Thursday, January 7, 2010

Children v. Economism

Everyone agrees that children deserve our consideration. They’re innocent, after all, they did nothing to create whatever weird situation they find themselves in. And society owes children a duty of care, they are our children, we must care for them. Everyone agrees.

Social scientists agree that early childhood intervention programs work very well. Pilot programs like Head Start offer real benefits not only to at-risk children, but also to society at large, benefits like reduced incidence of welfare dependence and imprisonment and higher levels of education and performance in the work force. It’s all true; it can be statistically proven.*

Medical professionals have proven that significant adversity in early childhood directly affects brain development, causing disastrously malformed brain architecture which leads to lifelong medical problems, not only cognitively and emotionally, but also physically, in the form of heart disease, diabetes and God knows what else.*

So that’s three very good reasons for society invest in early intervention programs designed to identify and help children. So why isn’t more being done?


Tony Judt gave a nice lecture recently at NYU, which was then printed as an article in the New York Review of Books, called “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy.” You can read the whole thing here ARTICLE

Mr. Judt does a great job of describing what he calls “economism,” which is basically “the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.” Who cares if it’s right or wrong? Does it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? “This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss-economic questions in the narrowest sense-is not an instinctive condition. It is an acquired taste.” Acquired how? Maybe the precious few people who would benefit from such a crass policy had something to do with it, just maybe. We lawyers try to follow the money when we are figuring out why something happened.

Affirmative projects designed to help children to become productive citizens just don’t make the cut, econimistically. Must we spend this money today? No, although it’s a good idea, and a “good” thing to do. Somehow it makes more sense to modern politicians to save the money now and spend more later on prisons and medical care.

Is it the old American Individualism? Let them stand on their own feet! I did it! Let them do it for themselves! Could be in the angles somewhere.

Even classical economists were afraid that modern society would go in this direction. One early economist of commercial capitalism, the Marquis de Condorcet (I’d never heard of him either), was afraid that capitalism would go viral, and that “liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than the necessary condition for the security of financial operations.” Sound familiar? Could happen and is, you could say.

What is all this worshipping of money anyway? By people who don’t have any, that is? Why do people want to keep their tax money for themselves? Why does the average person abhor regulation? Why do people with no capitol hate the capitol gains tax? It’s easy! Because they’re all going to get great ideas, and make great investments, and get super-rich themselves almost immediately! It almost makes sense: if Glenn Beck can do it, maybe they can too.

Another oldie-but-goodie, Adam Smith, warned way in the way-back that this “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition . . . is . . . the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Wow, that one came true as well!

So now that we inhabit, have created with our own hands actually, this corrupt, unfeeling, immoral, dare I say, unchristian future that we were so clearly warned about, what happens now?

Not a lot of discretionary spending to improve the lives of children, that’s my guess.

*For the full skinny on these points, see Mobilizing Science to Revitalize Early Childhood Policy


libramoon said...

I have been thinking that the basis of much of the topsy-turvey values noted in these times is a result of worshipping the strategy (unfortunately seemingly bad strategy at that) rather than the goal. The goal of capitalism, or any economic system, is to better create and distribute the goods and services needed and desired by the people. Some bright theorists decided to try a motive of individual profit, which did to some extent achieve the goal. Yet, in the mad dash for individual wealth, the true purpose of the exercise has been subverted.

fred c said...

Yes. The first large capitol enterprises, big stock companies like the East India Company, expanded economies and distributed goods. (Colonial excesses aside, for now.)

Greater efficiencies and accomplishments are progress; concentrating the new wealth is not. (Sounds like you agree.)