Sunday, January 8, 2017

Utopian Capitalism

The system we know as Capitalism is both wondrously productive and hugely problematic. On the downside, capitalism promotes excessive inequality; it valorises immediate returns over long-term benefits; it addicts us to unnecessary products and it encourages excessive consumption of the world’s resources with potentially disastrous consequences – and that’s just a start. We are now deeply familiar with what can go wrong with Capitalism. But that is no reason to stop dreaming about some of the ways in which Capitalism could one day operate in a Utopian future:

In the Utopia, we’d spend less time thinking about the Dow Jones.

The Dow Jones, which is the world’s most prestigious financial index, takes a daily temperature reading of the US, assigning it a very precise number, which is widely reported in the news and which we tend to treat with a high degree of reverence. Such financial data seems to be telling us something of immense importance. It hints at an answer to the great questions of existence: are things going well or badly, is the world doing OK? How is life on earth?

It’s really worth asking such questions and reflecting heavily upon them. This is what philosophers traditionally like to do. But the numbers do not actually answer our questions, for the links between the Dow Jones figures and what is actually going on in human lives (their rise or fall) is far more elusive. It’s not that there is no connection whatsoever. The financial health of major US companies does have indirect, distant links to the economic side of everyone’s life. Yet the quality and character of daily life is powerfully affected by a great many things which the financial data does not recognise, for example, your health, the view from your window, the quality of your relationship, the amount of time you have to spend commuting, the connections you have with the neighbours, the state of your ambitions, your degree of envy, how your kids are doing. These may, indeed, be rather more important in determining ‘how things are going’ than the Dow Index. But the Dow doesn’t entirely admit this. It seems to be making a larger claim: to know how your life is going – and it brings to this claim a panoply of impressive arrows, charts and incomprehensible acronyms which cow us into believing in its authority, rather as our ancestors might have trusted in the confused mumblings of a priest sitting on top of an altar in a darkened temple.

For all our expertise, we have not yet learned how to devise reliable indicators of the state of nations and individuals. We do not have a daily set of figures to record what truly matters. It might help, for example, to know the incidence of unnecessary embarrassment or whether arrogance is becoming 0.1% more or less common. We don’t have figures measuring supplies of patience, tact and forbearance. We don’t have indices around envy, infidelity and fury.

In the absence of these vital indicators, we cling to the signals offered to us by Wall Street. We use words like depression and exuberance, terms well known from personal life, to describe the movements of stocks and shares. To ask for better indices of national well being sounds whimsical. Yet it ought not to, for we need data that homes in on things that matter greatly for what our lives are actually like. Issues like jealousy, boredom, beauty, frustration or anger shape our destinies just as much – if not more – than the fortunes of 3M (the Minnesota Mining Company) and the twenty nine other corporations whose trading forms the basis for calculating the Dow Jones figures.

The big issue is how we can get a diversity of indicators on our national dashboards. We are not suggesting the suppression of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. What we want to see is the rise of other – equally important – figures that report on a regular basis on elements of psychological and sociological life and which could form part of the consciousness of thoughtful and serious people. Today, a government cannot get rewarded, or chastised, for the impact its policies have on the frequency of domestic rows because rows are not recorded. When we measure things – and give the figures a regular public airing – we start the long process of collectively doing something about them.

In the Utopia, we wouldn’t just care about unemployment, we’d also worry about misemployment.

Employment means being, generically, in work. But misemployment means being in work but of a kind that fails to tackle with any real sincerity the true needs of other people: merely exciting them to unsatisfactory desires and pleasures instead. Like this fellow, dressing up as a hotdog to entice customers.

A man employed by the casino chain Las Vegas Sands to hand out flyers to tourists so as to entice them to use slot machines is clearly ‘employed’ in the technical sense. He’s marked as being off the unemployment registers. He is receiving a wage in return for helping to solve some (small) puzzle of the human condition of interest to his employers: that not enough tourists might otherwise leave the blue skies and cheerful bustle of a south Nevada city’s main street to enter the dark air-conditioned halls of an Egyptian-themed casino lined with ranks of ringing consoles.

The man is indeed employed, but in truth, he belongs to a large subsection of those in work we might term the ‘misemployed’. His labour is generating capital, but it is making no contribution to human welfare and flourishing. He is joined in the misemployment ranks by people who make cigarettes, addictive but sterile television shows, badly designed condos, ill-fitting and shoddy clothes, deceptive advertisements, artery-clogging biscuits and highly-sugared drinks (however delicious). The rate of misemployment in the economy is very high.

And while we may be genuinely grateful for a job and give our best to do it well, at the back of our minds we do – as employees – nurture the hope that our work contributes in some real way to the common good; that we are making, modestly, a difference.

It’s not just the most dramatically harmful kinds of work that register as misemployment. We intuitively recognise it when we think of work as ‘just a job’; when we sense that far too much of our time, effort and intelligence is spent on meetings that resolve little, on chivying people to sign up for products that – in our heart of hearts we don’t admire.

Economists and governments have, with moderate success, been learning techniques to reduce the overall rate of unemployment. Central to their strategy has been the lowering of interest rates and the printing of money. In the language of the field, the key to bringing down unemployment has been to ‘stimulate demand.’

Though technically effective, this method fails to draw any distinction between good and bad demand and therefore between employment and misemployment.

Fortunately, there are real solutions to bringing down the rate of misemployment. The trick isn’t just to stimulate demand per se, the trick is to stimulate the right demand: to excite people to buy the constituents of true satisfaction, and therefore to give individuals and businesses a chance to direct their labour, and make profits, in meaningful areas of the economy.

In a nation properly concerned with misemployment, the taste of the audience would be educated to demand and pay for the most important things. 20 per cent of the adult population might therefore be employed in mental health and flourishing. At least another 30 per cent would be employed in building an environment that could satisfy the soul. People would be taught to respect good furniture, healthy food, wholesome clothes, fruitful holidays…

To achieve such a state, it isn’t enough to print money. The task is to excite people to want to spend it on the right things. This requires public education so that audiences will recognise the value of what is truly valuable and walk past what fails to address their true needs.

This isn’t to suggest that the employment figures are irrelevant – they matter a great deal. They are the first thing to be attended to. All the same the raw figures mask a more ambitious index – and a central question: are we deploying human capital admirably?

by The Book of Life |  Read more:
Images:© Flickr/Scott Beale and uncredited