Step 6 - Redefine Useful Work and Wealth
Redesign the Economy
To the economist utility is a stand-in for usefulness. In fact, it is often interpreted as a subjective measure with reference to the consumer. In this sense it cannot be used to distinguish between wants and needs. The distinction is left up to the consumer. And, according to rational agent theory humans (Homo economicus) act with perfect rationality in making choices based on their subjective utility assignments for various options. There are two basic flaws in this approach to building economic theories and models. First, humans are by no means rational, in the pure sense, but are strongly influenced by emotional factors, often subconsciously, that bias their decisions toward that which 'feels' good and away from that which 'feels' bad. Second, the formation of emotional linkage to things out in the world is strongly influenced by perceptions of linkage to deep biological needs even when there is no real connection. This is the job of advertising — make that premium object have sex appeal always works!
Both of these 'truths' about human nature and decision making have been amply explored by psychologists (and c.f. criticisms from the previous article link). Unfortunately for main-stream economists they are forced to deny the evidence because their models and theories will fold in light of reality! They really are in a bad spot. Too bad they have been able to shield our Commander-in-Chief from this reality. He still puts his faith in the classical/neoclassical versions of growth and consumption as the basis for human well-being.
In this installment I propose that we reconsider how we think about what we mean by useful work in order to bring clarity to the energy economy and to provide a potential basis for making more rational decisions in the future. People are capable of making more rational and less biased decisions when they have a good model of rationality (explicit rules of reasoning) and true premises to start with. Here is a candidate for a model. The premises have been offered before regarding the nature of wealth production as the accomplishment of useful work and the one-way consumption of energy (Second Law of Thermodynamics).
Suppose we define useful work as that work which allows society to maintain a steady flow of exergy (net energy available to do work) at a level sufficient to maintain a steady-state population at a reasonable level of material comfort with equitable distribution of that material wealth. In other words, work which maintains a stable social environment without growth that robs non-human parts of the Ecos. This does not preclude development of new and better forms of material wealth, increasing the true satisfaction of every human, since that might be achieved through science and technology — doing more with less.
What it does mean is that the total population of the planet must remain at the carrying capacity, the sustainable number that can live in balance with the rest of nature for as long as we can envision. It means obtaining energy from truly renewable sources rather than fossil fuels (which establishes an upper bound on the size of a sustainable population). And it means identifying the kinds of products and services that sustain human well being rather than self-indulgent hedonism. It means abolishing the notions of rich and poor. It means abolishing the notion of profits and interest as we understand them now. It means recognizing our mental, intellectual, and individual wisdom limits and establishing a form of governance that will prevent those who would succumb to irrational desires (like the desire to get rich!) from doing so. We already have laws that prevent us from doing direct harm to one another. We will need laws that prevent us from doing indirect harm as well.
This definition of useful work will guide our decisions about where to direct and spend our energy resources. Given that these resources will be limited to just what the Ecos provides we will need to budget their uses carefully. We need to make wise decisions about what work we choose to do.
Living organisms do this. Within each organism, the hierarchical control structures are organized to budget and route resources in a way that balances the needs of the many subsystems so that the whole can function correctly. During times of resource constraint living systems have a carefully orchestrated priority routing system that assures that critical subsystems are maintained and provided with resources needed to adapt to the environmental stress caused. Only in cases of extreme stress or disease do the various subsystems tend to compete for the limited resources within an organism. Similarly, there is a balance between cooperation and competition between individuals, groups, populations, and species with the direction toward increased competition in times of resource constraint. In the ecosystem, as in the organism, there is a general, regulated flow of energy from primary production (photosynthesis) to intermediate consumers to top carnivores (and completing the cycle to parasites and decomposers).
The definition I offer is really just an organic way to organize society and human affairs for the purpose of sustaining a technological civilization indefinitely into the future. If every time we were to ask, will this work (product or service) contribute to the flow of exergy tomorrow and into the future, i.e. will this work result in a steady flow, then we would be able to make rational decisions about how to prioritize the work.
Some work will, of course, be directed at the consumption of energy in behalf of the individual's comfort and enjoyment. In one sense, even consumption of energy for entertainment (within reason) can be viewed as contributing to future exergy flow since happy humans are more likely to be productive humans, not to mention more inventive and creative humans. As long as the consumption of energy is matched by the production of energy less the energy needed to keep production sustainable then the whole system will operate in a stable, dynamic steady-state. New homes would be built only to replace ones that become so old that further maintenance would not be cost (energy-wise) effective. The same for all machinery used to manufacture products. Machines would require replacement from time to time due to entropy, but the materials can be recycled if energy is available to do so (just as decomposer organisms break down organic molecules to return them to the soil where plants can use them to build new compounds).
Work will be needed to be done only when maintenance or replacement is needed. There is no need to continually manufacture automobile after automobile, day after day, and have to rely on a growing population and planned obsolescence to absorb that work so that auto workers can have steady jobs. You build an auto (whatever form they may take in the future, or more likely bicycles!) only when a new one is needed. You build only enough spare parts to repair the rolling stock already on the road.
Where will people get income if they are only working sporadically? And what will they do with the rest of their time? The answer to the first question comes from the fact that a properly balanced technological civilization counts income as just the maintenance energy needed to keep things running. Income to society exactly equals what society consumes so everyone would have an adequate share of that income to maintain their own lives. You would still work for a living, but only when needed. Which brings up the second question — what will we do with all our spare time?
I don't think that question is hard to answer at all. Today there are probably a majority of people who would love to do nothing more than watch reality TV shows or sports events all day long. But I think this is more a failing of our education system and the pressures of our current form of economic life. Our jobs are constant pressure cookers (for most folk) and when we get time off we are too burned out to want to go to the library to study neuroscience. Our education system has failed to promote our natural sparks of inquisitiveness and sense of adventure in learning about the world (really quite the opposite). Today education has one major goal and that is to prepare people for jobs. Its all about supporting the economic machine that insists on growth and consumption so that a few lucky individuals can pocket the profits and get rich. And between advertising convincing us that we must have the latest iPhoneTM and economists and politicians convincing us that growth is the good, we have collectively bought into the rat race we call life.
iPhones are not wealth per se. Wealth is that which sustains life and happiness (or at least the pursuit of it). Where we go wrong is in believing that we actually need that next new thing right now. What is wrong with living with the current model until it wears out and can be replaced by the next generation? Nothing really, except our own sense of self-centered craving for status (I get teased all the time for holding on to my ancient cell phone - 3 years old - and I bought it because I accidentally dropped my former phone into the water and it gave up the ghost).
Critics will be quick to point out that not having the kind of capitalistic, growth-oriented economy that we now think is normal will stifle creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurship, they will argue, is the lifeblood of our modern technological society. While I don't disagree that the market-based approach offers additional incentives to people who want to turn their proprietary knowledge into riches, I question the validity of this argument's base. Most creative people in the sciences, engineering, and certainly the arts, do what they do because they enjoy it. They get great satisfaction out of creating useful and beautiful artifacts. Most academics do their work because they enjoy the thrill of expanding knowledge and take satisfaction from any accolades thrown their way from peers. It is, I will assert, the secondary promise of riches that often disrupts or dilutes the creativity and motivations of these people. Of all the creative, inventive, artistic people I know (not a small number) I would guess that most, if not all, are driven by inner, intrinsic motivations rather than extrinsic rewards (other than recognition). Only hard boiled capitalists argue that monetary reward is the best measure of that recognition. Nonsense. Hard boiled capitalists need to exploit creative people in order to gain what they want which is riches. If they have to seduce the creatives with promises of (some) riches to get what they want then so be it.
Creative, productive, and life-long learning people are self actualized. They find happiness by engaging in life, by growing the one thing that can grow without damaging the Ecos — knowledge. Even better, they develop understanding. And to the degree our social milieu supports it and their biology provides the underlying sapience, they develop wisdom with age. They do not need to be defined by a job, or even a career. They define themselves by their interests, their families, their friends, and their behaviors. This is what we should be striving for for all of humanity. But we can't do it until we have really understood the nature of work and wealth creation as organic processes meant to support self actualization.
Right now Obama and his team are struggling to reestablish the old borrow-consume-and-hope economy because it will keep people in jobs, so they can have good credit, so they can borrow, so they can spend, so they can consume, so that others will have jobs replacing what got thrown into the trash heap. This pattern is madness, but Obama is not irrational. He long ago bought into the model and he buys the stories Lawrence Summers tells him now. It is really a more subtle kind of trickle-down theory in which we need rich bankers in order to keep the economy growing, or the tide rising. There is just one thing wrong with the tide rising forever. Eventually we're all under water.