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

Friday, March 26, 2010

Investment as Concept and Action

Part one: Investment is the simple idea that ‘I give you something that you want when you need it and after a time you give back to me the original giving plus a little extra.’ I can do this out of good will toward a friend, neighbor or fellow human being (in my circle of inclusion), in which case the little extra is a gratuity; or I can do this as a means to grow what I possess into more than I had before without actually going to the material world and changing something to give it value: the person to whom the “gifting” is made must, however, go to the material world (or some agent must go) to add value to something real in order to return the original “investment” plus gratuity. In other words, regardless of the details of the terms, the very essence of investment, as it functions in human economics, requires that there be more of the material world consumed and changed to some human need or want than existed before the investment behavior.

Present investment activity is not done just among family, friends and neighbors, but often even among enemies. The ‘little extra’ has become the raison d’etre for the behavior, and the accumulation of the extra from many small sources has become the way that vast wealth is compiled; wealth that must be reinvested to just stay the same much less to grow further (a component of this process is inflation of abstract value so that more and more of it is required, as its amount increases, to trade for the same amount of real material value).

Another concept needs to be carefully evaluated to clarify the meanings of investment; that is ‘zero-sum’ game. It is obvious, in a world of unlimited material from which to draw for adding value, that the investment model could, and would have to, continue to increase the amount of wealth in the world forever; it would be completely true that ‘your growth of wealth would not take away from my chance to grow wealth’ [1].

But the assumption of unlimited material from which to draw is clearly incorrect. Therefore the necessity that investment must create increasing amounts of real material value for it to be more than a Monopoly game means that the appearance of the ability of investment to create wealth in such a way that “one man’s gain is not another man’s loss” is simply wrong. It has never been more than a convenient argument for excess.

So long as the evaluation is limited to the human side of the pie the appearance can be maintained that for, at least, some considerable time that pie can simply grow and grow. Those with 90 % of the pie may double their accumulation at the same time that those with 10 % also double theirs – those with excess may hardly notice except for bragging rights while the lower end are raised up into comfort and safety. Of course, any high school physics student should squirm with discomfort at such an argument: the energy must come from somewhere, the earth has a fixed solar flux and there is no input into the system for any material; the laws of thermodynamics are also economic laws.

If an economic system requires for its existence that real material be extracted and have value added by physical processes for every turn of its wheel, and that economic system exists in a space where all materials and energies are being used by established biophysical and metabolic systems at optimum rates that allow the continuous functioning of those systems, then growth of the economic sector must be denying maintenance of order in the biophysical and metabolic sectors. In other words, the game is still zero-sum with the rest of the living world and the future paying the difference.

Increase in wealth, either of individuals or of societies, is a promise to extract and add value to the earth’s material and energy. Otherwise the wealth is only play money. The taking of material and energy is uncompensated in earth system terms and is therefore being taken from existing living systems or from the earth’s system “investment” in future life.

Part two: Natural economies, that is the lawful exchanges of energies and materials in biophysical systems, contain investment-like behaviors, the essence of which is the deferring of immediate use in such a way that there is subsequent gain. Bears store fat and survive the winter; the utility of a thousand calories in February give them value far exceeding the value of a thousand calories in August. Cattle eat a spinach family plant called ‘winter fat’ about ½ way down leaving a goodly part of the plant to grow again the next fall. This instinctual restraint can be seen as an evolved investment in next years food supply. In point of fact, every species of life on the earth, or ever on the earth, has a multitude of such relationships, making many “investments” in its own sustaining and the sustaining of its ecosystem relationships.

Specialized human “investment” in the broadest sense began as a process of social bonding; an investment was made in the community by the sharing of material wealth. Systems of obligation strengthened the community both figuratively and literally: the dividends paid on shared food or shared effort were essential for safety and comfort. It is a perversion to remove the concept of investment and the behavior from that context. The outcome is the run-away positive feedback of our present economics; its only result will be to destroy the substrate upon which it subsists.

The absolutely central design element of our economics is fatally flawed – not in the trivial sense, but in the most profound sense beyond the imaginable: That accumulated wealth must be used to create more wealth, that growth of the power to influence both social and biological designs for the production of wealth is the ultimate goal of existence, that every possible advantage must be discovered and made into a product from which wealth is gathered and, ultimately, that wealth is the goal of individuals and societies. I invite you to read the introductory remarks from any economics text or explanation of the purpose of economics; these are the assumptions so deep as to be beyond question.

Our present understanding cannot begin to comprehend an economics that doesn’t depend on investment in the impersonal and contractual sense of growth of principle. There is no other way to obtain great excess or to maintain excess once it is accumulated. The ‘magic of compound interest’ has poisoned our conception of the reality of living in the actual physical world. What can be more insane than giving a few abstract magic tokens that can be traded for anything to a wizard who after some years gives you back ten times, twenty times, the number that you gave him? Of course, if you study it, you will find that the actual value of your tokens has diminished so that the large number that you have now are worth perhaps only a bit more than the much smaller number that you gave in the beginning, but had you not given the tokens to the wizard, they would not have increased in number at all.

And so the trap is sprung and we all end up working for the wizard. What we have seen in actual fact in the US over the last 30 years is that the great middle is paying back the marginal gains of the 50’s and 60’s. It will not be long before, averaged over the second half of the last century to the present, all of the gains of growth and wealth will have distributed into the growth of population and the accumulations at the top of the economic hierarchy. The middle will still be the middle, but with many more trinkets “required” and more miles to drive to work. An added bonus is the destruction of almost all marginal peoples and the biosphere.

Part three: What can replace growth economics and investment as the organizing principles for human societies? First and foremost, the concept and actuality of sufficiency. A community of humans knows what is sufficient and what is excess. Economics theory is wrong; people do not strive to excess, wants are not unlimited. As I look around the “communities” (really housing developments with some elements of community thrown in) that I live in and near, it is plainly evident that most of these people are not driven to excess. They gather and laugh and eat and play – too often with techy toys, but these are excuses and ultimately incidental.

Most people have accepted that ‘they should seek excess,’ but they are usually too busy with living activities to take it seriously. They must be prodded without mercy: a thousand commercials a day using the most coercive tools discoverable by motivational professionals. There is no place in the human space to avoid an invitation, an appeal, a demand to buy or to save yourself from the troubles created by having bought; because, even without seeking excess, people have been fooled into living beyond comfortable sufficiency.

Another element of sufficiency is the means by which needs are met. Sufficient skills and effort can be “traded” for sufficiency of money and the whole growth economy underlying it. What can you, and what are you willing to, learn to supply for yourself: food, water, energy, entertainment, shelter, clothing, tools of travel, medical care, communication, tools, personal supplies? What would it do to your sense of safety and comfort if you could meaningfully supply some significant parts of many of these; especially, some of the primary needs?

Of course, this is only one small and ‘insufficient’ step. It is the growth/investment model delivering the electricity that forms the words on the screen, powers the printer, reheats your tea. It is that model that creates the walls of the house with their photos and other displays of our good taste and interests. I cannot imagine another behavioral model that would deliver the world that we presently have.

Only we must imagine another model or this one tamed and made to function again within a subservient position to the natural economy. I believe that, seen in the right perspective, the required changes would reform human life in positive, species affirming ways. There are lots and lots of people who strongly disagree with me.

[1] Even in the best of conditions, theoretically non-zero-sum situations still contain zero-sum elements because time and space are not unlimited. This is fully recognized by even those who claim that wealth is not subject to zero-sum restrictions. Ultimately the argument that zero-sum limits do not exist in a given situation is really a sophistry to justify excess. In a true non-zero-sum environment all players with equal effort and skill would succeed and extend success at reasonably the same level; further more, non-zero-sum like conditions would not move cyclically reducing the numbers of those who are the “winners” in the game du jour. No matter how much a capitalist might laud the non-zero-sum-ness of wealth creation, it is still zero-sum pressures that are claimed to drive market behavior in the first place.

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