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

Section One: On the Meaning and Uses of Economics

Economics vs. Ecology

Ecology: from Greek oikos: ‘house’ + -logy.
Economics: from Greek oikos: ‘house’ in the form oikonomika referring to household management.

It is a monumental irony that these terms, with their cortège of cognitive and practical meanings in mortal combat for our present and future world, have grown from the same linguistic root.  The most basic conflict of our time, that of economic growth vs. ecological integrity, is driven by a common desire and demand to maintain the safety and comfort of our ‘home’ [1].

In the most simple and naïve consideration, there should be no conflict at all.  We all want the same things: sufficiency of sustenance, safety and health, human companionship and a sense of connection with and comprehension of the activities of the world beyond our direct powers of intervention.  And yet, how to meet these goals and maintain the comfort of our home is anything but clear in our hugely complex world; a world where it is possible to live and breathe the air, eat food and all the rest while never giving a moment’s thought to the primary sources of any of it; a world where all that one has seems to come from economic activity and not from the ecological processes which underlie and sustain all living existence.

Learning to navigate the Byzantine mazes of the economic world has become an all-consuming occupation.  For those who give it their fullest attention there is little room left in either the hours of the day or the neurons of the brain to consider other, and I would say, deeper meanings.  Yet, those who do not give the economic world full attention can only be marginally effective in it; will not be in control of its machinations and be generally at the mercy of it.  This is exactly the same thing that can be said of someone going into true wild-lands: fail to give full attention and be only marginally capable of survival [2].

But there are major differences between the primacy of the ecological order compared to the economic order.  Ecologies are foundational.  It is the interdependent relationships of hundreds and thousands of species along with the integration of their activities within physical/chemical cycles that allow complex living things to exist on the earth.   Atmospheric oxygen, fresh water, fertile soils, consistencies of climate and weather and many other vital consistencies are the products of functioning ecosystems.  The failure to understand this is one of the consequences of being drawn deeply into those economic designs that seem to more directly impact the safety and comfort of our home, our oikos.

Economies have changed dramatically and rapidly in human history.  There is no standard economics associated with the human species the way there is a pattern for human community; patterns characteristic of the vast majority of human societies both in the whole of human history and present today.  Indeed, the primate pattern of social organization has millions of years of history in hominids.

The designs of how humans have arranged the distribution and exchange of goods and services, and the devices to facilitate such exchanges, are in no way fixed in our biology or our culture.  The predominant present structures are as accidental as the accepted cut of a business suit – and yet we cling to them both with the same tenacity, prejudice and rigidity.  We can conceive of no other way than to live in the flow of present economic process and so, as a society, we trivialize the ecological processes that are the very basis of a living planet.

If designs of the dominant methods of exchange are changed, patterns of advantage will necessarily be shifted.  This fact creates powerful forces that argue for maintaining the status quo: the most advantaged usually have the greatest access to the devices of coercion and so can often convince even the non-advantaged of the ‘primacy’ and necessity of the existing methods.  We are seeing this today in spades.

While initially mind boggling, it is still ultimately understandable.  Our daily classical and instrumental conditioning around money-based exchanges is relentless.  That the tokens of exchange should become as real, even more real, than the food we eat, than the warmth of a home on a cold morning, is easily comprehended when we realize that we have been trained to this “reality” from the first purchase of a candy, from the first ‘saving up’ to get a lusted-for toy, to the social and emotional response of significant others to an increase in salary. 

A properly trained pigeon or rat will die still pushing a food delivery lever that has ceased to deliver; it is a common device in film (and reality) to have a character gathering up piles of money as the fires (lava, tsunami, meteor, etc.) approach.  What is not often seen clearly is that many of us try to gather up piles of money while letting the fires of personal, relationship, physical, societal and ecological destruction rage.  It has come to be that humans are so vast a source of impact that almost 100% of the direct influences on humans come from human generated situations and materials; and human economics is a major part of human generated impact.

Economics is what we believe it is.  Change the belief and economics changes.  ‘The law of the jungle’ was never about a real jungle, but is the consequence of the human adaptation generating exponential increases in energy availability, exponential increases in both the amounts and variety of materials from which we make exponentially more things.  What we call ‘the jungle’ is really a human response to vast excess and the violence created by the attempts to control it.  Real jungles are quite orderly places, albeit dangerous to the uninformed.

It has come to be the belief that such material and technological increases represent an absolute positive; it has come to be the instrumental belief that such “growth” is more important than life. Rational argument against such a belief is nearly impossible when, in practice, it spawns a monstrous madness and has become murder on a scale without precedent in earth’s bloody history.

But finally there is no equality to the contest of economics against ecology.  One is insanity and the other is the earth’s native biology.  I hope enough of us realize it before we so damage ecosystems that extinction events begin to cascade.  While the ecology will absolutely trump economics in the long run, as a system for organizing human action in today’s moment, economics has the power.

The struggle to support present economic systems, maintaining ‘economic growth,’ is driven by the same impulse that motivates the eco-activists; the difference is in what is seem as ‘oikos’, seen as home.  Economics creates and allows a parochial view.  The economics’ notion of home is a brick and mortar construction with an assignable value and tradable status, fungible to a degree and with specific uses in the economic environment.  Being conditioned to the narrow view of value and having Pavlovian responses to the sight and sound of money, most people more easily adapt to, at least, some version of economic thought.  The ecological view of home is the life sustaining conditions of the planetary surface.  Economic activity can damage the ecology; ecological preservation can inhibit economic activity.  

In purporting to be the sober arbiter of messy human habits, economics leaves out the actual origin of both the habits and the substrate upon which our very existence depends. It is now time to begin to know better, time to take what we have learned and use it.  We are one species among millions.  We have great and terrible powers that must be brought under some effective control or human actions will so compromise biophysical systems that maintaining vital environmental stabilities will be in doubt.  Understanding ecological realities should inhibit economics; it always has done – until now when we are told that economic realities are more important than life itself. 

This is a struggle at its beginning, and yet it is nearly over.  It is time for revolution, but of a new sort, one that we do not even realize, that will burst upon us of a sudden.  It cannot come soon enough. 

[1] This is, of course, a fool’s contest – really no contest at all.  The ecology of the earth stabilized following the total freezing the earth’s surface 700 or 800 million years ago, stabilized following the great Permian extinction and will stabilize after the human industrial extinction to which we presently contribute.  That our species, with the hugely powerful uninhibited adaptation of Consciousness Order, can bring so much of the living world to an end is terribly distressing to those who, using the very same consciousness, can see it.  But the final arbiter will be evolutionary judgment functioning as it always has for 4 billion years.

[2] Saying that one is aware of ecological issues because one goes camping, hunting or boating is like saying that I know about economic issues because I go and buy something at the mall.

Taking Without Compensation

(Preamble: This is almost certainly the most important moment in the history of the human species since Toba erupted 75,000 years ago and nearly removed our species from the earth – there would very likely have been an ascendant species of the genus, it just would not have been us.  The present economic crisis presents us with what seems a simple goal: to return to the economic stability and direction we were going in.  We are deep in the details of how to do exactly that.  Mike Whitney, Paul Craig Roberts, Chalmers Johnson, Paul Krugman and others are un-spinning these details for us; but, this is a time to begin to recognize the most basic and underlying cause of the present perturbations.  It is vital to use such moments, not to return to the conditions that brought us to this pass in the first place, but to begin to understand how we need to live for the long run. It seems that only in times of trouble are we willing to see other possibilities.  Now is just such an opportunity.  Of course, we must pay attention to the details, but not to the exclusion of the larger goal of sustaining survival of all life on the planet.)

There is a very basic question that we do not often ask, but that is essential to our relationship to each other and to the flow of life on this earth – big picture stuff, with personal consequences.  Where does what you use and accumulate come from?  That you buy ‘stuff’ with the money that you earn at your job is not enough of an answer!

If your child came home today with a pocket full of candy, you might ask where it came from.  If he came home with a new very expensive bike, the question would certainly arise.  In these situations we have a reasonably clear view.  The child has an understandable "personal worth" of charm, persuasion, group affiliation and some money.  Friends share candy wealth.  New bicycles are sometimes loaned, but if the child consistently accumulates more stuff than you can account for, you will attempt to discover the source.  That is the goal here.  You and I "possess" accumulations of things; where does it all come from?

Let's examine something simple: the wooden stool next to my desk.  I exchanged money for it years ago (the larger meaning of money can’t be considered here).  The furniture store exchanged money for it from a shop where people were given money to cut, shape and assemble the wood pieces.  The wood was bought from a sawmill.  The trees came from a forest.

But, the forest was not compensated for the tree.  The people driven out by the cutting, who once lived in the forest, were not compensated.  The animals and the plants killed or driven out by the cutting were not compensated.  Neither was the soil or the animals, plants and bacteria of the soil.

In other words, if honestly examined, the layers of compensated transactions cannot disguise the fact that at base we take what we have.  Humans exert the energy, possess the ability and operate the behaviors to take the material, inorganic and organic, from the earth's surface, water and atmosphere.  This taking is not compensated, i.e., we do not systematically give back something useful in reasonable corresponding amounts to the soil, to the river, to the forest, to the ocean, or to the atmosphere as compensation for what we take.

We only compensate when the material is held in some protected condition, and we compensate not so much on the basis of value of the material, but on the force of the protection.  We only compensate with a full recognition of value when the force of protection is equal to our power to acquire.

If you child answered,  "Oh, there was this little crippled girl with a whole lot of candy, so I just took what I wanted.  Its OK though, she couldn't chase me and didn't have any weapon to stop me,” how would you respond?  99 % of parents would be extremely troubled and many would immediately and directly condemn such behavior as absolutely wrong.

But these same parents will eat bananas, or drink coffee, grown on land that just a few years ago was taken by guns and fire from the people who lived there.  These same parents will accumulate twice, ten times, a hundred or a thousand times as much material wealth as is needed to allow them to be safe and comfortable (considering such accumulation a duty, a right and point of pride), letting the fact of several steps of exchange disguise that all that they have was taken from somewhere without compensation.

We all in essence hire a ‘goon squad’ to do the taking (worse than hire--demand, often on penalty of death, that such work be performed).  And we then are satisfied and righteous because the last transaction up the chain of transactions is civil, orderly and compensated.  Ultimately, we despise those who are driven to be close to the taking, the miner, the farm laborer, the lumberjack, the mercenary solder, as tainted and unfit for association with those who have purified the theft with multiple compensated transactions of the increasingly powerful.

How would you feel if you child answered: "I gave this kid $50.00 for the bike ($2000 full suspension model). She took it from in front of a store where she found it unlocked.”  If he said, "I paid $150.00 for the bike at a second hand store. They bought it for $50.00 from a kid who took it from in front of a store.”  Would you feel better?  Would you feel better still as more distance of transaction is lain on and as each layer of power (knowledge of the "true" value) is compensated?  "I gave $100.00 to a friend for a quarter share in whatever she bought.  She paid $400.00 for the bike to someone who paid $150.00 for it at a second hand store.  They bought it for $50.00 from a kid who stole it."  Would you recognize that you were supporting the uncompensated taking no matter where you were in the string of transactions?  Would you speculate on a relationship between a market for the bike and forces that push someone to take the bike in the first place?

While talking about these things with a ten year-old child, she said, "But you can't pay a tree."  This was the distortion inculcated.  She imagined a dollar bill left on the stump and correctly recognized the silliness.  But, payment is based on satisfaction of need.  You will not do for me if I do not give to you what you recognize as meeting a need, and I must comply because you hold either your action or material in a protected condition.  The tree's wood, the ore in the ground, a chemical or the power in water are not protected, there is only a degree of difficulty involved in taking them.  Overcoming the difficulty is not compensation.  If it were, then those who have to travel far to buy food would get it for less!

"You can't pay a tree.”  But trees have needs: water, certain qualities of soil, light, atmosphere, temperature range, wind, insects, birds and other animals, bacteria and molds in the soil, certain association with other plants, and more (to be left alone!).  While less clear, ore bodies or oil pockets and the surrounding substance have the need to be undisturbed in order to remain as they are, part of the physical process of the earth's crust; and, perhaps more persuasive to a pragmatic human, remaining as they are does not release heavy metals, silts and other extraction wastes into streams, onto the surface or into the atmosphere.

The essential need of anything is to remain in a sustaining condition in its ecosystem or physical cycle.  Specific needs are all adaptively structural into this overall need.  Protection from harm meets needs in this paradigm just as well as supplying some metabolically vital substance.

Every successful (long lasting) organism adapts to meet its own direct needs and to function as part of the sustaining structure of its ecosystem.  It does this through direct adaptations and adaptations that modulate and inhibit its own primary need meeting behaviors from upsetting the balanced sustaining structure of that ecosystem.

This last is exactly what humans have not done.  Humans are at the beginning and untried stages of their very unusual--unique—adaptation; the speed of application, power and range of effectiveness of the human Consciousness Order adaptation combined with certain of its present defects (primarily the nature and role of illusion), may limit the chances of humans surviving long enough to adapt fully to their environment by bringing the power of their adaptations under evolutionary and ecological control.

Taking without even the recognition of the need for compensation is just one of the difficulties for humans and distorts all subsequent economic relationships.  A second distorting reality occurs when compensation is based on the power of the protection over holdings rather than on value.  A consequence of these distortions is the drive to incredible excesses of accumulation rather than supporting the goal of using as little material as possible to have as full a life experience as possible  – a manifestation of this is the confusing of the quality of life with the amounts of our accumulations.

What we do is take whatever is unprotected, invent ways to protect what we have brought into our sway, and invent ways of defeating the protections of the other chap.  All of this fidgeting about for advantage vis-à-vis other humans leads to a complete disregard for any non-human source that we might take from.

The processes of compensating and protecting complicates and complicates, eventually becoming economics and politics: creating power, creating explanations and justifications for our actions and creating the systems of ordering principles, such as how interest rates relate to unemployment rates and the complications of the money supply. Such explanations all serve to distract attention from concrete evolutionary realities, and are used to render such arguments as these presented here as foolish when, in fact, these arguments are the essence of our continuing life on earth.

It must be understood that human biological success is not a positive function of our present definition of economic success, but rather is the opposite.  Economic growth, technological development and increasing per capita wealth are the sure representations of a species out of control.  Spreading and increased taking is modeled not on the behaviors of the large carnivores (representing 500 million years of evolutionary history and millions of potential examples), or the behavior of any complex creature.  It is modeled by a wild fire that burns all the available fuel until, nothing left to burn, it extinguishes.  If this is to be the major result of human evolution, the fire could be the very fire of life on earth, and the fuel could be the bulk of life sustaining substance and opportunity.

No organism can base its existence on increasing rates of uncompensated taking from fixed amounts of material and energy. What humans have been successful at doing, so far, is forcing the consequences of their taking onto other creatures, weaker cultures, yet unborn humans, and into distorted relationships with each other and the environment.  Seen with any clarity of perspective, this obviously can only go on for so long.  We can only refine, patch and postpone the effects of this style of relationship with the environment to a point, beyond which we will quite simply be unable to keep up with the total ecosystem distortions and failures.

There is a very strong tendency to reject this sort of thinking for a variety of not especially sound reasons:  “It is not positive. It is doom and gloom.”  “There seems to be no way to respond effectively to this argument and still keep 3 cars and stock in tobacco, nuclear weapons and East Indies hardwoods.”  “This can't be right since we would have to live differently; and if it is right, it’s too hard.”  “This can't be right because there is no way out if it is right.”  These all share an essential reason for rejection—'We don't like the consequences.'

Well... as my children might say, "No duh.”  If a situation presents you with only undesirable consequences, then you had better pick the options that offer the greatest chance of coming to a new position with some desirable consequences, even if the initial effort is the more difficult.

It is to the immediate benefit of those who profit from the present patterns of material excess to deny that there is any problem or that we as a species are by our excesses contributing to our own destruction and immeasurable harm to balance and order in the biosphere.  No powerful corporation is going to say, "Don't buy my stuff because its production harms the environment.  Our workers are exploited.  You don't need it for any sound reason. And finally, it does not even do what we imply it does anyway."  Even though these might be the more true of all the things that could be said about a product.

When the goal is to get as much stuff as you can – the insatiable desire for goods and services talked about in economics – from a limited world of finite resources, a distortion of perception devalues all ideas but those that support the goal.  If the goal is to use as little as possible in the most efficient way so to live as fulfilled a life as possible, all ideas and experiences become valuable.  Experiences, understandings and feelings about and from self, others and the world become the essential ingredients of life.  We understand from this perspective that whatever we have we get by taking and that we have a responsibility to find an effective means of appropriately compensating that taking.  For every other organism this is solved in the evolution of their various instinctual behaviors, and it was for humans part of our development when we lived within the Living Order principles of the environment.  We are no longer given order by the environment in which we evolved and so now must make such valuing and compensating a part of a cultural ethic if we are to regain our balance and leave an inhabitable world for our children and grand children.

Another argument against these views is to say that it is fine to take without compensation what is not owned.  This opens the thorny issue of what it is to own a thing.  In the view presented here it only means that the thing is in a protected condition (by force or threat of harm; finally based on the willingness to inflict greater harm than a potential taker is willing to endure in the attempt to take).

This is clearly the truth of things.  It is only necessary to see what happens to desirable material when the actual protections are weakened or removed in social disruptions; the facts of ownership go in direct proportion to the failures and rearrangements of the power to protect.

Material or land that is not protected from taking or is in a condition of protection that is very weak compared to the power that is brought to the taking is seized without thought of compensation because "it is not owned".  It is then "owned" by the taker and may be used in any way that the "owner" wishes, again without compensation.

Ownership is then one of those illusions that distorts and misguides human relationships with other humans, objects, creatures and territories in their ecosystem.  Humans have finally assumed that they own the whole biosphere and can do with it as they please, when in fact humans are but a part of the biosphere and depend for survival along with everything else on its unmolested continuance.

The failure to have instincts that guide behaviors toward a symbiosis with the
ecosystems in which we live, and the failure to develop thoughtful behaviors to the same purpose upon recognition of the inborn deficiency, may will be the ultimate failure of our adaptation.  We might simply take without compensation or respect until the sources work their final and greatest power, to be used up and gone from the earth forever (or even gone or unusable for a few days or months, if immediately vital for life, would be equally devastating).

So the answer to the original question: We take what we have, because we can, from the finite supplies of the biosphere, as does every other organism alive today or that has ever been in the nearly 4 billion years that life has existed on this earth. However, every organism on earth, other than present humans, compensate for their taking by returning to the biosphere, in appropriate amounts and forms, what is required to maintain the balance of life sustaining physical and organic processes.  A moment’s reflection will make clear that if this were not the case, life would not presently exist on earth.

That humans take without compensation is not a clever or "slick" move, i.e., the way that humans function in their economic exchanges is a serious distortion of the systems of compensation that have evolved as ecosystems – interwoven symbiotic exchanges of material and energy through interpenetrating physical and organic cycles.

The evolutionary rule is to take what is needed and to give back what is needed.  Every organism must take (space, minerals, water, organic materials from the dead or the living, energy).  Every organism changes the space in which it lives by its presence. But every organism must take and modify place in such a way that there will be material to take tomorrow and all tomorrows to come; the processes that replenish must be supported and not overwhelmed.

I don't know how to make this point with the authority that is needed; it is the most important understanding in the world for humans: no species can take without compensating.  The evolution of organisms within ecosystems is the structuring of mutual interpenetrating balanced exchanges.

If humans continue to apply their adaptive powers, without major modifications toward truly compensated taking of material and energy, they will do such terrible damage to the physical and biological cycles supporting life in the biosphere that there will be a cascade of extinctions of millions of species.

This could mean that Homo in the present subspecies form lasted a little over 100,000 years, not even a good wink in geological time (the scientific name is an appellation I cannot in good conscience apply. We are many powerful things, but wise is not one of them).  If the last 3 billion years, from the beginning of simple but reasonably abundant life on earth, were condensed in time and played as a two hour movie, humans like us would occupy about 1/4 of a second of film time (7 frames out of 202,000) and then we would, along with millions of other species, disappear.

My best guess, however, is that humans will not become extinct. Such an event would require an almost unimaginable set of devastating conditions--the very fabric of the biosphere would have to be seriously torn to kill the cockroaches, rats, humans and other broadly adapted and adaptable creatures.  For the most tenacious species to be extinguished, the very atmosphere would have to be unusable for some extended period of time, all the water poisoned, lethal amounts of ionizing radiation released or some other primary conditions of life totally disrupted.
But should we, and it is likely that we will, continue on in our present fashion, changes will be precipitated beyond which it makes no sense to try and see, other than to suggest that, at least for a time, taking will again be compensated and humans will have "returned" all that they have taken in a great convulsive act of repossession.
All this together puts people who recognize and understand it in a very difficult position.  The natural evolutionary “goal” of any species is to function in a sustaining relationship with its environment.  In personal terms for humans this means using as little material and energy as possible to attain as vital, dynamic and spirit-filled life as possible.  The consequences of this goal are balanced environmental relationships—the natural flow of life and death, speciation and extinction, adaptation and innovation in physiology, anatomy and behavior for 10's, 100's, 1000's, 1000000's and even billions of years.
However the social, political and economic dynamic of our time supports, encourages and demands that people use as much material and energy as they can and accumulate in a protected form as much (of everything) as possible (this is a basic tenet of economic theory).  These behaviors are what society approves of and values.  Not accepting and performing these behaviors is considered subversive, lazy and stupid (if you're so smart why aren't you rich!).
Both are realities.  To be "successful" and accepted in the society, a person must consume excessively.  To be true to our humanness and to meet the goal of being part of a sustaining ecosystem we must consume only what we need and must actively find ways to compensate all takings.  The excessive consumption and its collection of supporting values has a clear end consequence for those who will see; no less than the damage of life sustaining processes of the biosphere and the violent readjustment of life to the dramatic physical changes (not just human life, but all life: virus to mammals).  We would leave a legacy not of wealth and power for our children, but a legacy of contamination, disease and the violent convulsions of population reduction, economic disruption and political failure – if they were lucky.

The consequence of using only what we need – consuming very much less of everything – would have immediate consequences nearly as economically devastating as an economic collapse (it would be an economic collapse, but could be in part controlled), but if thoughtfully engaged, disease and contamination could be minimized, and the convulsions of population reduction and political failures also minimized.

It is, however, unlikely that humans will consume less so long as they can consume more.  It is unlikely that humans will see the consequences of their actions and mitigate against them when they can take now and leave the full price of compensation for their children to pay later.  So the dilemma is how to live in an excessively consuming society seemingly insulated from recognition of its most likely future?

The question is: Do you consume to excess and contribute a tiny fraction to the problem that will not be solved anyway, appear "normal" and live with the recognition of the potential to be more fully human, yet not make the effort to be so?  Or do you consume at the level of needs, reduce the tiny fraction of your personal contribution to the overwhelming assault on ecosystems, live to increase your humanness, but in the process be undervalued and even condemned by significant parts of your society; be judged crazy, lazy and irresponsible (such a terrible thing to be called irresponsible when acting in the only possible responsible way).

This is the simple reality of the choice.  All that depends on it is everything.  It is impossible to act in a benign way.

Sanitizing Economic Exploitation

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—it’s more a secret code).  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 longstanding 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 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.

Unprotecting Middle Class Wealth

(Preamble: The professional economics community is looking at the present economic perturbation (2008-09) as a case of food poisoning – an accident of the process.  They are describing the progress of the poison in the body and its metabolic effects.  No doubt it is important to understand these processes in order to speculate on a remediation, but I am more interested in whether the poisoning was intentional and who might have either ‘done it’ or let it happen. And if intentional, for what form of gain.)

Economics is about those processes and designs that distribute resources.  It is also about the accumulation of, movement of and motivations created by value added in exchange.  And it is also about the protecting and the unprotecting of any resource or accumulation.

Economics has a natural history comprising 3 major stages: (1) distributing the personal excess from hunting and gathering among family/group members, an economy fully commingled with the natural economy of an ecosystem; (2) exchanging locally abundant resources among related, extended groups on a break-even model; (3) trading “valuable” resources among potential enemies on an a trade-advantage model.

The first maximizes the benefits of a resource, strengthens group ties and increases the health and wealth of the whole group.  The second makes available to a coalition of family groups the benefits of a larger region and creates ties of mutuality among larger groups of people covering larger geographic regions.  The third makes trading a substitute activity to taking, creates the abstract notion of value added and creates new forms of relationship among human groups that because of distance and difference would be potential enemies, i.e., competitors at the margins of their physical and cultural territories.  It is based on a balance between the power to protect ‘our’ wealth and the power to unprotect the wealth of others.  Our present economic models, from communism to capitalism, are all forms of this last; capitalism is just putting economic taking on steroids.

Human biology and Consciousness Order have properties that give design to how we do everything, and so give properties to our economic behavior.  The efforts of mathematical economics are attempts to describe how these behaviors work so that they can be predicted, but most economists have made the natural mistake of thinking that economics is somehow separate from the human substrate the way gravity is independent of the exact nature of the matter of its origin, only a product of the total mass.  Economics is not like that, it is completely a product of human design – at least it was until some decisions began to be made by computerized algorithms.  All that is needed to undo much of the mathematical work is a change in attitude or expectation in a population, thus the great energy devoted to controlling (conserving) these very expectations and beliefs.

While the predictions of economic models have often been unreliable, there are some general ways of looking at economic behavior that will continue to make sense so long as we operate on the principle of maximizing the accumulation of added value, i.e., the principle of trading with enmity.

After teeth brushing and putting on clean underwear most of our present lives are devoted to protecting our wealth and unprotecting the wealth of others (actually teeth brushing falls into both categories).  My boss has a volume of wealth.  I do the things he asks to pry loose some agreed-on amount, that is, my actions unprotect his wealth for a moment.  My labor wealth, in turn, as been unprotected to a measured degree.  He protects his wealth by not letting me just go his pile and take some; rather he has devised a system so that exact amounts can be delivered to me and others.  I look for ways to unprotect as much as I can in the normal course of my activities (who knows how many pencils he has bought me) and my boss looks for ways to both protect his own and to unprotect mine.  Every action in our economic lives and, many actions in parts of our days that we do not specifically recognize as economic, can be put clearly into two lists; actions that protect our wealth and actions that unprotect the wealth of others.

Our present economic fright is so transparently the result of a group of wealthy people trying to get more by creating and discovering ways to unprotect the little bits of wealth held by millions of average people!  There are two basic ways to do that: control and offer a product that a great many people can be convinced that they need (Microsoft, food) or use the taxing system to get the many to pay your debts when you default on paying back money what you “borrow” (S&L defaults in the 1980s).  Microsoft requires a product, infrastructure and a lot of work.   “Mismanaging” vast sums, skimming off millions and then getting the tax system to bill the people requires the right contacts and political power.  Mismanagement and stealing is by far the easier and the spare millions can purchase a lot of help.

Of the 300 or so million people in the U.S., there are only a few tens of thousands who really understand the opportunities of the money system, really know how to unprotect wealth on a large scale; and of those who know how, only a few have the connections to do it. The wealthy are very good at protecting theirs; it is a lot of work to unprotect their wealth and seldom worth it except for the random freelancer.  The masses have a lot of wealth, but it is in tiny, widely scattered chunks.  The infrastructure to unprotect and gather from them has to be huge (thus the neoconservative growth of government).  Therefore, it is necessary to use the banking system and the government’s taxing powers to do the job right. 

Oh yes, and where are those people who know how the money system works? They are drawn disproportionally to the banking/investment infrastructure.  And where is the power and opportunity to develop political connections that can empower these people and make available the tools to unprotect the wealth of others? Right there in the same banking, investment and regulatory community.

It looks to me that we have a case understandable in terms of small-time ‘stickup artists;’ you know, some petty thieves specialize in convenience store robberies, unprotecting wealth with a cheap revolver.  Some mega-crime families might very well specialize in banking/tax system robberies: getting a lot of money moving, ‘losing” a bunch of it on paper and getting the ‘government’ to cover the losses.  The last mega-heist was when George H. W. Bush was vice president and president and now this one when George W. Bush is president.  The boy is good! Out did his dad in the destruction of Iraq and now has outdone him with a banking scandal.

I’m not suggesting that the Bush boys put a bandana around their faces and used a Saturday night special (although Neil is still a mystery), but I am saying that the forces to unprotect wealth are like the water behind a dam; when you make a crack it just flows right on through.  When the power of government taxation is made available by allowing, even pushing for, institutions that are too big to fail and oversight is so weakened that the regulators (sic) and the thieves can plan heists together, then the responsibility is that of accessory before the fact; a crime as serious as that of the actual perpetrators.

Was this an accident of the financial system? Not bloody likely.  If you think that there is not a group of people with their funnels all built and ready to collect the shakings of the money tree into their coffers, then you probably are still looking to buy stock in Lehman Brothers.  Could this have been a swindle that got out of hand? Possible, but also not likely; I think the plastic sheeting was put down ahead of time to guard against the blood stains. 

The normal protections for the wealth of the middle class was lock-picked by the banking/investment system and the complicit taxing infrastructure is being used to collect the booty.   In the 80s and early 90s taxpayers paid 125 billion to have money stolen from them (estimates of the true total cost are as high as 1.4 trillion dollars).  This time we will pay a thousand billion (we cannot even speculate yet on true total cost) for the privilege of being robbed.  The rhetoric of “saving the economy” is just so much boilerplate to cover a huge transfer of wealth to the economic elite made possible by Bush administration policies (and later on by Obama policies).  And you can count on it: every “correction” of the system will be analyzed for its potential use to further unprotect the wealth of all possible targets.

That is the way unprotecting wealth works.  All wealth (capital, labor, debt, real estate, invention), any place that money moves or wealth is stored, can be skimmed from, secreted away, nibbled at, relabeled and otherwise have its protections momentarily weakened or removed.  Smashing the window of a car unprotects the purse inside, getting a no-bid open ended contract without enforceable performance conditions is still a smash and grab job, albeit more complex. 

The argument that government needs to be run like a business does not, but should, remind us that the business of business is unprotecting the wealth of the consuming public.  It is in the mindset of those in business: “How do I get a potential clientele to trade their wealth for my product or service?”  Innovation, niche hunting, “marketing”, planned obsolescence, deceptive pricing and sizing, deceptive advertising, finessing safety and environmental regulation and many more actions, “good” and bad, are devoted to the primary event: when the wallet opens and the wealth is exposed.  When business and government combine, business naturally sees the potential of government functions and powers for unprotecting the wealth of the masses. This has a name.  It is fascism in democracy’s clothing.

The Real Economy vs. The What-if Economy

The Real Economy is my belly and the aurochs’ meat: the Real Economy (economy = ecology) is the energy and material flows from primary sources through the myriads of ecosystem and biophysical transactions.  Eventually all economics must comport with the Real Economy.  The What-if Economy (what economists call real!) is an ad hoc design concerned with putting off that accounting.

Real Economy: There are 100 aurochs in the river valley. Left to their own they will remain, year in and year out, about 100 wild cattle, as long as I and other predators take below the replacement rate.  This is especially true, and even valuable to the cattle, if we predators take the most marginal animals, a natural consequence of getting the greatest return on the least investment in the real economy.  These are functional forces independent of human thought, imagination and planning; the forces of the Physical and Living Systems of Order working as they have for 4 billion years.

What-if Economy: If I can get some of those wild cattle into a pen and stop the wolves, lions and bears from getting any, then I can have all of them for myself.  Of course, the wolves, lions and bears do not stop trying to eat the cattle and thus time and effort must be expended to drive them off or kill them. Fences must be built and maintained; the cattle guarded. 

Cattle must be parceled out as incentive for others to help, promises made for cattle not yet captured or born.  If I had more cattle it would be easier to gain the help of others; I would be more secure.  Of course, more time and effort would be required to protect them, to account for them, to find pasture for them, to process them.

The promises made must be kept: a cow to this man, three cattle to that woman, a calf here, a bull there.  The cattle must be more easily controlled; bulls must be kept from the cows; dangerously aggressive animals must be killed.  Other grazers must be kept from competing for the pastures.  All of these things and more must be done so that the numbers can increase to meet needs and obligations.

There is no end to the What-if Economy; there is always another what-if, another challenge from the Real Economy to be defeated, another possibility to be explored.  But eventually, the auroch cattle are no longer wild and cannot live on their own, eventually local pastures are insufficient, eventually stream courses are damaged and eroded.  What if we kill the beavers up the valley and dam the stream here? What if we take the pastures further down the valley? What if we trade some cattle for the gathered fodder from the people over the hill?

This seemingly simple and obvious process has grown and mutated until the Real Economy is actually conceived to be a pressing danger.  A summary of the statements of What-if Economists is that if humans are prevented from continuing to damage the earth’s primary Real Economy systems, then our way of life will be destroyed and millions, even billions, of us will die.  What makes such a summary compelling is that it is true.

It is also true, if humans continue to treat the Real Economy as a foreign and competing process, that the failure to comport our What-if Economy with Reality will result in the failure of both the ecological systems that allow for the support of abundant and diverse life, as well as our What-if Economy.  The result would be catastrophic for the human species and for the incredible complexity of ecological integration that forms the living structure of the planet’s surface.

There is only one solution.  It is the solution that every organism, plant, fungus, microbe, animal, in the history of life has followed.  The economy of the organism must comport with the economy of the ecological system: economy must equal ecology.

This doesn’t mean that every organism’s detailed functioning must be the same; new physical designs, physiologies and behaviors are de rigueur for life – but all that is new must be integrated into the patterns of biophysical reality: every organism must live within homeostatic limits.  Nothing about the special adaptive capacities of the human species have changed that reality; we have simply used our capacities to discover how to violate those limits for a time and are moving nearer and nearer to the unavoidable consequences of those violations.

So how must the human species live in order to comport with the Real Economy?  The simplest answer is “very differently.”  It is impossible to know, with any certainty, the details since the result will come from complex “negotiations” between human actions and ecological realities; every successful organism solves its problems in special ways.  But, the general outlines are clear.

Before developing these general outlines, it needs to be said that there is no obvious and clear way to attain them.  It is unreasonable to demand that an imagined situation should always be accompanied with a detailed plan for its implementation; this is not now we commonly work and is only a way of refusing to consider an option.  We have always recognized a goal, decided on its desirability and then discovered, in process, how to accomplish it.

There are only four primary conditions that we must meet. The failure to fully meet any of these conditions will be (will continue to be) catastrophe for either our species or for the whole planetary surface:

• Humans must live within environmentally determined energy and material use limits.

• The environment must not be perturbed to a greater extent or at a greater rate than it can repair with uninterrupted natural cycles and processes.

• The conditions of human nurturance – the raising and educating of our young – must fully support our biological potential.

• The recognition of the need for biologically sound principles of human nurturance must include the clear recognition of the special nature of the human Consciousness System of Order adaptation, its powers and dangers.

Since, at the moment, we are doing none of these things, the statement that we must live differently is much too weak; we must radically change almost everything that we do every day.  Notice that I do not say that we have to change “who and what we are,” but we must change many, if not most of the things we do in order to become what we are.

  – Suffer me a polemic: as an evolved creature on the earth, there is a particular way for our species to be on the earth just as with every one of the billions of other species that are, or have been, here. If, as a species, we are dis-integrating to the order of biophysical processes, then we must be acting in ways antithetical to our biological nature; which, in our case, results from the failure to meet the third and forth conditions above. –

The science is clear (physical sciences, biology and the economics that includes the Real Economy), the earth cannot support the present rates at which humans are using it.  It is also clear from human history that we, the masses, will not tolerate abuse by other humans beyond certain limits.  These two facts point toward more egalitarian social economic forms.  Conditions 3 and 4 can only be obtained in communities sized by human capacities for responsible relationships of obligation across the whole community.

Recent history strongly suggests that large institutions become self-sustaining at the expense of all four primary conditions.  And so, responsibility for all actions would have to clearly be put on natural persons answerable to a community, a community that is informed by sufficient processes of communication.  Institutions would need to remain small, flexible to a social purpose and transitory.

There seems to me to be only two ways for the four conditions to be met; the last time all the conditions were nearly completely met was when humanity was uniformly composed of Paleolithic hunter/gatherers – and even then the forth condition was only very vaguely adapted to and was almost completely unrealized.  So the first possibility would be to return to Paleolithic ways of living; the present earth could support perhaps a few million people living in that way—the population of only one of our moderately sized cities, a thousand times smaller than at present.

The second way is to devote, in essence all, the incredible disposable wealth of humanity, much of it presently being privately confiscated in the insane pursuit of personal glorification and dominion, to discovering how to live in communion with the Real Economy and educating those that need it to such discoveries; especially, empowering and educating the women of the world and retraining the people of the developed world how to live simply and responsibly.  The mechanisms to accomplish this use of resources should be the first concern for students of the Real Economy.

The What-if Economy must begin to be seen for what it is; concerned with its “Rube Goldberg” intellectual inventions, Ponzi schemes and power/control plans; a social science co-opted and compromised by accumulations of wealth; and a complex mechanism to defeat the Real Economy, an attempt to allow a species, out of control, to defeat Reality.

Human Need and the Economy

Human economies have no separate existence; they are not some universal latent design waiting for the human substrate to be displayed.  We ask the wrong questions with: “What is wrong with the economy and how can we fix it?”  Our first efforts must be to understand the origin of how we have come to exchange materials and behaviors, and then to ask: “Is this how we want to do our exchanges and what are the consequences?  It may seem a monumental task to retool the present way of assigning value and doing exchanges, but the current depth of troubles are pointing more and more directly to the conclusion that our present economic structures have run their course and are placing us, and the earth’s living systems, in the greatest peril. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have begun as a classification of the internal motives of human action and the order in which they dominate our experience of life, but they have become a ‘selling’ list for the entrepreneur.  A most basic biological tenet is that an organism is to be in primary control of the behaviors, environments and situations that meet its essential needs; that is to say, it is to be well adapted to its environment.  A basic tenet of the entrepreneur is that no human need should be able to be met by the simple and direct action of the person; a way is to be found to intrude into the space between need and need meeting behaviors, or the material for the need’s satisfaction, and to extract some amount of the energy in the transaction.  And that is to say, a defining quality (as I have drawn it here) of the entrepreneur is very similar to the biological definition of parasitism.

In today’s human environment people do not directly meet their own needs, they purchase the terms of need satisfaction with abstract tokens that are intended as representations of energy or work.  Such tokens only have power when a large enough number in a population honor that representation.   And here is the tricky part: once people, structurally, have no means to meet their own needs by their direct action, then they must have a design or device that will move collectives of others to meet those needs.  The consequence of this ‘reality’ is that ad hoc systems of exchange have transmogrified into economic structures.  This is understandable, but what is not clear is why humans would see such tertiary, quaternary, etc. designs as primary… with magical properties.

Actually, it is not so mysterious; once we came to depend on these Rube Goldberg systems for the movement, storage and protection of abstract tokens of exchange, imbuing them with magical powers was a very human thing to do.   This leads, ultimately, to a conflict of global proportion.  The primary biological directive: ‘stay in direct control of need meeting behaviors and situations’ is challenged by the economic realities of an overpopulated and abstracted world where no need can be met without tokens of exchange; need-meeting opportunities all now have tollbooths.

We are at a place where the loss of faith in this Madness can destroy billions of lives, human and non-human.  If we stop and wonder at the efficacy of existing money systems, if we even ask that they be examined or re-examined against biophysical models of reality, there is a great cry of foul, the threat of “economic failure”, even the threat of physical force.  Also, those most vulnerable to perturbations in the system are actually harmed by the very suggestion of concern.

This is not to say that we are discouraged from giving attention to economics; it is understood that the designs of exchange can be a compelling study.  How the tokens of exchange are given stable tradable value, how items and behaviors are given value based on the stabilized token values or where and how these tokens move or are to be stored and by whom, these are all questions that generate real, complex and fascinating options.  But when such processes are seen as essentially immutable and more important than life itself, then a high level of insanity, strutting as authority, is doomed for a fall.

In our present situation this thinking leads to powerful contradictions: imagine that it is reported that “people are consuming less;” which is a good thing for the biophysical reality.  If this were to become habit and expectation, we just might be able to begin letting the planet heal itself, slow the loss of biodiversity, restructure human-environment relationships and just maybe begin to discover how to act in recognition of our outsized powers as change agents.  Everyone would discover how to do with less, much less, than we do with now.

But…  “people are consuming less;” so ways must be found to get people to consume more because the designs of the economic system require that consumption increase over time.  If consumption slows, then the movement of the tokens of exchange slow and the designs that stabilize the value of the tokens and that assign token values for items and behaviors are perturbed.  Trust is lost in the tokens and the whole structure becomes endangered.  Since the only way to deliver essential needs is by the efficient functioning of the economic system, millions will suffer from even the slightest doubt or concern about its efficacy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is nuts.

No one is of the opinion that humans can increase in number and use of earthly resources forever.  It is clear, even to crazy people, that a bucket can be filled and then can hold no more.  Sensible humans recognize that we have been, for sometime now, trying to overfill our place on the planet.  This is bad news and most people do not like bad news, but then again most people prefer bad news to worse news. 

Sensible people must continue to hammer away with the ‘bad news’ that material possession is a drug delivered by a pusher economy, and that devoting time to avoiding the ‘tollbooths’ is more species verifying than working for the tokens to pay at them (I don’t think it bad news at all, since a simple life has proven for me to be far more fulfilling and purpose-filled than the “economic” life). 

We will only be able to change the present total domination of almost every detail of our lives by an exchange-token economy by being able to meet the most essential of our needs by our own efforts: that is the bad news.  And it is also good news since there is nothing more rewarding than to be in real control of even a short life compared to being the disenfranchised observer of a life owned by an economic system.

Financial Derivatives

Various people and institutions have accumulations of wealth often in considerable excess of their needs, wants and even usefulness. Two things are done with the excess that is too much to even consider spending in the classical sense of that venerable activity: first, as much as possible it is hidden from those who might have a moral or legal claim to it like workers or tax collectors, and second, constant efforts are made to find places to put excess that cause its amount to increase.

This last is the especially tricky part.  Money left sitting untended slowly rots away – a bit like those movies were the treasure crumbles to dust in the hand, even refrigerating it does no good.  It must be (carefully, remembering the taxman) put out into the dangerous Autobahn of high speed and high stakes monetary transactions; but where?

A savings account?  No, the amounts involved will not be covered by the FDIC, and the interest rates that banks pay to use the deposits are almost zero.  People with great excess want it to increase on steroids and are willing to take considerable risk, especially if they can hedge their bets or even use the power of wealth to manipulate the “investment environment.”  Besides, they know that banks are screwing depositors since they often own banks.

Stock market?  Better! Careful selection of stocks, insider trading and computerized trading can increase the yield and over the long term the aggregate stock value has gone up ahead of inflation.  But again the amounts involved, record keeping and regulation of the stock market and the difficulty of being really ‘creative’ (read ‘manipulative’) make this option less desirable.  The same can be said of the bond market.

With the traditional investment options looking less than exciting and with billions and trillions of dollars that must be put into some fructifying motion, the “smart ones”, who make money by moving around the excesses of others, looked and looked for all the possible ways to get that excess moving at the fastest possible speed.  Investment of this excess also must be done in such a way that the return is in real wealth and as little as possible the simple trading of virtual wealth among the wealthy; although a certain amount of this virtual trading is required to perform the necessary slight of hand to turn virtual into real wealth.

And the question is never ‘should it be done?’; never ‘what will be the consequences?’ The only question that matters is: ‘Will it work to protect excess wealth from rotting and also grow it very fast?’  And certainly it is never asked: ‘What is all this excess and virtual excess wealth really good for anyway?’
* * *

It is claimed that the derivatives market is too complex for ordinary pea-brains to understand – only the geniuses of financial wizardry can get it.  It is supposed to be like quantum mechanics combining with relativity in grand unification theory.

But that is, frankly, crap.  It is actually more like the castles, cars and giant robots made of Legos that used to be seen in shopping malls; outsized, seemingly complex representations made up of many little pieces; though it is true that no ordinary human would spent the time and effort. What is not clear is how someone thought up such things, but how they actually got made is not such a mystery, more a matter of many details strung together.

In essence, a small (comparatively) amount of real wealth is given to a financial institution in exchange for an IOU for a much larger amount of virtual wealth and various bets are made on whether the virtual wealth would be successfully turned into real wealth.  The bets are made using the virtual wealth and act as a hedge that will turn some of  that virtual wealth into real wealth.  And when this scheme failed as it must, it had grown so large, and the real vs. virtual wealth so confused, that the banksters could argue that the only way to not have the whole economic system collapse was for the real wealth of the general public (taxes) to cover the virtual wealth created by their bets.

That is derivatives.  It doesn’t matter so much what the details of each derivative structure is or was; there is no question that they are ‘computer complex’, but they are also manipulated by those with control of the derivatives speedway like a clever dealer can manipulate a card game.

Poker is complex, so is even ‘little’ blackjack, but ultimately they are, like derivatives, gambling games.  They are bets against one outcome and for a different outcome.  When you bet with money you don’t actually have, the amount you bet becomes real money in the minds and behavior of the people at the table.  If you win, you will be paid even if your bet was an IOU.  If you lose, you have to pay off even if you had nothing but the IOU to begin with. 

Derivatives and hedge funds, for all the fancy language about ‘creative financial instruments’ and ‘risk spreading to support financial innovation’, are ad hoc gambling games driven by huge excesses of both real and virtual wealth looking for some place to go (and virtual wealth ‘looking’ for the magic door to go through to become real wealth).  And in this game the dealers get paid real money for writing IOUs for the players when they make leveraged bets.  The players then gamble with the IOUs – some of the time treating them as real wealth and some of the time betting on whether they will become real or not (new bets invite new IOUs and so on).

On a small scale this would be like a backroom poker game with card mechanics doing the dealing in which the bets are made with matches that the players get to cash-in for dollars taken from the customers in the bar out front. But derivative markets and hedge funds is a world wide game; IOUs for from 500 to 1000 trillion dollars have been written, more wealth than the earth holds (world GDP is about 70 trillion), and are treated as a debt that the people of the earth must honor at least in part.  Since the IOU holding people are the oligarchs who dominate governments, we ordinary working stiffs are being told that we have to cover the IOUs that were written, more or less, out of thin air.

Now how hard is that to understand?  No matter how cloaked in legalize and economic jargon, it comes down to the excessively wealthy, believing themselves entitled, have written a number on a piece of paper and the rest of the world is supposed to honor it as if it were a tangible asset.  Asked for proof of its value, we are shown a Lego structure of a castle, told it is real and that it is just too much for us to understand.

Explaining Job Creation

I recently had a humbling, even humiliating, conversation with my 90-year-old mother – she is the only 90-year-old person that I presently know and while she doesn’t stand for all old people, she is somewhat typical of a segment of them.  She never recovered from two powerful forces: the events of the depression and its apparent swoop into WWII, and the confusion and burdens put on southern womanhood.

Being from the Deep South, she grew up as a titular Democrat, but was converted by my father’s father, a very political man and a Republican from West Virginia– all Civil War related selections.  I know that such choices, driven by ‘ancient history,’ seem of no present consequence, but many are still driving significant parts of, especially rural and southern political positions.

So my mother said to me, unwisely if she wanted a quiet breakfast: “Without the rich people there would be no jobs; ‘it’s the rich who create the jobs.’”

Now, I had matured, slightly, in my 68 years up to that moment, so I didn’t throw things or hold my breath until she took it back.  Rather, I recognized an opportunity to have a go at explaining the error of her ways; a practice session, if you will, for other hard cases.  Old people (I didn’t so designate myself yet) are slippery in matters of the mind: they have accumulated lots of tricks as well as can pull the ‘I’m too old to understand’ routine.  I was prepared: hadn’t I played checkers with this lady since I was 5?  Hadn’t I argued every cause from civil rights and Vietnam, through Reagan being a fool, to George Bush being a fool?

I tried, “Now, just how do rich people create jobs?”  I hoped to spark some reflection on the process of job creation, but got the predictable, “They are the ones with the money to hire people.”  Her stare began to get a little vacant and I couldn’t tell if she was reflecting on the possible logical fallacies she was toying with or if she had recognized the trap I was setting and preparing an escape.

“Why would they hire someone in the first place?” I asked.  She noticed right away that the game had been changed from creating jobs to the actual act of hiring a person and played for time with the ‘I don’t understand economics’ argument.  I would have none of it. It was not a question that she wanted to answer and so we moved on into the land of the simple and hypothetical.

“Imagine that you are a shop keeper.”  I knew that she was ahead of me and had, at some level, capitulated when she didn’t ask what kind of shop. 

“Imagine that you are shop keeper and you have very few customers; will you hire an employee?” 

Mother, “Of course not, that would be foolish.”

“Now imagine that customers start coming to your shop and you can’t effectively handle them all; would you hire some one?”  

Mother, “Oh yes, you would have to.”

“So, are you creating the jobs or are the increasing numbers of customers forcing you to hire help?  Certainly, you are important in creating the environment in which hiring can take place, but can you really say that you are creating the jobs?” 

Mother, “I see that more customers require that people be hired.” 

There seemed to be, to my mind, a rewarding cognitive dissonance bouncing around in her head.

“And the people hired are doing the work needed; they are producing the result, not just you.  So shouldn’t they receive reward in proportion to their contribution?”

(I have left out that near the beginning of this conversation she told me of her father working for a steel foundry in the south, working with management, where the laborers lived in company houses, were paid in script and were effectively captives of the company.)

She sort of coughed up a semi-noncommittal agreement. 

“Now suppose that you hired an accountant because your time was needed in the shop, and that the accountant told you that you could make more money by paying your employees less, that you could get rich; would that create more jobs or only make you wealthier?”  She didn’t respond, but adopted a pensive look.

“No one would think it inappropriate for you to take more money from the profits than the employees since you created the environment in which profits were made, but you did not do it all; the others who work with you also have an interest in the shop and should be compensated in proportion to their contribution.” 

Mother, “Yes, I see that.”

From there the conversation went to The Spirit Level, a book on inequality by Wilkinson and Pickett.  She thought it a very sensible and understandable observation that inequity results in social instability.  She was surprised that the U.S. was one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

I was feeling pretty good by now.

I gave her Bernie Sanders’ commonly presented statistic: “Have you heard that, in this country, the 400 richest families control more wealth than 150 million of the least wealthy people?”

“Wow, we better keep those 400 here!” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Those 400 richest people must really create a lot of jobs.”

Making Sense of Work, Part one of five parts

When words have quite different meanings for different people, especially when the differences are based in ideology, then communication can be worse than non-existent; it is actually counterproductive.  I speak to you of a ‘good thing’ and it is heard as a ‘bad thing’: “Hurrah, women have the right to choice about how they use their bodies in the procreation of the species,” heard as, “Women can murder God’s unborn children denying them the opportunity to love Him.”  Aside from the significant pathology inherent in one of these statements, it is clear that the same words contain more misunderstanding by “understanding” the language than would be the case between non-communicating speakers of different languages.

I chose a ‘dog-whistle’ example for affect, but my main interest is economic language.
Think of the arguments around employment.  The first level of consideration is; ‘Are there enough jobs and what do they pay as compared to the cost of living?’  Millions of words have been inked and pixeled about this.

Failure to see the consequences of doing these jobs, at any compensation, pits human economic employment against the physical realities of planetary life – not so different after all from the example of dis-communication above.  Also, what is the true nature of an economic system where full-time necessary (for the economic system) work can be compensated at less than is needed to live at near modal levels in the economic system?  Further, what does it say about an economic system that diminishes the importance of the very most essential work – the work that is the most central to the maintenance and improvement of the system?

One of the first things that is the most obvious and almost completely ignored in our understanding of work is the incredible number of different kinds of jobs done in the modern world. The multiplication of activities done by humans is in itself a great mystery when looked at in the compressed “book” of history: in a Paleolithic village humans did about 50 different things that might be called jobs and almost everyone could do most of them with at least some minimal level of competence [1].  There was, of course, specialization, but it was purely an adaptive efficiency as opposed to economically driven in the most common present understanding of the term.

The Neolithic village possibly doubled the number activities and some became the province of particular people or groups by virtue of the skills and tools required, as well as the economic efficiencies created by the specializations.

A list of the occupations from the censuses taken in England in the mid-nineteenth century is more than a 1000 entries long.  And while a few of those activities have been lost, most have only changed in proportion and many more have been added as we come to the present day.  It is clear that the list could be compressed by grouping many of the similar jobs, but it is also true that the people doing them may have seen them as quite different.

From another point of view, today’s IRS lists 319 quite general business/professional categories (see section C, 1040 instruction manual). Ford motor company might list under ‘4231100 – Motor vehicle & motor vehicle parts & supplies manufacturer’; clearly, many of these business activities are supported by 100s of different kinds of jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification for 2010 lists 840 categories that it calls “detailed occupations”.  Each of the detailed occupations is usually further explained with 3 examples of specific occupations.  In most cases it is easy to add several more specific occupations that most people would see as different jobs; if there were an average of 5 specific jobs represented by each of the detailed occupations, then there would be nearly 5,000 different types of jobs represented by the SOC list.

If we take as the rule that any activity requiring specific training, skill or capacity to do is a different kind of work, then there are, today, probably 10,000 or more different kinds of activities that can be called work or, if compensated in some fungible form, jobs.

What does it mean when all the different kinds of work required to maintain a culture and way of life numbers about 50, then increases over time to the range of 10,000?  This is not the sort of thing that you can just ignore the origin of with a smile of self-congratulation and an “Ain’t we cool.”  At the very least there is a need to look at the work (jobs) to see what is being done and why.

First, if we look at the work required in a Paleolithic village, the reason for every type of work is obvious and, more importantly, it is clear that the types of work support the integration of the people into the community and the community into the environment that supports it all. Throughout the space of a year one person might do half or more of these activities, if for no other reason than practice or imitation.  Some activities would be assigned on the basis of gender, age or status, but no activities would be seen as unnecessary or unworthy; no one could perceive their role as isolated and independent of the whole, either positive or negative.

A Wall Street Journal report (Jan., 2009) gives a list of the 20 best and 20 worst jobs from their ranking of 200 categories of employment [2].  Aside from the consequences of ‘having a job’ that defines you and is your sole source for meeting both essential and discretionary needs, which of these jobs seem the most essential to the society? And which of them are the most highly praised and valued in society? 

All of the jobs listed are required of our present society – it is true – but if you had to axe 20 of them, which ones would they be, realizing that to get rid of half of these jobs would result in a more simplified society where many of these activities, like the scientific ones, would continue to be done, only on an avocational level, and many activities would have to be taken over by individuals, groups and communities acting on their own? My list is shown in the second rending of the table; blue for the occupations I would retain and red for those that would go [2].  My guiding question was; “how would a simplified society function without this specialized occupation?”  You can see that the ‘best’ jobs fared worst and, in my view, the ‘worst’ jobs were the more essential.

There is something fundamental about our species being expressed when an “advanced” society has adapted to its increases in number and power by glorifying activities that are supplemental to basic survival while actively trying to diminish and marginalize those activities that are essential.  There is no “Chicago School” mathematical economic principle working its way out of the non-cognitive material universe on display here; this is human stuff.  This is something that we have “created” from our biology as we have adapted to our technology and our numbers; our patterns of specialization and our cognitive productions have formed our societies and economies.  These adaptations may not be the ones that will work in the world.

What is it about our psychologies that brings together all the myriad forces in the shifting configurations created by technology and numbers so that our present societies manifest?  The answer(s) will be vital as our economies and numbers reach their zenith over the next 20 to 30 years.  There is no question in my mind that unless we apply new principles of analysis and action to how our adaptations progress, especially in this period of increasing pressures from all directions, we will do very badly indeed.

One approach will be to examine questions like the ones I am posing here.  The next four essays will look further into work and jobs from both economic and ecological points of view.

[1] Work in a Paleolithic village:

Gathering berry, nut, fruit and leaf foods
Gathering root foods
Preparing gathered foods for storage or use
Hunting small game
Hunting large game
Skinning and butchering large game
Skinning and butchering small game
Preparing hunted foods for storage or use
Finding and storing water
Carrying water
Preparing and curing animal skins
Making work specific wooden and bone tools, utilities and weapons
Making work specific stone tools, utilities and weapons
Finding and collecting stone materials for tools
Finding, selecting and preparing wood and bone materials for tools
Finding, selecting and preparing plant materials for domestic uses
Finding, selecting and preparing plant materials for medical uses
Construction of hunting traps, fishing weirs and other infrastructure
Construction of shelters, utility and protective systems
Making of clothing and domestic implements
Making of ceremonial clothing and implements
Making personal ornamentation
Making of food storage and cooking equipment
Maintaining personal and community tools and equipment
Keeping watch
Walking and marking territory boundaries
Keeping records of seasonal, yearly and generational events
Creating and telling group stories and songs
Performing social, economic and medical rituals
Exploring adjacent lands
Organizing and leading social activities
Organizing and leading hunting/gathering activities
Organizing and leading aggressive activities
Maintaining fires and fire making
Maintaining and teaching cultural habits and traditions
Keeping track of obligations and exchanges
Walking, running, climbing (swimming)
Gestating and birthing babies
Caring for and playing with infants and children
Teaching children specific skills
Teaching young adults specific skills
Caring for the sick and injured

The Best and Worst Jobs

Of 200 Jobs studied, these came out on top -- and at the bottom:
The Best
The Worst
1. Mathematician
200. Lumberjack
2. Actuary
199. Dairy Farmer
3. Statistician
198. Taxi Driver
4. Biologist
197. Seaman
5. Software Engineer
196. EMT
6. Computer Systems Analyst
195. Roofer
7. Historian
194. Garbage Collector
8. Sociologist
193. Welder
9. Industrial Designer
192. Roustabout
10. Accountant
191. Ironworker
11. Economist
190. Construction Worker
12. Philosopher
189. Mail Carrier
13. Physicist
188. Sheet Metal Worker
14. Parole Officer
187. Auto Mechanic
15. Meteorologist
186. Butcher
16. Medical Laboratory Technician
185. Nuclear Decontamination Tech
17. Paralegal Assistant
184. Nurse (LN)
18. Computer Programmer
183. Painter
19. Motion Picture Editor
182. Child Care Worker
20. Astronomer
181. Firefighter
40 best and worst jobs reduced to the most essential 20
Job I would retain in blue, Jobs I would remove in red
The Best
The Worst
1. Mathematician
200. Lumberjack
2. Actuary
199. Dairy Farmer
3. Statistician
198. Taxi Driver
4. Biologist
197. Seaman
5. Software Engineer
196. EMT
6. Computer Systems Analyst
195. Roofer
7. Historian
194. Garbage Collector
8. Sociologist
193. Welder
9. Industrial Designer
192. Roustabout
10. Accountant
191. Ironworker
11. Economist
190. Construction Worker
12. Philosopher
189. Mail Carrier
13. Physicist
188. Sheet Metal Worker
14. Parole Officer
187. Auto Mechanic
15. Meteorologist
186. Butcher
16. Medical Laboratory Technician
185. Nuclear Decontamination Tech
17. Paralegal Assistant
184. Nurse (LN)
18. Computer Programmer
183. Painter
19. Motion Picture Editor
182. Child Care Worker
20. Astronomer
181. Firefighter

Making Sense of Work, Part Two, The Issues:

Most discussions of jobs center on the numbers of employed and unemployed, wage rates compared to cost of living, rates of poverty and the skills/education required for the various types of employment.  The conclusions are considered satisfactory when unemployment is reduced, minimum wages limit the rate of poverty and the social infrastructure is producing enough people with relevant skills.  But this is not even the tip of the iceberg – not even a good drawing of the tip of the iceberg.

Part one of this essay pointed out that the numbers of job and job-like activities done by humans has increased from about 50 or so in our long formative evolution to about 10,000 or more today.  These additional thousands are, for the most part, actions never before taken on the world; this has to be important.  And what does it mean for an animal species with its own behavioral evolutionary history and expression to have made this kind of change?

The first step is to attempt to identify the salient issues that arise from these changes.  To that end I present this humble offering as a first approximation.  I hope that others take up the challenge, modify and add to it.

What should be called work? Bertrand Russell’s definition [1]:What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.”

It is important to make a clearer distinction between the work that moves things around and the activity of ordering, advising and directing that movement: This “work of a second kind” is what creates, first, the possibility and then the necessity that work of the first kind will increasingly stray from activities that meet the primary needs of the workers to activities that will meet the needs of the order-givers.  Separating activity from directly meeting primary needs requires the intermediary device of recorded obligation, eventually codified into the various forms of money. This has made work fungible – any work at all, regardless of its adaptive consequences, can, therefore, meet basic needs by attaching real, need meeting work to other sorts of activities.

Strongly associating work with money leads to the ignoring of a significant part of the human experience: This further confuses the issues because there are need satisfactions that cannot be acquired with money, even though mythology of the present world implies otherwise. Prior to money as an intermediary form it was clear that effort expended went for all the needs, there wasn’t a distinction, at least not a clear one, between needs that could be purchased and needs that could not, since there was no purchasing per se; all needs were directly associated with their own socially and biologically based activities.

“Work” has come to mean doing something for someone else: When work is hired, the focus is not necessarily on the person hired, but on the work to be done (this is especially so when the person who wants or “needs” the work done sees the contribution of the person hired only as a detail in the completion of meeting a need).  This allows a pretty rapid disconnection between the needs of the person hired and the person doing the hiring.  When community needs and social systems of obligation organize the need meeting activities, whole-form relationships guide the exchanges – the exchanges are embedded in the social milieu, which is really an adaptive system responding to the total environment, biophysical and social.

Distinction between work and a job: A job is typically work that produces fungible compensation. In some extreme cases people will do work, that can be called a job, for direct need meeting (sign – “Will work for food”).  More commonly, we “work” around the house and go to our “job.”  Jobs that blur this distinction are the ones that the living organism generally cannot do without.

Very few jobs, today, are directly need meeting: Of the thousands of different kinds of jobs that people do in order to get the ‘money’ to purchase the material that meets needs, only a tiny percentage are directly need meeting; the rest vary from somewhat related to meeting needs to almost unrelated to any of the basic human needs.  What the jobs do is support the activities of some other person or group of persons creating, today, an almost impenetrable structure of interrelationships based on nothing more substantial than its immediate present form [2].

Every activity of an organism has a hierarchy of consequences: Jobs (activities of work) have a hierarchy of consequences that are largely ignored. Jobs also exist in hierarchical relationships to fundamental needs, with some jobs being absolutely essential and others completely fungible.  We, however, are discouraged from measuring jobs in this way.

The design of our social structure and economics distances and hides the consequences of our actions: Our food is on endless grocery store shelves, our water flows from the many spigots that surround us.  Autos, trains and planes, oh my, travel our bodies from place to place.  The doorman helps us with our packages. The dirty work-sick Congolese miner didn’t personally deliver the iPhone 5 and neither did the 14 year-old Chinese girl sent to the factory by her hungry family. The landfill is out of sight.  The sewage treatment plant is in the poor part of town.  Our complete dependence on the millions of others who are dependent on us is denied in our churches, on our media and by our politicians.

Assigning value to work, especially for fungible jobs: When activities (jobs) are directly need meeting, the value in performing them is easily derived.  When activities are distantly related to need meeting, or if completely fungible, then assigning value to them, that is, figuring out how much to compensate them, is very unclear and largely depends on the ideology one brings to the argument.  In general, those who have work to be done by others wish to compensate with as little as possible and those whose available work-time is used up doing the work wish to be compensated, at least, at a level that fully meets their basic needs [3].

Consumption of what we do not need is the key to human economic growth: and as a corollary, the jobs that produce what we do not need become a necessity so that people can obtain their primary needs, and then to obtain what it seems we must have, but actually do not need. And then, once almost no one is producing what is essential and almost all jobs are fungible, only increasing consumption of non-essentials can supply the jobs that allow for the purchase of essentials.

Job fungibility is ultimately an illusion: while it is useful to recognize that we treat jobs as fungible, jobs are allowed to be thought of as essentially the same because one acquires the money to meet needs from them, but they are very different in the fullest expression of their consequences.  One job may increase greenhouse gases, put bio-toxins into the environment and be sustained by the rejection of eco-reality and another may make negligible exchanges with the environment, function to increase the awareness of children for the issues that they must prepare for as they grow up and be enhanced by a scientific and philosophical perspective.  Yet, both jobs can have the same rate of pay and, therefore, be valued the same in a one-dimensional economy.

The absolute necessity that all human activities be reconnected directly to biophysical reality such that feedback is continuous and responded to: The work that we do in the form of our jobs offers the greatest difficulties.  The vast majority of the jobs being done, worldwide, at this moment are destructive of both the biophysical systems that sustain life and the mental, emotional and physical health of human beings.

What is the market? People often speak of the market as if it were an assignable entity, but it is the summed collection of desires that people are willing to act on in any given moment.  Within a society and economic system there is some stability to this broad statement, but that the summed actionable desires of a social/economic community may be relatively stable within a several year period does not in any way mean that the desires are sensible, reasonable or even possible.  ‘Letting the market decide’ would be fine if the market had some meaningful connection with biophysical reality, but it does not.

What kinds of work should people be doing? This is not a silly question – it is the only question!  When the only option for a job is any work that someone wants done, and is willing to compensate, then the adaptive process is driven by those few people who are almost completely disconnected from any but the immediate artifactual reality.
* * *

To me the most important generally unrealized issue is that humans are driven to make more and more changes to the world, to alter the position of more and more matter. The habits were established with the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, a process without precedent or guidance . The most basic structure of our underlying economic relationships is the misapplication of biological and social patterns evolved and adapted to the Paleolithic way of life; it is essential that our best thinkers begin to apply our newest most complex capacities to help bring the species back into the most basic adaptive relationships with biophysical reality.

[1] From “In Praise of Idleness.”(available online as a pdf file). Being thoroughly accomplished is a marvelous springboard from which to dive in almost any direction one wishes.  Case in point is Bertrand Russell who can say almost anything he wants and it will be understood to be coming from some deeper well with more pure water than most.  Let me say at this moment that you should read his essay on idleness.  I was only reminded of it (his story of the manufacture of pins is unforgettable, but, of course, I had forgotten it) after conceiving and writing most of this essay and am somewhat peeved to have been proceeded by so many years, superior talent and depth of thought; I can’t even claim to be writing in a more modern idiom.  Woe is me; oh woe is me.

A note to the reader who intents to read Russell’s essay: What he doesn’t point out when talking about work hours, probably because it was unrealized at the time – though it was available for the seeing should anyone have looked – is that materially simple communities living undisturbed in their original fecund regions and without the “helpful” intervention of “civilized man” only worked an average of 3 to 5 hours a day to sustain themselves with the degree of comfort with which they were, well, comfortable.  Their lives were not routinely brutish and short, though they were certainly more physical than typical today.

[2] Think of an interstate highway exchange where 3 major roads come together along with important ‘surface’ roads. While you might be only a half mile from some place once easy to get to, now on the other side of the exchange; today the immediate form of the roads can almost completely deny you access.  The roads are totally artifacts of human creation – and once in existence undeniable in their consequences.

[3] It should be noted: social structures that depended on ‘owned’ and kept slaves often caused some ‘owners’ to see that they were best served when the slaves were compensated sufficiently to remain healthy enough for the work demanded and content enough that they were not too much of a problem to control.  This is not the case with capitalist structures engineering unemployment percentages that let the capitalists treat workers like any other cost.

Making Sense of Work, Part Three, Consequences

Disclaimer: My motivation for writing about these things is not to change the world – although that could be a motivation: to try to make the world a more just and equitable place for my children, if it were possible.  But, the trajectory of the human presence on the earth seems fixed and has been for thousands of years.  I write to understand, not just understand, but to comprehend with depth and clarity.  I know that there is nothing new in what I am saying. I can find the shards of these ideas in the oldest writings: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Plato; and more contemporary sources clearly surpass my efforts: for example, Smith, Mill, Marx, Whitehead, E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, but I am not helped directly by these sources as much as I am by starting, first, from the things I know in my own experience and trying to construct an understanding piece by piece and then exploring these hard-won ideations in the writings of great thinkers.  These are not arguments to convince those who might disagree, though I wouldn’t mind empowering those who might agree with the method.  I don’t necessarily believe my own words, but I have faith in the desire to understand.

Billions of people require that a certain quantity and quality of selected activities be done by others on a regular, continuing basis.  The activities beyond the required ones and the distribution of those activities are the variables available for adapting to new circumstances.  Up to now we have adapted by adding activities beyond those required by basic needs and by distributing activities into more and more specialized activity-forms called jobs.  Activities, done by each person for themselves and immediate community, that sustain life, have gradually been replaced by “jobs.”  We cannot even imagine a world without the many thousands of different activities, integrated into the ‘ecologies’ of economic systems, that allow the reliable conversion of a five-dollar bill into a latte.

When the thinkable fails, then only the unthinkable is left.  Fortunately, the unthinkable is something that Homo sapiens do with some facility: each Great Difference in how the world is perceived was at one time unthinkable.  A small, integrated community, functioning on principles of personal and social obligation, could not imagine the use of money.  A large dis-integrated social system of emotionally isolated individuals cannot imagine functioning on systems of mutual obligation.  A monarchy cannot imagine constitutional democracy and vice versa.  A work-based society cannot imagine a leisure-based society.  Idée fixe is as much a part of the human repertoire as imagination [1].

When the thinkable becomes unthinkable the normal dilemmas of dialectical human life are critically compounded.  A relevant example is the idea of work.  Through a long history of propaganda driven only partially by strategic intention, more an adaptation to economic power, it has become unthinkable that a person should not ‘work for someone else.’  A vague sense of ill-ease attends anyone whose direct work product is devoted to their own needs (one measure of this is that many readers will not even be able to quickly think of what I mean by these words).  And in one of the greatest ironies in the long and evil history of irony is the almost absolute requirement, both social and economic, that every person ‘work for someone else’ in a vast ecology of interdependence, that this is the functional reality underlying the myth of personal self-sufficiency and individualism: individualism as the goad cynically used to drive the collectivism of work.

When people work directly to meet their own needs, the activities have two obvious qualities: (1) the relationship between the felt need and its satisfaction is transparent, purposeful and requires no search for meaning; (2) the satisfaction of need and the environmental sources of satisfaction exist in adaptive relationship through long established, functional feedback systems.  The consequence is that all of the elements of life, recognized or unrealized, function together with biophysical reality.

When people do work to get the secondary means (contractual regimens of obligation or money) to meet their needs, doing jobs that have nothing to do with directly meeting primary needs, the activities have four obvious qualities: (1) there is no adaptive connection, only circuitous economic links, between the work and the ultimate sources of satisfying needs; (2) there is no reason to do the work unless it is “paid” for; and (3) there is no reason to offer the opportunity of work unless the person offering the work can gain more from the work being done than the cost of getting it done; that is, some form of profit. (4) The gaining of a profit is ultimately tied to the uses of impressed or hired persons performing myriad activities of work.

It is the loss of the adaptive connection and the great head-of-steam that the remaining 3 qualities contribute to the ‘new’ design of work that concerns us.  The natural ecology, like all designs of reality, has limits.  The designs followed by human expansion have no inherent limits beyond those imposed by the natural ecology, which are thus seen as impediments to be overcome rather than cautions – the consequence of the loss of adaptive relationship.

We are now at a place where, perhaps, 10 % (700 million) of the world’s population are in some position to take care of their most pressing biological needs should the economic system cease to reliably deliver, and less than 1%  (fewer than 70 million) have all the tools of knowledge, emotional competence and agreeable physical surroundings to carry on the species should there be a complete collapse (this would largely not include the wealthy regions of the world).  This is not the failure of ecological systems; it is the result of humans expanding into the many thousands of activities of  altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter.”

The essence of that expansion has been the using of the time and energy allotted to each person for their own maintenance as a tradable service, exacerbated by the failure of community as the primary organization of the human unit.  To that strong statement I will add the even stronger one: work only makes sense in the design of the “native human community;” all other applications and conceptions of work are compromised by both reason and function.  I am claiming that the very idea of work cannot be understood in the present paradigm.  A different language and conceptual structure is needed; the present one is so distorting and misinforming that only confusion and false conclusion can come from it, there is no way to use the present language to even get to a point from which to proceed.  This is, unfortunately, of great value to maintaining the present designs of practice and understanding since to challenge them with the language that will be listened to is to give up the game at its beginning.

The key is community.  Humans are communal organisms, this has been true since before our genus, before our family and is the most common form of organization in our taxonomic order; all of our closest relatives are communal, as are all known representatives of our own species.  We gather in groups even if it is only with a face drawn on a soccer ball.  It would be remarkable (and unthinkable) if our most life sustaining activities were naturally done through isolated “selfishness.”

The counter example is instructive: What would the world be like if everyone was out for themselves at some absolute level? To even consider it requires the negation of the central premise: without some system of order there would be no life in the first place, and without the fantastical ordered system of social designs, from language to learned perceptual consistencies, every human ‘mind’ would be mush. The delusional condition that claims self-sufficient individualism in a world of cell-phone towers, super highways and international economic mechanisms is really just the most modern brand of the failure to make the difficult and complex transition from infantile to adult cognition [2].

Work in a community is measured against the value to the community first and to the individual second.  It is this order of priority that is most frightening to our present colony of “economic aliens.” Personal and individual “freedom” is supposed to be inviolable, but what this really refers to is impunity, not freedom at all [3].  This natural and essential order of priority organizes and gives meaning to work – actually removes the “job” from work and returns work to activities of purpose.  That we have moved so very far from that design in no way implies that such movement and such distance is a good thing or even a possible thing.

The adaptive pragmatism that has led us to this moment can be more and more clearly seen as an adaptive dead-end, the kind of random “effort” that litters evolutionary and adaptive history.  Human work – the collected activities in which we have engaged – is the prime mover of the events that presently surround us, and surround all of earth’s living processes.

Should not these concerns be of primary importance to economics?  The answer seems to be, no.  Present day economics is concerned with studying, if not actually supporting, maximizing profits, minimizing costs, optimizing input/output ratios, discovering financializing devices, “controlling” economies, growing wealth – by and large, to return to Bertrand Russell’s styling mentioned in essay two, “altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter” as much as possible, and to convert as much of that activity into profit making as possible; all with monumental, studied, disregard for any of the concerns and issues that might inhibit these actions.

The work activities of billions of people doing many thousands of different kinds of jobs is taken as a given rather than as a great mystery and even greater destructive force. Work, as we presently understand it, is a means for creating and increasing profits.  The shift from activities of work, that had in their origin the most primary and essential functions in life, generates two vast questions: how the shift of work from essential life functions became essential to profits and the consequences of all this non-adaptive activity has on the natural world.

[1] It is instructive to look at Marx’s understanding of historical process in this context.

[2] I have written before about the adult condition not being a state that everyone can or should attain in the natural community – that ‘adult’ is a personality/talent style like extrovert or musician.  The human community could contain a wide variety of options for human expression with certain people embodying the qualities that others could adopt acutely in times of need.  When communities are lost as a primary organizational design, humans lose that reservoir of optional experience, thus the pathology of celebrity.

[3] The essay, ‘the nature of impunity,’ is on the Metacognition Project blog and will be included in Book four of this series.

Making Sense of Work, Part Four, Prognosis 

It occurs to me that in an ecological system, the behaviors of species (made entirely of the behaviors of the individuals of that species) are constructed in such a way that actions supporting the individual also support the species and also support the ecosystem in which all events occur.  A very special form of competition has to be occurring – in a far simpler form, not unlike the competition of a baseball game – where support of the commons, the rules and principles of order, is accomplished in the very acts of individual ascension accomplished through ‘team play.’ This is a design long in coming, many trials in random attempts with only the most stable lasting, until an arrangement emerges – a new system of order – that is so stable that it cannot be dislodged except by the destruction of the more underlying system upon which it depends.

In the case of natural ecosystems this process was (is) mediated by the principles of interaction called, by (English speaking) humans, biological evolution.  There is nothing that requires those same evolutionary details to operate in other systems of order; it is only necessary that there be principles with the potential to form stable systems. If we are to understand work (and other large scale cognitive subsystems of Consciousness Order), we must begin to understand the principles that mediate the changes, the principles of adaptation, occurring within the system of order that includes imagination, wishes, models of events and maps of both physical and mental terrain; a system of order that is mediated by language and projects futures, tests options and measures a world that has not yet happened [1].

The simple fact is that the organizational structure of work, with its intermediary device of money as the way of providing basic needs, cannot continue.  We have come to the end of the effectiveness of that adaptation because work, in the present design, is only sustained by economic expansion, which is only sustained by greater and greater use of the earth’s limited productivity; and because of the destruction of the human condition that results from work’s present form.

Work has been cognitively separated from the people who do it; the activities are measured only by the products produced and not by the life-allowing needs the activities are ultimately intended to satisfy.  Measured in this way, only those who make a profit from the work activities are seen as having value since it is they who accumulate the only positively considered work product – all the rest is lumped together as a cost [2].  For the species to continue on without damaging, beyond repair, the earth’s productive systems (in our species’ time frame) this paradigm must be exactly reversed: the value of work activities must be seen in the quality of the lives sustained, with all of the time expended, products and services created by work seen as the cost.

Those who profit from the present design easily take on the habit of thought that “the workers are trying to take my profits.” It is natural to see the wealth coming to you as right and proper, especially if it provides the impunity of power; natural to see attempts at equity as assault.  This result is inevitable when work activities are organized as they are now and have been for thousands of years.  And the consequences of inequity are equally inevitable: to put the case in graphic terms, the rich are always surprised when the rabble rise up with the natural intelligence and organizational strength of the species and remove heads as a somewhat excessive therapy for the delusions of the wealthy.


We can say without much danger of error that the multiplication of human activities comes from imagining some new form of profit [3], a special form of the simpler imagining of ‘having more.’ The original (pre-Neolithic) model had the ‘desire for more’ moving people into direct interaction with an environment that “instructed” them on how human capacities functioned in the ecosystem; it was an immediate, all embracing cure for natural species’ arrogance and the special arrogance of consciousness.  We can also speculate with some confidence that, devoid of direct feedback systems attached to biophysical reality, the movement of changes created by the desire for more would be erratic and destructive of fine-tuned environmental relationships.

There seems to be two quite different ways of thinking about profit: economic and ecological. The present economic community is concerned with how profits are distributed by the various kinds of actions that businesses (entrepreneurs) take; that there should/could be a difference between the total costs and the total revenues doesn’t seem to be of major interest or is considered a non-question.  But, even the ingredients that contribute to there being a difference seem also to be classed as significant and insignificant more on ideological grounds than epistemologically sound principles.

Present economic “theory” seems interested in the business mechanisms by which profits are obtained and not the origin of profits per se; and so, the interest in entrepreneurship, entry barriers and monopoly, risk and uncertainty, equilibrium-disequilibrium and various other conditions that influence the ratio of supposed total costs to total revenues.  This is all very much “inside baseball” stuff and does not either realize or care that the motivations to create a game in the first place might be of underlying interest to both its existence and form and, at an even deeper level in the case of economics, that profits, as representatives of physical energies, must come from somewhere: that is, defining profits as the difference between costs and revenue tells us nothing about the origin of such differences [4].  What are the consequences for the various methods of reducing costs? What are the consequences for the various methods of increasing revenue?  What are the consequences for discovering/disclosing a new processes, product, service or coercion of labor?

Free Market:”

The Market is supposed to be a natural system that mediates the relationships among resources, products (from those resources), patterns of consumption, labor and wealth accumulation all through the assignments of prices: if everything were but to have its “true price,” then the human world would work as smoothly as mechanical physics or the predictions of the periodic table.  This is, of course, one of the most broadly held and flagrant madnesses of the modern world.

What the Free Market does is impose a powerful incentive system on the weaker and deeper incentives of primary needs. It is as if you were to move a powerful magnet into the region of a gravitational field; the behavior of objects in the sway of the magnet are distorted. Some, like iron, realigned with great disproportion, but almost all realign to some extent.  It would be a great mistake to assume that the local magnetic field was the natural order of attractive and repulsive systems – even though certain mathematical relationships could be established and would be reliable with appropriate limiting conditions defined.  However, if one lived long enough in such an arrangement it would appear completely natural – and failures of the model utterly inexplicable when its logic had to incorporate information and realities beyond its narrow boundaries.

The failures of Market thinking and consequence have largely gone unnoticed or mis-explained.  The billions of people in the most excruciating poverty are seen as suffering from cumulative personal failings; the sufferings are not seen as the ‘product of the Market’, when, of course, they are.  Resource wars and wars of territory are presented as coming from the insanity of particular leaders or the inherent “evil” of a religion (but seldom one’s own) and not from the incipience of war in Market thinking. The nature of work in such a distorting incentive system cannot be free of monumental distortion. 

The “Free Market” argument is, essentially, that the numbers of people needing employment, the skill requirements of the job, the number of job positions and the importance of the work to the maintenance of the economy will work out a “price” for the employment, i.e., a wage.  The hidden assumption for the proper functioning of this argument is that the economic system must be (homeostatically) just exactly at full employment; that is, that everyone who wants a job can find one, and more, that each potential worker has some (though not complete) choice so that needs, interests and talents can find appropriate opportunity.  Part of this assumption is that employers must compete for the best employees.  A further assumption is that all participants are either fully or, at least, equally informed and powerful in implementing their self-interest.

However, employers don’t want to compete for the best employees; their interests, really short-term interests, are best served when there are a large number of people from which to select.  To actually compete (which can only happen when labor is correctly priced!) wages must be raised, working conditions improved, incentives of various kinds offered; in general, the employee ‘costs’ the employer more.  The consequence is that employers want a consistently higher level of unemployment than is optimal for the society as a whole. 

Consumers of products and services, both market and socially delivered, want to get them for as little as possible; they therefore want low prices in the store and low taxes.  But, consumers, first and foremost, want the products and services – just as, in the end, employers must have employees. Now, with our attention sufficient distracted with these kinds of considerations, it is almost hopeless to think about whether a job is good for the world or not.

This state of affairs has created the driving forces and tensions that move the social structure and economic designs.  And what is missing is a consideration of the fundamental usefulness and consequences of the jobs that are being done.  Part of the present design forcefully ignores these questions by requiring that everyone who is capable have a job as the only way to get the means to remain alive, safe and reasonably comfortable [5].


Humanity and the earth are suffering from the almost complete disconnection between the systems that generate human activity (work) and the structures and functions of the biosphere including the biological nature of our species.  Humans will perform those activities that allow them to eat, sleep warm, reject dangers, spend time with agreeable others and see their lives in some perspective (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – they are all there, though, combined or euphemistic).  If the activities offered also contribute to the destruction of the space in which we live, too bad.

There is really is no option; the thousands of activities that we call ‘jobs of work’ must be reduced and simplified.  This can only happen if human expectations are simplified and returned toward sustaining the biological nature of our existence.  I have no illusions about the difficulties associated with those few words.  Those with powerful vested interests in the elite/slave paradigm will not approve these ideas.  Those who have lost almost all touch with any options for safety, comfort and status other than in the present structures will not approve these ideas.  But this paradigm is finished; only the frantic whirlwind of summing up remains.

Each and every human contains the possibility for natural community engagement and for the generalized need meeting behaviors that have been the hallmark of hominid adaptation for millions of years – these things are there just beneath the surface.  There even  exists the small positive probability that ideas such as these will reach some critical mass and then spread rapidly as the evidence for the described realities becomes unavoidable.

There is a simple life affirming way to be, a way (Tao, The Way) that has been sought for thousands of years.  In every generation some people have discovered and followed it even as the Great Many were drawn along by the madness of the elites and the shiny objects of technology.  The answers to our problems are not more and better jobs in a growing economy, but in the broad engagement of life by people in natural heterogeneous communities that are organized around the value of human activities as part of ecosystems. 

The earth’s rejection of the human enterprise, demonstrated through its failing biophysical cycles, is pushing us toward such a way of life, but with the terrible disinterest of evolutionary processes.  Human Consciousness Order can mitigate the most devastating part of these processes, has we have so often in the past in smaller ways, but this time it will be an effort of solar-flare proportion if it is successfully made.

[1] I return to this argument again and again, not because I have a limited imagination (though that may be so), but because this idea is like gravity – every time I turn up a new thought, there is this one ‘pulling’ on it with a constant force.

[2] This is essential to understand: almost all of the life affirming things that the Great Many do are considered to be a cost to business.  Since wages and salaries are considered to be a cost to business and since it is these wages and salaries that supply the means for everything from the most basic biological needs to the various luxuries of middle class life, the design of our present economy has an incentive to reduce or eliminate non-work, life affirming activities – regardless of the rhetoric that may be wrapped around business actions.  Listen to the “speech” about the value of the ‘working man’ made by Mr. Potter in the movie  “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a guileless presentation of the attitude still seen today and still spoken with equal candor by today’s elite when in the appropriate company (some of the Enron ‘boys’ caught on tape talking about California elderly; Romney talking to millionaire/billionaire donors, nay, bribers).

[3] The gaining of a profit is ultimately tied to the uses of impressed or hired persons performing myriad activities of work.

[4] A physicist, when doing certain types of experiments, measures the energies going into an interaction (exchange) and the energies coming out of the interaction, and when the energies are different, the origin of additional energy or the destination of energy “lost” must be accounted for. Economics, seemingly taking to this model, rather acts more like the alchemist or the vitalist and ‘makes up’ both destinations and sources to suit ideology while ignoring so-called “non-economic externalities” like biological systems.

[5] This has glossed over a vast and fecund literature.  It is essential to have some experience with Marxian economic and historical theory.  Reading Adam Smith, comparing to the present presentations of economic thinking, reveals just how much damage the perverse incentives of The Market have changed things in 240 years.

Making Sense of Work, Part Five, Epilogue

(Preamble: If one begins a construction project, the basic laws of the universe are naturally engaged by using the formulas of physics and the established principles of chemistry and materials science; no one would trust a contractor who denied the importance of calculating loads and tensile strength measures or refused to use standard mathematics.  We are not, however, offered the same assurances with social and economic constructions.  We must always be reminded of our biological origins and the role that history can play in both the understanding and the facts of our actions.)

Each organism has, in body and behavior, the capacity to supply (do the work for) all of its own needs; additionally required is an environment containing the complete range of need-meeting opportunities; otherwise life would not exist on the earth.  This is not to say that meeting basic needs is always easy or can always be fully accomplished; a percentage of the time some degree of needs are not met and if not met enough, the result may be the death of that organism.  The ecology and ethology of the organism gives understanding of the particular ways in which the species and its individual members function their capacities: every organism ever studied is seen to have specific adaptations and evolved designs matching it to environmental conditions and opportunities, often with shocking elegance.

Thousands of examples can be given of these adaptive solutions, even millions; any species that is well enough known would serve.  There are however two broadly different approaches to how organisms have evolved and adapted within this overall description: individual action and group action.  Most organisms act as individuals, though on a common species pattern.  This is easier and requires less complexity of body and behavior: the biology stamps out a jellyfish, it goes off and does its jellyfish thing; living or dying by its own actions.  That this may happen in the company of thousands or millions of its own kind is only an issue of the total environmental condition and not organized group behavior.  On the other hand, many organisms have evolved to live in intimate communion with the integrated behaviors, and even the bodies, of their fellows.  It is simplest to live in collections of bodies as do many of the corals where “individual” polyps attach their “skeletons” together and communicate by various cellular connections and chemical “displays” through the water.  But this is still largely individual life grouped tightly and necessarily together.

Some insects and most mammals show the other form of organization: group structures in which individual organisms have functions within the group first and act as individual survival units second [1].  The Hymenoptera, the insect order containing bees and ants, carries one form of communal living to the absolute zenith that exists in our world: where the total commune is actually the functional organism, where individual bodies serve specialized and completely interdependent roles like the cells of organs in a single body.  Mammals have evolved several different forms of group function from herd groupings to the tribal behaviors of monkeys, apes and humans… with various other species mixing and matching aspects of both: elephants and cetaceans, for example.

I begin in this way because the human species has no reason to be seen as functioning differently than the billions of other species of life in the history of the planet. The religions and social hierarchies that we experience and claim as the basis of our special status are no more than complex behaviors originally evolved to control and organize our powerful adaptive functions in the ecosystem [2]. With the foregoing and the background of the four preceding essays it should be possible to see human work in the context of its biological functioning, as part of something more comprehensive than simply that portion of the social hierarchy defined as economics.

What the summed total of the previous essays in this series do not consider – though they do begin to draw images of the terrain – is how, in practical terms, to connect the activity design, in which humans have direct responsibility for their meeting their needs from primary sources, with the design in which essentially no one meets their own primary needs with their own hand; the design where individuals are fungible links in a vast network of activities with several competing goals, of which meeting the essential needs of its participants is only one, and not necessarily always the most important goal.  This is where seeing work (and other human actions) in a deep biological context serves two vital functions:

First, it removes the consideration of the activities from the narrow confines of political and economic advantage and, second, it places the activities in the context of the full spectrum of natural, Reality-based events and energy flows. The major multipart issue that we face is how to rearrange work and distributions of value created by work so that needs can be met, so that net human activity no longer negatively impacts environmental systems and so that the total human process appropriately compensates the biosphere for our extractions of material and energy.  What we cannot do is keep on doing what we are doing, it cannot be an excuse that we are unable to think of anything else or that other options are too difficult and disturbing of our present expectations.  These three absolute demands on our species, however, are umbrella over the nitty-gritty of a parochial reality that fails utterly to recognize the need. 

The key element in all of our options is how work and its value-creation are arranged. Frederick Engels summarized Marx's theory of historical change: “The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged.”  C. Wright Mills gave a compact paraphrase to Marx’s theory of history writing in The Marxists (1962): “Political, religious and legal institutions as well as the ideas, the images, the ideologies by means of which men understand the world in which they live, their place within it, and themselves--all these are reflections of the economic basis of society.”  And As Upton Sinclair said in even shorter form, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  The work that people do is the nexus of social order and expectation.

We know where we need to be, how we must organize our economic and social systems: briefly put: heterogeneous natural community sized groups serving as the functional interacting units; much reduced levels of the collection and manipulation of materials and energy (less economic expansion); the storage and exchange of economic products must support the social system by lessening the dependence on money based systems, using rather a hybrid of natural mores-based obligation and currency systems; community based mores that limit the accumulation of wealth and its attendant power.

I think it can be plainly stated that our current beliefs, mores and laws make these potential changes impossible.  However, if Marx’s theory of historical change is correct, as it certainly seems to be, the place to begin is with the nature and design of work since this is the contact point for all elements of society: the poor and middle-classes do the work and the elite classes depend on them doing it!  Rather than attempting to “get a man to understand something” that “his salary depends upon not understanding,” discover ways to change how he works, at what and how he is compensated.  To do this other options must be available to see… and seen as not only just possible, but desirable.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to say. The Cultural Revolution in China, a major example of an attempt at rapid large-scale social and economic change, got it monumentally wrong: autocracy cannot be the sustaining force for such changes [3].  What is required is a diffuse but functional community that actively looks for problems arising in the present model and develops solutions that can allow new understandings to develop (much like a natural community, but held together by respect and ideas rather than geography and direct material interdependency).

We need large-scale social and economic engineering, but our recent historical experience with such things are all either completely negative or have been become so in our compartmentalized history (1930s Germany, Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution in China, Cambodia in the 1970s, Chile in the 1970s and 1980s).  Such engineering requires some form of leadership; present distributions of power would almost certainly quickly resort to autocratic and plutocratic control, designing change for narrow constituencies at the expense of the vast majority.

On the other hand, there is one basic reality that must be faced if large-scale directed change, as distinguished from normal processes of adaptation, is to come from the masses: Human belief systems are not based in biophysical Reality, but are a collection of historically derived myths, present habits and experienced “reality” (including education).  I see no remediation for this fact other than the unrelenting presentation of these kinds of arguments.

I am sure that there are several ways that our species might adapt to the world events that our population growth and technologies are precipitating, but I present only one as a teaser to invite others.  I am basing it on the notion of natural community and the biological principle that an organism is only fully formed when growing up and living in the environment that meets its biological expectations.  And that being a fully formed member of one’s own species is the most desirable of all states.

Imagine that rather than the ad hoc and fractious social organization of modern industrial societies, that humans began to organize themselves into small effective communities based not so much on the pressures of economic expediency as on geographic association and mutual need.  There are a variety of possibilities for how such a thing might happen, but I will not go into them at this point.  Further imagine that such a community unit formed and developed functional designs as the present larger social/economic system was contracting – as it will be contracting in the not to distant future.  My example is one possible way that the community structure might form and direct the actions of its members.

The first requirement for the primary community unit, or nutrient group, would be to produce sufficient food and water for itself.  If in the process of this it was favorably situated to produce some selected excess, then the over production could be traded or sold through the system of currency created.  Each person could be, and most would be, associated with some other activity or skill than food production, as well as being responsible for a certain number of days of community service per month.  Among the items of service would be maintenance of community infrastructure like garbage collection, recycling, cleaning and repairing paths and roads, maintaining water systems; school support (including teaching – especially for parents); policing, local administration, community planning and so on.

Some people might be restauranteurs, various sorts of retailers, various craft persons like tailors and repair people. There would be scientists, writers, artists and entertainers as well.  But while people might consider these things full time occupations, only 15 to 20 days a month would be devoted to them [4].  Everyone would be expected to spend as many as 10 days working on food production and as many as 5 days on community service projects out of every 30 days.  No one would be exempt.  Of course, specialists would develop, and would be appealed to to increase the quality and efficiency of all the various operations, but they would still be expected to be part of all of the productive and community maintenance activities.

Working with other members and to community standards would give the person or the family unit full access to the community productive capacity.  The goal of production would be to meet the needs of the community with a cushion of surplus against periodic dangers.  Since everyone would have to spend less time on the production of essential needs and maintenance of infrastructure when everyone contributed efficiently, there would be a natural social incentive for such efficiency, but failure to contribute would have the added disadvantage of probationary levels of access to the community’s production and protection.  The seemingly instinctual nature of the sense of fairness could find easy expression in such a design.

Since something like this kind of organization is the only viable option to the most draconian forms of a future divided into multitudes of “animal” poor fighting over scraps and a militarized elite jetting around the world driving the poor to produce for them, there needs to be some possible route to such a different future.  Here is a simplified form of the best I have thought of so far:

Once a person (of a collective of persons) as become attached to a specific activity of work – no matter how isolated or narrow it is in the context of the “ecology” of the human economy – that person will most often do all manner of rationalization to maintain it and give it importance.  The thought that, in the ‘growing down’ of the economy, thousands of occupations and work activities will cease to be specific jobs by which a person “makes a living”, in favor of more generalized human functioning, will face massive resistance and will be demonized to an incredible extent.  But, there is nothing else for it (to use a British phrasing).  The process of job creation, not just in total numbers, but also in variety, is at the beginning of a reversal of historical trends. As humans captured more and more energy, first with behaviors, solar capture technologies and then fossil fuels, total numbers and aggregate consumption increased. Energy production, as well as mineral and biological resources, are reaching or have passed peak levels, and so, total numbers and aggregate consumption will begin to trend down with the necessary corollary that the varieties of jobs will concentrate back into fewer more generalized work activities.

One of the obvious and increasingly discussed responses to the reduction in job opportunities is the growing of some of one’s own food. The “proprietor” of a home kitchen garden – especially one that saves its seeds, establishes perennials and collects a nutrient base from composting – has collapsed a large variety of jobs into the single complex occupation of gardener/food grower.  If enough people grow significant amounts of their own food in such gardens (with the additional consequence of freeing themselves and their families from having to do some amount of remunerated activities), then the occupations that are replaced by the gardening activities will be greatly reduced or disappear in their present form.

But not only would the gardener have disconnected from the seed and fertilizer factory, but also from the middleman, the financier and banker, the regulator, the trucker, the warehouse, the politician that thrives on agricultural subsidies and others. Not necessarily replaced, though changed, would be the agricultural scientist, the ad agent, the insurance agent, the policeman, the farm tool and equipment manufacturer and again an increasing variety of down-stream economic participants. All this from a critical mass of people growing enough of their own food that they might feel themselves safe from the most immediate consequences of the loss of remunerated employment.

The forces that drove the segmenting of full human activities into more and more narrowly defined employments, that is forces of expansion and capital based economic advantage, will be weakened by economic contraction.  As people begin to take on more of the immediate responsibilities for food raising, equipment repair, personal entertainment, low cost low impact transportation and so forth, then the forces will have turned face and will powerfully move more and more people to become the generalists that humans have always been.  Organizing into heterogeneous communities of mutual support and obligation would be one possible outcome.

[1] Each phylum, class or order of living things can be described, in part, by how their species relate in these terms.

[2] …and have become wildly distorted as we have increased in number and power within the world’s normal functioning.

[3] The attempt to remake the social and economic structure of a country from the top down using military style force will only empower the sociopathic.  Rather than leaving existing patterns in place and attempting to show alternatives, existing work and social structures were criminalized and new work patterns harshly enforced.

[4] In some cases only a very few hours in a day would be devoted to the given task, while in other cases activities might be concentrated into almost constant attention over multiple days.  Some tasks might be done for a short amount of time every day and others only periodically.  In a small community, based on mutual obligation, these adjustments can be easily made.  The sense of personal choice in these decisions would be far greater than in our present situation.

The Welfare State

The Self-inflicted Wound Theory of state coddling of the poor, that they are robbed of their self-reliance by handouts, is not entirely incorrect, but only in very selected ways – which will be gotten to.  The more important issues have gone, as is often the case, largely unrecognized.  If poorer people and the rest of ordinary folk are to be self-reliant, take the bull by the horns and ‘make something of themselves,’ just what is it they are to make?  What ‘bull’ is it that they are to take by the horns? 

It is obvious that those who make the ‘state coddling’ argument are suggesting that the common person should take a mercantile position; they should look for those entrepreneurial opportunities offered in their communities and exploit them.  In this way they are supposed to pull themselves out of poverty or at least climb up a bit from the lowest rungs of the ladder, create employment for their fellows and supply goods and services to their neighborhoods and beyond. 

There is, however, an important caveat: the entrepreneurial activities must be done by the rules and laws set down by ‘their betters’ and must, therefore, support the superstructure that depends in large part, for its power and wealth, on the common folk remaining powerless and poor.  Most business building requires attachment to the banking system, meeting official standards and acceptance by some governmental authorization process – very often controlled by those already in the relevant businesses. The poor should become self-sufficient, but without actually gaining in the real power to control their own destiny because that would, of necessity, interfere with the elite’s control of their destiny: the poor and the ordinary do the work and the elite do the calculating – in large measure, calculating how to collect to their own uses as much from the work of the poor and ordinary as possible.  The poor and ordinary may be encouraged to become entrepreneurial in work from which the elite also gain, but only rarely should they aspire to the calculating classes.

I am reminded of an article from Life Magazine, it must have been in the 1950s.  (By way of context, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee had turned America into Paranoid Nation.)  I remember being upset by the article, knowing that I was expected to see its protagonist as a hero, but was only able to see him as a man without feeling and a thief.  It was supposed to represent the best of Americanism, to wit:

A successful businessman went out to live on the bum.  Dressed appropriately, he moved into the hobo ‘towns’ and adopted the hobo life.  This was not a story of growing empathy for and comprehension of, primarily, men ‘down on their luck;’ it was the story of ‘hobo makes good’ by applying the principles of self-reliant (anti-communist, thus anti-commons) thinking and practice.  Our hero noticed that the hobos left messages, on the equivalent of bulletin boards in the hobo jungles, about where to get handouts and other services.  He began to catalogue these messages; he reproduced the messages and began to sell them to the other hobos.  I don’t remember the details anymore, but it is not unreasonable that he might have begun to pay small amounts to both collect the information and, subtly, inhibit its free posting. 

The upshot was that our hero became hobo-wealthy selling information that was once, admittedly, inconsistent but free.  He emerged from hobodom having proven the superiority of capitalism, that you just can’t keep a good capitalist down and that there was something degenerate about those ‘others’ who didn’t seize the opportunity to raise themselves out of their miserable circumstances.  I remember seeing only a heartless thief taking information from the commons, hoarding it and selling what was once free.  His claims of having improved the lives of the hobos by giving them a superior survival tool seemed nothing more than happy-talk drivel intended for the impressionable masses [1]. There was, at the time, a growing recognition among the elite that the people had to be moved away from the ‘common man’ spirit of the New Deal and WWII; and Life Magazine was doing its bit for the cause.

The great mass of people are not capitalists; they are not hoarders; they are unwilling to ‘buy low and sell high’ when it harms their fellows.  A capitalist is someone who has collected wealth sufficiently, most often from the work of others, to use that wealth to gather more wealth by controlling the work of those others. This may be what we have become, but it is not where we began: The human animal is a cooperative species, the distribution of information, goods and services has been an essential survival behavior for the millions of years that our genus as been on the earth.  This is our context; this is who we are.

But it can be said that, today, the great mass of people live in a capitalist system which means, referencing the above, that their world is controlled by capitalists.  It is also true that the barriers to wealth are or have been lowered in capitalist systems for those who are willing, like the capitalist hobo, to violate human principles of cooperative life.  And so, our underlying habits of interaction have been under great pressure for a long time.

It is becoming clear: the bull that is to be taken by the horns is our human collectivist nature, our cooperative spirit.  Self-reliance is to be self-promotion over, rather than in support of, others.  We are to make something new of ourselves; we are to make someone who sees other people’s work as a source from which to extract some gain; we are to see other people as consumers of information, goods or services that we have brought, using inventiveness, stealth, the laws or raw force, under our control.  We are to see other human beings as a resource to be used for our own advantage.

The myriad forces that have moved us to our present madness include all the usual suspects: the various forms and distortions of competition created by the direct and indirect consequences of population increase; the qualities and quantities of power available to individuals and small groups allowed by technological developments; the special influence on the human peculiarity, Consciousness Order, by communication technology; the sheer magnitude of the abundance of which human collective action is capable, and the depths of deprivation we are willing to allow (or force) others to descend into.

The great mass of people feel these pressures as disconcerting currents and eddies as they ply their way in life traveling with the humanity that still remains in our communities and our cells. But the allure of abundance, the distortions of competition, the outsized powers of communication and direct force, all in a world of millions and billions of people, are taken up by a small percentage of people who are not as well formed as most, who give up the birthright of species humanity.  

In a sane world the antisocial rich would be ostracized if they could not be persuaded to rejoin common society.  The central value would be the wellbeing of community, not the accumulation of material goods for private and often damaging uses.  The entire sophistry built to justify and glorify self-interest, material accumulation and antisocial behavior is deeply dishonest and flies in the face of the several million years of the development of instinctual intuitions and social habits of our genus. 

The bright and shiny attract us to be sure, and the ease and the power to do just as we wish, when we wish.  But most of us outgrow such infantile motivations and become more farsighted and community oriented.  The best and the brightest of us become good human beings just as one might expect. Jack Welch, Angela Braley, Hank Paulson, Herbert Fritch and some thousands of others like them are not the best and the brightest; their salient quality is the willingness to ignore their humanity and the value of life for immediate personal gain [2].  Such behaviors that we would not allow at table are glorified as exemplary – how crazy is that?   “Isn’t is wonderful that Johnny is stealing food from his little brother? He is so talented!”

And so, with this context we return to the “coddled” poor.  First and foremost, the accumulations of the rich are really the accumulations allowed by community order and infrastructure, created by the community as a whole from the community commons; the wealthy are the beneficiaries of prior human achievement and the willing and unwilling contributions of their contemporaries.  That they have contrived ways to exclude a great many from the sharing in the abundance generated from the multitudes is their only real achievement.  Payments to the poor are, in most cases, a government enforced sharing of what should have been theirs in the first place.  The real question is not ‘should it be done’, but how best to fix a broken system in ways that cause as little distortion of natural human economics as possible.

An obvious solution would be for the social standard, enforced by the righteous indignation of the masses, to be that no one have a wealth accumulation in excess of about 3 to 10 times (the figure needs to be researched for efficacy) the average wealth of the poorest 20%.  Such a political and economic condition would have to be come to by a variety of routes, political, social and revolutionary, and I am not suggesting that it would be easy or even possible.  This is not a solution to our present issues, though it remains in my mind as a most effective eventual state that would contribute positively to many of our difficulties.

Once it is fully realized that the wealthy, even those with social responsibility, have acquired their abundance by fraudulently taking from the efforts of a great many and, without proper compensation, from an environment which ‘belongs’ to all life, then the question is not whether to have a welfare state, but how to organize a state in which the contributions of all the citizens are appreciated and compensated.

[1] It should be noted that there is an “ecology” to the sources of help.  The distribution of information would adapt to the rates at which the help could be delivered.  Spreading the information widely and rapidly would shift the patterns of attempted use and thus availability.  While our hero may have ‘enriched’ himself, it was almost certainly done with some level of destruction to the informal delivery systems that helped out these men.  But, when the goal is to exploit an opportunity, the consequences of the exploitation only create more opportunities; how lives are affected is not an important issue and only given lip-service.

[2] Just a few of the ‘billion dollar’ CEOs and related types.  Google “highest paid CEOs” or some similar search to become really annoyed.

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