Previous posts in this discussion:
PostRe: CALERNDARS (John Eipper, USA, 06/17/05 4:41 pm)
Ed Jajko says: The use by the Orthodox Churches of the Julian calendar has long given Orthodox Christians an advantage over their Catholic and other brethren. The Orthodox are able to benefit from post-Christmas sales to buy their Christmas presents, a pretty good reason for retaining the Julian calendar. RH: Did the Westernizing process which began with Peter the Great consider adopting the Western calendar?
Greed: Christian Dogma to Wall Street
(Jon Kofas, Greece
10/04/10 4:14 PM)
Oliver Stone's film Wall Street and the sequel this year made the term greed a part of popular culture and subject to ongoing debate amid a global recession. The term "greed" indicates "desire for excess" and implies abuse of material accumulation. However, the Freudian definition of greed differs from that of a modern economist who follows Adam Smith's free-market theory, and that definition differs from the one of a Lutheran theologian, and so on with each field having its own definition and nuances of the term. It is also significant to consider that in some cultures like the US "greed" may be an integral part of how to achieve the American Dream, while in others like India before British colonial rule greed (individual or institutional) is identified as the primary source of evil (The Bhagavadgita).
Historically, greed does not have the same value in Eastern cultures, especially in China and India, as it does in the West. This is partly because western societies are more individualistic and less collectivist, especially Protestant northwest Europe and the US that emphasize individual achievement more than collective welfare and harmony. In the Orient social status rooted in noble birth, education, the arts, spirituality as well as political power designed to maintain harmony transcended the sheer accumulation of individual wealth associated with merchants and money lenders whose role was not elevated until the Europeans imposed colonial or semi-colonial rule in Asia.
In Western Civilization, greed has a long history that in terms of legal measures to contain it goes back to the era of Solon the lawgiver, who accused the Athenian landowners of undermining social harmony and destroying the city-state:
The man whose riches satisfy his greed
Is not more rich for all those heaps and hoards
Than some poor man who has enough to feed
And clothe his corpse with such as God affords.
I have no use for men who steal and cheat;
The fruit of evil poisons those who eat. (Solon Poems)
Athenian greed for wealth, power, and prestige in the fifth century led to the demise of the city-state with the Peloponesian Wars marking beginning of decline for classical Greece. Virgil and Seneca attributed greed (avarice) to the deterioration of Roman society, decay in morals and civil harmony. Drawing largely from the Apostle Paul, the early church fathers ("Primitive Christianity") recognized greed as one of the seven deadly sins (all of them predating Christianity) and deemed this vice a catalyst to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. As a transitional figure between the Medieval World and Renaissance, Dante condemned greed not only on the part of the temporal (secular) world but of the spiritual realm as well. In the name of God, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences and becoming the richest institution and largest landowner in Europe.
The Enlightenment's emphasis on the individual's intellectual awakening, a process achieved through merit, and the Industrial Revolution held the promise of machine holding humanity's answers for all its material problems. Enlightenment and Industrial Capitalism provided a further impetus to the bourgeois value system and ultimate goal of creating a material world that would replace the Kingdom of Heaven. Hence, greed, an irrational impulse that ran counter to the Enlightenment's focus on reason, must be at the center of the new society's practice.
Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith's contended that self-interest promotes the greater social good because the market's "invisible hand" determines what has value for the consumer and thus profit for the producer necessarily benefits society. From Industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and the emergence of robber barons of the 19th century, greed worked to polarize society socioeconomically, ethnically, racially, religiously, and in terms of gender.
During the Progressive Era, politicians tried moderating the runaway culture of greed. In reality, capitalists prospered more under Progressive presidents from Roosevelt to Wilson than they had before, a fact that resulted in massive capital accumulation during the 1920s and led to the Great Depression. The 1930s convinced many Americans that the culture of rugged individualism and greed of capital concentration during the previous decade had caused economic dislocation and social catastrophe.
The era of the "Big Bands" and coming together as a nation, implicit collectivism (Socialism to FDR/New Deal critics) moderated the culture of greed as did the war that followed. However, the Cold War meant a necessary ideological return to the culture of greed as the implicit essence of capitalism in a struggle for dominance against Communism. The value system of greed as an unspoken but practice integral part of the American way of life, a value system and way of life to be exported to the rest of the world, was well on its way. Not that war-ravaged Europe was not anxious to emulate its NATO leader and capture some of the prewar glory associated with the greed of imperialism.
In spite of the Civil Rights movement and the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spread beyond urban America to much of the Western World, despite the humbling effect the Vietnam war had on America, greed would remain at the center of the cultural milieu. "You can call it greed, selfishness or enlightened self-interest, but the bottom line is that it's these human motivations that get wonderful things done. Unfortunately, many people are naive enough to believe that it's compassion, concern and 'feeling another's pain' that's the superior human motivation." This from Walter Williams, African-American academic who became the darling of the white establishment in the 1980s when Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberalism was triumphant and the Communist bloc was about to fall. Yes, free at last to say publicly what was on the minds of most about the virtues of greed, the greed that makes the solipsist feel good, the kind of greed that means life.
Greed works because it has defeated the Communist bloc and integrated those countries into "our economic system," greed is great because it means accumulation of more regardless of endemic poverty for about one-third of the world's population. Greed never took a rest as globalization was responsible for its diffusion and acceleration during the Clinton decade that laid the foundations for the economic crisis of 2008-2010. And then came Bush to make individual and national greed a revered patriotic duty.
Yoshi Tsurumi, former professor at Harvard University wrote on 04/07/05 in the Harvard Crimson: "Thirty years ago, President Bush was my student at Harvard Business School... In those days, Bush belonged to a minority of MBA students who were seriously disconnected from taking the moral and social responsibility for their actions. Today, he would fit in comfortably with an overwhelming majority of business students and teachers whose role models are celebrated captains of piracy."
Since the 1980s, as neo-conservatives have captured the Republican Party, America’s business education has also increasingly become contaminated by the robber baron culture of the pre-Great Depression era. Yes indeed, the institutional structure which includes colleges and universities have helped to disseminate the value system of greed that Wall Street practices during business hours and always with 100% transparency! The roots of the culture of greed are very deep and complex, and cannot be moderated in a short period or by the political establishment that sees no alternative to acting opportunistically. Cultural revolutions take years if not decades to have an impact, and unless accompanied by events in society that force people to alter their habits and value system, the status quo remains unchanged because it means survival.
The failure to begin addressing change in the culture of greed, individual and institutional (public and private), the failure of institutions to teach that greed is not a virtue, will result in the decay of society as it did in the case of societies built on individual and institutional greed.
JE comments: With Jon Kofas's posting, I faced a real-world, "WAISworld" dilemma of classification--where does one place "greed"? In our new website, all postings must fit in a pre-existing category. I chose the "economics" forum, although religion or philosophy might lay an equally valid claim.
Wasn't it the film Wall Street where Michael Douglas claims that greed is good? Jon Kofas's reflections on the cultural markedness of greed brings to mind the notion of "ambición" in Spanish. Of course it's a cognate with the English "ambition," but the latter is a good thing (work ethic, get-aheadedness, etc.), whereas "ambición" is a negative term, referring instead to self-interest and a lack of scruples. Shall we follow Jon's lead and continue our discussion on greed?
(Alain de Benoist, France
10/05/10 3:38 AM)
I have nothing to add to the post written by Jon Kofas about greed (4 October), which is quite remarkable.
In Greek thought, greed was only a part of hybris, dismeasure, excess. Jon could have quoted also what Aristotle wrote about chrematistic. In the old Germanic religion, greed was the main cause of the decline of the Gods (Ragnarökr), a quite significant lesson.
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is only invisible for blind people. It never works because supply cannot be “harmonized” with demand in general, but only with solvent demand. Unsolvent demand is ignored. Greed is the basic impulsion of the present dominant ideology. A dominant ideology is always the ideology of the dominant (people).
JE comments: If you're the one doing the demanding, "solvent demand" is a good kind of demand to have!
Greed--I look forward to a fruitful WAIS exchange on the topic, along the lines of the "afterlife" conversation we had several months ago. Is anyone willing to take the Gordon Gekko/Wall Street (the film) position? ("The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.")
(Robert Whealey, USA
10/05/10 4:55 PM)
Greed was denounced by most of the 17 Jewish Prophets, Moses, Jesus and
Paul. Pope Gregory called greed one of the 7 deadly sins. The
plutocracy seems to be winning today. They won from 1914 until 1929,
and seemed to win another round from Ronald Reagan to 2008.
It seems to me that if Republicans win in 2010, the next round of
recession, downturn, slump, panic, stagflation will soon hit again.
Two things are inevitable according to Ben Franklin: death and taxes.
JE comments: From the quagmire of this scenario I'd like to single out stagflation. What are the chances in the near term? We've seen the "stag" part galore, but inflation is the one thing we've been spared thus far in our 3-year (and counting) recession. Despite all the money that's been printed in the current round of bailouts and stimuli, prices simply have not gone up.
A question from the Devil's Advocate: if the Chinese stop lending us money, won't interest rates have to rise...and then what?
- More on Greed and "Propaganda as Subjective Reality" (Jon Kofas, Greece 10/11/10 4:27 PM)
A few weeks ago (27 August) I wrote a piece about "Propaganda as
Subjective Reality," and indeed we see it very clearly these few weeks
remaining before the US elections.
Examples of propaganda as subjective reality: Jerry Brown called Meg
Whitman, his gubernatorial opponent in California, a "whore"; Democrats
are solely responsible for government fraud and do not wish to
eliminate it by rejecting the generous assistance of the benevolent
corporate world; Democrats are solely responsible for the real estate
bubble; Democrats are solely responsible for the banking crisis;
Democrats are running fiefdoms by staying in office for half a century,
instead of practicing honest democratic politics and serving limited
terms like those hard-working, honest, people-oriented benevolent
All of this and more is to be expected from Fox News and other Tea
Party backers, and we will see more of it in the future. But here is
what the LA Times is
actually reporting on Jerry Brown. "Republican gubernatorial nominee
Meg Whitman declined to comment Sunday about a recording on which
someone associated with rival Jerry Brown's campaign suggested
characterizing her as a "whore" for allegedly limiting her pension
plan's effect on public safety officers in order to garner their
Such language is not so unusual among politicians. Nixon had a rather
loose tongue especially when drinking his favorite whiskey--but so
what, such language humanized him. What really matters is policy not
colorful language, sense of humor, or any trait unrelated to how
politicians govern. The larger issue is whether the epithet "whore"
does a gross injustice to prostitutes.
Political elites whether Democrat or Republican, Conservative or
Liberal, whether in the US or outside, serve as conduits for the
financial elites with only a marginal role as caretakers of society's
welfare that includes all people. In short, politicians are
"Machiavellian whores," and why is anyone surprised? Politicians are
indeed "Machiavellian whores" about which the only doubt is the price
(power, glory, money, prestige, etc.) they extract from the financial
elites, not about their chosen profession.
To blame either Democrats or Republicans for the state of the US
economy--health care problems, fraud and waste, high unemployment,
banking crisis, real estate bubble, and campaign funding
sources--serves no purpose because both parties are responsible and
both serve the same master, namely, corporate America. On the IBM story
offering its services to save the government $900 billion annually, do
we not need to know why the White House rejected the offer before we
accept IBM's version of the truth as God's word!
The IBM story is making the rounds in all the right-wing media and
blogs, but they do not mention that in November 2008 IBM requested that
the incoming Obama adopt a techno-fix for all problems facing the
country from health care to traffic jams. Obama rejected the IBM offer
that many saw as a self-serving or even bailout for tech companies like
IBM with a history of trying to monopolize the mainframe market around
the world. The only thing that IBM has been pushing since the 2008
election is securing lucrative contracts for itself, while it has been
shipping jobs to China, India, and Brazil.
Is it not true that building a data processing systems for health care
(Medicare and Medicaid) turned out to be a very profitable enterprise
for Ross Perot almost half a century ago? Could IBM, which is
considered the master of jobs outsourcing, be after the same lucrative
market as Perot 45 years ago? And is it not true that in late July
2010, the EU launched anti-trust investigations against IBM for
"abusing its position in the mainframe computer market"? Incidentally,
what do Oracle, Cisco among other companies have to say about IBM
having its foot in the door with freebies at the outset as bait for
shark-like bites out of the US tech budget that follow?
As far as Mort Zuckerman, it is hardly a secret that the billionaire
real estate and media mogul is feeding this story, for he has been an
Obama critic and Joe Lieberman-style Democrat (Conservative in Liberal
clothing). All the noise these days before the mid-term election is due
to the fact that Obama and the Democrats want to institutionalize some
moderate reforms in an economic system that will weaken substantially
in the next cyclical recession.
The distortions of policies and policy proposals are not driven just by
the election in November but mostly by Obama's concern that if he does
not take additional steps to "rationalize the market economy" as some
EU and other G-20 leaders are demanding, the system will be seriously
debilitated and China along with the other BRIC nations will indeed
emerge much stronger much faster than any one now believes.
Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone Group, a Zuckerman ally who has
received lots of press in business media and in Zuckerman's
publications, has stated that "it's war with Obama." Why war and why
compare Obama's attempt to raise taxes on private equity firms to
"Hitler invading Poland?"
The US business community does not want higher taxes, stricter
environmental regulation, greater oversight for banks and Wall Street,
and tighter energy and labor regulation. The are the same people that
created the current global crisis for which millions of Americans and
billions of people around the world are paying with their livelihoods
and those of their children; these are the same people who have
weakened the middle class and devastated the working class; these are
the same people engaged in massive schemes (Lehman Brothers, Goldman
Sachs, etc.) of fraud; yet, they have the audacity to demand a "free
hand" from the government that bailed them out at taxpayer expense so
they can continue to ruin the lives of the middle class and workers, so
they can enjoy their privileges.
Greed is the only driving force behind the current and ongoing
propaganda campaign against Obama, who is an otherwise moderate
Democrat president trying to prevent the worst from taking place in the
future. Finally, those who disagree with everything I have written on
ideological/political grounds, may argue that my essay falls in the
category of "propaganda as subjective reality." Yes it does indeed! The
only question is one of honesty whether it comes from the right, center
or left--the ability to publicly state that one is a propagandist and
the constituency I serve is the financial elite, the trade unions,
lower middle class professionals.
Nor is there is no moral equivalence in propaganda, because one may
propagate to defraud the public and another to prevent such
developments. A good example of an establishment politician who has
come clean with the public about propaganda and hidden political and
business interests is Jean-Claude Juncker, Euro-Group President and
Luxembourg Premier, who last week admitted at the IMF-World Bank
meeting of foreign ministers that the EU knew of the impending Greek
debt crisis before the outbreak of the current global recession, and
did nothing about it, allowing French and German corporate interests to
rake in billions in profits.
- US Federal Government Spending per Family (Richard Hancock, USA 11/11/10 2:30 AM)
Now that the Republicans have won control of the US House of Representatives and have improved their standing in the Senate, Federal spending will move to center stage. The Wall Street Journal of November 6 -7 has an article, "Tracking Your Federal Tax Dollars," by Laura Saunders. She gives a "Taxpayer's Itemized Receipt" based on two families--a working couple with an annual income of $200,000 and a retired couple, with no dependents and an income of $100,000.
The working couple, both working with two children, will pay a total of $42,978 in income and payroll taxes. The first five items are: Social Security --$8,279; Military costs, including Iraq and Afghanistan--$6,735.68; Medicare--$5,189.95; Medicaid--$3,065.39; and Interest on the national debt--$2,284.50. All other 28 items listed are quite insignificant in comparison to the above listed five. For example, Foreign Aid amounts to only $366.74. According to Ms. Saunders, 40% of the public think that Foreign Aid is one of the two largest budget expenses when, in fact, 14 times as much is spent on Social Security as on Foreign Aid.
Surprisingly, the retired couple with $100,000 income pays only $7,555 in income and payroll taxes. It appears to me that the working couple with two dependents are paying an unfairly heavy tax compared to the retired couple. They are paying 21% of their income compared to the retired couple's 7.5%.
I think that the lesson presented by these figures is that serious cutting of expenses must come from (1) Social Security, (2) Medicare, (3) Medicaid and, finally, (4) Defense expenses. Retired people can no longer be excluded from the process of controlling our national deficit. I say this with regret since I am a retiree, but any attempt to control deficit spending, without limiting the enormous expenses on retirees, is destined to fail.
JE comments: It's very interesting to see where you tax dollars go! My one question is, how is assumed that Federal spending will receive greater scrutiny under a Republican-controlled House? Recent experience amply shows that the US spending binge goes down both sides of the aisle.
One more thing the Wall Street Journal should keep in mind--there are precious few "working couples" in the US with an annual income of $200,000. I don't have any statistics with me, but $200 large would probably fall in the 95th percentile (or above) for US families.
- Economics, Racism and Human Nature (Jon Kofas, Greece 11/13/10 6:30 AM)
Do economic crises and wars exacerbate racism among all social classes and result in greater social tensions and political polarization to the degree that moderate conservatives more farther to the right and moderate centrists inadvertently find themselves defending the left? There is certainly ample proof that economic crises do result in higher crime rates against people and property, but do they result in hate crime expressed in subtle and overt ways?
During the Enlightenment the concept of the "universality of human nature" prevailed among philosophers from Rene Descartes (precursor to the era) to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who claimed that they did not consider any factor such as skin color, religion, ethnicity, body size, or any trait other than intellectual capacity and artistic creativity. Enlightenment thinkers believed that human progress cannot take place with stereotypes, prejudice, and intolerance and only when human beings rest on reason and empirical criteria can they be closer to the truth and be able to make a contribution to the edification of humanity.
In theory, this was based largely on an empiricist philosophy--racism is learned behavior and not an integral part of human nature that has always existed and will always exist. The Enlightenment was indeed a great step forward for Europeans that were at the time engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonizing, frequently with very violent wars against non-whites with the sole purpose of exploiting their labor and resources, while a select few intellectuals argued the boundless horizon of reason and the limitations of the irrational.
Racism in European society (and in the North American colonies) became prevalent because there was a motive of power and profit. Therefore, racism was deeply ingrained in the minds of white Europeans, including prominent philosophers like Hume among others who believed that non-whites differed (were inferior) from whites who were presumed "civilized" for it was widely believed northwest Europe was God's chosen center of the universe.
Euro-centrism that included racism remained a characteristic of European culture, shared by American colonists who were born into a society of prejudice, intolerance, and stereotypes that served domestic and foreign policy goals, military schemes, economic interests, and of course social interests.
Racism was as natural as colonialism. Whites grew up believing in their biological--physical and mental--and their moral (linked to Christianity) superiority that fed into innate human proclivities of fear, anxieties, insecurities about identity, potentialities, and abilities, and guilt, all projected on the other of a different race lower down the evolutionary chain; the other that is the ubiquitous enemy looking back from inside the mirror with a menacing look.
Racism also goes hand in hand with militarism. We see a substantial rise of racism in all facets of Western societies during the era of colonialism that resulted in the 19th and 20th-century wars of imperialism, wars that intensified racism among whites. Similarly, we see that the rise of Japan as an economic power in the late 19th century and its subsequent rise as a regional military power, after it defeated Russia in 1905, resulted in the rise of racism against the Chinese and Koreans, later to include other Asian nationalities.
Besides irrational proclivities in human beings, as Enlightenment thinkers correctly identified as the source of prejudice and intolerance, power, especially military power afford human beings a sense of superiority that in popular culture it translates into prejudice, stereotypes and intolerance. Modern society is still operating under the ideals of the Enlightenment, the last intellectual revolution of the Western World, and it does so because there is societal consensus that harmony and progress cannot take place in the absence of tolerance in an increasingly multicultural world.
Racism is not good politics, it is not good business, it is not good for any institution that endeavors to project an image of responsibility and constructiveness in society. The question, however, is the degree to which human beings, when they are all alone or with others who think like them, do not candidly reveal the irrational racist self because it "feels good" to feel a sense of superiority--man playing God. Therefore, while constitutions and laws provide for punishment of racism and encourage tolerance, in the real world--whether in the streets of Chicago among poor teenagers of different ethnic and racial groups or in New York's, London's or Tokyo's corporate board rooms or in the battlefield in Iraq or Gaza--the enemy is still objectified and reduced to a racially inferior being, for that is the essence of power many human beings worship more than they value any virtue in theory.
Far more dangerous and destructive than any direct or overt racially motivated act or speech is the subtle form of racism as we have witnessed since Obama became president by people who are too ignorant to recognize that he is as quintessentially "establishment" as any other president and represents the white Anglo-Saxon value system as much as he does finance capitalism.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party and especially Glenn Beck have launched repeated attacks on America's first black president and his Jewish supporters like billionaire George Soros. The irony of such racially motivated attacks is the sheer ignorance and stupidity of those delivering the divisive rhetoric, as Salon magazine exposed in an article about Beck, Palin and Soros. "Given Soros's alleged role plotting to destroy the United States, Beck and his Fox viewership might be surprised to learn that one of Sarah Palin's top aides has been on Soros's payroll for years.That would be Republican lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Palin's foreign policy adviser and a member of her small inner circle. He runs a Washington, DC consulting firm called Orion Strategies. Scheunemann and a partner have since 2003 been paid over $150,000 by one of Soros's organizations for lobbying work, according to federal disclosure forms reviewed by Salon. The lobbying, which has continued to the present, centers on legislation involving sanctions and democracy promotion in Burma."
JE comments: When it comes to ideology, lobbyists are all Green--as in the Green Dollar. ($10s now have more of a yellowish shade, and the $50 bill with the incomparable visage of US Grant is accented with red stripes, but Green still rules the day.)
- Some Thoughts on the Eurocrisis (Cristiano Souza, Brazil 11/25/11 5:44 AM)
The past days showed that the crisis in Europe took a turn for the worse, now even knocking on Germany's door. It has definitely spread from Greece to Italy, regardless of any voluntary or involuntary Greek default (which hasn't actually happened yet!), and the financial deterioration has become a threat as present as deleterious, mostly seen in the strong rise of the yields on Italian (and even French) bonds, which put the country's debt on an insolvent trend.
A recent fact has been the idea forwarded by European politics to change the Euro from its current format, possibly keeping only its core (Germany, France, Austria, Finland, and Netherlands). In another instance, the CDU, Angela Merkel's party, voted last week for a rule allowing for countries to leave the monetary union. Such decisions pose two big problems:
1. Much in the same manner as the three packages adopted to end the crisis, they do not attack the main pressing problem of high public indebtedness. Actually, the measures from June 2010 and July 2011 did not either, and little did the package from Oct. 26. But the latter, specifically, seemed neither credible nor feasible to be implemented in a short span of time (in days, not weeks or months) in order to avoid contagion to Italy. So how could a change in the monetary union agreement help indebtedness? It cannot, as sovereign debts would remain high and mostly in the banks' portfolios. Moreover, it does nothing to block the development of the crisis: worsening expectations concerning Greece contaminating Italy and then French banks, risking turning the Greek insolvency into fiscal and banking crisis in the eurozone, which leads us to the second point:
2. The end of the current Euro arrangement may generate further instability. A first obvious problem would be the possibility of a bank run. Once the currency swap was announced in one country, who will run the risk of seeing their savings compulsorily changed to currencies that will depreciate strongly, then eliminating part of their savings, in the others where the Euro is kept? Moreover, how to avoid bigger fears concerning the banking system, since it is possible that French banks will have to bear large losses due to their exposition to Italian debt (according to data from BIS, something around €400 billion)? And how to avoid that from contaminating confidence in German banks as the possibility of systemic failure would grow in the third and second-largest economies of the region? After all, independently of how the currency swap is done, the weight of the debt of the problematic countries would probably be unbearable for some governments following the eventual depreciation of the new currencies, possibly leading to sovereign default in no time. And French and German banks would end up with part of their assets denominated in weaker currencies, thus lowering their value.
European authorities continue to avoid taking definitive decisions to fight the crisis. First of all, they chose not to issue Eurobonds, since that could increase indebtedness of some members of the Euro area. The European Commission's plan is interesting, but unlikely to be adopted immediately (or even in months or years from now). On Oct. 26, they opted for ringfencing Greece, which would force the European Central Bank to be the lender of last resort, given the difficulties in boosting the European Financial Stability Fund's firepower. The limitless issuance of Euros by the ECB would be a quick way to fight the crises in the short term given so many difficulties and doubts with the recent package. But then the Teutonic restrictions come to the fore, ruling out both fiscal and monetary laxness, impeding many of the solutions and possibly leading to the end of the Euro as we know it. We are living dangerous times indeed.
JE comments: 'Tis the season to give thanks, and I'm grateful to hear from our friend in São Paulo, Cristiano Souza, who hasn't written the Forum in several months. (I'd also love to hear from Joe Listo, our other friend in São Paulo!)
Cristiano brings up a wrinkle of a possible eurozone divorce we haven't yet discussed: How could a run on, say, the Greek banks be avoided? Who in her rational mind wouldn't want to hold her savings in Euros instead of the guaranteed-to-lose-value New Drachma? I can envision Greece springing a Draconian, surprise freeze on bank accounts, like the Argentines did in the early 2000s. But wouldn't/isn't even the possibility of such a move inspiring Greeks of means to squirrel away their money in foreign banks? As Cristiano points out, these are dangerous (or at least dyspepsia-inducing) times.
- Pay of Government Workers in US (Brian Blodgett, USA 11/30/11 6:37 PM)
When I retired from the US Army back in 2006, I was doing fairly well economically, making around $60,000 (USD) in taxable income and $21,500 in non-taxable income for a grand total of $81,500 (2011 pay of almost $92,000). I immediately started working for the US government, making a base pay of $78,000 and a locality pay of around $14,000, for a total pay of over $92,000 (2011 pay of over $103,000). This new pay of $10,500 more actually resulted in a decrease in my monthly income, since I had been receiving over $875 in untaxed income.
The same job I had in 2007 with the US government would now be paying me $103,000, up from the $92,000 I had in 2007, but note that based on inflation that it would be the same pay. Was what I doing for America worth it? At the time, of course it was, since I was earning the money. As I think about it today (having resigned the position in 2007 due to my belief that if I was not enjoying a job that I would not stay with it), I can honestly say that I was overpaid by a long way for my skill set--that of being a military retiree with over 15 years working in the military intelligence field with a high-level clearance. My daily job in 2006 could have been done by a person in the military making around then $42,000 (2011 pay of over $47,000)--note that I am not saying a military person should have done it, but I am not sure what a civilian would have made doing that particular job as an intelligence analyst.
So, as I read various postings about the current situation in America and the economy, taxes, unemployment, etc., as well as that of other countries, I can agree that much of our money in America goes to the government for what can be done at considerably less pay, so while firmly believing that we have a system in place that pays folks considerably too much for some jobs (and not enough for others like public school teachers), solving this is really not possible. The US government froze federal pay since 2010, and we cannot simply cut the pay of all federal employees; something has to give. My making around $50.00 per hour (based on inflation) is extreme.
No, I did not offer any solutions. I just pointed out some details about the US economy and payment of government employees.
JE comments: This is an informative (and refreshingly honest) posting from Brian Blodgett. WAISers rarely talk about their incomes; it's taboo to do so in most cultures (but not all: Argentines come to mind as a people who have no problem posing the question: "how much do you earn?"). From my pulpit I know that WAISer incomes range from the very modest (some of us are unemployed) to the positively stratospheric. Fortunately, in this Forum we are all equal--everyone has a voice.
Brian confirms one thing I've always told my students: Federal jobs are good jobs.
With his hard numbers, Brian makes one point I second most heartily: public school teachers in the US are underpaid (but to be fair, some of the less competent are overpaid).
Are Government Workers Lazy and Overpaid?
(Jon Kofas, Greece
12/01/11 6:35 AM)
The posting by Brian Blodgett (30 November) is indeed refreshingly honest, and it does point to problems in the salary structure of the government. One issue is the value of labor in government, within the public sector with different levels from local and state to federal, as well as different fields from clerical services to top management in a science lab.
There are many studies on this issue, some conducted by universities, others by right-wing think tanks, others by government agencies, none of them agreeing exactly on the results. Let us assume for the sake of argument that government employees are overpaid and lazy, because government is outside the realm of competition. Why is the value of a government employee, practically at any level and any branch, including DoD, worth less than the private sector counterpart with similar education and experience? If government were such a great deal, why is it that government workers use public service as resumé meat to jump ship, go the the private sector, do the exact same thing and earn much more?
The second issue is comparing the merit-based system in government versus the private sector. Government has rationalized the entire process from hiring, promotion to firing, mostly based on a merit-based system, although it is far more important to be "going along and getting along," and to stay as "professionally cool" in order to survive and move ahead, than it is to make waves intended to improve the workplace. As for the private sector, the system is merit-based from hiring to firing, as management tries to make sure that there is safety net under its feet and looks to shift the burden and blame beneath its feet, while taking all credit at the top when good things happen to the company. Mechanisms of accountability are more stringent in federal government than in the private sector also, because there is a sense of working for and serving the public, whereas the private sector only looks at quarterly reports, and only in terms of how can management survive and thrive, often regardless of the health of the company.
There has been a long-standing prejudice against government workers in just about every sector, from elementary school teachers to DoD and intelligence workers. That prejudice comes mostly from conservative critics and the media, who portray government workers as lazy under-producing drones, wasting taxpayer resources, committed to affirmative action that many in conservative and some in liberal circles view as license to bypass the merit system, lacking accountability because there is no "boss" as in the private sector to crack the whip, and that a government job means the person is not good enough to take risks in the private sector. The anti-government prejudice also comes from ideologues that associate anything with a government bureaucracy as "Socialist." Blaming the bureaucracy has been fair game for decades, although the vast bureaucracy was set up during the Progressive Era (from Theodore Roosevelt and Taft to Wilson) in order to make the economy and private sector more efficient and help it expand.
Anti-government worker prejudices intensified with the Reagan administration, as did anti-unionism. I do not remember such intense disdain for government employees in the 1970s when I was in college--postal workers were the exception, and that was largely a racist issue given that minorities worked in the sector. The attack on government employees has been part of a political campaign, helped by the corporate-owned media and private sector, fueled by racists, all intending to attack the public sector as the focus of all evil as Reagan did, while arguing that salvation rests squarely with the private sector. This attack has been part of a campaign to attack labor unions, to cut wages and benefits for the most vulnerable public sector workers, to shift resources from government personnel and dish out contracts to private companies.
Government surveys indicate that the average state and local government worker makes about a third more in wages and benefits packages. However, public sector workers are better educated, have greater experience and operate under a more austere system of accountability. Moreover, public sector workers of similar education and experience earn an average 11% less than their counterparts in the private sector. It is also worth noting that when figuring into the equation the compensation of top management in public sector versus private sector, and the private contractors that government frequently uses, the public sector is a bargain, while the cost of doing business in the private sector is astronomical by comparison. Finally, the recent recession has taken a larger bite out of the private sector, and the goal of many in right-wing camps is to bring down the public sector salary structure.
As to productivity of the public vs. private sector, studies conducted by right-wing think tanks indicate that government workers are less productive by 12%. University studies regarding productivity comparisons differ sharply with the results of right-wing think tanks, whose studies have been used by Tea Party politicians to slash salaries and benefits and eliminate positions at the local and state levels. When breaking down the productivity work load, it is "loaded" toward the bottom of the labor pyramid, that is toward the lowest paid, while in government work load is more evenly distributed.
Moreover, the motivation level in public sector management is as high as that of private sector, in spite of vast compensation differences favoring the private sector. The reality is that public opinion on this issue is shaped by the media and conservative politicians, invariably trying to secure tax breaks, subsidies, contracts and other perks for the private sector. The Tea Party has done a major PR job throughout the country to go after government workers at all levels, it has used the issue to rally support from those who have no jobs or who have seen their wages cut in the private sector, and above all to default all problems in society to lazy and overpaid government workers. This issue will remain a major one for the decade as the US is trying to lower its public debt at all levels, and right wingers will insist that the way to do it is slash salaries and benefits and lower the number of workers.
JE comments: At the risk of laboring the Gini Coefficient topic, the gap between the lowest- and highest-paid government worker is vastly lower than in the private sector. The US has a public-sector CEO who makes only $400K, after all, although the perks are good. There's a certain irony of political candidates who criticize public employees while seeking to become one.
Are Government Workers Lazy and Overpaid? On Bureaucrats
(Cameron Sawyer, Russia
12/02/11 2:24 AM)
JE commented the following (see Jon Kofas, 1 December): "There's a certain irony of political candidates who criticize public employees while seeking to become one."
I agree entirely. One of the problems of democracy for me is that I would never want to be ruled by someone who desired that power in the first place.
As to prejudice against public sector employees, I think that those who have commented on the topic have missed the main reason: Most people feel that public sector employees do not produce anything; do not create any value. And thus that they simply consume the resources of the rest of us.
This is the same feeling--a very widespread gut feeling--which makes the term "bureaucrat" such a negative word in most people's minds, denoting a person who consumes our resources without producing anything; merely regulating and interfering with our lives. Even I admit that we can't live without a public sector, so I think that these prejudices cannot be entirely true. Nevertheless, I think that they are fairly understandable from the point of view of average people.
Government vs. Private-Sector Employees
(Richard Hancock, USA
12/03/11 10:21 AM)
I think that the main difference between business and government is the extremely inflexible response that the customer-taxpayer gets from the latter entity. Some large businesses are guilty of this same inflexibility but, if you write the president of one of these great businesses, you will receive a personal reply from someone in the company. The reply may not be to your liking but, at least, a human being responds to your problem. I have never had this experience with government. If you wish to get such a response, you need to write your congressman and even then, this response tends to be quite unsatisfactory. If you dare to write your congressman, you can be sure that you have jeopardized any future relationship that you might need with that government entity.
All of the above tells me that these government employees have no need to give a meaningful response to any plea from the common man. To me, this is more important than any comparison between salaries and perks of government as opposed to those of business. The business response recognizes that you are a possible customer and that it would not be prudent to antagonize you. I have seen no similar attitude in the government bureaucracy at either state or national level. Only if you are a person of power and influence, can you expect the government official to be responsive. I say this from the experience of working for the state and federal governments for a total of 25 years.
Another point that I wish to make; if you have unused funds in your government budget, you would be considered a fool to return these funds to the government because this would result in the reduction of your budget for next year. If you should do this in business, your superior would be grateful for this contribution to the profitability of the business.
In voicing criticism of the government, I realize that some entities perform better than others. If the entity has a specific mission such as the Corps of Engineers, the FBI, or the Census Bureau, it tends to do better than those that have a broader, less-defined mission.
In conclusion, the need for business to make a profit affords a discipline that is much lacking in the government service.
JE comments: The private sector has a much greater accountability to its clients--at least in principle. I've had many bad experiences with commercial entities, however: how many of you have waited forever on hold when calling an insurance or cable company, computer help desk, or airline?
- Government Employment (Charles Ridley, USA 12/01/11 11:30 AM)
A few words about government employment. I was employed for some 15 months in 1965-66 as a technical abstractor of Chinese scientific literature in an outfit called the Aerospace Technology Division, which was housed in the Library of Congress.
My daily activities, in addition to making abstracts myself, included editing the abstracts of outside contractors, keeping up with English-language scientific journals in the fields for which I was responsible and keeping up with what was going on in China in general.
I had a full working day from 08:00 hours to 17:00 hours. We were on the top floor of the Library of Congress, and as I got out of the elevator, there was a sign-in sheet on the wall opposite the elevator--and if one arrived after 0830 one lost an hour of leave time. We had an hour for lunch and had to sign in and out.
In short, I and the members of our section put in a full working day every day. We were under the federal retirement plan rather than Social Security, and vacation and leave time accumulated in hourly increments. One could save up leave hours and take a normal vacation, or use as many hours as needed to take care of matters requiring time off from work, such as securing a driver's license or registering an automobile.
Working overtime for extra pay was strictly regulated, and that privilege was granted only under special circumstances.
One of my friends who transferred to the Congressional Research Service (also housed in the Library of Congress) also reported that it was a hard-working outfit.
The only real extra was that of being permitted to borrow books from the Library of Congress.
JE comments: Sounds like a very educational, but regimented job. Charles Ridley's experience reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges's iconic short story, "The Library of Babel." Borges himself worked as a librarian, and later became director of Argentina's Biblioteca Nacional.
- Government Employment (Charles Ridley, USA 12/01/11 11:30 AM)
- Government vs. Private-Sector Employees (Richard Hancock, USA 12/03/11 10:21 AM)
- Are Government Workers Lazy and Overpaid? On Bureaucrats (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 12/02/11 2:24 AM)
- More on Greed and "Propaganda as Subjective Reality" (Jon Kofas, Greece 10/11/10 4:27 PM)
- on Greed (Robert Whealey, USA 10/05/10 4:55 PM)
- on Greed (Alain de Benoist, France 10/05/10 3:38 AM)