taught me to sail, to ride high on the blustery gale!

“Without fear we ventured out on the running tide, suspended between liquid and ether, to know the snap of the rigging, the sting of salt spray, and the unyielding rush of a steady keel straining against the wild.  Together we embraced the untamed and raced across the sky.  He was my Dad.”

Throughout life we are subject to the vagaries of a capricious human world, just as we can be subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and sea.  Yet, core principles and steadfast standards remain firmly in place in both worlds if we have the eyes to see.

Understanding the requirements of this truth, we can then spread our wings and learn to fly.

As with a sailing vessel at sea, our identity as human beings can only be realized in action.  It is through action alone that we free ourselves to discover the world we are given, learning as the sailor learns – to engage a fluid and often unpredictable reality with wisdom and flexibility.

Failing this, we will beat ourselves against an implacable and merciless resistance.  An unwillingness to learn will expose us to the storms of life in a rudderless ship and with our rigging in disarray.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about August 25.

A note to new readers:  Blog entries adapted from the forthcoming book are posted on most Fridays here and on the Facebook page.  A project description, an introduction to the book (in draft), and several chapter drafts are available on this page.  Reader engagement on the FB page is substantial.  To receive alerts by email you may click “Follow”.

The Challenge of Inner Freedom

At a time of deepening social disorder and economic disarray, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction – by the power elite, by police agencies and by citizens.  We are experiencing circumstances in which terrible things can happen.

I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amid the most terrible circumstances.

Responding to injustices and irrational behavior is difficult.  And yet, facing the world rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom.

This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, it could become nightmarish.  But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.

If there is a primary requirement for attaining the integrity of inner freedom, it is the personal determination to do so with moral responsibility and ethical discipline.

In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, his testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Because his response to those circumstances is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings.  (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.)  But, what about human liberty?

“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …Do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?  Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

As we face our own personal tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this strength within ourselves?

Here is a freedom reached through personal empowerment, compassion and responsibility, as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.

No one can do this for us.  As we turn our attention to the distress and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 16.

Personal Integrity and the American Future

We each have a sense of self, an understanding of ourselves in our own minds.  This sense of self is challenged by all the conflicts and incongruities we are forced to contend with as individuals – between freedom and responsibility, the material and the moral, and among all the concerns in our lives.

Consciously or otherwise, each of us adopts a moral / ethical system upon which to base decisions and guide our way in the world.  We can choose religious guidance or a philosophy assumed or devised by ourselves.

This can be highly refined or only rudimentary.  Either way, it is all we have to moderate conflicting interests and desires.

The moral philosopher Mary Midgley describes the problem in an interesting way:

“I am suggesting,” she writes, “…that human freedom centers on being a creature able, in some degree, to act as a whole in dealing with… conflicting desires.  This may sound odd, because freedom sounds like an advantage, and having conflicting desires certainly does not.

“But it is not a new thought that freedom has a cost.  And the conflicting desires themselves are of course not the whole story.  They must belong to a being which in some way owns both of them, is aware of both, and can therefore make some attempt to reconcile them.

“…The endeavor must be to act as a whole, rather than as a peculiar, isolated component coming in to control the rest of the person.  Though it is only an endeavor – though the wholeness is certainly not given ready-made and can never be fully achieved, yet the integrative struggle to heal conflicts and to reach towards this wholeness is surely the core of what we mean by human freedom.”

Whether it is weak or strong, sloppy or consistent, or we even think about it very much, our personal morality serves as the grounding for both our sense of identity and our actions.  It is impossible to function without it.

It is our integrity as “whole persons” that resists the onslaught of disintegrating forces in our lives.

We lose control of our independence when we succumb to the fragmentation imposed by the incoherent impact of advertising and mass media that constantly bombards us.

This is particularly challenging I think for those who choose to disregard the major religious traditions, all of which offer rich and textured guidance.  For the reader who is religiously inclined and grounded in the original texts, the way forward is generally well-lit – at least in principle.

If the reader is not religious, the task will be to ground oneself in common decency, to focus on the highest good, to discipline oneself to abide by an ethical code, and to bring healing and encouragement to those around us.

Let’s be clear: This is very difficult, and especially when we rely solely on our own limited knowledge and perspective.

Each of us is called to participate in the affairs of the community we have chosen as our home, to engage with our neighbors respectfully and to encourage and empower those around us.

Whatever our personal vision or intent, it is important that we think carefully about our means in relation to the ends we wish to seek.  We can only ensure the integrity of our purpose by means that are in harmony with our purpose.

Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “They say ‘means are after all means’.  I would say ‘means are after all everything’.  As the means so the end.”

This assertion was stated somewhat differently, but just as explicitly by the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek, when he wrote: “The principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

These are not theoretical statements.  They express a profound truth.  The integrity of means must always provide the standard of reference in every endeavor.

If each of us holds our personal integrity clearly in focus, attends to moral responsibility, and respects our neighbor as we ourselves would wish to be respected, we should not find ourselves at odds with justice.

In the end, the way we respond to interpersonal differences will determine who we are and the freedom we are capable of fostering.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 2.

The Freedom Within

Our freedom to make choices, however limited, gives us the ability to determine who we are.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality and no capacity for personal integrity.  Yet many of our choices in life restrict later opportunities.

The choice of career, of a love-mate, and the decisions to have a family, to stand by a friend, or to embrace a religious faith, all limit future choices.  And if we are caring human beings, we find our choices further constrained by our sense of responsibility as members of family and community.

Most of us are mature enough to recognize that freedom is impossible if we abandon responsibility.  So, where do we find freedom?  What is freedom, really?

The integrity of political, economic, and religious freedoms should always be a concern, and particularly so in times of crisis.  However, the difficulties confronting the individual are paramount.  We each find ourselves facing our own tests, and each must respond on the basis of our own sense of integrity.

In the blog and forthcoming book I will explore the difficulties we experience when seeking personal integrity in the face of civil disorder or political repression.  In a time of hardship and distrust this is a vital matter.

We could try to walk away from the human crisis, but even then we would be confronted by the immediate necessities of material circumstances.

Any attempt to walk away comes at great cost, limiting our personal opportunity to grow and mature through the challenges and vitality of human relationships.  Indeed, most of us find meaning in our commitments to family and friends.

Whatever our decisions, when we think about what is most important to us – in addition to our loved ones – many of us would place value on self-respect and the freedom “to be ourselves”.  We prefer to explore opportunities for ourselves without interference, to have autonomy in making our own decisions, and to seek goals that we have chosen for ourselves.

Let us reflect then on what freedom means when we seek it as self-possessed individuals, and on the attitude with which we can best respond to the social fragmentation and dysfunction that confront us daily.

It may sound strange at first, but economic hardship and social disruption can actually open the way to personal honor and self-esteem, inviting us to rise to the best that we can be.

Strength of character is not delivered in a recliner.  It is in meeting tests and difficulties that our identity as human beings comes more sharply into focus.

Some of you are not committed to a religious tradition.  But all of us are surely able to understand this reasoning.  The received guidance of religious teachings, while concerned with personal and social development and our need to hold steady in the face of crises, also sets limits to appropriate behavior and constraints on free choice.

I expect those of you who are principled but not religious will, if you value self-respect, find yourselves similarly constrained by ethical principles and your sense of dignity.

Religious or otherwise, I think it fair to say that our responses are influenced by our attitude toward life: our sense of belonging, our capacity to appreciate others, and our efforts to remain balanced and unperturbed amid the confusion and negativity that life often brings our way.

We may care about human suffering; we may wish to avoid negativity and calamity; yet our personal freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and function effectively when the going gets tough.

This can be a daunting task.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our responsibility as caring people in the real world.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, life can sometimes be nightmarish.  But, free will necessitates the commitment to be free in oneself, and to respond actively, morally, rationally.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about May 19.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself.  A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Freedom or Paralysis

We often think of freedom as a principle without consideration for its requirements or even of what it actually means.  Impediments to freedom are experienced in many forms.  Personal obstacles can be oppressive.  The constraints and obligations imposed by our workplace, our families, and society in general are familiar to everyone.

Freedom for the individual, it seems, is conditional.  Yet, we can choose to respond with maturity and self-control.  We generally understand and accept the limitations we experience, however much they chafe.  And there are principles we cherish despite the challenges they present.

There is much to talk about here.  But, I wish to focus on our response to life’s inevitable constraints, especially in the context of crises, and the choices we can make if we wish to work effectively with others.

Most of us cooperate with most of what society asks of us most of the time.  We accept the rules that regulate athletic contests, vehicular traffic, and commerce.

Rules make it possible to ensure fairness, to strategize and compete.  It is the relative certainty of fairness and predictability that allows businesses to plan and invest in the future, an economy to be productive, and our personal lives to be sane.

Similarly, it is honesty, candor, and civility that are most conducive to constructive dialog and decision-making in any organization or community.  These may not be “rules”, but they are values we cannot do without.  They are shared norms that lead to trust.

When we are confronted with chaotic and unpredictable conditions, our first step can always be to address the need for conditions that allow effective communication and encourage practical dialogue.

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction will require that we work together in a civil manner, regardless of our differences.  Problem-solving cannot take place otherwise.

Some folks think organized cooperation as impossible.  But, it will be impossible to ensure safety or meet basic needs in our communities if our differences preclude collaboration.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process.  He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”

We have seen how egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy.

Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms rational judgment, motivation and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past.

Americans are smart, resilient, and creative.  In the difficult years ahead I expect we will gain a deeper understanding of freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.

All form has structural limits and all limits provide the means for leverage.  It is the consistent dependability of this reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create.

Without the constraints of necessity, (which include our own values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

Our ability to exercise discipline overcomes the limitations imposed by nature and society.  Surely the discipline to leverage inspiration against the constraints we encounter in life provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties in life.

We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet.  We cannot fly without wings.

It is in the encounter between discipline and necessity that we find the ground of freedom.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 21:  The Freedom Within.

Illusion Over Liberty?

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable.  Some truths are not pretty.  But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.

The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time.  The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.

Americans have become obsessed with immediacy.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.

We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.

Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances.  Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern.  We live on false appearances bought with future income.

Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?

The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life.  An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.

For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.

Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.

Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American philosopher Richard Weaver:

The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.  The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man.  Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Richard Weaver wrote these words in the late 1940s, before television existed.  And he was not the first to make such an observation.  A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that an American has no sense of privacy.  He does not know what it means.  There is no such thing in the country.”

Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak that would ultimately lead to crisis.

He pointed out our fascination with specialization, with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole.  He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability.

Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions.  In Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.

This is not the fault of government – except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party.  In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.

Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end.  Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.

If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here.  Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty?  Would we rather be ruined than to think?

It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?

A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.

Individual, Community, and the State

For much of the nation’s first 100 years, Americans gave meaning to their values and expressed their creative energy in a diverse array of civic activity.  As we saw in the previous post, Americans overcame constraints to their freedom through their own inspiration and sense of community.

Today, action has been replaced by inaction.  A once spirited culture of engagement has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude and the loss of initiative, cooperation, trust, and moral responsibility.

While it is easy the see how technology – the automobile, television, and internet – can limit as well as enhance human interaction, historian Niall Ferguson argues that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.”

Ferguson cites the prophetic vision of Tocqueville, who we met in the previous blog post, when he imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted by government:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men,” Tocqueville wrote in 1840, “who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

“Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….

“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild.

“It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….

“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:

“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…

“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.

“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

I do believe that government has had a part in the deadening of the American spirit.  But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government.

In my view, the degeneration of behavior and attitudes cannot be divorced from the paralyzing effect of corporate domination and the corrupting influence of mass culture and advertising.

I also believe the long slide toward alienation and apathy has come with our personal acquiescence.  For several generations Americans have gradually descended into a materialistic passivity and embraced an obsessive passion for entertainment and spectacle.

This is something we can only fault ourselves for accepting.

Our government began, after all, as a creature of our own invention.  And it is now served by people who have been subjected to the same degraded values and demoralized sense of responsibility as the rest of us.

Real change will depend on each of us – taking initiative as individual citizens, accepting responsibility for the well-being of our communities, and by renewing the foundations of society with civility, cooperation, and constructive action.

Tom

Coming posts:  Living our values into the future– What do we care about; what do we wish to do better or differently?  Look for the next post on or about March 24.

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.