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This essay is about responsibility.  As background I will provide a brief summary of the conclusions of the first essay in this “Invisible Hand” series which examined the physical object nature of our money and some of the unfortunate consequences of that nature.  I will be concise so if you have already read one or more of the earlier essays don’t worry, this review won’t take long.

All money in history (and pre-history) has been considered to be or to represent physical objects such as a basket of grain, a cow, a coin, or a paper bill.  Today most money is in computer accounts and although it zips around the world from account to account at almost the speed of light, it’s still treated as if it were a physical object of some sort.  Because we treat money as if it were a physical object, anything which is true of physical objects in general will also be true of money.  This obvious point is ignored by economists and others who talk and write about money even though it is the most important truth about money.  The importance of the physical object nature of money cannot be overstated.  What follows are some of the consequences of that physical object nature.

First, money is like other physical objects in that it can be taken from its owner against the owner’s will by force, fraud, or stealth; and it can be lost or destroyed.  This means that you need to suspect almost everyone of trying to get your money by fair means or foul.

Second, money must be amoral because all inanimate physical objects are amoral.  Even animals are amoral in that they have neither an ethical sense nor morality, especially when they are used as commodity money.  You can use your physical object money for anything, good or bad.

Third, the money supply is independent of the supply of goods and services for sale because the supply of one physical object is independent of the supply of other objects.

Fourth, money falsely simulates a zero-sum game in monetary transactions because the money gained by one party must be lost by some other party or parties.  Money makes us think that other people can gain money at our expense and that we can only gain money at their expense.  It makes us treat others as if they were competitors, rivals, opponents, or even enemies.

Fifth, money is almost impossible for a society or nation to control.  In every nation that attempts to limit, regulate, or tax trade a black market comes into being.  Organized crime flourishes in all nations.

Sixth, money transactions are two-party interactions.  Two-party interaction is inherently unstable because if one party gets an advantage in power such as having more money, the stronger party can use that power to gain still more advantages.  This is particularly true of money interactions.  The old saying “them as has, gets” is true.  Possession of money does make getting more money quite a lot easier.  Naturally, the weaker party in such two-party interaction will eventually want to end the interaction.  Thus the relationship is unstable.

Keeping that review in mind, let’s consider responsibility.

Using Wikipedia as a source we find several kinds of responsibility, including the following, in alphabetical order:

Collective responsibility

Corporate social responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility

Diminished responsibility

Legal responsibility

And social responsibility

Wikipedia also indicates there are similar concepts under accountability, blame, and moral hazard.

From the collective responsibility topic, QUOTE: ”individuals are responsible for other people’s actions by tolerating, ignoring, or harboring them, without actively collaborating in these actions.” UNQUOTE  That’s strong stuff.  According to this definition; just tolerating, ignoring, or harboring those guilty of evil is being irresponsible.  Are you willing to accept that?  Would you want to live in a society which took that seriously?

Next, corporate social responsibility refers to a hypothetical moral code to be followed by corporations as a part of their business model.  The only problem is that it is self-regulation.  We all know how much good that has done so far in history.

Then there’s diffusion of responsibility, which is a socio-psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present.  In other words, if you see that something needs to be done and other people are present (physically or psychologically) then you are less likely to take action about the situation:  You figure that someone else will take care of it.  This also applies to hierarchical organizations when subordinates just follow orders or do what their supervisors tell them to do.

Another reduction in responsibility is diminished responsibility which is a legal concept that someone should not be held fully criminally liable due to impaired mental function.

Legal responsibility, on the other hand, is duties imposed by law to care for or provide for others; parents being legally responsible for their children, for example.  It can also refer to being the cause of some event, as in being liable for some harm perhaps.  This appears to be a milder and more legalistic aspect of the collective responsibility concept we noted earlier.

Finally, we arrive at social responsibility; which is an ethical theory that persons and organizations have an obligation to act to benefit society at large.  This theory is closely related to corporate social responsibility.

You can see that it’s a pretty worthless idea as it stands in today’s world, or yesterday’s world for that matter.  It seems that there is almost no human, personal responsibility for anything except in a few legal instances.  And we know how rarely ordinary behavior is taken to court.  Failure to live up to one’s responsibilities is almost never prosecuted under the law.

We hear things like “take responsibility for yourself.”  Or perhaps the reverse, “He’s irresponsible.”  But how clear and definite has any society ever been about responsibility?  We can blame the captain of a ship for anything that goes wrong on that ship, in that he has near absolute authority when at sea; but how does that work out?  It seems that the captain can get away with almost anything, and is only really sanctioned if the ship sinks and the owners are rich and powerful.  Sure it can hurt the career of a career navy man to lose his ship, but it’s a mere slap on the wrist in comparison with the damage to others when the captain messes up badly.  In the military, when I was being trained for the army back in the early 1960s, I was informed that an officer is responsible for everything those under him did or failed to do.  But I never see that applied in the military to high-ranking officers.

The heads of the huge financial institutions that brought the world our latest financial disaster in 2007-8 by various frauds perpetrated upon the investing public seem to have gotten rich in the process…  No responsibility at all for their crimes.  Even the companies have paid minor fines given their wealth.  So at the top, if you’re rich and powerful, there’s no real sanction that’s more than embarrassment – unless you have angered other rich and powerful people.

Let’s step down somewhat in the social class structure to people with somewhat less power.  Let’s look at middle management.  Have you ever had a supervisor that was a total screw-up?   Most employees have gone through that a few times.  In your experience, was that manager ever given a hard time for being incompetent?  Did their pay suffer?  Did they lose authority?  Well, sometimes they do suffer in some way for being a putz, but usually nothing much happens… and they continue on their way making messes for others to try to clean up.  (See the Dilbert cartoons for some idea of what happens in the corporate world.)  And when corporations do vile things, the people who actually ordered that behavior seem to have no responsibility for the terrible consequences.  I think we are all familiar with the idea of externalizing costs.  When a business does something which will cost lots of money but the business doesn’t pay, the public pays in money, suffering, and death.  Those costs are externalized by the business.  It saves the business money but does quite a bit of harm.  My favorite example of this is the tobacco companies which kill over 400,000 people a year in the U.S. with their products.  Yes, almost half a million people die needlessly each year due to using tobacco products and that’s just in the U.S.  There are millions more around the world.  Those deaths are lingering with lots of expensive medical treatment used to try to save them.  Do the tobacco companies have to pay any of those costs?  No, and neither do their executives go to prison for killing all those people with conscious premeditation, forethought and planning.   Tobacco companies do advertise to try and get people to use those deadly products.

So in the business world, and in the middle classes generally, there is little to no responsibility.

Further down the power and authority ladder we come to the poor and the powerless.  Who’s responsible for poverty?  Can we meaningfully blame anyone for that?  Well, yes – we can blame the poor for being poor.  We can say it’s their own fault, that they did it to themselves; all they had to do is get good jobs like everybody else.  The buck stops at the bottom.  Blame flows downhill in a torrent.  Those children are not getting enough to eat?  Blame their mothers for not earning more money.  Those houses look shabby, filthy, and unkempt?  The people living in them should be ashamed.  That man is all dirty?  Why doesn’t he take a bath?  Those children have not learned to read:  let’s blame the teachers.

There’s nothing we can do to punish the powerful.  They can and do take care of themselves, even when we want to punish them.  When it comes to the folks in the middle, there’s nothing we want to do because that’s us.  That would expose us to sanctions for failing to be responsible.  We would much rather shirk responsibility than to be held responsible.  But the poor… ah, there’s a good target.   We can vent our indignation on them:  that way we won’t have to provide them any assistance.  Let them suffer, for they brought it on themselves.

I find this whole responsibility situation disgusting.  It makes me sick to my stomach.  It isn’t just the hypocrisy of the matter, though goodness knows that’s sickening enough to listen to, especially in church.  It’s the incredible, needless suffering that happens daily.  One would think that human beings were largely despicable given the way we act.  But then, as is the common theme in this series of presentations, the nature of our money has a lot to do with responsibility in this cold, cruel world of ours.

Remember those consequences of the physical object nature of money?  Let’s see how they relate to responsibility.

The first consequence, that your money can be taken from you against your will, makes you suspicious of the motives of other people.  Those people will try to make you feel responsible for their plight, to get your money.  Remember those bums begging on the street?  Remember the guys who would run out when you stopped at a red light, and quickly wash your windshield… hoping that you would give them a tip?  Very annoying, isn’t it?  But it also means that one of the ways the state can punish you is to take your money from you in the form of a fine.

The second consequence, that money is amoral and can be used for any purpose whether good or evil; it tempts you to externalize those costs, doesn’t it?  Money doesn’t prevent your using it for evil ends, so those irresponsible actions that harm others and gains money for you – or prevents your losing money – they are available to you when you use money.

The fourth consequence (we are skipping the money supply one) that fourth consequence is the biggie though.  That’s the false simulation of a zero-sum game relationship in money transactions.  This is the one that makes you feel like everyone else is your enemy, rival, or competitor.  It makes you feel as if you were independent, when in reality we are all mutually interdependent.  This one tells you, falsely, that if someone else suffers it’s no skin off your nose.  This consequence lets us off the hook:  we don’t need to do anything about other people’s problems, because they are our rivals.  Besides, what’s in it for me if I help you?  How do I benefit if I pull your car out of the ditch?  Where’s my compensation for assuming responsibility?  Why should I bother to prevent problems for you?

But there’s another side to this as well.  The state attempts to control your behavior and assign responsibilities to you under the threat of punishment; because you are the opponent, the rival, the enemy.  It’s quite alright to coerce someone using force if that someone is not on your side, if that someone is an opponent.  In fact, how else would one get the opposition to do what one wants, other than to threaten them?  And the taxpayers are certainly trying to remit as little as possible.

When we think of responsibilities in the market place, therefore, we think of the state punishing us.  We fear, and rightly so, what the state will do to us.  We don’t want to be held to be responsible for what people do with our products because that would make us vulnerable to being fined or jailed.  Physical object money makes the state both able and eager to punish if we fail to be responsible:   I am sure you have heard of speed traps.

As a result, responsibility is something we flee…  It’s something to be avoided.  We don’t want to get involved.  We don’t want to be held to be responsible.

I look upon things differently than that.  You see, I have always been the odd one out, the strange kid, the new kid on the block (we moved a lot), the kid with the strange attitude, the kid who looked at things differently.  I was the one who viewed people as almost a separate species that I was studying like ants in a jar.  When I saw people hurting each other for no reason that I could see, I thought it was crazy.  As a child, I couldn’t understand why there was a separate school for the black kids.  The way I saw it, they were just kids like my friends and me.  I couldn’t understand why women were considered to be inferior.  My mother certainly didn’t seem inferior to me.  She was about the smartest and nicest person I knew.  She was also tough and hard working.  Why were her wages so much less than what her male boss was paid, when she did all the hard work… and made sure things got done right and on time?  Why were the Japanese Americans put into concentration camps during World War II, when the German Americans and Italian Americans were not?  Why did the Egyptians pile up those huge stones to make the pyramids when those rock piles did nothing for them?  Why were some people poor and others rich, when there was plenty of stuff for everyone to have enough?  Why did people go into the woods and kill the animals when they did not need them for food or clothing?  I went to church and heard all that talk about what people were supposed to do, then left church and saw that they weren’t doing those things.  It seemed to me as if people were insane, even the “sane” ones.

To me, responsibility is a really big thing.  It’s not something that should just get lip service.  I’m tired of people talking one way and acting another.  I take responsibility for making it easier and safer for other people to drive.  I help trucks pass me on the interstate by getting out of their lanes.  I flick my lights to indicate that the trailer is now past the front of my car and he can pull into my lane if he needs to.  I get off the road to answer my cell phone:  It saves the number of the last caller, so I can do that.  When I find trash in the street near my home I pick it up and take it home for disposal.  I move branches out of the street when they block part or all of a lane.  I call 911 to report downed power lines and dead deer carcasses in the street.  I think it’s my responsibility to do those things.  I think it’s up to me to take action, if my action can prevent problems for other people.  I think it’s my obligation to avoid doing things that make life hard for others.

And that’s not all.  I actually seek out responsibility.  I volunteer to coach youth league sports.  I enjoy having people depend upon me to take good care of their children, both physically and psychologically.  I like being trusted to show up on time and prepared.  I like for people to feel confident that if they are late in picking up their kids from the game or a practice, I’ll be there with their child for as long as it takes.  I make it a point to have extra equipment, in case a player forgets or cannot afford to provide their own.  It seems to me that everyone should feel and act the same way.

I volunteer to be a poll watcher during elections to help ensure that the election is as fair as we can make it.  I help people register to vote.

But I am no paragon of virtue.  I suffer the same inadequacies as other people.  I am lazy.   I don’t do all I could for others.  I find excuses for myself to take the easy way out.  I do feel guilty when I fail to do what I should, but that doesn’t make me a better person.  Taking action can make me a better person.  But even when I do take action, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason I do so is in order to feel superior to others.  But I don’t feel guilty about that.  At least I did something which improved the situation.  If I get some internal reward for doing good things, that’s better than not doing the good things.  I really don’t care how selfish I am internally, in my mind, so long as I do unselfish things.  I feel that way about you, too:  I am not God.  I can’t see the innermost recesses of your soul.  I don’t know what motivates your good actions, I can never know that.  But I can feel really good that you do good things, whatever your motive.

If you take responsibility because you get money for it, that’s fine.  If the pilot of the airplane in which I am riding is taking responsibility for doing a good job of keeping his passengers safe and getting us to our destination on time, then I am perfectly happy with his motivation being greed for the money he’s paid for taking that responsibility.  Sometimes that’s how our physical object money works.  It is amoral so it can be used to motivate good behavior, too.  The problem is that physical object money, more often than not, motivates irresponsible behavior.  Let’s say you are at your son’s little league baseball game.  He’s at bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth inning, with one run down and two outs.  He has a full count, and there’s a really weak hitter coming up next.  The pitch is about four inches outside so your son does not swing.  The umpire calls the pitch a strike.  Your son is out.  The game is over.  His team loses.  Now why would the umpire do that?  The umpire is paid by the game, not by the hour.  The sooner the game is over the sooner he can stop working.  If he widens the strike zone the game is over sooner.  Once again, physical object money is rewarding irresponsible behavior.  The money is not being paid as a reward for behavior benefiting others.  In the umpire’s case, it is being paid for his making the calls during the ball game.  He doesn’t have to be right.  He can use bad judgment.  The other adults are mostly relieved that the game is over so they can go home.  It’s only the kids and parents of the losing team that are upset and only some of the parents.  After all, from the side you can’t really see if that pitch was outside or not.  Only a few of the spectators were placed such that they could see the pitch was a ball.  Being a normal human being the umpire is lazy (as am I) so he’s tempted.  He yielded to the temptation this time.  If he were being paid for benefiting other people, his motivation would have been to teach the batter the strike zone – and to swing only at strikes.  He would have been teaching the pitcher and catcher that they have to actually throw the ball in the strike zone to get the out.  He would have showed them that adults will be fair and honest and that the game can be really fun.  These benefits would have been the basis for his monetary reward.  That would have been a focus of his attention.  Of course, he might have called the pitch a strike anyway for other selfish reasons.  Perhaps his feet were sore, there was a TV show he wanted to see, or he wanted a beer in the worst way.  But the money motive would have at least encouraged responsible behavior.

Granted, the case I just cited is a mild and minor case indeed.  But physical object money provides very strong motivations to be irresponsible.  One can be fired for being a whistle-blower.  One can be replaced as head of a big bank for not taking huge risks with the depositors’ money.  This kind of thing is really blatant.  Everyone is outraged at cases like this when they hit the headlines.  We can feel morally superior to those greedy corporation executives who punish the whistle-blower or run the economy off the rails.

Now let’s bring the case closer to home.  Let’s make ourselves uncomfortable.  Let’s give you a reason to be upset with what I have to tell you.  Why just shoot at the easy and safe targets?

When you sell someone else a product, whether it’s goods or services, you no longer take responsibility for what they do with that product after the sale.  I’ll use a stark example.  You sell a gun and ammunition to some stranger.  That stranger passes all the legally required tests and exits your store.  He goes to the nearest elementary school and starts shooting children.  Do you have any responsibility for those needless deaths?  Were you irresponsible in selling him the gun?  You have a perfect legal defense in that you obeyed the law in every particular.  If the D.A. tried to bring you to court on a charge of accessory before the fact, the grand jury of your peers would throw the case out.

Another example:  You are the sales clerk in the local ABC store.  A stranger comes in the store and buys a bottle of liquor.  You check her ID and she’s of legal age.   She leaves the store, drinks the liquor, and drives her car into a school bus killing several children.  Do you have any responsibility for those needless deaths?  Once again, you will not be prosecuted by the criminal justice system.  You obeyed the law in every particular.  She was sober when you sold her the bottle.  How could you know that she would get drunk and kill?

You can easily see the pattern here.  Accepting money for a product eliminates responsibility.  I sold that item, so I can no longer be held responsible for it… because it’s not my property any more.  Notice that had you given the item to the person as a gift, there would have been a greater feeling of responsibility.  After all, in selling those products you were just doing your job.  But why does just doing your job eliminate any of your responsibility?   Why does money absolve us of any responsibility for the consequences of our actions?

Perhaps I don’t understand why the seller is no longer responsible because I am the outsider, the alien from Mars, the strange kid.  Perhaps I don’t understand because I only see the consequences and don’t see the money changing hands.  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.  I would be outraged seeing a clerk sell cigarettes to a child.  I am outraged when I see clerks selling soda to children.  I get upset seeing parents giving their children sweets.  But my wife does tell me that I’m too sensitive.  Perhaps I shouldn’t care, since some corporation is making a profit on those sales.  Perhaps it’s all right because that clerk is being paid to be irresponsible.  Perhaps it’s okay because anything that people do that’s legal is morally right.  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

And I really don’t care how you feel about these things.  What I care about is whether you will do anything about it.  What I care about is doing something about the physical object money which is causing so much needless harm to everyone.  Yes, even you are being harmed by that money.  But you don’t see any way out of this mess.  You are already thinking of reasons why you should keep right on doing what you have always done.  You have already rejected my position on these issues.  However you justify yourself, remember that this suffering is real and it is happening right now. Realize that you are justifying the continuation of suffering for the indefinite future.  You’re saying to yourself that it’s all right that people suffer like this because… well, I don’t have to tell you what you’re thinking, now do I?  You have already filled in the blank.   Perhaps you justified it because if we change, things would actually be worse than what we have now.  Perhaps you justified doing nothing by attributing some bad characteristic to me with an appropriately disparaging label.  Perhaps you fear that I’m after your money.  Perhaps you fear that I want the government to persecute you.  If you do propose to get people to be responsible in some way, I don’t know how you think we can make people responsible without changing the nature of our money.  But I do suggest that no matter what you choose to do, the nature of physical object money will defeat you as it has defeated every attempt in the past.  Even Jesus told us all to be responsible.  Matthew 25:40-45 The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.  Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’  They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?  He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Now that is as powerful a statement of obligation to be responsible as I can imagine.  That is in the holy book of the world’s most powerful religious group.  Jesus is even considered to be a prophet by Islam.  Yet in the two thousand plus years since Jesus spoke those words, there has been no increase in responsibility.   If anything, responsibility has declined – and is still declining.

Therefore I say unto you, unless you help to change the nature of the money we use, the suffering will continue.  Are you responsible enough to read a book which holds out the promise of ending that suffering?  NOPOMSTUFF.INFO awaits you.

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