Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Changing the World

Time to focus on the positive - focusing on the negative is just making me miserable.

So here's a book that could spark a discussion about creating a sustainable future.

I interviewed author Peter Brown today. The idea is based on the Quaker concept of Right Relationship. That means that no one interest prospers at the expense of others or the expense of the general good. The question this book poses is simple: what if we built an economy based on the realization that our environment is fragile and its resources are limited instead of an economy based on using it up?

The authors propose a solution that will hit some as radical; the creation of a global federation with all existing countries becoming member states. The creation of a global court that can enforce agreements made by that federation. Rule by consensus, not majority. An economy based on awareness of environmental impacts, meaning more local economies, more local thinking.

Brown says any concerns about loss of sovereignty are misguided - that's already been lost. He points to the fact that the United States is in debt to China up to its eyeballs.

What's required, he says, is a mass public rejection of the current economic values, an acknowledgement that they don't work and a demand for reform. He says there is precedent for such a sea change - he points to anti-smoking campaigns, anti-drunk driving campaigns, civil rights and even anti-slavery movements of the past.

There are resources for learning more, for deciding what could work and what couldn't. This book is a good starting point for discussion, particularly the Quaker emphasis on consensus. It can work. It has. He argues that now it must.

Moral economy

International Day of Climate Action

Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Local Money


nocomme1 said...

Ok, you say you are interested in a discussion, you got one.

I haven't read the book but your description of it raises dozens of questions for me: You say the author says that our current "economic values" don't work. They don't? Since the beginning of the 20th century the average life expectancy in the US has increased by over 30 years, thousands of drugs have been invented and marketed to millions which have eased suffering immeasurably, "Today, the expenditures per person of the lowest-income one-fifth (or quintile) of house­holds equal those of the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.", 43% of the poor own their own homes, 80% of the poor have air conditioning, almost 75% own cars, 78% of the poor have a VCR or DVD player. Etc. THIS is a record of failure? Granted, much work is left to be done but can you or he name ANY other system that has ever increased so many people's standard of living so fast? What is he talking about?

You say he wants rule by "consensus". How is this achieved? Can you name a single economic policy that has "consensus"? Won't this lead to governing gridlock as the government tries to achieve an unattainable consensus? What about people or groups of people who disagree? Won't consensus lead to government by the lowest common denominator?

He believes that "no one interest prospers at the expense of others..." Who determines the definition of "interest"? Where is the incentive to excel in this system? You may think that people will work 16 hours a day for the common good, but if you do you should introduce yourself to some actual people. They value what is theirs and not some general higher good. If that were the case people who drive rental cars would treat them as well as they do their own. They don't.

You and he seem to believe that for one person to do disproportionally well, others must do less well. Bill Gates became a billionaire by creating a product that has benefitted all of humanity. We all reaped the "profits" of his work, DESPITE his reaping more than the rest of us. That is the heart of capitalism.

I am no expert on Quaker philosophy so perhaps you can tell me the terrific accomplishments of Quaker communities that have benefited us all. Can they top the benefits that we have gotten (briefly listed previously) from capitalism?

This all sounds like watered down Marxism to me.

Susan said...

It does raise dozens of questions, Eddie. As I said (and even the author admits) it's an attempt to begin a discussion. And you bring up good questions. I'll try to explain what I think going down the line:

I don't think as highly of our overall quality of life as compared to our parents' or theirs as you do; there is no more job security, no more safe retirement, fewer salaries that allow what we once considered a middle class lifestyle for many. But there's no denying that technology and science have changed everything.

You list the 'things' that more poor people have. I'm not at all sure that they can afford those things, nor can I, but we live in a more more more society so we've gone into debt or neglected saving because we have to have the latest of everything. That's partly what got us into that recession, isn't it? So I'm not sure acquisitions and spending are good measures of progress and improved quality of life.

Consensus is also a very tricky thing and I'm not convinced it's workable on such a large scale, but the Mohonk Consultations works on issues through discussion with exactly that goal - not majority decision but consensus, and they claim to have had successes.

As for who determines "interest" - wouldn't it make sense for the first agreement by consensus to be the basics of survival and agreement upon levels necessary for everyone's well being? That might be a good starting place.

The motive to excel? How about we become people who excel because of an inner drive to improve themselves? Money doesn't have to be the motivating factor, but that's what capitalism is all about.

I think people are capable of altruism -it's just not generally encouraged. I think that's something we can all be taught. It's overdue in Western society.

Most profit is made at another's expense - whether the other is a person or the environment. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs created a new world. They've also created new problems that we haven't yet begun to grasp. Our society has changed drastically in the past twenty years - cell phones and computers are revolutionary. We haven't yet seen what they'll mean to our health, our environment and the impact on our children's minds. Progress always has a price.

I don't begrudge either man his fortune. But we don't yet have a way to easily dispose of old electronics and we're piling them up at an alarming rate. That problem should be a priority for both of them now.

What amazing thing have the Quakers done? Well, they're credited with raising public consciousness regarding slavery in England, which led to its abolition. But I'm content with the idea of Right Relationship, as it forces a consideration of possible consequences along with possible benefits.

We live in an economy that sees anything new as progress and sees the environment as our property. That doesn't work. Sometimes an advance leads to tragedy - consider some of the sorriest stories in medicine - and our natural resources are finite.

Western society has been in denial in its rush for more "progress". I like that the Quakers (and there are plenty of other philosophies and religions with similar ideas) would first take a look at the bigger picture to see if the benefits outweigh the risks.

nocomme1 said...

"Most profit is made at another's expense - whether the other is a person or the environment." I don't believe that for a second, but I read Milton Friedman's Free To Choose years ago and it made sense to me then and not much has come along to invalidate it in my mind.

As to the environment, contrary to what environmentals may believe, it has been getting better for years, at least in capitalist countries. Try picking up the Skeptical Environmentalist by statistician Bjorn Lomborg. He goes through the stats in exhaustive detail and things are far better than the alarmists might admit.

I'm also put in mind of the famous bet between economist Julian Simon and alarmist author and failed prognositcator Paul Ehrlich. Simon made the following $10,000 wager with Ehrlich: Ehrlich could choose any 5 commodities and if, as Ehrlich contended they were becoming scarce, in ten years they would be more expensive. Simon said they'd be cheaper. Ten years late Simon won the bet and collected his 10k. All 5 commodities got cheaper. There are a host of reasons for this but, bottom line, if things were becoming scarce their prices would have risen. They did not.

The most polluted countries in the world are not industrialized countries, they are communist and other non-capitalist countries.

As far as "interests" go; different people have different and frequently competing interests. I don't see how consensus could lead to anything but gridlock.

As far as Gates and others like him causing more problems, well yeah, of course. Every action has consequences. But I'd contend that they've certainly made people's lives' better, and have not created worse problems.

And I believe that despite all our problems, people's lives are much better today than they were before the industrial revolution. Progress certainly brings with it problems. Blacksmith's went out of business when cars came along but I don't think the world would now be a better place if we all got up tomorrow and saddled up instead of getting into our cars. And I think most people would agree with me or saddles would be considerably more popular as Christmas presents than they are today. Free people choosing freely.

You said at the beginning of your post that you were tired of all the negativity. I have a cure if you see nothing but darkness: open your eyes. Things are better than the crisis industry would have one believe.