My Social Sciences vs. TOP's Economics

Yesterday I attended Z-Day, talks and discussion organized around the theme of transitioning to a resource based economy (RBE), which could result in a utopic future for humanity, one in which everyone’s most basic needs are met, no strings attached, leaving people to work on the more deeply fulfilling upper tiers of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
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Wiri te Moni, Amanda Garland, Michael Kubler, and John Belmonte comprised the first block of speakers. Wiri Te Moni spoke first and provided a broad overview of what a resource based economy would be like (think Star Trek: the Next Generation).

Amanda Garland is a representative of Earthsong, New Zealand’s first cohousing neighbourhood based on permaculture and eco-design. Located near the Ranui train station, it is a living demonstration of how to create a cohesive community within an urban environment. Its use of space allows for private living quarters and shared facilities, including a common house, gardens, laundry, and guest quarters. The automobile is marginalised by placing one carpark for everyone's vehicles on the periphery. A large pedestrian loop (accessible to moving trucks and ambulances when necessary) connects the residential and common areas. When we get a new government, I hope Earthsong will serve as a model for the sort of communities a modern and resuscitated state housing program could create.

In contrast to this small-scale example of how housing of the future could work, Michael Kubler, an Australian Zeitgeist movement organizer, equated leaving a money economy behind to working our way through a computer game’s fog of war: there is a vision and sense of purpose and there is helpful technology, but the specifics of the destination and the way there are necessarily obscured. John Belmonte, an advocate for resource based economies, presented a compelling case for why barter is not likely to be a workable part of this sort of economy.

Whether a universal basic income could be a step on the way to an RBE is a compelling and timely topic. Presumably for that reason, Geoff Simmons of Gareth Morgan’s Opportunites Party, was invited to speak in the second half of the afternoon. However, he decided not to prepare a speech on the UBI (and it must be noted the UBI that TOP is advocating is not universal) but rather to respond to the prior speakers by making a poorly received plea to save capitalism. He reacted in an overly precious and intolerant way when those words evoked a bit of mild and entirely predictable heckling, but the attendees settled themselves despite (not because of) his scolding and politely heard him out.

Morgan and Simmons are hardly the first prominent economists to posit that saving capitalism is the only true route to saving humanity. Former Clinton Labour Secretary and Stanford economics professor Robert Reich published a book to that effect for the mass market in 2015.

Simmons wields his economic expertise quite aggressively, yet I was left to wonder if he’d ever properly delved into any other social sciences. Once upon a time, economics was a social science itself, but in the past decades, many university economics departments have been rehoused in business schools, where the field’s purpose has single-mindedly morphed into producing apologists for our existing neoliberal capitalist system. (See paragraph eleven of this blog piece for a bit more.) My late father was a Marxist economics professor in the 60s-80s and he mourned this shift. It’s probably fair to say I absorbed many basic economics principles such as supply and demand and opportunity cost as I grew up: as a very young child I composed a song which opened, “On the night I was born, there was a surplus in the corn,” no doubt a term I overheard from Wall Street Week, a public television offering my father followed religiously. I found none of this compelling enough to take an economics course at university; instead I was drawn to anthropology.

Any introductory anthropology course worth its salt confronts students with their ethnocentrism, suggesting instead that their culture’s way of seeing, explaining, and manipulating the world represents just one constantly evolving and tiny slice of humanity’s lived experience. To defend any system by claiming it is the result of human nature raises the ire of anyone who has studied anthropology, yet economists of Simmons’ ilk cling to the notion that profit and attendant material acquisition are the only forces that drive human enterprise and innovation.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, are but two inventors who rejected the possibility of profiting from their creations. Salk said: “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” But we need look no further than our own families for everyday examples of people taking actions rooted in the drive to love, connect with, and serve others. No persuasive business case could ever be made for having children in this day and age, yet people still pour their time and resources into this most irrational, risky, long-term endeavor.

TOP’s only answer towards fairer distribution seems to be to more heavily tax both income and assets of those who have managed to accumulate much more than others, instead of fundamentally changing an unfair system that not only allows but celebrates their accumulation of great wealth, which simply cannot happen without unsustainable exploitation of both workers and the natural world. Simmons made no mention of the declining purchasing power of wages and the emasculation of labour unions, and gave scarcely a mention to New Zealand’s accelerating wealth gap and its attendant levels of Dickensian poverty. He insists that his rose-coloured view of humanity’s ongoing relentless progress under capitalism not be unfairly impugned by trivial matters such as typhoid outbreaks and overtaxed infrastructure. Too many cows? Tax them out of existence!

Just as we now have a more comprehensive view of evolution beyond the series of fortuitous mutations that led to the emergence of the modern human species, we must stop seeing capitalism as the end point and pinnacle of our cultural and economic evolution. Simmons’ knee-jerk reaction to a suggestion that there could be a better way was an impassioned tirade about Soviet communism (which, like life anywhere, was never all bad—they did reach outer space first--and which no other speaker had suggested we emulate anyway). He had no compelling answers for how to force corporations to bring a halt to planned obsolence, suggesting penalties that would likely simply be passed on to the consumer.

Which capitalism is Geoff trying to save anyway? Last year’s movie, the Founder, presents a portrait of how some succeeded in business in pre-neoliberal days: the McDonald brothers worked out an innovative way to cook and serve food, they toiled alongside their employees, they rejected crass commercialization, and they abandoned an early effort to franchise because they could not maintain their very strict standards. They were not out to squeeze every possible penny out of their business; they were motivated by ideals beyond base profit. But what has happened to those sorts of businesses? In the case of the McDonald brothers, they fell victim to a grasping parasite named Ray Kroc and we all know the rest of that story.

These days, if the balance sheet isn’t reflecting constantly increasing quarterly profits, a business is considered sluggish, anaemic, and other terms suggesting an impending medical crisis. It isn’t enough, it isn’t success, to produce a quality product and make just enough profit to provide for your own and your employees’ needs and keep the business running.

Today’s giant multinational corporations, to borrow another medical analogy, are more like metatastic cancers and now even the corner mom and pop emulates the worst of their ways: think of how small businesses are using the 90 day trial law to extract labour without providing any job security, think of how hospitality workers can be asked to come in and work a shift of only a few hours with virtually no notice, think of landlords who have evicted solid tenants to convert their homes to Air BnBs to try to make more money. Can we really hope to tame businesses into benign entities with our existing laws and structures?

People are starting to reject a property career as life’s true path. It seems absurd in a world of abundance that people must work so hard just to provide for their most basic needs. We are tired of struggling for wealth, power, and status on an increasingly tilted playing field. The fact that our younger generations have been shut out of home ownership may have the unexpected but welcome consequence of those generations learning to seek meaning in deeper intangible rewards like friendship and working for the collective good. I suspect the Morgans and Simmons of the world feel so threatened and react so aggressively because in their bones they know a profound change is inevitable. Of course, whether we get that change via pitchforks or more peaceful means is very much up in the air. This fear of inevitable, unpredictable transformative evolution also explains some of the ongoing vitriol towards the Millennial generation, the first in a long while not to think socialism is a bad word.

To the notion of the fog of war, I would add the Māori and Pacifica view that we are constantly walking into the future, but facing backward. It is not possible to see what lies ahead but we can always honour and understand our journey so far. Our ancestors were weaklings on the African savannah, individually no match for a leopard, but our species survived because we not only embraced technology, but knew how to work collectively. Under capitalism today the only people who seem to be thriving are the Ray Krocs who care only for themselves.