Archive for September, 2012
It’s impossible to be a participant in this dance we call “the economy” without noticing that things are a little messed up. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m still trying to sort it all through. I want to think out loud for a bit here, to see if anything becomes clearer.
One thing that’s really important to me on a personal level is making sure that the conversations about the economy — which really means, the conversations about how we all relate to one another — are filled with joy rather than pessimism. I feel like that’s a weird thing to say, because there’s such a deeply entrenched pessimism right now in any vaguely economic or political conversation that even mentioning the word “joy” feels out of touch. How can there be joy when so many people feel powerless and scared about the situation? It’s kind of like screaming “let them eat cake!” from the top of the Empire State Building.
Nevertheless, I’m gonna come out as pro-joy for a couple of reasons:
* There’s still a lot to be happy about. There’s always a lot to be happy about. There are things to be happy about even in the direst poverty and oppression, and for most people taking place in these conversations we’re a long way away from dire.
* I think the reason we’re on this Earth is to create and contribute, to transcend our limitations and bring amazing things into being. I don’t mean this in a flippant way at all, but I fucking love this video: Gangnam Style. Look at that dude in the elevator. I mean, come on. It restores my faith in humanity. I’m serious — the subtext for this whole thing is class conflict / economic disparity in Korea, and what we get is that dude in the elevator, and an 5-year-old busting crazy dance moves. So anyway, I feel like if we don’t deal with the big social issues of our times with joy and optimism and sense of gratitude that we get to be a part of it at all (as opposed to, say, not born in the first place), we’re kind of missing the point.
* I have this intuition that joy is an important part of the solution
Anyway, that said, optimism alone won’t make the world go round. There’s still some hard work to be done to figure out how to move forward constructively. My sense is that there’s a need for a major overhaul of our collective conventional wisdom about political / economic philosophy, since to me this feels like a “we don’t know what direction to go in” situation, not a “we know the right direction and it’s just a lot of work” situation. A lot of smarter people than me are putting their minds to it, so part of me just wants to kick back with a beer for a few years and see how it all sorts out, but that wouldn’t be very responsible now, would it?
So here’s the brain dump. These are various things that I suspect or that I have questions about:
* I don’t believe that the advancement of technology will solve our economic woes. I believe that technology increases the net wealth in society, but I think the reason people are unhappy is not that there’s not enough wealth, but that it’s not being distributed well. I think that technology, in a capitalist system, actually hurts distribution rather than helps, because it tends to create bigger and bigger winners while destroying jobs. This is obviously something I think about a lot, since what I’m doing with my life right now is advancing the state of technology. I do think tech is a good thing, though, see below.
* I don’t believe in “job creation” as a goal. I think most jobs that are getting destroyed by technology aren’t fulfilling, worthwhile uses of people’s time to begin with. Do we really want to be doing stuff that computers can do better and faster? People are upset when jobs go away, because the notion of a “job” is how we currently believe wealth should be transferred to people, but to me it’s a good thing that we’re finding ourselves in a situation where we don’t actually need the labor of the vast majority of society in order to produce everything we want to produce. There’s a reason that there’s the phrase “wage-slavery”. So it bothers me that the political rhetoric is all about “creating jobs” because that’s not the real problem — the real problem is that people are getting economically and politically disempowered because jobs used to be the proxy mechanism by which people got to participate in society.
* I suspect that we overvalue central, top-down solutions. It’s kind of weird to me that everyone blames the serving president for the economy. This is just taken at face-value; if the economy is good, president gets re-elected, if economy is bad, president gets punished. Like, really? It’s the job of one guy, who happened to win a (kind of bullshit, because honestly, do you really believe for a minute that the electoral system is at all fair or open) election, to make the country profitable? There are things that the federal government can do, such as playing with the banking system, interest rates, passing laws and stuff, but those feel like tiny levers relative to how complex and human and vast the economy is. What about me? What about you? I feel like in many ways we’re better positioned to make a difference, because we don’t have to deal with all the political bullshit that politicians have to in order not to get kicked out of office.
* I’m a believer in creation rather than consumption. Consumption is nice. Consuming basic necessities, like housing, food, medical care to some degree, is critical for survival. Consuming other stuff makes life enjoyable. But at the end of the day, I think it’s things like human relationships, physical activity outdoors, and artistic self-expression that actually make people happy. Consumption can facilitate those activities to varying degrees, but it’s not the most important thing, and can just as easily get in the way by cramming our minds with stupid content and our bodies with unnecessary garbage.
* Given all that, I’m not a big believer in capitalism. The good thing about capitalism, which is why I’m not a believer in alternatives like socialism or communism, is that by giving people control over property, it gives people the freedom to take action without getting other people’s buy-in, which I think is very important… all creative advances, all the good things in life really, come from a small group of people who have ideas that don’t make sense to anyone but themselves until years later when everyone’s like “ohhhhh… that’s what you were doing, that’s awesome!” If you have to get the central bureaucracy to sign off on everything in advance, it becomes a shitty place to live. So capitalism is great in that it creates more freedom than any other form of human organization to date. But, that doesn’t mean it’s a stable system that creates a world where people aren’t systematically disempowered. I think most likely what we need is something new, something that hasn’t been fully tried before.
* There are some ideas floating around out there about what that new thing might look like. For instance, “reputation economies” or “gift economies”, where the idea is that everyone contributes as much as they can, and the reward for contributing is social rather than economic. It involves creating a bunch of norms around generosity, community, caring, etc. I don’t know if it works in practice or not. I’m definitely intrigued, though. The argument for why it hasn’t happened historically but could happen now is that a gift economy is an economy of abundance; it doesn’t work well for situations where there is resource scarcity, because it doesn’t adequately punish people who aren’t doing their part. But in a world where there’s enough to go around and we can survive having some freeloaders, and it’s okay to merely punish them by not inviting them to the cool parties, vs making them starve to death, then it might be stable. And it’s better at distribution than capitalism, because the people who end up in positions where they can produce a lot have incentives to share the wealth freely. And it’s better at distribution than various forms of taxation -> social programs schemes, because I think taking wealth from people at implicit gunpoint isn’t very socially healthy, especially when the people you’re taking it from probably correlate to some degree (and it is just some degree — but it’s also a non-negligable degree — and I feel like 90% of the political conflict with the occupy-wall-street vs wall-street thing comes down to bickering over how much of a degree it is, but let’s just agree that it’s somewhere between “none” and “completely”) with the people who’ve built the systems that create a lot of the wealth in the first place. I think everyone would be happier if people gave it away, if that was the social norm, as opposed to “let’s hire lawyers and do tax evasion!” which is kind of how it works today (well, sometimes it’s “let’s buy the federal government and rewrite the entire legal structure”, which works too).
* But just to emphasize the point again, I don’t know if this will work. I don’t think anyone knows what will work. A lot of people have very strong opinions about what should be done! But I tend to trust the people who have more questions than answers….
* I have a half-formed thought about the conflict between freedom and love. There’s something very freeing about the notion that you don’t have to do business with anyone you don’t want to do business with. That’s why capitalism is great for freedom. But on the other hand, there’s also something good about saying, “look, I’m stuck with these people, I gotta make it work!” That’s kind of the basis of family to some degree. I think the world situation is more like the latter, in that we’re all stuck on this ball of dirt in space, and we share the same air and land and natural resources. But there’s also an element to the former, in that it’s a really big ball of dirt, and we can move around, and I think there are very good things about the former that I don’t want to give up, even though I think there are also very good things about the latter. Again, this is kind of a half-formed thought….
So anyway. That’s kind of what’s on my mind about the economy right now. If I were to pick one take-away from the above mess, it would be: “don’t be a hater.” There are hard problems, and it’s confusing, but I feel like if we go in it with the attitude of taking responsibility, not blaming other people, and just enjoying the fact that we’re alive and get to worry about these kinds of things at all, it will all work out somehow. (Or not, and we all die in some kind of societal meltdown, but you know what, that’s okay too).
The difference between a fun-but-forgettable book and a great book is that a great book resolves some struggle in the author’s heart. It might not have a happy answer or an easy solution, but it takes a source of confusion and pain in the author’s world, and takes a stand about what it is or what it means.
Take The Great Gatsby for instance. Each character in the book arguably represents a different response to the crisis that F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in the world around him, namely that his contemporaries had lost faith in enlightenment values following World War I. He believed they were living empty lives of conspicuous consumption, hurting themselves and others. In writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald transformed that feeling from one man’s impression into a cultural truth, giving it iconic weight that continues to have force eighty-seven years later.
Tom Buchanan is a character in the book, a former star college football player who’s now rich, powerful, and morally lost. Fitzgerald writes, “Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” Without rules, goal posts, and an opposing team, Tom doesn’t know what to do with himself. He acquires trophy horses, trophy cars, and a trophy wife, but he’s still dissatisfied.
The protagonist of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, by Bryan Lee O’Malley, is sort of a Tom Buchanan for our generation. He’s a hipster everyman, or at least, an every-man-child. Funded by his wealthy parents and roommate, he’s unemployed and spends his time sleeping, playing video games, and practicing with his indie rock band. Like Tom, Scott yearns for a remembered clarity of purpose, although in his case, it’s memories of playing games like Bomberman, Sonic the Hedgehog, or The Legend of Zelda.
Scott Pilgrim is about Scott’s quest to grow up, in a world that’s okay with him staying a child. It’s about what it means to be an adult in a post-modern society, one where relativism, self-reference, and irony have eroded faith in any kind of external standards or norms. I would argue that Scott Pilgrim is significant because it goes beyond post-modernism by asserting that there is an answer to “okay, so then what?” O’Malley takes a stand that even in our fractured, post-everything, been-there-done-that world, there’s still an “up” to grow into.
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