The way we talk about the economy is delusional.
Pick up a paper or turn on the news or talk to a friend and chances are that they will discuss the economy (perhaps I should put it as The Economy) in terms that our ancient ancestors reserved for the weather or perhaps the gods. It’s a nefarious nebulous force that few understand and none have control over, something that masters humans and dictates literally everything about their existence, from their occupation to its compensation to their location. And yet, it is a fabrication. It is something that we, as a species, created out of whole cloth, with no independent existence other than our willing mutual suspension of disbelief. And we are rapidly being enslaved by it.
In the old days, we didn’t have control over much. Wild animals or the winds or seasonal changes would dictate our fate, whether the crops would grow or we would starve or be eaten alive. People built prayers and sacrifices and rituals over trying to gain control over the uncontrollable, but with time we also made efforts to compensate for the unpredictability in the natural forces around us. We improved technology and animal husbandry and plant breeding and architecture to give us a chance at survival and thriving despite the forces beyond our control, eventually getting to the point that while we cannot literally create the weather (quite) and we are still thrown off by hurricanes or earthquakes, we pretty much have nature’s prior domination of our species in check. And yet the more we have been able to corral nature and the other base forces that dominated our fate, the more we have ceded that control through the ever increasingly complex machinations of money and its corresponding policies.
Consider for a moment what the difference in general quality of life is for people under a sustained good or bad economy. For a stark illustration, imagine comparing America of the early 1990’s to Greece of the past year. The ability for life itself to exist and thrive, ranging from people’s ability to do the work they would like, feed their families, own property, indulge in luxuries, and every imaginable human activity is massively affected, in our modern world, by The Economy. Under a good economy, people with few skills and little training are able to flourish in material goods and individual agency. Under a bad economy, even very skilled and competent workers are left to forage between odd jobs and despair. And yet the differences between these states are relatively whimsical, shift unpredictably, and are as impossible to overtly rein in for any individual, government, or entity, as a hurricane is to be halted midair by contemporary humans.
And yet the monster is of our own creation. We deliberately, willfully, carefully gave over control of our fate and our future to the Invisible Hand and its nefarious unseen fingers. The lure of gold and prosperity, the promise of growth and abundance, prompted us to let an inhuman robotic and capricious force gain dominion over all that we consider important in our lives. At the same time we beheld democracy in the face of prior tyranny, decrying monarchs and unrepentant dictators, we simultaneously instated an even more forceful and unforgiving regime to tell us what to do, where to go, and how to behave. And now our soothsayers and shamans run daily columns in the news describing their own shadowy portends and omens of how the Great Economy will dance and shimmy, shedding one people or another in its wake.
It is especially damning that the guideposts of this robot army that’s been given the keys to our societies and their lives are the maximization of profit and efficiency. Profit, by definition a wasteful consolidation of resources in the hands of some over others, continues to accumulate at the highest level at an alarming rate in almost all developed societies, especially those who have given the greatest power to the Mighty Economy. Meanwhile, efficiency continues to edit out the human equation, for there is nothing in the Economy and its powerful Hand that mandates it cares for the fate of people, their ability to live or prosper, let alone work or participate. A business or any economical operation is always incentivized to hire fewer people for less money while charging more, something that innately pressures people at the margins to fold, implode, or even literally die. While most societies implement non-economical checks against actual death such as food stamps or soup kitchens, the pulse of the economy will always urge more ruthless efficiency, involving fewer and fewer workers doing more and more. Or, eventually, no workers at all, merely machines who are less likely to call in sick, demand health benefits, or take vacation. The idea that there are incentives to create jobs in the endgame of capitalism is a baseless pipe dream maintained by those whose livelihood depends on the notion that the 1950’s or 1980’s could run on a loop forever, even though cancerous growth was the sole basis of their success.
And yet we continue to make sacrifices to the Mighty Economy, to hope and pray that it will be benevolent, relent, and flood our streets with milk, honey, and gold from the sky. If you think I’m exaggerating, find me one person on this planet who believes they have even a modicum of control over the economy. Barack Obama? He vents his frustration at his inability to change the Economy’s course daily. Ben Bernanke? Can’t stop talking about how forceful and independent the economy is and how he is maximizing his leverage over it to little avail. Mark Zuckerberg? Perhaps he has some real power, but even he has recently lost his shirt to the whims of the economy’s assessment of his own worth and merit. Angela Merkel? Hopelessly cowed in the face of a few Greek voters and forces she claims are well beyond her control. Find me that sole person on the planet who feels they have any tangible bar-moving impact on this new malevolent deity. Find me that person and then maybe we can convince them to get us off this mad train.
Why is it mad? For it not to be mad, you have to honestly believe that humans today are less capable, less efficient, less important, and less smart than they were ten years ago. You have to believe that our collective abilities to live, thrive, create, and prosper are severely diminished because of something innate in us that’s changed. Of course nothing whatsoever has actually changed, outside this bizarre belief-bubble dictated by The Economy.
Put another way, from October 2007 to March 2009, $34.4 trillion in wealth was “destroyed”. There are tangible things that can have that kind of real impact on people as a species or a series of societies. There can be wars, famines, plagues, natural disasters, resulting in widespread cessation of life and decimation of property. And yet none of those things, save for a handful of anxiety-ridden suicides or foreclosed buildings, actually transpired during that devastating year and a half. We didn’t even lose a cache of gold or paper money. Our belief in symbols on a series of screens told us that we were worth half of what we had been a few years ago.
Think about it. Functionally, no one died. No land or buildings were destroyed or damaged. We just all suddenly believed that we had lost half of what we had because of an uncontrolled force we dub The Economy.
What could be more delusional? What could be, frankly, more stupid?
The only counter-argument of any sense or value is that this force sometimes convinces us we’re worth double what we were just worth, or ten times, and prompts people to do things they would never do otherwise in the face of unbridled optimism. And that sounds good, until you consider that what they’re doing that they wouldn’t otherwise do is working at the detriment of time with their family or other more self-directed uses of time and energy. For some, this might be more “productive” than what they’d otherwise do, but almost no one is ever choosing something they’d choose if they didn’t feel forced to by, you guessed it, The Economy.
But even if you want to argue that this force, in good times, is saving them from uselessness on the couch and that everyone is better off working for The Economy than doing what they’d prefer otherwise, that’s only in good times. And the capricious changes from good times to bad, based on a few poor decisions by high rollers or merely inscrutable forces that can only be tempered but not controlled by world governments, turn everyone’s joy into sorrow.
So if I were to give you a choice of two worlds to live in, which would you choose… One controlled by a capricious and often vengeful force, immune to supplication or anything but the most drastic sacrifice, that whimsically chose when you would do well or poorly? Or one where you had some agency over the global state in which you tried to make your way? Or at least one where the overall state was somewhat predictable and steady instead of a series of booms and busts?
There are other ways to organize our society. The first step is to stop believing in The Economy. We’ve stopped making blood sacrifices of goats and chickens and first-born children to unseen inhuman forces. Why do we persist in making sacrifices of our livelihood and, all too often, our lives, to the uncaring Invisible Hand?