Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Malignant Moral Sense

Krugman asks, “How did austerity doctrine become so influential?” Answer:

By economic policy that went from a work to be done to a problem of good and evil.

Group solidarity played an indispensable role in hominin evolution. A group constituted man’s original home. It made our survival possible. As Darwin and David Hume and Steven Russell Wallace observed, the Moral Sense evolved to protect group solidarity. Obedience became paramount. It worked. We survived. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the Moral Sense became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

However, a disastrous consequence of any political system based on the Moral Sense is splitting, that is, splitting the world in two, one bad, the other good. Every moral system has a Manichaean structure. No different for economics. You have the good guy Austerians picking up after the bad guy Takers. Disastrously, objectivity goes out the window. The commonsense world, the one registering on our five senses, disappears. A manufactured moral system eclipses reality. Facts vanish, leaving nothing to challenge one’s thinking.

Listen to the debate last week on robbing Peter to pay Paul, that is, the airline controllers. Steny Hoyer drew attention to the ongoing suffering of the elderly and the poor, the damage to the Head Start kids.The Austerians didn’t hear a word. They were as tone deaf as during the hearings on the Affordable Care Act .The real world disappeared in a Stygian blackout. What took its place, in brilliant light, was the moral culpability of the 99%.

Why is austerity so influential? The Moral Sense is universally distributed. Mea culpas come as naturally as breathing, obedience as expectable as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Moral Sense

With Freud, I assume the unconscious is timeless and that group life for Homo sapiens sapiens 75,000 years ago was very much like ours. Then and now, we are first and foremost group animals. Then and now, the group is the chief means of our survival. Then and now, a group’s future depends on its adherents remaining obedient. How many Republicans cross Mitch McConnell as he bellows, “Do as you’re told!”

No one recognized submission to the group leader better than Darwin. “Obedience is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.” So much for Tea Party nonsense about the individual going it alone.Through countless ages, the group enforced allegiance. Darwin makes an astonishing observation, “The social instincts possess greater strength, or have, through long habit, acquired greater strength than the instinct of self-preservation, hunger, lust, vengeance.” He claims allegiance to the group, expressed as the social instincts, rides roughshod over every other instinct, even hunger and lust.

And what is the great enforcer? What is more powerful than sex and hunger? The Moral Sense. This biologic structure genetically wired somewhere in the brain and passed on through DNA evolved for a group’s survival. It’s been around a long time. Darwin took note of the fact that “When the baboons in Abyssinia plunder a garden, they silently follow their leader; and if an imprudent young animal makes a noise, he receives a slap from the others to teach him silence and obedience.” In cousins as distant as baboons, the first stirring of the Moral Sense commands submission.

Darwin maintained that “any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well, developed as in man.” David Hume provided  support for Darwin’s belief that the “social virtues” are part of our instinctive makeup. “We must, a priori, conclude it impossible for such a creature as man to be totally indifferent to the well or ill-being of his fellow creatures.” The social virtues exercise a natural appeal to “uninstructed mankind long before we receive a precept or education.”

Alfred Russell Wallace suggested man was “social and sympathetic by nature: early in the development of human societies the capacity for cooperation and sympathy which leaves all in turn to assist each other benefited each community and was favored by natural selection.” In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul observes, “The truth about God is known to mankind instinctively. Since earliest times men have known of God’s existence and great eternal power. God has put this knowledge in their hearts.” Neuroanatomically, “knowledge in their hearts” refers to a system hardwired in the brain, built-in. It is not a product of learning, not evolved through personal instruction. By any other name – moral sense, moral intuition, natural law, conscience – the truth about God, claims St. Paul, is known to mankind instinctively. Like all animals, we come equipped to register fear and pursue sex, but we’re the only animal that comes into this world with a moral sense. All children, Pascal Boyer observes, arrive with moral intuitions. Conscience functions prescriptively.

So what is the problem? How does the moral sense make sense of Mitch McConnell’s 400 filibusters? Or Krugman’s austerity mania and its visceral appeal? Stay tuned.

Austerity Mania

Back in Isaac Newton’s day, a competitive soul presented a fiendishly difficult mathematical problem, challenging anyone to solve it. Newton did, but when he submitted his solution, he left out his name. A fellow mathematician identified the contestant immediately. “I can tell the lion by his paw.”

You can tell austerity mania by the misery it manages to crank out. Everywhere people are unemployed, a condition that creates suffering on a par with a major illness or divorce. What drives you up the wall is that policymakers who could alleviate this dreadful condition choose to ignore legislative remedies successfully employed in the past. Even more baffling is the fact that current policies are making matters worse, yet the power brokers turn their back on those they are supposed to protect and to serve.

And they pull it off by claiming the moral high ground. Listening to John Boehner carry on about the need to cut spending elicits vague feelings of guilt. Someone has been splurging irresponsibly, and it’s high time to stop the self-indulgence. Whose the culprit? Well, if you inventory the seven deadly sins, there’s your answer: folks have been guilty of greed. That’s bad enough, as the skyrocketing debt makes plain. But their truly mortal sin is sloth. The lazybones think they are entitled to government handouts.

With a diagnosis of sin, isn’t the proper response punishment? Aren’t austerity measures exactly what the doctor ordered? How better to rein in greed and rouse the sinners from sloth! Big John  understands this. That’s why he cuts unemployment benefits. That’s why he keeps minimum wage at poverty levels. And John certainly has to protect the wealthy, the job creators, who understand the importance of hard work and self motivation. You don’t punish them. You don’t ask them to contribute to the revenue side of the ledger. That would penalize the good guys. Worse yet, these are the movers and shakers of our society. Of course they should be treated as something special, because they are.

Boehner, in his best Billy Goat Gruff persona, would dismiss austerity mania out of hand. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.” He’s simply a dedicated Republican trying to save the Republic.The suffering of the unemployed doesn’t register .Mania always overwhelms reality.

Krugman’s Bafflement

No one is smarter than Paul Krugman. No one is saner. No one more practical. He writes with wonderful clarity, regardless of how dense the subject matter. His work crackles with passion and through it all you know he’s experiencing the joy of complete competence. With one exception:

For all his analytic powers, he keeps hitting a wall –  “austerity mania: the obviously intense desire of policymakers, and politicians and pundits across the Western world to turn their backs on the unemployed and instead use the economic crisis as an excuse to slash social programs…Policymakers abandoned the unemployed and turned to austerity because they wanted to, not because they had to.”

Europe has gone the austerity route, with miserable results. Do the Powers-That-Be learn from this experience? They do not. Same for the Republicans. One congressman after the other cranks out doom and gloom, bemoaning government spending. Above all, they preach tirelessly that entitlement programs need to be slashed, which include unemployment benefits. (FDR provided these benefits back in 1935 when he signed Social Security into law.)

Krugman recognizes austerity mania as an ongoing thinking disorder wrecking economic havoc. Most puzzling is the tenacity with which it remains the basis for economic policy. However miserable the numbers, austerity rules the day. There is no learning from experience, no course correction, facts disregarded. There is complete indifference to human suffering, such as protection against loss of a job. Like lemmings heading for the sea, austerity marches on.

What higher power motivates austerity mania? Certainly not the well-being of humans. Quite the contrary. Punishment rules the day. Certainly not the facts of arithmetic. The numbers don’t add up. Who benefits from policies that slash and burn? what kind of mind preaches entering the Kingdom of Heaven is through a balanced budget?

Obviously, austerity mania is a group phenomenon, so if we are to understand it better, we have to look at group behavior. Lo and behold, what we find in every group, front and center, is the Moral Sense. Understanding this group structure eases Krugman’s bafflement, as I will spell out over the next weeks. I will show the link between austerity mania and the Moral Sense.

Turns out austerity mania is a subset of moral mania. Moral mania, in turn, is a consequence of the Moral Sense. If we are to ease Krugman’s bafflement, then explicating the Moral Sense will shed light on austerity mania.

Political Arithmetic

Wonderful news: 54 senators voted for background checks on gun purchases today. One more senator and we would’ve had 55, which is considered a landslide. But hey, we’ll take that 54% to the bank. Obama got less than 52% of the vote last November, a smashing victory. Remember when Clinton won with 38% of the vote? Hell, on one gun measure today we had 58 votes. That’s 58%, an avalanche, not merely a landslide. We know that after every election, like in England or Israel, the winning party has to cobble together a coalition with a majority of one –  50.1 percent! Or no keys to the government. Look at the figures we racked up today in the Senate. Yes, indeed.

Of course I’m dreaming. The Republicans, the minority party, has rewritten the Constitution so that all legislation requires 60% of the vote for passage. They have brought our government to a standstill. It is impossible for the majority party to govern, as witnessed today. John Adams said it always comes down to one vote. 60% is 10 votes.

When Mitch McConnell said that the one item on his agenda was to make Obama a one term president, it seemed he had failed when the president won a second term. With the filibuster he can make it impossible for Obama to govern. He can null and void his second term. With the Constitution in force, wonderfully sane laws would have ended – TODAY! – the epidemic of murder by guns stalking our land.

Instead, McConnell has made Washington a place of shame.

Rotten Tomatoes

I know there’s no accounting for taste, but this was ridiculous. Rotten Tomatoes gave an 85% rating for the movie, A Single Man, written and directed by a fashion designer but starring no less than Colin Firth. True, the designer both wrote and directed the film, a combination almost invariably a sure sign of trouble.  But with that smashing rating, go for it. It was dreadful.

And then there was Hyde Park on Hudson, as brilliant a film since Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger did their thing together. I do not exaggerate. The scene between FDR and King Bertie is beyond praise. Ten minutes that make time stand still.

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 35% rating.

King Bertie and FDR

“I could’ve been a contender,” Marlon Brando tells his brother Charlie in On the Waterfront, my all- time favorite movie line. Then last night along came Hyde Park on Hutson. The movie itself is masterful. The writing, directing, acting, story could not be more compelling. Overwhelmingly the critics trashed it. They must’ve watched the movie in a parallel universe.

The scene between Bertie(King George VI) and FDR, however, is beyond praise. Bertie, as the world knows from The King’s Speech, suffers from a severe stammer. He has come to America to help save Britain from the Nazi’s. Roosevelt in fact knows that without America, there will probably be no England for Bertie to be king of. The stakes could not be higher.

The king tells the president that the bombing of civilian populations, this horror witnessed recently in Spain, will surely befall the English people. He stammers, badly. Then, In a spasm of rage, he cries out, “That God damn stammer!” Roosevelt makes no reply. Time passes.

“What stammer?” the President says quietly.

I thought my head would blow off.

Not Seeing the Obvious

The banking system is one of the great achievements of mankind. It got invented some 500 years ago. It empowers us incredibly, enabling us ordinary folks to live like queens and kings. Hell, banking gave us the chance to pull off the biggest heist in history:


When I hear Republicans agitate for a balanced budget, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. They claim a family budget must be balanced, so must the government’s. Balanced family budgets? Are you kidding me? Every family I know has a house mortgage to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Car loans. Credit card payments. Loans on mattresses and dining room furniture. Without banking, most of us would be sleeping and eating on the floor.

I listened to Republicans cross-examining President Obama’s budget director yesterday. They were appalled that the budget would never be balanced. What kind of financial future is in store for the United States with a permanent deficit! It’s more than a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a moral matter.

No, you GOP stalwarts, it’s a banking matter.

The untutored Republicans, however, run with the Moral Sense. It brandishes, in Krugman’s words, “visceral appeal.” Unfortunately, the belly has no capacity for thinking.

What is that “visceral appeal?”

Our Quarry: Unconscious Workings of the Moral Sense

Freud discovered the unconscious, a universal structure/dynamic in mental life. It is not directly accessible, defending itself vigorously against nosy intruders. Doesn’t give an inch. You have to catch it out of the corner of your eye. Remarkably, goings-on in the unconscious may shape your life and mine while we have no idea of this fact. Socrates had it right when he insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. If we lose authority over our own self, what’s the point? There are good reasons to examine the unconscious, difficult though that may be.

A systematic method to make the unconscious conscious is, of course, the use of free association. That can be effective when tracking an individual’s unconscious. The Moral Sense, however, our quarry, is a group structure. If you cut it into individual pieces, you won’t get the picture. So what are we supposed to do? Pile groups on a fleet of couches? I have a better plan. Let’s follow the group behavior of the Congressional Republicans. That will serve as our lab for investigating the unconscious and the Moral Sense in an active group.

When did we become Homo sapiens sapiens? when did we become us? Some workers say not until 75,000 years ago, some say 200,000 years, a few as high as 500,000 years ago. Those numbers boggle the mind. Recorded history covers the last 5000 years. 75,000 years accommodate 15 human histories! Figuring three generations per hundred years, that gives us 150 generations – for a single human history! Let’s do the math: 15 human histories times one hundred and 50 generations per human history gives us a grand total of 2250 generations per 75,000 years. You and I qualify for a grand total of one generation. A fancy name like Homo sapiens sapiens doesn’t change the math.. As I said, it boggles the mind.

The Moral Sense operates in the unconscious. Everyone, including those once living, comes equipped with this feature. That means we have a window on the internal life of folks who roamed the earth 75,000 years ago. In their unconscious they were just like us. We do know they lived in small bands of hunter- gatherers. We do know the Moral Sense had evolved under those conditions. It made their survival possible. What once enabled them to successfully rear their children in a savage world – surely by the skin of their teeth – is now the greatest threat to the planet. The Moral Sense brings its own savagery, as we shall see.



The Visceral Appeal of Hate

Paul Krugman caught lightning in a recent New York Times column. He observed that when economists practice their trade with cruelty, their punitive prescriptions, amazingly, register with “visceral appeal” in The Great Unwashed. “Gotcha!” harrumph the high priests of finance. “Time for you greedy bastards to pay the piper.Take THAT and THAT and THAT!” Whaat! Folks welcome this moral bashing? in their very bellies? Yes they do. That’s the lightning Krugman captured. People find getting pummeled appealing when their alleged sins are thrown in their face.

What we are looking at is the Moral Sense in action. It doesn’t appear to be that big a deal. At first go-around, you wouldn’t guess it’s the greatest threat to our planet. Guess again. For example, the astonishing belligerence from North Korea is also the Moral Sense in action. If you stand benumbed at the relentless hatred for Pres. Obama, a hatred so intense and personal that it has made it impossible for him to govern, the Moral Sense makes it understandable.The Republicans in Congress oppose any increase in taxes as a moral imperative. Their position is not a result of taking thought. The Moral Sense is not a product of mind. It disregards experience. It obliterates judgment. It operates as a self-contained system,  unleashing a gang of moral maniacs bound together by the power of moral certitude. Republicans function as a bloc. Either you’re in or you’re out. Either you’re with or you’re against. The juggernaut rolls. It brooks no dissent. It takes no prisoners. The Republicans are the minority yet  claim the power,

As John Adams noted, “Power always believes itself right. Power always thinks it has a great soul and that it is doing God’s service while violating all his laws.” My mentor, Wilfred Bion, described moral mania as a moral system without any morals.

The Moral Sense – that’s our quarry.