The Pervasive Myth of Economic Gluttony vs. the Inescapable Context of Humanity (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 175)

The faulty assumption that scarcity-based economic thinking is somehow the de-facto human approach to questions of supply, demand, and distribution of wealth has mislead much anthropological, philosophical, and economic thought over the past few centuries. As economist John Gowdy explains, “‘Rational economic behavior’ is peculiar to market capitalism and is an embedded set of beliefs, not an objective universal law of nature. The myth of economic man explains the organizing principle of contemporary capitalism, nothing more or less.”

Many economists have forgotten (or never understood) that their central organizing principle, Homo economicus (a.k.a. economic man), is a myth rooted in assumptions about human nature, not a bedrock truth upon which to base a durable economic philosophy. When John Stuart Mill proposed what he admitted to be “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessities, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial,” it’s doubtful he expected his “arbitrary definition” to delimit economic thought for centuries. Recall Rousseau’s words: “If I had had to chose my place of birth, I would have chosen a state in which everyone knew everyone else, so that neither the obscure tactics of vice nor the modesty of virtue could have escaped public scrutiny and judgement.” Those who proclaim that greed is simply a part of human nature too often leave context unmentioned. Yes, greed is a part of human nature. But so is shame. And so is generosity (and not just toward genetic relatives). When economists base their models on their fantasies of an “economic man” motivated only by self-interest, they forget community—the all-important web of meaning we spin around each other—the inescapable context within which anything truly human has taken place.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

An Orwellian Bible Study (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 160)

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

I Corinthians xiii (adapted)

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

George Orwell          1936

The “Common Sense” of Bullies and Over-dominators (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 154)

There was a small saloon in the rear of the plane and I repaired there for a drink. It was there that I met another fellow American, H. Lowe Crosby of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel.

They were heavy people, in their fifties. They spoke twangingly. Crosby told me that he owned a bicycle factory in Chicago, that he had nothing but ingratitude from his employees. He was going to move his business to grateful San Lorenzo.

“You know San Lorenzo well?” I asked.

“This’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen it, but everything I’ve heard about it I like,” said H. Lowe Crosby. “They’ve got discipline. They’ve got something you can count on from one year to the next. They don’t have the government encouraging everybody to be some kind of original pissant nobody ever heard of before.”

“Sir?”

“Christ, back in Chicago, we don’t make bicycles any more. It’s all human relations now. The eggheads sit around trying to figure new ways for everybody to be happy. Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan.”

“And you think things will be better in San Lorenzo?”

“I know damn well they will be. The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!”

Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut          1963

 

The Town of Roseto (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 152)

In the early 1960s, a physician named Stewart Wolf heard about a town of Italian immigrants and their descendants in northeast Pennsylvania where heart disease was practically unknown. Wolf decided to take a closer look at the town, Roseto. He found that almost no one under the age of fifty-five showed symptoms of heart disease. Men over sixty-five suffered about half the number of heart problems expected of average Americans. The overall death rate in Roseto was about one-third below the national averages.

After concluding research that carefully excluded factors such as exercise, diet, and regional variables like pollution levels, Wolf and sociologist John Bruhn concluded that the major factor keeping folks in Roseto healthier longer was the nature of the community itself. They noted that most households held three generations, that older folks commanded great respect, and that the community disdained any display of wealth, showing a “fear of ostentation derived from an ancient belief among Italian villagers relating to maloccio (the evil eye). Children,” Wolf wrote, “were taught that any display of wealth or superiority over a neighbor would bring bad luck.”

Noting that Roseto’s egalitarian social bonds were already breaking down in the mid-1960s, Wolf and Bruhn predicted that within a generation, the town’s mortality rates would start to shift upward. In follow-up studies they conducted 25 years later, they reported, “The most striking social change was a widespread rejection of a long standing taboo against ostentation,” and that “sharing, once typical of Roseto, had given way to competition.” Rates of both heart disease and stroke had doubled in a generation.

Among foragers, where property is shared , poverty tends to be a non-issue. In his classic book Stone Age Economics, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains that “the world’s most primative people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.” Socrates made the same point 2,400 years ago: “He is richest who is content with least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

The Uneconomic Man of Natural Law and No Excuse (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 150)

Individuals who would otherwise be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition, and they do so for the express purpose of keeping the strong from dominating the weak. Nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free of the authority of others.

-Christopher Boehm, Primatologist

An individual endowed with the passion for control would have been a social failure and without influence.

-Erich Fromm, Psychologist, referencing Prehistory

By now, everyone knows “there’s no free lunch.” But what would it mean if our species evolved in a world where every lunch was free? How would our appreciation of prehistory (and consequently, of ourselves) change if we saw that our journey began in leisure and plenty, only veering into misery, scarcity, and ruthless competition a hundred centuries ago?

Difficult as it may be for some to accept, skeletal evidence clearly shows that our ancestors didn’t experience widespread, chronic scarcity until the advent of agriculture. Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economics are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming. In his introduction to Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, Gowdy points to the central irony: “Hunter-gatherers. . . spent their abundant leisure time eating, drinking, playing, socializing—in short, doing the very things we associate with affluence.”

Despite no solid evidence to support it, the public hears little to dispute this apocalyptic vision of prehistory. The sense of human nature intrinsic to Western economic theory is mistaken. The notion that humans are driven only by self-interest is, in Gowdy’s words, “a microscopically small minority view among the tens of thousands of cultures that have existed since Homo sapiens emerged some 200,000 years ago.” For the vast majority of human generations that have ever lived, it would have been unthinkable to hoard food when those around you were hungry. “The hunter-gatherer,” writes Gowdy, “represents uneconomic man.”

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010