Better questions produce better answers

July 5, 2011

All around us, you can see capitalism failing. You know why? It’s failing for the same reason the communism failed. They were both formed from the wrong version of industrialism, presently hitting the wall.  In a few more years, capitalism as a living force will be as dead as communism, and for the same reason: The times have passed it by.

You think it’s hopeless to expect something better? Hold those tears. It’s not too late for us to get the benefits of industrialization without the deadly drawbacks. As a matter of fact, perhaps it is only now that it is becoming possible. I think that we, here and now, 250 years into the industrial revolution, are moving into a new phase that could bring to all the world the benefits it first delivered to the West. What’s more, it may bring those benefits without the disadvantages and even disasters it brought to early adapters. The process is messy, but it’s a good thing it’s happening, and just about in time.

But if I’m right, how come the political and economic commentators are saying just the opposite? Isn’t it the end of the world?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Seems to me that our economic problems stem from asking the wrong questions, and using the wrong measuring-sticks.

We have had our particular version of industrialism for a couple of centuries now, and we all know its drawbacks. To name just three:

  • It creates wealth but distributes it so unequally as to threaten the peace and even the viability of society.
  • It depletes non-renewable raw materials and often uses renewable raw materials faster than they can replace themselves.
  • It drowns us in garbage and in pollution of air, land, and water.

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 why the system is failing.

And this system is failing. Instead of providing a utopia in which machinery provided enough wealth for everybody to live on a previously unimagined scale, it now threatens to starve us while it buries us in garbage. We seem to have reached the limits to this particular model of economics.

[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.]

It isn’t the industrialism as a concept that is the problem. Consider what industrialism has made possible. It produces enough to make everybody rich in anything that counts. Food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, meaningful work, interaction among communities; there is enough, and more than enough, for all. The creation of the super-rich, like the creation of massive amounts of pollution or the depletion of non-renewable resources, is merely a side effect of the way the industrial system was perverted from a promise to a threat.

(In its dying moments, the insanity at its core becomes more obvious. Of what use is the repetitive building of shoddy goods, rather than building things so they don’t have to be replaced and replaced? If we were to build only what we need, and build it well, we’d need only a fraction of what we are spending. 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?)

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. 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.

The elements of a good life slip between the fingers when measured only in numbers. Numbers measure quantity, but some things are matters not 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).

But 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 ceased to value it! Ceasing to value it, we ceased to protect it, the inertia, 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 child? What is the economic value of home-cooked meals, or 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.

Society needs to find a way to assure that the important things in life that do not have dollar value as presently accounted for in ledgers are not left at the mercy of the economists or the politicians. 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 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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