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Lakoff and Wehling write: "Quoting conservative language, even to argue against it, just strengthens conservatism in the brain of people who are morally complex. It is vital that they hear the progressive values of the traditional American moral system, the truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, the truth that our freedom depends on a robust Public, and that the economy is for all of us."

Children trapped in poverty. (photo: Aromaa )
Children trapped in poverty. (photo: Aromaa )

Economics and Morality

By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, CommonDreams

15 June 12


n his June 11, 2012 op-ed in the NY Times, Paul Krugman goes beyond economic analysis to bring up the morality and the conceptual framing that determines economic policy. He speaks of “the people the economy is supposed to serve” - “the unemployed,” and “workers”- and “the mentality that sees economic pain as somehow redeeming.”

Krugman is right to bring these matters up. Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed - by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone’s sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed.

Most Democrats, consciously or mostly unconsciously, use a moral view deriving from an idealized notion of nurturant parenting, a morality based on caring about their fellow citizens, and acting responsibly both for themselves and others with what President Obama has called “an ethic of excellence” - doing one’s best not just for oneself, but for one’s family, community, and country, and for the world. Government on this view has two moral missions: to protect and empower everyone equally.

The means is The Public, which provides infrastructure, public education, and regulations to maximize health, protection and justice, a sustainable environment, systems for information and transportation, and so forth. The Public is necessary for The Private, especially private enterprise, which relies on all of the above. The liberal market economy maximizes overall freedom by serving public needs: providing needed products at reasonable prices for reasonable profits, paying workers fairly and treating them well, and serving the communities to which they belong. In short, “the people the economy is supposed to serve” are ordinary citizens. This has been the basis of American democracy from the beginning.

"Quoting conservative language, even to argue against it, just strengthens conservatism in the brain of people who are morally complex. It is vital that they hear the progressive values of the traditional American moral system, the truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, the truth that our freedom depends on a robust Public, and that the economy is for all of us."

Conservatives hold a different moral perspective, based on an idealized notion of a strict father family. In this model, the father is The Decider, who is in charge, knows right from wrong, and teaches children morality by punishing them painfully when they do wrong, so that they can become disciplined enough to do right and thrive in the market.If they are not well-off, they are not sufficiently disciplined and so cannot be moral: they deserve their poverty. Applied to conservative politics, this yields a moral hierarchy with the wealthy, morally disciplined citizens deservedly on the top.

Democracy is seen as providing liberty, the freedom to seek one’s self interest with minimal responsibility for the interests or well-being of others. It is laissez-faire liberty. Responsibility is personal, not social. People should be able to be their own strict fathers, Deciders on their own - the ideal of conservative populists, who are voting their morality not their economic interests.Those who are needy are assumed to be weak and undisciplined and therefore morally lacking. The most moral people are the rich. The slogan, “Let the market decide,” sees the market itself as The Decider, the ultimate authority, where there should be no government power over it to regulate, tax, protect workers, and to impose fines in tort cases. Those with no money are undisciplined, not moral, and so should be punished. The poor can earn redemption only by suffering and thus, supposedly, getting an incentive to do better.

If you believe all of this, and if you see the world only from this perspective, then you cannot possibly perceive the deep economic truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, for a decent private life and private enterprise. The denial of this truth, and the desire to eliminate The Public altogether, can unfortunately come naturally and honestly via this moral perspective.

When Krugman speaks of those who have “the mentality that sees economic pain as somehow redeeming,” he is speaking of those who have ordinary conservative morality, the more than forty percent who voted for John McCain and who now support Mitt Romney - and Angela Merkel’s call for “austerity” in Germany. It is conservative moral thought that gives the word “austerity” a positive moral connotation.

Just as the authority of a strict father must always be maintained, so the highest value in this conservative moral system is the preservation, extension, and ultimate victory of the conservative moral system itself.Preaching about the deficit is only a means to an end - eliminating funding for The Public and bringing us closer to permanent conservative domination.From this perspective, the Paul Ryan budget makes sense - cut funding for The Public (the antithesis of conservative morality) and reward the rich (who are the best people from a conservative moral perspective).Economic truth is irrelevant here.

Historically, American democracy is premised on the moral principle that citizens care about each other and that a robust Public is the way to act on that care.Who is the market economy for? All of us. Equally. But with the sway of conservative morality, we are moving toward a 1 percent economy - for the bankers, the wealthy investors, and the super rich like the six members of the family that owns Walmart and has accumulated more wealth than the bottom 30 percent of Americans. Six people!

What is wrong with a 1 percent economy? As Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out in The Price of Inequality, the 1 percent economy eliminates opportunity for over a hundred million Americans. From the Land of Opportunity, we are in danger of becoming the Land of Opportunism.

If there is hope in our present situation, it lies with people who are morally complex, who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others - often called “moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters.” They have both moral systems in their brains: when one is turned on, the other is turned off.The one that is turned on more often gets strongest. Quoting conservative language, even to argue against it, just strengthens conservatism in the brain of people who are morally complex. It is vital that they hear the progressive values of the traditional American moral system, the truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, the truth that our freedom depends on a robust Public, and that the economy is for all of us.

We must talk about those truths - over and over, every day. To help, we have written The Little Blue Book. It can be ordered from barnesandnoble, amazon, and itunes, and after June 26 at your local bookstore. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-28 # MidwestTom 2012-06-15 12:36
When the government has to borrow money to pay it's bill, the people it borrows from get richer and gain power. The more the government borrows the larger the divide between rich and poor.
+40 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-15 13:22
Yes, they borrow the money from the wealthy (with interest); that's why it's better to tax them.
+15 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-06-15 15:09
This conveniently forgets that thnaks to the law discussed and voted in three days just before Christmas 1013 and that instituted the Fed, the money that is borowed by the government is created out of thin air in the pocket of a consortium of private banks.

Were the government to reclaim its birth right of printing money there would be no public debt, no need to service the debt, therefore less taxes and the Greedy One Percent would gather a smaller part of the wealth created by the us all.
It is manageable, it was done three times already in this country: read about the colonial scrip, the continental scrip and the greenback.
+14 # Bruce Gruber 2012-06-15 15:29
Government is the mechanism we created to address our collective interests as citizens. Its economies of scale have built human and public capital for all of us - defense against enemies, research and implementation of public health initiatives, support and expansion of educational opportunities for ALL citizens, protection from the effects of disasters, safety in the skies, on highway systems, and in the workplace and has insured paid retirement and healthcare for senior citizens. Federal coordination provides consistency throughout a free and mobile nation while States coordinate interests common to their citizenry within its boundaries. Local government brings direct services from schools and police protection to garbage collection and services like public libraries close to the electorate which enjoys local involvement.

For the past century, taxes and fees addressed the public costs of public services. The "bill" of government has actually been an investment. More recently, outsourcing public works to the 'private' sector has added 'profit' to the cost of government purchase of outside services. "Taxes" have been mis-characteriz ed as government evil rather than the cost of public services. Public service employment has been vilified. As 'private' sector jobs have lost benefits and been outsourced to low wage countries, American workers have been led to believe the "bill" for public employees is bloated. Bullshit! The bloat is at the top.
-8 # Billsy 2012-06-16 16:32
Before you post I suggest you complete a university level course in economics. The complexities of macro economics and keynesian policy are too complex for you to have anything of value to offer on this website.
+2 # dovelane1 2012-06-19 05:15
Just out of curiosity, why are you trying to silence another person who has an opinion. Is it because it differs from yours? Is it because it is true, and simply put?

Disagree all you want, inform all you want, but attempting to silence others is against the freedom to speek guaranteed all people by the constitution.
+32 # MidwestTom 2012-06-15 12:45
Much of todays inequality is a result of changing the riles on Wall Street over the past 30 years. The stock market is now a casino, and Dodd Frank does nothing to change that. As much as 75% of the trading is so called High Speed trading, where a stock is heard for just minutes or even seconds. Our best and brightest now go to the money games, which is one reason we are losing our historic technical leadership. When you become a billionaire sitting sitting in front of a computer screen, you have no feelings for employees, to you are simply manpower that you control .Until we outlaw the casino aspects of Wall Street we will continue to become an even more heartless nation. The Wall Street crowd is very happy to support government programs that keep the people from revolting and changing the system.
+5 # jimyoung 2012-06-15 22:40
[quote name="MidwestTo m"]...As much as 75% of the trading is so called High Speed trading, where a stock is held for just minutes or even seconds... /quote]

It is nuts, I guess even Warren Buffett gets confused. From a July 7,2011 CNBC interview: "BUFFETT: I would say this. I would say this. The capital gains rate at 15 percent, the— if you buy a future, S&P future in Chicago and it goes up 10 seconds later, you resell it, it's 60 percent long-term capital gain and 40 percent short-term gain. Now, I'm not sure, you know, how anybody can come up with the logic of that."

That totally loses me and makes me fear the idiocy our tax codes contain.
+8 # Michael_K 2012-06-15 13:15
Want to see "economic immorality"?
Read this:
+7 # mdhome 2012-06-15 17:53
Scarey sh*t if true.
+6 # Bigfella 2012-06-15 20:13
I thank you for this as our PM here in Australia has been signing thing for months and years but it is never reported what she has been signing and it is now available to the public . We only found out last week via Malcom Frasor ex-Prime Minister (Our leder is called PM.) that the USA is asking for Australia to store nuke weapons here when we are nuke free and the people refuse to have any thing nuke (Power on up.)Thks again need these to raise awareness etc..
+36 # fredboy 2012-06-15 13:53
What is missing in the conservative mind is empathy. And a lack of respect for others.
The MBA program I left preached this gospel. As one of my students once said to my class, "Employees are nothing but expendable human capital. We owe them nothing. We just learned that in our economics class."
I left after being ordered to abandon my provable, accurate, precise and motivational grading system and instead use a "forced curve" grading system--setting a fictional grading curve for students before I even met them. The lesson, of course--some people can always be thrown away.
Twice appalled, I decided to leave, no longer trusting or respecting the school's leadership. And thus give up a teaching career I dearly loved.
Many MBA schools are pumping young minds with this notion. And fueling the mess that seems to be devouring and destroying what we call America.
+19 # DrEvel1 2012-06-15 17:10
Grading curves are an excellent example of creating artificial scarcity through policy. They represent what statisticians call an "ecological fallacy" - the assumption that because a population is characterized by a certain distribution of some variable, any subsample drawn from that population will demonstrate the same distribution. The population of all students probably does demonstrate a bell curve of sorts regarding "grade" (itself an artificial construction - ideally representing accomplished learning, but in practice more often simply conformity to expectations.) But it is simply stupid to assume that therefore each and every class will replicate that same distribution. The use of a grading curve is prima facie evidence that grading is not tied to learning but is simply an artificially scarce reward to be distributed by authority at its whim. I haven't had to employ a curve since the earliest days of my teaching career, and even then I generally ignored the mandate to curve and tended to simply stare down any academic authority who mentioned it to me (I do have a very useful stare on occasions.) I do believe that we have a moral duty to oppose all exercises of artificial scarcity, since it is a principal tool of the exploiters.
+6 # jimyoung 2012-06-15 23:30
I retired, rather than be part of a system that is moving away from, instead of closer to, self paced, mastery based, instruction. We had courses that could provide some of the benefits of the type Salman Khan seems to generate at Though not as high tech with a progress "Dashboard", we were able to let students spend the time they needed to really master each building block for later instruction. We find a high percentage that develop much more confidence from hands-on experiences in technical courses where they develop irrefutable skills that no one can deny in actually getting something produced to a recognizable standard. I believe that leads to them confidently tackling other "academic" subjects, secure in the knowledge that they have actually analyzed, experimented and performed tasks to standards others may not be able to do (or at least have not proven they can do). The speed and ease with which they solve new problems, compared to those without the hands on experience, makes a huge difference in their advancement, early in their working careers.
+6 # mdhome 2012-06-15 17:23
Wish I could give you ten thumbs up!
+12 # Bigfella 2012-06-15 20:40
I left a Hotel Management course due to me argueing with the lecures that said "Don't employ people over 25 years old as they are not trainable!And never have perminate employees." Seem they had some of it right I was 40 and full time but refused to except people where disposable. They wh USA trained and 28 years old! (And Sociopathic!) Seem they just wanted tame sheep and disposable casual employees. scum rizes to the top.
+9 # RLF 2012-06-16 08:28
When liberals lose empathy...the rich had better watch out...which building is our Bastille? The supreme court building?
+1 # jimyoung 2012-06-17 09:49
In the 80s, MBA programs became the rage and too many carelessly self-interested , star students (high end of the curve and raw scores) started to shift from Science Technology Engineering and other Mathematics fields, they used their wizard's wands in financial "innovation". I began arguing for them to treat human capital as well as manufacturing equipment they maintained and improved regularly. Who was the huge increase in "productivity" supposed to benefit, the guys that wiped out many private pension plans, our velocity of money, and the world economy?

I still keep an eye on the most conservative PBS shows from Orange County, especially when their investments lost $1.5 billion dollars in derivatives, leading to the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history up to December 1994.

I marvel at how their investment advisers suggested county investments should (quietly)favor companies with the least humans possible, wanting returns of over $1,000 an hour per human where they had to use human labor. (Auto workers, at "only" $209 per hour return on investment weren't good enough for them.) They seem to have only furthered their unfair advantages and incredibly extended "temporary" tax breaks.

The only good news, buried in the pony dung, is that many of the smartest class among us is becoming less self-interested and actually going into other fields where their abilities do far more good for all of us.
+1 # jimyoung 2012-06-17 09:54
It would take a book to write the many ways I agree with what you are saying.

I believe the forced curve propagates into future problems. Years ago we had a problem in our Space Systems Command and Control training program, with entering students being poorly prepared for the more advanced training. (I try to never give up on students but can only do so much without holding whole the class back.) We were spending several times the allotted tutoring time, even tutoring students from the preliminary courses from another training squadron, still with little success. We discovered the personnel center had switched to a curve based system where the raw scores were hidden, combined with relaxed standards for instructors. That meant less well prepared students receiving lower quality preliminary instruction before they got to our criterion based courses (do it to standards or washout). When we couldn't persuade the personnel center to be more selective, we started tutoring only the allotted hours and washing out 40% of the students, rather than try to do the ever more impossible. They quickly changed the selection process, but we lost some otherwise fine people, administrativel y discharged, rather than retrained into fields they could have done well in.
+29 # Vardoz 2012-06-15 14:06
We can flap our lips forever but unless we become active no one cares. We are in a crisis and in the midst of a corpoarte take over that has no interest in the well being of anything except their profits.
+15 # LegendBert 2012-06-15 14:46
A healthy economy requires successful consumers and businessmen. The "moderate" needs to hear about policies that allow both sides to prosper. It is no more complex than that.
+13 # dartmouth 2012-06-15 14:53
The either/or premise of this argument is questionable. We don't necessarily turn off the "free market" part of the brain when we think "public obligation." Part of the art of living is the art of balancing competing,even opposing principles.In life, not just in philosophical dialog, tension is at the heart of creativity.
+6 # Skippydelic 2012-06-16 01:51
But we have to be wired so that we *can* balance those opposing principles, and that's *not* a given, unfortunately...

When we're over-exposed to *only* one of those opposing principles, though, do we ever *learn* the art of balancing the competing principles?
+12 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-06-15 15:17
Another way of looking at the moral philosophy differences is to draw the parallel with the classic demographic shift between bgefore and after accession to wide-spread education in the various civilizations.
Before, they have many children per generation, productivity is low and overall health indicators are bad.
They tend to sorrespond to what Elizabeth Badinter called "male" societies: spread the genome and survive the fittest.
After, families tend to have one or two children on average and to nurture them much more - what the same philosopher called "female" societies.

It sounds to me that Democrats advocate a female society: nurture; while the republicans root for a spread and conquer, vae victis approach.
-4 # wantrealdemocracy 2012-06-15 19:07
Come on Granny. You're pulling my leg, aren't you? You think the Democrats have feminine values? You like the way the Democrats have gone so far on from where Bush II left us. He has gotten us in more wars and while the bush said that the Constitution is just a piece of paper---Obama has taken that piece of paper and shredded it and flushed it down the toilet. He has taken the right to have a 'hit list' of people he, and he alone (no evidence needed nor any trial) may order to be killed. We are bombing how many nations now? Six? Seven? more? and we are closing schools and can't afford to care for the people? come on Granny. Face it. Both of the corporate parties are equally evil. Don't vote for either corrupt bunch of scoundrels.
+15 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-06-15 15:19
Also maybe it would be time to refer to teh Greedy One Percent not as republicans (establishiong policy for the "res publica", the public thing) but as reprivatans (from "res privata" the private property).
+20 # fliteshare 2012-06-15 17:16
No, Fascist or Neo-Feudalist would describe it just fine.
+8 # reiverpacific 2012-06-15 15:46
"Economics" and "Morality" seem to me to be apposite in both context and meaning.
Take a look around you.
And try to read the language of Economics of whatever species of sociopolitical power they are propping up. Per'aps I'm a simpleton from another era but it all seems to be deliberately obtuse and thereby defensible only by those in accord with a given theorem.
I'd rather deal linguistically with Basque or Welsh. At least they mean something connected to people and their lives.
"Morality" in such an abstract world is an inconvenient quantity that can be conveniently disregarded .
+12 # L. Sabransky 2012-06-15 16:27
I have already pre-purchased your book! It frustrates me to no end that progressives and Democrats (note, in our current climate, these are absolutely two different groups) have not followed your advice about messaging and most importantly, understanding the psyches of conservatives/e xtremists. I am planning some social movement type social media, and I will use your suggested language - I look forward to seeing the book!
+5 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-15 16:34
I'm putting this (the whole piece) on the required reading list:

June 14, 2012
The Nightmare Gathers Force
In writing about the ongoing crisis facing Greece (and Europe generally), commentators often advance the notion that what is occurring in Greece in particular provides a preview of what will happen in the United States if we continue on our current path. Conservative and neoliberal writers (but I repeat myself) proclaim that this necessitates governments becoming far more brutal in their dedication to "austerity": that is, the ruling class must be extravagantly ruthless, without surcease, in depriving those who are without power, wealth and privilege of every means of sustaining their lives. One of the assumptions of our "betters" is that truly deserving, "good" people will nonetheless manage to survive, and perhaps thrive, even in the midst of resources and possibilities for action that diminish daily. We are told that this is one of America's greatest virtues: anyone who is hardworking and dedicated, who genuinely "makes the effort," can succeed -- because, of course, the ruling class's success has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they have long been favored by privilege and power, often from birth.
+7 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-15 16:51
Here's a good article:

Myth of Perpetual Growth is killing America

Commentary: Everything you know about economics is wrong

By Paul B. Farrell

June 13, 2012 " - SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Yes, everything you know about economics is wrong. Dead wrong. Everything. The conclusions of economists are based on a fiction that distorts everything else. As a result economics is as real as one of the summer blockbusters like “Battleship,” “The Avenger” or “Prometheus.”

The difference is that the economic profession is a genuine threat, not entertainment. Economics dogma is on track to destroy the world with a misleading ideology.

Why? Because all economics is based on the absurd Myth of Perpetual Growth. Yes, all theories and business plans based on growth are mythological.

Economists are master illusionists who rely on a set of fictions, fantasies and forecasts that emanate from a core magical mantra of Perpetual Growth that goes untested year after year.

And yet it’s used to manipulate the public into a set of policies and decisions that are leading the American and the world economy down a path of unsustainable globalization and GDP growth assumptions that will self-destruct the planet.
Denial? We’re all addicted to the Myth of Perpetual Growth
+2 # Bigfella 2012-06-15 21:26
Only if you follow the current economic model there are many others and we (The world) have use many of them in the past "Growth Capitialism" has only existed since the end of WW2 and the invention of world accounting (Which leaves out the ecology) A tree under this model is worthless until it is cut down and sawed up. hence one has idotic classifications as "Afluent poverty'" Which means the people are happy well fed need SFA but have no money! Stupity and we needed to change our system and no what REpublician sociopaths want.
+7 # Bigfella 2012-06-15 21:18
small government BIG private sector thing is world wide for the right wing buggers always forget is 2008 collapes and GOVERNMENT bail outs. . But the RIGHT cheered when Comminism collapesed and cripes so will CAPITIALISM. Small Government is madness as is lasiafare Capitialism...( Funny though the Socialis Debt and Privatised the profit.)it is now reversed.

Lets call them what they are SOCIOPATHS!
I was staggered last night to hear a Republician saying the poor never went hungry and poverty was their fault because there was plenty who had lifted themselves out of poverty through hard work and saving money. The Australian reporter was gob smacked and incredulis and asked him "Have you ever visited the poor and had he had to miss eating due to lack of money?" The reply was No I never go down there as there are to many thieves and junkies- they always find money for drugs!- any way why would I miss a meal my folks provided for me when I was young...Before sailing into a tirade against HIS TAXS going into programmes..Aus tralian reporter (Red faced) What would you say to these children? "Get a job work hard and save." "WHAT YOUR SAYING LEAVE SCHOOL? are you saying child labors acceptable? "We if you say you can eat yar then it OK someone has to pay. END of as reporter stood up in discused and walked away saying well it not exceptable any where in my book!
+4 # m... 2012-06-15 22:46
I agree...
Where are the LEADERS who will boldly say it without compromise and deliver a Forward Vision Americans will follow en masse down a new Road that is well laid out for them to see in their hearts and minds..?
Where are the portals through which such 'Free' Speech can be delivered unto the masses when almost all pipelines for speech are now owned, and exploited by a very few Global Corporate Conglomerates with their 'own' interests in mind..?
Where is a Political Party united enough, large enough and 'spineful' enough to support such Leadership and such a 'Vision' to help pave the way forward and out from under the current Corporatacracy that now runs and chokes America on behalf of a very select few and back to the universal AMERICAN DREAM begun by our ForeFathers and all those who shed blood fighting for our rights, defending it and our rights and saving the world from Fascism along the way..?

The Country operates under a Government by Lobby and the two dysfunctional Parties holding almost all elected offices across the land. And so, the airways and printways are still filled with competing, expensive 'one or the other'.., 'paper or plastic' Political CHEAP TALK while 99% of Us are still stuck on the same 30 year long, disastrous Corporate Conservative Road to even more Less and Less Government for the sake of fewer and fewer Wealthy People.
+13 # Professorjane Gilgun 2012-06-15 23:45
When I read "Economics and Morality" my first thought was this is a contradiction in terms. People in the US economic sector--that is Wall Street and the bankers--are in the game to make money. Morality does not matter. What matters is not being caught. We've seen this repeatedly. People who play the markets and run the banks are at a low level of moral development. Read Kohlberg.
+1 # fredboy 2012-06-17 17:12
Thank you, DrEvel1 and jimyoung. I cut my career three years short as I watched a once-dynamic academic program plunge into assumptive reasoning, secret cliques, and prejudicial grading. No one seemed to care that students were being shortchanged and their potential employers were being misled. All because students in one group of courses were underperforming . So, instead of investigating the matter and identifying the problem(s), the faculty in the power clique decided to install a "forced curve" and homogenize all class performance results. Yes, it was disgraceful.
0 # sharsand 2012-06-19 19:29

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