Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Paul Ryan Takes On Jeffrey Sachs

Obama’s minions are camping out on Wall Street, trying to provoke a revolution. Across America other young people and unreconstructed radicals are following the same script.

America’s youth, chronically out of work and fast becoming a lost generation, are doing what it knows how to do: protest and party.

We are living in the age of Obama. Our president has sown the seeds for these protests with his class warfare rhetoric and his constant harping on social justice and income redistribution.

Ironically, Wall Street bankers, the ones whose terrain is occupied by protesters, supported candidate Obama wholeheartedly. They showered him with their money and vouched for him in the media.

That their sacred terrain is occupied by the pitchfork wielding demonstrators seems like justice. Perhaps not social justice, but at least a wake-up call for those who were duped into supporting Barack Obama. If any group deserves it, Wall Street does.

They voted for it; now they are seeing what they voted for. Perhaps their enthusiasm for paying more taxes derives from an underlying guilt at having been had by Obama.

Lurking behind the protests and the current political debates is a conflict between two sets of cultural values.

For a recent post see last Friday's “Enough with the Multiculturalism.”

Last Saturday the Wall Street Journal treated us to one of the best expositions of the culture war. On the one side, represented by a new book, is Columbia professor and prominent liberal economist Jeffrey Sachs. His new book “The Price of Civilization” is being published today.

On the other side, Horatio at the bridge, is the reviewer, Rep. Paul Ryan.  His review offers one of the best presentations of what is involved in the ongoing culture wars.

Ryan begins by pointing out that there is nothing new about these wars. Beginning in the eighteenth century liberal economic policies in Great Britain were attacked and rejected on the European continent. Among the first to reject them was the great French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

British and Scottish thinkers and politicians promoted free markets, free enterprise, and free trade. They developed a work ethic. Rousseau thought that it was all a horror.

He, like Sachs, feared that capitalism would cause people to lose their civic virtue and, by the way, their lust for life.

Sachs seems  married to a conflict between sacred and profane values. Economic growth and progress, he suggests, compromises our access to the sacred.

This is not to say that either of them have very much truck with religion. They seem merely to be using the rhetoric of religion to promote their own utopian socialist schemes.

Ryan summarizes Rousseau: “In the mid-18th century, for instance, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the proposition that the free exchange of goods and services, and the competitive pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, result in general prosperity—ideas then emanating from Great Britain. In a commercial society, according to Rousseau, the people are ‘scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and knavish . . . and all of it at one extreme or the other of misery and opulence.’ Only a people with ‘simple customs [and] wholesome tastes’ can be virtuous.”

Ryan describes the Sachs version of this ethic: “We must abandon a culture that is defined by hard work and the striving for upward mobility and an economy that has unleashed unparalleled prosperity. Hard work impedes leisure. Ambition is a vice. Economic growth hurts the planet.”

As Ryan rightly notes, Sachs is really writing a “morality play” where the forces of light are engaged in permanent dialectical struggle with the forces of darkness.

Who is playing the role of the Devil’s henchmen today? According to Sachs, that dishonor belongs to corporations. They are the powerful demonic force that is undermining politics, the economy, and your right to pursue pleasure.

Ryan explains: “But it is not just the rapaciousness of corporate interests that disturbs [Sachs]. He sees a deeper conspiracy at play. The marketing industry is referred to as the ‘dark arts of manipulation,’ and television has been dangerously left ‘almost entirely to the private sector.’ Our commitment to limited government and free enterprise has allowed ‘market values [to] trump social values.’ We are scolded time and again for letting business interests encourage our faults and fallibilities.”

His prowess as an economist notwithstanding, Jeffrey Sachs is indulging conspiratorial, near paranoid thinking. Clearly, he is offering an analysis that depends more on fiction than on reality.

Since Sachs represents guilt culture thinking, he believes that virtue lies in punishing corporate malfeasance with higher taxes and in preventing them from doing it again by shackling them with regulations.

Corporations need to pay for the evil they have done and they must be restrained and repressed, lest they do it again.

Of course, Sachs is merely presenting the Obama program. To the extent that it has been enacted, this program has stifled economic growth and produced chronic unemployment at levels that only a European could love.

Sachs would certainly endorse the tactics that are on display today on Wall Street. Presciently, he called for: “A new political party can be combined with other forms of political agitation—consumer boycotts, protests, media campaigns, and social networking efforts—to put the most egregious leaders of the corporatocracy on notice."

It turns out that our current president honed his political skills as an agitator… aka community organizer. It should not escape anyone’s notice that Sachs is more interested in the agitation side than in a frankly democratic political process.

What is Sachs offering to those who overcome their work ethic, cease to strive for excellence, and join his cause? He is offering nothing less than happiness.

Yet, as Ryan points out, there’s happiness and there’s happiness.

While Sachs offers more leisure, more pleasure, and a permanent governmental shield from the challenges of life, Ryan suggests that this is not the notion of happiness that motivated the founders of our republic.

Ryan explains: “Enshrined in the country's founding documents, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ has long been recognized in America as a natural right to be secured by good government. As the Founders understood it, ‘happiness’ referred to human fulfillment, to a well-lived life of virtue in this world and ultimate fulfillment in the next. In ensuring that its citizens are free to seek their happiness, government was to promote neither hedonism nor materialism. It was to secure the right to pursue happiness by not interfering with either normal commercial transactions or freedom of worship.”

By Ryan ‘s analysis, Sachs is saying that happiness can only be obtained at the expense of work.

To him this means that Sachs has misunderstood the nature of happiness. 

Ryan explains it well: “But happiness in this world results not from avoiding challenges but from meeting them. Happiness is the recompense of real effort, whether intellectual or physical, and of earned success. It comes from achievement—from doing something of economic, artistic or emotional value. The satisfaction to be taken in producing valuable things brings with it a lasting sense of personal fulfillment. Mr. Sachs's design for paternalistic government will only impede the pursuit of happiness.”

Too much government does not only impede the pursuit of happiness. It also deprives people of their motivation, their will to strive for excellence, and the experience of enjoying a job well done.


Anonymous said...

Paul Ryan, of all people, is not the one to criticize the involvement of government. Since graduating from college, he has worked as a congressional aide, then as an elected congressman. For his whole professional life, he has fed at the government table. His role as a member of government is to improve the government, not complain about it.
He has not given the taxpayers their money's worth.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Don't you think that you are being just a bit too ad hominem?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, but it is important to consider the source when someone has something to gain by stating a certain position. The fact remains that actions speak louder than words. Ryan's actions say, "The government works for me."
He hasn't shown the ability to create jobs or rein in Wall Street's penchant for risk taking with other peoples money, so I can't really take his criticism as seriously as if he spoke from a position of broader knowledge.

Canadian said...

This is written by a Canadian. I listened to professor Sachs on Charlie Rose last night, but did not read the book yet.

I am concerned about the absence of civic virtue and the consequences of that, but I was disappointed to not hear the good professor speak to the other insatiable maw whose greed is suffocating Europe to North America: the Public Servant Class.

In Canada, public sector unions have erased any sense of pride in personal achievement from their 3.5 million members' minds. Public servants retire as early as 55 with full benefits, and demand ever more to be paid in taxes by their productive private sector counterparts whose wages and hopes for retirement keep falling. (Canada's population is 32 million).

In government run institutions, union doctrine replaced civic virtue with political correctness, while Big Brother informants snoop around for any sign of a reactionary slip.

As to professor Sachs, his book has little value if he failed to addressed the greed of public unions. They, too, are destroying the fiber of our society. While crafty business characters captured the political class for their own benefit, the other insatiable maw is just as damaging in that they create nothing. Canadian health care is in shambles, our students are poorly educated, our government bureaucrats rule, incompetent teachers cannot be fired, and nurses whine.

As to Mr. Ryan, funny for him to draw the Jean-Jacques Rousseau parallel. Does he not realize? If he is correct, then the guillotines are coming soon and we all know which insatiable maw Mr. Ryan represents.

History does not repeat itself but it surely rhymes. The two maws will have to be stopped somehow. We are civilized people, so we will cut the heads off through default and political process. We will bring back sensible regulation, and we will break the monopoly of public unions.

Let’s not waste this wonderful Great Crisis.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you entirely about the impact of public sector unions. As it happens, Republican governors have been fighting them for the past couple of years. We will see how that turns out, but they have had some successes up to now.

I have not read Sachs but I would suspect that, as a liberal economist, he will not be criticizing one of his constituencies... the public sector unions. Your comment about his book is well taken.