Chapter 20. A Taste for Number Magic
It's one thing to work toward a worthwhile goal, pursuing it in an economically disciplined and profitable fashion. It's quite another thing to make profit your primary goal and the measure of everything else.
Society's welfare hangs upon the difference. The difference, moreover, is immediately recognizable in all concrete human contexts where people are actually paying attention to each other. It's the difference between serving each other's needs as effectively as possible, and using each other. And yet, the concerted drive of economic theory and commercial practice has been to obliterate the distinction. To succeed in this would be to obliterate ourselves.
It's a strange and pernicious notion that has been foisted upon Western society by economists: you and I, they tell us, by giving free rein to greed, selfishness, competitive malice, and megalomania, perform a valuable public service. We can spend our days pitting ourselves against the welfare and livelihood of others, and then trust "the market" to transform our venality into a public good.
Nor is this aberration a peculiarity of the ivory tower. When the research director at an investment firm says, "Greed is good" (Business Week 1997b), an aggressive claim lies behind the intentional provocation. It is the claim that the only way to secure social value is to "pursue the numbers," and if greed happens to be the motive for doing this well, the numbers will still bless us. Somehow, through a kind of magic, the social value will automatically condense out of the numbers and percolate through society as a healing balm.
Business Week capsulized the thought in a column entitled "Spend and Grow Rich It's the American Way." It dealt with "the industrious ant and the devil-may-care grasshopper," concluding:
Japan and Germany still don't grasp that consumption is acceptable. Even good. In the real-life version of the old fable, the ants lose. (1998a)
No, hardly real life. But my point is not the misanthropic one that consumption is bad. Rather, it is that Business Week 's statement, as given, is startlingly vacuous. It says nothing about what sort of consumption is good. Lacking any such qualitative caveat, it clearly asserts that the consumer's monetary transactions as such their sheer, numerable quantity is what produces the good.
This brings us to the doctrine of the Invisible Hand, the economist's name for the intelligent mechanism through which the self-interested pursuits of myriad individuals supposedly result in the greatest possible good for society as a whole. "Harnessing the `base' motive of material self-interest to promote the common good," according to economist Charles Schultze, "is perhaps the most important social invention mankind has yet achieved" (quoted in Kuttner 1996, p. 36).
Even crass expressions of this doctrine have become more or less socially acceptable. For example, there's the advertising director defending ads that glorify selfishness:
No one's really worrying about what it's teaching impressionable youth. Hey, I'm in the business of convincing people to buy things they don't need. (Business Week 1997a)
Then there are the "anti-ads" advertisements that pretend to respect young people and to share their skepticism about advertisements. As one commentator (Shenk 1997) notes, "Marketers admit that the `honesty' of these ads is a conceit" in fact, a conceit precisely designed to provoke unconscious consumer choices, which is the quintessential form of disrespect. (It's called "brainwashing" in other contexts.)
How could this grotesque notion the notion that private vice equals public good gain such widespread acceptance? How can we blindly assume a kind of alchemical transformation going on all around us when we never actually see it at work in concrete situations?
When I show disrespect to my wife, or compete with her in a manner that puts my interests above hers, or try to coerce her choices without her knowledge, the result is never an increased good for our society of two. It is more like hell. And the same thing holds for our larger family, and for our neighborhood. It also holds among co-workers at the office and when friends and neighbors sell things to each other at a local bazaar. In fact, it holds wherever people have to do with people.
This is the rock-bottom fact a fact overwhelming in its significance if we prefer to understand the real world. Let the economists show us concrete examples where things work otherwise. Where, exactly, is the Great Divide past which the Invisible Hand produces results opposite to those we see in our daily lives and feel in the sting of our consciences?