The economic breakdown, and its opportunities

May 10, 2011

All our economic problems stem from us asking the wrong questions, and using the wrong measuring-sticks.

We have had industrialism for a couple of centuries now. The wealth that industrialism has produced has been grossly mal-distributed, and we are choking in the pollution and garbage that this particular version of industrialism has produced.

But the creation of the super-rich is merely a side effect of the way the industrial system was perverted from a promise to a threat. The creation of massive amounts of pollution is another side effect, in which society subsidizes private interests by paying part of the cost of removing the pollution, or lives with the pollution instead of dealing with it.

[Try not to fall back into thinking about this from a “liberal” or “conservative” viewpoint. Accustomed ways of thinking don’t lead to new insights; they merely keep us running around in the rat trap we’re caught in. Yes, it’s hard to think on the subject for more than a couple of minutes without slipping back into the familiar terms everyone thinks in, but try.]

The present economic system satisfies nobody, even the people who are being given an obscenely swollen income that distorts their values. (The “useless money,” Hemingway called it, that makes it impossible to continue to live as one had, but brings no comparable satisfactions with the things it buys.) The rich may be obstacles, but they are not the cause of the problems of  the industrial system.

And this system is failing. We seem to have reached the limits to this particular model of economics. The industrial system itself is the problem. It was perverted – or maybe its development this way was inevitable, I don’t know – from a promising into a threatening system. Instead of promising a utopia in which machinery provided enough wealth for all to live on a previously unimagined scale, it now threatens to starve us while it buries us in garbage.

But why should we tear down what was being built all this time – exporting and importing, trade among the sectors of the world to mutual advantage? That’s all to the good. What we didn’t need – don’t need – is the repetitive building of shoddy goods, rather than building things to last, so they don’t have to be replaced and replaced. If we were to build only what we need, and build it well, probably only a fraction of what we are spending would be needed. How much electricity, for instance, could be saved merely by not having to produce the same things time and again, and then scrap them and do it all over again?

Consider what industrialism has made possible. There should be enough to make everybody rich in anything that counts. Food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, meaningful work, interaction among communities; there is enough for all. So why hasn’t it worked out that way? I think, because, faced with the imminent collapse of the present system, modern economics is still asking the wrong questions, and trying to measure the wrong things, and so is busily trying to solve the wrong problems.

A driving force is pushing the world’s economy to frantic activity, resulting in huge waste and ever-greater desperate attempts either to make it all work, or at least prop it up long enough to fail on somebody else’s watch. Our economic model assumes that catastrophe follows if people don’t have “jobs.” The fear of people being unemployed drives the growth-oriented economic model. It leads to reliance upon export-led growth, and planned obsolescence, and a massive advertising industry to persuade people to buy more and more kinds of things in more and more colors.

But it is a mistake to think that keeping people busy is an end in itself. People don’t want “jobs.” They want income, and relative security of life, and meaningful ways to spend their time.

They may not know that this is what they want. In fact, probably they don’t, because the neighbors and all the media and the force of the inertia of thought over time all tell them they want more things to make them happy. But they know satisfaction if they find it.

Economic measuring sticks, however, don’t, because they measure in numbers, and the elements of a good life slip between the fingers when measured only in numbers. Numbers measure quantity, but the only way they can even consider quality is by assigning numbers to factors that are not inherently a matter of “how many” but of “how satisfactory.”

Time, for instance. Clean air and water. Nutritious delicious food. Meaningful interaction with friends, neighbors, community members. Learning new skills for their own sake. Studying subjects for their intrinsic interest. Pursuing wisdom. Deepening one’s relation to all aspects of oneself, (not merely the aspects that can be made to turn a profit).

If what is most valuable cannot be measured in number – and if numbers are the only measures we use – then we cannot see what we value most! And, because we cannot see it, we cease to value it! Ceasing to value it, we cease to protect it, to nourish it, to even remember it. And so life declines in value, and in satisfaction.

What is the economic value of a mother having the ability to stay home and raise her children? What is the economic value of home cooked meals? Of long stretches of time available for economically impractical purposes? None of these things show up in an accountant’s ledger with their quality considered as part of their attributes. The difference between a homegrown nutritious delightful tomato and a pale imitation suitable for commercial growing, transcontinental shipping, and profitable retail sale, is invisible to economics.

Economists need to find a way to ask what in life has value even if it does not have dollar value as presently accounted in ledgers. Or perhaps I should say, society needs to find a way to assure that those values are not left at the mercy of the economists or the politicians.

These questions aren’t impractical, but very practical. It is not in everybody’s interest, nor to everybody’s taste, to live in the woods in the cabin as Henry Thoreau once did for two years. And yet if you will read his essay “Life Without Principle,” you may find that he is addressing the causes of the economic and social problems of our day in a way that will make you aware that conventional economics does not, and can not. His answer, his preferences, may or may not appeal to you, but you can’t help see that he is encouraging you to ask the right questions. It has been said that if you can get people to ask the wrong questions, it doesn’t matter what their answers are. By the same token, there is nothing as illuminating as the right questions suddenly asked.

The breakdown of the present toxic system clears the way for something better, if we can envision it. What looks like a dead end is actually an opportunity to start again. Once we realize that we have been pursuing goals we really don’t want, and realize that this pursuit has been bringing us ever farther from the things we really do want, suddenly we are free to start thinking again.

It starts with asking the right questions.

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One Response to “The economic breakdown, and its opportunities”

  1. Michael Peter Langevin Says:

    Great early morning essay. It seems your premises can be generalized to all of present day society’s melting down institutions. We the forward thinking people need to review the recent past as a necessary step to get us to this opportunist place where we can now re-envision and co-create institutions which better serve humanity and the planet’s more intrinsic needs!


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