Author Archives: Carl Proper

Carl Proper is retired from forty years in the labor movement. He is a graduate of Yellowstone Park elementary school, Phillips Exeter and Harvard. He and his wife, Joyce Pulcini, have two children. They live in Bethesda, Maryland, with thoughts of returning some day to Boston or New York. He remains active in social justice issues through affiliation with All Souls UU church in Washington, DC.

Managing Capitalism 2: The Pictures

As promised, here is a picture of how capitalist economies, like ours, work over a long period of time. “GDP” stands for Gross Domestic Product, which is the common way of measuring how much total wealth national economies like ours produces over the course of a year. All capitalist economies go through “cycles” of growth (“boom” economies) and decline (“recessions” or “slumps” or “busts”).

simple biz cycle

 If you are a few decades old, you’ve seen this happen more than once. For a few years, the economy grows, it’s easy to find a job, wages rise, and companies make good profits. When things are going well, we expect that to continue,and we take more chances on borrowing and spending, and sometimes we get in over our heads.

Then something happens. People and businesses realize they have to repay all the money they borrowed, and when they buy new items, they notice that prices have (usually) gone up as well during the “boom.” At some point, businesses and consumers (the “private sector”) start borrowing less and cut back their spending. As more and more spenders cut back, there is an economic effect like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill. Consumers buy less, so businesses lay off production workers, then those laid-off workers buy even less, so businesses invest less, and so on. Unemployment, low wages, low investment and low profits spread through the whole economy. Some businesses close, some laid-off workers can’t pay their mortgages, some face foreclosure, and so on. The economy is in recession.

Eventually, after a couple or a few hard years, most debts are paid down, bankruptcies are settled, people start to buy again, companies start hiring, and the “cycle” repeats.   This has been happening for the past two hundred years in all capitalist economies, so we may as well get used to it, and plan accordingly.

Most people and most businesses, of course, would prefer steady and predictable growth. This is where the national government can step in and make a difference. Smart governments (beginning with the Roosevelt Administration in the U.S.) have learned to spend less (or at least run smaller deficits) when private businesses and individuals are spending more – and then spend more (hiring workers directly, or paying higher unemployment benefits, and so on) when the private sector slows down.

bizCycle2Chart above shows how government spending (green line) SHOULD move in OPPOSITE direction from economic growth (black line).

 When the private economy is “booming,” government spending or deficits fall; and when the private sector is in recession, government spending partly makes up for that by spending MORE. Overall, economic production stays closer to the straight line in the center, with fewer and smaller ups and downs. In modern terms, government should STIMULATE the economy in hard times, and consider some AUSTERITY when the economy is growing fast and prices are rising.

This is called “counter-cyclical” government spending, because government spending goes in the opposite direction of the “private sector” – it counters that spending cycle.

A question many people ask is why is it that a national government can spend more when it is collecting less in taxes? This is the opposite of what most of us must do, and it seems contrary to “common sense”. But national governments are unique, all over the world, because they can actually create money and wealth, up to a point. That is one of their indispensable roles – printing money. They are NOT like individuals. “Common sense” comparisons of governments and individuals are just wrong, as history has proved over and over.

  Finally, here is a picture of what should result when government gets it right. While the economy still goes through up and down cycles, over the long run, the economy (the straight, dotted line) generally moves up.

                                        bizCycleGrowth

By smoothing out the boom-and-bust “cycle,” smart governments   make the economy more predictable, make advance planning more realistic, prevent a lot of dumb gambles and painful bankruptcies, and generally help the economy to grow more over a long period of time.

Most Presidents since World War II, including Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, and Democrats Kennedy and Johnson also did this. President Eisenhower, for example, started building the very expensive Interstate Highway System as a way of getting the economy out of recession in the 1950’s. Presidents Reagan, the first Bush and Clinton also generally understood the rules. One exception: President George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, when the economy was already growing fast – and then stimulated the economy still further by increasing spending to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (while also cutting taxes, another way of increasing private spending). This dangerous spending increase in an already hot economy encouraged the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector that resulted in the economic crash at the end of his term.

Another example of how these ideas really work? Just look at what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. The governments of the European Community did NOT follow the U.S. example of stimulating the economy (increasing spending) following the collapse of Wall Street banks around 2008. Instead, led by Germany, they cut spending during the recession. They prescribed austerity, instead of stimulus.

What was the result of these opposite policies in the U.S. and Europe? Europe is still struggling to recover from the recession, while the U.S. is well out of it, and into another period of growth. In effect, the world just tried a big experiment as to which government policy – stimulus or austerity – works best in a recession. And the U.S. was right.

Newspapers recently are reporting that Europe has recognized its mistake. The European central bank is starting do what the U.S. Federal Reserve did seven years ago. They have begun to encourage borrowing and spending more money (except for Greece, unfortunately) – and if what you have read here is right, Europe will now complete its economic recovery. In the next recession, let’s hope they get it right the first time.

MANAGING CAPITALISM

Capitalism Needs Government Management

Capitalist economies need strong central management.  A key management role: to modify the wild swings from “boom” to “bust” that inevitably result when many risk-taking competitors pursue their different economic interests.   Only national governments can manage national economies in a way that most competitors will accept as reasonably fair. And as corporations and the private economy grow larger, only a strong government, able to invest and spend enough on its own to make a difference in the overall economy, can do the job.

It took about one hundred fifty years for the first U.S. government, business and labor leaders to understand the need for central economic management, and still longer to learn how to do it right. For many years, for example,everyone believed the government could only print an amount of money equal to the gold bullion it held, at Fort Knox or elsewhere. One effect of tying the government’s hands in this way was that economic Panics and Depressions came and went, with the government doing little or nothing to make things better. Then during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, we learned a couple of new things, mostly by accident.

First, many of us learned that a national government can help get us out of a Depression by spending more than it has in bullion, and more than it collects in taxes. For the first three years of the Depression, Republican President Herbert Hoover did what the “experts” of his day thought he should do: he cut government spending sharply, because the government was collecting less in taxes. And things got worse and worse. One quarter of the former workforce was out of work. Many thousands hit the road as “tramps,” hitching free rides on freight trades, and sleeping in corn cribs. And many banks didn’t have enough money to pay all their debts.

When he ran against Hoover for President in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) promised more of the same cost-cutting as Hoover – but when he took office, he did something dramatic and different. He began by closing ALL the banks for a few days, and then allowing only the solvent banks to reopen. Now, people who had some money felt safe to put it in a bank again, where it could be loaned out to buy goods or grow businesses.   Then, the U.S. went off the “gold standard” altogether, with the government spending as much as was needed to address the nation’s problems, especially unemployment and farm bankruptcies.  And things got better!  It turned out that a dollar was still worth a dollar as long as retailers and bankers were willing to give you goods or interest for it. Trust was what mattered. Gold became just one more product on the market.

Even more importantly, FDR also did what he had done before on a small scale, as Governor of New York:  when he saw a lot of people out of work, he hired them to work for the government.  They cut trails through forests, built dams that produced electricity, built a lot of train stations and public buildings. This put money in their pockets.  Of course, the workers on those projects spent every penny they earned as fast as they could. That meant other Americans now found money in their pockets. Usually, they also spent it as fast as they could, and so on. In that way, over the course of a year, each new wage dollar added multiple dollars to the economy, which started to grow again.

The Roosevelt Administration, and the Congress, also started a number of new programs to put money in the pockets of ordinary people, including Social Security, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and a National Labor Relations Board. These programs, besides boosting the economy, addressed the radical inequality between huge corporations and individual workers, and between people of property who could live without work, and former wage workers who had no income in old age or unemployment. With all this new purchasing power in people’s pockets, the economy began to GROW again. The government had “primed the pump,” and the private economy began pumping again on its own. With all the new economic activity, tax collections also rose.

By 1937, people figured the Great Depression was history. All that spending by the government was no longer needed! So the Roosevelt government cut spending way back – and we went back into recession! It turned out we had cut government spending too soon and too far for an economy that was still in recovery. At this point — unfortunately for the world, but fortunately for the U.S. economy – Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo launched a war to take over the world. To build weapons and pay soldiers and sailors, the U.S. turned to really huge levels of deficit spending. The economy recovered for good this time, and grew quickly, year after year, long after the war was won. We were finally out of the Depression.   We began thirty years of huge growth (with occasional short recessions), which was widely shared with a new kind of people – the American Middle Class: blue collar and service workers with money in their pockets.

Before and after Roosevelt and the war, a British economist, John Maynard Keynes, had written books explaining how a government should manage the economy, and why. His new theory, “Keynesian economics,” called for deficit spending as a way to get out of recessions, just as the Roosevelt Administration had done for its own reasons. Keynes also said government deficits should be cut when the private sector was booming. Now, confirmed by Roosevelt’s actions, Keynes’ theory became the guide to government economic management from that point forward.

Many business people, and other conservatives, were offended by the idea that government could borrow and print the money it needed to pay its debts. They saw that competition from government “make-work” tended to increase the wages they had to pay to hire employees. They worried that government might have more power than they did. But as the new system prevented downturns from becoming Depressions, growth benefited business along with everyone else, so they grumbled all the way to the bank.

Since the 1930’s, the Federal Government spends more than it has (deficit spending) in hard times, and then cuts back spending once the private sector grows strongly again.  In the 1960’s, Republican President Nixon settled the issue for many people when he said, “we are all Keynesians now.”

In my next blog, we’ll look at some pictures of how this system works.

………………………….

…………………………

 

MANAGING CAPITALISM:  THE PICTURE

As promised, here is a picture of how capitalist economies, like ours, work over a long period of time. “GDP” stands for Gross Domestic Product, which is the common way of measuring how much total wealth national economies like ours produces over the course of a year. All capitalist economies go through “cycles” of growth (“boom” economies) and decline (“recessions” or “slumps” or “busts”).

simple biz cycle

 If you are a few decades old, you’ve seen this happen more than once. For a few years, the economy grows, it’s easy to find a job, wages rise, and companies make good profits. When things are going well, we expect that to continue,and we take more chances on borrowing and spending, and sometimes we get in over our heads.

Then something happens. People and businesses realize they have to repay all the money they borrowed, and when they buy new items, they notice that prices have (usually) gone up as well during the “boom.” At some point, businesses and consumers (the “private sector”) start borrowing less and cut back their spending. As more and more spenders cut back, there is an economic effect like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill. Consumers buy less, so businesses lay off production workers, then those laid-off workers buy even less, so businesses invest less, and so on. Unemployment, low wages, low investment and low profits spread through the whole economy. Some businesses close, some laid-off workers can’t pay their mortgages, some face foreclosure, and so on. The economy is in recession.

Eventually, after a couple or a few hard years, most debts are paid down, bankruptcies are settled, people start to buy again, companies start hiring, and the “cycle” repeats.   This has been happening for the past two hundred years in all capitalist economies, so we may as well get used to it, and plan accordingly.

Most people and most businesses, of course, would prefer steady and predictable growth. This is where the national government can step in and make a difference. Smart governments (beginning with the Roosevelt Administration in the U.S.) have learned to spend less (or at least run smaller deficits) when private businesses and individuals are spending more – and then spend more (hiring workers directly, or paying higher unemployment benefits, and so on) when the private sector slows down.

bizCycle2Chart above shows how government spending (green line) SHOULD move in OPPOSITE direction from economic growth (black line).

 When the private economy is “booming,” government spending or deficits fall; and when the private sector is in recession, government spending partly makes up for that by spending MORE. Overall, economic production stays closer to the straight line in the center, with fewer and smaller ups and downs. In modern terms, government should STIMULATE the economy in hard times, and consider some AUSTERITY when the economy is growing fast and prices are rising.

This is called “counter-cyclical” government spending, because government spending goes in the opposite direction of the “private sector” – it counters that spending cycle.

A question many people ask is why is it that a national government can spend more when it is collecting less in taxes? This is the opposite of what most of us must do, and it seems contrary to “common sense”. But national governments are unique, all over the world, because they can actually create money and wealth, up to a point. That is one of their indispensable roles – printing money. They are NOT like individuals. “Common sense” comparisons of governments and individuals are just wrong, as history has proved over and over.

  Finally, here is a picture of what should result when government gets it right. While the economy still goes through up and down cycles, over the long run, the economy (the straight, dotted line) generally moves up.

                                        bizCycleGrowth

By smoothing out the boom-and-bust “cycle,” smart governments   make the economy more predictable, make advance planning more realistic, prevent a lot of dumb gambles and painful bankruptcies, and generally help the economy to grow more over a long period of time.

Most Presidents since World War II, including Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, and Democrats Kennedy and Johnson also did this. President Eisenhower, for example, started building the very expensive Interstate Highway System as a way of getting the economy out of recession in the 1950’s. Presidents Reagan, the first Bush and Clinton also generally understood the rules. One exception: President George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, when the economy was already growing fast – and then stimulated the economy still further by increasing spending to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (while also cutting taxes, another way of increasing private spending). This dangerous spending increase in an already hot economy encouraged the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector that resulted in the economic crash at the end of his term.

Another example of how these ideas really work? Just look at what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. The governments of the European Community did NOT follow the U.S. example of stimulating the economy (increasing spending) following the collapse of Wall Street banks around 2008. Instead, led by Germany, they cut spending during the recession. They prescribed austerity, instead of stimulus.

What was the result of these opposite policies in the U.S. and Europe? Europe is still struggling to recover from the recession, while the U.S. is well out of it, and into another period of growth. In effect, the world just tried a big experiment as to which government policy – stimulus or austerity – works best in a recession. And the U.S. was right.

Newspapers recently are reporting that Europe has recognized its mistake. The European central bank is starting do what the U.S. Federal Reserve did seven years ago. They have begun to encourage borrowing and spending more money (except for Greece, unfortunately) – and if what you have read here is right, Europe will now complete its economic recovery. In the next recession, let’s hope they get it right the first time.

Albert Einstein: A Mystery Behind the Machine?

“I believe in Spinoza’s God,” physicist Albert Einstein famously stated, but “not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Einstein Einstein, in fact, shared philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s view of a    hard-wired universe, where every event follows inevitably from what comes before, with no room for divine or other intervention. In the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star.” “Everything is determined,” Einstein insisted, “the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

As a scientist, committed to explaining in exact and predictable detail how the physical universe is ordered, Einstein was no doubt reassured by the apparent complete predictability of events – at least in principle. But his convictions about the orderliness of the universe implied constraints with which we are not satisfied in the modern world. His assertion, in particular, that nothing could move faster than the speed of light was persistently set aside by generations of science fiction writers and buffs. They refused to accept that, as we look out our telescopic windows at stars or potentially life-bearing planets zillions of “light years” away, we will never travel there – or even communicate with living beings that may exist elsewhere in anything approximating “real time.”

But, while rejecting a “personal” God, Einstein appears to have imagined a different kind of God — distinct from our physical universe, mysterious and not ultimately knowable by mortal men. “The most beautiful emotion we can experience,” he said, “is the mysterious…. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

In effect, like a later scientist –Steven Jay Gould — and unlike Baruch Spinoza, Einstein saw science and the divine as “separate magisteria.” His universe may have had a Creator, but one who did not intervene in our daily affairs.

Both Einstein and Spinoza were generally humane and modest in their personal lives, and generously radical in their political views – Spinoza as a democrat ahead of his time, and Einstein as a socialist. “From the standpoint of daily life,” Einstein put it, “there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”

Einstein’s commitment to determinism, however, and even his revelation of Relativity, may have contained unsupportable constraints on the free development of life, and science. His refusal to accept the evidence of quantum science, with its suggestions of uncertainty, and its modifications to perfect “billiard ball” causation, Einstein came to appear unreasonably stubborn to some. “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

Since Einstein’s death, his still unsurpassed graphic vision of Time as a fourth dimension has opened possibilities for exploring the vast universe; while the speed-of-light “speed limit” in relativity theory has been gratifyingly challenged as “entangled” particles are observed to communicate at speeds far greater than the speed of light.[i]

Whether our lives are ultimately predetermined or open to many possibilities, humanity’s liberation from our origins on this blue-green planet, and a path toward understanding the deep mysteries and responsibilities of existence remain open before us.

 

[i] See, for example, “Loophole in Spooky Quantum Entanglement Theory Closed, by Tia Ghose, LiveScience staff writer, livescience.com — April 17, 2013; and various articles in Science magazine.

WHAT IS POWER?

In a 1981 article on bargaining, authors Samuel Bachrach and Edward Lawler[i] defined power in a way that is useful for understanding either economic or personal relationships:

Power in ongoing relationships, the writers say, depends on need. Each person (or organization)’s power depends entirely on the need the other person or organization has for them, or for something they control. If Mary, for example, needs nothing from Bob, Bob has no power over Mary, regardless of how “powerful” Bob may think he is. But if Mary needs Bob – or something Bob controls — more than Bob needs Mary, Bob dominates. In general, the side that needs the other side less in a relationship has more power (whether for good or ill).

And please remember, we are only speaking here of power in a relationship, often with some degree of mutual need. This is not about the simple power to destroy.

Now, here’s an example of how this plays out in the workaday world.

In the words of an old labor song: “What strength on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? But the union makes us strong.”

The labor movement in the USA was built on this idea. One hundred years ago, in a factory employing a thousand workers, a supervisor might be able to bully or dominate any single employee, because the employee NEEDED the job, and it was usually easier for the boss to hire another person to than for the worker to find another job.  The boss, in fact, did not need almost any particular worker, while each worker needed the job the boss controlled. That was the employer’s power.

But… as workers learned over time, when ALL the workers in one factory stopped working (a strike), and fought to keep other would-be workers from coming in to take their jobs, the workers could win. The boss didn’t need Joe or Nancy or Steve – but he DID need a consistent GROUP of workers. By holding workers together, their union made them strong. That is how unions were built, and how the American middle class was created.

Then, beginning in the 1970’s, employers in some U.S. industries — the garment industry, for example — found they could move ALL of the work from their U.S. factory to the Dominican Republic, or Mexico, lay off ALL of the U.S. workers, and hire all-new non-American employees, who often earned only a few pennies per hour. “Our” government did nothing to stop this; in fact, beginning with President Reagan and the first President Bush, and continuing under President Clinton, American Presidents actively encouraged “U.S.” companies to send their work anywhere in the world they wanted, with no concern for the U.S. workers who would lose those jobs. So, the boss no longer NEEDED any or ALL of the workers in the old U.S. plant. The American labor union no longer made the workers strong enough.

And, since there were billions of impoverished workers around the world who could make clothes — and, eventually, make computers, cars or any other product — millions of U.S. workers were no longer needed as much as they had been, and workers lost power. Workers overseas didn’t gain much power in this arrangement, either, because they knew the company that employed them was free to go elsewhere, with no resistance from their government, or ours. There were still billions of hungry people out there who wanted their jobs. So they had to work for so little they could not afford to buy most of what they made.

Unfortunately, U.S. workers and our unions were mostly unable, or unwilling, to follow the work to the country where it was moved.  The language, laws and culture of other countries were different, and the local government often cooperated with the U.S. companies against their own workers, even to the extent of allowing union organizers to be killed – because that country needed the work, and would do whatever the employer wanted. This still happens today in some countries where U.S. corporations do business.

So, we live in a different world today, because there are many more potential workers in the world than employers need, and employers often don’t need ANY of the workers in one factory or even in one country. So far, though millions of workers now move from their own country to another to find work, most Americans won’t do that, and workers around the globe have not united on a large enough scale, across borders, so that employers need to negotiate with them.

However, some unions are learning to cooperate better than others. For example, German union members at Deutsche Telekomm, a German phone company, are now helping U.S. employees of phone company T-Mobile — which is mostly owned by Deutsche Telekomm — to organize and improve working conditions here. And another German company, Volkswagen, is encouraging U.S. workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant to organize and discuss terms of employment with management. This is not too surprising, because the German economy is built on labor-management cooperation, and works very well. The German system will not usually allow employers to ignore their workers’ concerns to the extent American employers are “free” to do. In that environment, VW workers have some power, and can make reasonable demands on management in return for their labor. Sometimes, they can even demand fair treatment for workers in the U.S.A.. And when U.S. and German workers cooperate, they are all stronger.

Could this change? Of course. Germany, and some other countries, show the way. Most global corporations still need to do business in the world’s richest country, the USA. If American voters demanded that companies selling here negotiate with their workers, those companies would need us, and need to do it.

But first, U.S. workers must realize they are alone by choice. To win, they need each other, and not just those who happen to be in the same workplace or union. They need to unite with each other, with community groups, and with workers in other countries. Only globally organized workers can match or defeat global corporations.

[i] Samuel B. Bacharach and Edward J. Lawler, in “Bargaining: Power, Tactics and Outcomes,” printed in “Bargaining,” Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1981. My summary is a simplification of their theory.

Spinoza: Natural Law is God’s Law

Baruch Spinspinozaoza was born in liberal Amsterdam in 1632, ten years before the birth of Isaac Newton in England, near the dawn of modern scientific culture. He was descended from grandparents who had emigrated from Portugal to escape the Catholic Church-led Inquisition.   At the age of twenty-four, he was placed on religious trial himself, and expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for what the leadership deemed flagrant atheism. He flatly rejected the charges, insisting that he saw God in everything.

Utterly confident and uncompromising in his philosophical views, Spinoza was kind and humble in interpersonal relationships, earning a modest living at work in his small apartment, grinding glass for microscopes and telescopes. He also made little money from his philosophical work – most of it banned from public sale, but widely distributed hand-to-hand. His ideas attracted the attention of European intellectuals like Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus (and hypocritical butt of Voltaire’s Candide). He died at the age of forty-five, probably from respiratory infirmities stemming from his profession.

When asked if he believed in God, Albert Einstein famously answered, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” Einstein explained his admiration for Spinoza by crediting him as “the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things (and) the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action.”

Spinoza, in fact, defined God and Nature (the entire physical and conscious world) as one and the same: God WAS Nature, and Nature was God.   Since, logically, God could ONLY act perfectly, neither God, nor we humans were ultimately free. Like all physical events, every human thought and every action, Spinoza argued, is predetermined, but seems to us an act of choice, due to our incomplete understanding. “Man considers himself free,” he writes, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”[i]

The work of science, Spinoza believed, was to discover and explain God’s law. But Spinoza’s God, after giving rise to perfect, natural laws, had no reason – or ability – to intervene in the course of Earthly events following that law. For Spinoza, attributing events on Earth to divine intervention, rather than seeking a rational (evidence-based, scientific) explanation, was “the last refuge of ignorance.”

It is easy to see why religious leaders of his day were outraged. They believed that God ruled the world like one of the arbitrary monarchs of their day – deciding each morning who would live, and who would die, who would prosper and who would starve, and so on. But for Spinoza – and for scientists in our day – everything that happens in our universe is presumed to be pre-ordained and inevitable, following the unchanging (once fully understood) laws of Nature.

Remarkably, and in no less defiance of the political norms of his day than his religious views, Spinoza advocated complete free thought, political freedom, and democracy with the same vigor as he denied the ultimate existence of free will in a deterministic universe.

Speaking with a passion fed by his personal persecution, he insisted that “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts… “[T]he more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted… [T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled… In fact, the true aim of government is liberty”

In politics as in science and religion, he blazed the liberal path that many scientists follow to this day.

From my point of view, however, while Spinoza both defined the deterministic path that naturvendoral science follows, he also articulated its central contradiction: if free choice is ultimately an illusion, what can words like “truth” and “freedom” mean? If there is not real choice somewhere, are we not just wind-up “puppets,” as in the Woodman (New Yorker) cartoon on this page?

But that is a contradiction we all live with today.

Spinoza’s re-unification of body and spirit may prove his most lasting contribution. He helped move Western thought away from the Christian (Platonist) view of his day, which held that the ideal and unseen universe of Heaven was vastly more important than anything “down here” in our world of dirt and sin.

[i] Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1