Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Market Economy? How about a LIFE-Based Economy?

Oikonomia regards the Earth as one unitary whole owned by no one.

"He treats his mother - the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads.

His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.

This we know: all things are connected like blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself."

- Chief Seattle, 1894

As I read in the most recent issue of TIME that the U.S. had fallen to 10th in overall life quality, a sobering thought took hold: the last time the U.S. placed #1 was before the series of Bush tax cuts and their extensions. Is there a connection? You bet there is, and I've already written earlier blogs on this - citing the evidence of economic regression (based on a study done by The Financial Times) in each. To recall the key kernel of the FT's findings again:

"The 2000s- that is the period immediately following the Bush tax cuts – were the weakest decade in U.S. postwar history for real, non-residential capital investment. Not only were the 2000s by far the weakest period but the tax cuts did not even curtail the secular slowdown in the growth of business structures. Rather the slowdown accelerated to a full decline"

What exactly did those tax cuts accomplish? Not much, not in any substantive way! They basically put a bit more money into people's pockets aggravating an already egregious consumer dynamic (estimated to be responsible for 70% of GDP) but at the expense of future security (via funding Social Security and Medicare) since the political axe grinders would fall back on the deficits caused by the tax cuts to carve out benefits from those domestic programs! In other words, people were being given juicy kool aid, thanks to the tax cutters, but laced with slow acting strychnine.

This led me to consider an alternative to the entire market economy which holds this country in thrall and is largely responsible for its incapacity to fulfill its potential. That is, the market economy has evolved (using tax cuts) to one contrary to life and life quality. Do many - or any- recognize the hidden costs of the products purchased to add untold stores of stuff to our homes? Any remote notion of the 195 -odd chemicals that stuff brings into the home, which agents are also capable of causing cancers requiring costly medical intervention (in a nation which provides no government health care?) As a point in fact, the highest placing nations in the life quality index were all Socialist democracies, led by Norway, Denmark, et al. What's with that? Well, because those nations prioritize cooperation and common cause (we're all in this together) over 'he who got the most toys wins' and 'I got mine and the devil take the hindmost'.

When one strips away the veneer of materialist greed, the market economy offers nada. The universe at root is about life, life quality and enhancement of consciousness...not ipods, cell phones, HDTVs, X-boxes or endless video games. The tragedy is that market economies like the U.S. - governed by cowboy capitalists determined to keep the cattle chewing their cuds- only emphasize money and power. Even the so-called "religious people" (who haven't yet figured out that Mammon is the real god of this market country, not "God" of their imaginations) buy into the addictive enticements of money and power.

No wonder we see so often how values are demeaned, contempt for life flourishes, and kids are even prepared to kill each other over neon-designed Reeboks, or the latest X-box. All proportion seems to have vanished, as well as common a population of hypnotized zombies continues to be entranced by the climbing DOW even as their roads, sewer lines and water mains fall into disrepair.

Of course, it is understandable that most people identify with the wealthy. Who wants to identify with "losers"? Far better to fancy oneself another Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates clone. Even poor workingfolk have fallen treacherously into this trap, defending tax cuts for the mega rich (which actually gut their own future Social Security and Medicare) because they one day fancy themselves rich - about as likely to transpire as 3 million aliens landing at once in Washington, D.C.

Maybe it's time to change the dynamic from a life-denying market economy and culture that only sees people as consumers, to one that elevates people to their full potential. What might that alternative be?

Some years ago, The Barbados Philosophical Society discussed this very issue and arrived at a mindset and metaphysics that was life-affirming and had at least potential to subsume market worshipping economies. This was none other than the harmonious, Earth-friendly philosophy of Oikonomia. Oikonomia derives from the Greek meaning: "preservation of the household". The central notion is that all strands of the World Life Web are equally important. No strand is primary or pre-eminent to exclusion of all others. No life is worth less.

Oikonomia regards the Earth as a finite, unitary whole. That is, while limited in terms of resources, it is nonetheless interconnected, e.g. sea water evaporates to form clouds, which later transit land to deposit rain, etc. Interlocked with this concept of 'unitary finitude' is a related one: the Earth is here solely for humankind's temporary use, not wholesale exhaustion (including irreversible pollution) of resources. Further, the ethic of the shared household implies resources are accessible to all inhabitants equally - including those not yet born! This demands judicious harvesting, husbanding and distribution of resources. The objective is long term: to ensure that future generations can use them also.

The above is opposed to the imperative of short term gain: the 'profit-over-all else' ethic. In the long term perspective it is unthinkable that global resources, including timberlands, atmosphere and oceans, be exclusively earmarked for development and formation of capital. Such a mindset is inherently selfish since it exalts its own well-being to absolute status. At the same time, future generations are condemned to destitution and deprivation. It is flawed because it elevates one strand or 'strand segment' over the whole web of life. The imperative of Oikonomia is to engage a familial dynamic. This brings the strands back into balance with each other.

Initiation of this implies that a novel consciousness must replace the existing (ego-driven) one. Opposed to Oikonomia, the hard-wired, market-glorifying, atomistic view of reality assumes each human is an independent, material corpus, isolated from the rest. Therefore each individual is obligated to establish 'self-territory', 'self-reliance' and individual 'property-rights'. Being our brother's keeper is viewed as downright simple-minded, and encouraging our brothers in laziness(by taking advantage of our hard work). The only obligation is to ourselves and immediate family. 'Devil take the outsiders and the hindmost (losers)'.

Interestingly, even capitalist icon Adam Smith - in his 'Inquiry into the Wealth Of Nations' - evoked an Oikonomian attitude when he noted there are "needs in a civilized society that a barbaric one refuses to address." He also pointedly stated (Vol. II, p. 648):

"What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole "

Truth be told, you can't get a much better synopsis of Oikonomia than that!

WHY are Smith's words so important, especially the emphasis that the circumstances of the grater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole"?

As Charles Reich poignantly notes in his book, Opposing the System, Crown Books, p. 103:

"When society itself comes to be modeled on economic and organizational principles, all of the forces that bind people together are torn apart in the struggle for survival. Community is destroyed because we are no longer 'in this together' because everyone is a threat to everyone else. "

In such a capitalist-driven, consumerist organizational economic model, wherein the resource “pie” for the non-wealthy elite grows ever smaller, the young are threats to us oldsters, as we are threats to them, as neighbor is to neighbor. It can't be otherwise. This capitalist model has seen fit, in other words, to destroy our areas of commonality and common cause, replacing neutral civic space with demeaning commercial space and commercialist, market values.

Reich then describes the visceral 'dog-eat-dog', endless economic warfare that ensues between people in the never ending quest to 'make it' and not be left behind. A tragic game wherein every one, every man, woman and child has a 'market value' and all abiding principles, social or moral, are reduced to economics. Alas, the cost resides in devastated marriages, families and communities.

The capitalist driven “rupture” can occur as quickly as when your neighbor builds a large recreational pool, or puts in a hot tub, and you can’t afford one. Or when he makes a great home improvement add-on while you are left to humble by with the status quo.

By comparison, the endemic socialist, communitarian structures of Barbados or Norway (for example) promote a healthy growth of the social commonweal and the belief that what is done for the benefit of one, or a few, redounds to the benefit of all. Hence, the imperatives for government subsidized low cost housing, national health insurance for all, free education through college. The result is no one becomes hyper-rich (by virtue of the progressive, leveling tax scales), but no kid is starving when he goes to bed at night either, as shown on CBS '60 Minutes' last Sunday night.

In the U.S. capitalist system, it is more rank commercialized competition that prevails - and that engenders a perpetual creative destruction that ravages precious resources. In Barbados, with few resources, each must be maximized. There isn't the quantity to allow duplication or other squandering in wasteful competition. In the U.S., the exact opposite holds. Huge amounts of resources are yearly squandered in competitive games- that have only one or a few 'winners'.

A ten-thousandfold raw material base may produce one or two products that are successful in marketing or whatnot. In Barbados, nationalization of most resources ensures that the raw material factor is ten fold or less. The island simply lacks the resources to conduct anything approaching the scale of ecological insanity inherent in U.S. 'creative destruction'. (A faux euphemism if ever there was one).

In effect, U.S. capitalism creates a self-destructive, wasteful culture that translates into a self-destructive and wasteful social pattern. People are 'marketed to' for temporary friendships - say merely to network for the next job - then dropped. Or, if a neighbor suddenly become unemployed - and knocked out of the current consumerist culture - they may be jettisoned as friends. They no longer share the same 'buying' interests (or power) after all.

What fun are they at cocktail parties, or even barbecues? Who wants to hear about their pathetic inability to keep up with the latest market crazes? Repeated untold millions of times, one gets an entire toxic culture, and diseased society. Countries that hold the commonality in esteem, rather than attempting to fracture it into millions of pieces, are those that have climbed to the top of the life quality index.

Thus, the best analogy I can give to what is occurring in the U.S. is a malignant cancer. As in cancer, when one limited group of cells grows too much - it does so at the expense of the whole body.

All this shows that Oikonomia is present in the world, and flourishing in enough nations to make possible its spread. So why don't we who value it move to those nations? First, they may not want more people to burden their resource base, because Oikonomia itself is based on limits. One can't have too many using the same resources else it doesn't work! Second, the work is needed in THIS country, so the gap to be bridged must enlist the efforts of all the Oikonomians HERE! Telling a person who knows the cure for the disease to depart for another place, is like telling an oncologist who can cure a patient's malignancy to go to a healthy patient instead! It makes zero sense! Indeed, it's nonsense! The need is where the sickness occurs, not where the healthy already are!

Now, let's get to the prescription of Oikonomia! How radical might these Oikonomian initiatives be? Let's look at a few examples:

1) the definition of economic assets must be extended to include ecological resources, including virgin forests (what is left!) fresh, potable water, and land;[1]

2) the definition of growth must be expanded to include entities/activities that are not resource-intensive.

3) Time must be fully exchangeable for money, thereby allowing workers to have more of it for a reasonable monetary exchange.

In the case of (1), all remaining U.S. forests and woodlands become an economic asset. Any use, "fair use"[2] or otherwise, is entered in the books as an exchange of the existing asset (forest or woodland) to a liability. It is a debt incurred, in this case not to a person or bank, but to the natural environment. A credit thereby becomes a debit. We either have to repay this debt (and the sooner the better) or take it into account in any future transactions with the environment. What we cannot do is exclude the environment from being reckoned into the economic inventory.

As an example of (2), we might include reading books as an economic activity worthy of being measured in a kind of neutral 'growth unit'. A person reads 45 books in a library in a year, that is personal growth, especially if his or her assimilation is subject to some kind of test measure. In the strict sense, of course, this is no economic activity, since no monetary transaction is occurring. In an Oikonomian context, one cannot reduce an economic activity to a purely monetary one. What if that person is reading to a blind person? This is surely a service, which consumes only time to be sure, but must be reckoned as worthy of some kind of remuneration. In other words, profit and monetary value cannot be allowed to dictate every human activity or motivation.

Similarly, I envisage profit redefined so that it is re-invested in people, in either extra time or money, for additional (public) services rendered, i.e. reading to the blind, repairing the homes of elderly folk, refurbishing old buildings for the homeless, etc. as well as private service, like child care. This is particularly germane in an era in which diminished labor input in the private sector continues unabated.

Of course, a Gaia-driven Oikonomian economics, giving priority to availability of resources, will also limit private capital formation when it veers away from actual needs, toward wants.Oikonomian economic emphasis is on items people truly need, rather than creating numerous and spurious 'wants' that end up cluttering lives and households (and the planetary household). In this way Oikonomian economics will plausibly include major disincentives to produce useless garbage - like more Barbie dolls, or more porn, or gas-guzzling SUVs.

In each case, therefore, a production disincentive cost could be added, for example slapping another $5-$7 on the price of each Barbie doll, based on the resources used to make it, and slapping an extra $25,000 on the SUV, given how much CO2 it will churn out over it's life, irrespective of who owns it, but it is the initial purchaser bringing to a viability. As for porn dvds, each purchaser must pay not only in cash, but also in community hours' service. Thus, while the ordinary capitalist market may have required $29.95 or some such for a porn dvd, in the Oikonomian model the purchaser may pay $9.95 plus twenty full hours of community service, maybe feeding the homeless or working in a nursing home, say emptying bad pans or whatever. As the late economist John Kenneth Galbreath has noted (The Affluent Society, Mentor Books, p. 125):

"So it is that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu with the production, then the urgency of the wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of the production. Production only fills a void that it has created"

None of this may sit well with everyone, but it is time now we make the choice toward a life-affirming model of economic sanity, as opposed to an avaricious -breeding, rapacious model which can only terminate with humanity living off each other (literally eating each other, like the Easter Islanders) in near desert conditions.

[1] See: Putting A Price Tag On Nature's Bounty, in Science, Vol. 276, 16 May, 1997, p. 1029

[2] "Fair use" in the environmental context, refers to the theme of the Fair Use Movement. They demand that all public lands, including recreational parks, be put into some type of exploitative use.

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