The Backyard Economist - Issue. 3
Alt. Economics A Preemptive Strike
by Harriet Fasenfest
How to demystify the world of economics? We are so completely immersed in it yet we don't really understand it. I have already mentioned that everyone has an individual economy (read The New Pear Standard) - a personal balance of assets and liabilities - yet they exist in a larger system; a system that is often at odds with ourselves. I suppose a good first step in the personalization of economics is to consider traditional definitions.
"Economics is a social science that studies society's problem of choice among a limited amount of resources in its quest to attain the highest practical satisfaction of its unlimited wants. It is the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends."
I found this definition in the dictionary. It is rudimentary and matter of fact; the stuff of grade-school textbooks. On the surface it seems to make sense--a system to manage the distribution of scarce resources. Yet there is a chilling a priori acceptance of the notions of "unlimited wants" and "scarcity" that I find both unsettling and telling.
Words are powerful and in many ways create the foundation to thought and action. So I wonder what would happen were Economics defined as: A social science that studies the distribution of precious and limited resources in an effort to respond to the fair needs of the greatest number of people. Key words have been changed, replaced. We add the word "precious" to a mention of resources as if to suggest they should be so. We allude to fairness as if equity was vital to us. We replace "wants" with "needs" in an effort to distinguish between them and finally, offer a measure of distribution that would include the many and not simply those few willing to fight it out in the marketplace.
These changes would be profound, revolutionary. It would allow for an entire shift in the management and assessment of finite resources and the world's need for them. And while I acknowledge how idealistic it all sounds I stand my ground. Changes can only happen if we are idealistic enough to envision them. This is not a high-minded indulgence. I suggest that, were the present system functioning, no effort to envision an alternatives would be necessary, but it is not and will not and the years ahead will show (and for many quite painfully) what the current system of economics has wrought. So perhaps this is a preemptive strike; an effort to understand why we will be undone and what might replace it.
I would like to mediate any easy objections to my definition by acknowledging the frequently obscured distinction between economic and political systems. Capitalism and Democracy are aspects of separate social sciences even though our present administration would like to equate one with the other. One is an economic policy and the other a system of government. As such, it is not de-facto democratic to be a capitalist. You are not being a defender of democracy by being a consumer. It is not democratic to overuse our resources. It is not democratic to ignore the least of these. It is not a sign of a fair democratic nation to invade, usurp and steal the resources of others because we will not challenge our definition of economics. And make no mistake; it is our misguided economic system, not misty-eyed notions of democracy, that fuels our national and global policies. By suggesting that they, the administrators of the public will, are responding to a nation's unyielding commitment to "unlimited wants" is ridiculous, insulting. When Bush defended his unwillingness to sign the Kyoto Protocol by suggesting "the American standard of living will not be compromised", I wondered who he was speaking for. Certainly not me nor many other Americans I suspect.
Still, having said all that, I yet realize that change offers the greatest opportunity and honesty when exercised on a personal level first. In fact, the personal is often the most difficult. So what would a personal Economy of Equity and Stewardship look like and how does one go about it?
Saying "no" to our very privileged lifestyles is extremely difficult. Saying "no" to unlimited wants, to unlimited choice or, even, to the limited wants that we as residents of "developed" nations have is difficult. How exactly do you pick and choose? What seems legitimate and what is not? The relativity and honesty of that search is exhausting but I don't think we come to our truth overnight. Small inquiries, small re-evaluations, small changes bring big ones. I think asking more of ourselves can be daunting even when we want to, so entrenched are we in our current economic system.
You see, I believe the truth has been obscured and that unraveling it will be painful. I believe most of us did not know what was being done in the name of our American lifestyles. Most of us believed that our leaders were people of fairness and equity and that democratic principles, as they related to the pursuit of happiness, had an eye on the stewardship of our resources. That the prevailing principles of equal opportunity for all meant a level playing field for just that, "all", and not just the elite and that to begin to see that our current economic policies have sold out the best of our human principles, have sold out the farmers, the factory workers, the environment, our children and grandchildren and have dismantled the very social safety nets and educational opportunities that made this country a beacon to all others is a rude awakening. But then that is how it is and not paying attention to the economic system we have all participated in is to participate in the continued dismantling of our highest values. And that seems too high a price to pay. It is a price I believe most of us do not want to pay.
To reference Martin Buber, I believe changing our personal economy is an I/Thou proposition. It is about changing our sense of the other, about changing our sense of insiders and outsiders. As described in his treatise I and Thou (1923) Buber differentiated between the I-Thou and I-It relationships. The former depicts the relationship between man and the world as one of mutuality, openness, and directness - a true dialogue. The latter - the I-It - is explained as the absence of these I-Thou qualities. The partners are not equal in the I-It relationship (To learn more about Martin Buber go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Buber#I-Thou).
I reference Martin Buber by way of suggesting a spiritual shift must occur in us before we can effectively change our personal economies. Buber offers one slice of a consciousness shift. There are so many others and so much written to provide clues for change. We need them all since so much of our current economic policy is based on our ego-centric givens of privilege and wants. They are second nature to us. I struggle with them daily. But if I struggle to change my way of living in the world (and to the extent I feel hope) it is always, only, to the extent I am able to challenge my own sense of privilege. Before I even assume to know an answer for anyone else I must answer it and live it for myself. And that is what I mean by the personal being a real starting place. That is what drives me to the backyard. That is what has brought me to Preserve; that and a desire to carve out something a little softer and kinder for the next generation. It is one of the consolations of aging, that we can turn our experience to some good.
So day by day during this last long hot summer I took care of my garden and preserved everything that crossed my path. That effort was/is part of my desire to establish nuts and bolts benchmarks for ushering in an Economy of Equity and Stewardship. It is part of a new investigation into revised producer/consumer ratios and how they help in defining the health of a new economy. I will share more on these ideas and others as the rain continues (I have been too busy in the garden to write). I will admit, however, that the effort is time consuming, difficult and out of joint with the rest of my modern life but so it goes. As our Preserve slogan suggests: Put up or Shut up. So please excuse me now the tomatoes are beckoning.