Location: United States

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Hell is Desire

The Bible verse of the day says, "Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied." Interestingly enough (to me anyway) this ties directly to my ongoing review of American Political theory. If you've never heard of Thorstein Veblen, then you've probably thrown around a few of the terms he coined - like "conspicuous consumption" or "pecuniary emulation". The Amazon review casts Veblen in the mold of Adam Smith, but I don't see it.

Smith's most famous work is "The Wealth of Nations". He advocates a strong monarchy that utilizes the church as a means of social control - much like the Scotland in which he lived. It cannot be stated too strongly that Smith's Calvinist theology impacted his view on the world - obviously anyone's beliefs effect the way they see the world working. Smith's field of work was overtly economics, but the theological bent of his writing should be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the idea that man is inherently evil and God's will is impossible to thwart.

Much of what is today called "free-market" economics comes from Smith. He believed that each man working in his own interest, steered by the invisible hand of the market (which is an economic synonym in Smith's work for "GOD"), will naturally cause conditions of greatest harmony. The belief is inherently theological. Calvinism holds that everything in the world is exactly as it is because that is God's will. God's will cannot be thwarted, therefore everything must already be according to God's will. It is the circular reasoning that led Liebnitz to say this is the best of all possible worlds because anything less would mean less than the maximum glory is due God. This is the type of Christianity that Nietzsche decries as the slave mentality.

Veblen, more than a companion of Smith, is an indictment of his theories. Veblen goes to great lengths to show that we have not developed the best of all possible worlds at all. Rather, civilization grew up around a society that gave power to the priests and warriors - who took their living from the greater society in return for various forms of protection. Their manner of dress and lifestyle was designed to show that they were superior - they had more jewelry, finer fabrics, more women, etc. However, before modern society, these classes had to sometimes prove they were superior - warriors had to do battle and priests had to stave off plagues with their faith. We have, obviously, moved on from this period in history.

The effect of this path of development, though, is that physical labor is downplayed. Real power lies in the hands of those that don't have to work the fields or the fires or the mills. Real power is the ability to command someone else to do this work for you. In ancient priest and warrior classes, this was an spiritual or physical threat. In modern society, it is a financial one.

Who makes more money - the man who hammers out a statue or the man who resales it? Who has more power - the plumber who is daily up to his elbows in piping or the banker who never dirties his hands?

Veblen says that this emphasis on not doing physical labor and on ostentatious displays of wealth lead necessarily to jealousy. The son of the plumber sees his father busting his hump his whole life, but envies the boy in his class with the new Corvette. Naturally, he is drawn towards doing those things necessary to get the Corvette. This is "pecuniary emulation". The plumber's son must have the latest fashions, the fastest car, the best of the best to keep up with Corvette-boy. Why? Because he must compete for the scarce resources - such as the affections of a woman, prime property upon which to build a home, etc.

It's the story of "keeping up with the Jones's". Individually we are programmed to compete. Sociologically, we are designed to emulate success. Spiritually, this leaves us hollow.

There is always someone higher on the ladder. Paris Hilton always has a new TV show to take your attention. MTV always has another "Cribs" to show you how you fall short. Even your boss has a better suit or shoes or tie or a new car. And you are just you.

Smith says this is evidence that God is good. Veblen says it leads to the oppression of the working man and woman. It is no longer enough to hire a maid to clean for you, you must now hire a manager to tell the maid to clean for you. In the Old South, the high gentry refused to beat their own slaves - they hired poor whites to do it (which, incidentally, is where the term "cracker" as a racial slur against poor whites comes from). Excess leads to depravity - and it takes the Marquis de Sade to claim that this is a necessary good for society.

We are told that free-market theory proves that high taxes on exhorbitant incomes kills an economy. It does no such thing. It may delay growth, it may slow growth, but it cannot stop it. Why? The eyes of man are never satisified.

Do you think Paris Hilton suddenly decided to get her latest yacht (or whatever her last big-ticket purchase was) because she had her taxes cut? Of course not. She wanted it because her eyes were not satisified. A 33% tax rate lets her claim her temporary happiness a bit faster than, say, a 50% tax rate - but she was sure to get her heart's desire anyway.

What cutting taxes does is allow more conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation. It also leads to a government overspending, which weakens the value of the dollars we spend. Who gets hurt? Not Paris Hilton. She's still going to buy that boat.

It is us - the great unwashed 97% of Americans who make less than $300,000 per year that are hit the hardest by weak dollars and government deficits. Yet, like lambs at the slaughterhouse, we bleat for the butcher to come faster, faster, faster. Cut our taxes again and plunge us deeper into financial crisis! Take our well-being and that of our children! This IS the best of all possible worlds! The growth of our economy is PROOF that God is with us!

Once our tax rates punished people for usurous incomes. It taught the wealthy, as well as the poor, that they must live a thrifty life to satisfy their eyes. It was the only means of disciplining the extremely wealthy - which Veblen tells us are the self-righteously powerful. Now we have traded our society for a few measly points of GDP and more people get left behind every day.

Our eyes are never satisfied, our pockets never full. Twenty years of Calvinist economics, and we still haven't had our fill of Hell and destruction.


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