The amorality of our economy
Suddenly economic populism is all the rage. In a monologue on Fox News, Tucker Carlson argued that American elites are using ruthless market forces to enrich themselves and immiserate everyone else. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are telling leftwing versions of the same story.
You’re always going to be able to make a splash reducing a complex problem to a simple narrative that separates the world into the virtuous us, and the evil them (the bankers). But I’d tell a third story about our current plight.
My story begins in the 1970s. The economy was sick. Corporations were bloated. Unions got greedy. Tax rates were too high and regulations were too tight. So in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed a tax bill that reduced individual and corporate tax rates. Sen. Ted Kennedy led the effort to deregulate the airline and trucking industries. When he came into office, Ronald Reagan took it up another notch.
It basically worked. We’ve had four long economic booms since then. But there was an interesting cultural shift that happened along the way. In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else.
For example, there’s been a shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders – customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder – maximizing shareholder value.
We turned off the moral lens. You probably know the example of the Israeli day care centers. Parents kept showing up late to pick up their kids. To address the problem, the centers experimented with fining the late parents. But the number of late pickups doubled. Before, coming to pick up your kid on time was a moral obligation – to be fair to the day care workers. After, it was seen as an economic transaction. Parents were happy to pay to be late. We more or less did this as an entire society – we switched to a purely economic lens.
Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.”
Anything you could legally do to make money was deemed OK. The Apple corporation exists because of American institutions. But, as Pearlstein notes, Apple parked its intellectual property in an Irish subsidiary so it could avoid paying taxes in America and support those institutions. It saved $9 billion in 2012 alone. Pearlstein quotes Carl Icahn: “I don’t believe in the word ‘fair.’” So Apple paid no reputational price when it stiffed its own country.
Social trust arises from a covenant: I give to my company, my town and my government, and they give back to me. But that covenant was ripped. Now the general perception is: When I give, they take.
But capitalism needs to be embedded in moral norms, and it needs to serve a larger social good. The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?