The vocabulary is limited but long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome didn’t engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as “speaking tools,” animate but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.
The sponsors of the Spanish Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South Africa during most of the twentieth century the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten Breytenbach likens to the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang and the fluttering flag.”
The Internet equips the fear of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words earmarked as subversive, among them “collective bargaining,” “occupy,” and “rally.”
The hope and exercise of freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the keeping of “the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness.” The force and power of the words themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening to New York publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I don’t find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing contained, as did the 15th-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg’s printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of wickedness:
Through printing, tender boys
and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain,
take in whatever mars the purity of mind or body…
Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
should be respected and held to be nobler
than all goods, unless she has suffered
degradation in the brothel of the printing
presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
harlot in print.
The humanist scholars across Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University of Bologna, who was appalled by “a new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany…Anyone is free to print whatever they wish…for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books.”
McLuhan in 1964 ridiculed the same sort of fear and trembling in Grub Street by observing that, in the 20th century as in the 15th, the literary man preferred “to ‘view with alarm’ and ‘point with pride,’ while scrupulously ignoring what’s going on.” He understood that the concerns had to do with the moving of the merchandise as opposed to the making of it, where the new money was to be found, how to collect what tolls on which shipments of the grammar and the syntax. Then as now, the questions are neither visionary nor new. They accompanied the building of the nation’s railroads and the stringing of its telephone poles, and as is customary under the American definition of free enterprise, I expect them to be resolved in favor of monopoly.
The more relevant questions are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?
We’re sometimes told violence is “human nature.” But findings from sociology, psychology, and neuroscience show that a major factor in whether people commit violence is what happens during a child’s early formative years. As research from Harvard University and Maclean Hospital shows, the brain neurochemistry of abused children tends to become programmed for fight-or-flight, and thus for violence.
When children experience violence, or observe violence against their mothers, they learn it’s acceptable—even moral—to use force to impose one’s will on others. Indeed, the only way they can make sense of violence coming from those who are supposed to love them is that it must be moral.
Terrorism and chronic warfare are responses to life in societies in which the only perceived choices are dominating or being dominated. These violent responses are characteristic of cultures where this view of relations is learned early on through traditions of coercion, abuse, and violence in parent-child and gender relations.
It’s not coincidental that throughout history the most violently despotic and warlike societies have been those in which violence, or the threat of violence, is used to maintain domination of parent over child and man over woman. It’s not coincidental that the 9/11 terrorists came from cultures where women and children are terrorized into submission. Nor is it coincidental that Afghanistan under the Taliban in many ways resembled the European Middle Ages—when witchburnings, public drawings and quarterings, despotic rulers, brutal violence against children, and male violence against women were considered moral and normal. Neither is it coincidental that, in the U.S. today, those pushing “crusades” against “evil enemies” oppose equal rights for women and advocate harshly punitive childrearing.
Stiglitz says that “most Americans don’t realize that we are no longer the country of opportunity that we think of ourselves, that America today has less equality of opportunity than any of the other advanced industrial countries.” He points out how many like to say that our economy is doing well because GDP is growing, but that “if you’re going to be judging how well an economy is doing, clearly I think the key metric that one wants to focus on is what is happening to the living standards of most citizens.” He says that most Americans don’t realize how bad we’re doing, including the fact that “the median income of a full-time male worker today is the same as it was in 1968,” and “if you look at median household income it is the same today as it was a decade and a half ago.”
How did our society get to a place where government has taken a back seat and where people are wary of government control? Stiglitz thanks the conservatives who have successfully touted false ideology about markets over the past 40 years. While they like to blame the government for inequality, Stiglitz notes that not even Adam Smith thought markets were anything beyond efficient. “Nobody ever said that they were fair, that they would lead to a distribution of income that was socially acceptable.” Furthermore, he says, “many of the aspects of our inequality are a result of market failure. People who don’t have health insurance when they get sick wind up in extreme poverty and they can’t get health insurance because of a whole set of market failures.” He says it’s “striking that in spite of the fact that there is no intellectual basis for what you might call a ‘Smithian’ view that unfettered markets lead to efficiency,” conservatives have marched ahead with this idea.
So why was there so much economic growth after World War II? Stiglitz says one reason is “the legacy of the Roosevelts, the legacy that government made a difference.” In making the case for government he also points out that “government has played an important catalytic role in a whole variety of other areas. If you think about our modern economy, you think about Internet, you think about biotech, you think about telecommunications and all of these things rest on government-funded basic research.” He recalls a conversation with a Scandinavian finance minister who, when asked how his economy was so successful, answered “high taxes.” Stiglitz took away that “if you’re going to have a well-functioning economy… you have to pay for what you get. You need to have a well-functioning government that provides education, infrastructure, research, technology, all these things, and we have to pay for it.” Given that markets are not predictable nor interested in social problems, our government should stop bailing the financial institutions out and start investing in its people and the institutions that benefit them.
Let’s not mince words. The established mainstream of the economic thought is driving human societies to collective suicide. It deserves a more evocative label than neoclassical, neoliberal, or even market fundamentalism. Let’s call it what it is: A “Suicide Economics” for a “Suicide Economy.”
Suicide economics gets it wrong on nearly every major issue because it is built on a foundation of fallacies. It ignores natural limits, confuses means and ends, uses the wrong measure of value and the wrong unit of analysis, and it relies on a single improperly defined criterion function. And this is only my personal favorites short list. Let’s go through these five fallacies one by one.
The first fallacy, the failure to address natural limits, is a foundational theme of ecological economics. No need to say more about that here.
The second fallacy, the confusion of ends and means, is reflected in the convention of treating people and nature as externalities. The practical implication is that rather than treating the well-being of people and nature as the purpose of economic activity, suicide economics treats people and nature merely as means for making money for people who have money, a grotesque reversal of ends and means. As David Batker pointedly asks in his documentary: What’s the economy for anyway? The answer should be obvious. Serving people and nature is the only legitimate purpose of an economy.
The third fallacy, the wrong measure of value. Suicide economics uses money rather than life as the basic measure of value. So gold, which we could easily live without, is considered more valuable than air, soil, and water, which we cannot live without. This leads to the destruction of air, soil, and water to extract gold from under the ground so we can refine it—all at enormous cost to people, soil, air, and water—and then lock it away back underground in great vaults. And this seems to make perfect sense to suicide economists. There is truth to the cliché that “An economist is a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The fourth fallacy, the wrong unit of analysis, is expressed in the choice to build the analytical structure of suicide economics around the firm rather than the household. This leads to measuring economic performance by financial returns to pools of money aggregated as firms, rather than by contribution to increasing the health and happiness of people, households, and communities. Consequently, maximizing corporate profits becomes more important to policy makers than assuring that people have living wage jobs.
The fifth fallacy is the improperly defined single criteria function. Have any of you had the experience of piloting an airplane? If you haven’t, perhaps you can at least imagine trying to pilot an airplane with your windows blacked out, an airspeed indicator as your only instrument, and a decision rule that says do whatever increases your airspeed. You are absolutely guaranteed to fly the plane right into the ground—which is exactly what we are doing with the economy by using GDP growth as our primary indicator of success.
Successfully piloting an airplane under conditions of limited visibility requires a whole dashboard of instruments: altimeter, rate of climb and descent, air speed, a directional indicator, engine rpm, fuel gauge, oil pressure, engine temperature, etc. Making policy adjustments to guide a complex national economy is no less complicated and requires a dashboard of indicators.
Promoting these fallacies as truths, suicide economists have demonstrated their ability to misdirect society to create an economic system that converts the real living-wealth of the many to the phantom financial-wealth of the few and convince the public that it is a gain for everyone. The results conclusively demonstrate that it is a very bad idea and people are waking up to the reality that suicide economists have a limited grasp of reality, are knowingly fronting for the ruling oligarchy, or some combination of the two.