Small Steps Toward Building a Brighter Future

[U]nceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. — Phillip K Dick

On Earth Day Sharon tried to spread a message of optimism in a feed from PERC’s Executive Director Brian Yablonski. A couple of us failed to find any optimism there. Here is why: Yablonski and others who call themselves “Free Market Environmentalists” adhere to what many economists view as a particularly narrow field of economic thought labeled the Austrian School.
(See also My Wars Against Economic Fundamentalism (Iverson, 2011)) (See also: neoliberalism: Wikipedia, Guardian)

Main tenets of the Austrian School are: free markets, individualism, and “curbing the size of the state”.

Economists who frame the subject more broadly—as political economy—don’t view markets as necessarily “free,” neither government as necessarily “bad.” Most economists allow for government action as a legitimate part of broader workings of democratic politics (including wealth redistribution). Austrian School economists do allow for altruistic behaviors on the part of individuals, e.g. community or sectarian service and contributions, but believe government to be an ineffective or perverse tool for such. Austrians usually allow for government provision of national defense, but not much more from government. It is the disallowance of space for broader democratic governance I find most off-putting in the practice and politics of the Austrian School. For more on that, see Democracy in Chains: The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, 2017. (reviewed here (The Atlantic, 2017), reviled here (Critical Inquiry, 2017).

A World of Three Zeros

Recently I stumbled onto an interesting, uplifting book titled A World of Three Zeros: The new economics of zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions, 2017 by Muhammad Yunus. (reviewed here (New York Times, 2017).

I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know how the author attempts to solve the “zero net carbon emissions” problem, but the other two resolutions come about largely by people rethinking both the nature of business and human nature.

Business is recast in part as “social business” where the goal is to solve problems not just to make money. Yunus allows for conventional businesses, but suggests the need for many more “social business” enterprises that focus more broadly than simple profit—to solve social problems.

“Human nature,” says Yunus in the New York Times book review (2017), has been misinterpreted by the Capitalist System. Yunus argues, “In capitalist theory, it is assumed that man is entirely driven by self-interest. That’s definitely not the description of a real human being. Human beings are selfish, and at the same time they are equally selfless, if not more.” Hence his focus on “social business.” My guess is that Yunus also believes in democratic governance to help in this effort as well. But that can not happen until and unless we rid our culture of the serious misinterpretation of human nature he notes.

For the Common Good

Yunus is not the first to point out these problems. Almost 30 years ago, I used to champion Herman Daly and John Cobb’s book For the Common Good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future, 1989. (reviewed here (Scott London, 1995)).

Daly and Cobb’s message was similar to that of Yunus, but just gave general recommendations without many of the specifics Yunus now adds after successfully testing them in real-world settings.

Daly and Cobb were largely ignored, and shunned and derided by many in the economics profession. But that was way before pretty much all the wealth began to increasingly find its way into fewer and fewer hands (New York Times, 2017). Let’s hope Yunus’ message is afforded a more cordial hearing.

Here is how Yunus sums up our current plight (from NY Times article, but likely from his book):

“We need to abandon our unquestioning faith in the power of personal-profit-centered markets to solve all problems and confess that the problems of inequality are not going to be solved by the natural working of the economy as it is currently structured,” Yunus writes.

“This is not a comfortable situation for anyone, including those who are on top of the social heap at any given time. Do the wealthy and powerful … like having to avert their eyes from the homeless and hungry people they pass on the street? Do they enjoy using the tools of the state — including its police powers and other forms of coercion — to suppress the inevitable protests mounted by those on the bottom? Do they really want their own children and grandchildren to inherit this kind of world?”

3 thoughts on “Small Steps Toward Building a Brighter Future”

  1. A couple of thoughts, Dave.

    First I heard this from another person. PERC is a free market place.. OK.. but that’s not to say that none of their folks ever have good ideas. Of course, they have that bias and that should be considered. Like all biases of all groups should be considered.

    But you don’t have to have free market views to be optimistic about the future, or to note that some things have improved in the environment If you are old enough, you remember previous environmental problems identified and what happened or not. But here are other reasons to be optimistic other than being a free-marketer.

    1) your brain chemistry could be wired to be optimistic in general.
    2) your metaphysical/spiritual/religious views incline you that way as in the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis, “where there is despair, let me bring hope.” Or in the words of the Dalai Lama “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.” Now of course there are people who write about and parse out the difference between “hope” and “optimism” in English. Needless to say, people are optimistic or hopeful regardless of their views on economics.
    3) internet searches can lead to a variety of people under “optimistic environmentalist”, not all of whom are free-marketers.

    As an aside re: the social business model, I served on the board of a mental health not-for-profit in Boulder CO and there were many businesses there with the “social business” model. Don’t know how common that is elsewhere.

  2. Bravo Dave, now we’re examining disease causation rather than merely treating its symptoms– which has long been the case on NCFP — and exemplified by “stewardship and restoration” of “management” disasters (through compromise and collaboration with the corporate state.)

    As the layers of the onion get peeled back however, the economic fundamentalism being invoked in this discussion must be understood as fundamentally creating a social and environmental policy by default.

    And finally, at the center of this onion however is heart rot.

    By that I mean, our collective predicament of economic, religious, and technological fundamentalism resulting in spiritual isolation, dislocation and separation from all elements of the biosphere.

    That’s when discussion on ethics matters the most. However, the staunch resistance by some here to any discussion of the ethical considerations of individual choice within this corrupted system we inhabit would prefer the power of positive thinking even well into its terminal stages of decay and disease. Denialism is a natural outcome of cognitive dissonance.

    Richard Dawkins comes to mind here, not someone whom I’m particularly fond of, but nonetheless who coined an interesting notion — that of “viruses of the mind.” His target was a critique of organized religion, especially its Western mutations, but it is easily adapted to this discussion.

    What I’ve been forced to conclude however, even among self-described progressives is an inherent resistance to what must be done to escape the suicide pact we find ourselves signed-on to.

    I look forward to reading your finds.

  3. (Speaking of viruses of the mind and heart rot of the soul of the electorate, its government and elected leaders as evidenced from their human rights violations to agency whistleblower retaliations):

    John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer who served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program. He began an article in Truthdig on May 8th:

    “The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will hold hearings Wednesday to decide if Gina Haspel should be the next CIA director. The vote in committee and on the floor of the Senate is going to be close. And if Haspel wins, we will have the Democrats to thank for it.”

    (Kiriakou ended with his article with this):

    “A clear majority of Americans—nearly two-thirds—support torture. It makes me sick even to say it. I fear that we’re fighting for nothing. Is this really the country we want to be?”


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