German Economist: America Is Becoming Too European

Friday, September 3, AD 2010

I found this piece from the English-language edition of Der Spiegel by University of Hamburg economics professor Thomas Straughaar very interest, in part because it reads very much as written by someone who is looking at American history and culture from the outside, yet trying to understand it for what it is. A key passage from the second page:

This raises a crucial question: Is the US economy perhaps suffering less from an economic downturn and more from a serious structural problem? It seems plausible that the American economy has lost its belief in American principles. People no longer have confidence in the self-healing forces of the private sector, and the reliance on self-help and self-regulation to solve problems no longer exists.

The opposite strategy, one that seeks to treat the American patient with more government, is risky — because it does not fit in with America’s image of itself.

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4 Responses to German Economist: America Is Becoming Too European

  • I’d say the author has a better understanding of this country than many Americans do.

    The author fears that if America adopts European ways, “the American age will have really come to an end.”

    But the good professor fears this because he, unlike large numbers of leftists both here and in Europe, actually likes America. He sees the “The American Age” as a positive. The end of the American Age is precisely the result the left is after and when you look at it from that perspective, Obama’s not doing a bad job.

    America is evil in leftist eyes because – oh, heck, all you have to do is read Vox Nova and you’ll have the reasons. The secular left would add a few other reasons to loathe the US – far too many “Christianist” yokels who have silly qualms about abortion and gay marriage. These people never seem to ask themselves if the American Era might be preferable to a Chinese Era, or an era in which there is no superpower at all, just an ineffectual UN in thrall to states like North Korea and Iran and state-funded terrorist groups.

    Unless we get a grip on ourselves and steer back from the cliff’s edge, we may indeed find ourselves living out one of those 2 scenarios. And my bet is that many lives – not just American lives by any means – would once again become nasty, brutish and short, and the world would find itself yearning for the good old days of the American era.

    Another thing: I have noticed that Euro-admiring lefties are pretty good at ignoring aspects of Europe they disagree with. They’ll tout Europe’s smaller cars (it would be pretty difficult to maneuver a Explorer through narrow medieval streets) and railway system, but not, say, France’s nuclear energy program. Or they’ll praise more relaxed attitudes about adulterous politicians or public nudity, but when you mention that no European country allows partial birth abortions – well, that’s one example of American “exceptionalism” they don’t mind at all.

  • B…b…b….but Paul Krugman says …

  • [email protected]!

  • I’m always weary of these cultural arguments. How’s homogeneous state-friendly Greece doing?

The Importance of Sports in a Post-Modern World

Wednesday, June 9, AD 2010

In a few days the FIFA World Cup, which is one of -if not the- premier sporting events in the world, begins so I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the good of sports for those who don’t play them.

In modern sports, sometimes it’s hard to see this good. In sports today, we have college football conferences raiding each other in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar, destroying the wonderful regional nature of the game. We have Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time divas, two games away from yet another title. As Henry Karlson pointed out in a post a while ago, sports stars often find themselves in a position of privilege-both in terms of financial wealth and in terms of our excusal of their poor behavior (though I would attribute this in large part not solely to sports but also to the cult of celebrity we have today, which is another post for another day). We even had a stampede in anticipation of the World Cup.

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4 Responses to The Importance of Sports in a Post-Modern World

  • See today’s Wall Street Journal review by John Heilpern of “Soccer and Philsosphy” edited by Ted Richards.

    Most of it flew right over my head.

    Sports and Theology: When my kids were playing, I’d pray that no one was hurt; that everyone played well; and that our team won. Now, it’s a Hail Mary for every pitch Marion Rivera throws. It usually works.

  • I’m reminded of that scene in American History X when a white supremacist and a black guy bond over basketball talk. They say Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week but I’d say that Sunday afternoons at football stadiums are some of the most integrated places in America.

    Having said that, international sporting events have also been responsible for some hostility, sometimes violence.

  • The slogan for the World Cup in the past used to be (loosely translated) the world united around a ball. Well, it at least gets them physically together in the same place, if not necessarily united.

    I do agree though, sports do have some salutary effects on communities and individuals. Particularly team sports which impart sense of belonging, cooperation, and putting the team’s interests ahead of one’s own (apparently, Maradona has not picked up on that last one).

  • Thank you for the fantastic post. Together with the world cup coming round you’re starting to find far better posts on sports around the globe. Continue the good work please. The world wide web needs it.

Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

Sunday, May 9, AD 2010

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

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0 Responses to Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

  • As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    I’ll also add that Distributism, and Catholic social teaching in general, does not merely apply to America or other developed economies – though both still engage in agriculture and industry.

    “if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it”

    Some Marxists. Others advocate total nationalization of the means of production, in which the state owns all of it. Though technically, I suppose, the theory is that a “workers state”, by representing the working class, owns and distributes revenues on behalf of the working class, and by that logic they may say that “the workers own the means of production.”

    In reality, the people who argued for actual, direct worker ownership of the means of production in Russia, the “Workers Opposition”, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks.

  • As long as people combine to form economic enterprises that can be quantified in terms of share ownership, discussions of the “means of production” will continue to have relevance.

    A law firm might have share ownership, but I’m not sure how useful the means of production would be in analyzing it.

  • Btw, you make a good point that much of the world hasn’t yet moved to a service based economy.

  • I’m not so sure it is an obsolete idea, although I am neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I have a particular set of skills and knowledge that makes me useful to an insurance company. That knowledge and skill cannot be put to use except within a corporate environment. I could potentially quit and hang out a shingle and try to obtain consulting work, but there is no market for it. It is impossible for most individuals to be able to capitalize an insurance company, and it is also not desireable that this be done due to the risk of policyholders would face that the company would collapse and their claims go unpaid.

    In a certain sense, the modern corporation is in itself the means of production in a modern service economy. It brings efficiencies through organization, time management, concentration of money, and market share that cannot be matched on an individual or small business level. Small businesses have to find small niches in which to compete. In effect, we have migrated from “things” to organizations in a service economy. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just the way things are.

    Now, there are niches in which small businesses can thrive, which larger organizations will fail in. It is crucial that individuals be allowed the freedom to pursue happiness and livelihoods in the manner of their choice, whether in a modern corporation or in a self-owned business. This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness. Government should simply step in when people’s liberty is being infringed upon.

  • “This is why I’m neither a Marxist nor a Distributist. I don’t want the government to try to force a particular “ideal” on everyone, as this is not conducive to human happiness.”

    Doug,

    Distributism is not about the government “forc[ing] a particular “ideal” on everyone.”

    Anyone can argue that any idea ought to be forced upon everyone. This isn’t exclusive to Distributism or Marxism.

    On the other hand, anyone can argue that individuals ought to embrace an idea freely because it is good. And this is one way to approach Distributism, and it is how I approach it.

    The role the government plays is a variable, not a fixed measure. It can be a little or a lot. It could even be none at all.

    If you want to learn more about Distributism from my point of view, I invite you to read this:

    http://joeahargrave.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/the-distributist-manifesto/

  • Doug,

    I think your example of the insurance company is more an issue of financial capital than of the means of production as such.

  • Yes! I think this is certainly true of intellectual workers, who are persons who are not interchangable and are themselves assets to the company.

    As you suggest, the idea of “the means of production” is not totally obsolete but is of less analytical value in modern industrial economies.

  • Even though I work for a company which is, in a sense, a manufacturer (of consumer electronics and IT infrastructure) it strikes me that in many ways most large modern corporations run more on organizational capital, information, financial and brand equity than on actually owning “means of production”.

    Thus, while many of us who work there would have a hard time making as much without working for some sort of large company, it’s also the case that employees are not interchangeable for the employer. With fairly specialized human capital, the employer doesn’t exercise nearly as much power as an 1880s era landholder or a turn of the century factory owner. (As demonstrated by the dramatic increase in wages.)

    I certainly think there’s been some sort of major shift in what the “means of production” are, and that this shift has implications for the economy and society, but I’ve got the feeling it’s a bit more complicated than simply “now human capital is the means of production.”

    Interesting train of thought…

  • The distributists never thought highly of intellectual property rights. Much of the modern economy is a discussion of IP rents. A cursory search on my part suggests Marx wasn’t all that cool with IP rights. While human capital could merely mean the training of works, it has tended to be code for IP.

    human capital cannot be easily alienated from the individual, either to another individual or to the collective as a whole.

    The movie and music industries would be counterexamples.

  • The movie and music industries would be counterexamples.

    I’m not sure I’m following your point — could you expand?

  • It is not unusual for a band that has gone on tour to owe the recording company money for doing the tour, leaving them no net. In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners. Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Of course this is in the end an argument of what is actually property. And despite BA’s protestations, worker ability and knowledge has been folded into working capital and been considered a part of it for a long time.

  • In the odd universe of music, performers sign away all their rights and the music companies give them permission to perform their works. This is most apparent if you read the complaint lists of American Idol winners.

    That does certainly suggest an odd state of affairs, though it sounds to me more like a case of people signing a contract based on an expectation of larger ticket sales than actually materialized. Or at least, it’s hard to imagine why it would be a standard business practice that people sign up to work for free.

    Though with American Idol winners, perhaps the key is that most of the skill leading to revenues is actually on the part of the marketers, producers, promoters, etc., while the “talent” is interchangeable.

    Likewise in the movie industry, a large portion of the gross does not go towards the actors. The amount that goes to the actors is actually quite insignificant once the headliners’s earnings are taken out of consideration.

    Isn’t that assuming that the only skilled “workers” involved in producing a movie are the actors? They are in fact a minority of those who work in a movie crew, and at a supply and demand level there are an incredible number of people eager to take minor film roles in hope of being “discovered”, or just for the fun of it.

    If anything, I would imagine that movies and music would be a good example of how technology has leveled things in the last 10-20 years, as independent musicians and independent film makers have become increasingly successful at working outside the studio system.

  • Joe, thanks for the link. It was informative.

  • An interesting article. Have you considered the possibility that the important thing now is that the government is trying to control the means of *re*production?