I write a lot on this blog about theory. A lot of time I try to see the beautiful and the human behind all the things that cause misery in the world. Today I want to write about something different. Today I want to put it out for those who will read that there is something deeply wrong with the world we live in. I feel it every day. Some days it’s not as strong as others, but it’s always there, this insuppressible, visceral sense of wrongness in the world, and I’m afraid it will never end.
Many people, many organizations, would have you believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Technology is a constant improvement on our lives, making possible the impossible every single day. Labor laws and civil rights constantly push forward the boundary of protectionism guaranteeing we are not taken advantage of by our employers, bringing us happier, healthier more satisfying work lives. Finally, persistent economic growth has brought unprecedented wealth to even the poorest in our society, making us richer today than the historic kings of France. On a deep and personal level I know this to be a falsehood.
Did you know that once upon a time people did not work? Once, long ago, people rose with the sun and ate the grasses and roots in the ground, or the fruit off of trees so close they wouldn’t even have to leave sight of their family to gather them. In this world now galaxies away, people loved without boundary because they didn’t understand the concept of ownership — there were so many people to love, so much food to eat, so much land to explore that to say “this is mine” would have been as silly a concept as trying to claim particular molecules of water in a common swimming pool.
When I was in high school I attended a summer camp by the Institute for Humane Studies. It was a free camp where we played leadership games and studied basic concepts of economics. It was at this camp that I first met the First Fundamental Welfare Theorem of Economics, more commonly known as the Invisible Hand of the Market. When humans came together, some with needs and some with surplus, without any form of coordination beyond the ability to agree on prices, they would coordinate their wants and their surpluses so efficiently as to improve the circumstances of all. It was like magic. A Christian at the time, I believed in the fundamental evil of man, so to see that uncoordinated and unfettered selfishness could lead to the betterment of all was proof to me that a loving god must have written the laws. It was then that I decided I will get a PhD in economics.
Over the years as my understanding grew, I changed as a person. Soon after graduating high school I began college at an Ivy League institution. There I swore to myself that I would not work a moment longer than the bare minimum necessary to pass my classes. I would spend the rest of my time in play. The constant game of competing against my peers, always trying to prove myself with test scores and awards, always worrying what the next year would be like, would stop with college. How much farther could I go, after all? Ivy League. Top in the nation. Surely a degree from this university even without a shining transcript would land me a job more secure, better paid and more interesting than any I could get from a lesser institution. What was the point is trying more than necessary? Unfortunately I could not keep my promise to myself. The people around me were so smart and the professors so cold that I constantly feared that anything less than my best would fail me by no fault but my own. Indeed I had no story to tell me how to not do my best.
Economics promised me that by doing my best now, I could cash in my hard work for an easier life later. I could seek out a job below the level of my credentials and then demand better benefits, more vacation, higher pay or whatever, just for being extra qualified. In economics, money is the great liquifier and suffering today can always be translated into money tomorrow. Leisure foregone becomes wages earned becomes consumption enjoyed becomes utility increased. It all seemed so perfect and so plausible, but as I grew I began to see how terribly wrong it was.
When have you ever felt the possibility to work less? Do any of you know even one person whose boss tells them “Don’t worry about finishing that project tonight. So we miss the deadline? No biggie. No one is going to die…”? Have you ever felt like it was possible to ask for vacation just because you felt like it? Or to take a sick day because your heart hurts? Do you think it is actually possible to decide the length of your commute or the hours in your standard work week? We don’t see the opportunities available to us even though economic theory says we do. This was the first blow to my faith in that invisible hand.
Later I learned about “externalities.” Externalities are things that happen to people as a result of someone else’s decisions. The documentary The Corporation gives a lovely explanation. In a clip from an old black and white, a woman throws a pie at a man she is angry with and he ducks. The pie lands squarely in the face of a customer sipping a beverage at the counter behind. Externalities are one of the many realities that shred the beautiful tapestry of ubiquitous market goodness because since the person in control of the externality is not the one who bears the effects of it, it never gets properly paid for. Think pollution. Think rainforest destruction and poaching. We all suffer the loss, but who pays for it? The cars and the factories that produce the pollution most certainly do not.
In addition to externalities there are rents. Rents are the benefits that someone gets from owning something. Your landlord rents you your apartment, and that’s all well and good, but Disney rents Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse isn’t a thing, but an idea. You can’t consume Mickey Mouse, but as an idea you can use it to communicate, create a sense of community with others who derive pleasure from Mickey Mouse, you can make art with Mickey Mouse. Disney is a bloated cancerous entity that once brought joy and happiness to people with its illustrations but seeing that a profit could be made by continuously owning them has caused thousands upon thousands of people heartache in order to protect its rents. Rent seeking behavior is the source of ever more economic waste as companies seek to patent everything, right down to Amazon patenting the right to photograph stuff against a white background. Rent causes problems as companies in power leverage that power to push others out of the market and profits made from rents are pure redistributions from the weaker to the stronger — there is no growth, no production, no wealth generated with rent.
Economists are also devout worshipers of the concept of incentivization. Everything in the economic world boils down to what makes people do stuff. Fading welfare payments incentivize the despondent to employ themselves. Corporate bonuses incentivize management to maximize the pofitability of the firms they manage. But do you know what else incentivizes the despondent to employ themselves? Pride in being an active contributing member of their community. And how much happier a world it would be where people work because it brings them and the others around them joy and not because there is an ever tightening noose of poverty strung around their necks! Economists have forgotten how to see the big picture. It doesn’t just matter what people do, it matters why they do it. Incentivization is management through fear instead of through love. Even Machiavelli knew that love was the better way.
Finally, I learned about profits. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn and I learned it last. In economics a firm is a profit generating atomaton. It exists to make profits. Its sole purpose is the pursuit of profits. It has no morals, no allegiance to flag, country or religion (except in the United States apparently they have religion, for whatever that means), the firm worships the bottom line. Everything in economics has a value which can be translated into a price which can be added to the bottom line. People have a value which can be added or subtracted from the bottom line. Destruction of indigenous culture, pillaging of natural and nonrenewable resources, even mass murder have all been translated into a line item in the profit calculations of some firm. I used to believe that all we needed to do was to assign the property rights to these items in order for a firm to properly take them into consideration, like with externalities, but how do you assign a price to the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals and any one else not Arian enough in Nazi Germany? I don’t know, but IBM seemed to find a way. Profit as the ultimate measure of value can never encompass all that there is to being human or to finding happiness.
When I was younger and still in school I thought school was the greatest bind on my personal freedom imaginable. Now with my PhD in hand I see the burden only increased after graduation. This economic system that the entire world has embraced leaves no room for creativity, no room for adventure, no room for humanity. It is far from the best of all possible worlds. In fact, it is hard for me to imagine a worse world. Women are still being burned alive for refusing sex with men. Children are being beaten by their own parents, neglected and left to starve. Young people whose lives should stretch out in front of them as a vast horizon of possible crack under the unbearable burden of success in an uncaring, unending, never sleeping, never slowing down world of consumption, numbers, and status. Sometimes they go down quietly by themselves. Sometimes they take out dozens of innocents with them.
You would think with my degree and my profession that I would have the security, the income, and the personal freedom that indicate the highest level of success in this world. You would think if anyone had a chance at happiness that person would be standing exactly where I am now. But there is a wrongness to my life, a profound and pervasive wrongness always present in the back of my consciousness. It tells me that my job is meaningless, that my money is not security, that the world will go on perfectly well without me. It tells me that we are not meant to live our lives with our hearts perpetually bound in the dark recesses of the Consumption Machine. It tells me that there is more than all this. And yet, I am afraid that there is no end. There is no sanctuary for me where I can reject the machine. There is no home for me to go to where I know my needs will be met. There is no net to catch me if I step out of the confines of my prescribed life and into the unknown.
Does my struggle speak to you? Do you, too, feel the profound wrongness in the world we live in? I would like to be not alone in this.
August 1, 2014 at 10:44 PM
I don’t think old Baldy Harper (deceased by now I suppose) at the Institute for Humane Studies ever said or implied that laissez-faire would work to the benefit of all without a correct legal framework that retrains predatory behavior but leaves everyone otherwise free. The problem is that government has become or maybe is by its nature the problem, the place where everyone has learned to go for special privileges instead of the place to formulate a just legal system. Renting something that is justifiably yours is fine, renting something not really yours is wrong. Profiting from a real productive contribution is fine, profiting from a special privilege arbitrarily awarded by the force of government in a fog of propaganda is wrong. Public policy is made by those with the most concentrated benefit. Apparently, no one acts on the potential profit to all from a just system. Yup, there is something wrong, but it appears to be inherent in humanity.