Sunday, February 20, 2005

Money, Money, Money!

(It's Monday afternoon in the teacher's lounge. Peg and Al are having coffee, of course.)

Al: Peg, I saw some of your Econ students in the lab today working on their stock market simulations.

Peg: Really? Who was there?

Al: Well, it was my planning time, so it would have been your third period group. They looked like medieval
monks or Talmudic scholars poring over obscure characters, praying to be spared a glimpse of the truth embedded in the ancient text.

Peg: It's more like they were looking for a tip or an edge that might give them the advantage over the other players. That's my real competitive group. They're really turned on by the incentives I've got for the winning team.

Al: Oh, did you inherit some fortune to offer them cash, trips to Cozumel, new cars?

Peg: Nope, it's all about the "A".

Al: That's funny--good one.

Peg: They're just competitive--and they want to do well. That seems to be the whole group's attitude, so they might all get A's. That would be fine with me; it's successful teaching.

Al: So you're using behavior modification techniques, positive reinforcement, to condition them to seek social and financial advantages over their neighbors.

Peg: No, silly, it's a friendly competition.

Al: Now there's an oxymoron.

Peg: Al, have you lost your mind? There's a difference between being motivated to do well, and desiring to win at all costs. This group really approaches these updating sessions in a sort of professional way, assuming students in high school are capable of doing that. I've never seen one of them show malice toward a classmate. Competition doesn't have to be cutthroat--even in the out-there, grown-up world.

Al: I know that. In fact, I stopped at the back of the lab to look at some of the data-analysis tricks you showed them. I was just pulling your leg about the behavior modification.

Peg: I was worried that you had felt compelled to sermonize to me, of all people, about competitiveness and capitalism, and how we brainwash the kids with the free enterprise mantra. Usually I'm the one who has the critical attitude about phony values, consumerism and such.

Al: No, I do believe in some sort of competition. In this society, it's like an engine that generates a lot of economic power, a lot of wealth. But I worry about the effects of the kind of competition that makes people do wrong and--maybe worse--hold wrong values.

Peg: Hmmm. Maybe "friendly competition" is an oxymoron. Just think about the news the past few years and how many times institutions have been corrupted by greedy individuals. Even in sports. I used to be hooked on the Rockets and Texans, but I hardly give them a second thought any more. It's getting that way with my attitude toward pro baseball, too, with the steroids. That's not fair competition.

Al: You've got a point. Why isn't it fair?

Peg. I'm sure there are several reasons. For one, the athletes are trying anything to get advantages. A few have really damaged their health--permanently. It's blown up again in the news this week.

Al: It's disgusting. Why do you think their attitudes have changed?

Peg: I'm sure I don't know what's caused it. Probably a lot of things have to run together to really push or pressure someone to choose long term harm to themselves, not to mention risk exposure that will turn the public away from the sport. People will only stare at road kill for so long, if at all.

Al: That's one way to put it.

Peg: But wait--there's more: this sort of weird selfishness on such a widespread scale also endangers the survival of sports in general--even in schools and amateur leagues--over the long term. I think that the sports that are allowed, approved and respected by society generally began as ways to encourage a few of the better human habits, like the wholesome use of leisure time, teamwork, family togetherness, physical health and, yes, friendly competition. Now look at the habits they seem to encourage. As you'd say, vices, not virtues.

Al: Is it capitalism that's wrecking sports?

Peg: I wouldn't say capitalism; I'd say greed.

Al: Aren't they the same thing?

Peg: I used to think so. But now it seems like all the world's institutions are susceptible to the effects of greed--not just economic institutions like corporations, but even churches.

Al: I'll go a step further: a bad attitude destroys the goodness of the ends. The true final cause of anything is obscured when the formal causes are perverted.

Peg: Huh?

Al: The disposition or motivation you have when you do something alters the way you go about doing it. Some human activity that in its right condition might be a good thing, something that contributes to life's quality, can be turned into a negative by the WAY we go about doing it.

Peg: You mean like teaching? If I do this job with the right motivation, it's a career that ultimately satisfies me and contributes something to others. If my intentions are wrong, then it's drudgery and a pay check that's never enough for the trouble.

Al: You're right. My theory is that greed is not the goal of capitalism or any particular economic system, but the perversion of it. I think we've sold the system wrongly to ourselves, and so it's misperceived and misused by many of those who participate in it, and by those who want to have a stake in its goods, like the poor here and abroad.

Peg: Wait a minute--not so fast. It's nice to say that greed is NOT the motivation for the world of capitalist Wall-Street business. But then, what is the goal of capitalism?

Al: Let's not get to specific cases just yet. After all, the ideal may not be with us. We might have to look a little deeper first. So, what is capitalism?

Peg: It's an economic system.

Al: That's all?

Peg: Well, an economic system is a way for society to manage money, financial exchanges and property exchanges, to set standards of real value, and so on.

Al: Does it have to do with people's work as well?

Peg: Of course it does. That's how people earn money to live on.

Al: Does it also have to do with non-work, that is, rest and leisure?

Peg: Sure, because the work we do determines how much leisure we have.

Al: Is there also a relationship between the work we do and the quality of our non-work?

Peg: O.K., Socrates, I get it. You're getting ready to lead me by a very long route to what you think is the obvious conclusion. I'll cut to the chase: economics has to do with how every human being in a society has access to and manages the goods and resources for living, tangible and intangible.

Al: Very nice. So, economics is a kind of sub-text of value that runs through all of human life. Any economic system has to pull its rules from whatever way life itself works, rather than the reverse. After all, we can't re-invent life--it's a given. And so, even though we may say "capitalism," we really need to be searching for the goals of human life in the economic sense. If capitalism doesn't support these goals, then it's either not being applied correctly or it's not a very good system and we need to search for a better one.

Peg: So the point is that it isn't about greed; it is more about how people organize themselves to support greater goods. Alright, then, what value should the economic system strive for? In other words, what sort of social principle should guide capitalism?

Al: I think we're getting somewhere, now. In the most basic sense, I'd say that the minimum value should be justice, a basic fairness to as many persons as possible. In a more positive sense of an ideal or goal, it would have to be what we would call friendship. That would be the ideal of economic relationships in any society.

Peg: Friendship?

Al: Yup, but defined this way: Friendship is securing the good of those with whom I share any sort of interest whatsoever. I realize that there are many degrees of common interest in a given society, and so many sorts of friendship.

Peg: So friendship should be the goal of competition?

Al: I think so. If you can conceptualize that much, then a lot of things seem to fall together. For example, in athletic competition, there is the mutual support offered by the team and the mutual respect offered by a competitor toward the opponent. It seems to me that I read an article by a well--known coach some time ago that said exactly that the purpose of athletic competition is mutual striving, but restrained by an ethos that stems from mutual respect. That is where rules, referees, laws and traditions have their purpose.

Peg: And when those break down, greed surfaces. That, at least, gives us a way to get a sense of what we're talking about when we consider the idea of competition taken in its best sense. The problem is, can it be transferred to other kinds of competition--like the academic competition of schools, or the competition for wealth in society?

Al: Before we make that jump, there's something else that needs to be factored in, especially if we're using the sports analogy as one of our basic points of departure: that's the expectation and need for law, or at least for rules. Even in friendship on the personal level, there is an expectation of a minimum level of fairness, or justice, without which the relationship becomes one-sided and abusive. This is even true in marriages, I think.

Peg: You're right.

Al: Well, if the weakest argument is granted, then the stronger ones must be self-evident. In every other form of "competitive" association in society, there is an inherent expectation of justice which generates a set of codes to live by. The just relationship is most intimately what we call friendship, and a parallel sort of justice and a goal of friendship must be inherent in even the larger sorts of associations existing within the human family: whole societies and economic systems.

Peg: Good grief, Al, you've come around to what you set out to prove. I guess there is some sort of defense of economic competition.

Al: All I wanted to say is that the goal of capitalism, if it is to be integrated with all other human associations, must be a kind of friendship, a just relationship. The problem is not with the ideal of a set of relatively free market-oriented affiliations and dealings. The problem is with human greed, which is a perversion of that justice and friendship.

Peg: Oh, look at the time! I've got to stop at the bank, then do some shopping for the week.

Al: ...taking advantage, no doubt, of free and fair competition for your patronage.

Peg: I give up.... Bye!

[Did Peg give up too easily? Expect this episode to continue.]

1 comment:

Acroamatic said...

I know it's simplistic, but clarification of thought begins somewhere. It's not on a level that young people with beginning interests in economic systems would find impossible.