Tag Archives: Obama

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of zazzle.com)

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of zazzle.com)

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Do you remember this song? I do. We sang it every year in my grammar school assemblies. It encapsulates all that I love, and remember, about Thanksgiving. In fact, my memories of Thanksgivings are not so different from the dinner scene portrayed by Dylan Thomas in his story, A Child’s Christmas in Whales, especially as it is narrated by Aubrey Davis at the annual Celtic Christmas Concert.

Perusing google to gather some background about the holiday, I was disturbed to find that not everyone feels as I do. In fact, some posts seem to have deliberately set out to debunk–one by one–all of the stories that, over the years, have come to constitute the lore of Thanksgiving. Surely, facts are important. But history–as Fernand Braudel might be the first to point out–is a living, on-going process.

the original Thanksgiving Story might best be conceived as a well fertilized seed kernel that has evolved and by hybridized over time in the course of our history.

Accordingly , the original Thanksgiving Story might best be conceived as a well fertilized seed kernel that has evolved and been hybridized over time throughout the course of our history–a point that sociologist, Edward Shils, has emphasized in his book Tradition. From this perspective, we can understand how, today, the Thanksgiving holiday has become a truly American legend, incorporating and embracing many diverse groups which–each in their own ways, and according to their own traditions–celebrate the essence of the tale–thankfulness, generosity, family, openness, and kindness towards others.

Beginning on Wednesday, my husband and I began to reenact our own Thanksgiving traditions. I had taken the day off so as to have time to clean the house, do baking, polish silverware, and cut and prepare a wonderful assortment of root vegetables in advance of the big day.

Fall Rock Creek Park (courtesy imortins photography)

Fall Rock Creek Park (courtesy imortins photography)

Next morning, we arose early, giving us time to carry out our own annual rituals. To begin, we reread the section on cooking poultry in our well-worn, and seasoned, cookbook The Joy of Cooking, just to be sure that we avoided the many pitfalls my mother had so emphatically warned me about in my youth, as I helped her prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Then, with the turkey stuffed, and well wedged into the oven, we set out, with our dog Sparky, for our traditional hike in Rock Creek Park. The sun was out, the air was crisp, and everyone we met along the way was full of smiles, greeting us with “Have a nice Thanksgiving!”. We arrived back home, just in time to lay the table, put out the ordeurves, call our absent family members, and have a glass of wine before the guests arrived. They were a diverse and enthusiastic group, and together we made merry. Even Sparky joined in the fun.
Thanksgiving Table (courtesy of Judie Fouchaux)

Thanksgiving Table (courtesy of Judie Fouchaux)

Of course, not all Thanksgivings are without their mishaps. Most memorable to me was the year that my in-laws and their relatives joined in the festivities. The plates were laid, the food was on the table, and we were about to say thanks when the structure supporting the table came out of place. It was only the strong knees and will of our guests that kept my grandmother’s Limoges china–not to mention the turkey dinner–from falling on the floor. Then again I shouldn’t forget the year I put the turnip skins down the garbage disposal, only to have them erupt some hours later, together with–to my horror–a lot of other extraneous materials.

This year, on Thanksgiving, I believe that we have something to be especially grateful for–the election of Barack Obama for President. In fact, just as in the true meaning of Thanksgiving, doesn’t Obama epitomize, and in many of the same ways, the very best of America? As they say at the end of services in the Episcopalian Church, “Thanks be to God!.”