The people as moral economists

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – Even when they’re wrong, it’s worth listening to the people who absorb the hit, from Greece to Arizona
Published on Friday, May. 07, 2010.   By Rick Salutin

Response to this week’s protests by workers and pensioners in Greece was disdainful. CNN logged it under anger and violence. “Tantrums,” said the National Post, thrown by “coddled, bloated and overprotected people.” The Globe and Mail sermonized, “Greeks have been living beyond their means for years, with extravagant social benefits and fudged public accounting,” although you could easily switch “bankers and speculators” for “Greeks.”

This ignores testimony by the protesters themselves, who chanted, “Thieves, thieves,” about financiers and their hired political agents. It was a moral complaint; they were adding an ethical dimension to the economic crisis: Thou shalt not steal. This judgmental role often falls to “the people” in historic situations. They are quite good at absorbing vast amounts of pain without tantrums – as one can see from the Haitian earthquake to London during the Blitz – but they get riled if they sense injustice and unfairness in the burdens they must bear. Greek workers, for instance, have probably noted that bonuses are what they are expected to forgo, unlike the Wall Street executives. This moves beyond anger to analysis.

Here’s what I see as the economics behind the chant: First, the people, through their governments, are told to bail out banks by taking over their toxic assets to save the world. Then the bankers, who just this week declared huge profits, turn and tell governments to slash public spending, such as wages and pensions, to cover the deficits incurred in the bailouts. The people absorb the hit both times. This isn’t just theft, it’s brazen. It’s not rocket science, it’s economics with a moral sensibility.

Nor is it a matter of left versus right, it’s right versus wrong. Take the new Arizona law that implicitly criminalizes non-whites. I admire Steve Nash and his Phoenix Suns teammates for protesting the impact on civil rights. But alongside the race bias comes an economic protest, responding, I’d say, to free trade and globalization. Those forces allow owners to move their factories from Canada and the United States to Mexico and then even cheaper venues. But workers have no such mobility and lose all security. That’s what they say when asked, and this is what’s behind much of the support for the law, even if American workers also sympathize with Mexican “illegals.” They feel it’s unfair and their own government is morally bound to act for them and their families. The solution to this isn’t immigration reform, it’s economic reform.

Gordon Brown ran into that kind of economic reasoning about foreign workers by the “bigoted woman” in Britain’s election campaign. The people have this instinct for the fairness issue in economics because it arises routinely in their own lives. Even when they’re wrong, confused or, for that matter, racist, they’re in the ethical ballpark. They do economics as covert ethics.

Economists used to play that game. Adam Smith, not your run-of-the-mill economist, made his living as a professor of moral philosophy. (Margaret Atwood adopted the same stance in her book Payback.) But today, even economists seen as radical or left-wing, like Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz, tend to aim, in their own words, to save capitalism. It’s true that their hero, John Maynard Keynes, had that goal, but then it was to save capitalism from communism or socialism. That’s not on the agenda now, so the task is merely to save capitalism from its own worst, gluttonous, hedonistic self. You can see how this may have a less riveting impact on living, grasping capitalists than does the prospect of being turfed and replaced.

So it falls to the people, an honourable if antiquated category, to make some of those critical moral points. It’s worth listening to what they say, and not just to those who insult, demean and dismiss them.

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