I was reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row last night, and I was really struck by how the following passage speaks to the forces behind our current economic predicament:
“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men — kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling — are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest — sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest — are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
The usual cheap shot after citing a literary figure would be to argue that modern economics can’t possibly grapple with such issues. But it can. The incentives that Steinbeck describes are the incentives described in standard economic models. Agency theory is almost entirely devoted to developing mechanisms to deal with the fact that private and social interests often diverge; information economics tells us a lot about when these incentives are active; and behavioral economics tells us how people balance the opposing forces Steinbeck identifies.”
To which the first response in the comments was this:
“The reason we’re caught in this “only greed and self-interest produces anything or can make people successful, but it leads to dishonesty and causes harm to others!” is that we don’t distinguish between fair, mutually beneficial self-interest and dishonest self-interest where the risk is in someone else’s hands, at someone else’s expense. All the benevolence in the world won’t do the work that a greedy businessman can do, but that greedy businessman needs to be risking his own assets.”
My response to this comment was to rub my eyes. Does anybody seriously believe that the greedy businessman hatched out of a moonegg? No, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker were all once children. They lived in families. They got fed by either benevolent or not so benevolent parents. They did not, mewling infants, earn their keep. In fact, the family of the greedy businessman was often there, throughout his early life, lending him their connections, showering him with their money. And though, from 20 to 30, he or she might have cut a great swathe and been a great swaggerer, it is more likely than not that the greedy businessman has a home, a spouse, kids.
The whole understructure of the economy is, and will always be, based on these communal, familial, emotional, ambivalent ties, and none other. Ties of love and hate, which precede all economic epiphenomena. I am stating mere platitudes here. And yet, of course, when you read the commonplaces of the economists, and those, like the commenter, who live in the world of commerce, you would come away with a quite different idea of life trajectories – it is as if they were all products of a harsh and brutal orphanage. They all have Crusoe-fied themselves in that this is the story they tell. It is a story that is contradicted at every step by who they are, what they do, where they came from. Retrospectively, they cast the autistic net of rational choice or some such folly over the life they came out of, but this is gossamer of the most spurious type, a spider web thrown over social phenomena to try to make it cohere with fantasy.
It is the fantasy of contracts and pacts that has been puzzling me. Amie rightly has pointed out to me how odd and unmotivated all this contracting seems - although the contracts always do seem to be followed by destruction of the contract. Christoph Haitzmann makes several contracts, or posts several bonds (for his body and soul) with the devil. And yet, since he keeps tearing them up, what, exactly, is their function? This multiplication of contracts is not confined to the satanic realm – indeed, the ten commandments, which are, besides being rules, a covenant – a bond, a contract – are written in stone by God’s own hand – and promptly broken in anger by Moses, who comes down from Sinai and catches his people dancing around a golden calf. Moses has to go to God again, and God graciously agrees to write the contract one more time.
The contractual view, the view which provides the grounds for believing that it is the greed of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker which is at the base of our economic life – instead of the love and hates of those that raised all three in the oikos and will so continue, world without end, amen – is a view of a kill and a killing from a text, but what a funny text. A text that comes into view and disappears. That bi-locates. That is written, figuratively or literally, in blood.