Reparations [2]: Slavery, Human Capital, Le Déluge, and Paying the Piper

Après moi, le déluge.
(After me, the deluge.)
King Louis XV of France

The proposal of reparations for the USA’s racial history raises complex legal, economic, and other issues. We’re familiar with these – they’ve been well-rehearsed in op-eds and speeches, by politicians and pundits, activists and the media….

Less familiar are issues more subjective than objective, reflective than combative, instinctual than intellectual. These are the province of shared human experience and sensibility, particularly of virtue — a nearly obsolete concept these days. Virtue prompts change not from the outside, not institutionally, but from a transformation in shared human consciousness, a cultural change of heart, We learn its lessons not from economic models and legal briefs, but principally from truth expressed in fiction –myths and legends, fables and feature films — Aesop’s Fables for adults. As one of Aesop’s contemporaries said about him:

“… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”.[1]

As we’ll see below, virtue asks more than legal compliance, it demands that we pay the piper.

In this series, we will look at both kinds of issues in detail.

History Lesson: The French Revolution

“After me, the deluge” is sometimes attributed to the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as “After us, the deluge.” Either way – King or mistress, me or us – the quote is usually taken as a prophesy of the French Revolution, delivered with an attitude of elite indifference that ranks right in there with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” (Which she probably never said.[2]) “We’re getting away with it now, but all hell is going to break loose once we’re gone.” And indeed it did, when King Louis XVI was guillotined a generation later, under the name Citizen Louis Capet. [3]

From that historical context, après moi, le déluge has come to represent an awareness of coming doom, a feeling that we can’t get away with this forever. Things are good now, but watch out, they won’t last. People thought life was good back in Noah’s time, but look what happened to them. We keep this up, we might get our own version of the Flood.

Contemporary Lesson: Economic Inequality

Plutocrat Nick Hanauer offers a modern version of the saying in his TED talk. According to his TED bio, Hanauer is a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” and founder of 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He unabashedly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for his own future, and the futures of his fellow plutocrats, if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

Whether French Revolution or today, the issue is “paying the piper.”

The Moral of the Story: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Victorian poet Robert Browning brought us the “paying the piper” idiom in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. [4] Here’s a synopsis to refresh our memories:

“‘Pay the piper’ comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.

“Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.

“Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.

“At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.

“When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.

“The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.

“Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.

“At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.”

After me, the deluge + Pay the piper = Pay the piper or risk the deluge

Virtue says don’t get greedy. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be a fraud. Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t be too smart for your own good. Don’t try to get away with it. You’re better than that. Fess up, take responsibility. Don’t invite the deluge – the sudden and terrible twist of fate, the movement of greater mysteries, the imposition of higher justice.

The rats you get rid of won’t be worth the children you lose.

The mayor and citizens of Hamelin defrauded the Piper at the cost of their own children. Justice was absolute — the mountain vault was sealed. The Piper was fully, awfully paid.

Reparations for American slavery are a proposed remedy – a way to pay the piper — for the lost humanity of slaves, stolen from them by a legal and economic framework that assigned slaves economic but not human value. Slaves were dehumanized, and virtue will not tolerate it.

Exploitation of Human Capital

Exploitation of capital assets is expected in a capitalist economy. Human labor is a capital asset, and will also be exploited — everyone who’s ever worked for someone else figures that out the first day on the job. But slavery took exploitation too far: slaves were not people, they were capital assets and nothing more. They were no longer human.

“Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were ex ante. What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair.

“It is relatively easy to come up with intuitively compelling cases of unfair, exploitative behavior. Providing a philosophical analysis to support and develop those intuitions, however, has proven more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is specifying the conditions under which a transaction or institution may be said to be unfair.

“Does the unfairness involved in exploitation necessarily involve some kind of harm to its victim? Or a violation of her moral rights? Is the unfairness involved in exploitation a matter of procedure, substance, or both? And how, if at all, are facts about the history of the agents involved or the background conditions against which they operate relevant to assessing charges of exploitation?”[5]

Slavery harmed its victims, exploited them both procedurally and substantively. And “the facts about the history” of slavery’s purveyors and “the background conditions against which they operate[d]” are most definitely “relevant to assessing charges of exploitation.” Today, 165 years after the nominal end of slavery, those charges remain unanswered, and unpaid.

Slavery and Human Capital

19th Century economist John Elliot Cairnes was “an ardent disciple and friend of John Stuart Mill” and “was often regarded as ‘the last of the Classical economists.’”[6] Writing during the American Civil War, Cairnes analyzed the impact of slavery on both human and other forms of capital in his book The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.[7]

“Cairnes’s shining hour was his widely-discussed 1862 treatise Slave Power.  Cairnes analyzed the consequences of slavery for economic development, in particular how it speeded up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally. Written during the American Civil War, Cairnes warned British policymakers to think twice about backing the economically-unviable Confederacy.  Cairnes book was instrumental in turning the tide of popular English opinion against the rebels.”

Writing about slaves as human capital, Cairnes said this:

“The rice-grounds of Georgia, or the swamps of the Mississippi may be fatally injurious to the human constitution; but the waste of human life which the cultivation of these districts necessitates, is not so great that it cannot be repaired from the teeming preserves of Virginia and Kentucky.

“Considerations of economy, moreover, which, under a natural system, afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master’s interest with the slave’s preservation, when once trading in slaves is practiced, become reasons for racking to the uttermost the toil of the slave; for, when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts.

“It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race. It is in Cuba, at this day, whose revenues are reckoned by millions, and whose planters are princes, that we see in the servile class, the coarsest fare, the most exhausting and unremitting toil, and even the absolute destruction of a portion of its numbers every year.”[8]

Five years after Cairnes wrote that, Karl Marx cited the above passage in Das Kapital[9] in his own analysis of slave labor as capital:

“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.

“‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?

Marx believed that the ultimate culprit was not the individual slave owners, but the capitalist economic system which sponsored the exploitation of all capital – including human capital – to achieve its competitive goal of profitability:

“But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Under the reign of capitalism, Marx argued, workers would be exploited – slaves and free alike — and this would be both an economic and cultural norm. This practice would become so entrenched that it could be broken only by a contrary “compulsion from society.”

The Deluge:  Civil War

“The deluge” is a form of “compulsion from society,” and civil war is a form of both.

The American Civil War was the deluge. The war ended almost exactly four years after it began, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, uncounted non-fatal casualties, and incalculable damage to the rest of American citizenry, human property, and nature.

“Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Both men fought for the Union. Their estimate is derived from an exhaustive study of the combat and casualty records generated by the armies over five years of fighting.  A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts.  It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.”[10]

Tragically, the course of American racial history would cause many to wonder if all those deaths had been in vain. War – the deluge, the compulsion of society – had its day, but it didn’t change cultural attitudes. The ones that supported Antebellum slavery only became more belligerently expressed.

In France, Louis XV saw the deluge coming, Louis XVI suffered from it, but eleven years later Napoleon was Emperor.

The piper was never paid.

In the USA, war gorged itself on the American land and population, but the Union’s victory foundered on the failings of the Reconstruction.

The Piper was never paid.

The law concerning slavery was changed, but de facto[11] slavery lived on. Before the Civil War, slavery had been, like war itself, a legal crime against humanity, justified under the law of the land. After the Civil War, slavery was simply a crime, illegal as all other crimes, but propagated by a reign of terror that eventually gained its own legal justification that would once again have to be dismantled by another compulsion from society 100 years later.

After the war, you couldn’t own slaves anymore, couldn’t buy and sell them, but you could treat legally freed former slaves just as you once treated their legally enslaved predecessors. In fact, it was much worse. Before the war, the ownership and treatment of slaves was by legal right. After the war, de facto slavery relied on a reign of terror grounded in cultural indifference and brutality. Cruel and unusual punishment had been banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but de facto slavery relied on it to terrorize society into submission.

The Piper was never paid.

The U.S. Labor Movement and Human Capital

The American labor movement’s 400-year history is a chronicle of shifting economic theories and new labor laws brought about by periodic challenges – compulsions from society – to the capitalist norm of the exploitation of human capital.[12] Changing times generated changing attitudes, and American culture demanded accommodations in often violent ways.

And now, in the middle of another deluge – this time a plague, the Covid-19 virus – we have seen the most recent and striking societal shift in the form of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination.[13] Few would claim that the 56-year old Civil Rights Act specifically had today’s gender sensibilities in mind, but the law shifts with cultural attitudes when compelled to do so.

The labor movement will continue to change with the times. Issues of sexism remain, and technology – especially robotics, AI, and machine learning – are threatening human labor in ever-accelerating, unprecedented ways. There will be more deluge, more societal compulsion.

The Piper will still need to be paid.

The Racist Roots of Police Brutality

Finally – for today, at least – the Coronavirus deluge has also recharged the force of societal compulsion currently taking on mass incarceration and police brutality, both of which have historical roots in the Reconstruction’s unresolved racism.[14]

The Piper was never paid.

We have much more to talk about. We’ll continue next time.

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14. From Wikipedia.

[2] See Solosophie.com and Phrases.org.

[3] For more about what the saying might mean, see this is from Wikipedia: “The most famous remark attributed to Louis XV (or sometimes to Madame de Pompadour) is Après nous, le déluge (“After us, the deluge”). It is commonly explained as his indifference to financial excesses, and a prediction of the French Revolution to come. The remark is usually taken out of its original context. It was made in 1757, a year which saw the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians at the Battle of Rossbach and the assassination attempt on the King. The “Deluge” the King referred to was not a revolution, but the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was predicted to pass by the earth in 1757, and which was commonly blamed for having caused the flood described in the Bible, with predictions of a new deluge when it returned. The King was a proficient amateur astronomer, who collaborated with the best French astronomers. Biographer Michel Antoine wrote that the King’s remark “was a manner of evoking, with his scientific culture and a good dose of black humor, this sinister year beginning with the assassination attempt by Damiens and ending with the Prussian victory”. Halley’s Comet finally passed the earth in April 1759, and caused enormous public attention and anxiety, but no floods.

[4]   Idioms.online.

[5] Exploitation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published Thu Dec 20, 2001; substantive revision Tue Aug 16, 2016).

[6] The History of Economic Thought.

[7] Cairnes, John Eliot, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (1862).

[8] Cairnes, Slave Power, op cit.

[9] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5).

[10] American Battlefield Trust.

[11] “In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.” Wikipedia

[12] See this timeline, which runs from 1607-1999, beginning with complaints about labor shortages in Jamestown in 1607, addressed by the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves stolen from Africa.

[13] Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times (June 16, 2020).

[14] See, for example, The Racist Roots Of American Policing: From Slave Patrols To Traffic Stops, The Conversation (June 4, 2019) and George Floyd’s Death Reflects The Racist Roots Of American Policing, The Conversation (June 2, 2020).

America’s National Character, Revealed in its COVID-19 Response

“The entire man is… to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back… we should discover… the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

“Begin as you would continue,” my new mother-in-law told my bride and me. Her advice was good beyond gold – a standard we return to in every new beginning, of which there’ve been many in 40+ years.

Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t offer the principle as advice, he recognized its operation in the America he famously toured and wrote about – a nation shaping itself around its founding principles – its “primal cause.” A country’s “national character,” he said, is revealed in the “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the government and the people. The specifics may shift over time as certain founding values prevail over others due to political tradeoffs and changing circumstances, but in the long haul the country stays true to its origins. Countries, like marriages, continue as they began.

The same dynamics that apply to individuals and nations also apply to institutions, for example societal institutions of law, economics, academics, and commercial enterprise. And for all of them, there’s no such thing as a single beginning to be sustained forever. Personal, national, and institutional histories are shaped around many beginnings and endings. With every new beginning comes an invitation to return to “primal causes” and accept the transformation of historical into contemporary; i.e., each path forward requires a fresh look at how the past’s wisdom can help navigate today’s unprecedented challenges. Trouble is, transformation is perhaps the most difficult thing asked of a person, relationship, institution, nation. The opportunity to transform is therefore rarely recognized, much less embraced, but without it there will be hardening into what was but no longer is, and soon the person or entity under stress will fray under the strain of forcing the fluidity of today into the memory of yesterday.

The Covid-19 Policy-Making Triumvirate

Covid-19 has brought the entire world to an inescapable threshold of new beginning, with its commensurate invitation to transformation. America’s response reveals no embrace of the invitation, but rather a doubling down on the pre-pandemic version of a currently predominant ideological triumvirate of values.[1] Other “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the “national character” are clearly evident in the nation’s response as well, but I chose to write about this triumvirate because I’ve previously done so here and in my other blog.[2]. The three prongs of the triumvirate we’ll look at today are as follows:

  1. Freemarketism: a hyper-competitive and hyper-privatized version of capitalism that enthrones individual and corporate agency over the centralized promotion of the public good.

Freemarketism is grounded in a belief that marketplace competition will not only prosper capitalists but also promote individual and communal welfare in all social and economic strata. Its essential prejudices and practices are rooted in the transmutation of the western, mostly Biblical worldview into the Protestant work ethic, which judges individual good character and communal virtue by individual initiative and success in “working for a living” and the ability to climb the upward mobility ladder. The state’s highest good is to sponsor a competitive market in which capitalists, freed from governmental regulation and taxation, will build vibrant businesses, generate wealth for themselves as a reward, and activate corollary ”trickle down” benefits to all. Granting the public good an independent seat at the policy-making table is considered detrimental to the market’s freedom.

Freemarketism skews Covid-19 relief toward business and charges the state with a duty to restore “business as usual” as quickly as possible. Direct benefit to citizens is considered only grudgingly, since it would encourage bad character and bad behavior among the masses. Particularly, it would destroy their incentive and willingness to work for a living. The employable populace must be kept hungry, on-edge, primed to get back to work in service to the capitalist engine that fuels the greater good of all.

  1. Beliefism: The denigration of science and intellect in favor of a form of secular post-truth fundamentalism.

Freemarketism is a belief system that emerged in the 1980’s, after the first three decades of post-WWII economic recovery played out in the 1970’s. Freemarketism addressed the economic malaise with its utopian promise of universal benefit, and its founders promoted it with religious zeal as a new economic science – the rationale being that it had been “proven” in ingenious, complex mathematical models. But math is not science, and however elegant its proofs of Freemarketism theory might have been, they were not the same as empirical testing . Freemarketism was therefore a new economic belief system — something you either believed or didn’t.

To gain widespread political and social acceptance, Freemarketism would need to displace the Keynesian economics that had pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s by massive federal investment in infrastructure, the creation of new social safety nets, and the regulation of securities markets. During the post-WWII recovery, neoliberal economic policy had struck its own balance between private enterprise and government intervention, creating both new commercial monoliths and a vibrant middle class. Freemarketism would eventually swing this balance entirely to the side of private enterprise. It did so thanks in part to auspicious good timing. At the dawn of the 1980’s, after a decade of Watergate, the oil embargo and energy crisis, runaway inflation, and the Iran hostage crisis, America was ripe for something to believe in. Its morale was suddenly boosted by the USA’s stunning Olympic hockey gold medal, Then, at the end of the decade, came the equally stunning collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These two bookend events ensured that Freemarketism had made a beginning that politicians and the populace wished to continue.

By then, Soviet-style Communism had been fully exposed as a horrific, dystopian, failed system. It had begun with Karl Marx’s angry empathy for the plight of the working stiff, but a century and a half later had morphed into a tyranny of fear, mind control, and brutality that turned its nominal beneficiaries into its victims, administered by a privileged, unthinking, corrupt, emotionally and morally paralyzed class of party bosses. When the failed system met its just desserts, the West’s storyline trumpeted that capitalism had won the Cold War. Freemarketism stepped up to receive the accolades, and its political devotees set about dismantling the social structures Keynesian economics had built before WWII.

From that point, as Freemarketism gained acceptance, it stomped the throttle toward fundamentalism, which is where every belief system, whether religious or secular, must inevitably end up. Belief by its very nature demands its own purification – the rooting out of doubt. To endure, belief must become irrefutable, must become certain to the point where doubt and discourse are demonized, conformity becomes the greatest social good, and ideological myths become determinants of patriotic duty and moral status. Accordingly, as Freemarketism evangelists increasingly installed their privatized solutions, any system of government based on state-sponsored promotion of the common good was quickly characterized as a threat of a resurgence of Communism. In the minds of Freemarketers – both priests and proles – the European social democracies were thrown into the same toxic waste dump as Communism, because the state could never again be trusted to know what is good for its citizens, or be given the power to carry out its agenda.

Freemarketism’s blind spot is now obvious: for all its demonization of government policy, it needed precisely that to create the conditions it needed to operate. Politicians from the 1990’s forward were happy to comply. Thus empowered, in the four decades since its inception, Freemarketism has ironically failed in the same manner as Soviet Communism, gutting the public good of the working masses and protectively sequestering the wealthy capitalist classes. Along the way, Beliefism as the cultural norm has displaced scientific rationalism with moment-by-moment inanity, expressed in the Covid-19 crisis by everything from drinking bleach to mask and supply shortages, lockdown protests and defiance of mask-wearing, terminating support of the World Health Organization, confusion and skepticism about statistics of infection rates and the value of mass testing, the public undercutting of medical authorities, and much more.

The post-truth flourishing of Beliefism is in turn held in place by the third prong of the triumvirate:

  1. Militarism: The American infatuation with military might and private armaments, and a proclivity towards resolving disputes and achieving policy outcomes through bullying, violence, and warfare.

Militarism is the enforcer for the other two prongs of the triumvirate. Its status as a pillar of the national character is on the one hand entirely understandable, given that the USA was formed because the colonists won their war, but on the other hand perhaps the most ideologically inexplicable when measured against the Founders’ rejection of a standing military in favor of a right to mobilize an armed militia as needed. The displacement of the latter with the former was fully complete only after WWII, grudgingly acknowledged by the General who masterminded .he D-Day invasion: “In the councils of government,” President Eisenhower said on the eve of leaving office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex,” He further warned that, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The extent to which General Eisenhower’s warnings fell on deaf ears is by now obvious. Meanwhile, the Founders’ concept of the right to bear arms has metastasized into an absolute right to private armaments. The American national character now rests secure in its confidence that it has a big enough stick to forever defend its libertarian version of individual freedoms – including the freedoms of the marketplace – against all opposing beliefs, Communist or otherwise.

Militarism is evident in developments both expressly directed at the pandemic and coinciding with it, spanning both macro and micro responses from saber-rattling against Iran (against whom we apparently still we feel we have a score to settle), blame-shifting against China accompanied with rhetoric that has quickly escalated to the level of a new Cold War, Congress’s self-congratulatory passage of another record-setting new defense budget, and armed militias rallying against the lockdown and supporting protestors in their belligerent non-compliance.

In its Covid-19 response, America put its money where its mouth (ideology) is.

This ideological triumvirate is evident in the spending priorities of the USA’s legislative allocation of government speaking during the lockdown, as indicated in the following two graphs, which reveal that:

  1. The amount directed to business – mostly big business – was twice again as much as the defense budget;
  2. The amount directed to healthcare – during a pandemic – was least of all – half the amount directed to individuals;
  3. The 2020 defense budget approved during the lockdown was twice the size of the amount directed to individual citizens under the CARES relief act; and
  4. Meanwhile, defense spending dwarfs that of our seven nearest national “competitors.”

The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill[3]

CARES Act

U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries[4]

Defense Spending

Character Over Time

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”[5]

Pressure of the magnitude brought on by the pandemic catches national response off guard. It freezes time, demands instant responses to unprecedented demands. Pretense falls off, values and priorities leap from foundational to forefront. There is no time for analysis or spin, only the unguarded release of words and actions in the pressing moment. The result is national character, fully revealed.

The way out of this dizzying spiral is to embrace the invitation to character transformation, which begins in the awareness that something essential to maintaining the status quo has been lost, life has irreversibly changed, an ending has been reached. Every ending requires a new beginning, every new beginning requires a vision for how to continue, and every vision for continuing requires the perspective of newly-transformed character. If there is going to be systemic change, character must be the one to make concessions. The nation’s policy-makers made no such concession in their Covid-19 response.

Response Without Transformation

We’ve spent a few years in this forum discovering the triumvirate’s development and contemporary dominance of government policy-making, which in turn has been supported by enough of the electorate to keep the system in place. Now, the pandemic has put our “more perfect union” under extraordinary stress.

Given the recent racial issues now dominating the headlines, it isn’t far-fetched to compare the pandemic’s moral and legal challenges to those of the Civil War. Today’s post won’t try to do that topic justice, but it’s interesting to note that slavery was a dominant economic force from before America became the United States, especially buttressing capitalist/entrepreneurial wealth generated in tobacco and cotton, and was both expressly and implicitly adopted as a social, economic, and national norm, — for example in the U.S. Constitution’s denying slaves the right to vote and providing that each slave would count as 3/5 of a resident for purposes of determining seats in the House of Representatives. These “primary causes” remained intact for the nation’s first several decades, until a variety of pressures forced a reconsideration and transformation. Those pressures included, for example, a bubble in the pre-Civil War slave market that made slaves themselves into a valuable equity holding to be bought and sold for profit — a practice particularly outrageous to Northerners.[6]

The Covid-19 triumvirate is not Constitutionally recognized as slavery was, but clearly it is based on the current emphasis of certain aspects of the USA’s foundations to the exclusion of others. Many economists argue, for example, that the way out of the deepening pandemic economic depression is a return to a Keynesian-style massive governmental investment in public works and welfare – a strategy that even then was hugely controversial for the way it aggressively rebalanced the national character. The Covid-19 response, along with the military budget, makes no attempt at such a rebalancing – which, among other things, would require policy-makers to retreat from the common assumption that government support of the public good is Communism.

It took a Civil War and three Constitutional Amendments to remove nationalized slavery from the Constitution and begin the transformation of the nation’s character on the topic of race – a transformation which current events reveal is still sadly incomplete.

What would it take to similarly realign the national character in response to the pandemic?

[1] Since we’ve been discovering and examining these for several years in this forum, in this post I’m going to depart from my usual practice of quoting and citing sources. To do otherwise would have made this post far too redundant and far too long, If you want the backstory, I invite you to examine what has gone before..

[2] My two blogs are The New Economy and the Future of Work and Iconoclast.blogt, Each has its counterpart on Medium – The Econoclast and Iconoclost.blog (recent articles only)..

[3] Visusalcapitalist.com

[4] Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

[5] McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997).

[6] See the analysis in Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan.(2017), and the author’s interview with the Wharton business school ,

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 1]: Fish Stories

A friend of mine is a Christian, business leader, author, and fisherman. He tells fish stories in each of those roles. At least it feels that way to me, so I take his stories “with a grain of salt.” A Roman luminary named Pliny the Elder[1] used that phrase in a poison antidote in 77 A.D., and he meant it literally. Today, it describes how we respond when it feels like someone’s story – like the fish –  just keeps getting bigger.

I don’t care about my friend’s fish, I care about him. When he tells a fish story, he’s sharing his personal narrative. “This is who I am,” he’s saying, “And this is how I believe life works.”

“Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’”[2]

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.”[3]

The Self

This kind of narrative assumes the self is an entity all its own, with a purpose also all its own, and that if you get both in hand, you’ll know the meaning of life – at least your own. Current neuro-psychology doesn’t see things that way.

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.”[4]

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless.”[5]

For most people, that scientific outlook is too harsh:

“From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[6]

Self-Actualization

Cultivating a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning sounds good, but who’s got time? Maslow’s iconic “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid recognizes that adult life puts the basics first.

“Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest. Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.”[7]

Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman thinks we ought to get self-actualization off the back burner, for the sake of ourselves and our world.

“‘We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,’ Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.”[8]

Kaufman’s research suggests that making room for self-awareness and growth helps to develop character traits that the world could use more of:

“Participants’ total scores… correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of ‘stability’, indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals.

“Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors.

“A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

“The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. ‘I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],’ he told me. ‘A good way to start with that,’ he added, ‘is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.’”[9]

But What if There’s No Self to Actualize?

If there’s no unified self, then there’s no beneficiary for all that “concerted effort to change” and “conscientiousness and willpower.”

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.[10]

Again, it’s hard for most of us to live with that much existential angst[11]. We prefer instead to think there’s a unique self (soul) packed inside each of us, and to invest it with significance.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it. To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”[12]

Teleological thinking finds design and purpose in the material world[13] to counter the feeling that we’re at the mercy of random pointlessness. We prefer our reality to be by design, so that we have a chance to align ourselves with it – a form of personal empowerment psychologists call “agency.”

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”[14]

The Coming of Age Narrative

Further, we look to a specific cultural rite of passage – when we “come of age” in late adolescence — as the time when we first discover and take responsibility for our unique self and its identity and purpose. From there, we carry that sense of who we are and where we fit into responsible adult life.

“The protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society… Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.[15]

The Redemption Narrative

The coming of age story is a variant of the “redemption” narrative, in which we learn that suffering is purposeful: it shapes and transforms us, so we can take our place in society.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.” [16]

Redemption narratives make us good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”[17]

The American Way

Coming of age and redemption stories have been culturally and neurologically sustained in Western and Middle Eastern civilizations since the Abrahamic scriptures wrote about the Garden of Eden 5500 years ago. Americans, as heirs of this ideological legacy, have perfected it.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.[18]

“The coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is “everything.

“This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.”[19]

American capitalism relies on the redemption narrative as its signature story genre.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journaling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

“Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.” [20]

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already harnessed the power of the redemption story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”[21]

Writing Your Own Story

There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life. A bookseller friend’s slogan for his shop is “Life is a story. Tell a good one.”

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”[22]

As a result, some people think we ought to take Michel Foucault’s advice and meditate (practice “mindfulness”) and journal our way to a better self-understanding. As for journaling:

“In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

“Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial.”[23]

Consistent with Scott Barry Kaufman’s comments from earlier, the more you can put a coming of age or redemption story spin on your own narrative, the more likely journaling will improve your outlook.

“A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

“It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words).

“The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’”[24]

An American Life

My friend the storyteller is an exemplar of all the above. He’s an American, a Christian, and a capitalist. And when he starts his day by journaling, he believes he’s writing what he’s hearing from God. I was most of that, too for the couple decades he and I shared narratives and teleological outlook. I’ve since moved on:  at this writing, we’ve had no contact for over three years. I wondered if I could still call him a friend — whether that term still applies  after your stories diverge as entirely as ours . Yes you can and yes it does, I decided, although I honestly can’t say why.

Religion: Teleological Thinking Perfected

Personal narratives – especially actually writing your own story – aren’t for everyone. They require quiet, solitude, and reflection, plus doing that feels egotistical if you’re not used to it. Religion offers a more common teleological alternative, with its beliefs, rituals, and practices designed to put you in touch with an external, transcendent source of your identity, purpose, and meaning. “Don’t look inward, look up,” is its message.

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] . Wikipedia. Pliny the Elder was a naturalist, military leader, friend of the Emperor, and a victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

[2] I Am Not a Story: Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative? Aeon (Sept. 3, 2015)

[3] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] The Coming-Of-Age Con: How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication? Aeon (Sept. 8, 2017)

[5] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Do You Have A Self-Actualised Personality? Maslow Revisited. Aeon (Mar. 5, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[11] Urban Dictionary: existential angst..

[12] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Silicon Phoenix: A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

[15] The Coming-Of-Age Con, op cit.

[16] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[17] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[18] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[19] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[20] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[21] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[22] The Power of Story, op. cit.

[23] To Boost Your Self-Esteem, Write About Chapters of Your Life. Aeon (Apr. 5, 2019)

[24] Ibid.