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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

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What is American Transcendentalism?

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EmersonThoreau2

Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Two Meanings of Zeitgeist

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Zeit-Geist

The word zeitgeist has lately come to be identified with a movement and ideology associated with a rejection of corporatism and globalization, and a return to a more sustainable way of life.  ‘Zeitgeist’ is a compound of two German words, zeit, which means time, and geist, which means spirit.  In its more common sense today, and the sense associated with the modern movement, it means a spirit of the times, i.e., a prevailing mind-set, attitude or set of values.  Thus, we might say that in the Reagan era (1980-88), the zeitgeist was one of entrepeneurism and economic growth; and in the 60’s, it was associated with “peace, love, and Woodstock.”

Another, older meaning of zeitgeist, less common today, is that of a literal Spirit of Time.  That is, a metaphysical entity —  a Spirit, Angel, Genius, or God’s Providence — is thought of as having a plan for human history, and directing the course of human events.

A minor point, but one not entirely insignificant, is that word in the former sense is a common noun, which would ordinarily be written uncapitalized, i.e., zeitgeist.  In the latter sense, however, the word is a proper noun, and is written Zeitgeist or Zeit-Geist.

It is fairly evident that when people today talk about the Zeitgeist Movement, they are using ‘zeitgeist’ in the former, i.e., non-metaphysical sense.  My point here is that I think people should question this, and give more consideration to the relevance of the latter meaning of the word in this context.

Why?

For several related reasons.  We are all agreed that the problem here is corporatism and globalization, how these have infected every aspect of modern life, corrupted our governments, dehumanized us, produced perpetual war, and are ruining the environment.  But this much granted, a ideological fork in the road is encountered.  On the one hand, we can construe the problem exclusively in terms of materialist-deterministic philosophy; on the other, we can allow that there are or may be spiritual and metaphysical principles at work that affect our existence.

The simple truth is that the overwhelming majority of human beings on the planet do believe in a God or Supreme Being, and do hope for an afterlife — so to this extent, at least, they believe in metaphysics.  Any God worthy of the name would be benevolent, all-wise, and all powerful.  Thus God, almost by definition, would be concerned with human affairs, have a plan for the ultimate success of the race, and would assist us.  God’s power, wisdom and assistance, when directed to the course of history, either directly or through some mediating agency, would fulfill the definition of a Zeit-Geist.

Now as I write this and call to mind those individuals whom I know directly or see on the internet who are associated with the Zeitgeist Movement, in nearly every case I envision someone radically opposed to the points stated in the preceding paragraph.  That is, the Zeitgeist Movement, as it is ideologically represented — say, for example, in the writings of Noam Chomsky — is at the very least a-religious, and, quite frankly, gives one the distinct impression of being anti-religious.  I’d make a friendly wager, in fact, that subjected to some objective empirical test — say performing an automated content analysis of articles in the Zeitgeist Movement literature, this impression of atheism would find more support than not.

If so, I would invite people associated with or interested in the Zeitgeist Movement and its aims to open their minds somewhat.  The problem here is that via our education system and mass media, our culture has had an atheistic-materialistic world-view shoved down its collective throat.  And by whom?  By the corporate establishment.  Noam Chomsky is correct in some ways, but when it comes to religion and philosophy, he has neither expertise nor credibility.  On this issue he operates merely at the level of prejudice and emotion.  He has risen, in addressing matters metaphysical, to his level of incompetence (see Peter principle).  He is to this extent another mouthpiece of the corporate establishment.

Every malicious power structure supplies its own token resistance.  To disguise its real Achilles heel, it invents a nominal opposition that gives the outward appearance of a challenge, but which is ultimately ineffectual.  Noam Chomsky and like-minded ‘Zeitgeist atheists’, however genuine their intentions may be, ultimately serve the materialist system by supplying this nominal opposition and monopolizing the podium.

The most dangerous and serious effect of corporatism and globalization is to destroy mankind’s collective awareness of our divinity.  Chomsky and crew support this vast and destructive delusion.

We are either machines in a value-less, Darwinistic universe.  Or we have something spiritual in our makeup.  If the former is true, then ultimately nothing matters, and the best solution is a bottle of sleeping pills and a liter of wine.  Moreover, the mere fact that we see corporatism and globalization as unjust, as wrong — not just inconvenient, not just a dangerous adversary — but wrong, demonstrates that we have a genuine moral sense.  We evaluate right and wrong by standards that have no real legitimacy in a merely Darwinian universe.  In Darwin’s jungle, if the big monkey oppresses you, you can say he is stronger, but not wrong.  The naturalness with which we make such moral judgements of right and wrong, in an absolute sense, and our utter conviction of their truth, shows that we are something more than just intelligent machines.

Finally, and most importantly, if there is a God, if there is Providence, that has a major bearing on strategy.  If there is a Zeit-Geist, a Spirit of Providence, then we stand the best chance of succeeding not by trying to invent a revolution from scratch, but by aligning ourselves with the Zeit-Geist. We should look to see how the Zeit-Geist is already at work today, how it has planted seeds in the past and given us examples for us to follow when the time for change is ready.

This is one reason I look closely at the American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. If there is a benevolent Spirit of History presiding over the human race, we would see it working in other historical periods to resist the same oppression of humanity we see today.  It would prepare us for the great and decisive struggle gradually.  It would work patiently and cumulatively, like a wise gardener.  It would have inspired minds in previous generations.  We are wise to look for where the thread of progress last left off, and continue from there.

The ideological literature of the Zeitgeist Movement is atheistic.  But the members of the movement are privately believers.  This disconnect must end for the movement to succeed, so that it harnesses the abilities of the entire individual.

Written by John Uebersax

March 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Fiat Lucrum: Berkeley Faculty vs. California Citizens on Online Courses

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Let There Be Loot!

Fiat Lucrum

California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source.  This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.

Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations.  The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520.  The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”

This, of course, is all nonsense.  Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.

That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money.  No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money.  Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).

What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual.  Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price.  We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless.  People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree.  If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors.  A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.

Explaining the College Tuition Crisis in Concrete Terms

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This infographic, sent to me by some colleagues, documents in clear and sobering terms the scope of the college tuition crisis and soaring higher education costs.  It’s a very creative and effective way to get the message across, don’t you think?

College Isn't Cheap

The full article can be found here.

Written by John Uebersax

January 28, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Taxing the Rich: What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens

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The ancient city-state of Athens employed means of ‘taxing the rich’, the principles of which modern Americans might well consider.

One of these was a special tax called the eisphora.  It was levied on rich Athenians in wartime.  In effect, a wealthy person might be required to provide and equip a warship for the Athenian navy.  In modern terms, it would be like the US government requiring wealthy citizens to pay for an Apache helicopter ($15 million) or Predator drone ($4 million); someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might have to pay for a destroyer ($1.5 billion).

One advantage of such a system today is that it would supply a powerful incentive for the wealthy to lobby against war.  Rather than pay the eisphora tax, the Koch brothers might prefer to subsidize an anti-war Super-PAC or a world peace think-tank!

Ancient Athenians also required the wealthiest citizens to underwrite religious and cultural events.  For example, the famous tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written for performance at an Athenian religious festival called the Dionysia.  Each year several rich Athenians were selected and matched with a playwright.  The rich person paid for the cost of producing the writer’s plays (each writer produced four plays).

Under this scheme a rich person was taxed, yet in compensation they received public recognition and praise.  It’s a fair trade, don’t you think?  At present, our attitude is more, “you pay money, because we demand it.”  But then the attitude was, “Let’s make a deal.  You pay a lot of your money for civic benefit, but in return we hail you as a benefactor.”  This is a marvelous custom — virtually a win-win scenario.  Instead of encouraging mutual resentment between rich and non-rich, it fosters good-will all the way around.

Again in modern terms this would be like, instead of simply taxing billionaires and placing the money in an anonymous coffer where it indiscriminately pays for all manner of government programs (many of which, it must be admitted, do little to improve the quality of life of Americans),  they would be asked to pay for museums, parks, civic beautification programs, etc.  Have Bill Gates build a new museum of art in Seattle.  Then write on the entrance, “Dedicated to the People of Seattle by Bill Gates”, and put a statue of him in front.

Everybody’s happy.  You tax the rich, while at the same time promote love and harmony.

The Fable of the Ten Dollars

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One day Sam woke up early.  It seemed like a good day for fishing, and he thought he’d try his luck.  He headed out to his favorite fishing spot, and before long caught a splendid fish.  He brought the fish directly to the village market, where it sold almost immediately for $10.

“Just what I need,” thought Sam, “to replace my old and nearly broken fishing pole.” He walked across the marketplace to the stall of Mike the woodcrafter. Sam picked out a new pole made of willow, and bought it with the $10 he’d just earned.

A little later that morning, Mike the woodcrafter had a hair appointment at Pete the barber’s. Mike got a haircut, and paid with the same $10 he’d received earlier from Sam the fisher.

At lunchtime, Pete the barber went to a nearby cafe, where he bought lunch for himself and a friend, paying the $10 that Mike the woodcrafter had paid him.

A few minutes later, the cafe owner, Sally, noticed she was running low on lentils.

She sent her assistant to the grocery to buy some.  “Here, take this”, Sally said, handing her assistant the same $10 that Pete had paid for lunch.

When Sally’s assistant arrived at the grocer’s, Angela the farmer was there with a delivery of apples.  Sally’s assistant bought $10 worth of lentils from the grocer, who   then paid the same $10 to Angela for the apples she’d just delivered.

One the way home, Angela stopped at store of Evan the potter, where she bought a watering pot – paying the same $10.  Later, on his work break, Evan went next door to the Chloe the masseuse.  Using the $10 he’d gotten from Angela, he paid Chloe for a relaxing massage.  Later, Chloe visited the baker, where, paying the same $10, she bought bread and pastries for a party she was having that evening.

Now this continued all afternoon and evening.  In less than a day, the same $10 changed hands twenty times. As a result, twenty people were enriched: some had delicious meals; some had new tools to make their work and lives easier; some had new clothes; some were better groomed; some entertained.  All were happier.  The total wealth gained by the village, measured as improved quality of life, had increased by $200.  All this happened because of the same $10.

That same day in another village, another fisher also woke up early.  He looked outside and thought, “What a nice day to sleep in. I don’t really need the money. Why work today?”  This fisher caught no fish, earned no $10, and bought nothing.  In consequence, many other people in his village — the barber, baker, grocer, and others — had an empty hour in their day, when nothing was bought or sold.  To fill the time, people napped, or watched television, or gossiped, or argued, or drank, or  fretted and felt depressed, or in various other ways wasted time or made mischief.

Now what may we conclude from this little story:

1. The wealth of a community is not a function of how much money people have. 

Here $10 bought $200 worth of actual goods and services. But that’s just the beginning.  In each transaction of our idealized story, there were two direct beneficiaries. The purchaser benefited by gaining a new good or service.  And the seller benefited from (1) the satisfaction of having served and made happy another villager, and (2) from the enjoyable time spent pursuing his or her vocation.

Each villager was passionate about his or her work.  Each person found greater meaning, purpose, dignity and self-respect by engaging in productive activity.

Sam, for example, liked fishing so much that, in truth, he would have paid $10 for the opportunity to fish.  Anyone with a passion for their work knows this to be true.

Therefore, if we were to include the value of the experience of working, the  wealth gained by the community was more like $400:  $200 for the receivers of the goods and services, and another $200 worth of satisfaction, enjoyment, and fulfilment by the producers.

Moreover, each transaction was itself a positive experience.  Each affirmed the integrity and usefulness of both individuals, and of the community as a whole.  Both parties felt respect for themselves and for the other.  Their trust and confidence in each other grew. Therefore we may add at least $2 gained – $1 for each person – as psychological benefit in each transaction.  Thus in twenty transactions, the community profited $40 more this way.

Further, we could consider how many harms the village avoided by keeping everyone productively and happily occupied.  In view of the crimes not committed, the problems not instigated, the vices not pursued due to idleness, we could easily allow that the village profited another $400 in avoiding costs associated with these problems.

Thus the $10 led to an enhancement in quality of life in the amount of $840.  Had we included a few more people, this could have as easily been $1000, or a two-orders-of-magnitude increase.

2. Rapid circulation of currency is more important than total capital. 

For example, if each villager had $1 million in the bank, but didn’t spend it, the functional wealth, measured in terms of improved quality of life, would not have increased at all.  Even if the money earned interest every day, it would just be an abstraction – numbers on a bank statement – unless it became a good or service shared with another.

3. The wealth of a community is the eagerness and willingness of people to work for one another.

In our scenario, people were eager to both supply and to purchase goods and services.  The only limits on how much total quality of life improved was the speed and skill which people performed their work, and their interest and efficiency in purchasing things from others.

In every economic transaction of our idealized, happy village, each person, whether buying or selling something or exchanging services, seeks not just to maximize self-interest.  Each party further wants the transaction to benefit the other; and, moreover, the entire community.  Each transaction becomes an opportunity to practice, affirm and develop a favorable community ethos.  Each is a re-affirmation of one person to another:  I live, I work, I derive my meaning not just for myself, but for you and others also.

And added to this benevolence, magnanimity, or whatever we choose to call it, is another virtue, namely that of promptness, energy, and industriousness in work.

This again is an attitude or ethos that may permeate a whole community. We have described more than just a community of people with good intentions and positive sentiments.  We’ve described a community of hard-workers. There are few, if any, stronger motivators of human activity than a loving desire to help others.  This is how human beings are designed:  to work, to work hard, to enjoy work, and for all this to serve others.

4. Every economic transaction was direct, person-to-person. 

This further encouraged and supported the villagers’ natural tendencies to act ethically and pro-socially.  When doing business with an anonymous entity – some corporation or bank – these positive social forces don’t operate. If one buys something from a fellow villager, it pleases one to know that the money will improve the quality of that person’s life.  Doing business with a corporation, this is not so.  The money may just sit in a bank, be put to questionable use, line the pockets of someone who is absurdly rich; or be sent out to anonymous stockholders who will little appreciate either the money or its source – namely the dedicated labor of a fellow human being.

If it is a good corporation, say a producer of clean energy, some of these problems are offset or not present; however there is still lacking the reinforcement that comes from positive, person-to-person interaction.  We see no smile, no light in the eyes of a corporation, or, usually, not even in an employee of a corporation, however benevolent it may be.

We may work out of love for each other; but we cannot work out of love for a corporation, a government, or another anonymous entity.

5. The economy is stimulated by ethically positive work.

Essential to the scenario is that the work performed in each case was productive and ethically positive.  If we were to insert into the sequence say, Zack the adulterated cigarette maker , it would break down:

  • First, Zack himself has a conscience, and would know that what he is doing is morally questionable.  This would make him enjoy his work less.
  • Second, to the extent that Zack was conflicted and internally divided, it would impair his productivity.  His heart wouldn’t be in it.
  • Third, people who did business with Zack would feel guilty, either consciously or subconsciously, because they are asking him to do something which is not good and emotionally fulfilling for him.
  • Fourth, people who supply goods and services for Zach’s business might feel uncomfortable knowing that they are, at least indirectly, supporting Zach’s questionable work which harms others.
  • Fifth and finally, the opportunity for Zach to be delivering some other, truly productive service to the community is missed.

In closing we consider two more speculative points.  Concerning these the author is more hesitant, having no firm opinion whether they are correct, or whether some other interpretation would be more accurate.  However they suggest general lines of thought suggested by the fable which might bear further investigation.

6. Some forms of taxation are intrinsically unfavorable.

Taxes are a necessity, but are problematic in our village.  In theory, taxes are used to help the community.  If a person saw that 10% of every dollar spent went to feed the hungry or treat the sick, and that this had a demonstrable benefit on the recipient’s quality of life, there would be no difficulty.  One would be no less psychologically motivated to purchase goods and services.  One would work just as hart to earn money with which to purchase things.  The loss in purchase power, such that 1/10 of every dollar went to the taxing agency, would be offset in seeing the benefits of taxes in the lives of others.

However, to the extent that taxes are unfairly high, or revenues are mismanaged, so that they do not improve the lives of community members, then this benefit is lessened.  It is also reduced to the extent that tax-payers do not personally know the recipients of tax-funded community programs.  A merely abstract charity – whereby one believes that one’s money is helping some anonymous others – is much less potent a psychological reinforcer and motivator than a personal charity – where one directly sees the effect it has.

As for modes of taxation, a sales tax on each transaction would seem to have the worst possible effect on our ideal village economy.  The miracle of the $10 occurs precisely because people seek commerce: all other things being equal, it is better to include more, not less people in the chain of transactions.   A sales tax, however, produces an incentive to reduce the number of transactions.

An income tax, provided that expenses (purchases) are exempt from tax, would not have this effect.  This would amount to a profit tax, rather than an income tax.  Note that this has the effect of discouraging saving currency, i.e., making profit.  However, in our model, profit per se, if that means accumulating more money than one can spend on natural (community-harmonious) goods and services, is something, arguably, to be discouraged.

7.  If there is a lull in the economy, the government should not try to remedy this by creating jobs.

One can create a job, but one cannot create a vocation or a passion. Passion is something either God-given, or develops instinctively in the context of a community of people with needs and interests.  Passionless jobs immediately remove half the value of work – the value to the workers in the enjoyment of their labor.  Unmotivated workers are slower and less efficient.  At the end of the day they go home exhausted and depressed, not much interested in improving their quality of life by purchasing goods and services of others.

The rejoinder might be:  what if the government could create jobs that people find fulfilling?  The answer is obvious:  nobody needs to create jobs that people like to do.  They will do them anyway, given the chance.  If anything, the government should seek to remove obstacles to people being able to follow their own chosen vocations.

A government could, however, act constructively and supportively in other ways:  for example, by promoting education and culture, building a marketplace for the exchange of goods; constructing and maintaining roads and infrastructure, etc.

Written by John Uebersax

March 19, 2012 at 10:02 pm