A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sanitizing Economic Exploitation

(I had forgotten this little ditty from 10 or more years ago; it is, unfortunately, still timely.)

No area of human intellectual pursuit has developed a more sanitizing language than economics (except perhaps modern warfare, but that is not a complete language system--its more like a commercial).  Contained within bland terms such as 'production of capital' are the starvations and outright murders of millions.  The very center piece term of modern economics, 'growth', swings like the grim reaper's scythe through the species of life; thousands (millions) falling, forever lost from the earth, from the universe, in the 2%, 4%, 6% growth figures of national statistics.

You would think, to hear, 'capital formation', 'savings and investment', 'productivity', 'material well being', 'market economy', of the clean shiny lines of a new automobile or morning light streaming through the windows of a spotless modern kitchen.  But also contained in those words are lung sick miners dying at 30, malnourished stunted bodies of child laborers, families torn apart by the dictates of a 'money economy', every bit as separated as they would be by the dictates of a slave owner.

The words don't make it happen.  We make it happen, but the words set a tone and cushion us from the realities.  The words seem to say that all is right and well, and finally necessary; we need not concern ourselves with the messy details.  'Capital formation' is the correct understanding--the rest is medical or political or some other more janitorial concern.

It is as though since we have the concepts and definitions it's all right now.  We need go no further to discover some other way of "doing business".  Obscenely wealthy individuals and obscenely wealthy nations can rest comfortably in the protection of 'economic incentives', 'mechanisms of growth' and the certainty of hard economic realities.

Doctors once did surgery without anesthesia and even struggled against its employment; the same with antiseptics.  Economics has its theoretical side, but like medicine it is also applied as an art.  Economists are well pleased with themselves for "understanding" why the pain of inequity is necessary (explanations which flatter and absolve wealthy individuals and nations) rather than looking for methods to reduce inequity, reduce pain and heal long standing wounds.  'Economic dislocations' will continue to happen, but it is time to begin looking for how these changes can occur with dignity for all the participants; a practical salutary economics rather than an economics which provides intellectual cover for what has been and continues to be a remarkably brutal assault of human on human and human on the rest of the living and mineral world.

Having viable alternatives to forcing the 'savings' for 'capitalization' from the poor will not guarantee that amoral greedy people will use them, but such alternatives would create great pressure for their use were they generally understood.  A beginning step would be to challenge a central premise of present market economics, that is, that humans are greedy.

Some humans are greedy; most are not.  A simple look around will prove that (and it is not that every human who doesn't covet wealth is lazy or otherwise infirm, the vast majority strike some reasonable balance).  What humans are is self- interested, but self-interest is not synonymous with money interest or greed.  Self-interest is synonymous with what a person understands as best for them, and this goes way beyond the simple accumulation of material advantage.  We need to replace the assumption of greed with the recognition that we have the responsibility and the right to discipline the greed of those few of us who are truly greedy and who express their self-interest to the disservice of us all.  We are simply not required to supply an environment in which one small group of people's narrow acquisitiveness has precedence over the broad range of human needs and concerns (which includes a healthy self-sustaining biosphere). But this is exactly what we have allowed.

Robert Heilbroner, in his book, The Making of Economic Society, wrote that if the workers of the industrial revolution in England had been paid twice as much per week, they still would have lived in poverty (what he does not tell us is that the wealthy could also have still lived in relative luxury) and that it was necessary for the workers to supply, by their 'reduced wages', the 'savings' which were used in the 'conversion of labor' to 'capital' (you see how sterile and clean that sounds!).  However, just a few pages earlier he wrote that at one point the average man's wage was 8 shillings a week and the cost of living (or better put, the cost of not dying) was 14 shillings a week, and that it was this difference that sent women (at about 4 shillings per week) and children (1 or 2 shillings) into the factories (women and children working outside the home is not new and the reasons have not greatly changed!) .

While a man receiving 16 shillings a week (or 14) would not have raised a family out of poverty, the people might have at least lived with greater dignity.  And the industrial revolution could have steamed on, supplied with 'savings' for 'capital formation' from the somewhat less impoverished worker, and from the somewhat less wealthy industrialist.

But even such mild equity was not in the public mind (a public mind still awash in the habits of thought from feudal times), and it was the absence of such generally accepted principles that allowed the 'wealth of nations' to be extracted almost completely from the labor of impoverished people; people whose only choices were to work in the conditions, and for the pay offered, or to die.

It is time for another leap forward (or backward) in human thought.  We have gone beyond feudal social organization and beyond feudal manufacturing technologies; it is now time to go beyond feudal thought in economics to a salutary economics that has as its goal discovering ways to increase the equity and dignity in 'transactions of exchange' rather than only explaining how it is that inequity is not theft and in what way impoverishment is really a virtue.


Michael Dawson said...

Another sparkling gem, packed with actual, real ideas. Thanks!

You continue to remind me of Dmitry Orlov, who just recently called economists "astrologers to the wealthy."

By the way, I love Heilbroner's book. It was sad to see him succumb to market mania in his last years. IMHO, _TMoES_ is one the books that got steadily worse as it was revised over the years!

James Keye said...

I read the Orlov piece with the "astrologers to the Wealthy" phrase. I thought it excellent. It was that reading that reminded me of this old essay.

Michael Dawson said...

Orlov's idea of having the military expand and organize more things scares me, though...

James Keye said...

I thought the phrase excellent.

Michael Dawson said...

Yes, the phrase is a gem, a keeper. Like many other from Orlov.