Money, America, & Ethics
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize the great lecture Always with PDC, which Eli Siegel gave in 1974. PDC stands for the three aspects of economics: production, distribution, consumption. And Mr. Siegel is showing that what is always with them is Ethics. He wrote, defining that term, “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things” (Self and World, p. 243).
He is the philosopher, historian, critic, economist to explain that economics is centrally a matter of ethics. And in 1970, in his Goodbye Profit System lectures, he showed that by the last third of the 20th century, economics based on seeing human beings in terms of how much profit one can get out of them had failed. The underlying reason for the profit system's failure is the contempt, the shoddy ethics, at its basis.
To want people to be desperate for work so that you can pay them very little for their labor, is bad ethics, and it's fundamental to the profit system. To hope this man's business goes under so yours can prevail, is an ethically ugly way of mind, and it's central to the profit motive. To hope a coworker flops so you can get her job, is shabby ethics—and people are ashamed of thinking this way and angry at the economic system which forces them to do so.
Not What the World Was Meant For
Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the ugly, cheap, cruel thing in the human self: it's the feeling we'll be more if we can lessen someone or something else. Profit economics encourages contempt, and in fact arose from it. Mr. Siegel wrote six decades ago, in a sentence important for its beautiful prose as well as for its logic and kindness:
The world was meant to be known, to be felt, not to be parcelled out into huge segments or lesser segments for the complacent but deleterious delectation of some and the domination and manipulation of others. [Self and World, pp. 279-280]
For the past three decades, economics based on the profit motive has continued, certainly, but continued with more and more difficulty. Whether or not the stock market soars, whether or not a few people are very rich—most Americans are working longer hours for less; millions are tormented about not being able to afford healthcare for their families; bankruptcies, both business and personal, abound. The following statements are from articles on the first business page of a single day's New York Times (September 14, 2007): 1) “That there is a financial crisis is clear”; 2) “The percentage of the population that is employed has been dropping since December”; 3) “A new poll of corporate chief financial officers, taken by Duke University and CFO Magazine, shows a surge in pessimism”; 4) “Main Street Cuts Back Spending and Braces for Worse to Come.”
Eli Siegel explained three decades ago:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
Ethics: A Force
He explained that there is such a thing as the force of ethics in the world. As history has proceeded, this force of ethics has become more salient, making economics based on bad ethics no longer tenable. That statement may sound abstract. It's not. Ethics as force is exceedingly tangible. It's as tangible as an automobile—because the fact that automobiles are now being manufactured not mainly in Detroit, but ever so abundantly and well in other nations, is part of that force of ethics. In 1970, presenting reasons for the ill health of America's profit economy, Mr. Siegel said: “America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product.”
American profit-making throve when the rest of the world could not produce what America could and therefore people in other countries were compelled to buy American goods. In fact, US profit-making would fare well now only if the rest of the world were suddenly rendered ignorant, made to lack know-how, were robbed of their technological and productive ability. It's clear that to want other nations to be ignorant and inept is bad ethics. The fact that people throughout the world know more and can do more, is part of the force of ethics—of an increasing justice. But it is making the profit system weaker.
Human Dignity vs. Profit
Mr. Siegel presented too, and documented richly, the other large cause of the profit system's mortal sickness. By 1970, because of unions, men and women in America were earning much more than they had been; millions were no longer poor. They were having lives much more in keeping with the true dignity of a human being. Each instance of greater justice to people in their working lives—from a higher minimum wage to the mandating of safety equipment so limbs would not be lost—was a weakening of the profit system.
Every nickel that labor creates will go either toward the good life of the persons who did the work, or into the pockets of some employer or stockholder who didn't work for that nickel. As unions enabled workers to stop dying of industrial diseases, and to be able to live with more ease, and even send their children to college, more of those nickels were going to the people who earned them and fewer to the employers and stockholders who didn't.
The combination of increased foreign competition and increased justice to workers is simply fatal to the profit system in this land. Therefore, in order for profit-motivated economics to go on, the victory for working Americans had to be reversed. One cannot have certain persons, owners and stockholders, making large profits and also have the persons who created those profits—the workers—living well: corporate owners and their political friends know this. So in the last decades there has been a terrific effort to destroy unions in order to have Americans earn much less.
The big choice now, which all Americans need to be clear about, is: which are we for—sacrificing Americans' ability to live well so that certain individuals can make big profits; or having Americans live comfortably and well because the wealth they earned is going to them.
What's Looked For
The ethical economics America is looking for, Mr. Siegel made clear, is certainly not some ism associated with dullness and regimentation. It's the American non-profit system—with style, creativity, true to the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Rocky Mountains, Great Lakes, Mississippi River, and American literature and earth. It's an economy based on answering what he described as the most important question for humanity: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
As a short prelude to Always with PDC, I'm going to quote from a poem for children, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It's an authentic poem. And in a basic way, it's about those three aspects of economics. Here is the first stanza of “The Cow,” spoken by a child:
The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.
Every child deserves to feel that the world is friendly to him or her—can provide what the child needs, as this cow provides cream “with all her might.” The relation between the cow and the speaker stands for the reciprocity which is ethics: that the world, including through what it can produce, should make a person stronger; and in turn, the person should care for and want to know the outside world (“I love with all my heart”).
Here is the last stanza. It is musical, beautiful, and represents the opponent to contempt in economics or anywhere. That is, Stevenson wants to be fair to something—this cow. He wants to see what affects it. He wants to show its dignity and mystery, not use it contemptuously, for personal acquisition:
And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.