I published a new essay - Of Paradigms and Policies. It explores the relationship between paradigm change and radical policy reform, complexity economics and basic income, and Marilynne Robinson’s question: is poverty necessary?
More context below, but check it out if interested:
Of Paradigms and Policies
It all began while reading Marilynne Robinson’s June 2019 essay for Harper’s Magazine: Is Poverty Necessary? She has some great lines, like this one, where she likens the absurdity of neoclassical economic theories to island-dwellers, surrounded by oceans, who nevertheless import fish from England:
“I think it was V.S. Naipaul who grumbled that people on Caribbean islands, the sea all around them, lived on canned fish imported from England. We have lived on theories that are the intellectual equivalent of canned fish, rationalizing in their terms a poverty we had no need to suffer.”
And this, where she laments how the effects of our social relations have come to approximate the effects of war, both depriving us of realized human lives that might have otherwise gifted the human collective with a fuller realization of its own potentialities:
“We do not know how many saints and geniuses have died in wars, and we don’t know how many have died of want, exhaustion, disease, and despair. We will never know what the world might have been had these lives unfolded, realized themselves. In the same way, we will never know what wealth, and what varieties of wealth, the world might have enjoyed if it had not created social relations whose effects could approximate the effects of war.”
But it was a passing comment she made about unconditional basic income that set off a spark that would soon become an essay of my own:
“If there were a guaranteed minimum income, how dependable would it be, given the indignation the plutocrats express at the slightest hint that the national wealth could be distributed more equitably?”
I highlighted this because I’ve read the sentiment a few times now, like an echo coming from multiple angles.
One comes from the economist Mariana Mazzucato, who writes that arguing for more progressive tax reforms is not enough. The effort must first change the stories we tell about wealth. Once the stories change, the words change, the ideas change, then progressive reform can take root:
“It is not enough to critique speculation and short-term value extraction, and to argue for a more progressive tax system that targets wealth. We must ground those critiques in a different conversation about value creation, otherwise programmes for reform will continue to have little effect and will be easily lobbied against by the so-called ‘wealth creators’...Words matter: we need a new vocabulary for policymaking.”
And a few other places, but I’ll spare you the laundry list of quotes. Essentially, the sentiment I hear underlying all these reverberations is that you cannot enact change policies before you change the underlying paradigms. That paradigms change before policies do.
As a counter example, I’m thankful we did not wait until racial equality was an uncontentious position before passing the 1960’s desegregation laws. Rather, the laws were designed into a culture between paradigms, and the culture grew around these new, desegregated conditions. Robinson fears the indignation of plutocrats would threaten a basic income, but designing the end of poverty into our socioeconomic system might be the best way to encourage the growth of a paradigm that assimilates the total absence of poverty into its ideology.
The essay goes on to explore the paradigm shifts already underway in economics, how to change paradigms, and the role of human nature in outgrowing neoliberalism.
I also rolled out another self-made diagram for the essay, though I think it’s my least inspiring yet:
Progress is such a rich concept. How do we create contexts, feedback mechanisms, and experiential rubrics that help us decipher how we’re living, how to spend our time, how to organize the chaos of life?
Progress is this context we create for ourselves. It creates a frame of reference for how we’re living our lives, whether they mean anything, and how they come to mean anything.
I’m wary of the exclusively techno-scientific, reductive materialist notions of progress that abound today, the kind that justifies its narrative using graphs and statistics. Wary, though not against.
I’m wary because too often, I find these perspectives are blind to their own ideology, the implicit assumptions in their progress-context about what such means can and cannot capture.
The great 20th century economist, Joseph Schumpeter, wrote that all analytic work rests upon ideology. That in order to construct a context for progress that can be represented in graphs, assumptions must be made about which phenomenon are within the scope of analysis:
“In practice we all start our own research from the work of our predecessors, that is, we hardly ever start rom scratch. But suppose we did start from scratch, what are the steps we should have to take? Obviously, in order to be able to posit to ourselves any problems at all, we should first have to visualize a distinct set of coherent phenomena as a worthwhile object of our analytic effort. In other words, analytic effort is of necessity preceded by a pre-analytic cognitive act that supplies the raw material for the analytic effort. In this book, this pre-analytic act will be called Vision….Analytic work begins with material provided by our vision of things, and the vision is ideological almost by definition.”
It’s refreshing to find a seminal economist who acknowledges the nebulosity that underlies analytic thinking. Robert Pirsig called analytic thinking an ‘intellectual knife’, commenting further:
“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”
(Also, here is one of the best short, obscure essays I’ve ever read on this topic).
This is one way to conceive of contemplative practice: rolling around in that underlying nebulosity like a dog in a fresh pile of October leaves.
Anyway, I got to thinking about all this after stumbling upon this anonymous Quora answer to the question “What is progress, and what does it mean for humanity?"
Where Does Money Come From?
Money is created primarily when banks grant loans. If you walk into a bank and get approved for a $20k loan, the bank doesn’t give you $20k from their reserves. They add a $20k debit to your account, and just like that, an extra $20k exists in the economy (which will eventually be repaid to them, plus interest).
This flips the intuitive idea of how money works: loans are not the results of deposits, deposits are the results of loans.
Here’s a breakdown of money in the British economy:
To go in depth, check out the Bank of England’s report on Money Creation in the Modern Economy. I actually got the tip on this report from David Graeber’s recent book review, Against Economics, which is well worth a read. It’s another torch taken to neoclassical economic:
The Meaning Of Life is a Man Bungee Jumping While Playing Bagpipes
Snips from internet reads
Should We Care About Inequality? | Daniel Zamora in Jacobin Magazine
"This surge of concern for poverty would not, however, revive nineteenth-century commitments against the market. Rather, it would radically reshape ideas about social justice. The big issue was no longer inequality, but poverty alone…the issue of poverty, as it emerged in the early 1960s, would prove qualitatively different from the way it was posed in the nineteenth century. It appeared, above all, not as intrinsically, but rather extrinsically linked to the older divide of the capital-labor relationship."
The Real Class War | Julius Krein in American Affairs
"any fundamental transformation of Western politics will necessarily be led by increasing numbers of the ‘elite’ who defect from the dominant policy consensus and rethink their allegiance to establishment paradigms. Conventional narratives, including many that are critical of the status quo, paint the elite as a unified block aligned with neoliberalism. But the neoliberal economy has created a profound fracture within the elite, the significance of which is just beginning to be felt.
The real class war is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent—or, more precisely, between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on professional labor."
How do we move the needle on progress? | Eli Dourado
"I think a careful look at the economic landscape reveals four areas from which we could derive massive increases in human welfare: health, housing, energy, and transportation/logistics. If we want progress, we need a relentless push for innovation and dynamism in these sectors."
Musing Mind Podcast Update
The first 4 guests I invited for a podcast conversation all agreed - and there I was, thinking that was normal. I’m now coming to see it wasn’t.
With 5 episodes live, I’m beginning to encounter far more no’s. Partly, this is a function of the people I’m asking, who tend to be high-profile, and have better things to do with their time than go on a new, unknown podcast.
There’s a bit of pressure to release content. Especially this early in the game, a new podcast should regularly be releasing episodes. But, for better or worse, I won’t reach out to someone unless I’m really, really excited to have a conversation with them, and don’t plan on lowering standards.
I still have plenty of ideas in the works and conversations to come, but just bear with me through these beginnings as I build up enough visibility to get a steadier stream of conversations flowing. One project in the meantime, I’m making a Youtube channel where I’ll edit and create short, shareable snippets from the conversations on topic-specific segments. For example, this is a cut from my recent conversation with Karl Widerquist where we explore the differences between UBI and Negative Income Tax:
The podcast exists to explore the intertwining of consciousness & culture in the context of 21st century complexity, and this terrain is only getting richer.
That’s it, back to life
Also, if you were intrigued by that Marilynne Robinson essay, but were disappointed to find it’s behind a paywall, just shoot me an email. I can email you a PDF version of the essay.
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, critiques, and suggestions. Let’s start a conversation.
If you aren’t subscribed yet, here’s a button: