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Issue No. 26 (July / August 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Robert Fogel is no maverick. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago and a renowned “econometric” historian (uses numbers and equations to make his points).
So his recent book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (U. of Chicago Press, $25, 383 pp., 2000) -- so visionary that he confines all equations to the Appendices -- will raise some eyebrows.
Maldistribution of "spiritual" assets
He argues that there’ve been four religiously-inspired Great Awakenings in U.S. history. The first three introduced crucial political and material reforms (revolution against Britain, abolition of slavery, beginnings of the welfare state).
The fourth -- launched around 1960 but more visible today -- supports what he calls “spiritual” or “immaterial” reforms. And for that, he couldn’t be happier.
“Although there are still glaring inadequacies in the distribution of material commodities that must be addressed,” he says, “the most intractable maldistributions in rich countries such as the U.S. are in the realm of spiritual or immaterial assets.”
What are “spiritual” assets, exactly? Over the course of the book, Fogel names at least 17, but these appear to him to be the most important:
-- a sense of purpose;
-- a work ethic, including a “sense of discipline” and a “capacity to resist the lure of hedonism”;
-- a “sense of the mainstream of work and life, a sense of where opportunities are and how to pursue them”;
-- a “strong family ethic,” including a “palpable commitment . . . to love [one’s] children unequivocally”;
-- a “capacity for self-education” coupled with a “thirst for knowledge”; and,
-- last but not least, “self-esteem,” defined as a “belief in one’s capacity to succeed in an undertaking.”
To equalize such “spiritual” assets among the American people, Fogel advocates what is -- in effect -- a version of the Children’s Defense Fund’s nascent agenda (see cover story above). For example:
-- Counseling for expectant teenage mothers;
-- Mentoring programs for parents who are “too deprived, or too young, to call on their own life experiences to transmit a sense of discipline and of opportunity”;
-- Expansion and “spiritual enrichment” of nursery and day-care programs;
-- Reconsideration of the “potential role of parochial schools [at] the primary and secondary levels.”
Beyond spiritual estrangement
Many advocates of “spiritual” as distinct from material improvement tend to come across as defensive. Not Fogel, who’s written well-known books on the economic and psychological costs of slavery.
“In rich nations,” he writes, “the principal characteristic of those afflicted by chronic poverty is their spiritual estrangement from mainstream society.
“Although material assistance is an important element in the struggle to overcome spiritual estrangement, such assistance will not be properly targeted if one assumes that improvement in material conditions naturally leads to spiritual improvement.”
If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s that it’s often needlessly abstruse or abstract. You wonder if Fogel even cares that many people are already doing politics from his perspective. But I suppose many Nobel Prize-winning economists are like that.
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