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, October 18, 2013
Real Austerity and the Austerity of Theft
The two pervious essays discuss the ‘real austerity’ that the human animal must begin to accept and adapt to: the austerity of living within the limits of ecological reality. These limits are composed, broadly, of two parts: the productive capacity of the earth and the absolute requirement that all living things be integrated into the ecological economy (see the essay ‘Taking Without Compensation’).
The austerity being argued over in today’s quarrelsome politics is not austerity at all, but the more tiresome concern of who can steal from whom with the sanction of society. It has become standard that when a poor person takes from a wealthy person – almost always such stealing is limited to some direct method – that the act is defined in law as theft. However, when a wealthy person takes from one person, or many persons, the method has usually been sanctioned in law as proper.
The present attempts to impose “austerity” on society at large is, of course, not really “on society at large”; it is the imposition of austerity on the weakest members of society (or those who can be made weak) so that more of society’s production can be collected into a few very wealthy hands. In the present Story that we tell ourselves it is the ‘natural’ right, even the obligation of an “owner” of a business to take as much of an “employee’s” labor as possible giving as little of the employee’s productive contribution to the employee as possible. If the employee’s contribution is twice his or her compensation, or three times, the owner gets the benefit. The employee is not even supposed to know the value of his or her contribution. If the employee can be made to believe that there is just not enough wealth created by his or her activity to warrant compensation, then the employee can be made to agree to be stolen from.
The argument is not especially ingenious, but is effective: there is not enough to go around (which is true in the ecological sense). So, everyone (meaning everyone but the rich) must do with less…. And then the real slight of hand: since government is taking, with taxes, from everyone and spending the accumulated wealth on services for everyone, then ‘you’ are paying out of your tiny incomes for everyone when ‘you’ should keep ‘your money’ for your own uses – the government is stealing from you and giving your money to other people. Ergo, no one should have to pay very much in taxes, including the rich.
I take it back; it is a pretty ingenious argument.
Of course, it is a complete fabrication. The very essence of human success as an animal and as a force of nature is the economies of scale that banding together in collective action have provided us (and of course the rich band together to act as predatory communities). When a society pools its resources it can provide for the needs of its members with far greater efficacy at far lower cost than “every man for himself.” It is, however, when the distribution of wealth becomes distorted that the human mind becomes distorted in relative proportion.
The reality is that a certain percentage of each individual human production needs to be collected into the community pot for economies of scale in the building of infrastructure, education, healthcare, energy, basic biological needs and other natural monopoly functions. If one person’s production is 100 units and they are expected to provide the community with 20 of those units, but they are only compensated 50 units, and if laws are created to protect from taxation the 50 units collected by “owners”, then the worker is being stolen from. The owner gets to amass the productive labor of the worker without contributing to the community wealth intended for community needs.
If there are 100 workers being compensated at 50 units, being taxed 20 units and supplying 50 units each to the owner, the owner is receiving 5000 units. Assume the owner takes a reported income of 500 units (without ever being required to demonstrate that the amount is appropriate to his or her productive contribution) and then pays 100 units in taxes. This means that 4500 units of production have not been taxed for the community services. The true tax bill should be, at a minimum, 1000 units with an additional 20 percent for the owner’s legitimate productive addition to the total activity. The worker’s tax contribution should be 10 units on their 50 unit compensation (progressive taxation is easily derived from this simple model, but that will have to be for another time).
But, owners have accumulated access to wealth at such levels that politicians and other community service people can be bribed to protect both the owner’s wealth and methods of stealing from workers. The rentiers, the nature of many ‘owners’ today, have little need for the community services – actually seeing such services as competition in their efforts to extract more wealth from the exchange transactions of the populace. The power of wealth constructs the laws as well as having outsized influence on population attitudes through the control of the society’s Stories about itself: the impunity of wealth requires that wealth be increased without limit.
The theft of worker’s labor is not allowed to be a prominent or even acceptable Story theme. The old fairy tales about the dangers and evils of greed have been largely disappeared or are considered quaint vestiges of an unenlightened past. The new Story is that the rich are smart and deserving – that proof of virtue is found in the wealth accumulated.
There are really only a few ways to accumulate wealth above one’s actual productive contribution and they almost all involve taking more from transactions than one’s contribution by using some form of power to reduce the legitimate compensation for contribution of the less powerful. The present drive to enforce so-called austerity on the non-wealthy is really just the same old game: create a Story to support an asymmetry of power, hide those actions that would violate the population’s expectations and use power to generate laws and governing authorities that will allow theft. And if the non-wealthy can be convinced by the Story that they are somehow “enriched” through some contrived association with the truly wealthy, so much the better.
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I am not suggesting that every person contributes the same productive effort or result or that everyone should be compensated the same. I am saying that just as the production of the worker is measured, that the productive contribution of all contributors should be measured and compensation made contingent on objective contribution. This would require that power imbalances be corrected and that the present inequity in our economic design be reduced to the point that one group could not so overpower another that theft can be carried out with impunity; people will still steal, but it should be called theft and not earnings.
The first step is to challenge the present Story and to spread a new Story that supports the form of society that we want and must have if we are to survive. Revolution without a new Story would only change the players, not the play. And it is unlikely to lead to anything reconstructable into a society we would want to live in. Large scale violent class warfare that would almost certainly spiral into an economic and ecological conflagration of unimaginable horror, depth and longevity involving the very capacity of the life sustaining space to support complex life forms.
As it becomes clearer that destruction of almost unprecedented proportions is the likely endgame for failure to come to grips with the kind of animal we are; if we can begin to realize both the dangerous capacities we have for illusion and the constructive capacities that we have for communities of biological integration, then just maybe we can, under the pressure of literally undeniable biophysical forces, awaken to the Story that tells of our sense of fairness, our desire to see worth in others, our rejection of thievery and our reverence for the living world.
It is no coincidence that the world’s mystics, prophets and enlightened thinkers have lived austere lives. It will be from living with the real austerity of ecological integration that the Story of our successful adaptation to biophysical reality will form. Otherwise the story telling species will cease to tell Stories.
Of course, there are monumental difficulties, obstructions to our needed travels greater than the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China or the expanse of oceans – all of which, I will remind, have been crossed. The breaching ladders are there: the Internet and its kin, as well as the more traditional devices of the printed page and word of mouth. The elements of the needed Story-of-Ourselves are there in the best of our moral Stories and in the growing science of our nature. The world to which we must adapt our aspirations has been clear to many thinkers for centuries, but is now becoming clear to scientists and more and more of the general population.
But, there is also the terror of an uncertain future and the human capacity for denial, distortion and illusion in the face of danger: even though humans can organize experience into vast landscapes of time and space, troubles narrow the focus. This narrowing is an effective way to survive in a savanna landscape as a gatherer/scavenger when the focusing is on the moment of danger, but not when the comprehension of big-picture reality is needed, when restraint and organized action are required.
The Stories that we must tell are of how we live together with each other and with the other life on the earth, no matter how seemingly insignificant or even annoying. Our Stories must see us as participants, not as possessors; and contributors, not as takers. We must tell that ‘property’ is not a right, but a responsibility; that wealth beyond one’s contribution to community success is theft; and success must be defined as integration into the sustaining flows of environment. We must clarify in our Stories that making the most enjoyment of life, with the least extraction from the ecosystems in which we live, is life’s best goal. Our Stories must celebrate the reward of living with material simplicity and with emotional and intellectual opulence and depth.
With such a Story or Stories as our underpinning and using sound ecological economics and science, choices could be made to develop technologies that support our Stories and to reject both the technologies and behaviors that violate the Stories… just as we do now for the present destructive Stories we are telling.