The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Money & Our Purposes with People

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of the great lecture Eli Siegel gave on August 23, 1974, Always with PDC. Those initials stand for the three divisions of any economy: production, distribution, consumption. And, he is showing, what is always with these—and not as a mere accompaniment but as fundamental—is ethics: the justice or injustice with which one sees what is other than oneself.

This final installment of Always with PDC consists of passages from the discussion period following the lecture. It contains further comments and explanations by Mr. Siegel, and his answers to questions asked by students present.

He is speaking 33 years ago, and much has changed in these decades. But what he saw in the 1970s, and was the economist to explain, has continued. It is with us now more intensely than ever. He explained that an economy based on bad ethics—on the contempt of seeing men, women, and children in terms of how much profit one can get from them—such an economy has reached that point in history when it can never thrive again. He wrote:

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.

In recent issues I pointed to some of today's abundant evidence for that statement. For example: the widening income gap between rich and poor in America; the diminishing of the middle class as people become poorer in this nation; the fact that Americans are working longer hours for less pay—and the worry, pain, and resentment accompanying all this, in the homes and workplaces of our land.

Ethics & Mortgages

Right now, a large economic agony—which means a human agony—is the matter of sub-prime mortgages. Families across America have lost their homes because they couldn't make the payments on their mortgages. Much is being written about this mortgage crisis, and its effect on banks and markets. But what I think important to point out here is that it is a matter of ethics all the way.

The biggest question for the people and nations of the world, Mr. Siegel said, is this ethical question: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” There is now more of a feeling in people than there ever was that there are things they deserve, to which they have a right. That increased feeling is part of what Mr. Siegel described as “the force of ethics.” And one of the things persons across America feel they deserve is a home.

Let us take a man in Nebraska who works in the offices of a large agricultural company. Ron and his wife, Nina, have two children, and Nina works as a waitress at a local café. They've had a hard time financially, what with the cost of food, and clothes for the children, and the rent they'd been paying for their quite cramped living quarters. Their credit rating is low. But they needed more room and they wanted a house of their own. They felt the children deserved a nice place to live.

Ron spoke with a mortgage broker and was told he and Nina could finance such a home by taking out a sub-prime mortgage: a high interest rate loan, offered to people like them, who don't have much money. A bank eagerly provided the mortgage, requiring no money down. The bank was glad the broker encouraged Ron to feel he and Nina could make the payments with ease—even though they couldn't.

It is five years later. Ron, Nina, and the children are now included in the statistics of recent foreclosures. The family of four will stay with Nina's parents in Omaha until they figure out what to do. They'll sleep in the basement. The children cried when they had to leave their house after the bank took it; they had liked it very much.

One can say that Ron and Nina should have been more careful in committing themselves to such a mortgage. Undoubtedly they should have. But the large ethical questions are: 1) Do people deserve to have a good home? 2) Do they feel this more, and with a certain determination that can make them (wrongly, of course) a little careless? 3) Have brokers, banks, and other lenders tried to fool prospective borrowers? Have they seen people's need for a home as a chance to enrich themselves? Have they liked the fact that people were desperate to borrow, because this was a chance to make them pay high fees and interest rates? And is this way of seeing and dealing with people, whether technically legal or not, sheer ill will? 4) Has the ill will of banks toward American families not only hurt the families—has it wound up hurting the banks and further weakening the profit system itself? And is there something ethical in that retribution? Mr. Siegel explained: economics based on contempt can no longer work efficiently, and its failure is a victory for good will as a world force.

There Is a Conflict

In a lecture of 1971 he said, “There is a conflict in America : to be fair to its citizens, or to go on with the profit system.” This conflict corresponds to the fight Aesthetic Realism shows is central in every person: to be fair to the outside world, or to have contempt—go after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The profit motive and economics driven by it are phases of that cheap, hurtful thing in the human self, the desire for contempt.

In the last issue I quoted from a poem of Emerson. Now I'll use another American poem to comment on the ethics of profit economics and the way of mind behind it. Carl Sandburg is not literarily fashionable today; nevertheless, he is one of the authentic poets of America. In his Chicago Poems of 1916 there appeared these seven lines titled “They Will Say”:

Of my city the worst that men will ever say is this:

You took little children away from the sun and the dew,

And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,

And the reckless rain; you put them between walls

To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,

To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted

For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.

Child labor is illegal in America now (though some of it still goes on). The only reason that it occurred at all, and that employers wanted it and justified it and would have liked it to continue, is: their purpose was to make profit, and having the little ones work in their factories was quite profitable. Those who employed children, like those who owned slaves, were simply taking the profit system seriously: looking on a person in terms of, How much money can I make from you?

We can see another human being essentially in only two ways: 1) as a means of aggrandizing ourselves; or 2) as someone to be fair to, who is as real as we are, and whom we want to understand. These are the two possibilities in every aspect of our life—including love, the family, economics. And they cannot go together. If we're trying to be fair to a person, we won't be able to use him or her as some instrument for our personal glory—or our personal wealth.

The contemptuous use of people that Sandburg describes is opposed by the way he, as artist, sees and writes. There is an indignation in his lines at one with a tenderness of sound, so that we feel the reality and delicacy of these exploited children. In the music of the last line there is the emptiness that the profit system has made of their lives—but also a sound of dignity and wonder that honors them.

Americans want an economy that has in it the good will of art.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Ethics: A Living Subject

By Eli Siegel

Note. These are passages from the discussion following the lecture. When Mr. Siegel is responding to a particular question asked by a student present, the question is given.

On Ethics & Reduced Production

There are two ways of making a lot of money. One is in the motto of Orbach's department store, “A sale on millions of products,” or something like that—where you make as many things as you can and you have a wide distribution. Then there's another way, where you feel you don't need to make so many things, but you price them higher. That way has been from the very beginning, but it is now rife. Let's take various people in Arab nations: if they can produce less oil and somehow have it sold in the form of gasoline for a little more than 59 cents a gallon in America, why should they knock themselves out?

This matter is very subtle. There are the farmers: they don't have to get every steer—just have the steers higher priced, and there will be a market. It doesn't have good will in it, but it's been felt to be necessary. The reduction of production has gone on a very great deal.

Persons have stored things to get higher prices. During the Depression, people would spill milk on the road in order to get a higher price than the one they did have. That's against humanity, but it's part of the economic procedure.

Ethics—Not Seen

Question: Why is it so difficult to see ethics in economics?

ES. Because people are not interested in it. They don't like ethics. They think it's a very bothersome subject—that it stops you from being happy. There's a good deal of writing on the subject, but to see that you are concerned with right and wrong all the time is a nuisance! So it is not seen as a living subject.

Competition & Good Will

Question: In relation to a phrase you spoke about, “selling oneself” in order to get a job—when the profit system leaves, how will that attitude change?

ES. The first thing that a human being wants is to be as good as he can be. The other thing, being better than somebody else, is secondary. If there is competition, the question is, does there have to be ill will with it? Can you run as fast as possible and still feel friendly to a person you may be running faster than? That is possible. And no one as yet has shown that competition has to have ill will.

Let's assume that at Bunker Hill one person was trying to show he could be more effective with the British than somebody else. There could be something quite good about it.

We get down to good and evil. They are very close, and that means that ethics has to be seen as something clear.

What does a way of society come from—a situation of the time, or something earlier, something that is deeper, has more of the beginning in it? And how are the two related? For instance, if a person likes Loft's candy, one reason is that Loft's makes the candy and he has some. And on the other hand, the sweetness which soothes a person is a very deep thing.

Unless ethics is understood I don't think the matter of inflation will be understood—because you don't have to understand ethics to be affected by it, and people have gone along with ill will in economics. There's more, as is pretty clear, of a dissatisfaction in every field, both in the executive field and the workers' field.

So, there is the doing as well as one can, and if it's swifter and better than someone else that should be noted. But that it has to be attended by ill will is something else.

How We Get to Value

Question: Do people feel they should receive more money because they're in a job where others have contempt for them?

ES. There are various ideas through which we get to value. A storekeeper will say, “Because he didn't talk back to me, I'll take off a little from the price.” There are all kinds of ways, because the self has to be satisfied even while there are money transactions. The idea of value comes in many fashions. Right now what value is is undergoing something different.

A person sends in an expense account. He got an insulting letter from his boss, and secretly he puts in three dollars extra because his boss insulted him. He sees himself as right—he had to bear the insult.

Approaches to Price

There are two things in price: one is outwitting somebody; and the other is feeling the product is good and you asked a fair price. Both ways of seeing are in the same person. To be able to deceive somebody is looked on as a flower in your buttonhole. And the other way is there also. The outwitting someone as to price is a little bit as in poker playing: the idea in a poker face is, if you have the best cards you act still as if you have no cards at all. That's part of civilization, and offhand it seems very amusing.

But how we act with people has a great deal to do with our lives. Business, as you know, is very largely outwitting the competitor, and also outwitting the public. The purpose of advertising is about 47 percent outwitting the public.

Ill Will & the Profit System

Question. Do you think that the profit system encourages competition with ill will?

ES. Oh, yes. It is that.

The important thing is whether ill will is efficient. It has been able to conceal its inefficiency all these years. But the situation of the world is such—and I'll try to make clear what that situation is—that the inefficiency of ill will is showing now.

That is occurring for the first time in the history of the world, and it has to do with the structure of the world: the fact that countries like Persia of once and what used to be Iraq are now talking back to countries like the United States.

On Inflation, & the Devalued Dollar

Inflation would be: a product that sold more cheaply five years ago, now, for a reason that is not continuous, is selling for more. For example: you buy oatmeal and the price has risen 20 percent. Inflation is present when, because of the economic conditions in the country, a product that was once sold at this price has now risen for a cause that is not seen as in behalf of the economy, that is critical of the economy.

Let's say somebody has had his salary doubled, but a book he bought was also doubled in price: it would be fine, because the increase was the same amount. But inflation has to do with a ratio that you remember.

The purpose of consenting to devalue the dollar two years ago was to make things better in America, but it didn't work. As it is, the dollar is doing a little better than the pound. I do not see the monetary matter as the beginning thing; I see it as symptomatic. But the monetary situation is important, and if the dollar goes down it means the economics of America is not faring so well, because the dollar was once the standard.

A Symbol

Question. Does the existence of money—that is, dollars, different from objects, exchanged—does that in itself have to do with ethics?

ES. It can, yes—as when Christ opposed the money changers. And Franklin Roosevelt spoke about driving out “the money changers.” There's a feeling that you dabble in the symbols of something in order to get the real thing, and “a money changer” even now has a sinister meaning.

Question. But the symbol itself could be good?

ES. Money can be used well, certainly.

Inflation in Oneself

Question. What does inflation correspond to in the self?

ES. It corresponds to one thing: assertion of self which is inaccurate; the enhancement of self which is not based on fact. And everybody can have something of that. Right now a woman is thinking, “My husband has an inflated notion of himself and he thinks I share it.” To think more of yourself than the facts warrant is the same as inflation. It has other relations.

There is a way of making something which you have more valuable, even though its use value is as it was. One can say, “This poem—you can't see it anywhere but here.” The poem doesn't become any better because it's so scarce. But because it is scarce, people think more of it already. That reason has nothing to do with the quality.

Self-Protection, Tariffs, Inflation

Question. What is the purpose of a tariff?

ES. A tariff is a way a country has of helping its own producers. If watches are made in Switzerland, there may be a tariff before they can get to the consumer in America so that persons who want to make watches in New York have a fairer chance.

The matter of tariffs is troubling people right now. There are persons who object to Italian-made suits because they interfere with the selling of American-made suits. There are various ways of making trade or commerce more comfortable for the home boys, and a tariff is a way.

There are people who go for inflation because they have to protect themselves, and inflation is what can result from the desire of producers and manufacturers to protect themselves.