Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Servant or Master

Time for another opinion piece. In this morning's paper George Will laments the return of government "interference" in the economy. In that same morning paper is an article which claims that Charles Dickens characterization of the poor diet of children in workhouses (Oliver Twist) is wrong. Recent studies has shown that the "recommended" diet was significantly more nutritious than that portrayed in Dickens' novel. Less than currently recommended but "adequate". So what do the two have in common? It is a matter of who's holding the reins.

Several years ago Dr David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist/TV host of The Nature of Things, made a TV special called Suzuki Speaks which presented his views on the interaction of the economy and the ecology. In it he makes the case for humans place in and as part of nature and contends that purpose of "the economy" is to serve the needs of people. It is, or should be the medium by which we distribute the goods and services we need to live together as a society. He argues however that "the economy" has become an end in itself, a thing which the people serve through their work and consumerism. An excerpt from his talk is avaliable on YouTube or a slightly longer excerpt at Link TV. A DVD or download of the full talk is available at Avanti Pictures. I believe that this talk is as important to the future of the world as "An Inconvenient Truth".

George Will and other free market capitalists argue that the markets, left to their own devices, are self correcting and that government interference only prolongs the existence of businesses that should go out of business. That's true if, as Dr. Suzuki contends, we are servants of the economy. If the economy is in charge and the role of humans is to feed it through their labor and consumption then market forces should be allowed to run their course unimpeded by government regulation. There are problems with that idea though.

The first problem is like the problem in saying Dickens got the diet of children in workhouses wrong because the recommended diet was actually adequate. Even the authors of the quoted study admit that maybe not all workhouses followed the recommendations. Well, DUH! History is loaded with examples of people not doing things in the recommended way. We've recently been treated to the results of people not following recommendations in the financial markets to the detriment of everyone in society.

The larger problem is, as Dr. Suzuki contends, a matter of putting the cart before the horse. We create the economy to serve us. Free market economists argue that in a free market everyone will prosper, the old "a rising tide floats all boats" idea, but putting the functioning of the economy ahead of the purpose it is meant to serve is backwards. The business world is fond of mission statements as a means of measuring success. We need to find a way to make the economic system serve us, to provide for our needs first and desires after. We need to have the mission of the economy to serve us, not itself. I highly recommend Dr. Susuki's full talk, either the download or the DVD. The download will play only on the computer it is downloaded to (unless they've changed it since I got a copy several years ago).

I will add the caveat that government can be as guilty of putting the bureaucracy or institution ahead of the mission as business. Both are human institutions. Both require some supervision by those they serve to keep them on course. Hopefully the recent election was just such a course correction. I believe it was even if Mr. Will does not. The important thing is to remember that all human institutions exist to serve us, not the reverse. Remember that the next time you are instructed to "go out and buy stuff" or told that preserving the environment will damage the economy. It isn't about the economy, it's about people.

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