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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/3/14

Suffering? Well, You Deserve It

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"When I hear Republicans in the United States say that taking away people's food stamps will do them good I ask, what do you know that allows you to say this? This rhetoric invokes the Enlightenment model. We all use it. It is improvement by means of reason. But Enlightenment discourse should not be taken at face value. We have to again ask whether it is being carried out in good faith."

"Economics, political science and even philosophy, ever since rational choice swept through the American social sciences, have embraced the idea that an individual has no responsibility towards anyone except himself or herself," he said. "A responsibility to anyone else is optional. The public discourse, for this reason, has become a hall of mirrors. Nothing anymore is what it seems to be."

Our current economic model, he said, will be of little use to us in an age of ecological deterioration and growing scarcities. Energy shortages, global warming, population increases and increasing scarcity of water and food create an urgent need for new models of distribution. Our two options, he said, will be "hanging together or falling apart." Offer argues that we cannot be certain that growth will continue. If standards of living stagnate or decline, he said, we must consider other models for the economy. Given the wealth and resources of industrialized nations, he said, a drop in living standards to what they were one or two generations ago would still permit a good quality of life.

Offer has studied closely the economies of World War I. Amid this catastrophe, he notes, civilian economies adapted. He holds up these war economies, with their heavy rationing, as a possible model for collective action in a contracting economy.

"What you had was a very sudden transition to a serious scarcity economy that was underpinned by the necessity for sharing," he said. "Ordinary people were required to sacrifice their lives. They needed some guarantee for those they left at home. These war economies were relatively egalitarian. These economics were based on the safety net principle. If continued growth in the medium run is not feasible, and that is a contingency we need to think about, then these rationing societies provide quite a successful model. On the Allied side, people did not starve, society held together."

However, if we cling to our current economic model -- which Offer labels "every man for himself" -- then, he said, "it will require serious repression."

"There is not a free market solution to a peaceful decline," he said.

"The state of current political economy in the West is similar to the state of communism in the Soviet Union around 1970," he went on. "It is studied widely in the university. Everyone knows the formula. Everyone mouths it in discourse. But no one believes it." The gap between the model and reality is now vast. Those in power seek "to bring reality into alignment with the model, and that usually involves coercion."

"The amount of violence that is inflicted is an indicator of how well the model is aligned with reality," he said. "That doesn't mean imminent collapse. Incorrect models can endure for long periods of time. The Soviet model shows this."

Violence, however, is ultimately an inefficient form of control. Consent, he said, is a more effective form of social control. He argued, citing John Kenneth Galbraith, that in affluent societies the relative contentment of the majorities has permitted, through free market ideology, the abandonment, impoverishment and repression of minorities, especially African-Americans. As larger and larger segments of society are forced because of declining economies to become outsiders, the use of coercion, under our current model, will probably become more widespread.  

"One of the unresolved issues in social science is how does the system hold together," he said. "We have the economic model of the invisible hand, the miracle of the market, but we know it is not true, since government allocates up to 50 percent of output and income. We don't actually rely on the 'free' market for our prosperity. Even the market sector is mostly dominated by entities with large market power."

"We have this model that we are all selfish and somehow this generates the miracle of cooperation," he said. "But equilibrium is only a truism for the well-off. There is money in the bank. The car is in the drive. The shops are full. The semesters follow each other. There is an overseas conference. The world seems to be OK. But if you look the other way, look at these other people, there is a world of hardship, misery and suffering. These suffering people are not always visible to invisible-hand advocates."

"Experimental economics has, in fact, demonstrated that when people are placed in experimental situations they do not behave as individualistic maximizers," he went on. "Some of them do. Some of them do not."

"Adam Smith," he noted, "wrote that what drives us is not, in the end, individual selfishness but reciprocal obligation. We care about other people's good opinions. This generates a reciprocal cycle. Reciprocity is not altruistic. That part of the economic core doctrine is preserved. But if we depend on other people for our self-worth then we are not truly self-sufficient. We depend on the sympathy of others for our own well-being. Therefore, obligation to others means that we do not always seek to maximize economic advantage. Intrinsic motivations, such as obligation, compassion and public spirit, crowd out financial ones. This model can also motivate a different type of political and economic aspiration."

"The free market norm assumes a frictionless exchange which maximizes everyone's well-being," he said. "The existence of ... coercive instruments, such as the prisons and the enormous military, makes you think that the theory is not all it is purported to be. There is a gap between what it pretends to be and what it is."

Offer said that universities, which should be incubators of new and radical ideas, are being stripped of their ability to independently critique the widening gap between reality and the false models of reality that are disseminated by the elites. 

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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