Does Capitalism always Give us More from Less?

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less.  The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books.  Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope.  While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.

For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here.  I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments.  I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern.  Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use.  With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate.  The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works.  I’ll go into details in a moment.  I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA.  He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force.  Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater.  I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism.  I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.

Image result for turing computerThe technological save for mankind her argues is the computer.  This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand.  After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process.  We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before.   McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste.  Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used.  One example was the aluminum can.  If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now.  Cans today still function perfectly but use less material.  Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies.  Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials.  Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.

His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty.  Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access.  Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people.  Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.

Image result for world population by year

For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same.  We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy.  He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage.  What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.

So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need.  Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us?  Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.

The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years.  Is this prosperity?  Is this a good way to measure prosperity?  The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.  It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources.   Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society?  Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet?  Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was?  It’s not obvious to me that this is the case.  It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population.  If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population.  And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.

Image result for does the end justify the means

Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question:  Does the end justify the means?  Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time.  If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?  Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system.  And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism.  For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems.  There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc.  If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now.  I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values.  If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.

McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that.  I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details.  There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.

He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world.  He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly.  It’s a fair point.  But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue.  And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.

Overall it was a thought provoking interview.  I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now.  On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.

Profit over Education – Academic Fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill Gives Another Black Eye to Public Education

As a college professor in the United States it is difficult to know where to begin as I process the massive scandal that I have read about today regarding UNC-Chapel Hill in which 3,100 students, nearly half athletes, were shown to have taken fraudulent classes in the university’s athletic program.  I am not usually one to make extremely bold statements, but education is something I feel strongly

about, and this scandal could not make a clearer statement that this country has lost its way.  The love of money has replaced love for each other.  We have let ourselves become distracted by games so that we don’t pay attention to what’s most important.  We have become a culture of fear instead of striving to be a culture of understanding.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I am sure that the majority of professors and students at UNC-Chapel Hill have the highest standards of work ethic and integrity and as I speak now I speak also in your name.  Those who were part of this conspiracy have brought the most shame to you and I am truly sorry for what you have to go through. Bringing legitimacy to your university is a battle you did not ask to fight, but you will have to.  This fight can be made easier or harder depending on who joins that fight.  In this essay I write I call upon those who can do the most to help you.

This year Penn State University had their ban lifted by the NCAA on post-season play 2 years early and still much controversy remains about whether this was the right thing to do given that Jerry Sandusky has been confirmed to have molested 26 boys and school officials looked the other way to avoid a scandal for their football team. As if this wasn’t enough of a blight on higher education and how sports plays too high a role in what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning, perhaps it could simply be argued away as the result of one highly disturbed individual, while several higher officials chose to brush off what seemed to them only rumors without clear evidence.  Personally the Penn State incident should have been enough for us to take a harder look at our priorities, but as the NCAA softened their initial judgment by lifting the ban it seems that it’s business as usual once again.

What has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill has been happening for nearly 20 years. It, as a result, must involve a far greater number of people ranging from personnel in the athletic program, recruiters, registrars, administrators, and faculty  This was a large conspiracy that was covered up for many years and even when the investigation was first opened 5 years ago, it took a long time for the full truth to come to light.  Even now this article is buried on the CNN website under many other less dire stories.  At a time when public education struggles to maintain adequate funding, when there is a great disparity in public education across the country, and public institutions of higher learning continue to raise tuition as their state funding decreases, the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will only act to lessen the trust in public education.  What we must work hard to do right now is to show that it is not public education that is the problem, that this is the symptom of a for-profit culture.  That when the money made off of TV deals, advertising, and merchandise of college sports takes precedent, that those without integrity can take a larger stake in our society and run it into the ground.  Let’s start our call to action with the NCAA.

The NCAA proudly lists on their website their core values which include:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.

For those you not aware of the word “avocation”, it means “hobby or minor occupation”. Note also the words “integrity” and the emphasis of “balance” and “excellence” in not only their athletics but also academics.  These core values are great.  As a society we should value athletic achievement, exercise, and health.  There is a connection between mind and body and it can come together in sport and competition.  It is also important to remember, however, that only about 1% of NCAA athletes will be able to turn professional that means there are many more students for whom their education will be their primary means of having a stable and successful future.  Thus if the NCAA believes in these core values it must also be an advocate for integrity in the classroom and at least be partially responsible for the health of the players who suffer injuries while playing NCAA sports which they profit from (NCAA is a non-profit by the way).  The NCAA has been recently accused of making large profit off the players who are often fed insufficiently and do not take care of the players who suffer injuries and who many times suffer lifelong problems related to those injuries both physically and financially.  The NCAA has a chance here to do the right thing and make its core values be more than just words.

While the NCAA should punish UNC-Chapel Hill for not displaying academic integrity in accordance with their core values, what is the responsibility of UNC-Chapel Hill? The university is ultimately the one that perpetrated this conspiracy and they need to make sure everyone involved faces punishment; no scapegoats, no more lies, no more cover-ups.  I understand why, from a legal standpoint, they cannot lift the degrees of those students.   They are the ones who advised students to take those classes when they saw they were struggling academically.  Rather than providing them with legitimate academic support to help them improve they gave up on trying to expand their minds and said “Your only value to us is in the money you make us in the athletic program, we are not concerned about your future”.  They were supposed to show a student how the same work ethic they apply to their sport, can be applied to learning.  They were supposed to show those athletes the same way they stretch and bend their body they can do also with their mind.  Given the low chances of those athletes becoming professionals they were supposed to give them alternate avenues of success.  And even if they did get drafted into a professional league, injury can happen at any time, and they were supposed to give athletes something else to fall back on.  Instead they have left these students bereft of legitimate degrees, and employers will have a hard time trusting the value of any degree achieved by a UNC-Chapel Hill alum who was involved with their athletics program.

I would also like to point out that the fraudulent program in which these students were enrolled in was an African-Studies program. While I am sure many other scholars can talk about this with more vigor than I can, I find the choice in the academic field of this fraudulent program more than a little insulting given the race issues we still face in the United States.  I know and have known many scholars in this area and this is an extremely important field for young African-Americans to learn about their history in this country and to understand issues of race both in the past and today.   I am not sure whose idea it was to use African-American studies to house the fraudulent courses but those people have done a great disservice to African-Americans by doing so and have treated a very important area of scholarship cheaply.

Of course we cannot be naïve enough to believe that this is the only school where this is happening. This scandal will open investigations into all athletic programs, especially in NCAA division I programs, that have had rumblings of grade inflation for athletes in the past.  It will make employers everywhere wonder if perhaps the academic success of a student athlete is deserved.  At my university, it is only a NCAA Division II school. Athletics is a money drain on our university and does not make us profit.  Yet many student athletes report that coaches will not let them miss a practice even if a legitimate academic opportunity that will benefit their future, such as going to an academic conference,  comes along.  I have seen resources that could be used for academic programs go towards athletics.   We all must join the fight to maintain legitimacy of public higher education institutions and remember that the NCAA core values emphasize balance and that the sport is, for almost all athletes, a hobby and nothing more in the context of their entire lives.

What responsibility do the students themselves share in this scandal? While they were advised to take these fake courses, they knew they were fraudulent.  One student who has come forward even made the Dean’s list having a semester full of fraudulent courses and admitted to not attending one class and receiving all A’s.  These are young adults who were not completely unaware that what they were doing was wrong.  It is difficult, however, for me to judge a young mind bolstered by the fame that we as a society gives them,  and bolstered by the pride of their friends and family at making a renowned college sports team with a full scholarship.  This is coupled with the fear of losing the scholarship that saves their family or themselves financial burden should they falter midway through their degree and cannot continue in the athletic program.  I am not going to judge you for decision you made as a young adult, but I would ask you to consider the steps you take now with care.  Because now that the scandal has been brought to light, the next steps you take are yours, and yours alone.  You know what you did was wrong, and you do a disservice to every student athlete who has worked hard to balance their athletics and academics to legitimately achieve their degree.  You do a disservice to the meaning of the baccalaureate degree which is supposed to be based on a minimum of 120 credit hours of academic rigor.  More importantly you do a disservice to yourself by knowing that you walk around with something that many are in great financial debt for and that many have worked hard for, but for which you did not earn.  Though you were misled, you were old enough to know that the easy path was not the right path.  Retake those credits and demand that UNC-Chapel Hill allow you to do so for free and provide for you the support they should have during your time there.

From http://www.fiscaltimes.com

The final call to action is for the rest of us.  We must take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some tough questions, because in the end it us who generate this profit from collegiate sports by watching and attending the games.  It us who read the articles and watch television programs of analysis.  It is us who buy the merchandise and wear the colors of our favorite collegiate teams.  So what can we do?  To start we, as parents, can make sure that the academic integrity is high at the institutions our children attend.  We can be realistic about what our child’s athletic ability really means and remember that even if they are one of the lucky ones to go professional that smart player is always better than just a player and that when the body breaks the mind still needs to be in good shape so that life goes on.  We need to ask questions, we need to talk to our children and make sure they are learning and let them always know that doing what is right is more important than a moment in the spotlight. We as the public need to make sure that we continue to fight for educational equality across this nation, to make sure that we maintain high standards in curriculum, academic rigor, and pedagogy, and vote for politicians who recognize the importance of education in making this nation great.  We must ask ourselves if it’s right that the highest paid public employee in 40 out of 51 states is a college football or basketball coach? Finally we must remember that a good life is built on a solid foundation made from love, integrity, compassion, humility, self-reflection, and learning.  Sports are fun to watch, but it’s still just a game, and the future of our children and our nation cannot rest on a game.