Volume 5, Number 122
29 May 2005

Powelson's Laws

Everything Depends on Everything Else

by Jack Powelson

Dear Friends,

Powelson's First Law (from The Moral Economy. University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 33) is: "Power expands until other power stops it." Think of a jigsaw puzzle, with every piece of a size that represents its power (more power, bigger size). Call the pieces whatever you like — individuals, corporations, government, etc.

Now, make the jigsaw multidimensional, so that every piece may push on any other piece and can reach all at once. Each tries to push on others to gain more power. If, however, they largely hold each other in place, we call this a "stable society."

But the piece representing "government" possesses a special power of expansion. The protests, voting, or other means by which citizens hold back government are far weaker than government itself, especially if it is backed by the army, as in many Latin American countries.

Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, wrote (5/25/05, abridged):

"Is there any group of companies that should have been picketing the White House more than our high-tech firms, after the Bush team cut the National Science Foundation budget by $100 million in 2005 and in 2006 has proposed shrinking the Department of Energy science programs and basic and applied research in the Department of Defense — key sources of innovation?

"So with business with its head in the clouds, labor with its head in the sand, the administration focused on terrorism and Congress catering to people who think "intelligent design" is something done by God and not by Intel, it's not surprising that we don't have a strategy for making America competitive in the 21st century."

Friedman is applying Powelson's Second Law, that: "Everything depends on everything else," except that he touts American competitiveness rather than that of the world. He points out the deterioration of world culture in the past five years. Many would say world culture began to decline with the Bush administrations (some would say Roosevelt; I would put it much earlier). When 9/11 scared all the jigsaw pieces, the administration took the advantage to scare them even more. The more scared they are, the more they demand protection from terrorists, and the less likely they are to push back.

Roosevelt did not recognize Powelson's Third Law, which is: "Citizens (anywhere) always want more from their government than they are willing to pay into it." Therefore, Roosevelt conceived neither of social security running out of funds nor of citizens (Congress?) refusing to pay whatever amount would keep it solvent. Keynes and Galbraith did not know of this law when they proposed government deficit in depression, to be paid back in prosperity. Who ever thinks our government (or that of Argentina, India, Kenya, etc.) pays back anything at all, except in the short term or to reborrow the money? Instead, it has the sovereign power always to borrow, while citizens and foreign central banks depend on that sovereignty to protect themselves while they lend to it.

The world is in a bind. The United States perpetually imports more than we export, paying dollars that we write on the books for free. Thus we consume more than we produce, and the rest of the world, not mainly the Federal Reserve, controls our inflation. The rest of the world has no choice but the American dollar as safe haven for its surpluses (so far, the yen and the euro aren't safe enough, but they may be some day). So they "hate" us for many more reasons than the Iraqi war.

A Fourth Law is: "Once citizens have vested interests, they will not let them go easily, but will use all their power to hold them." This is so for social security. Paul Krugman is a fine economist, but he cannot conceive of the social security fund running out of funds. It is also difficult (impossible?) to thwart vested interests in health care, unemployment insurance, and other government largesse. So the administration finances its increased power by taking from the weakest (cutting Medicaid, public schooling, research, etc.)

My solution would be not to provide these benefits in the first place. Instead, let us subsidize the poor and let them spend their money where they will (just like the rest of us). If we think "the poor" will spend our subsidies on "drink and drugs," then give them, instead of cash, certificates for housing, health care, or whatever "we," the paternalistic and powerful rich, think the poor should be spending their money on.

We should lower taxes so research can be funded privately by those who wish it. (It would cost the same, maybe less, if done privately instead of by government.) For how this solution might come about, see my book The Moral Economy, of which the University of Michigan Press has 190 copies in paperback before it goes out of print altogether. Hardback copies are already sold out.

Let me add a proposition (not a law): Some countries have more of a free market in institutions than others, who have less. [I distinguish between a corporate body (an organization) and a social mechanism for regulating or shaping the behavior of others (an institution). The University of Colorado is an organization, while American higher education is an institution.] A "free market in institutions" means that institutions may be changed just by people behaving differently, not by passing a law.

For the greatest health of the world, an institution (like a filibuster) should not be changed to "solve" a particular problem of the moment. ("Don't tear down the fence until you know why it was put up.") But if an institution is faulty, it should be changed at another time by quiet thinking about its intrinsic merits or demerits. I have always thought there must be some better way than a filibuster, but I don't want to eliminate it right now.

Back to the jigsaw puzzle. Institutions are linked with many other institutions. If you are truly good and kind to some people, you will be good and kind to others. Also, you can't wage a war and at the same time continue other institutions (education, heath care, caring for the poor, research, etc.) just as they were before.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

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Jack: As always, you are able to cut through the clutter and cogently express the facts of the real world we live in, and not the contrived and artificial world that some of our current politicians would have us believe in.

Regarding the filibuster: my view is that it mainly exists to protect the views of the minority when it comes to really important issues of legislation or appointments, such as lifetime judgeships. Why not just enshrine the need for a "super-majority" in such cases, like having 66% or even more votes needed to confirm major judgeships, ambassadorships, and votes to go to war, for example? That would save time in Congress, and — more important — reduce the number of boring speeches in that august chamber.

— Tom Selldorff, Weston MA.

It seems to me that you are using the word "institution" in two different ways in this essay. You define it as a mode of behavior, and this definition fits your filibuster example quite well. But then you also use word institution to refer to things like American higher education, which to my mind is very much more than just a mode of behavior. Sociology (which is the study of institutions) certainly does not define an institution as a mode of behavior.

To my way of thinking, an institution is a social mechanism for regulating or shaping the behavior and experiences of individuals and other institutions. These social mechanisms last much longer than any one individual who may be involved, and can act in ways not intended or even understood by participants.

When you restrict your definition of institution to behavior alone, then you eliminate all of the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual aspects of social mechanisms. This is an impoverished view of society and psyche which harks back to the failed attempt in the early 20th century to redefine everything in the social sciences in terms of behavior alone, i.e. Behaviorism. Behaviorism is dead, I am glad to say, but its ghosts still linger on in our words and thoughts.

— Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

I take a small issue with the use of the word "law" where it appears the proper word is something between the meanings of "law," "proposition," and "axiom." I'm not out for a philosophical debate about whether "laws" exist in economics in the first place or not, though I would say that most such "laws" are often reifications. But in the cases cited in the article, it just seems that "law" is a bit strong.

— David Myers, Westbury Monthly Meeting, Sayville, NY.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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