By the time we moved to Florida in 1977, it seemed that I had spent my entire life being moved at someone else’s behest and what I really wanted was to stay put. However, since it seemed unlikely that my husband’s academic career would play itself out at the University of Florida, I was resigned to accept a commitment that we wouldn’t move for at least ten years. I assumed, based on my own experience, that some people prefer to roam or relocate and others prefer to remain in the same place. Now I am more inclined to believe that humans prefer to move around, which is, after all, characteristic of mobile organisms and, if they seem to prefer the opposite, it is probably because there is a big difference between moving and being moved, in the sense that the latter is characterized by constraint. For, if human mobility is essentially autonomous, then being moved would seem to cancel or negate the very essence of individual freedom. In other words, people resist being moved, not because they don’t want to go anywhere, but because they don’t want to be relocated.
One of the things I had always found puzzling about my mother’s attitude towards the Jews of Germany before World War two was her contempt for their failure to leave when they were told. She seemed incapable of recognizing that such forced removal or expulsion of people, even if they characteristically relocated themselves instead of committing themselves to any one particular nation, was fundamentally unjust. As far as she was concerned, it was inconsistent of the Jews of Germany to object to being told to leave because they never had demonstrated any loyalty to the German nation. Now I realize that this position reflected the official Nazi rationalization for Germany’s expulsion of its Jewish population. However, since my mother did not characteristically accept official pronouncements and seemed to hold no personal animosity towards Jews in general, although she developed particular animosities towards individual Jews as she did towards most people with whom she had close relations, it finally occurred to me that what motivated her animosity in this instance was jealousy. That is, my mother had wanted to leave Germany and was planning to do so in the company of her brother. Then he was killed in some sort of border skirmish and non-Jewish Germans were denied exit visas. She was stuck and so she did the next best thing; she went into hiding in the Austrian Alps because, as she always explained, she “didn’t want to get killed for Hitler.” She resented that some Jews didn’t want to go where she couldn’t.
There’s no way of knowing, of course, how much resentment and cultural antagonism arises from the perception that some people have and don’t even appreciate what others would like. However, there seems to be a widespread consensus that most people would prefer to remain where they are, in spite of the fact that, given the opportunity, most people move, even if they don’t go too far. Which raises the question, why? Why do we tend to assume a preference in others that we ourselves don’t share?
I think it’s a matter of wishful thinking. I think the reason humans assume that other people and other species, and, for that matter, plants are territorial and permanently associated with one place, is because this assumption is consistent with how they want things to be. If other things, including other people, remain where they are, then they can easily be found again by mobile creatures who don’t just roam at random, but can remember where they’ve been. Indeed, one might even hypothesize that the brain’s capacity to store such information, including the sequence of behaviors that led up to the discovery, for example, of a particularly plentiful food source, would provide a distinct evolutionary advantage to those individuals with the best memories. And, conversely, because mobility increases the individual’s exposure to novel experience, moving about may in itself enhance the capacity to perceive and recollect, beyond what develops in an organism which, in effect, waits for experiences to come to it. On the other hand, while environmental upsets may reduce the advantage of remembering where good things are by taking them away, such environmental upsets are still less catastrophic for organisms that roam about than for those that stay in one place. But, if animals have an advantage over plants in periods of drastic environmental change, close attention to the habits of plants actually reveals that they aren’t destined to remain in one place for ever either. Instead of relocating on an individual basis as mobile organisms do, plants move on a generational basis. That is, the parent generation stays in place until it expires and the off-spring move on to somewhere else where the necessary nutrients are less likely to have been used up.
Of course, if humans want to move and others want them to stay put, then there’s a fundamental conflict. Efforts to resolve that conflict probably account for the multitude of excuses humans have discovered to justify their determination that some people, customarily women and children, workers and slaves, should remain in place while they themselves, typically men, are compelled to leave in pursuit of food, to defend the home front, to escape domination, or to claim some superior good or treasure. Thus, the difference between the husband’s or father’s exhortation to “be a good (stay at home) girl while I’m gone, and I’ll bring you a present” differs from Hitler’s excursions in pursuit of “Lebensraum” largely in its magnitude. Of course, the modern day bearer of presents is presumably bringing back something he either bought or traded, rather than acquired by stealth or force, but the underlying impulse is much the same. Excusing and justifying the inclination to roam serves to reinforce the ostensible and actual preference for permanence. Though my examples have focused on males, I don’t mean to imply that the impulse to relocate and the perceived need to justify it are uniquely male. Just as my mother predicated her emigration on the need to protect her child from the negative influences of a husband, whose only failing I could ever detect was that he spent her money as his own, there were just as many single women seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity in America as men. Indeed, history now tells us that many more single women than men moved west on their own, without the inducement of a job to build the railroads, level the forests, or subdue the native American peoples.
One of the first things I learned from my repeated relocations was that everywhere people wanted to know where I and come from and why. As long as I identified myself as having been born in Germany, there was a general assumption that my family must have come here seeking a better life and my explanation that, on the contrary, my mother was merely interested in getting away from a husband she didn’t like (I did not perceive any particular benefit in residing with an indifferent uncle and then being sent to boarding school, compared to staying with my grandparents in the Bavarian Alps), was not well received. Eventually, when the litany of all the places I had come from got too long to hold people’s interest and I named whichever one might seem to account for my obvious difference, I discovered that most people didn’t really care one way or the other. They just wanted some identifying characteristic and, since the majority of Americans are from somewhere else, one’s origins seemed convenient. This interpretation was further confirmed by the fact that the explanation for my perpetual tan as being a consequence of having an (Asian) Indian grandfather occasioned no particular interest either; certainly less than the truth–that I had no explanation. Claiming ignorance tended to arouse the suspicion that perhaps I was hiding something.
I also developed a certain skepticism early on regarding economic opportunity and money. Whether or not there was enough money was obviously a relative concept, determined almost entirely by the likes and dislikes of the person who had it. It wasn’t hard to determine, for example, that while there was usually no money in my mother’s household for books, toys, movies, fancy shoes, or store-bought clothing, there was always enough money for moving and furnishing new apartments and for travel. On the other hand, there was also a constant need to save because her savings had either just been spent or needed to be accumulated for another trip. From which I learned to save my money so that eventually I would be able to go and do what I wanted. Which was probably the main attraction of taking the subway to Manhattan and riding horses in Central Park. Going somewhere on my own was what was important, not being somewhere else.
In addition to being the natural condition of a mobile creature, motion is particularly attractive to humans because our perception of our environment, especially our ability to see, depends on it. That is, either we or the thing we see has to be in motion in order for our senses to register its characteristics. So, for example, if we stare at an immobile object without either moving or blinking, after a while the object is no longer consciously seen. On the other hand, the brain registers information to quickly that a static environment in which nothing is changing may well induce a sense of deprivation. In other words, humans may well be propelled to keep moving not just because that’s what their tendons and muscles are made for, but to keep from being bored. Which may well explain the attraction of vehicular transport–it allows people to keep moving at a rate more approximate to the brain’s ability to perceive change,
without exhausting their physical capabilities. It may also explain the attraction of television–a mechanism that permits the brain to perceive movement without the individual actually going anywhere, except to satisfy the physical impulse towards motion in answering the “calls of nature” for nutrition and excretion.
In any case, when I was first married I didn’t give much thought to economic opportunity or economic principles. Since I had taken charge of the family’s finances and decided how virtually every dollar was spent, I didn’t perceive myself as dependent. However, it was increasingly difficult to ignore that as a so-called “homemaker,” I was rapidly becoming a member of a shrinking minority. More and more, I found myself being identified not by my origins, but on the basis of my not working. Though I had no desire to excuse my behavior, feeling quite certain that managing a household, raising three children, supervising our various construction projects, taking part in community activities, and indulging my interest in reading up on a few esoteric subjects such as anthropology, housing law, history, and even philosophy was occupation enough, I was forced to consider the alternative–why so many women were choosing to work outside the home. Since, in many cases, I knew their spouses were earning more money than mine, the explanation that they were being forced to work in order to meet their needs rang hollow. Moreover, not one woman I encountered ever asserted that she would rather be keeping house. At most, some allowed that I was lucky not to have to put up with an unreasonable, demanding and frequently incompetent boss.
Then, when I arrived in Gainesville, I became aware of the term “economic” being bandied about, along with “cost effective” and “cost/benefit analysis.” The latter, I discovered, being primarily a strategy which justified assigning the benefits of a particular enterprise to one person or group and the costs to someone else. Although I first became aware of the concept in discussions concerning the pollution of the aquifer, the area where the impact of this principle of separating costs and benefits was most evident was, oddly enough in the assessment of the property tax, the primary way local government operations are paid for in Florida.
Cost, of course, was always the first consideration, whenever increased government services were suggested, because of a general perception that property taxes were already too high. The level of taxation was an issue in every political campaign, as was the explanation that the problem could not be corrected because over fifty percent of the property in the County was tax exempt. The primary reason for this situation was, of course, the ownership of the University lands, including various agricultural research areas and preservation reserves, by the State. In addition, it was argued that substantial transient (a negative concept) populations were living in mobile homes which paid no tax, not to mention the tenants of apartment complexes and other residential units. So, because I was concerned about the City apparent inability to provide adequate services, such as code enforcement, police and fire protection, and garbage collection in the inner city, I accepted the challenge to find more money. First, of course, I had to determine how much was being collected and from whom. That the University was exempt from paying taxes was a principle with which I was already familiar from New Hampshire. However, there the University contributed to the maintenance of the fire department, the public library and the sewer system in lieu of taxes. The University of Florida, on the other hand, having constructed a number of high rise buildings, made it necessary for the community to purchase and maintain a number of ladder trucks and specialized fire suppression equipment (not needed for any other structures in the community because of height restrictions), without making any financial contribution at all. The rationale for this situation was that the presence of the University was a benefit to the community, so the community would just have to bear the cost of the fire suppression equipment. More than that, the University refused to install sprinkler systems in new construction because it would cost too much. It should be obvious that since the University was used to paying nothing for fire suppression, any additional cost would be too much. So, that was a lost cause.
What I hadn’t realized before I started looking into how property taxes were assessed was that not just properties owned by religious entities, but all non-profit organizations were exempt from paying taxes, although, of course, they expected and were entitled to receive the services these taxes paid for. It almost seemed as if the levying of taxes was perceived as a punitive exercise from which those who did good works, or at least claimed to do so, were to be exempt. Or, perhaps, the levying of taxes was informed by a belief that not making a profit, a principle to which these charitable institutions subscribed, was somehow better and worth rewarding, than making a profit. That it might be the latter was additionally suggested by the provision that the owners of commercial property could choose whether to be taxed on the basis of the property’s value or its income stream. If they chose the latter and the enterprise lost money, then their taxes would be reduced.
The net effect of this pattern was that the tax bills of some single family homes were about the same or more than those of supposedly income producing rental properties and apartment complexes. Not only were single family households subsidizing the delivery of governmental services to not-for-profit charitable institutions, they were subsidizing unprofitable private enterprise, usually made unprofitable by poor management and the failure to maintain the value of the property by making capital improvements as required. This hardly seemed fair. While it could be argued that charitable enterprise provided more service to the community than it consumed, unprofitable private enterprise, especially substandard and deteriorating residential property characteristically consumed more services than the norm. While deteriorating residential complexes tended to burn more frequently, harbor disease carrying rodents and insects, and promote personal injury and infection because of unsanitary conditions, deteriorating or abandoned commercial property tended to provide a haven for people bent on illicit and criminal behavior–i.e. to become nests of thieves.
Since the principle that only profitable enterprise should be taxed is also fundamental to the federal system, there wasn’t much hope that it could be changed to reward and promote more responsible individual and corporate behavior. The best strategy on the local level to increase the fairness of the system seemed to be to support the homestead exemption by making the case that homeowners still bore the major burden of paying for local government and, by maintaining their property and the environment in a healthy condition, contributed to the well-being of the community that didn’t have to be paid for. In addition, considering that the electricity produced by the City’s utility company was purchased and used by everyone, except the University of Florida campus, it seemed entirely reasonable that a portion of its profits (rates having to be competitive with other producers in order to maintain access to capital in the financial markets) should be returned to the general fund, in lieu of paying taxes. Moreover, to the extent that the utility’s profits were derived from selling the excess it produced to other parts of the state, it seemed only proper that these profits should compensate for the fact that holding down University expenses made it possible to educate students from all over the State of Florida for less. Finally, close scrutiny of governmental operations made it obvious that better service could be provided by making it more efficient, by paying closer attention to the relationship between promise and actual output. It turned out that, year after year, most of the departments that were supposed to do things, spent most of their energy and time making plans which were rarely, if ever, carried out. Part of that failure was a consequence of the fact that the policy makers made suggestions for projects and didn’t follow up to see if they were carried out. Part of it was intentional. By not spending the money as intended, the bureaucracy was able to accumulate funds in “emergency” or “rainy day” accounts from which they could spend them as they thought best, without any input from the general public but with the complicity of those policy makers who counted on being able to reward their supporters with projects consistent with their special interests. Which was why even “professional management” whose aim is to provide service on the basis of well-established criteria of public health and safety, could not guarantee that actually happened. In a sense, the bureaucrat’s interest in professional independence, expressed by being able to spend money according to his assessment of the community’s best interest, was compromised by the desire of his elected superior’s inclination to serve special interests. The public’s interest was expressed in plans; special interests were served by carrying the plans out piecemeal, or not at all.
I suspect that Republicans were able to capture the presidency because the proposition that government could be made more effective was widely accepted. In addition, the concept of making government smaller seemed suddenly attractive, especially in the South, because the expansion of the franchise–the prospect that many more people would be involved in selecting the leaders of government–jeopardized the traditional function of government as an extension of the powerful elite. If government was to be responsive to a larger number of people, then the power of government needed to be limited. If, to cite one particular example, the effect of government regulations was no longer to guarantee profits and monopoly markets to the aviation industry, then government “interference” ought to be removed.
Democrats and Republicans were complicit in the reduction of government, but for different reasons. From the Republican perspective, if their constituents could not derive special benefits from government, then it might as well refocus on its role as a moral force dedicated to restricting individual–i.e. anti-social–behavior. Moreover, talk being cheap, it was easy to promise that such government would cost less money. Of course, since most people tend to resist behaving contrary to their own self interest, for that moral force to be effective, it has to be backed up by physical force. If people are to be made better, then the threat to punish their failure has to be credible. That meant more prisons and more weapons.
And Democrats went along primarily for two reasons. Having long been accustomed to remaining in power by providing services to their constituents, they were not keen to have this tactic exploited by Republicans (as they did in releasing sewer construction funds to prime the ’88 election). In addition, Democratic leaders were no more eager than Republicans to carry out the will of the people.
As a student of government in the ’50s and ’60s, I was well aware of the widespread opinion that there was not much difference between Republicans and Democrats and, indeed, the Reagan Revolution made a point of demonstrating what the difference was. However, I don’t think it really registered with the general public that where Democrats had been committed to doing for people, Republicans were convinced that the proper function of government is to tell the majority of the people what to do. Probably because the underlying assumption–that most people are too stupid or venal to act responsibly for themselves–is insulting.
In any case, while I am philosophically opposed to the definition of government as a moral force whose primary function is to punish if individuals and nations don’t do as they are told or, as the Germans put it most succinctly, “if you’re not willing, then I’ll have to use force,” the Republican promise to promote local government was attractive to me as a proponent of democratic action. Also, although I resented its ultimate aim, to increase federal revenues by promoting the churning of assets to increase the volume of economic transactions, the concept of “supply side economics” at least had the merit of sounding a positive note, compared to the authoritarian sounding concept of “demand.” That promoting increased production didn’t have the desired effect of increasing government revenues to match the increase in expenditures on military hardware was less important than that the supply siders, by injecting a different perspective, called attention to a subject that ought to have a lot more public discussion.
Having sold a number of houses and paid tax on capital gains, both at the fifty percent rate and the same rate as other income, I was particularly interested in the proposal that the rate should be lowered. However, since capital gains taxes could already be avoided, at least, in the short run, by investing the proceeds of a sale in another residence of the same or greater value, the expectation that a revision of the rate would substantially increase revenues to the federal government struck me as suspicious. On the one hand, I was made uncomfortable by the assumption that many individuals would make decisions about whether to keep or sell their assets on the basis of how much of any gain they would lose to taxes. On the other hand, I found the discussion which focused almost entirely on the supposed “savings” to the seller as a result of having to pay less tax, while the expectation of increased revenues to the government received little mention, to be fundamentally dishonest. The same sort of speculative behavior which had artificially inflated real estate values until the whole savings and loan industry collapsed was being suggested as appropriate to generate more money flowing into the government’s coffers.
Of course, if governmental revenues were not so dependent on the private sector making a profit, it wouldn’t be so significant whether or not the government was able to stimulate economic behavior. Which, I suppose is an argument in favor of the value added tax or some other tax on transactions, if one presumes that, regardless of whether prices are increasing or declining, transactions will occur in any specialized society. But, what I actually suspect is that, other than being severely crippled by some natural or manmade disaster, modern economies are relatively immune to government control, now that individuals are able to access capital–i.e. borrow money–when and where they need it, with no more security than their good name and reputation, just as the so-called “upper classes” used to do. The “democratization of credit” is generating all kinds of predictions of economic deterioration. But then, so did the granting of home mortgages to wage earners, whose default rate on their loans never came anywhere near the rate for commercial enterprise.
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Although I had been aware for some time that my own contributions had no statistical relevance whenever the economy was being discussed because as a homemaker I was neither employed, unemployed, or self-employed, it wasn’t until I noticed how frequently politicians and columnists disparaged the opinions of economists, and how often their predictions turned out to be wrong, that I was motivated to learn something about this sciences, just as I had previously studied a number of text books to understand the principles of accounting and organizational management. The first thing I discovered was that economics, like political science which was also concerned with human behavior which often tends towards the irrational, was primarily focused on tabulating and analyzing numbers because they were easier to categorize and track over time. Considering numbers to be off-putting, I was tempted to lose interest, just as I had lost interest in political science when the focus shifted from how governments function to manipulating poll numbers and predictions. However, having managed a household for almost thirty years by that time, I thought I should be able to understand a theoretical analysis of the subject.
To begin with there didn’t seem to be any agreement on what the terms used to describe the behavior that was being considered actually meant. Part of the confusion was no doubt a result of the fact that since economic activity had come to be measured in terms of money, only that activity which involves the use of money is now considered economic. Which not only effectively excludes household enterprise in which no money changes hands from being considered, but provides a rather simple reason for classifying societies that don’t use much money as underdeveloped. Whether this is good or bad would seem to depend on whether the people in such societies thrive, but from the economist’s perspective it’s clearly bad, because what they are doing can’t be counted. By the same logic, an individual or household that is entirely self-sustaining, if such were possible in a modern state that insists on collecting taxes, would also be a negative from an economic perspective, even though the ostensible goal of participating in the market (that theoretical place where transactions take place and prices are set) is to make the individual self-sufficient.
Now, it has been explained to me that the words employed by economists have special meanings; that “savings” aren’t what one sets aside for future use or keeps from going to waste, nor even money that is put in an insurance pool to protect against a potential catastrophe. Rather, “savings” is money that one makes available for someone else to use, based on the expectation that it will be paid back with interest. Which, at least, would seem to explain the constant complaints about the low savings rate in the United States. The money insurance companies invest for us don’t count as savings; probably because the chances of getting any of that money back are relatively slim. And knowing that is probably what makes the Social Security system suspect. If it runs true to private insurance schemes, it can’t be expected to pay out even as much as it takes in.
One of the interesting things about the terminology of economics is how laden with moral values it is. “Saving” is obviously good, as is being saved in the religious sense, but, even though economics considers the solitary individual as the economic unit, saving one’s surplus by keeping it under one’s mattress, is not good from the social perspective because savings, like the light under a bushel basket, are only good if they are shared. Similarly, this supposedly “hard” science (hard because it is concerned with material things rather than variable human behavior) assumes that individuals prefer leisure and must be bribed to work. This not only implies that human are lazy, for which there is not logical basis, but suggests that working for nothing is morally superior (bribery being a base behavior) and in a more perfect world that would be the situation.
Of course, if “leisure” were defined not at idleness, but as doing what one wants and “work” as labor expended at someone else’s direction–i.e. doing what someone else wants–then one would have no quarrel with the accuracy of this description of the relationship between man and work. However, the term “bribe” would be even more inappropriate, unless one assumes that one person has a right to direct the behavior of another. If one assumes that individuals are properly autonomous, then one must also assume that they are entitled to be compensated for any effort they exert on another’s behalf. Moreover, if one assumes that men are naturally active and creative, rather than lazy, then their exertions on another’s behalf do not necessarily conflict with their own interests. In which case, being compensated for one’s efforts represents a win/win situation–to do what one wants and be paid for it besides, seems like an ideal to me. But if that’s the case, it raises a question concerning the purpose of the pejorative assumption. It would seem that the only rationale for assuming men to be unwilling to work is to justify using coercive measures against them. Or, to formulate it as the Germans might, “because you are unwilling, I must use force” (or a bribe).
About the time I began giving a lot of thought to these matters, the Soviet Union had just collapsed so it was natural to consider what the demise of communism and the expected triumph of capitalism actually meant. Since capitalism was defined as the accumulation of assets, wealth, or things of value for future use, its supposed opposition to communism seemed inappropriate. Of course, it could be argued that both “communist” and “capitalist” are shorthand for different economic and political systems, much as “The White House” is shorthand for the executive branch of the federal government. However, since “capital” is a term in economics that refers to materials being designated for a particular function at a particular time (in the future) and “commune” refers to the manner in which material assets are acquired and owned (in common by a group, rather than on an individual basis), the habit of considering communism and capitalism as opposites obscures the fact that there is nothing to prevent communal groups, or corporate entities, for that matter, from accumulating capital and setting aside some of the surplus they produce for future use, to produce more wealth.
In fact, considered objectively, it is difficult to specify wherein the difference between state authorized or chartered corporations and state sponsored corporate entities lies. At least not on a functional basis. While it may be argued that communist industrial enterprise collapsed because of a failure to maintain its facilities and generate a sufficient surplus to reinvest as capital, as evidenced by the crumbling infrastructure and despoiled environment, the same behaviors with similar consequences were just as common among Western so-called “private” corporations. Though there is clearly a difference between participation that is based on purchase and participation by appointment, as well as individual ownership and ownership by a group, there is no clear evidence, the allegory of “the common” to the contrary, that the individual ownership of property guarantees that it will be maintained more responsibly.
Certainly, from a societal point of view, individual ownership makes it easier to determine whom to hold accountable for socially disruptive uses. Also, by guaranteeing the right to the exclusive use of property by certain individuals and groups, society can preclude its use by others. Indeed, one might even argue that in assuming the authority to grant property rights, society implicitly denies to those individuals who fail to comply with its rules and regulations the right to sustain themselves by merely taking what they need from the earth’s bounty. Thus, for example, a homeless person is precluded from erecting a lean-to in my yard, or even under a public overpass, unless he gets permission.
I don’t mean to suggest that I am opposed to the individual ownership of property, or even the concept of ownership at all. Quite the contrary. I think that the recognition of property as an extension of oneself is indispensable to the fullest expression of individual creativity and inventiveness. I just don’t think that private property is the signal guarantor of individual liberty. If anything, property serves to tie the individual to one place and inhibits his natural inclination to roam about, though not necessarily permanently. Perhaps one explanation for the assumption that humans prefer not to do things is because staying in one place, in addition to making the individual easy to keep track of, is actually beneficial to the individual, especially if that place is a house. Though the house has long been disparaged, as a necessary adjunct to securing protection from a threatening natural environment, and the traditional functions of the household as an economic entity have been specialized and dispersed in modern societies to its functional equivalents, I think the house may well hold the key to man’s intellectual development.
Just as the protective function of a bird’s nest is minimal in respect to predators (what it does is assure that the eggs of birds who spend most of their time in trees do not crash to the ground when they are laid, thereby improving the chance of reproductive success), a house, or more probably for the earliest hominids a cave, provides little protection from other predators, or even other men. What it does do is separate man’s immediate environment from virtually limitless space and in so doing it enables man’s sensory perceptions to become more focused, to distinguish between inside and out on the basis of differences in sound, and, by bringing fire inside, to effectively extend the amount of time he can see enough to engage in productive activity. Moreover, man’s physical isolation in a cave or house, free from the bombardment of the senses that characterizes the great outdoors (sounds, smells, biting insects, blowing sand, etc.), may well have generated an awareness of his own thought processes as he made the effort to correlate the sounds he heard outside with what he had previously seen. Or, when he found himself in a cave, perhaps he became aware of imagining creatures he could hear but not actually see. Perhaps that is the experience man recorded when he later went back and drew all those animals on the walls of the caves in France–a representation of what he had imagined in the dark.
In any case, if one assumes that instead of being driven by need (demand) to become subservient and labor for another to secure his sustenance, man is by nature active, accumulative, imitative and creative (characteristics which many other creatures exhibit to a greater or lesser degree), then the advantages of a house to hold or contain the products of his endeavors seem obvious. A man may not be safer in a structure with only one opening to the outside, but the things he accumulates, processes, and stores for future use certainly are. Not to mention that by introducing artificial light, he can maximize his daytime endeavors by preserving what he caught or gathered and didn’t need to consume on the spot, over night.
It also seems reasonable to speculate that the opportunity to reflect, which in itself relies on or engenders an awareness of time and sequential behavior, would augment the individual’s expertise, over and above what habitual behavior would provide. And this expertise, which tends to be satisfying in itself (being able to realize what one anticipated doing gives pleasure), would naturally lead to an increasing surplus of that particular foodstuff or material. For example, as a fisherman becomes more and more expert, he is increasingly likely to catch more fish than he can or wants to eat. Then he can take one of five choices: he can stop fishing; he can throw his catch back; he can let the fish be consumed by some other creatures (cat, maggots, or bacteria); he can preserve it for later (cook it, smoke it, dry it); or he can trade it to someone else for something he doesn’t have. The last option is obviously most advantageous because the fisherman benefits from his enterprise and expertise without having to expend any more effort. Of course, what he receives from the trade may not satisfy his expectations. But then, the recipient of the fish may be disappointed as well. It is in the nature of experience that we cannot be certain we like what we get until after we have tried it.
Classical economic theory would have us believe that economic behavior is “driven by want.” What that means is that people presumably find themselves in need (either because their survival is actually threatened, or because they have been convinced of a need that has to be satisfied through advertisements) and, being limited in the ability to be self-sufficient, choose something to satisfy that need, ideally in a free market. The advantage of this hypothesis is that it relieves those who bring products to the market of the obligation to certify or verify the quality or inherent usefulness of their product which, as producers, logic would argue that they could and should. The reason they don’t and prefer to adhere to the notion that it is the buyer’s responsibility to be careful, it probably because the reason they are selling their wares is because they don’t want them for themselves. But, admitting that would raise the question why, if they don’t want it, they don’t just give it away for nothing? Moreover, the admission by the seller that the product wasn’t wanted might lead to the conclusion that it was of no value and then the prospective buyer very likely might not want it either. In fact, of course, the product can be presumed to have value in the sense of being useful, in spite of the seller not wanting to have it. And, in an ideal transaction, the trustworthiness of the seller compensates for the inherent uncertainty of the buyer and probably represents a substantial part of the product’s value. Indeed, in making a trade with a trustworthy individual, the buyer may be more certain of receiving a benefit than he would be by just taking something that looks appealing. For example, buying a mushroom from an expert is preferable, even if the taste is not particularly appealing, to collecting one in the wild since the inexperienced collector may well choose one that kills him. Thus, to the extent that trade and exchange are supported by specialization, the participants are obviously in a win/win situation. Economic behavior makes everyone better off.
So why is economics called the dismal science? I suspect it’s largely because of the negative assumptions from which it started and the obvious record of failed predictions. After all, the goal of any science is to understand a process or sequence of events in order to predict with a degree of reliability what will happen next. Economics hasn’t been able to do that, in spite of the fact that, unlike other social sciences which are solely concerned with human behavior, it deals with what happens at the intersection of man with the materials he requires to sustain him–the same materials other hard sciences are concerned with.
One reason for this failure, as I have already suggested above, is the practice of reducing the components of a dynamic process to a uniform measure–i.e. money–and then trying to determine the characteristics of the process by analyzing the behavior of the measure. It’s sort of like designating various liquids and grains in terms of ounces and then expecting a given number of ounces of ingredients to turn into a cake. Pure chance might actually produces the desired result (there are some recipes that call for all the ingredients to be combined at once), but a scientific approach calls for a precise specification of the ingredients, the sequence of their combination and the addition of energy. Obviously, if the ingredients are subjected to heat and baked before they are combined, the result won’t be a cake. Similarly, adding eggs and shortening to milk and flour after the latter have been cooked to mush won’t make a proper cake.
Although comparing the complex behaviors involved in producing and distributing the goods and services characteristic of a modern economy to a mundane activity such as baking a cake may seems simplistic, both involve processes whose successful completion depends on the employment of the proper ingredients in the proper sequence. And in each case, if the right things aren’t done in the right order, the consequence is waste, in the sense that the human effort or energy expended does not result in the anticipated benefit.
“Waste” is another of those terms whose meaning seems ambivalent. In a political context, when other people’s behavior is the issue, waste is generally perceived in someone’s failure to either appreciate, deserve, or fully utilize what the observer values. So, for example, giving money to poor people tends to be perceived as a waste by the rich because the condition of the poor doesn’t seem to change. That’s not what I mean by waste. From my perspective, waste occurs when something of value to humans is lost by being transformed and/or consumed by the action of some other natural process or species, regardless of whether or not this loss is perceived. Since it is in the nature of the organic universe that all matter is almost continually transformed and whatever one organism doesn’t use is sure to be used by an other, nothing is wasted in the grand scheme of things. However, when the effort and energy expended by man is primarily beneficial to other organisms, especially potentially injurious creatures such botulin producing bacteria, roaches, or rats, then it is obviously wasted.
When all of the components of the process leading to the exchange of goods and services by humans are considered, the ultimate goal would seem to be the avoidance of waste. But, for some reason, the concept of waste has largely been left out of economic analysis. Perhaps that’s because there is no waste, if the process is successful, and the absence of something is difficult, though not impossible to quantify. Or, economic analysis having been confined to monetarily mediated transactions, waste, like free labor, was just naturally excluded from consideration. In any case, if avoidance of waste is the natural consequence of economic behavior, then the accumulation of waste products should be a clear indicator of economic failure. Which suggests that the relatively recent practice of assigning a monetary value to the proper disposition of wastes, both those generated as “useless” bi-products of industrial enterprise and those whose usefulness has expired, is actually a positive development.
The notion that people should pay to dispose of what they don’t want seems radical, probably because just leaving what isn’t wanted behind seems natural behavior for most mobile organisms. Why expend energy carrying around what one doesn’t want, if one can help it? The answer, of course, is that one might want it or be able to use it later. But that implies an awareness of time, the capacity to anticipate, which most creatures, other than man, don’t seem to have. Which probably accounts for the behavior of other species which most distresses man–the “destructive” habit of insects and other small creatures which share his nutritional preferences to consume just a part, thereby spoiling the rest and depriving him of the full enjoyment of his food. If it goes unnoticed that partial consumption is characteristic of predators, small and large, it’s probably because in a healthy environment the number and variety of creatures is so large that, once commenced, the process of consumption is complete in almost no time at all.
Speaking of predators, it seems customary to define them in terms of their effect on other creatures–i.e. that they kill and eat them–when, in fact, what distinguishes predatory behavior is the strategy of catch-as-catch-can, as opposed to the strategy of sitting and waiting, employed by plants, for whatever they need to survive to arrive. Which means that the persistence of the latter as a species in a particular place is especially problematic. For, when the nutrients necessary to a particular plant’s survival are used up, their replacement in the natural course of events is likely to require a relatively long time, making some kind of dispersal mechanism imperative so the next generation at least has a chance to survive somewhere else.
The catch-as-catch-can and the sit and wait are probably the predominant strategies employed by organisms to sustain themselves; some, including man, employ a third, in conjunction or as an alternative, which involves the accumulation and/or concentration of the sources of nutrition, not for direct consumption, but for the purpose of promoting the generation of a constant supply of nutrients. In a sense, this strategy, which we generally subsume under the heading of agriculture, involves an exchange of effort to produce a mutual benefit. For, while a sheep may not appreciate being protected by humans from hungry wolves and mountain lions in exchange for giving up its fleece and milk, both man and sheep do benefit from this relationship. It may not be the intent, but mutual benefit is the result of exchange and, indeed, a prerequisite for its continuance. And, in the long run, the exchange and trade of benefits is more advantageous than predation because the super-successful predator risks the elimination of his food source and thus the survival of his own species. While such symbiotic relationships are not uncommon in nature, man seems to be unusual in having adopted a strategy of interdependence consciously, as an adjunct to his predatory ancestry, by imitating the behavior he observed in other species. Imitative behavior is, of course, not unique either, being characteristic of what we call learning in other animal species. But, in most cases, imitative behavior occurs within the same or similar species. Whereas humans seem to be able to imitate the behavior of species very different from their own, as well as to mimic the processes they observe in inorganic nature. All of which is only possible because of the human brain’s ability to remember, recollect, compare, and replicate man’s observations and experience in sequence. Then, having compared the remembered past with the present, the brain, ideally, exterpolates from that comparison to the future, whose relationship to the present is much the same as that which exists between the present and the past. Considered in retrospect, the present was the future of the past.
Until I met Susan I would have assumed, if I had given it much thought, that all human brains have the capacity to make these distinctions and recognize the linear process of cause and effect. Now, however, I know that it isn’t necessarily so and that, in fact, human survival doesn’t even depend on it. Though they may live better by engaging in an interdependent relationship with their environment, it is possible for men to exist by simply taking what they need. Such an existence may be short and brutish, but it is obviously long enough to reproduce itself.
Not much is known yet about how the brain works, in part because of the inherent difficulty of a subject making an objective assessment of itself. Which is probably why in identifying capital as wealth set aside for future use, the importance of making that intellectual designation was overlooked. And why, in the subsequent critique of capitalism, the accumulation of surplus assets was perceived as a predatory taking which deprived others of what they might have used themselves. When, in fact, the concept of capital is an intellectual function and the idea of transforming a present good into usefulness in the future is the source of its value. Moreover, considered in terms of behavior, rather than effect, predatory accumulation is an oxymoron. Predation destroys to consume, while accumulation tends to preserve. Even when accumulation is accidental it has a preservative effect, because any massed quantity is less likely than a solitary item to be dispersed.
The critique of capitalism also ignored that accumulation is a dead end. Accumulation is not dynamic; putting more eggs in a basket will not insure that more will hatch into chickens. For that to happen, the eggs not only have to be protected from the fox, they have to be maintained at the proper temperture, neither too cold nor too hot. It is that knowledge and understanding, together with the ability to manipulate the temperature in the environment around the eggs, which maximizes the value of the eggs and avoids the waste that would result if it were left up to chance. Though the ignorant observer, having witnessed the accumulation and nothing more, might conclude that the increasing nember of hens is the result of someone having stolen a lot of eggs, he would be missing the point. A predator or thieving human would eat the eggs or perhaps throw them at someone’s car, a pastime seeming favored by modern juveniles; a capitalist does not have to steal because he can borrow the eggs and then, when his hens begin to lay, give them back. Of course, he won’t be giving back the same eggs, nor may those who lent them want them when he does.
Which is why money is such a useful invention. It enables the lender (or seller) of an asset to get something of comparable or better value (something he likes more) at once, or much later. Of course, if all assets and resources are owned and no-one is inclined to lend or sell (lending being temporary and selling permanent), then the capitalist doesn’t have a chance. There’s no choice but predation if he wants to survive.
This is the end of the manuscript rescued from the floppy discs produced on our original PC.