Sacred Economics- A Review Part One

A couple months ago I was challenged by blogger/activist Chris Agnos at Sustainable Man; to read Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. In exchange Chris is reading Applied Economics by Thomas Sowell. The hope is that each will learn something from looking at the antithesis of our own philosophies and beliefs. I have always tried to read and expose myself to ideas from all sides of an issue. Any valid argument seeks to address couter arguments and provide answers and alternatives.

I have finished reading the first part of the book. Eisenstein sets up the first part of the book to attack modern capitalism and society. This isn’t new ground by any means but Eisenstein is no crack pot and he does a good job at making a cogent argument without too much invective and empty rhetoric. Anybody seeking to change a system has to first demonstrate its’ failings and Eisenstein does that with a mix of logic, evidence and history. I am going to summarize a couple of his key points and address them in this article. I am not seeking to write a book here just address some key and common points.

“Today we associate money with the profane, and for good reason. If anything is sacred in this world, it is surely not money. Money seems to be the enemy of our better instincts, as is clear every time the thought “I can’t afford to” blocks an impulse toward kindness or generosity. Money seems to be the enemy of beauty, as the disparaging term “a sellout” demonstrates. Money seems to be the enemy of every worthy social and political reform, as corporate power steers legislation toward the aggrandizement of its own profits. Money seems to be destroying the earth, as we pillage the oceans, the forests, the soil, and every species to feed a greed that knows no end.”- Charles Eisenstein

First let me agree with Eisenstein, society largely does associate money and therefore greed with evil. This is a testament to 100 years of progressive thought in government and education. This association however is just plain wrong headed. Money is good and greed can also be good, especially for society. Adam Smith wrote about this over 200 years ago:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

At the time (1776) most men worked in farming to feed their family and bartered some for other services. Women worked from dawn until dusk just maintaining a house and preparing food. There are parts of the world where this is still the case. Money allows us to engage in activities we are best suited for, I can create videos and take photographs and earn currencies which I exchange for food or technology that makes life easier. This exchange allowed innovators to create technology and to innovate new ways of farming, healthcare and countless other things that allow a relatively poor person in modern America to live longer and better than Louse XIV did not that long ago considering the scope of human history.

Han Rosling has studied the progress of human history and demonstrated how much better we live today than our agrarian barter societies did before. Indeed since 1970 world poverty as defined by living on less than a dollar a day has plummeted 80%. Why? Globalization aided by technology allows a subsistence farmer in India to get a job in a call center or a factory servicing a wealthier economy in the United States. As the economy of India grows it impacts even poorer areas in Bangladesh or Africa. That same farmer turned factory workers child may become an engineer and move up the ladder again. It is not benevolence that has created this new prosperity it is the desire to live better lives that creates wealth. In a capitalistic society we trade value for greater value. I spend $300 on an iPhone because I value that iPhone more than alternative items I can buy for the $300. The iPhone is $300 and not $3 million dollars because of a global capitalistic model that allows growth, efficiency and innovation. Money is the tool that allows this all to happen, we agree as a society to recognize currency as a store of value and that facilitates trade. Money also allows for cooperation in an amazing way. Think of all the things needed to create that iPhone, even a simple  pencil is the sum product of thousands even millions of different people in different places cooperating to create a product. A miner digs for the graphite while being feed, clothed and transported by others. That graphite goes to a factory where another worker perhaps around the world uses it combining it with other raw and semi raw materials to create the pencil. That pencil is then transported, marketed and sold by other people. Can a local barter economy even create something as simple as a modern pencil?

Eisenstein seems to understand this- even while glamorizing communal barter and what he calls “gift” economies; but he argues that we are in a different stage now and  uses the current recession to indict the whole system:

“Money is disappearing, and with it another property of spirit: the animating force of the human realm. At this writing, all over the world machines stand idle. Factories have ground to a halt; construction equipment sits derelict in the yard; parks and libraries are closing; and millions go homeless and hungry while housing units stand vacant and food rots in the warehouses. Yet all the human and material inputs to build the houses, distribute the food, and run the factories still exist. It is rather something immaterial, that animating spirit, which has fled. What has fled is money.”

Putting aside the obvious dramatic overstatements and exaggerations of the current or past recession, Eisenstein is attacking the very idea of growth in general. Environmentalist many times phrase this argument as a zero sum game in that we are taking from others or taking from the earth and that our prosperity equates to someone else’s poverty. This idea is completely counterfactual, it is precisely our prosperity and desire for a better life that allows for others to rise out of poverty. As the United States and Europe became richer so did South East Asia and Africa. Many look at the proportion of wealth to poverty, the gap which does tend to grow in absolute terms. This misses the point though and is to say we would rather our neighbor be even poorer as long as we are closer in means. Some have put it this way: Would you rather make $40,000 a year and know that your neighbor makes $1 million or make $10,000 a year knowing your neighbor only makes $40,000. In the second scenario the gap is smaller but you have 1/4 of the means. This argument for fairness is the common tool politicians and leaders use to gain power over men; they promise to make for a more fair society but the result is always less for all with usually the only winner being those connected to the government.

It is mathematically certain that all resources are finite, even the sun will stop reacting at some point. We cannot understand infinity even if we believe in an infinite god. Given this logic some argue that we are running out of resources and that resources cannot be owned and are collective and therefore must be collectively managed. No one can argue that resources are scarse, the question becomes how should these resources be managed? Capitalism has been the system that has worked better than all the rest.

For decades some have predicted that we are running out of certain resources and that costs for a given commodity will continue to rise. They have almost always been wrong, innovative self interested corporations and men continue to find more and more resources and different resources. Other innovators find new uses for resources and ways to use alternatives and less of a given resource. Right now in America manufacturing is starting to come back- in part because of a shale gas revolution that is making energy for factories cheaper. 120 years ago expensive whale oil threatened to empty the sea of whales and made it hard to light the night. Rockefeller discovered oil could be refined into kerosene and in the process saved more whales than Greenpeace ever will. Later Edison discovered how to create electric light and now even most of the poorest Americans have cheap and abundant light at night- something we don’t even really consider living without. I am not arguing that resources such as oil are limitless they clearly are not. However capitalism allows us to use them more efficiently and will someday reward those who replace unsustainable resources with more sustainable ones. The market will force people to ration when necessary and do so more orderly and efficiently than any team of bureaucrats could no matter how smart or well intentioned. No one knows when we will start to run out of natural resources or what new innovations will allow us to use less or alternatives. There is no reason however to believe that this century cannot be full of as much growth as the 20th century was and lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world provided of course reason prevails and we don’t kill the free market engine of growth.

For most of human history Kings and despots controlled all the wealth and almost all where poor. We then moved into democratic capitalism in America, Europe and then Asia and prosperity followed. In the early 20th century Socialists pointed to the obvious injustices and unfairness and successfully convinced nations to try socialistic and communistic governments. These systems lead to despotism and decay because they overlook human nature and motivation. We create and work to attain a better life for ourselves and our families. When we cannot profit from our work and industry we don’t work as hard we don’t take risks and progress stagnates. In a truly free market there are powerful incentives to use resources wisely and efficiently. Eisenstein is not arguing that Communism worked but he doesn’t accept this as the natural progression of his ideas. We have been fighting this battle for more than 100 years and I expect it will endure for at least 100 more. The ideology of from one according to her abilities to one according to her needs is very attractive, it sounds good and noble. Eisenstein attacks Ayn Rand specifically and those of us who believe in true capitalism by comparing us to selfish children and saying that we need to evolve our thinking to a more parental mindset. This is the kind of paternalistic thinking that leads to statism- the idea that an economy must be managed by benevolent high minded people. This is how freedom dies and it does not lead to prosperity it leads to poverty and decay for all.

Eisenstein has some of the problems of modern life correct, we do seek satisfaction in things too much. We are overly consumeristic, we waste our time and energy on things that don’t make us happier and we do live overly on debts that become our masters. This isn’t a byproduct of capitalism it is a byproduct of human nature and ignorance- dismantling capitalism won’t make us desire material things less it will only destroy the engine of prosperity for all. As a society we are more prosperous and therefore can afford to think more about the planet and our role in making it better for all people. We are more conscience of our impact in a multitude of ways and many of us do give of ourselves freely to help others at home and oceans away.

Money isn’t evil but man certainly can be. Capitalism rewards the good far more than the bad, it isn’t perfect but most of the problems blamed on capitalism are the result of less freedom and more management by disinterested benevolent men. We have history and philosophy and evidence that democratic capitalistic free societies work better than the alternatives. We must be careful not to throw out the good seeking an impossible perfection.

I will read the second part of Eisensteins book and comment on his ideas for change.

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