[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?”