Reflections on my students’ economic and moral values: Winter/Spring 2012

Blog Post May 8, 2012


Well, I finally finished the semester.  Papers and tests kept me from writing the last several weeks.  I feel like I’m out of practice!  So, before I finish my reflections on Hume and work, I’d like to stop for a bit and look at my students for the last week.

This semester, I noticed a distinct trend in my students’ answers and essays.  We’ve been discussing economic and social justice for the last month or so in Ethics class, so I’ve read a lot of reflection papers and a lot of test essays on issues like wealth gaps, taxes, property rights and so on.  Very few thought these were unimportant questions.  Almost all seemed to think that there was something wrong with a society where the rich get fewer and richer, and the rest get poorer:  not just mechanically wrong, but also morally wrong.  In a sense, then, it seemed as if the Occupy Movement had gotten a discussion going.  At the same time, though, most of them said the best way to close the wealth gap and to increase opportunities for poor people is to cut taxes for the wealthy, and let the wealth trickle down.  Not one was an out-and-out socialist, and a handful at most thought that it was morally acceptable to simply let more and more wealth be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.  So in a sense, they rejected the Left and they rejected the Right.  But in another sense, they accepted the Left and accepted the Right.  They agree with the Occupy Movement’s diagnosis of the national economic/social/moral condition, but also agree with the Tea Party’s proposed solution.

A Marxist would say they had been co-opted and are all dupes.  Given Marxism’s historical successes as a political movement, I don’t take their word for who is a dupe very seriously.  But there is something schizophrenic in society.  As I’ve mentioned, I teach community college.  That means my students work for a living, for the most part.  They don’t have trust funds and they don’t have dorms and meal plans and a Student Activities office to make sure they never have to leave campus ever if they don’t want to.  They are a much more realistic sampling of society than any student body I was a member of.  And from what I’m seeing, neither major political party in the U.S. should feel very comfortable.  Republicans can take heart that their message of hard work and fiscal conservatism is resonating with many people.  After all, my students are poor or middle class people who believe that if they work hard and get an education, then they will be able to get better jobs and move closer to achieving the American Dream.  They are not looking for handouts.  When the rabbi said, teach a man to fish and you’ve helped him for a lifetime, my students were listening.  They want to learn; they don’t want to be dependent on someone handing them fish, and they don’t want the government taking fish away from someone else to give to them.  It makes sense, then, that most of them would believe that the system basically works if you play by the rules; if they didn’t believe that, they wouldn’t be busting their keisters to take night or on-line classes to get college degrees while working full time during the day.  My polling sample may be more inclusive than, say, a poll of the student body of New College or Union Seminary, but it is skewed to that degree I suppose.

Democrats should probably be discouraged that their message is not getting out.  After all, my students are the very people who Democrats are trying to reach:  the middle class and those poor with the ambition to become middle class.  And when my students are told that the health care system needs reform, that the tax system is biased towards the rich, or that the wealthy should pay 50% inheritance tax (or any) to redistribute wealth back down to the lower and middle classes, many of them just do not buy those strategies.  They don’t think they’ll work, and in many cases they don’t think they’re moral.  Even when they’ve read Marx, Rawls, or Mill and understand their theories, they just don’t buy those; they do buy Locke or the libertarians.  But when it comes to the analysis of the situation, there the Democratic message is winning out.  My students do not want to see the current economic trends continue.  They do not want to see the wealth gap grow, the middle class shrink and the 1% expand their dominance of the nation’s economic and political life.

In the short run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Republicans continue to score big with my students, and with voters who resemble my students.  Some of this is because they are convinced by the Republican economic message, and part is because of the Republican moral message.  My students believe that hard work and personal responsibility matter greatly, and they hear those values echoed by Republican rhetoric more than by Democratic rhetoric.  But in the long run, a moral commitment to those values probably won’t be enough to keep them voting Republican if Republican promises fail and Republican policies make the problems worse instead of better.  If the wealth gap continues to grow and the only thing Republicans say to my former students is, “Well, you just don’t work hard enough or you’d be rich,” that could turn into a Democratic revolution.

I’m not just hypothesizing blindly here; Kevin Phillips has been saying the same for more than ten years.  Phillips was once Nixon’s economic advisor, and is the man who predicted the Republican revolution based on his conclusion that the Democrats had failed the middle class and become the party of handouts, taxes and graft.  In the 1990’s, though, Phillips began predicting a Democratic swing of the nation, based on his economic analysis and his belief that Republicans had become the party of plutocracy and kleptocracy.  My belief is that people don’t just vote their pocketbooks.  I know some people, at least, who become positively angry if told they should vote for X because it would benefit them financially.  But if they are convinced that X is moral and fair, and that Y is somehow morally wrong, they will vote for X gladly.  It matters to many people to see themselves as good and responsible; political rhetoric that does not appeal to their moral sensibilities will fall on philosophically deaf ears.

The day people start to feel shafted, start to feel the system is rigged, and start to feel as if their Most Trusted News In America is not telling them the truth, the voters could turn on a dime.  But if it does happen, it won’t just be because people are voting for handouts for themselves.  It will also be because they are convinced that the values of the Republicans are fraudulent and the values of Democrats are honest and worthy.

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8 Responses to “Reflections on my students’ economic and moral values: Winter/Spring 2012”

  1. Nemo Says:

    This ties in nicely with your series on “work and value”.

    It reminds me of a discussion I had with a wealthy lady. Her argument is that “the rich in this country” are those who work harder than the rest, and the poor are the ones who don’t work, because if they did, they would not be poor. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

    But, it is really true that if you work harder you would be richer? In other words, are the wages you receive really proportional to the quality and value of your work? It’s quite possible that the accumulation of material wealth follows quite different paths/laws from value creation.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Thanks for your response; it’s nice to hear from you.

      From an economic point of view, the argument “If he’s rich, it’s because he worked harder” simply doesn’t hold up. The whole purpose of trade is so wealth can move around. That may mean that someone works hard and earns it, or it may mean someone steals it, or it may mean someone inherits it. One is morally praiseworthy, another is condemned, and the last morally neutral; but the money spends the same. It’s like a story from Roman antiquity, (which I know because Kierkegaard misquotes it and the Hongs explained it). A ruler imposed a tax on the citizens for the disposal of urine. His son said to the ruler that it was unseemly and disgusting to make a profit from piss. The father handed his son a coin, and asked him how it smelled. The point the old man made is obvious: even if the way you make the money stinks, money is money.

      Clearly, some people who make the wealth=good character argument are self-serving; they are wealthy and want to think well of themselves and/or want others to admire them. Others are a little less self-serving; they work hard and want to believe they will be rewarded for their virtue, so they cling to the belief that hard work is always rewarded. And some have worked hard and are rich. My father worked hard as a doctor, and went beyond the requirements of the job to embrace his duty as a healer. I saw how hard he worked for years, and how he rose from driving a beat-up VW Beetle to whatever car he wanted. It is natural that someone like him would be sympathetic to the belief that hard work is rewarded with profit. But as someone in a foot in the religious profession and another in teaching, I can say I know plenty of people who work hard and well and don’t get rich. And as someone with one foot in the religious profession, I can certainly say I have seen a lot of people who don’t work particularly hard or well at all, who are extremely wealthy—-and not all of them are indictable.

      I think that one reason conservatives say wealth is a sign of industriousness and talent is because they have a moral sense, and that moral sense tells us that wealth ought to be connected to industriousness and talent. We wish it were true, just as we want to believe all criminals are caught and all innocents are protected or at least avenged. Maybe your rich friend wasn’t merely a hypocrite, trying to justify herself. Maybe her claim was a statement of faith.

      And for conservatives, there is a lot in the Bible to back that view up. There are so many Proverbs equating success with hard work and poverty with laziness that I won’t even begin to list them. The “Deuternomistic” theology goes even further, linking worldly success to moral goodness and faith. If this attitude weren’t a common human condition, there would have been no need for books like Job and Ecclesiastes to refute it.

      • Nemo Says:

        Economics is not my strong suit. I still haven’t figured out how surplus value is produced, where interest comes from, and whether wealth indeed trickle down not bubble up. Obviously I have a lot to learn.

        I don’t think material wealth ought to be connected with industriousness and talent, because they are not always in kind. For instance, if someone works hard to gain knowledge, his reward should be knowledge; when an athlete trains hard for competition, his reward is the trophy (honor), not money, though the latter could be added to him; the reward for your father’s hard work as a doctor is the lives he has saved and healed, any compensation he may have received is paltry (though necessary) compared to that; .

        On the one hand, material wealth is not, and should not be, the only measurement of value. “There are things money can’t buy”, and if it can be bought, more likely than not, it is worth little. OTOH, if people have worked hard and gained material wealth, they shouldn’t have to pay more tax (percentage wise) than the rest. They have earned it fair and square, and have a right to enjoy the fruit of their labor.

        As for wealth gap, apart from jealousy, people don’t revolt when others are by far smarter, faster, stronger or more beautiful than themselves, why then should they revolt when others are by far richer, unless they believe that the gap is a result of unjust treatment and dishonest gain?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        “if someone works hard to gain knowledge, his reward should be knowledge; when an athlete trains hard for competition, his reward is the trophy (honor), not money, though the latter could be added to him; the reward for your father’s hard work as a doctor is the lives he has saved and healed,”

        Spoken like a true Platonist.

      • Nemo Says:

        I think the Bible also teaches that there are different kinds of riches, and our works are rewarded according to their kind.

        When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and distribute to the poor, he wasn’t advocating socialism, instead, he was indicating that there is a superior kind of riches than worldly possessions. “You will have treasure in heaven”, “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

        (To put it more plainly, it’s almost like trading in your old clunker and getting a brand new model for nothing. If the man had known better, he wouldn’t have turned away from such a great bargain)

        The same message is echoed in the Proverbs and Paul’s epistles.

        “The labor of the righteous leads to life, The wages of the wicked to sin.”
        Proverbs 10:16

        “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”
        Galatians 6:7-8

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I was thinking you were following The Republic where the different classes are rewarded for their service with the reward that best suits them: wealth for the producers (merchants, craftsmen etc.), glory for the auxiliaries (what soldier doesn’t want medals?) and for the guardians and the philosopher-king, the opportunity to think.

      • Nemo Says:

        Yes, you’re right. I was just thinking how Platonism is indeed compatible with Christianity in many aspects. There isn’t a distinct class of priests or pastors in the Republic though.( It’s a bit unusual, come to think of it, considering that religion was so ubiquitous in ancient Greece) What reward, if any, should they get for their service?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        You know, I never thought of that before! Plato doesn’t seem to have thought much of the priests, though, did he? Maybe they’d be in the Producers. I think, though, that once he’d purged the republic of the poets and established a new, rational religion, he’d put the Guardians in charge as its priests. After all, part of their job was to tell the people myths, such as The Myth of the Metals to explain how people were born to their class (guardians have gold in their veins, auxiliaries silver and producers bronze) and to deceive them (such as the lottery to choose mates) for their own good and the good of the republic.

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