60. Towards a New Economics

Economists of different political persuasions keep on warning us that we are on the edge of global disaster. Exactly how this might happen is never made clear: A meltdown of the Euro, a collapse of the Chinese economy, a global Ebola pandemic, the breakout of war in the Middle East, a computer generated stock-market crash, are but a handful of possibilities. What is abundantly evident is that economists have not come up with a viable alternative to a not-fit-for-purpose global economy.

If a global system like the environment or the economy is in peril, we should look at: l) what steps must be taken to prevent a collapse from taking place and 2) what could we do if it did happen. There is no “Plan B” in case of collapse. There is not even a discussion about one. The only acceptable plan right now appears to be the continuation of our chaotic economic state tempered by minor corrections.

We don’t even recognize that there are major groups on which we must focus in our fractally globalized economy. Let’s face it: The weakened work force, the educational system and the public sector are not likely to be responsible for any forthcoming economic disaster. The banks may become convenient scapegoats. I believe the real villain in the scenario is the entire corporate structure which now dominates capitalism’s crisis prone market system. I am disconcerted that no one is focusing on the corporations as being a key players in our distressed state of economic affairs.

As I stated most clearly a decade ago in my book, Dollars of Democracy, our corporations are at the heart of current economic problems ranging from taxation to jobs. Perhaps, because of their ever increasing power, corporations have become able to prevent any effective challenge to their collective interests. Not much has changed for corporations since I wrote about them, except that for tax reasons they have been moving out of America. This has been part of what has become known as “domestic earnings stripping” in which corporations move their taxable profits from their home base in the US to a foreign affiliate, thereby evading a 35% American tax rate.* Jack Lew, the U.S treasury secretary questioned the patriotism of such corporate “inversion perversion.”1

That father of modern economics, that brilliant Scot, Adam Smith, warned two centuries ago against the dangerously selfish power of corporations and did not accept that they had a proper role in the market. He held that if corporations encouraged selfishness, they risked undermining our moral foundations. People had to try to put themselves “in the situation of the other” and become aware of the distress and suffering they could cause. Smith recognized that corporations had no such sensibilities. Corporate managers are shielded from accountability to stockholders who are protected in turn from personal liability for what the corporation does to others. However, today’s corporation can turn itself into a citizen of some offshore island, like the Caymans or Bermuda, for the purpose of avoiding American or British taxes without losing any of the protections or benefits of being a US or British corporation. Over the past five decades corporations have expanded their influence through the creation of new laws that restrict what governments can and cannot do in terms of interfering with transnational corporate interests.

The proposition that the modern corporation — which now holds many of the legal rights and privileges that individuals enjoy — resembles the psychopath was at the basis of the award winning documentary film, “The Corporation,” (2004). It contended that the corporation, like the average psychopath, is single-minded and irresponsible in its pursuit of one objective: profit for its shareholders. It need not be worried about the consequences its activities may have on its employees, the environment, or society at large. Like a psychopath, the corporation never admits responsibility of any kind, is incapable of remorse, and has pretensions which are fed by its own marketing and PR staff. In brief, the film entertainingly portrays the corporation as being clinically insane.

But do we really want to leave the economy in the hands of the anomalous corporate structures that tend to work against both the public and national interests and are guided by the greed and vanity of powerful CEOs? “Living wills” for banks were mandated by the US Congress in 2010 with the Dodd-Frank reform act but there is an unwillingness in the US to openly examine the possibility of assisted economic deaths or even euthanasia for certain corporations!1 [Personally, I would be most pleased to help by putting a number of global corporations, such as RioTinto, out of their misery. Actually, since it is responsible for multiple deaths and carries the same responsibilities as living beings, RioTinto should be convicted of murder and sent to oblivion! This truly would be a challenge to the legal profession, the courts and ultimately the legislatures.]

Adam Smith in the eighteenth century created the highly successful economic myth of a market determined by self-interest. His “invisible hand” promised relative freedom and prosperity without any accompanying burdens of responsibility. As a theory, this seemed to overcome the traditional Christian conflict between virtue and acquisitiveness.** In the twentieth century, we managed to distort that myth to the point where Adam Smith would have rejected it outright as being amoral, if not immoral. Adam Smith was a strong moralist and believer in charity and compassion. He would have said of laissez-faire capitalism that “the invisible hand is in the till.” The kind of capitalism that Adam Smith envisioned was based on such virtues as hard work, frugality and personal responsibility. He would have found it ironic that the consequences of these virtues would have resulted in a hedonistic consumer culture that had undermined those same virtues. Smith, however, recognized that many of the world’s troubles came from those who did not know when to stop and be content. Today we see the overextended all around us, particularly in multinational corporations. The basic contradiction of a virtuous society as proposed by Adam Smith, and the capitalist market in which rapacious and self-seeking competitors operate, is self-evident. Collective greed cannot be virtuous.3

Economists have presented an idealized vision of the free market operating in a globalized economy. This is proving itself dangerous to the environment, unstable for society, and doomed by its dependence on self-destructive growth. I attempted in 2004 to provide an alternative idealized vision of a stable economic world run by cooperatives rather than corporations, and focused on cooperation rather than competition. John Nash, whose Nobel prize in economics was popularized in the film, A Beautiful Mind, decided that the optimum solution was neither out-and-out competition nor totally selfless cooperation, but in what he termed “equilibrium.” This certainly is absent today.

“Cooperation” and “cooperatives,” two words which were much abused during the years of Bolshevik-style “socialism,” should be at the center of any alternative economy. Cooperation, as opposed to the unbridled self-interest advocated by capitalism, must regain its rightful place in the world. Cooperation leads to success in sports such as football and baseball; it is absolutely essential in raising and educating children; it is crucial in fire-fighting and policing; we couldn’t think of safe driving without it; it’s at the core of any military operation; it leads to harmony in dancing and making love; it is invaluable in hospital care and in looking after the aged. So why is this word so unpopular today? Democracy itself is unthinkable without cooperation. Even villainous multinational corporations resort to private and secretive collaboration in establishing markets and setting prices. But in restoring the cooperative concept to its rightful place, we must remember the words of wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt: “We must be willing to learn the lesson that cooperation may imply compromise.” This is a lesson followers of the “Tea Party,” will not readily accept. Cooperation often means that we must sacrifice some of our narrower personal interests for those of others or for the sake of the larger community.

What such a change involves is truly dramatic. The large scale economic experiment tried out by the Russian Bolsheviks was disastrous. However, that was not really the place, the time, nor the people to carry this out. It ended before the entrance of the world wide web and the internet, which have greatly enlarged the possibilities of communication and global trade. The Chinese have tried to take over where the Russians left by introducing some of the more successful aspects of capitalism into their brand of undemocratic socialism. No one can predict how their makeshift economics will turn out. But then, who knows how western style capitalism will evolve. Since the economic crisis of 2008 the economies of the United States and the UK have been kept afloat in part by the QE (Quantitative Easing) printing of hundreds of billions of unaccountable dollars and pounds. What also keeps this patchwork of an economic system going is the compelling fear of change as well as fears of the untried and the unknown. Smaller scale efforts of the past fifty years have been crushed by the corporate world which fears any competitive form which might encroach on its economic domination. This is like a veto on the kind of economic experimentation with cooperation, co-operatives, and the democratic acceptance of “the public interest” which our unstable economics now urgently demand. Yes, there are possible alternatives, like I detailed in Dollars or Democracy, but these have not been seriously examined. It is high time that the economic profession, as well as think-tanks, national institutions and even smaller states like those of Scandinavia start examining the possibilities and then trying them out.


 

1“Rise of the distorporation,” The Economist, October 26, 2013
2See Blog 58 Euthanasia
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) p.157

*A simple solution to this problem would be to impose a tax on the consolidated profits of all multinational corporations. These companies regularly report their consolidated earnings to shareholders and could be taxed on that basis. Of course, the lobbyists and big tax avoidance firms would make certain to set up new ownership structures (like the Master Limited Partnership or MLP) to minimize tax payments to the government.

**The invisible hand is a beguiling myth: it suggests that liberty and the pursuit of self-interest, unencumbered by any comprehensive rational planning or any moral prohibitions, could boost the welfare of all of humanity. In part, this hand is invisible because it is simply not there. Those with great wealth and other advantages, in their pursuit of self-interest, do not further the interests of society as a whole; the free market price mechanism fails to include environmental externalities (such as pollution, resource depletion, and congestion) in its scope; and the invisible hand fails to make a connection between distributive justice and market efficiency.

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59. Religion and Euthanasia [Part II]

Since religion concerns itself with issues of life, death and morality, it is not surprising that for many people, religious beliefs form the foundation of their views on euthanasia. Alas, more and more mortals spend their final hours hooked up to bewildering electronic equipment, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, lit up by fluorescent lights in a sterile setting, and overwhelmed by their vulnerability. This spiritual void was never the way in which they had imagined they would die.1

Globally, the problem seems to be that sectors of different religions are fierce in their belief and conviction that it is against God’s will to take one’s own life or to have it voluntarily ended by others. Some religions also maintain that suffering is an aspect of all human life which itself was of God’s creation. Consequently they contend that putting an end to suffering is a violation of God’s will.

It is one of the prevalent misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Western religious culture that The Bible forbids suicide. There is no such prohibition in either the Old or New Testaments. Indeed, although about eleven cases of suicides are mentioned in these two texts, there are no passages commenting on the morality of such an act nor is there even any explicit examination of the ethical issues which might be involved.

It was St Augustine in the Fourth Century who made the first Christian formulations against suicide: “Patricide is more wicked than homicide, but suicide is the most wicked of all.”2 For Augustine the Resurrection had changed Man’s perspective: Tolerating suicide when one could be brought back to life seemed like a defiance of God’s will. During the early phases of Christianity a self-chosen death had been a goal to which many of the devout aspired. The number of converted Christian martyrs and mass suicides (among Jews who had converted to Christianity) rose so sharply that Rabbis decided to forbid public mourning for those who died by their own hands. Jewish leaders then refused to allow the bodies of such victims to be buried in their hallowed grounds.

The Italian philosopher and theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, ranked among the most influential thinkers of medieval Scholasticism, considered the problems of suicide at great length. He wrote “it follows that the words ‘Thou shalt not kill’ refer to the killing of a man — not another man therefore; not even thyself. For he who kills himself, kills nothing else than a man.”3

The Catholic Church, as it gained control in Europe, held that every human being was the creation of God and that consequently to kill oneself was to deny God and to deny God’s right over our lives. Suicide was deemed morally wrong. Catholicism taught that suffering had a place in God’s plan in that it permitted those in pain to share Christ’s final agony. Rome also continued to hold that those who insisted that they had a right to die were denying the essence of their fundamental relationship with God.

Only after the Reformation did it become possible for thinkers to reconsider the question of suicide. Thomas More wrote of euthanasia in his great work, Utopia, although it is not known whether he was intending to endorse the practice. Caspar Questel, a German recorder, was among the first to examine the different ways which, in effect, were being used to hasten death for the dying but which he thought were against nature and against God’s will.4 However, gradually, during the Age of Enlightenment suicide and euthanasia became more acceptable to some of the European Protestant sects.

Jewish law forbade euthanasia in all forms and was considered an act of homicide. The life of a man is not “his” — rather, it belongs to the One who granted him life. It could therefore be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life. Despite any noble intentions, an act of mercy-killing was regarded as a flagrant intervention of God’s will. In the 20th century the Jewish outlook on euthanasia and assisted suicide has become divided along denominational lines. The Orthodox continue to reject it while both Reform and Secular Judaism are beginning to support forms of “mercy killing.”

Islam continues to categorically forbid all forms of suicide and any action that may help someone else to commit suicide. The precedent for this approach came directly from the Prophet Muhammad who refused to bless the body of a man who had committed suicide or to permit him from being buried in hallowed ground. Given the ease with which a few outlaw Muslims today commit murder, one cannot help but wonder if the ancient commandments of the Koran can continue to hold their meaning.

In Japan suicide has not traditionally been seen as a sin. Falling on one’s sword was understood as essential under certain circumstances. Shinto, the dominant religion, now generally tends to regard euthanasia as unwelcome but acceptable under certain circumstances. However, the prolongation of life by artificial means in hospitals is regarded as offensive by both Shinto and Buddhist organizations.

Some Eastern religions, such as the Buddhist, believe we have many lives and the way we live each life in part is determined by past lives and will impact on our future lives. Cutting life short can thus interfere with our progress towards ultimate liberation. Euthanasia is consequently denied as a way out of suffering. It is regarded as immoral to destroy human life, irrespective of the quality of the individual’s motive.

In surveying how these different religious groups around the world have considered euthanasia and assisted suicide over many centuries, it is evident that these are opposed, and have been influential in having governments pass laws forbidding them. This should be viewed from the perspective that both governments and religions have always sought to exert control on individuals as well as on the population. The steady decline of religious power in the 20th century has had a profound impact on our views on euthanasia. After centuries of acceptance, public opinion has been shifting with the startling advances in medical science. Governments may gradually follow, much as they have on other social issues like homosexuality.

To shorten the “throes of death” is seen by increasing numbers of people as a way of showing respect to a life approaching its natural end. Humanitarianism holds that we should at least try to spare those in their last months a sequence of pain-filled and degrading physical and psychological humiliations. We can pretend that a life artificially kept going month after month by a battery of high tech machines is worthwhile, but should we not re-examine such attitudes?5 Fortunately for the patients, chronic suffering in such situations has been reduced by the widespread use of morphine and pain killers.

Some fifty years ago, the French sociologist Alfred Fabre-Luce summed the challenge facing many of us brilliantly: “Man is born to act, believe, venture. Let us save him from the state of despair in which, as the body triumphs over the mind, he ceases to hope for recovery and can no longer sublimate his suffering. To shorten the transition is not to go against the divine plan. To prolong a state of degradation, to pit oneself against an imminent and ineluctable death by misusing the resources of science — it is surely that which is an act of impiety.”6


1 See: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End, (2014)

2St Augustine, On Patience, c.425 AD

3Thomas Aquinas, De Civitate Dei, 20

4Caspar Questel, De pulvinari morientibus non subtrahend (On the pillow of which the dying should not be deprived) 1678

5End-of-life Care, The Economist, October 4, 2014, p. 92

6Alfred Fabre-Luce, Man or Insects? (1965) p. 82

58. Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide [Part I]

When it comes to the contentious topics of euthanasia and assisted suicide I remained as bewildered as I was at university about the ill-defined divisions between church and state, and between religion and the law. The state maintains that it owns your body, as evidenced by the fact that it is a criminal offense to commit or attempt suicide. Possession aside, this would seem to be gross interference of the state in our freedom of action.

The subject, pro and con, remains immensely broad with numbers of religious groups opposing Euthanasia on the ground that we are all God’s creations and remain at his disposition. Because of the complexity of the subject, I have divided this blog into two parts: The first will focus on the secular, the second will focus on the religious.

Euthanasia was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans as evidenced by the support by Plato, Seneca, and most dramatically by Socrates who ended his life with poison hemlock. The doctrine of the “sanctity of human life” arose later with St Augustine and its adoption by Christianity, which held sway until the 19th Century. Problems started to arise when doctors began to use morphine to treat those suffering “the pains of death.” In 1870 an English school teacher, Samuel Williams, proposed the use of chloroform to deliberately end the suffering of terminally ill patients.1 The great outspoken reformer, Annie Besant, endorsed that position considering it a social duty to society to “die voluntarily and painlessly” when one reached the point of becoming “a burden.”2 At that time, however, the medical profession did not take part in the debates on euthanasia which followed as this was regarded as a philosophical proposal tied inextricably to objections from Christians citing the sanctity of human life.

Felix Adler was the first prominent American to contend in 1891 that suicide in certain chronic illnesses should be permitted. He argued from an Ethical Culture perspective that it should be permissible for a doctor to assist in such instances. Robert Ingersoll, rejecting religion, argued in 1894 in favor of Euthanasia and also agreed that patients suffering from a terminal illness, as in certain cancers, should have the right to end their pains. However, humane end-of-life practices were slow to be introduced. There was a reluctance to recognize that those who were dying should be given choices. Objections were raised that once such practices were accepted, terminally ill patients might feel it was their “duty to die” because of the enormous burden they were placing on their relatives as well as on society.

In Britain the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Society (now called Dignity in Dying) was founded in 1935. The death of George V in January 1936 coincided with the proposed legislation in the House of Lords to legalize euthanasia. However, the public was unaware at the time that the King had been given a fatal dose of morphine in order to hasten his death. It was kept secret for 50 years that the decision to end his life had been made by his physician, Lord Dawson. What was deemed acceptable for royalty was obviously not suitable for his subjects.

The introduction in Nazi Germany in 1939 of state sponsored euthanasia caused long term setbacks to Euthanasia groups in both the UK and the US. The killing of a severely disabled infant, endorsed by Hitler’s office and pseudo-scientific parties concerned with purifying the “Aryan” heritage in Germany, was described by a 1939 BBC radio program titled “Genocide Under the Nazi’s Timeline” as the first “state sponsored euthanasia.” Eventually this secret Nazi exercise led to “mercy killings” of almost 300,000 physically and mentally handicapped people including thousands of children forcibly taken from their parents. The horrors to which these human beings were submitted ended serious discussion of euthanasia for decades.

The “Death with Dignity Act” came into force in Oregon in December 1994 after “Measure 16”, a long debated proposition, had been narrowly passed in state elections. It allowed doctors to prescribe lethal drugs so that terminally ill patients, who were to be provided with certain rigid safeguards, could end their own lives. However, the doctor could not administer such lethal doses until the patient had requested it in writing at least once and two doctors had concluded that the patient was sane, acting voluntarily, and not suffering from depression. The doctor then had to wait at least 17 days before issuing the prescription and during the waiting period the patient had to be informed of all the possible options.

To some extent the legal argument for euthanasia was brought into the open in the US by Judge Stephen Reinhardt summing up for the majority of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when he said in March 1996 that there was constitutional protection “for determining the time and manner of one’s own death.” Reinhardt argued that “a mentally competent, terminally ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death.”3 Five US states now have laws that allow assisted suicide whereby a mentally competent person who is terminally ill can legally be prescribed a lethal dose of medication. And three state legislatures — in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — are expected to give similar laws a full hearing this year.

In Europe, because of mounting demographic pressure, end-of-life care has become an increasingly contentious moral, legal, economic and medical issue. Because the costs of care for the elderly in the closing months of life rise sharply, governments are looking for ways to economize. Doctors in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France now are able to make end-of-life choices for patients in their care, which, by American standards, might be regarded as unthinkable.4 The New York Times reported that in 2012 about 130,000 of the 570,000 registered hospital deaths in France were preceded by a physician’s decision to raise the dosage of pain killers and sedatives, or to limit the treatment. In France, an overwhelming percentage of those polled agree that assisted suicide should be permitted for those with a terminal illness. A broad spectrum of the French believe that doctors are bound by their medical and legal principles; that they are free from economic or emotional considerations and can consequently make value free decisions on ending a patient’s life.

It is generally recognized that, motivated by compassion, doctors want to protect their patients, the families and the medical profession. However, at a trial of one French doctor who had prepared a lethal dose of sedatives for a comatose patient in his care, the state prosecutor charged that “To be too compassionate is to deem others disposable. It is to unburden them of a responsibility that, in fact, belongs to them.”5

In the final scenes of the superb French film, “Amour,” the actor ends the life of his suffering wife, suggesting that “what will survive us is love.” The inference is clear that euthanasia must be seen as an often difficult but kinder way of death for the terminally ill. Parts of the media, such as the tabloids, have been persistent in their pursuit and exposure of those terminally ill who fly to Switzerland to die with dignity and in a humane manner. Some governments have also been keen on pursuing those who accompany them on their journey as criminals abetting murder. I believe there eventually needs to be a binding international agreement on the legality of assisted suicide. The notion that a patient seeking to end suffering is committing a crime by going to another nation in order to end it seems obscene to me. Our free-will demands greater respect than that!


1Samuel Williams, Euthanasia, (1872)
2Ian Dowbiggin (March 2007). A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 51,
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium (1997) p.589
4Scott Sayare, “France asks why doctors get the last word to end a life,” The New York Times, August 1, 2014
5op.cit.