My college roommate used to talk about his math teacher in high school.
“Last year,” the teacher would say, as introduction to his class, “you learned AN algebra. This year, you will learn THE calculus.”
There is an instructive truth to this. The algebra taught in high school is only one of an entire collection of different algebras with very different mathematical properties. Everyone knows, from high school algebra, that (A times B) is the same as (B times A). That’s because high school algebra is a commutative algebra. But there are non-commutative algebras in which this is not true. There are quantized algebras, and algebras over closed sets, and abstract algebras with names like “open-closed homotopy algebras,” or the algebra of a “rational two-dimensional conformal field on
oriented surfaces with possibly nonempty boundary.”
To say that you “understand algebra” almost invariably means that you understand the algebra taught in high school. It’s a little like saying you “understand language,” meaning that you understand your mother tongue, and can speak in full sentences. Most people know at least one language, and some know many languages, but to say that you “understand language,” if taken at face value, is highly unlikely to be true.
I believe that people who “understand economics” are in much the same situation. They understand AN “economics,” which attempts to describe one kind economy. But there are many different kinds of economy.
In the broadest sense, what is an economy? I would say it’s simply the things that people collectively do around an organizing theme.
If you look at ancient Egypt, they had a “pyramid building” economy. That’s just shorthand for a large collection of related activities, from farming the Nile delta, to raising up Pharaohs, to training armies, to venerating their gods, to — of course — actually building stone pyramids. The idea of the Pyramid more or less captures this idea of people doing activities around some organizing theme.
You can look at fourteenth-century Europe as having a “cathedral building” economy. It organized resources, and provided steady, multi-generational skilled employment for stone masons, architects, artists, glass-blowers, vendors of everything from bricks to pastries to holy relics.
The general thing about an economy is that it organizes the activities of excess labor: labor that would, absent the economy, have pretty much nothing to do but eat and procreate and quarrel.
Think about it. The stone masons are not producing food. Cathedrals can’t really be considered “shelter” from the weather. They aren’t good places to procreate — they’re drafty and full of cold, hard surfaces — and quarreling is likely to break something priceless. From any practical perspective, cathedrals — like pyramids — are pretty damned useless.
If you look at our economy, it seems that the focus is producing billionaires. Like the “pyramid economy,” the “billionaire economy” is an oversimplification. But if you look at what our modern capitalist economy produces, it is — purely and simply — capital: hoards of unspent wealth owned by individuals.
Unlike the pyramid economy, we don’t have a particular “thing” we produce with our excess labor. One of the current fads is computers, but in ten years, it may be windmills, or solar panels, or nuclear power plants, or desalinization plants, or something else. However, whatever “thing” we stay busy with, it will surely produce concentration of capital, and will produce another billionaire (or twenty).
The interesting thing is that most economies function, not by means of production, but by means of rationing. By definition, excess labor means excess goods, specifically food, and this is rationed out by a complicated system of “merit” based on the underlying economy. For the pyramid economy, surveyors lived better than log-rollers. For the cathedral economy, stonemasons lived better than street-sweepers.
Rationing is a way of rewarding people for complying with the current economy, and punishing those who do not. This is how it provides focus.
“I’d quit my job, but I have to eat.”
People didn’t build European cathedrals because they were pious. They build cathedrals because it was how they could earn their daily bread in the rationing system of the cathedral building economy. It was how they could gain standing, power, and wealth.
“It’s a good job, son. Learn to cut stone and you’ll never go hungry.”
Every job in our current economy is tied to profit, which is defined by its ownership class, which hoards paper wealth in a kind of financial Tokamak ring called the “stock market.” The goal of a real Tokamak ring is to produce nuclear fusion. The goal of the stock market is to store capital and grow endlessly bigger over time, filled with more and more money, buoyed up on a string of business fads that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. The great steamship builders; the great electric power utilities; the great computer cable networks.
We produce billionaires.
Future generations will look back on us, and ask, “What were they thinking?”
But to return to the opening topic, our economists study, not economies, but AN economy: specifically an economy that produces billionaires, not cathedrals or pyramids. In doing so, they rationalize and glorify the creation of billionaires — economists need to eat, too — and this warps the whole picture frame of what “economic health” looks like.
One of the questions that people throw out from the so-called “right-of-center” (on the accepted one-dimensional political axis) is: “How will we pay for it?” The “it” can be anything that people from the so-called “left-of-center” bring up: single-payer health care, student loan forgiveness, free education, free food for the homeless.
But that isn’t their real question. What they are really asking is, “How can we accomplish this thing that the left-of-center wants, but make it fit within the rationing rules of our current economy?”
Well, we can’t.
By definition, the people the left-of-center want to benefit are the ones currently being punished by AN economy that produces billionaires. If we we bail out the students, we will fall short on our annual quota of new billionaires. If we treat the sick, the billionaire economy will sag.
Explaining the left-of-center view to an economist is like explaining to the Exchequer of the Royal Court in Medieval Paris that we halted construction of a cathedral to dig a well for a bunch of lepers, the Cursed of God.
Off with your head, you irresponsible fool!
But the original question is the better question, and it has a simple answer.
“How will we pay for it?” We pay for it the way any economy pays for anything: with our excess labor. Because the economy is whatever we do with our excess labor. And we are approaching a crisis in what we are currently doing with our excess labor.
I had an amusing exchange with my boss this morning. We had our weekly online meeting, and he was fifteen minutes late, waiting for his computer system to reboot. Last week, I had to skip a meeting because my system wouldn’t connect sound in either direction. I had to talk with a co-worker today, and we had to switch to a different program to hear each other.
It seems like half of all our time is spent rebooting computers, upgrading phone software, filtering out junk mail, fighting with “productivity tools” that make us less productive, less communicative, and less organized.
What the Hell are we all doing?
If economists tell us that this is our highest good as a people and a species, they are wrong. They are wrong because they are laying out the rules of AN economy, our economy. There are other economies.
It is time to change.