Thursday, September 24, 2009

Modeling capitalism on evolution

About a week ago, I received a YouTube personal message from someone in Bahai following the exchange below:

The message:
Interesting... You seem to know more about economics than I do. Aside from all the flawed policies of all the worlds goverments towards these issues there is the added deliberate "economic manipulation". Its almost like "America" doesn't want third world countries to develop. Anyway its a long topic of which I wouldn't mind sharing links on the subject matter as you seem to be as interested as I am.

I do think however that these problems are no more caused by "economic complications" than by sheer greed by a few confederates, no different from the thug on the street snatching a purse only this happens in board rooms and and the act is explained away as "company profit gains" instead of pure immoral and reckless behaviour. It has become acceptable because we were taught by TV, college, and the like that profit is all that really matters.

I've lived in Africa. My uncle was a farmer there and he had to close down his farm because South Africa was subsidizing certain farms that produce good all Corp foods from the wonder-havens such as spar. The country where I lived hardly manages to produce its own food now and I foresee a grim future if ever its food imports are threatened.

I dont blame the cooperates alone and I dont believe in conspiracies, there are enough (actually way more than enough) economists and financial analysts in the world to create models, and simulations with computers, to find economic structures that would eliminate imbalances and pull the rug from under the feet of poverty for all time. This model would, of course, have to be dynamic and capable of evolving otherwise it would be as useless as the one we have now.

I am a Bahai, and as a Bahai this is one of the things that we are trying to do, of course this would first mean that greed would have to be removed otherwise the system would be doomed to fail. The challenge now (I love the way he put it in his movie) is meet--the people of all the world must unite, be educated--in solving the worlds problems together, discuss, forget religious differences, partisan politics, power grabbing, materialism, and all the things that inhibit us collectively from reaching a social enlightenment the Buddha would marvel at.

On a final note I know this is long sorry. There is this note in the bible that says in paraphrase (Jesus shall in those days dwell on earth). Christians hold this to mean that the historical figure shall descend from heaven and dwell among men. I think it means that society shall have the individual capacity to realise truth for themselves and they shall dwell with truth and truth with them. Truth (not meaning the dogmatic views held by certain Christians of today) but scientific, philosophical, spiritual realization, like the fruit of all knowledge, shall be like a flower in humanities hand.
My reply:

I haven't studied economics, but I'm old enough to know a little about a lot of easily understood things. I think we have poverty for a very simple reason: Our global economy is backwards. We are paid to work, when it would be wiser to arrange things so that we had to pay for the privilege of working. And we pay nothing for the very real negative impact each of us has on everyone else each time we consume something, go anywhere, or do pretty much anything. If we were not allowed to do that--to secretly steal from each other because the price we paid for things incorporated a payment to be distributed to everyone else--then there could be no poverty. The simple act of consuming far less than an equal share of our world's resources would simultaneously increase that person's income to above poverty level. There is simply no way for the wealthy to consume such a disproportionately large portion of the world's resources without an enormous hidden subsidy to make that possible.

None of us pay the full price for the products and services we consume, and because of this, the more you consume the greater the subsidy that you enjoy. I see this as the reason for nearly all of our waste because it is the hidden subsidy that makes it waste in the first place. When it becomes cheaper to destructively harvest a resource from the environment than it is to recover that same resource from the waste stream the reason is always the same: the true owners of the resource, humanity, are not being paid for what is essentially the spending of the integrity of our shared biosphere to lower the cost of that input.

The other problem with our version of capitalism is that the more successfully it works, the more rapidly it raises productivity. But the faster productivity rises, the harder it becomes to avoid a falling level of employment simply because less workers are needed to produce the same number of goods and workers can not be redeployed like capital can--there is a long lag time for them to be retrained for some other role in a newer industry. Even with adequate savings, a rising level of unemployment creates a vicious circle by lowering demand, causing more workers to be shed, and so on. I think real economists call this "the business cycle." I'm more knowledgeable about simple things--so I call it what it looks like to me--the unavoidable chaos introduced in any system that misuses positive feedback loops--like the vicious circle plaguing our implementation of capitalism. (Outside of rapid amplifications, like explosions, such things have a limited utility because they're so hopelessly hard to control.) The important thing to notice is that it doesn't take even one evil actor to create quite a lot of trauma. Why? Because the trauma is coming from the people doing the most good! The ones raising the level of productivity the fastest and most efficiently.

Please understand that I'm talking about normal capitalism that we've more or less had for the past century or so. The stuff that's gone on in the last few years was a Krebs cycle of legalized fraud: buying insurance (which they call credit default swaps) from each other (which they call reputable institutions) to improve the quality of unrecoverable loan packages (which they had lots of confidence building names for, like CDOs.) so that they could be repackaged yet again. Investors diffuse in at every point in the cycle and the fee's fly out, like the enzymes of some sinister metabolism, to seek out and bind to the next politician--to potentially open up yet another pathway for exploitation. The mechanism harvests a great deal more of the "free equity" that investors contain than any prior strategy so it was very popular. The fix is to simply remove all of the mitochondria from all of those bankers. That should stop it. Of course, that would take ages even with the enormous and very motivated pool of free labor available for the task. So we'd better get started.

People point to precisely this reason to condemn capitalism itself when it is only our subpar implementation that needs fixing. The wisdom of capitalism is genuine because it's lifted right out of nature. We know it can work like a charm because a much better implementation of capitalism created us from little more than a muddy mess and eons of bad weather. That's actually what capitalism should be a model of: evolution by natural selection. So why did we fuck up copying it in such a plainly foolish way as to engineer evil directly into it? The only reason I can find is because of our faith in god. That's what stops us from seeing the wisdom of a system that asks no one to work. It requires a fundamental shift in what you're willing to have faith in: The fruits of billions of years of evolution embodied in every human being, or a clumsy cognitive utility knife that helped our distant ancestors fashion explanations for the bumps in their nights.

Guess what happens if you try to build a world on the sincerity of fables? People get hurt. Science doesn't work because smart people thought of it, but because much smarter people can't yet break it. Economics doesn't work well because no one is willing to fix the most broken parts of it because to do so requires such a radical change--literally turning it upside down in a way. It's political suicide to even think such a thing.

My advice to all people who would put their faith in transcendental things rather than themselves is to find some living person you honestly believe is wiser than you and put your faith in them instead. Find a mentor and beg for mentence. Or delegate your decisions to them. There's just no way you won't be better off. We are the only ones who can make ourselves happy. But this is never a personal journey. Or a magical one. Even the great Newton had to be laborious hoisted up the shoulders of those giants by the mundane exertions of everyone else. And still he was tediously stolid in all the meetings!

The morally righteous sorts are so blinded by the offense to their sense of decency or godliness involved in literally paying someone who doesn't wish to work for nothing more than staying out of trouble that it completely stops them from examining the strategy any farther. It is almost equivalent to suggesting that we outlaw work. They believe so few people would choose to work that the few who might could never feed us all. But this really can't happen for a bunch of reasons. We can't actually give people their full share because it would be way too much. They'll never get more than is necessary to create the parity of opportunity we believe all humans have an intrinsic right to: an amount sufficient for a large majority of them to eventually find productive employment. We already produce much more than it takes to do that for every person on earth.

The irony is that there is not a single cent of theft in this strategy, (but there is trillions of dollars of it in the economy we have now.) There is no transfer of wealth from a working Peter to pay a Paul who choses to spend his life playing while on the public dole. Paul is only spending the exact same income that Peter gets for free as well: one share of the dollar value of the calculated negative impact of all humanity. I actually think such a system would stymie Paul's sort of economic disenfranchisement. Without the stigma of contempt and sense of worthlessness that comes from having to beg for sustenance, Paul is far more likely to eventually discover something that stirs his passions. Lots of people who thought they hated work don't seem to last very long after they retire. Work really isn't about money and never was. It's what a human simply must do occasionally to sustain their sense of self-worth. Work is the original mind-altering drug that makes us think more highly of ourselves. The odds that large numbers of us could easily live without it are zero. We might work a hell of a lot less than we do now, on average. But that's pretty much unavoidable if productivity continues to rise and population doesn't keep pace no matter what we do.

This simple change, from being paid to work, to a system where we pay for the privilege of working has consequences that address the major problems facing modern corporations in a most elegant way: by perfectly aligning the interests of all parties in an enterprise; employees, employer, and everyone else. The very concept of being an employee disappears--labor isn't bought, jobs are sold. Unions become superfluous. The very nature of entrepreneurship changes from trying to buy enough land, labor, and capital to generate an even larger revenue, to designing a compelling enough enterprise to cause a group of workers and investors to adopt it. The profit it generates just isn't likely to be as important to them. Doing something fantastic or fun or beneficial is. Their business model still has to work. But it doesn't have to make any profit and might even sustain small losses every single year without ever going bankrupt. Money is intangible and not terribly easy to spend wisely. But the reward of doing something that makes you feel good about yourself couldn't be more tangible, moving, or addictive.

This is the most crucial property of this whole strategy and explains why this approach promises to be so wholesome. Workers won't wish to be part of an enterprise that basically just makes tchotchkes for nitwits, or offer services you're better off without. A lot of crime and vice will disappear because it will no longer be a person's only option. The underground economy would suffer the most. The religious industry should be the most interesting, because we'll finally find out if hardship sells god. In a world where there is nothing to stop you from dedicating your life to your church I'll bet it looses some appeal. But maybe I'm just dead wrong and huge numbers of people will leave work to dedicate their time to various charities. But they won't be making soup or sheltering the homeless. They might become educators. How bad could that be?

You might be wondering how we get there from here. Get rid of the minimum wage and start redressing the externality associated with using the world's resources as I described above is all it will take. As we gradually increase the value attributed to the resources used each year, the business models that depend on cheap resources will no longer work. The prices of things we don't really need will rise as the prices for things like food, energy, health care, and shelter fall.

Things that are enormously wasteful, but very convenient will be the luxuries we probably loose first, like lots of packaging. Shipping will decline because the economies of scale achieved through centralized manufacture and distribution are probably only reflections of the subsidy presently enjoyed by shipping firms who don't have to pay us back for their enormous environmental footprint. But the point is that we can make this change very gradual and even backup when we need to if we find ourselves going too fast. The value we choose to assign to each unit of resource is completely arbitrary, and can be chosen to be just enough to fund a minimalist lifestyle for those that choose not to work.

1 comment:

  1. Just so happened to stumble upon your blog and watch this video... very interesting and describes exactly how I feel towards job performance in my own life. Automony and Purpose are huge and are incredibly hard to find in modern society. Glad you posted this. Thanks.