Post-Enlightenment Moral Confusion in Our Times: An American Case Study

More and more recently, I have thought of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” speaking to our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Putin invaded Ukraine to vindicate the Rus.  Xi asserts an ethnic right to rule Taiwan.  The post-World War II liberal international order is challenged by populist nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms.  Who listens to the U.N. Secretary General anymore?  How many people even know his name?  World leaders worry about climate change at COP27, but nothing much seems to happen.  Governments flood their economies with trillions of dollars of liquidity to make life easier for people and inflation takes off.  Globalization is said to be in retreat.  Governance in the U.S. is in gridlock after last week’s election.  Confidence and happy reciprocity are less and less evident.

What has happened?

One thought is that our modern global civilization was built using the cultural architecture of the European Enlightenment, but that has run out of gas.  We have lost faith in fundamentals and are turning instead to fears and passions, not to morals and reason.

The Enlightenment encouraged science and secularism, but, as Nietzsche intuited, reason not put to good ends can easily, left in isolation, turn on what it has wrought, like Cronus eating his children.  Reason, in the wrong hands, can become a solvent, dissolving, breaking into parts, dissecting and separating what is vitally organic into non-sustaining piecemeal bits of inefficacious flotsam and jetsam.

In giving purpose to reason, we can play at being God, indulging in fantasies and narcissistic self-promotions.  Our personal narratives can lose their coherence with reality.  Logic, taken to extremes, unbalances culture and politics with clever use of words, as in post-modernism and deconstruction.  Words, then, became rhetorical devices, serving the will to power of individuals.  The Tower of Babel story from the Old Testament could be a fit metaphor – seeking to join God, but ending up with fragmentation and tribal dispersion.

Secondly, the will to power draws forth personal dedication to entitlement, that others should do unto us what we most want and not charge us a penny for their efforts, all because we are deserving.  And, necessarily to this point of view, if we don’t get what we want, it is the fault of those others.  The will to power is infantilism at its best.  Lenin once criticized left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder.”

Modernity’s privileging of the will to power has brought a spiritual crisis upon us all.  Pope Francis responded to this in 2020 with his Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.  With our spiritual anchors floating away out of our reach, we tread water and seek rescue.  Most sought after is solace in personal entitlements.

From this spiritual perspective, ESG virtue signaling and companies committing themselves to high purposes make great sense as earning us the status of fully deserving to be well cared for by others.  We are good, so they will come to our rescue.

For example, that did not happen to Captain Ahab and his crew, save only Ishmael, in Herman Melville’s marvelous theological novel, Moby Dick.

In the U.S. especially, such logic of entitlement, coupled with a sense of victimhood whenever we don’t get what we think we deserve, has taken a prominent place in our culture and our politics.  The dissolving of systemic trust and confidence worked by post-modernism and deconstruction narratives of nihilism and narcissism has flowered into the spread of woke consciousness, a kind of sectarian Puritanism.  Wokeness divides citizens into the deserving and the undeserving, with entitlements flowing to the deserving and the burden of guilt and responsibility placed upon the undeserving.

The action arm of woke consciousness in the U.S. is programs of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to privilege some at the expense of the less deserving.

The attached essay on DEI applies critical thinking and analytical modes of deconstruction to this new and, for me, very questionable practice in employment, education and the allocation of social concern.

You can read it here.

More Short Videos on Relevant and Timely Topics

We recently posted more short videos on relevant and timely topics.  They include:

Reflecting on Responsibility

Private Property vs Public Office

Misinformation and Disinformation, Who Decides?

How Should We Look at Work?

Capitalism and the Intangible

All our videos can be found on our YouTube page here.  We recently put them into 8 playlists, which you can find here.

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November 22, 1963 – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

About noon on November 22, 1963, I was preparing to swim laps in the indoor pool of Harvard College.  It was then required of freshmen students to pass a swimming test.  The test was a condition put in a large gift to the college, as I recall, from the mother of Harry Elkins Widener, who drowned in the sinking of the Titanic.  A graduate of the college, he could not swim and so drowned.  His mother made a gift in his memory to his alma mater on condition that the college would teach all its students how to swim.  If you passed the test, you were exempted from otherwise compulsory swimming classes – as I recall.

You swam naked in the pool.  As I stood there that November 22nd with 2 or 3 classmates about to plunge in, a friend of ours came running out of the locker room with a kind of desperate excitement in his face and voice: “The president’s been shot!,” he exclaimed.  Our group looked at one another in disbelief – no, we each thought separately; impossible.

Then a cold feeling came to me.  I remembered Abraham Lincoln and the much more recent assassination attempt on President Harry Truman.  Such terrible things can and do happen, I realized.

We did not want to swim, but had to wait for the class hour to expire.  As soon as I had dressed, I ran over to the office of the student newspaper.  As I walked in, many were standing around watching TV.  As I looked over at the television set, I saw Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and say in a breaking voice: “The president is dead.”

Harvard in 1963 was sort of a center of fandom for Jack Kennedy and his New Frontier.  His death seemed to sever the moral fiber of that community.  My dad, also a Harvard graduate and a friend of John Kennedy’s older brother Joe when both were undergraduates, had been President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Thailand.  Dad had taken us to Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961.

I was standing in the snow on the back side of the Capitol, where inaugurations were then held, for the ceremony, hearing with my own ears my new president’s call to action:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. …

Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need – not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. …

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. …

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.

I said to myself, “yes.”

And now 59 years and many global tribulations later, I still say “yes.”  The work of doing right and good in this world must truly be our own.  We must ask of ourselves and not of others.

John Kennedy’s assassination was not the only death or inexplicable tragedy we have witnessed during these past nearly 6 decades.  Those sad and bad turns of fate can only leave us with the conclusion that our cosmos does not arrange for the best to happen to us and for us to live in the best of all possible worlds.

His assassination shocked American self-esteem.  That such a promising young man would be cut down by a lone misfit made no sense.  Many responded with denial of the truth.  They felt more psychologically secure in claiming that Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy. They needed an infamous power to blame in order to remove responsibility off the vagaries of that unknowable fate, which embraces us all.

Shifting blame the better to live comfortably in our own imaginations is very human. Scapegoating has its calming effect.  Giving our fears a knowable cause puts us more in charge of our lives, as we can then demand specific remediation for what bothers us.  If the world is out of sorts with us, then somebody needs to do something about it.

Coincidently, I just read a comment of Picasso on how our minds create safe spaces.  He referred to his painting, a process seeking to express an aesthetic, as a “form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile in the universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors, as well as on our desires.”

Recently, in the U.S., we suffer from a surfeit of conspiratorial scapegoating, as things go badly. Some saw a conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russians in the 2016 presidential election and in the riotous attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.  Others see conspiracy in how ballots were accepted for counting in the 2020 presidential election.  Perhaps not totally irrational, fears of others who are different, fears too of their taking control of our lives, has turned many Americans towards such homeopathic therapy for their psychic discomfort.

Maybe we could use a magic to carry us away from the here and now in a narcissistic embrace of our psyches?

But I ask you: would it not be more realistic to work in this world – to bear every burden, pay every price, meet every hardship, support every friend, oppose every foe – so that actual events bring succor and happiness to those around us?

A Wise Comment on the Collapse of FTX Cryptocurrency Trading Platform

With my colleagues here, I have been rethinking the emphasis we place on systems rather than on individuals.  Modern social science has become accustomed to focus on systems – how they work, their rise and fall, their coherence or incoherence.  Political philosophy has moved away from virtue studies and become political science, with a data-driven focus on mass behaviors, policies and programs, bureaucracy and hard and soft powers.

When seeking the public good in economics, we are caught between systems – capitalism and national socialism.

But what about the role of individuals in shaping organizations?  Or the role of organizations in promoting some kinds of personalities over others; personalities which then, when empowered, shape the organization to fit their needs and dispositions.

Here is a current commentary on the role of sociopathic individuals in corporations, authored by Jennifer Sey, who was the Brand President of Levi’s.

Her article appeared in the Spectator.

“The Love of Money is the Root of All Evil”

The recent collapse in scandal and abuse of customers at FTX is yet another example of the risks associated with “money.”

More and more, I am thinking that there should be an independent discipline of knowledge and research on “money.”  Actually, an interdisciplinary field of study and commentary, as “money” intersects with psychology, sociology, economics and politics.

There is something about “money” which can perversely engage with our natures, marginalizing the good and promoting the worst ambitions and meanness of the self.  Perhaps that is why so many religious traditions teach and practice the shunning of “money” and “money” making.  Usury – the making of money from money – was anathema to the writers of the Old Testament and is contrary to Qur’anic guidance.  Monks in Catholicism and Buddhism take vows of poverty, the better to be good persons.  The Confucian tradition did not privilege those who sought “money,” for such lifestyles would inhibit, it was thought, their ability to become good people following the moral codes of propriety and humaneness.

And so frequently, “money” abuses by smart and charming people – sociopaths? – involve “other people’s money,” not their own.  This seems to have been the case at FTX.

Here making the case for “money” as corrupting, especially taking risks with “other people’s money,” is an editorial from today’s Wall Street Journal:

Sam Bankman-Fried Becomes an ESG Truth-Teller
The fallen wizard of crypto confesses to phony virtue-signaling.

By the Editorial Board
Nov. 17, 2022


Crypto dark knight Sam Bankman-Fried may have deceived investors, customers and various journalists and politicians.  But now the FTX founder is at least telling the truth about a few things.  Lo, he says that environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing is a fraud, and so was his progressive public posturing.

Mr. Bankman-Fried on Wednesday tweeted a rambling account attempting to explain how he managed to lose billions of dollars in FTX customer funds.  “I was on the cover of every magazine, and FTX was the darling of Silicon Valley,” he noted.  As a result, “we got overconfident and careless.”  There’s an understatement for the digital ages.

Mr. Bankman-Fried virtue-signaled by committing to make FTX “carbon neutral” and donating generously to fashionable progressive causes such as a foundation working to provide solar energy in the Amazon River basin.  “We’re giving millions each year to launch sustainability related initiatives,” he said in an April Forbes magazine interview with—you can’t make this up—Brazilian super-model Gisele Bündchen.

Meanwhile, he was leveraging FTX customer funds to make risky, ill-timed bets.  “Problems were brewing.  Larger than I realized,” he tweeted.  “In the future, I’m going to care less about the dumb, contentless, ‘good actor’ framework,” he added.  “What matters is what you do—is *actually* doing good or bad, not just *talking* about doing good or *using ESG language.*”

Mr. Bankman-Fried is also acknowledging that he genuflected to regulators and Democratic lawmakers to win political protection.  ESG ratings company Truvalue Labs even gave FTX a higher score on “leadership and governance” than Exxon Mobil, though the crypto exchange had only three directors on its board.  The directors were Mr. Bankman-Fried, another FTX executive and an outside attorney.  Truvalue Labs says FTX was given an overall “laggard” score.

“ESG has been perverted beyond recognition,” Mr. Bankman-Fried confessed in an interview this week with Vox in which he also acknowledged that his advocacy for strong crypto regulations was “just PR.”

He said he feels “bad for those who get” harmed by “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shibboleths [sic] and so everyone likes us.”  Ah, yes, the poor saps who invest in companies because they claim to be sustainable.

For the record, Mr. Bankman-Fried denies wrongdoing.  “It was never the intention” to bilk customers, he said.  Maybe not.  But here is an object lesson for investors and the American public in how progressive virtue-signaling is used to conceal business vices.  Some people will believe anything if you wrap a chance to get rich quick in political fashion.

Please Give to the Max!

Here in Minnesota, there is a special day each year for making financial donations to our local non-profits.  It’s called “Give to the Max” and is tomorrow, Thursday, November 17.

There is no geographic prohibition on donors, so each year, we send out a request to you for financial support.

Our case is perhaps more compelling this year.  Many leaders around the world seem to have lost heart and courage.  There is a failure of confidence.  Accordingly, those who look up to leaders seem more worried than before at what they see or rather, what they don’t see.

We are living in trying times – the first significant war in supposedly civilized Europe, of all places; the rejection of Western culture, based on the Enlightenment, by two great powers; ennui at confronting global warming; Big Data supporting the surveillance state; and Big Tech supporting surveillance capitalism.  A recent Zoom round table with a number of our fellows centered on these concerns and the lack of trust, very little of which can be found.

Uniquely, the Caux Round Table has in its principles a synthesis of action agendas, centered on respecting human agency and concern for stakeholders.  This effort can be a new paradigm, fit for global acceptance.  The principles have stood tests of time and season, recession and inflation, scandal and success in the marketplace.

To expand our presence now that Covid restrictions are passing into history, we need your financial help.  Please consider sending us a contribution of US$100.

We plan to resume in-person roundtables, would like to publish several books in 2023 addressing our global crisis of confidence and create educational modules to promote understanding of our principles.

To donate, please visit our Give to the Max page here.  You can also contribute directly to us via PayPal here.

If you would like to mail a check, our mailing address is 75 West Fifth Street, Suite 219, St. Paul, MN 55102.

You can also contribute via wire transfer (hit reply and we’ll send you the instructions).

Contributions are tax-deductible for U.S. residents.

With many thanks and high regards for all that each of you do.

Capitalism Funding the Energy Transition

Putting aside, for a moment, whether wind and solar will ever generate enough electricity to meet humanity’s demand, what mechanism is best suited to get such clean electricity online?

In the U.S., one quarter of the gigawatt generating capacity now available has been invested based on companies having demand for such output locked in.

These would-be producers of green electricity use PPAs or power purchasing agreements as a risk reduction play to justify investment up front to be repaid over time by customers.  With a PPA, the buyer of green electricity promised to pay, over time, for consumption of that form of power.  With a PPA in place, the producer of such power can, with confidence, invest in generating capacity and so financial capital is deployed to reduce future contributions to global warming, where the risk/return relationship justifies the expenditure.  The risk is shifted to the customer, who then faces the problem of finding customers who will pay for such use of electricity.

PPAs also revise time horizons, collapsing future use into present financial value.

The point of capitalism, as deftly noted by Adam Smith, is that customers drive the system, not capitalists.  Producers who can’t sell at a profit just go out of business.  Society has spoken against them: what they offer is not valued.

And high-tech companies, which operate giant data centers using lots and lots of electricity to produce a service vital to our daily lives, are well positioned to enter into PPAs with potential producers of electricity from wind and solar technologies.

It’s a win/win/win formula, rather beyond the ability of government to make happen by fiat: “Thou shall!”

Lest We Forget: In Capitalism, Not Everybody Makes a Profit All the Time

Two very prominent and “big” American companies are having trouble making a profit.

Boeing reports a $3.3 billion loss for its third quarter.

It has only made profits in 3 out of 14 quarters since the crashes of its 737 Max 8 aircraft in 2018 and 2019.

Secondly, Meta or Facebook, if you like, reported a 4% decline in quarterly revenue from the same period last year.  Its profit for the previous quarter was 1% below earnings for the equivalent quarter last year.  Its stock price has dropped 16%.

The misconception – very much touted by Karl Marx – that capitalism is just a never-ending flow of money to capitalists (“Mr. Moneybags,” Marx called them) needs to be challenged, again and again.  Not every company succeeds day in and day out.  Only those who properly and adroitly take care of their stakeholders do well in the long run.

There is in life and especially in capitalism, risk.  Risk brings on the bad with the good.  Putting risk in the calculation of probable outcomes of business and finance should be a no-brainer for us all.

It is true, as Adam Smith complained, that many in business and finance will try to arrange circumstances to remove risk, even abusively, at times, by hook and by crook, in order to turn capitalism into rent extraction.

In Capitalism, the Rich and Powerful Never Fail, Right?

For ever so long, many have taken it for granted that in power hierarchies, those on top coast from privilege to privilege and are secure.

Often forgotten, however, is the old saying, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”

Now, in hierarchies of rent extraction – dictatorships and crony capitalist systems – something like what you have today will be there tomorrow, only more so, does seem to apply to the top ranks.

But in free market capitalism, risk is not fully under control and so losses can occur.

General Electric is splitting itself into three independent companies, a failure of its once so profitable and so admired business model.

Goldman Sachs’s profit just slid 43%, so the company is reorganizing, the better to survive volatility in financial markets and to earn fees, no matter what the economy does.  The company will fold investment banking and trading into one profit center and merge asset and wealth management into another.

The company’s CEO is shifting priority away from once very profitable high-risk, high-return lines of business to products and services that generate consistent fees.  Wealth management is less remunerative, but steady.