Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ideas and Economic Systems III

Where do we get our ideas about the economy, economic equality, capitalism, socialism, communism, big business, and related topics? Are our ideas actually good ideas and how would we know? Those are the questions of the day.

As usual, most of our ideas about our economic system cope from four sources - school, the family, the mass media, and our peers. They teach us, or brainwash us, to understand our system and our place in that system. We also learn to defend our system and to believe in it, or not, depending on what part of society we belong to.

School usually exposes us to messages about competitition, economic growth, big business, and capitalism. We in the United States learned to associate socialism with Communism and the Soviet Union. More recently, we are learning to equate socialism with France, North Korea, Cuba, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. This association is reinforced by people like Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage.

Our friends, family, and coworkers encourage us to go along with ideas that support our economic system. Why do you never hear people in MBA programs discussing the means for creating a socialist economic system in the United States? Seriously, if you have ever encountered that sort of discussion, please let me know!

We get plenty of other economic ideas from the same four sources. Attitudes toward the poor and toward money come from the same places as our ideas about appropriate economic goals. (Have you ever wanted to create a worker collective? I didn't think so!) We also learn that market forces are natural, or else are almost on the level of the sacred.

Anyway, I have no idea whether socialism or capitalism or communism is the superior economic system. It really depends on which system, under what circumstances, is effective, efficient, and supportive of widely-hled values that transcend economics. We should be studying our ideas to see how they hold up on factual, logical, and ethical grounds not blasting the "evils" of socialism or capitalism.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ideas and Economic Systems II

Was Karl Marx right about the economy? Are Fortune 500 CEOs doing the right things? Do big companies like Walmart, GM, and Merck really do more good that harm in society? Would it be better if the public controlled the economy rather than individual business people? So many questions, so little time!

Anyway, the point of these blogs on social institutions is to raise issues regarding the ideas we hold, not to reveal The Truth or to criticize. In that spirit, I would like you to think about the following list of ideas that some people have about the economy.
  • Government intervention in the economy is almost always a bad idea.
  • The system is fair (or unfair).
  • Our economic system is superior.
  • Our economic system is natural.
  • Capitalism is superior to socialism.
  • Capitalism is evil.
  • Economic growth is always good.
  • Socialism is a better (fairer) system than capitalism.
Which ones do you agree with and why? Can you trace your thinking to a specific source or sources? If you are like most people, this author included, then you probably have a hard time coming up with specific sources for your ideas. Even worse, you may have a hard time coming up with logical or factual reasons for holding those ideas. Most people are in the same boat with regards to one or more of our social institutions.

Like all other social institutions that economic system is supported by ideas that may not be well supported by facts or logic. Of course facts and logic are not the only reasons for ideas about the economic system to take hold. There are other benefits (and consequences) to consider.

Next time I think that I'll focus on the treatment of economic activity as sacred. What are the causes and consequences of this idea?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ideas and Economic Systems

Is capitalism good or bad? Are corporations raping the planet and exploiting workers? Is socialism really dead? What is the difference between socialism and communism? Was Jesus a communist? I know these questions are tearing the nation apart! (just kidding) I'll focus on the United States but some of my comments will apply to other countries.

First of all let me be clear about this one thing: The United States is not a capitalist country. Maybe I'm being pedantic here, but capitalism is an economic system. Nations are defined by political systems. The United States has a modified capitalist system, called welfare capitalism by social scientists. Many European and Asian countries have the same system.

Communism is not what the Soviet Union had, propaganda aside. They had a socialist economic system and a totalitarian political system (absolute rule by a person or small group) with democratic trappings. True communism is a system where property is held by the group and used for the group's benefit. In socialism the state controls propoerty and uses it for the public good.

And we have plenty of ideas about capitalism, socialism, and communism don't we? Where do the ideas come from? How accurate are they? What functions do they serve? I'll delve into these questions in my next few blogs.

And Happy Turkey Day to you all. Even the ones eating tofurkey :-)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Make Youthful Risk-Taking a Positive Force

This post is more a proposal than a simple explanation. My proposal answers the question of what we can do about crime and deviance among young people. Car surfing, bungee jumping, gang activity, drug use, and car theft (to name a few things) are all connected. They all involve risk-taking. And they are disproportionately the activities of young people, mostly young males.

The negative consequences of so many forms of youthful risk taking are so obvious I'll not spend any time on them here. Likewise, I won't go into the facts about crime and deviance among 13-24 year olds. What I want to do is consider this question: How can we, as a society, do a better job of helping young people direct their urge for risk-taking into productive activities?

Many productive activities seem like good choices for programs by nonprofits and local governments. Here are a few possibilities:

1. Team sports - try something exotic
2. Adventure racing - something like a local version of the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge?
3. Starting small businesses, legal ones :-)
4. Community service projects - organic developed projects, not top-down initiatives
5. Creative projects - the usual stuff
6. Games - computer games, building and racing stuff, orienteering competititions, and others

All six of those ideas have been used before. The point is to be systematic using these programs to channel risk-taking behvior in positive directions. It would be better to "grow" a solution out of local conditions and interests instead of saying "Young people need to start doing _______ so we will start a program."

So that is the basic outline of my idea. I'd be shirking my duty here if I did not point out some of the resosn why we may not want youthful risk-taking and criminal behaviors to go away. The truth is that these behaviors are valuable for many of us, so we do not want them to end! Undesirable risk-taking behavior has several benefits for society:

1. Providing material for books, articles, television, and radio.
2. Less behavior would mean less work for law enforcement personnel, and fewer jobs
3. Ditto, but for corrections jobs.
4. Same as 2 and 3, but for counselors and therapists.
5. Creating ammunitiion for culture critics, church leaders, and politicians
6. Providing work for some social activitists - they want to "fix" the conditions that produce criminal and deviant behavior by young people

Lastly, combatting crime and deviance (binge drinking, casual sex and such) provides a feeling or importance to some activists, pundits, and politicians. They don't want a source of meaning in their lives to go away!

Next: The impact of ideas about our economic system.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Problem of the Family

Where do we get ouur ideas about family life? From God? Evolution? Natural law? Hetersexual males? Capitalists? Pop psychology garbage that's simply infected our minds?

What I want to do today is talk about some of the ideas we have about family life. Then I'll describe why there is, perhaps, a problem of family life.

See if you agree with any of these ideas about family life:

1. There is a natural form that families should take.
2. Kids need a yard to play in.
3. A married couple should establish a new household of their own.
4. The husband and wife have natural roles to carry out.
5. It isn't normal for a woman to earn more than her husband.

Where did you get the information or ideas that led to your conclusion? Was it, your parents, your church leaders, the Bible (or Torah or Quran), television? Are the ideas I cited above based on facts, logic, widely held human values? Or, are the ideas based on agreements we as a society make regarding family life, what the roles should be, what parents should do, and so forth?

What about the impacts of the many and varied ideas that we hold about family life? Consider some areas or topics where we may have ideas about family life: spending, saving, arguing, planning.

Now, because somebody needs to say it, I will say that the family has economic functions that have nothing to do with marital bliss or the raising of healthy children. In fact, these functions could be what makes family life truly important to the powers-that-be. What am I talking about!?!

Families teach kids material aspirations (house, salary, vacations, clothing), prepare kids to participate in the economic system (Schools are training for factory work, or they were.) , help control female reproductive behavior (Ever notice that cheating by men is less outragous than cheating by women?), and provide a market for many goods and services.

Our ideas about family life have costs benefits for us, and for the economic system and for social order too! I'm not sure what the order of priority here is, in regards to the functions of the various ideas and goals we learn. I'm guessing that social order comes first, then the economic system, then the psychological well-being of family members.

Next: A few words about youthful risk taking and what we can do to control it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ideas and Your Family

How important are parents? How much does television affect children? Are our ideas about families natural? Are our ideas about gender roles in the family natural or just made up? It doesn't really matter what's true, only what people think is true!

So, how do ideas about family life actually affect peoples' lives? I've already mentioned how ideas about families spread, but I only touched on that subject.

Your own family has huge influences on your own ideas about what family life should be like. You've probably heard that some abusers (and abused women) learn that things are just "that way" from their parents. Likewise, you probably know that positive aspects of your parents relationship may shape your own expectations.

These expectations, such as the man will make enough money to take good care of the family, are not "natural." We learn them and go along with them unless we encounter some compelling reason to change our behavior.

(Remember: Most of these comments apply across societies. The details may be different in France or Japan but the class distinctions are still there!)

The masss media also have some impact on our ideas about family life. Television presents us with images of family life. I have my doubts about how much of what we see on television really shapes our own family life. Perhaps some of the imagesdo soak into our minds and shape our expectations to some degree.

Next time: How do ideas about family life shape spending, saving, domestic squabbles, planning, and life satisfation? If you ever wondered about the "real" origin of these ideas stay tuned!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Ideas About Family Life

I'm back after a brief illness and a fun night on the town Thursday. We've been delving into two topics related to major social institutions like religion and the economic system: (1) How do ideas shape the ways these institutions work, and (2) how are ideas transmitted through these institutions. Tonight's blog focuses on the family. This time I'll focus on how ideas shape family life.

What ideas, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs are most important to family life? That's a mighty big question for a blog post, but here are some of the main ideas:

1. Gender roles - There are appropriate or "natural" roles for the man and the woman
2. Form - There is a "natural" structure to a family. A married man and woman who plan on producing children would be thwe "natural" structure in most modern societies. Never mind that other forms, such as single parent, group marriage, polygamy, and polyandry (1 woman with two or more husbands) are possible.
3. Desirability - establishing a family of one's own is one of the most important, maybe the most important, goal that a person can strive for. Beliefs about the emotional benefits and about "living on" through the children likely to be produced also make family life extremely desirable. Family men and mothers are somewhat more respected that long-time bachelors (Freaks!) and women who choose to be childless (Ugh, lesbians!), so there are two more ways that family life is desirable.

Not suprisingly, churches and legal institutions encourage behaviors and ideas that contribute to forming and maintaining intact families. This is how we ensure that people grow up knowing how to act in our society, what goals to shoot for, what religious beliefs to hold (or at least respect) and what the standards of "right" conduct are. (There may be less benevolent reasons for churches and governments supporting traditional family life - specifically, to keep women under control by forcing them into "helpmate" and "housekeeper" roles. Families also provide a way to keep people uinder control by passing along goals and sdtandards of behavior that support the existing social system.)

Next time: How does the family transmit ideas about social life, and where exactly do the ideas come from (Hint: I already explained some of this!)? After that I'll talk about the costs and benefits of some dominant ideas about the family.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

How Religious Ideas Shape Our Lives I

You may have noticed that religious ideas are pretty important in the modern world. If you hadn't noticed then your time with my blog post has been well spent already :-) Religious ideas, whether we personally share them or not, affect the way people view homosexuality, science, other races, the environment, social issues (EX: poverty, gender-based discrimination) and too many other things to list here.

I'll stick with offering some general sorts of subjects on which religious thinking has shaped our thinking, for better or worse:
  • ethics
  • lifestyle choices
  • sexuality
  • relationships
  • "the meaning of things" including natural disasters and personal tragedies
  • nature, and out place in it

Consider one or two of those areas and think, really think, about whether religion has had a generally positive effect on us or not. Try to consider the issue from a perspective opposite your own. If you are an atheist try to construct an argument about how religion is generally beneficial when it comes to ideas about nature, to use one possible example.

Here are two functions that religions perform, with some specifics added:

Regulating social behavior - sexuality, altruism, countering consumerism, eating habits

Providing social support - friendships, support in crisis

Of course there is a dark side to religion. And here are some problems with religious ideas:

1. Biased interpretations of the ideas - Where in the Qu'ran does it say you can beat your wife if she disobeys you? Please, somebody point that out to me! This biased idea is merely a crutch used to prop up male-dominated ("patriarchal") societies.

2. "Watering Down" - the original idea gets simplified to the point that it may no longer be useful; a concrete example escapes me. Does the commandment against bearing false witness cover lies of all sorts, or only lies that could hurt someone else?

3. Self-serving interpretations - Again I have to bash Christians; Does God reveal what he thinks about us through the material success we enjoy in life? Calvinists suggested as much.

4. Dogmatism - Our interpretation is correct, so infidels must be silenced forever!

5. Supernaturalism - Reliance on supernatural forces to explain things or (worse) solve a problem; examples include faith healing and belief in miracles.

6. Extreme Closed Mindedness - "If God had wanted men on the moon he would have put some there." (That is a real sentiment that I lifted from a book. I kid you not!)

Next Time: Family life and ideas

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