A New Big Picture
D.R. Thompson sums up what may be a growing consensus about how the world can move forward.
The evolving consensus for moving forward
Thom Hartmann at one point hosted a show on cable that I very much admired, titled ‘The Big Picture.’ In the show, Thom explained larger trends and movements within society that drove current events — an explanatory route more often than not ignored by those who comment on social issues, and to our detriment.
The Big Picture thinkers of the past, including the likes of Marx and Hobbes, led to wide political movements and economic theories that in turn determined the course of whole nations. Today, anyone pretending to create or promote any new program for world progress is pretty much disregarded by the mainstream media; the mainstream, for the most part, assumes certain economic and cultural givens that are supposedly unquestionable. What are those givens?
The first given is neo-liberal market economics and that markets should be the paramount driver of economies and of human decisions. In a sense, this belief completely abrogates individual responsibility for our impact on the world while promoting the view that the widest array of human choice, even if those choices are destructive, is the best gauge of human freedom.
Marx himself saw Capitalism as destructive by design. According to Tejvan Pettinger:
Marx wrote at length about the nature of capitalism causing large-scale loss, which enabled new wealth to be created. Marx saw wars and economic crisis as methods for destroying production and enabling capitalism to start a new round of wealth creation for the owners. Although Marx saw how Capitalism could reinvent itself, he also felt it’s inherent tendency to self-destruction would eventually lead to its end.
It could easily be argued that market economics and its destructive powers have driven the world to the precipice in terms of the environment, that simply using the human desire for material goods as the guidepost for our collective evolution is, to say the least, the height of human folly. What indigenous and ancient cultures of the past realized quite wisely, modern civilization seems to avoid like the plague — that is, you don’t destroy what sustains you. Our ‘modern’ cultures have been able to destroy the planet more effectively than all others combined, all in the name of human progress, and largely through individual choice empowered by a free market.
The second given is that technology is generally always a good thing — the problem with technology is that when developed without a holistic assessment of the impact of the technology on the environment and human well being, the ill effects can soon rear their ugly head. Regulations surrounding the internal combustion engine are a great example of our lack of foresight. While fifty years ago it was agreed to regulate the emissions of vehicles, the primary result was not to lessen the impact of emissions but to simply make them less visible by removing the heavy particulates. As a result, carbon emissions continue to rise. In other words, we have not yet done the right thing.
Free market apologists will assert that Capitalism’s creative destruction is actually a good thing as it supports innovation and thus will prove to be our ultimate savior. According to MIT’s Ricardo J. Caballero:
Over the long run, the process of creative destruction accounts for over 50 percent of productivity growth. At business cycle frequency, restructuring typically declines during recessions, and this add a significant cost to downturns. Obstacles to the process of creative destruction can have severe short- and long-run macroeconomic consequences.
Stated differently, Caballero believes that any intervention to prevent the ‘natural’ inclination of Capitalism to reinvent itself is a bad thing and in fact leads to economic stagnation. Whether or not this destruction eventually leads to the inability of the human race to sustain itself is not considered. In other words, nature — known to economists as ‘the commons’ — is by implication thought of as inexhaustible. While this may be partially true, it is not absolutely true. This fact results in what is known as the tragedy of the commons:
The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, underinvestment, and ultimately depletion of the resource.
Implied in the above are two very fundamental changes that are required to our current approach to economics in order to systematically and effectively deal with world problems.
First, it is folly to let the market alone dictate the direction of our economies. While consumer choice and freedom are important, we must provide the right choices and realize consumerism is often truly antithetical to a sustainable world. While people can choose to pick up a gun and shoot themselves in the head, it is probably our consensus that this is not the wisest thing to do — yet, in our collective polluting and consumerist activities, we do just that, and often because there are a limited range of choices and/or are chronically influenced toward bad ones.
Put simply, someone or something needs to influence choice in an intelligent way, and that must be an organization or collective group that has the best overall interests of humanity and the environment in mind, not the short term needs of the market and profitability. While such an organizing principle is most often found at the level of national governments and/or international regulatory bodies, it doesn’t always have to be. While this may seem like it is stating the obvious, humankind has not, it seems, come to a consensus as to how to create the best future possible.
As for the market being the ‘organizing principle’ that guides us, market apologists and fundamentalists, as noted, will by design drive humanity to destruction and must be somehow stopped and made to see reason. These people seem intent on denuding effective government as they are somehow convinced that government, and anyone else that isn’t on board with their brand of market myopia, is the problem. While the government may be part of the problem, it is also one of the most effective templates we have to effectively guide our course in the future. This is particularly true in terms of guiding technology policy in a way that continues to promote the leaps in productivity witnessed in the past thirty years. To make progress in the future, productivity gains will in fact need to be accelerated, in large part by artificial intelligence.
In a nod to conservatives, the most effective use of government is not to benevolently rule over us by overseeing every aspect of our lives, but rather to provide the context in which free will can be exercised and not be destructive. In a nod to progressives, it is ironic that proponents of universal basic services (UBS) and universal basic income (UBI) best understand this dynamic by creating a monetary and services commons that can, in a sense, be inexhaustible in a way that the environmental commons is not.
Stated differently, if we have the technological and economic capability to provide every man, woman and child with free basic services for health, energy, transportation, and communications, as well as the ability to provide a basic living standard free from poverty and devoid of negative environmental impact, then we should work very hard to meet that goal.
Moreover, the current crisis with Covid-19 could provide the incentive to do so, and in a way that is sustainable.
According to the World Economic Forum:
The COVID-19 coronavirus has forced entire countries into lockdown mode, terrified citizens around the world, and triggered a financial-market meltdown. The pandemic demands a forceful, immediate response. But in managing the crisis, governments also must look to the long term. One prominent policy blueprint with a deep time horizon is the European Commission’s European Green Deal, which offers several ways to support the communities and businesses most at risk from the current crisis.
This could mean, for example, completely revamping our energy infrastructure so that it is benign (in other words, the Green New Deal and its European counterpart as noted above) and, in tandem, provide some sort of basic income for all adults. I have argued for UBI in the past and will continue to do so. As almost everyone who receives Social Security and uses some sort of public service understands, both UBI and UBS are completely doable (particularly in advanced economies) and is only thwarted by status quo interests that want to stop human progress because it will impact their bottom line. These people must be reminded that the most important bottom line is the survival of the Earth and its inhabitants.
Simply put, basic services and income could become the new platform for human freedom, not the tyranny of a new brand of communism. While initially rolled out in advanced countries with well-accepted reserve currencies, eventually blockchain currencies could allow for basic income to become a global phenomenon.
As opposed to failed models of central planning, we can work to systemically plan and standardize a new level of infrastructure that is then freely used by a ‘market’ economy of people able to choose among commodities and services that have been vetted for their environmental and social impact. UBS and UBI in effect can do for the economy what the interstate highway system did for transportation.
While this dream may sound Pollyannaish to some, it is amazing to me how we accept its opposite so easily, and that the reality of a dystopian, neo-feudal world of corporate-run economic fiefdoms that perpetually war over limited resources seems the inevitable outcome of our current path. Certainly, dystopian futures are depicted quite frequently in our science fiction, and in fact, such dysfunctional narratives are showing up frequently in our dramas as well. To be sure, the Star Trek-like hope of the sixties seems all but dead. Maybe such optimism needs to be re-born in a new way.
Many of the proposals mentioned so far (as more and more Medium blog readers are coming to understand) are part and parcel of what is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Warren Mosler, who developed many of the ideas surrounding MMT, will perhaps at some point be lifted into the pantheon of Big Picture thinkers along the lines of Marx, Hobbes and others. MMT does, in the very least, provide some much-needed optimism for a way out of our current economic crisis.
According to economist Jon Maier in his article Modern Monetary Theory Reboot:
Conceivably, the $2 trillion CARES Act could be just the start of what individuals and businesses in the U.S. need as the odds of a lengthy global recession grow. So if the government can provide wide-ranging monetary relief on the fly, it’s as progressive economic thinkers would say, “Of course the government can afford social programs like universal basic income and universal health care, or the Green New Deal to fight climate change…”
Who is standing in the way of our optimism and our progress? It is quite apparent that it is the established status quo that profits from the current system. And what methods do they use?
For one, a key, often misunderstood and underestimated problem with our current system is intentional disinformation, either paid for or influenced by organizations or people with a variety of agendas. We must vigorously root out disinformation, identify the proponents of such disinformation, and if necessary legislate against it. In short, it is not the consumers of disinformation who are the problem, but its proponents who by malicious or profitable intent misinform people. But how do we do that when one person’s disinformation and ‘fake news’ is another person’s Bible? How do we do this without destroying free speech?
The primary means is not censorship, but education in media literacy. In the short term, the primary vehicle for education is our pundits, writers, artists, and finally politicians. We need moral politicians who do not put profit over people and who do not knowingly latch onto disinformation because it suits their agenda. We also need spiritual leaders to come together in a consensus understanding that all spiritual paths are beneficial as long as they promote love, compassion, and empathy among peoples. And finally, we need business leaders who understand that the current destructive path of laissez-faire market economics and mindless consumerism must be stopped, even if it means their bottom lines will be impacted. In the longer term, media literacy needs to be made part and parcel of primary education.
And this should all be done with a rather old Big Picture in mind: Love.
At the end of the day, it is love that will either guide us or hatred and anger that will destroy us. While some healthy anger might be in order against some people that have deliberately misled us in the recent past, and some justice will likely be in order, the best way forward is to promote love, compassion, and acceptance that all people of intrinsic value. There is no one person of more value than the next — we are all of value, and of equal value. There is no lesser or greater human beings. We are one human family, a family that most certainly will rise or fall with our collective will.
Creative Destruction Defined, Tejvan Pettinger
Creative Destruction, Ricardo J. Caballero, MIT
The Tragedy of the Commons, Jim Chappelow, Investopedia
Could COVID-19 give rise to a greener global future? The World Economic Forum
Modern Monetary Theory, Investopedia, Deborah D’Souza
Modern Monetary Theory Reboot: It is time to Throw Money at this Problem, GlobalX, Jon Maier
D.R. Thompson is an essayist, producer, and playwright.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock
This article was originally published on Medium Blog
D.R. Thompson is an essayist, filmmaker, and playwright. His website is www.nextpix.com