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Economics & Abundance, Growth, & 'The Vital Lie'
Hello out there -
I have a new essay out that deals with the economics of abundance, in practical economic terms, as well as a more nebulous, philosophical look at what abundance is.
For the Musing Mind Podcast, my conversation with basic income expert Karl Widerquist was postponed - we’ll be speaking in a few days. So there’s still time to send in questions, concerns, and curiosities about UBI by responding to this email.
I’m pursuing future podcast conversations with folks like Mariana Mazzucato and Jason Hickel, ‘untraditional’ economists who are revitalizing economic theory for the 21st century. Any tips on folks in this field would be much appreciated (especially if they have ties to contemplative practice/consciousness).
New Essay: Some Economics of Abundance
The essay explores what a shift from scarcity to abundance in the realm of economics might actually mean, and how we might actually get there.
The main question:
“What if, for the first time in the history of sentient life on earth, humans in the 21st century have enough accumulated cultural technologies, ingenuity, and wealth to discard the condition and dynamics of scarcity as life’s organizing principle?”
I try to be specific and policy minded, exploring wealth distribution, taxes, and the dynamics of capital.
For example, there’s something I call the magnetics of money. Put simply, the nature of capital is such that the more of it you have, the easier it becomes to make more. After a certain point of accumulation, capital begins to attract other capital. But only after a high degree of accumulation.
Which looks like this:
One of the projects that might help bring about a post-scarcity economy is to flip this graph over, so that the dynamic is reversed. How can we design the economic system so that capital is easy to acquire at lower levels, and gets progressively more difficult to accumulate as you get into higher levels of concentration (one approach to doing so is democratizing access to capital, by converting capital held in private ownership into public goods with non-rivalrous, non-excludable dynamics)?
I go on to explore the idea of Universal Basic Income through the anarchist lens of a revolution that manifests in everyday life, and from there, scales up as an emergent phenomenon, an emergent revolution that derives its character from the new decisions people would make if afforded freedom from the dominant imperative to earn their living.
But as counterweight to the excursion into tax policy and wealth distribution, I allow myself a bit of musing on the philosophy of abundance:
“An economic abundance would invert the logic of daily life. Utilitarian labor - that is, work not for itself, but for earning - would recede to the margins. Any further labor taken on would become increasingly voluntary, uncoerced by the imperative to earn one’s living that incentivizes commodified life-forms.
Our lives would cease to be one long means to a hypothetical end, becoming more of a succession of ends in themselves.
Abundance is a new composition of daily life for all, where the marginal utility of commodity logic is decreased by the equitable affordance of basic needs. Increasing our capacity for voluntary cooperation would reconstitute the prevailing dynamics and incentives that aggregate across our millions of micro-daily decisions, and solidify into our complex cultural system.”
The Human Repression of the “Primary Miraculousness of Creation”
“The world as it is…would be too much for us to bear without crumbling in a faint, trembling like a leaf, standing in a trance in response to the movement, colors, and odors of the world. I say ‘would be’ because most of us—by the time we leave childhood—have repressed our vision of the I primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience…we can't keep gaping with our heart in our mouth, greedily sucking up with our eyes everything great and powerful that strikes us. The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.”
Becker’s spiel is that humans are blessed/cursed to perceive a fulness of reality no other animal can - including foreknowledge of our own death - and the only way we can cope with that enormity is to repress it. The personality, our ‘character’, is viewed as one big coping mechanism, a “vital lie”, so that we can function in the world without being toppled by the sheer wonder and terror of it all.
I’m not sure I think he’s right, but it’s sure juicy, and provocative. I think he’s kinda falling into what Ken Wilber calls the ‘pre/trans fallacy’, fetishizing the infantile mode of perception.
Contemplative practice isn’t about rediscovering that unencumbered perception available to infants - that would be regression - it’s about a modality of perception that can only be cultivated through the self, through the personality. It’s a spiraling use of self-transcendence in order to enlarge that superimposed self, to stretch and explore and expand and enrich that vital lie, rendering it porous to the oceanic depths beneath it in the subconscious, without losing the coherence of self-consciousness that can allocate and direct one’s being towards intentional stances. The self is a raft afloat the nebulosity of the subconscious, that we can nevertheless train to become conversant with those depths. And when we oscillate upwards, into moments of ecstasy where the self recedes, that atmosphere is distinct from the selflessness of infantile cognition. I think, maybe.
Government Spending Visual Explorer
Found this nifty tool - put together by the government - to show where tax dollars are being spent:
Two Tweets and a Truth
Take these two viral tweets and roll ‘em together:
For too many, life is losing its glimmer. In a way, this feels like a modern echo, a head-rearing of the sentiment Fernando Pessoa wrote decades ago:
“It all comes down to trying to experience tedium in a way that does not hurt.”
“Abundance offers a new daily landscape of possibility. A culture of abundance is driven by the fruits of leisure, rather than labor. But there will be no utopia. There’s critical work to be done that requires greater skill and collaboration than ever. We cannot afford to imprison the majority of the population through earning their living in vestigial scarcity, or to continue dulling creative minds with factories of anti-education.”
Abundance is about a lot of things, not least of which is supporting people in (re)discovering an excitement at the very prospect of being alive, and the buffet of possibilities at our fingertips.
If you’re interested in how an economics of abundance might revitalize our shared sense of existence, I highly recommend London School of Economics anthropology professor Jason Hickel’s essay, Degrowth: A Theory of Radical Abundance
Decoupling Growth and Development
I’m getting tossed back and forth, as I believe many of us are, while trying to figure out what progress means in the 21st century, and whether economic growth has any role left to play in that progress.
In Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics, he contextualizes the past few hundred years of exponential growth as an unsustainable, but natural phase transition towards maturity.
In nature, ecosystems - growth of adolescent humans, the total biomass of vegetation regrowing on barren land, or the population of bacteria newly introduced into a petri dish with a constant food supply - all go through phases of intense and unsustainable growth as part of phase transitions towards steady-states:
“In nature, headlong growth and all-out competition are features of immature ecosystems, followed by complex interdependency, symbiosis, cooperation, and the cycling of resources. The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature…the economy will shrink, and our lives will grow…Today, it seems, we are reaching the limits of growth, and therefore the end of humanity’s childhood.”
On the other hand, Andrew Mcafee’s More From Less (you can get the gist of the book from his podcast with Sam Harris) argues that growth & development - albeit more nuanced models than crude GDP growth - are crucial to lifting ourselves from the perils of ecological ruin.
“…we don’t need to make radical changes; instead, we need to do more of the good things that we’re already doing…economic growth is not the enemy of the environment. American and other rich countries have already moved post-peak in their exploitations of the planet. This isn’t despite these nations’ steady and sustained growth; it’s because of it. So increasing economic growth around the world is an essential element of taking better care of it.”
Any insistence upon maintaining growth in the 21st century is predicated upon our ability decrease the physical materials required per unit of growth. Mcafee contends production is evolving from atoms to bits, and this digitalization of production is allowing us to produce more efficiently and generate more wealth while simultaneously decreasing our reliance upon environmental resources.
The hypothesis is not without critics (Jason Hickel among them), but it does add some rich nuance to the debate over growth and progress.
One of the most salient threads in this debate is that the growth perspective relies upon continued accrual of private access to privately owned capital, while de-growth discourse, and even folks like Mariana Mazzucato, call for more democratic, equitable, and far-reaching access to public goods. This is known as revitalizing ‘the commons’.
Continuing to design for growth largely coincides with an economy that affords each individual more and more purchasing power to gain access to the capital goods they need. Moving away from growth tends to also move away from the paradigm of pervasive private ownership. The logic of the former is atomized individuals, the latter, interdependent communities.
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, critiques, and suggestions.
Until next time,