Mittwoch, 24. August 2011

Ist der Neoliberalismus tot?

Diese Frage beschäftigt die Gesellschaft. Wer immer diese Frage nicht eindeutig mit "nein, der Neoliberalimus ist nicht tot; im Gegenteil, er muss stärker werden als je zuvor" beantworten kann, der möge sich aus dem abendländischen Gedankentum der Aufklärung verabschieden.

Was ist denn eigentlich das Gedankentum unserer derzeitigen "westlichen" Gesellschaft? Wie würde heutzutage die junge Generation auf nachstehende Aussagen reagieren?

"Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich und gut!" - Viele Jugendliche könnten meinen, dass man heutzutage mit dieser Einstellung keine Karriere machen wird.

"Nur der verdient die Freiheit wie das Leben, der täglich sie erobern muss!" - Viele saturierte Sozialstaatler könnten meinen, dass hier ein menschenverachtender Ausbeuter spricht.

"Den unnützen Knecht werfet hinaus in die Finsternis. Dort wird sein Heulen und Zähneklappern!" - ALLE Sozialstaatler würden meinen, dass hier ein primitiver Amerikaner spricht.

Das klitze-kleine Problem dabei ist, dass obige Aussagen aus unserem, aus dem abendländischen Kulturkreis stammen (die ersten beiden von Goethe; das letzte vom Neuen Testament). Es ist also nicht so, dass irgendwelche "Barbaren von Übersee" uns mit ihrem Werteverfall überwältigen, sondern eher ist es so, dass wir uns unserer eigenen Werte nicht mehr bewusst sind.

Der Neoliberalismus - in gewissem Gegensatz zum ursprünglichen Liberalismus - ist einsichtig, dass komplettes "laissez-faire" nicht zu Nachhaltigkeit führt. Deswegen spricht der Neoliberalismus dem Staat eine ganz bedeutende Rolle zu. Nicht die Rolle eines Staates, der Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft dominiert. Nein! Der Staat als der "allmächtige Schiedsrichter". Damit die einzelnen "economic agents" ihren kreativen, unternehmerischen Talenten freien Lauf lassen können, ist ein sehr starker Staat erforderlich, der auf Basis von vergemeinschafteten Wertevorstellungen die Rahmenbedingungen vorgibt, die von den "kreativen Individuen" eingehalten werden müssen.

Das Ergebnis hat eine Doppelwirkung: einerseits werden die "economic agents" mit ihrem Unternehmertum und mit ihrer Kreativität den Wohlstand der Gesellschaft nachhaltig fördern; andererseits wird der "starke Staat" das Vertrauen der Gesellschaft, dass alles mit "rechten Dingen" vor sich geht, gewährleisten. Neid und Missgunst für die Erfolge anderer werden in den Hintergrund treten. An ihre Stelle treten Respekt und Bewunderung für jene, die innerhalb der gleichen Spielregeln mehr Werte schaffen (und erhalten), weil sie auf diese Weise das Vermögen der Gemeinschaft fördern.

Mittwoch, 17. August 2011

Two Views on America - George F. Will versus Warren Buffett

Two extraordinary Charlie-Rose-interviews were aired on Bloomberg's, one with Warren Buffett and the other one with George F. Will.

Below is a reaction to these interviews addressed to George F. Will.

Dear Mr. Will,

I had the unusual intellectual pleasure today to watch here in Austria both interviews with Charlie Rose, Warren Buffett’s and yours (in that sequence). Since I have been reading your intellectually supreme publications for about 4 decades and knowing that Buffett is mega-rich, I would have expected that it would be thumbs up on you (the sensible conservative voice of America) instead of Buffett (the mega-rich). I want to explain to you why it was the opposite.

My major at Harvard was comparative government, so I do have an understanding and sympathy for your intellectual defense of Madison. Yes, the USofA needs to return to the thinking of her founders (and perhaps read up on de Tocqueville’s analysis of what America is all about). But that should not prevent the USofA, nor you, from recognizing reality.

Whether it is de Tocqueville, Madison or whoever, no model of government can ever function as designed if the value structure of its citizens is out of whack. I grant you that the marvels of the US constitution are the necessary safeguards to make sure that, eventually, self-correction will occur, and this is why I am such an admirer of American society. However…

My first career (1972-88) was with the Continental Bank of Chicago, a bank which was AAA-rated and which in early 1982 was voted the best bank of a decade. It had fantastic controls (a fantastic “constitution”). When it celebrated its 125th anniversary in the spring of 1982, media comments raved about the sound and solid business philosophy which the bank pursued. And in the first week of July 1982, the bank was essentially bankrupt.

The business model and the controls of 1982 were no different from the business model and controls of the year I joined, 1972. The value structure of the people had changed. When I joined CINB in 1972, banking was a serious business. There was an unwritten code of conduct to act responsibly with OPM (other people’s money). I remember my seniors in Chicago, from the CEO down, hammering in phrases like “don’t give anyone the bank’s money if you wouldn’t also give him your own money”; “know the character of your borrower”; “we have 4 major constituencies (the customers, the shareholders, the employees and the society which allows us to do business successfully) and we have to respect all 4 equally”; “hard work and clean living is the basis for success”; etc., etc. Within 10 years, this value structure had turned upside down. All of a sudden, profits had become the name of the game regardless where those profits came from. We were now doing deals which the bank wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole 10 years earlier.

In the first week of July 1982, it turned out that CINB had lent over 1 billion USD to oil speculators in Oklahoma who, when visiting the bank, were known to have drunk beer out of their boots. The bank thought it had made tons of profits and then it turned out that those ficticious profits were 100% losses of capital (should not have been a total surprise when you are dealing with people who drink beer out of their boots…). When the bank’s Senior Auditor was asked whether he had ever brought his severe concerns to management’s attention, he replied that he was once, at the urinal, standing next to the Executive VP and mentioned to him that he had a lot of eggs in one basket. The Executive VP later said to investigators that he normally did not discuss business matters at the urinal. So much for the change in value structures. In the value structure of the early 1970s, Gordon Gekko would have been fired on the spot. A decade later, all large financial institutions were looking to hire Gordon Gekko’s (and I don’t recall George F. Will writing about the fact that this was not good!).

It is the absolutely incredible change of value structures on the part of Americans during the last 3 decades or so which I fail to understand. Buffett talked a lot about value structures in his interview; you did not.

During the last 20 years that I have been back in Austria, I have very often been the lone wolf when I defended America and what she stands for. But there was one situation where I was caught completely off-guard: a small dinner party with rather elite people in Munich. Once again, I was arguing my defense of America when a  highly educated and sophisticated lady (an assistant to the then Governor of Bavaria) asked me in a charming voice: “Mr. Kastner, what is your opinion about a society which is the wealthiest society in the world but which does not make sure that all of its citizens have access to health insurance?”

You would have had a better answer than I had. I rumbled about all those things that Americans really don’t want a government which takes care of all individuals; etc., etc. But I was embarrassed because she was right!

Nevertheless, I could still live with the reality that the plumbing Joe’s don’t care about such things. That they prefer to be left alone and take care of their own problems.

What I cannot accept is that the principle of fairness seems to have withered away in American society. During my time as an exchange student in Florida and later during my studies at Harvard, it was the seemingly unlimited belief in the principle of fairness on the part of Americans which turned me into a fan of the USofA. Buffett talked about fairness a number of times; you never mentioned the word once. My seniors at the CINB talked about fairness frequently but they didn’t talk about it in a naïve way. They would say: “Look, no one will ever promise you that life will always be fair to you but we expect you to always bear in mind how you can make life a fairer place for others”.

I was an expatriate at CINB. There was a technical possibility to have expatriates be on the payroll of some entity in Luxemburg and, thereby, reduce their income tax burden to, say, the 17% which Buffett talks about. It would have been legal and it would have saved the employer a lot of money. When I asked the Personnel Department why they wouldn’t do something which would be a benefit to both parties, the answer was: “How should we explain that to the others who pay 35% or so (again to use Buffett’s example)?”

I once had the opportunity, in the mid-1980s, to be at a private luncheon with Paul Volcker in Buenos Aires. Had people like he stayed around, the financial madness of the years following would possibly never have happened (I still marvel at his response when he was asked not too long ago what he thought about all the new financial products which had been developed: “I think the invention of the ATM did more good to society than all the other new financial products put together”).

How do you instill values like that on a society when people like George F. Will don’t seem to care about them any more? Why do I think that you no longer care about them? Because I have never heard you scream about the fact that the American value structure of the last 2 or 3 decades has allowed a gigantic (albeit legal) transfer of wealth from the many to the few. I have never heard you scream about the fact that Wall Street has proven correct the complaint of liberals that the profits are often for the private sector while the losses are for society.

I have been a businessman for 4 decades, so please don’t believe that I am naïve. I have great admiration for places like Las Vegas where people speculate and make money or lose it. However, I have never heard that society had to bail out people who lost a fortune in Las Vegas. Why not? Because they speculated with their equity and not with OPM!

Why have I never heard an uproar from you about the excesses of a distorted value structure which almost brought America (and the world!) to her knees back in 2008? Why was it only Maureen Dowd who commented as follows about the Goldman-Hearings:

“Mr. Birnbaum, do you know what a stated income loan is?” Senator Kaufman asked. “I think it’s just what it sounds like,” Birnbaum replied, like a petulant schoolboy in detention. End of quote.

You emphatically stated that GM should have gone bankrupt the normal way. Well, do you not understand that a normal bankruptcy is generally the greatest destruction of values? Yes, assets don’t disappear; they get reorganized and prices will deflate so that a new investor will find them attractive. That is what the Chicago Boys explained to me in Chile in 1981/82. And they sounded absolutely convincing. They later found out that reality is different from laboratory and the repair cost them a lot more money than if they had done some prevention before.

You once wrote about Obama that there was “steel underneath his neat white shirts”. I wish you had been right. All the themes which he so beautifully articulated during his election campaign reminded me of the greatness of America. I then really thought that he would be the beginning of a long process of self-correction. Well, as we could see, it is just more of the same.

Where were you when the government had no choice but to bail out AIG so that Deutsche, Goldman, etc. could collect billions on their derivative contracts? Or would you have taken chances to let AIG go bankrupt? When John Meriwether speculated hundreds of millions of dollars at Salomon’s (successfully!), he was principally speculating with partners’ money. When he continued doing the same thing at LTCM (unsuccessfully!), he speculated with OPM. Where were you possibly writing about “j’accuse” that the value structure of the financial system had gone out of whack?

I agree that the Tea Party deserves credit for setting some sort of process in motion. But, please, not all means are justified by their ends. You might as well argue that, thanks to Hitler, the Germans became a peace-loving people (by no means do I wish to compare the Tea Party to Naziism!!!).

Where is your uproar about vulgar people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, etc.? My host family in Florida in the 1960s (stout Republicans) would have said: “Don’t pay attention to people like Limbaugh. He may have some valid points but he is vulgar, and Americans are not vulgar”. The pure thought that a Bill O’Reilly is more courageous about protesting against uncivilized habits of representatives of his own ideology than the honorable George F. Will is mindboggling to me!

You praise Ronald Reagan and I admired this President, too. However, I am certain that Reagan would turn around in his grave if he knew how certain Americans usurped the value structure and took profits at the expense of the vision of the white city on the hill. Perhaps Reagan might have hoped that people like George F. Will would raise their voice to make sure that his vision would not be usurped. He would have felt terribly disappointed today, I am certain.

In conclusion, in the interviews I heard the mega-rich Buffett talk about value structures and I heard the political scientist Will talk about constitutional matters. With high respect for the importance of constitutional matters, no constitution and/or political system can substitute for the necessity of good value structures!

Not to mention the fact that Buffett talked about the real problems facing the US economy (the loss of competitiveness in the world as evidenced by the current account deficit) whereas Will talked about the budget deficit (which, incidentally, Buffett talked about, too).

I deeply regret to say, particularly since I have admired your views over the decades, that I can no longer see what I would have loved to see from you: forceful wake-up calls about the value structure which made America great!


Mittwoch, 3. August 2011

Some Thoughts on Modern Leftism

The text below IS NOT the intellectual property of the author of this blog. The creator of this text is intentionally not named. Nevertheless, it is a text (amended slightly by the author of this blog) which deserves discussion as a challenging academic piece, regardless of the personality and/or history of its creator.

The world must have been a relatively boring place until the Industrial Revolution. Life in the middle of the 18th century was probably not all that different from life in Rome. Imagine: roughly 2 millennia with business as usual: the agricultural masses working for the aristocratic elites; wars over property and influence; luxury in the 18th century not all that different from luxury in Rome. Had Martin Luther not thrown a wrench into the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, even the philosophical landscape would have been boring for almost 2 millennia.

The Industrial Revolution with its invention of machines and its focus on the division of labor started the rat race. It was followed by further revolutions, most recently the information technology revolution. No one can predict where this process will lead to.

Most people will agree that we live in deeply troubled societies today. The financial crisis of 2008 and the current sovereign debt crisis have caused widespread fears about the future.

One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism, so a discussion of the psychology of leftism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general.

But what is leftism? During the first half of the 20th century leftism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called a leftist. 

This paper does not attempt to define leftism. Instead, it tries to indicate in a rough and approximate way the two psychological tendencies that are surely the main driving force of modern leftism.

The two psychological tendencies that underlie modern leftism are "feelings of inferiority" and "oversocialization." Feelings of inferiority are characteristic of modern leftism as a whole, while oversocialization is characteristic only of a certain segment of modern leftism; but this segment is highly influential. 

The "feelings of inferiority" referred to here are not inferiority feelings in the strictest sense but a whole spectrum of related traits: low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies, defeatism, guilt, self-hatred, etc. Modern leftists tend to have such feelings (possibly more or less repressed) and these feelings are decisive in determining the direction of modern leftism.

When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him (or about groups with whom he identifies), it indicates that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms "negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation. "Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and insist on its replacement by "animal companion." 

Those who are most sensitive about "politically incorrect" terminology are not the "underprivileged" who might be entitled to have such feelings but, instead, they are a minority of activists, many of whom do not even belong to any "oppressed" group but come from privileged strata of society.

Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals), or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit it to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems.

Leftists tend to object to anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They object to America; they object to some of the principles of Western civilization; they are critical of white males; they dislike rationality. The reasons which leftists give to justify these objections clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they object to the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults of a "strong, good and successful society" are not the leftist's real motive for objecting to them. He objects to them because they are strong/good/successful while he feels inferior.

Expressions like "self-confidence," "self-reliance," "initiative", "enterprise," "optimism," etc. play little role in the leftist vocabulary. The leftist is anti-individualistic, pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone's needs for them, take care of them. He is not the sort of person who has an inner sense of confidence in his own ability to solve his own problems and satisfy his own needs. The leftist is antagonistic to the concept of competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser.

The leftist's feelings of inferiority are so ingrained that he cannot conceive of himself as individually strong and valuable. Hence the collectivism of the leftist. He can feel strong only as a member of a large organization or a mass movement with which he identifies himself.

Leftists may claim that their activism is motivated by compassion or by moral principle, and moral principle does play a role for the leftist of the oversocialized type. But compassion and moral principle cannot be the main motives for leftist activism. Hostility is too prominent a component of leftist behavior; so is the drive for power. Moreover, much leftist behavior is not rationally calculated to be of benefit to the people whom the leftists claim to be trying to help. For example, if one believes that affirmative action is good for minorities, does it make sense to demand affirmative action in hostile or dogmatic terms? Obviously it would be more productive to take a diplomatic and conciliatory approach that would make at least verbal and symbolic concessions to "majorities" who think that affirmative action discriminates against them. But leftist activists do not take such an approach because it would not satisfy their emotional needs. Helping minorities is not their real goal. Instead, minorities serve as an excuse for them to express their own hostility and frustrated need for power. In doing so they actually harm minorities, because the activists' hostile attitude toward the majorities tends to intensify hatred.

The leftist from a well-to-do European family travels to poor regions of Africa to explain to the poor but otherwise happy natives that they should feel miserable, and he might succeed in doing so. If our society had no social problems at all, the leftists would have to INVENT problems in order to provide themselves with an excuse for making a fuss.

On the issue over oversocialization: psychologists use the term "socialization" to designate the process by which children are trained to think and act as society demands. A person is said to be well socialized if he believes in and obeys the moral code of his society and fits in well as a functioning part of that society. 

The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. This is what is meant by the term "oversocialized" to describe such people.

Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society's expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of HIMSELF. Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society's expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person.

The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think "unclean" thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to confirm to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship.

A very important and influential segment of the modern left is oversocialized and their oversocialization is of great importance in determining the direction of modern leftism. Leftists of the oversocialized type tend to be intellectuals or members of the upper-middle class. Notice that university intellectuals constitute the most highly socialized segment of our society and also the most left-wing segment.

The leftist of the oversocialized type tries to get off his psychological leash and assert his autonomy by rebelling. But usually he is not strong enough to rebel against the most basic values of society. Generally speaking, the goals of today's leftists are NOT in conflict with the accepted morality. On the contrary, the left takes an accepted moral principle, adopts it as its own, and then accuses mainstream society of violating that principle. Examples: racial equality, equality of the sexes, helping poor people, peace as opposed to war, nonviolence generally, freedom of expression, kindness to animals. More fundamentally, the duty of the individual to serve society and the duty of society to take care of the individual. All these have been deeply rooted values of our society (or at least of its middle and upper classes for a long time). These values are explicitly or implicitly expressed or presupposed in most of the material presented by the mainstream communications media and the educational system. Leftists, especially those of the oversocialized type, usually do not rebel against these principles but justify their hostility to society by claiming (with some degree of truth) that society is not living up to these principles.

Here is an illustration of the way in which the oversocialized leftist shows his real attachment to the conventional attitudes of our society while pretending to be in rebellion against it. Many leftists push for affirmative action, for moving minorities into high-prestige jobs, for improved education for immigrants and more money for such schools. They want to integrate the minority into the system, make the immigrant a business executive, a lawyer, a scientist just like upper-middle-class white people. The leftists will reply that the last thing they want is to make an immigrant into, say, a German; instead, they want to preserve the immigrant's culture. But in what does this preservation of immigrant culture consist? In all ESSENTIAL respects more leftists of the oversocialized type want to make the immigrant conform to white, middle-class ideals. They want to make him study technical subjects; become an executive or a scientist; spend his life climbing the status ladder to prove that immigrants are as good as nationals. They want to make immigrants "responsible". But these are exactly the values of the industrial-technological system. The system couldn't care less what kind of music a man listens to, what kind of clothes he wears or what religion he believes in as long as he studies in school, holds a respectable job, climbs the status ladder, is a "responsible" parent, is nonviolent and so forth. In effect, however much he may deny it, the oversocialized leftist wants to integrate the immigrant into the system and make him adopt its values.

The problems of the leftist are indicative of the problems of our society as a whole. Low self-esteem, depressive tendencies and defeatism are not restricted to the left. Though they are especially noticeable in the left, they are widespread in our society. And today's society tries to socialize us to a greater extent than any previous society. We are even told by experts how to eat, how to exercise, how to make love, how to raise our kids and so forth. 

The purpose of this paper is NOT to discredit leftism but, instead, to explain some facets of it. If leftists as described above could develop greater confidence in the nearly unlimited creativity and potential of the individual as the atom in the process to create a better and more affluent society, they might manage to become more social-democratic instead of leftists.