There’s a bold assertion to start a Monday morning with. It comes out of the difficulty of discussing alternative economic approaches with people who aren’t green. The argument always, always goes ‘but where does the money come from? It doesn’t add up? You can hardly run a country if you can’t do basic maths’.
The current economic models defining how our financial world works can all be traced back to people. John Stuart Mill and John Keynes have always been the poster boys, but there are plenty of other people with ideas in the mix. From the outset there have been countering voices, speaking against our current economic models. This is theory, not science.
The mistake we are encouraged to make, is to believe that our current economic system isn’t theory, but truth. That it is a science based on numbers, and therefore beyond question, is an understanding that serves to keep the current approach in place. The numbers follow the philosophy, not the other way round. If you require alternative economic theories to be measured by the dominant one’s standards, of course they don’t hold up, because what you get is a numbers game, not a conversation about the underlying philosophy driving the numbers.
So, what is the underlying philosophy? It is about value. Money is a system for recognising value, and we understand value as that which can be bought and sold, and we understand profit as good. Starting from this position, growth is good, and more trade is good, more consumption is good. Our system tells us that only that which we can sell has a value. Health only has a value in terms of ability to work, or to sell health care. Beauty only has a value if someone will pay to look at it. Unpaid work has no value, eco systems are assumed to have no value. The future has no value, your unborn descendents have no value and your quality of life has no value. It is possible to value things you cannot buy and sell. We need to reclaim that.
If your system is only interested in how to move money around, it does not even properly think about resources. It’s a very short term growth economy that we have – as we run out of resources, there’s no long term thinking about how to be viable in the future.
Our system treats work as a moral virtue for those who are poor, and as unnecessary for those who are rich. Anyone who is poor and unwilling to work is lazy and stupid. Anyone who is rich and unwilling to work is virtuous and clever – we are not considering the value of the work to the society in this, we are assuming money to be inherently good and having it to mean something. Thus a person who has never done anything useful because their parents are rich and they don’t need to, is loved, and a person who has never done anything useful because they belong to a culture of low aspiration, is hated. This is about valuing and belief, not about maths, because either way there’s a person who does no useful work, but attitudes to it are radically different.
If you start to question what value means, you need a totally different conversation about how economics might work. If you want to factor in your grandchildren (or someone else’s) your happiness, the condition of the oceans and the wellbeing of bees, you need a whole other philosophy. No one is buying or selling the wellbeing of bees, people are buying and selling the chemicals that kill them. This creates an inevitable bias if all you value is that which can be bought and sold.
For anyone interested in a grass roots approach, I’ve been wondering about how we act in our own lives to challenge this. My personal answer is that some of the best things I do are not and will never be for sale, and I watch myself for any evidence that I am letting the price tag influence my value judgements.