Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Fourth M: Morality

And finally, we come to the last of James Livingston's "Four Ms," which serves as something as an organizing principle for the other three: Morality. According to my reading of the text, Morality probably shares the most overlap with the first M, Mistakes. My relatives' opposition to public policies such as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) isn't just grounded in what they perceive as the negative effects of the policy. It derives primarily from their sense that the CRA was an immoral giveaway to the undeserving, indolent poor, and in reaching this moral conclusion they also assigned responsibility for the economic crisis to easily identifiable actors. It allowed them to make some sense of the chaos unfolding around them, even if their conclusions were misguided.

Here's Livingston's take on how the meta-narrative of Morality ties together all of the other potential explanations for the crisis:

"The master text of Morality thus organized many strands of thought, like a magnet in the vicinity of those fabled iron filings: it was consistent with the notion that Mistakes were made, that Monopoly was the problem, and that Money was the root of all evil. It allocated blame in a comprehensive way, by suggesting that if only everybody hadn't become so avaricious, so desirous, so loaded up with the material freight of the world, why, that world would be a better place. This master text identifies certain villains, then, but in the end it also announces that we were all at fault: we know who the bad guys are, but we know, too, that our excess enabled them. As the cartoon cliche goes, we have met the enemy, and it is us." (33)

This impulse to identify culprits and assign blame constitutes an attempt to understand the operations of an abstract, depersonalized, and highly complex economic system. As Livingston observes, "the great irony here is that we want to somehow personify the idiocies of the market economy so as to restore its anonymous, providential force, as if we were trying to deflect the arbitrary effects of fate, hoping to humanize the gods by giving them names." (30)

As I argued in my post on Mistakes, this impulse to locate the human hand behind social and economic disruptions - this "Whig science of politics," as Gordon Wood put it - runs like a thread throughout the history of American political culture, and compels us to look high and low for grand plans and conspiracies against the people even where none exist. But, as Livingston asks, "What if nobody's to blame?" What if the crisis is symptomatic of deeper forces at work that have a momentum and logic of their own?

There is a discourse at work here that unites political actors who otherwise have very little in common with each other: the language and political morality of productivism, or what Livingston will call "the pathos of productivity" later in the book. Productivism has no specific political address. It can and does exist on the Left as well as the Right. Productivist ideology typically divides society into two separate and opposed camps: the producers and the parasites. In the productivist moral imaginary, the producers are virtuous because they live by the sweat of their brow. They transform their surroundings through their labor, thus bringing something new and valuable into the world. This is a cross-class category that includes the bulk of the working class (particularly those who work with their hands or in manufacturing industries), as well as small business people and entrepreneurs. Opposed to them are the parasites, a group that includes the idle rich, bankers, bureaucrats, lawyers, and middlemen of all sorts as well as the ostensibly indolent and "undeserving" poor. In the productivist moral imaginary, they survive by skimming off the value created by the honest labor of the producers, threatening the proper functioning of the self-regulating market as well as the foundations of moral order. Idle hands make collateralized debt obligations.

It's this kind of productivist ideology that animates the widespread complaint that this country "doesn't make things anymore," that makes a sharp distinction between the "real" economy of goods production and the ostensibly less real service economy. According to this discourse, by trading factories for finance and other similarly "unproductive" pursuits we have undermined our economic base and facilitated the atrophy of public morals. Instead of creating lasting value through long-term investment, we have encouraged the pursuit of short-term gain. Instead of inculcating the virtues of hard work and thrift, we've created a culture of self-indulgence and heedless consumerism. If we're going to turn things around, we've got to start making things again instead of manipulating numbers on a computer screen. We've got to save more and consume less.

This discourse has widespread appeal, but like many things with widespread appeal its claim to legitimacy is fairly dubious. For one thing, the claim that "we don't make things anymore" is demonstrably false. The U.S. is still a manufacturing powerhouse, but innovations in labor-saving technology have made it possible to produce more (and different) stuff with far fewer workers than before. We just don't need armies of unskilled and semi-skilled labor to make steel, planes, or wind turbines anymore. And if James Livingston is to be believed, the root of our economic troubles is not a lack of economic morality but the problem of surplus capital. At long last, here's his diagnosis:

"Since 1990, consumer expenditures have indeed increased at the expense of saving and investment, but not because the latter were crowded out by the former, and not because the moral fabric of American life has unraveled. Investment has atrophied even as corporate profits have risen because these profits are, for the most part, redundant revenues with no place to go except into speculative markets where so-called securities like CDOs congregate; household savings have declined and consumer borrowing has increased because wages and salaries have stagnated even as executive compensation has multiplied many times over.

Our problem is not morality; it's surplus capital - a 'global savings glut' that can't be fixed without redistribution of income from capital to labor, from profits to wages, from savings to consumption, an economic repair that's urgently needed both locally and globally
." (34-35)

Livingston builds his case on a rather controversial claim about the sources of economic growth, and he's got a whole appendix of graphs and statistics to prove it. But that's enough for now. We'll begin to take up that argument in the next post.

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