Utopia or oblivion

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USBIG Discussion Paper No. 69, January 2004

Work in progress, do not cite or quote without author’s permission


Rabbi Carla Theodore

The role of the economy in causing ecological devastation is often overlooked. Many believe pollution defines the problem. But production itself has damaging ecological consequences and the structure of our economy channels our behavior so as to make us all collaborators in our own undoing. If we are to survive we must reform our economy in important ways. I am calling this reformed economy a Sane Economy.

The core reform of the Sane Economy is to break the link between work and income so that “income” becomes an inalienable right of birth and “work” becomes vocation, one’s labor of love or one’s freely given service to the community. This is not simply a Utopian Fantasy, lovely to dream about. It is as an urgent necessity and it offers a practical way to avoid or transcend the ecological crises and human suffering which lie ahead.

Happily the the Sane Economy is far more than a way to avoid disaster. It is a path to a different kind of world where hunger is unknown, where wanton destruction is unthinkable, where nature is given back her crown, where far fewer words are hurled at us by an aggressive market but the words that are spoken are true, where people can not only name their highest values but also live them. It is the Utopia which Buckminster Fuller warned, decades ago, was the only alternative to oblivion. The time and the opportunity to create Utopia is now.

To be truly transformative, economic reform must change two ways in which our present economy is fatally flawed: 1 - it must always expand and 2 - it renders impossible or irrelevant an attitude of reverence towards the world.

The Economy As Now Structured Must Expand
Increasing population is one important cause of economic growth. But far more growth takes place than can be explained by our growing numbers. If world population were stable or even if it were diminishing, the world economy would still grow. As David Ehrenfeld states in his essay, “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology”2 the economy “rolls on inexorably, a giant impersonal machine, devouring and processing the world, unstoppable...” That “machine” is “unstoppable” as long as the fuel that makes it run is profit and wage.

Entrepreneurs, workers and the government must all pursue economic growth. For entrepreneurs, growth means change and change creates opportunities for new products which lead to more profits which finance more investment for still more products. Workers rely on growth to bring them jobs and better pay. Government relies upon growth for more revenue, much of which is needed to mitigate ecological casualties caused by ever-increasing production.

If the economy fails to expand it contracts. Markets fall off, profits fail, industry cuts back, workers are laid off, buying power lessens, government revenues decrease. "In our present system, " Richard Douthwaite writes in his book, The Growth Illusion, “the choice is between growth and collapse... No wonder people want growth so badly."

Because their very survival depends upon ever rising profits, entrepreneurs will use every possible stratagem towards that end. They spend billions of dollars to persuade us that their products are better than their competitors’. They invent new products and spend billions more to persuade us that we want them. They move to other countries where labor is cheap. They expand production and cut costs with labor saving technology.

The new technology made possible by economic growth permits vast reductions in the labor force. The workers, who are the casualties of this process, seek their salvation in still more economic growth which results in still more industries and a renewed demand for labor. But, unfortunately, the jobs gained today will be lost tomorrow as the very growth so ardently demanded by working people spawns yet more labor saving devices which tend to make their labor unnecessary. The cycle continues like a dog chasing its tail. It should be noted - as workers press for the creation of more products - it is not the products that are needed, it is the job.

The only way goods and services can be distributed to all is through full employment; but full employment only begins to be possible when the economy is growing. So the only way to distribute existent goods and services is to create more goods and services! This highlights the riddle and the opportunity that modern technology has given us: It is now far easier for our economy to create goods and services than to create jobs. At an ever faster pace computerized technology replaces not only factory labor but highly skilled professionals as well. New jobs cannot be created fast enough to distribute all the wealth that spews forth from the mouth of the industrial goliath. A simple alternative stares us in the face. Stop trying to distribute income through the job. Just distribute it. That is the message of the Sane Economy.

The Economy Works Automatically - Like a Machine.

In his discussion of the endemic problems which he finds to be “. . .inherent in the very structure of the machine . . ,” Ehrenfeld speaks of us. “. . . our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism. . .” He says that “We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them” (italics mine). But who is we? The truth is, no one is home. What happens in our economy is the outcome of a built-in automaticity. It is the consequence of the interplay of the need for profit and wage, of supply and demand. The machine has no intelligence; artificial or human. There is no brain to trouble itself with the problems and dangers which the system spawns.

The Sane Economy creates a “we”. Not planning boards as in the former Soviet Union, but a democratized market in which the power of all the players is equal, where production reflects an entrepreneurs belief that a product is worthy of creation; citizens decisions to finance it and workers’ free choices to create it; a market in which considered judgement can prevail undistorted either by the need to survive or to overcome. That “we” would be “us”
The Economy as Now Structured Does Not and Cannot Permit an Attitude of Reverence Towards the World
A “totally reductionist, managed world,” Ehrenfeld continues, “is a world without its highest inspiration. With no recognized higher power other than the human-made system that the people in charge now worship, there can be no imitation of God, no vision of something greater to strive for ...”

It is odd how little attention is given to the soul destroying consequence of working for money. In other walks of life we well understand how ulterior motives invalidate our acts. We loathe the person who pretends friendship for personal advantage, the man or woman who marries for money, the politician who seeks public office for personal aggrandizement. Yet we never stop to consider that to work for the ulterior motive of getting something in return causes a callous disregard, and a dangerous indifference to exactly what it is one does. What a tragic waste of life to spend one’s hours numb to the meaning or significance of how they are spent.

A profit-wage economy by-passes society’s most urgent needs. Serious study is needed now to end the assault of our economy upon the life support system of our planet. Fantastic sums are spent on weapons of war, and almost none on developing peaceful techniques of conflict resolution. Renewable sources of energy need to be developed. Rivers need cleaning, water tables need to be purified and forests re-established. The hungry need food, and the homeless shelter. But human need, even when desperate, and safety, even when seriously compromised, are not the entrepreneur’s concern. Profit is.

It might be easy to start thinking of the entrepreneur as the enemy. But this is a mistake. We are born into the economic game that awaits us, and all of us become players willy nilly be it as consumers, workers, salaried professionals or entrepreneurs. That entrepreneurs are winners in the only economic game in town is not, in itself, a cause for blame. But the game is flawed.

The wonder which nature inspires in us, our love of beauty and truth, wanting to spend time with our families, caring about our community and wanting to make a contribution to society - these are all irrelevant to the economy and are often its first casualties.

“Why is it,” my friend Lawrence de Bivort cries, in his book in progress Evolutionary Development, “that when something is not working we do it harder.” What is the something about our economy that is not working? It is relying upon profit to motivate the creation of wealth, and upon wage to distribute it? It is working for money. What, you may well ask, is the alternative? Why, to work because something needs to be done, or because the work is inherently fulfilling, exciting or fascinating. What a breath of fresh air would flow through the world if work were performed for its own inherent value, if work emerged from an open-eyed grasp of communal and personal reality.

How can we bring reverence into daily life? We can stop working for money. We can work for love.

When I suggest breaking the work/income link I mean exactly that. Income in the Sane Economy would not be “earned.” As pure air and water used to be, and hopefully will be again, income would be simply there - a necessity of life to which all are entitled. Every adult would receive income in the form of a monthly check or computer account. One could not increase one’s income by working more, nor lose it by working less. No material reward would attach to labor - not profit, nor salary, nor wage. The only reward for labor would be the satisfaction of doing it, and perhaps the gratitude and praise of one’s neighbors.

Several premises underlie the notion of a Citizens Income - all are controversial. I believe the wealth-creating potential of our technology is so enormous, that all necessary functions could be performed by volunteers. Instead of profit we would rely upon the entrepreneurial temperament to motivate enough people to assemble the resources and to magically transform them into products or services. Instead of wages we would rely upon the readiness of people to respond when they are needed.

In the Sane Economy the very concept of “work” may undergo many changes. For now I am defining “work” as any activity that results in a good or service for oneself or for others. Far more people will work than are actually needed just as they do today, but in the Sane Economy most people will be working for themselves and keeping their own products. People will work at what they love. Others will respond to society’s or each other’s needs. And on a simpler level people will work because it is more interesting to do something rather than nothing. Not many activities fail to result in a good or a service, whether that be the vegetable garden one nurtures in the back yard, the patio one adds to ones house, the sweater one knits for one’s grandchild, or the baseball game one plays with one’s neighbors.

The Sane Economy is happy to accept human nature as it is - capable of greed and capable of altruism. The economy we have relies upon the whiplash of fear and need, or upon universal greed. It foments greed and rewards it. The Sane Economy relies upon enlightened pleasure. If the lure of the work itself, or joy in service leave some work needs unmet, at that point we would have to find enough volunteers who are willing to put society’s needs above their own desires. It is enough for the Sane Economy, then, if only a small proportion of citizens are guided by altruism some of the time. That seems a modest expectation in the light of the amazing degree of altruism still manifest today in the face of an institutional context which does not value it.
Enough People Will Work

That volunteers can and will meet the labor needs of the Sane Economy is my most controversial assumption. I have yet to meet an engineer to quarrel with my assertion that the domestic product could be produced by far fewer workers. But almost everyone expresses incredulity at the notion of a volunteer labor force, albeit a small one. Yet when asked, “What would you do?” they confess to a wealth of work fantasies: I would help to reclaim the Hudson River, I would build a non-polluting factory, I would make movies, I would work for world peace, I would aid indigenous cultures, I would help low income countries diversify their agriculture. Some people would study, some would travel. A few would lie on the beach - but not for long. Hiding behind that fantasy there usually lurks another one: to build a house, to write a play, to become a pastor.

Even today there are untold millions of volunteers. They raise children, manage households, work in hospitals, prisons, schools, art galleries and libraries. They serve on school boards and government agencies. They man thousands of non-profit organizations. They clean-up trash and work in community gardens. They tend the elderly and the dying. They serve as mentors. They rush to help victims of flood and famine. Since their contribution is not measured we tend not to see them, yet society could not survive without them.

My critics underestimate technology’s power to minimize the need for human labor and they greatly underestimate human nature. They forget how malleable we are, how we are shaped by the socialization process; and how quickly we adapt to differing social, political and economic contexts. People would live very different lives if the question society kept reiterating during their formative years shifted from, “How will you support yourself?” to “What do you love to do?” and “How will you serve?”.

As children of this culture, most of us view working for money almost as a law of nature, yet if we look at the long tenure of humans on the earth we see that it is actually a very recent, and I would say, aberrant practice. All that we know of indigenous peoples points to aeons - hundreds of thousands of years - in which people worked simply because the work was needed either for their bodies or their souls.

It would not be wise for a democratic society to attempt to control what happens between consenting adults. If private individuals pay each other for goods and services that would be their affair. But in the market place the Sane Economy would end profit and the paying job. It would not end the use of money, it would end the practice of working for it.

Money in the Sane Economy would be far more narrowly circumscribed. It could not be manipulated to create more money. It would simply represent and track one’s claim on wealth. It would be delayed buying and investment power. It could be in the form of coins, feathers or a computerized accounting system. Once dollars are spent for consumption they would expire so that available buying power is kept in balance with available goods and services.

The monthly stipend guaranteed to all adults would come in two forms: consumer dollars and investment dollars. We would use our investment dollars to share in the communal choice as to how resources should be allocated and to share in the management of our chosen enterprises We would “invest” not for profit - as there would be none - but because we have opinions about production priorities. The return of our investments would be a world closer to our hearts’ desires.

At a personal level the size of one’s income would have no discernable connection to one’s own work. On the macro-level of the total economy, the collaboration of capital with volunteer labor will determine how much wealth is actually available for distribution.

I make no attempt in this article to spell out the nuts and bolts of exactly how a Sane Economy would work. A host of technical issues are involved including, for example, taxation, private and public ownership, price, interest, saving, rent, borrowing, trade between rich and poor nations, division of wealth between government and private citizens and between capital and consumer goods, restraints on government interference with the market, safeguarding essential skills and industries, defining “essential”.

Before the “practical” souls among you throw up your hands declaring that the Sane Economy is hopelessly Utopian and could not work, consider the possibility that being Utopian is its strength and keep in mind the powder keg on which we sit; the unsolved and unsolvable problems of the economy we have.
An economy that depends upon profit to motivate the creation of wealth and depends upon wage and salary to distribute it is locked into a suicidal expansionist mode. Like a bicycle the economy cannot stand still. It must press ever forward towards growth. If it stops, even for a moment, it will crash. This is why no responsible statesman can advocate the end of economic growth unless he includes in his advocacy a program for altering the economic structure.

Working for the ulterior motive of making money is not a healthy reason to work - it diminishes us. The structural alteration that can release the accelerator from the economic engine is to stop working for money. We must stop working for money.

Were we to trust the entrepreneur’s love of making things happen and the willingness of others to help him, the economy could rest at an optimum level without jeopardy to the necessary creation of goods and services. Then we would be free individually and collectively to bring judgement to bear upon what is desirable.

What kind of world do we want? What production choices and what size economy support this vision. Is that economy sustainable? What stewardship must we assume for our planet and the people who live on it? Can we meet our needs at a lower ecological cost? Can we protect biodiversity and bring the natural world back into our megapolis? Do we want bigger cars, palatial homes, more gadgets or restored rivers, wetlands and forests, revitalized communities and broader participation in human thought, scholarship and creativity? What balance do we seek among competing human desires for convenience, things, culture and spiritual awakening?

H Much more is implied here than reaching a consensus on a range of economic issues. We are describing an examined life beginning in childhood with an exploration of the vast realm of possibility, and the dawning realization that the shape of our lives is entirely in our own hands. The fear of hunger and homelessness is gone. The unremitting re-enforcement of greed is gone. The vast advertising empire with its invasion of our psychological space its distortion of real values and its total disregard for truth is gone. The rage at having less or the guilt at having more is gone. Nature is more present in our lives; and we have made peace with ecological limits. In this new environment we will face important decisions regarding ourselves and our society. Truth, reality and authentic values will be far easier to find for all will be joined in seeking them. Now, at last, we can take our deepest values into our daily lives, deepen our capacity for wonder, and express in all that we do our reverence for life, creation and for each other.
Carla Theodore

60 Ecology Lane

Woodville, VA 22749

1Buckminster Fuller coined this phrase

2 TIKKUN, May/June 1999

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