Honest to God

Some days I really do feel what Chesterton said about liberals and liberalism — that he believed as much as he ever did in the latter, but the innocent time when he believed in the former is gone. As I grow old and learn to grow content with contempt, I do find myself more pleased with liberals because they are angry with many of the actors responsible for much of the calamities conservatives bemoan. But for Fawkes’ sake, they do not know how to fix what is wrong.

 

Take the following exhibit. Rightly so, the author enjoins readers to rescind any sort of understanding of economics as a science as natural as physics — physics has laws, economics does not.

The most pernicious legacy of this fake physics has been to entice generations of economists into a misguided search for economic laws of motion that dictate the path of development. People and money are not as obedient as gravity, so no such laws exist. Yet their false discoveries have been used to justify growth-first policymaking.

I chuckled in assent reading a glib little sarcastic line: “Like a well-trained child, growth will apparently clean up after itself. ” I went on to mostly agree with the postulation that economics is in fact not like a well-trained child, that, in fact, “extreme inequality and environmental degradation are the result of policy choices, and these choices can be changed.” Bravo-mostly. I get nervous when people start talking about the environment, especially liberals, because these days no one seems to think the environment would perhaps be the first to benefit from a far simpler, less technological world.

Lo-and-behold!

Let’s take off the hard hat and give up on reaching for the economy’s control levers because they simply don’t exist. Instead, put on some gardening gloves, pick up a pair of secateurs, and start to steward the economic garden. And if you think that sounds laissez faire, then you’ve never done a hard day’s work in the garden: it calls for getting stuck in, digging, pruning, weeding and watering the plants as they grow and mature.

How can economic gardeners help to create a thriving economy, one that is inclusive and sustainable and will help to achieve the sustainable development goals? By following two core principles: make it regenerative and distributive by design.

Regenerative economic design ensures that instead of using up Earth’s resources, we use them again and again and again.

A strong breeze of green industrialism broke through all that clear, brisk air of sober reasoning and criticism. The blog I found the article on quoted that first paragraph and I indeed found the solution to be laissez-faire, but I persisted. I figured, if the author encouraged some personal responsibility in doing things themselves, that could be fine. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean the exact things she went on to describe. Some day, you’re going to find her words in the mouth of some actress narrating a commercial for Microsoft: “We learn to work with, not against, the cyclical processes of life, including those for carbon, water and nutrients. ” It ought to be said that isn’t a bad sentiment, but it’s good depends on the speaker.

At present, we have one who essentially wants things to stay the same, but with the addition of green technology.Like always, the prescription begins with a hint of something that might actually cause society to change, but note the ending words:

Distributive economic design, in turn, ensures that value created is spread far more equitably among those who helped to generate it. Think employee-owned companies – such as the John Lewis Partnership and Unipart – that reward committed employees rather than short-term shareholders. Think community-owned renewable-energy systems that generate electricity along with income for community purpose. Think creative commons licensing that enables valuable innovations, like those of the Open Building Institute, to be shared, improved and used without end.

In Saecula Saeculorum. Amen. For the true hope of liberals is a future without end that has forever, once and for all, eradicated the errors of the past. This kind of desperation I have identified with and, again, currently empathize with. But to hand over those hopes to those working start-ups, “institutes,” and businesses is to essentially give them up. These things are rarities because that’s not the way that economically minded, profit-motivated people think. I have very little doubt that in the near and even distant future, we will still hear from liberals talking about this or that collective or business that just seems to get it right, and that we should look to them for an example of the future. Liberals have been doing this for I do not know how long. At least since the popularization, insofar as there was one, of communes.The sexual revolution was wrought with this esoteric sense of the inevitable. It continues up to this very day as LGBT and gender fluid persons are pointed to as examples of how we should all come to see gender and sex. But these people remain a rarity for a reason. Something about what they believe doesn’t change the rest of society. With regard to economics and business, those that undergo their work with a different ilk of principles have not changed capitalism, they have found space to operate slightly differently within it. Those people will still need places to operate, so they will need contractors and developers; they’ll need to borrow money to start, so they’ll need banks. And suppose that there will be a great amount of them in the future. All that means is even more money will be going to contractors, developers, bankers, and investors. So far from changing anything, they’ll provide a more charismatic face for the same voracious beast with all the world as it’s prey.

And indeed their goal will be to provide ethical or moral comforts “improved and used without end.” They’ll be there to say, “Capitalism is good and here to stay,” whether or not those words ever come directly from them. Nothing will change, the poor will still be a vulnerable lot of folks desperate for the comforts of the well-off. The Market will still be slow to accomodate their lack of purchasing power. People will still be distant and focus the majority of their time on work (a great many will easily take to the idea that they are helping society “go green” and become “sustainable”). Robots and sweatshop labor will still produce all of our gadgets and technology. And there may be new miseries that come from a misguided arch of progress.

The writer goes on:

So how can economic policymakers be more like gardeners in their approach? They should think of policy as an adapting portfolio of experiments, says Eric Beinhocker, a leading thinker in the field of evolutionary economics. We should mimic nature’s process of natural selection, which can be summed up as diversify-select-amplify: set up small-scale policy experiments to test out a variety of interventions, put a stop to the ones that don’t work and scale-up those that do. Nobel-prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom agreed. “We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society,” she wrote. “No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.”

Having once denounced the applicability of the logic of natural sciences into the realm of economics, the writer now believes we should nonetheless do exactly that. This time we ought to more or less start experimenting, as if we could eventually extrapolate and generate a theory that can be applied across so great a scale as the entire globe. Having begun saying there is no law that exists, we now see the writer advocating a course of action that presupposes that there is.

And the experimenting part really strikes me as arrogant. We ought to begin experimenting, as if we really have that time to waste, as if nothing worse can happen than whatever threats are admitted by economic theorists. As if we weren’t already experimenting enough because we’ve given up on applying tested and tried knowledge and experience.

The scientist’s admission that we “have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society” conveys a humility quickly abandoned with the words that we have to “build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.” Out of one side of the mouth, we are warned; out of the other, we are promised the sky. Systems do not evolve and adapt rapidly, mainly because they’re systems. A system is not meant to evolve and adapt. At least not quickly. Moreover, any global system will adapt slower than I believe the patience of a scientist such as this one can endure.

The article ends with a note of irony that is curiously naive.

Better still, every one of us can have a hand in shaping the economy’s evolution. Not just in how we shop, eat and travel, but in how we volunteer, invest and protest. In how we set up new businesses, save for our pensions, license our inventions, and power our homes.

We can change the world, we are told, not by simply being consumers, but by being slightly different consumers. All posited areas of change, except the licensing of inventions, are pure and flat means of consuming. (While licensing inventions implies a need for production, the author doesn’t seem to understand that we already have far too many inventions and people desperately trying to make anything to get a buck.)

It would do these types well to watch more Black Mirror. In the meantime, I can only suggest that it is not greater, ethical/moral innovation which the world needs, but simplicity. The environment could be greatly helped if more people spent time planting seeds in their garden and less time away from home, driving back and forth to jobs, vacations, and stores. People would be happier and healthier. But I am afraid the liberal has been caught and reeled in by the glitz and glamour of capitalism. Their imagination handicapped. They can foresee no future except one wherein we have what we have now and in even greater amounts, with far superior efficiency, and none or little of what by which we currently feel enslaved or besieged.

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