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blog: Don Marti

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Moral values in society

08 August 2017

Moral values in society are collapsing? Really? Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes, The baseline moral values of poor people do not, in fact, differ that much from those of the rich. (read the whole thing).

Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, it's more complicated than that. Any market economy depends on establishing trust between people who trade with each other. Tim Harford writes,

Being able to trust people might seem like a pleasant luxury, but economists are starting to believe that it’s rather more important than that. Trust is about more than whether you can leave your house unlocked; it is responsible for the difference between the richest countries and the poorest.

Somehow, over thousands of years, business people have built up a set of norms about high-status and low-status business activities. Craftsmanship, consistent supply of high-quality staple goods, and construction of noteworthy projects are high-status activities. Usury and deception are examples of low-status activities. (You make your money in quarters, gambling with retired people? You lend people $100 until Friday at a 300% interest rate? No club invitation for you.)

Somehow, though, that is now changing in the USA. Those who earn money through deception now have seats at the same table as legitimate business. Maybe it started with the shift into "consumer credit" by respectable banks. But why were high-status bankers willing to play loan shark to begin with? Something had to have been building, culturally. (It started too early to blame the Baby Boomers.)

We tend to blame information technology companies for complex, one-sided Terms of Service and EULAs, but it's not so much a tech trend as it is a general business culture trend. It shows up in tech fast, because rapid technology change provides cover and concealment for simultaneous changes in business terms. US business was rapidly losing its connection to basic norms when it was still moving at the speed of FedEx and fax. (You can't say, all of a sudden, "car crashes in existing fast-food drive-thrus are subject to arbitration in Unfreedonia" but you can stick that kind of term into a new service's ToS.) There's some kind of relativistic effect going on. Tech bros just seem like bigger douchebags because they're moving faster.

Regulation isn't the answer. We have a system in which business people can hire lobbyists to buy the laws and regulations we want. The question is whether we're going to use our regulatory capture powers in a shortsighted, society-eroding hustler way, or in a conservative way. Economic conservatism means not just limiting centralized state control of capital, but preserving the balance among all the long-standing stewards of capital, including households, municipalities, and religious and educational institutions. Economic conservatism and radical free-marketism are fundamentally different.

People blame trashy media for the erosion of norms among the poor, so let's borrow that explanation for the erosion of norms among the rich as well. Maybe our problem with business norms results from the globablization and sensationalism of business media. Joe CEO isn't just the most important corporate leader of Mt. Rose, MN, any more—on a global scale he's just another broke-ass hustler.