Tag Archives: value

Gift economy

I like the principal of gift economy and I like what it does to how we value things. Mainstream economy in the northern hemisphere, white colonial economy is based on exploitation. You pay less for the work than it is really worth, and then you sell for more than the product is really worth and between these two, profit is achieved, often for people who did none of the work. Value, in this system, is what can be squeezed out of people. The more something is needed, the more scope there is to put the price up. Cost is artificially raised by making things more scarce than they need to be.

Gift economy has a completely different logic. If you have more than you need, you give stuff away so others may benefit. Status is achieved not through ownership, but through gifting. Looking after people becomes a marker of social standing, not a perceived weakness.

In many ways the internet lends itself to gift economy in that it is so easy to give things away here. It’s something I enjoy and am glad to be part of. It’s interesting to ask what can be given away – time, care, attention, money, creativity, ideas, experience, support… it’s good to be able to do that and to help other people. I wish more people saw social media as an opportunity to help and uplift others, not a place to feel important by arguing. We could do each other a lot of good if we took to empowering ourselves and others. It’s a happier way to live than point scoring.

Giving away isn’t just about money, and there’s more to a gift economy than the economic side of it. There’s a principle of sharing and taking care and of not wanting to have a great deal when others have little or nothing. It’s underpinned by the idea that we are of equal worth as people and not measured by our economic value. The value in work and in objects come from their being needed, and getting them to the people who need them – it’s a very different logic from exploitation. If value is about how we improve things as widely as possible, the whole logic of our culture changes and a better way of life becomes possible.

How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.

What is your worth?

How do you rate your own value? What do you think other people are using as their basis for valuing you? Too often, the answer is money – the paycheck and the bank balance. It’s not helped, in the UK, when our government keeps coming up with policies to reinforce this idea. The latest is that only non-UK citizens earning over £35k are to be allowed to stay. What this tells us is that they do not value lower income people, assume that the skills of the lower income person are nothing special. It doesn’t matter what you might do, or what you’ve done, it’s just your paycheck at the time of assessment.

People who start businesses, and creative people often start small and work up. What we’re worth financially today is no indicator of our potential financial worth in the future. No one would have picked JK Rowling out of a cafe when she was too cold to write at home, and seen the benefit she would single handedly bring to the UK economy.

There are so many reasons to resist making a person’s value dependent on their wealth. In practical terms, low paid workers are essential to both the production and consumption sides of the economy, and always have been. In a world of fat cats sat in plush offices, nothing gets done. So much work – especially the child raising, care giving work of women – is unpaid and unrecognised. A great deal of essential stuff in this country is undertaken by volunteers, with the charity sector dealing with the gaps in care, research and support for the vulnerable because neither government nor the private sector are bothering.

We’re taught to seek out signs to demonstrate our wealth and success – usually signs appropriate to our class and background. Every time we switch on a TV we’re exposed to a lot of images of how we, and our homes, cars, children should look. What we should be buying to keep up. Every day, through visual media and advertising we’re bombarded by images of what success looks like plus information about where to buy the appearance of success. There are plenty of people going into debt to do just that.

When it comes to messages from the government and the media, poor but happy is never on the agenda. Choosing to live lightly and happy isn’t offered. A worth in terms of kindness, generosity, gentleness, service to others, contribution to human knowledge and spiritual richness – these never come up. In terms of career worth, we always prioritise the ones involved with the big bucks for media attention. It’s rare to hear anything about people who’ve spent many years doing something small but essential really well.

Being rich can make you famous. We take on trust that the reason a person is rich is that they contributed something worthwhile. We don’t look at what they inherited or who bailed them out (and I gather Donald Trump’s claims to be a fantastic businessman could use some scrutiny on that score). We don’t ask who they exploited, whether they’ve destroyed any ecosystems, displaced indigenous people, cheated, lied, back stabbed to get where they are. We put the financial worth ahead of their behaviour.

How do we challenge this? The answer is in many ways to start small, by noticing other kinds of worth in the people around us and championing it. By questioning assumptions that tie worth to money. By not buying the things we are told we need to look the part. By daring not to manifest the agreed signs of affluence and success. By not measuring our own worth in terms of cash held and cash anticipated.

Zero Growth Economy

One of the beliefs holding modern economic and political life together is the idea that growth is good. It is through economic growth that we will create benefits and improve quality of life. It sounds plausible. However, it is worth asking what the process of eternal growth means in practice.

To have economic growth, people this year have to buy more than they did last year and next year they will need to buy even more. Where what is bought is largely experiential, this can be feasible. Mostly, growth is not about experience though. It is about the use and consumption of consumable goods. To have economic growth, we have to use ever more resources. We have finite resources in terms of land, minerals, clean water and food supplies. Time is also a finite resource and when you need to earn ever more money to buy ever more things, your time should be factored in as a consideration.

A few weeks ago I listened to MEP Molly Scott Cato explaining how the desire for profit above all else affects chickens in Europe. Chickens and chicken meat travel all over the EU, to wherever someone can make a bit of a profit from them. Never mind that fuel is a finite substance, and that chickens eaten close to where they are reared are much more sustainable, profit comes first. Never mind the road traffic from the lorries moving the chickens about, either. Molly also pointed out that eternal growth depends on obsolescence. If possessions were made to last, they would make less profit for producers. So by building in a cause of death, creating fractionally different ‘new and improved’ versions, or changing the ‘fashion’, that which could have lasted for years is thrown away.

Growth economy is all about waste. It’s about getting you to chuck out last year’s tired, old-fashioned things to by the new shiny things. Again. It’s about not being able to get replacement parts when things wear out. It’s about time wasted making things that will shortly wind up in landfill or driving chickens across Europe. How many jobs exist to create things people really don’t need, in order to make a profit so that the growth of the economy continues? How many valuable and needed things don’t happen, because we are only interested in making a profit?

You get to a zero growth economy by a number of means, and it’s about changing our ideas first and letting work and business choices flow from that change. First, imagine that quality of life is not solely about bank balance. How we spend our hours could be considered important. If we start to value life, the idea of using up someone’s precious time needlessly taxing unfortunate chickens over hundreds of miles starts to look like insanity. We change our attitude to work and stop assuming that productivity is a virtue. That moves us towards ditching jobs that only exist to move round things of no use and value. Instead we’d want to spend less time in the first place on effectively making things that last and have value, so that we can get on with using and enjoying them and living, rather than producing and consuming. Imagine if we were all working modest hours doing what was needed for everyone to be happy.

It may well be a fallacy that growth drives progress and delivers innovation. If we were more interested in improving the quality of our lives than in increasing the bank balances of shareholders, why wouldn’t we spend time innovating? We’d have more time and energy to spend on true progress if less time and energy went into creating rubbish.

Let’s face it, if hard work was really a blessing and a moral virtue, those with power would want as much of it as they could get, and there would be no desire to share that lovely thing with those who couldn’t force a claim on it. It’s money that we hold as a good and a thing not to share with others. If you start treating your time, and your life as more precious than money, everything changes.

Economics is more philosophy than maths

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.

Affirmation Economics

Money is the primary means by which our current culture expresses value. This means that we tend to think about value in terms of transaction, and ownership. In turn this also means that we ascribe less value to less tangible things, to commons, and to situations where there is no exchange. We don’t tend to pay for the experience of a view and do not get to put it in a bag and take it home. The value of a view is consequently not always considered that important around planning future building.

We are shockingly poor when it comes to valuing air quality. You can’t buy your own little pocket of clean, sweet air. Perhaps if you could we’d think differently. The cost to health and happiness of poor air is hard to measure, so we don’t measure it, but it exists nonetheless. In truth, happiness is something that often doesn’t exist through financial transaction, but we are encouraged to believe that it does. If payment is the only affirmation you get, that can have serious consequences for your sense of self.

Advertising and marketing steals the language of affirmation and tacks it onto products that in truth, we do not love, are not excited about or inspired by. There’s a language inflation around the ludicrous hyperbole attached to products. If you’re professing love for a snack food, and need for a shampoo, what do you have left in terms of words, for the people in your life? Affirmation language should flow from the one who appreciates towards that which is appreciated, but marketing is the shoddy art of telling us how we ought to feel about the thing held up in front of us.

In this transaction culture, there are so many things we don’t want to pay for. Any situation where the seller has less power than the buyer, or the buyer is in a position to steal the seller’s goods, the seller is devalued. Whether its supermarkets refusing to pay what it costs to produce a pint of milk, or taking pirated books online rather than paying the author, the same thing happens, and it is theft. It is the refusal to recognise the true value of something you want, and to put the transaction ahead of what is exchanged.

If we were truly using money as an expression of value, these situations would be unthinkable, but we go after things we want (and therefore value) while telling creators and producers that they should accept not getting paid. Economic power trumps value. If we took affirmation seriously, we just wouldn’t find this acceptable. Once again, affirmation is demonstrably the enemy of power for the sake of power.

If we want things available that have been made for love, or exist for their own sake, like a landscape, we have to move away from an economy that is all about financial transaction. Feed, house and clothe your bard and promise to take care of them when they are old and ill, and it becomes a lot more reasonable to ask them to sing ‘for free’. Value the view for its own sake, value the air, and money ceases to be the primary motive. An economy based on money only values that which it can buy and sell. A culture interested in profit cares far too much about how it can exploit either the buyer or the seller to create the profit margin. A community that sees affirmation as being more than money, but also what money is for, a culture that is interested in value, will not find exploitation, waste or destruction to be tolerable.

Valuing the ephemeral

Science can incline us towards the idea that what matters most are the things we can measure. It tends to help that the things we can most readily measure, we can also point at, and are therefore more able to agree about. How much money you have, how many cars and how big a house are easy things to point at when you want to compare yourself to others. For much the same reasons, governments like to point at employment figures, and do not want to get bogged down in conversations about whether those jobs are any good or worth doing.

Worth is very hard to measure, unless you judge it by money. The same is true of quality of life, happiness, wellbeing, sense of community and the state of your soul. Sure, you can survey people and ask them how they feel, but then you’re relying on self reporting, and of course people aren’t reliable and can lie to you. How do you measure love, friendship or enlightenment? How do you measure and value the way a sunset makes you feel?

That we can more readily measure some things than others invites us to invest more effort and attention in the things we can measure – both personally and as a culture. So we talk about how many lives are saved by different medical interventions each year, not the quality of life for those who continue to live. We take our measure of spending as a measure of how well we are doing as a country, no matter what that money is being spent on. We want faster train travel and more oil and we can measure the profits, and the growth but we can’t measure the value of the landscapes these destroy, and so we don’t measure that value, and we trash something irreplaceable.

I’m generally pro-science. I recognise that by its nature, science can only go around measuring measurable things. Issues like the state of your soul and the beauty of your location are hard to approach that way. The habit of measuring locks us into some very narrow ways of thinking about worth and value. Because money is the most readily measurable thing in the equation, so we down-value what we don’t pay for – the domestic work of women, the dawn chorus, our clean air, the future of our children – we tend to be very short term around how we see the price tags, too.

This all fits in with what I was exploring yesterday (thank you Helen Noble for the prompt on facebook). When you take narrow measurements of value, a certain kind of resource and person will tend to dominate your society. Those who can accumulate material wealth are treated as the most valuable members. Not those who are most generous, or cause most happiness, or do most to enable others. Not those who have brilliant ideas, or who add beauty to the world, but those who have the biggest pile of coins, no matter who they exploited and what they ruined forever in order to achieve that.

Our current value system actively encourages us to trash the planet on which our lives depend. We need to change that, because as the saying goes, when there’s no clean water to drink and no food to eat, you try eating money and see what good it does you.

The value of a person

Last week at Druid Camp, Green MEP Molly Scott Cato came and gave a talk about the nature of money. Molly isn’t a Druid, it should be noted, but is open to talking to any group of people who want to listen. Druid Camp is about finding ways to engage with the world as a Druid as well as retreating into a shared community space.

In Molly’s talk, she reflected on how people equate pay with value, where more pay seems to indicate that a person has more innate worth to those paying them. It’s a seductive way of thinking that traps us into putting a price tag on everything, and then not valuing those people and naturally occurring things that do not merit a high price.

We should pay fairly for time and skills, but the pressure in a capitalist system is to extract as much profit as possible, often meaning we will pay the less powerful less than they are worth to us. Unions were a way of countering this, but they have been restricted repeatedly by politicians. When we make hierarchies of worth, assumptions creep into the mix. Traditionally feminine areas are often considered less valuable than traditional masculine employment, for example. Hard physical labour is not valued as highly as desk jobs (unless there’s also a gender issue). Producing the product is deemed less important than managing the people who produce the product. And on the strange flip side of all of this, get high enough up the ladder and you can lose money for your company and still expect to be paid a vast salary and a hefty bonus. How we deploy wages could certainly stand some thought.

The value of a person is not their earning ability, and we should not be valuing each other in terms of cash flow. It’s horribly reductive, undermines self esteem and leaves us all vulnerable. What value do you have if you fall sick, retire, or your company folds, if you take time out to raise children or care for a sick relative, to campaign, study or the like? We are not our paychecks.

This only holds up though when you postulate that people are earning enough to maintain a decent standard of living. If you do not earn a living wage, and must work two jobs just to survive, or sell your possessions, or do without many otherwise normal things, you will feel keenly that you are not worth much as a person. It will be there every time you desperately need to say ‘no’ but can’t afford to. Loss of economic power is also loss of self, when it means you have to work any hours offered at no notice, or when it means you resort to selling your body, through pornography or prostitution. The person who cannot afford to eat properly doesn’t get to make so many ethical choices about what their employer asks of them. Undervalue a person economically, and you take away their rights to function as a person in your society.

Only when everyone has enough to maintain a decent standard of living, can we sit back and feel confident that the size of a paycheck is not the value we place on a person.

The Quest for Happiness

Thinking about what makes us happy has been the business of philosophers pretty much as long as there have been people sitting around thinking about stuff. The quest for the good life underpins many religious ideas and political approaches. What makes us happy? What is truly good? In our consumer orientated culture, we are sold ideas about the happiness we can purchase, but I’m not at all convinced it’s working for most people.

I’ve realised two things on the happiness front in the last few days. Firstly is that I am happy when I’m working. I have no problem working long hours and having demanding, difficult jobs to do. I need to feel that the work is valued and useful. It’s all about morale, so I am vulnerable to certain kinds of feedback. Given me a worthwhile job you need doing, and I’ll run for you. Criticise me and undermine me, and, faced with the same job, I am half as useful, maybe less. When morale is low, it sweeps across all areas of effort; I don’t compartmentalise. If something really makes me miserable, it can wipe me out across the board.

As a consequence, I realise I am happiest when working with honest and straightforward people who are mostly fussed about getting needful things done well. They don’t have to be nice to me. They don’t have to be gentle, or reasonable in their requests. They do have to make sense and I need to be able to see what the point is. That is all. I can be really happy working for a focused tyrant who has a really important vision and demands the nigh on impossible of me. I like the challenge, the sense of purpose, and the things that can be achieved. I’ll take that any day in preference to dealing with the person who sounds nice, but whose thinking doesn’t add up, or who is more interested in appearance than action.

It occurs to me that the people I like most, are for the greater part, an arsey and difficult bunch. Opinionated, passionate, with high standards around key points. People who ask difficult questions and aren’t afraid to say when something isn’t good enough. People who care enough to be grumpy when things are wrong. People for whom getting it right is more important than upholding the illusion of being right, or the illusion of being nice.

I have also realised that without exception, the meanest, most difficult, unreasonable and selfish people along the way were all intent on seeming nice. Each one of them cultivated an impression of niceness, and were willing to get the knives out, behind backs, to keep that impression viable. People who wish to seem nice won’t be honest, if the honest answer is a tough one. Right up until the whole thing goes too far and explodes. The nice mask crumbles, another face emerges. Then afterwards, you have to pretend none of that happened, or that there was a perfectly good reason to explain why it was not their fault.

Kind people are entirely different. Kind people know that you have to put suffering creatures out of their misery – which is seldom nice. Kind people know about the not-nice puss, shit and tears that come as a side order with genuine care sometimes. Kind people understand the brutality of certain choices, and are often willing to fight for what they believe in. I like kind people, although most of them are not superficially nice all the time.

It gives me a clearer sense of where I fit and what I need. Perhaps more importantly, I’m getting a much better idea of who I need to stay the hell away from, and why. Other people will undoubtedly find they need different balances, and that is as it should be. It is important to ask, not just what makes you happy, but who makes you happy, and why?

Not for Profit

I’m currently reading Mark Steel’s ‘What’s Going On’ – fast becoming my revolutionary handbook of preference. He makes the point that the idea of profit seems to have taken over everything else. We’ve become obsessed, as a culture, with the money that can be made from things. We devalue the things that have no price tag on them, and if it isn’t making a profit, it goes. When the only value available is profit, how can you protect the habitat of a newt, or suggest that clean drinking water ought to be a human right? What price love, or companionship? What’s the economic worth of not having a shitty day? Who cares? We’re selling our quality of life, and all too often we sell it to the lowest bidder for the least possible return.

Being Green is not just about the politics. For me, the politics are the least of it. Lifestyle, culture, personal change and community are a more important manifestation of the Green agenda than getting bums onto political seats. Not least because a bottoms up approach to things is always better than a top down solution. Imposing things on people is not part of a Green agenda. We have to BE the change.

So I’d like to issue you all with a small challenge, and it goes like this: Every day, very deliberately do something that has no economic value whatsoever. Do it for love. It can’t be online, because of the electricity you use and the advertising revenue your presence generates. That’s all about the money. You can’t pay to do it, and it cannot lead to something you will be paid for doing. If that seems difficult to figure out, it will be a measure of how economically informed your life has become, and this is something you need to know about.

Small gestures are fine. Gaze out of the window for half an hour. Go and sit under a tree. Have a little dance. Sing a song – you do not have to be good, you just have to like singing songs. Rescue something you might have thrown away and turn it into some other things. Even better if those things are sock puppets or of no real utility. Play. Mess about. Turn the phone off and climb into a big chair with something warm and soft to cuddle. Have an extra hour in the duvet. Re-read a book you already own.

We have to stop being good little consumers, and we have to stop letting every part of our lives be turned into someone else’s profit. Or our own, for that matter. We have to stop letting profit be the most important thing, or we are going to trash the planet in the name of GDP. The way to do this is not through top-down politics, but through each of us quietly undertaking to rebel in small ways. Do something irrelevant that you enjoy. Rest more. Play. Practice religion or philosophy. Make love.

If you can get that into the mix once a day, you can expand on it. You can add value to your life- value in a warm, human sense, not in the sense that goes on a balance sheet. You can also do this and be useful – that’s actually easy because many of the things that most need doing, no one will pay you for anyway. Read a book to a child, pick up litter, give away things you no longer need. Contemplate what strikes you as being economic activity, and what doesn’t, and have a look at the interesting grey areas in between. How monetised are your life and perceptions?

And, next time someone tells you it’s all about the bottom line, laugh at them. Please. Laughter is powerful, and this obsession with profit is ridiculous, and destructive. We need to start mocking it as the lunacy it so clearly is.


(For the other side of the argument, about the need for paying fairly for things, there is Creativity for love and money)