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Looking Beyond a Society Based on Consumption or Why I Am Not A Randian or Objectivist

This post is inspired by, amongst many other things, this particular “piece of writing” that I saw on Google News Spotlight. It’s not very good but I am linking to anyway in hope of maybe getting some cross traffic or baiting some Randians to come argue with me.

I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, so please don’t mistake this as some type of review or critique.

Imagine a world where, instead of the capital owning class going on strike, the lower and middle classes went on strike. They stopped buying durable goods, stopped eating out, stopped going on vacations, stopped investing in their 401Ks. What would happen to the economy and industry then? Granted, the working classes are generally unable to go on strike for prolonged periods. They are called the working class because they have to work. They don’t have nest eggs and investments from which they can draw an income. So they work. They aspire, they consume, and they keep the economy moving along because they have to: they have to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families.

But they don’t have to buy new TV’s and automobiles or overleveraged homes. These are cultural values, specifically consumer culture values. Partially they are the legacy of the “American Dream” that is itself rooted in the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment and subsequently mankind’s gradual ascent from a Hobbesian existence towards the current level of comfort and physical security afforded to us today. Human beings are an aspirational animal. We are hardwired to accumulate material wealth because material wealth brings security. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. The only problem is that sometime thousands of years ago, mankind started to cultivate the land and form societies. These societies began to offer to human beings a way to escape the Darwinian struggle for survival, to a certain degree. Over time, it has brought us to a point today where natural selection is still in effect, although social processes have created an evolutionary environment in which it is not always the most adapted that survive and flourish. We have created a world of equal genetic opportunity, which is almost assuredly a great thing, but we still have these evolutionary impulses to conquer and acquire, to hoard what is scarce, and to have anxiety over our relative social position.

All of these impulses are putting us on a collision course towards collapse. I am not an expert on environmental science or population economics, but I believe it is fair to say that the scientific community, by and large, has seen the writing on the wall. The level of economic growth, as it is defined contemporarily by GDP growth, is unsustainable. The stock of natural resources on our planet is being diminished and the world’s population is continuing to grow, both at ever increasing rates. From the time of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the Second World War, the world’s population has grown from 1 billion to 3 billion people. Only a fraction of those people were lifted out of what we would consider poverty and into the ranks of the working consumer class. Today, the world’s population is near 7 billion and more than half of those people are currently playing “catch up” with the Western world in terms of industrialization and standards of living. Even though today’s industrial standards are more technologically sophisticated and efficient than what was used during the 19th and 20th centuries, the cost to the earth of giving 3 billion more people plasma screen displays and three bedroom houses will be tremendous.

The consumerist cultural values that are intrinsic to the operation of the current global capitalist system are unsustainable, and from an existential viewpoint, completely unnecessary in today’s world of abundant food and relative interregional security. Many recent studies have been done that conclude people do not gain any marginal happiness with income levels over a certain amount. I am not sure what that amount is, but the mere fact that it exists should tell us something about the end result of an aspirational consumerist society: it won’t end until the earth is dead or we change our values.

The middle classes can stop wanting to become the upper classes, and the lower classes can be assured of their own rights to be enfranchised as global citizens who are able to receive benefits from the technological and scientific progress that has been made over the last several centuries, we just have to want it and demand it, first as individuals, then as a society. We have to change our values.

Back to Atlas Shrugged: Atlas would be screwed without society at large. If the upper class really are the innovators, idea people, and heroes of society (which is a claim I am dubious of, but for the sake of argument I will let it stand), they still need a stock of workers to bring those ideas to life, and a marketplace full of consumers who are willing to purchase these ideas. Philosophically, the nobility of the capital owning classes lasts only as long as you give credence to consumption as an end in and of itself.

Dream Platform

Wars: End them, redirect 50% of military budget to a Manhattan project for sustainable energy infrastructure (solar, wind, tidal). End most foreign aid.

Abortions, Drugs, Prostitutes, Gay Marriage: All cool, Legalize It Peter Tosh. There is just no good reason not to. Every technocrat in the world agrees with me.

Medicare: replace with a single payer system modeled after Canada or the UK. Better end of life care: instead of paying $30,000 to prolong a 79 year old’s life by 6-12 months, give them a grant to go travel the world or start an NPO or whatever and let them die happier instead of live on more miserably.

Social Security: end it. Refund all SS contributions back to the people who paid them. It is nice to take care of old and sick people, but a government run SS system is the wrong way to do it. SS is modeled after a Ponzi scheme, and is inherently unsustainable. A better name for it would be “Social Stability”. It is a handout from the ruling class to keep the proletariat complacent. It is also, as currently structured, socially regressive.

Immigration: cutting down the size of the welfare state will let us bring in more immigrants. Immigrants are good especially entrepreneurial ones. Accordingly…

Business: too much of the tax burden falls on small businesses. The facts are that small businesses pay much higher marginal rates than large cap multinationals. Change the tax code to exempt the first $X of profits from taxation. Tax foreign earnings the same as domestic ones for multinationals.

Farm Subsidies: End them immediately.

Prison: use more remote monitoring for nonviolent offenders. Stop warehousing nonviolent criminals. Abolish the death penalty.

Law: allow people to take the bar exam without going to law school. Most of the founding fathers became lawyers by being an apprentice to another lawyer. Sadly, this process has disappeared and the legal industry is controlled in an oligarchic fashion by less than 200 law schools. This lack of competition drives up the costs of law school, and subsequently legal services and litigation. More lawyers = cheaper litigation and a more robust tort law system, which in turn allows for less Federal regulation and oversight, as many property right issues could be resolved by tort law.

Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability should be at the center of my dream platform. The biggest crisis we face as a species is the carrying capacity of the Earth.

In the Begining….

… there was this here. Now there is this.

If there is a general theme to what I write about, it is probably Post-Modern Political Economy. In a nutshell, I believe that economic systems are socially relevant so far as they maintain social and political  stability. If the peasants are revolting, this is a symptom of dysfunctional political economy. I believe that capitalism served to replace feudalism as a relevant economic system because capitalism supports social mobility and weakens the hereditary class system. Socialism caught on in the early 1900’s because it further eroded the class system, however its mechanisms of distribution were flawed, and pure socialism ultimately did not catch on because of the concept of “scarcity”: there were not enough goods to go around. I believe that presently we have eliminated the  most pressing types of scarcity (food, water, and shelter) and that a social democracy model of political economy is a natural progression out of the mixed market oligopoly that dominates the world today.

Categories: Mission Statement