In three earlier posts I outlined what I believe to be some of the core underlying problems that have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement – problems with our current economics, politics and society – even if the Occupy movement itself is yet to identify these problems itself while it rails against the symptoms of inequality and greed. In the next couple of posts I’ll offer some solutions to these three underlying problems.
The good news is they’re fixable. The bad news is that we have to do the fixing by fixing ourselves. And that’ll take time. And discipline. There are no quick fixes. That’s why I refer to my approach to fixing these deep societal problems as the Slow Revolution.
Inputs and outputs
The triumph of modern day liberal democracy and market economics is they work from the bottom up. Instead of a political class issuing edicts irrespective of the desires of the people, the people have a voice within democracy – if not to specify individual policies, as in a direct democracy, at least the power to oust leaders who are deemed inadequate. And instead of some centralised body dictating the number and price of goods to be manufactured, the market allows demands to be satisfied with far more efficiency.
However, these two triumphs of the Age of Reason have led to the Age of Unreason, for the performance of democracy and economics are only as good as the inputs. And the inputs are us.
If we are ignorant, uneducated, self-interested, fearful or deluded, then we will vote people in who will make bad decisions. If we only apply the efficiencies of economics to a portion of the supply chain, pretending the resource inputs are infinite, or the costs of waste or pollution are negligible, then economics will warp into something that is efficient at squandering resources and damaging the environment. And if we assume that all our desires are apt to the satisfied, then we end up not only with diminishing resources and a damaged environment, but we end up living hollow, unfulfilled lives.
There is nothing we can do to the system that will make it turn our bad inputs into good outputs. We need to change the inputs.
The first thing to do – and this is not hard in principle – is to expand economics. Yep. Expand it.
We need to bring as many externalities into the system as possible. This is not a new idea. Folk like David Suzuki have been suggesting for decades that we need to price the environment, which would bring the power of the market to convey information to bear on environmental issues. Likewise pricing pollution and carbon dioxide, or the cost of disposing of some product at the end of its lifecycle.
We need to consider the value of a great many more natural entities, such as natural resources, shared resources, wildlife, wilderness, ecological diversity etc. We also need to consider the value of many artificial entities, such as the value of being employed, of physical and mental health, of pleasant built environments, of time spent with family etc.
How do you price these things without just setting arbitrary values? You need to look at the impact each of these things has upon the ends of society and economics: i.e. our wellbeing (which I’ll go into more below).
Mine is an explicitly and unapologetically anthropocentric morality and anthropocentric economics and politics. There is no value beyond that which we attribute to the world. Yet we don’t attribute value arbitrarily. We attribute value dependent on our interests. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we understand what ‘interests’ are (see below).
So, for example, I don’t believe whales have any intrinsic value. Neither do unpolluted river systems. Nor biodiversity. Nor is there an intrinsic value to our current climate and temperature.
However, we have evolved both biologically and culturally within a very narrow window of environment, climate and biodiversity. We are finely adapted to that environment. And changing that environment means we are no longer as well adapted. That means it’s harder for us to achieve what we once did so easily. And there’s a cost of adapting to the new environment.
So we value our climate remaining the way it is not because we think the temperature range on the Earth simply ought to remain forever as it was over the past few millennia. But we value our climate remaining the way it is because it suits us for it to do so.
Likewise, we value unpolluted river systems and biodiversity and pleasant natural environments, and whales. Not for their own sake, but for ours. This is anthropocentric environmentalism, and I think it’s eminently rational. It’s a kind of environmentalism that any rational individual ought to adopt, whether they like hugging trees or working for oil companies. And it encourages us to protect and maintain a rich natural world, even if that means limiting our productivity, consumption or growth to do so – all for the greater long-term wellbeing of ourselves, our offspring and the rest of humanity.
So, by reckoning the value of these things – easy in principle, though difficult in practice – we can bring them within the fold of economics. This is precisely why we ought to price carbon. And not just have a few countries price carbon, but all countries do so. Because climate change is a global phenomenon, and all parties will ultimately benefit from minimising the impact of climate change (which is not to diminish the considerable game theoretic challenges in signing everyone up to a global agreement).
Likewise, we need to price those practices that lead to wellbeing, such as good health, living in a pleasant built environment, spending time with our families and even things like having hobbies.
It All Comes Down to Wellbeing
At the centre of this programme is the concept wellbeing. This is the end of society and the end of economics. Yet, as I’ve mentioned in my earlier post on economics, we tend to chase pleasure, not wellbeing. So, what’s the difference?
We all like sweet and fatty foods. We’ve evolved to like sweet and fatty foods. In our ancient evolutionary environments energy rich sweet and fatty foods were scarce, and the neurological mechanisms that trigger a burst of intense pleasure when consuming them served to encourage us to seek them out at every opportunity. It was conducive to good health to do so, back then.
Today is different. I needn’t elaborate on why, besides marvelling at the fact we now consider obesity to be a disease, one of epidemic proportions.
The thing is, our desire for sweet and fatty foods is not an end in itself. It’s a means to and end. And that end is health.
In our evolutionary environments, the best way to promote health was to seek out energy rich foods. The transient pleasure we felt when we acquired sweet and fatty food was not the end goal.
Yet today, many mistake the pleasure of eating sweet and fatty foods for the end. Not health.
Now, I don’t suggest that everyone ought to value health over pleasure. But I would suspect that just about everyone does. And if you do, then chasing pleasure at the expense of health is irrational and working against your deeper interests – it’s working against fostering wellbeing.
This is also not to say all pleasures are serving some deeper interest. Some evolved pleasures are now quite detached from the evolved ends they served, such as sex. With contraception, we can enjoy the pleasures of sex without conception. (Not that sex was only about conception, even in our evolutionary past. Sex is also about signalling. So even sex without conception is not uncomplicated psychologically.)
So this brings me to wellbeing itself. I would define wellbeing as the satisfaction of the aggregate of our ultimate ends, which are often defined in terms of our biological nature. Health, the absence of physical and psychological stress and pain, strong social and family relations, having children, being active and productive etc. They might differ from one person to the next, and individuals might have different priorities among them, but as they’re based on our biological nature, you’d expect them to be broadly similar across the entire species.
The trick is not to mistake the proximate mechanisms that evolved to promote these ends for the ends themselves. To do so, particularly to the detriment of our deeper wellbeing, would be irrational. Yet our current economic paradigm is built to serve this irrational mode by attempting to satisfy desires, irrespective of whether they harm our deeper wellbeing.
It’s no accident that sex sells. Or advertising slogans often say “indulge yourself”. Or that people often chase fleeting pleasures without actually improving their overall happiness. We’re encouraged to push those pleasure buttons because that keeps the economy churning – especially because the nature of those buttons means the pleasure is fleeting, so you need to keep pushing them, and some desires are either impossible to satisfy (such as constant elation) or the satisfaction depends on competitive with others (such as status seeking).
The Slow Revolution
The answer lies in making ourselves aware of this, and aware of what really promotes wellbeing, and pursuing those things. As they say, satisfy your needs, and your wants all disappear.
So, by expanding economics so it functions properly, and working on better understanding ourselves so we can inject the appropriate desires into the system, then we can begin to escape from the warped and unsatisfying economic paradigm in which we find ourselves today. Not only would the economy work to serve our deeper wellbeing, it would operate at a sustainable level and work to improve the state of the environment. Gross inequality can also be managed simply by valuing greater equality. You make greater income equality a value, and structure the economy to produce it as efficiently as possible. Economics can do whatever we want. We just need to give it the right inputs.
I’m not suggesting these things will be easy or quick to achieve. In the short term we might need some top-down interventionist measures until such time as the bottom-up psychological inputs are adjusted. This might mean adjusting the economic landscape through careful regulation to steer it towards producing the ends we desire. Such manipulation is difficult, and I’m no economist, but I believe it can be done, even if it’s not the ultimate solution.
The ultimate solution is the Slow Revolution. We change ourselves, and that could take years, if not decades or even generations. This is also where education is central to this picture. I’ll talk more about that in later posts.