David R. Henderson  

Good News from Amitai Etzioni

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A well-known sociologist shares information about a prominent Democratic Senator that made him despair--and gave me hope.

For some reason, I'm on what is probably a very large e-mail list from Amitai Etzioni, the left-wing sociology professor at George Washington University. Maybe it's because we hit it off when we were both participants at a Hoover Institution conference on national service about 20 years ago. Maybe not. Anyway, I received the following this week. You'll see that he despaired; I had the opposite reaction.

Like many in Washington, I go to a fair number of meetings conducted under the Chatham House Rule, which allows one to discuss what was said in the meeting, but prevents one from naming the speaker or venue. At one of those meetings in a private home (somewhat like the scene in Gertrude Stein's salon in Midnight in Paris), a leading Democratic Senator spoke. He stated that the deficit was a greater threat to our nation than terrorism. That once one could say that unless we deal with the deficit, we shall burden our grandchildren; then--after things got worse--burden our children. Now, the senator raised his voice, we are screwed! He also allowed that entitlements must be cut. (Note that using the term entitlements rather than social safety nets, is by itself ideological). He did not mention jobs during his half-hour presentation. When asked about them after, he said that once the deficit reduction legislation is enacted, and the uncertainty surrounding the issue is removed, corporations that have large hordes of cash would hire people. I could not imagine what a Republican who is not a card-carrying Tea Party member would have said differently. For a rather different view, see "A Moral Assessment of the Attack on Social Safety Nets" and this exchange with Daniel Callahan and the political use of moral language.

The senator made two side notes of interest. He made it clear that [a] good part of the deficit reduction would be carried out with smokes and mirrors. For instance cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% means much less than meets the eye, because most corporations do not pay more than 18% as it is. (The tax "cut" is need so those meager revenue raisers that would be included could be offset by some reductions to make the change revenue neutral, as demanded by the conservatives.) He also admitted that Social Security was not adding to the deficit but argued that it nevertheless ought to be cut--because we are living longer.


One note about the economics in the last paragraph. Even though the corporate tax cut wouldn't cut taxes by ten thirty-fifths for the reason he says, the fact that the marginal rate would be cut by ten thirty-fifths is huge.

His e-mail reminds me of another item Etzioni wrote in "My Turn" (in Newsweek) about 20+ years ago. He had taught a business ethics course at Harvard Business School and was upset that his views had so little traction with MBA students at Harvard. The vast majority of the students thought that advertising is good, that making lots of money is fine, etc. I wish I could find the whole "My Turn" article. I saved it but it was one of the many casualties in my 2007 fire.

UPDATE: MDS below has supplied the link to the "My Turn" article. Here it is.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

That Chatham House Rule is funny. I get mad when people discuss my ideas and don't credit me as the source!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob,
There's an easy way around that: announce up front that you are exempting everyone there from the Chatham House rule in quoting you.

Jon writes:

Yes that's quite funny. If the senator is right, cutting the marginal income tax should be a no brainer.

Instead the debate Is focused on how a rate cut is a corporate give away. One more bit of evidence that the debate has devolved to nonsense.

Matt C writes:

It is encouraging in one sense.

I typically expect politicians to enact policies which the public does not understand, to the public's detriment. It is both funny and sad if politicians have to go under cover to enact policies where they trick the public for the public's benefit.

MDS writes:

Professor Henderson, here is an online copy of Etzioni's essay in Newsweek: http://www.gwu.edu/~ccps/etzioni/B192.html

David R. Henderson writes:

@MDS,
Thanks, MDS. I've updated with the link.

Yancey Ward writes:

What is the morality of Etzioni using his class to try to shape his student's morality, if his position is that advertising is in some way immoral? In what way is that different from an advertiser trying to entice a buyer of a product, service, or even an idea? His students seem to see the issues of freedom and morality far more clearly than he did. Even take the part about having young boys and young girls sent the to the rooms of visiting foreign VIPs- the students seemed to understand that the hypothetical had nothing to teach them that they hadn't already absorbed as a part of American culture (that sex with minors is immoral and illegal), and said as much by mocking it with their jokes and facetious offers their own services as adults, a point he seemed to not get.

John writes:

I've just finished the piece about Etzioni's MBA class. I wonder if it occurs to him that the writing is pretentious and even insulting. Haven't we all had a friend who behaves this way? The moralizing "perspective broadener" who doesn't realize that the people around him don't need his "help"? If academia is simply where all of our pretentious friends ended up, I may need to reconsider my ambitions.

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