Art

Fourth in a series on ending war.

Art may seem like a odd substitute for War, but there’s reason to not dismiss the idea out of hand.  We already know that Art can be a powerful economic engine, legions of starving artists and musicians notwithstanding.  For proof just look at the movie and music industries.  What may be more of surprise is that Art has played a role on the battlefield as well.  In the days of the Roman Empire –which lasted for well over a thousand years –conquered cultures were kept in thrall to the Empire as much by the superiority of Roman art and culture as by the threat of force.  As much as having Roman overlords may have rankled, few barbarians truly wished to trade in their refined Roman existence for a return to crude tribal living.  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Chinese Empire survived being repeatedly invaded and conquered by barbarian hordes because Chinese art and culture were so advanced that the invaders inevitably assimilated into the host culture instead of the other way around, as the physical conquerors became the culturally conquered.

But how does Art do versus our criteria?

  1. It makes jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits:  The answer here is both yes and no.  No, certainly, with regards to nations –no country faces its greatest challenge in maintaining itself at the cutting edge of artistic advance.   Yes, on occasion, with regards to individuals.  True, a hobbyist painter or casual guitar player isn’t experiencing much of a challenge, but dance and acrobatics challenge the physical limits of the human body, special-effects laden movies challenge the limits of technology, conceptual art challenges the intellect, “diva” songs challenge the human vocal range, and so forth and so on.  Any artist at the top of their field is probably at or near the limits of what is humanly possible in one way or another.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Here we find a deficiency.  There’s no real structure to distribute Art jobs in the way we found in other ECS candidates.  Furthermore, as with Sport, we’ve become segregated into producers and consumers with regards to Art.  Legions of musicians and artists starve while a small handful of celebrity entertainers serve as the primary artists in the lives of millions.  This is a trend that would need to be reversed before Art could actually serve as a legitimate Employment-Creation System (ECS).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful by:
    1. serving as a test of ideologies:  Here art does surprisingly well.  Didactic art, which explicitly promotes a given ideology, is rarely a success, but every piece of art, no matter how innocuous it may seem, presupposes some philosophy, some viewpoint about the world.  The way an artist solves artistic problems actually says a great deal about his or her views on how to solve general problems of life.  In addition, art cannot be as easily alienated as technology.  You can imitate a foreign art form, but you cannot create valid original work in the same vein until you internalize the ideology that gave birth to the artwork in the first place
    2. being definitive:  The killer subclause strikes again.  An artistic triumph cannot be definitive in the same way as a physical triumph, because Art is too subjective.  There is no common standard for Art, and no two observers can be relied upon to agree at all times on the merits of any piece of art.  Each region prefers its own art, yet even two siblings who grew up in the same household can have opposite artistic tastes.

Things seem bleak.  With Art, Science and Sport all striking out as potential substitutes, we are left stuck with War and Consumerism as the dysfunctional institutions that are destroying us, but that we cannot do without.

And so this is the end.  Or is it?  If a natural substitute for War and/or Consumerism existed, it would likely already be in use.  But what about a synthetic substitute?  Each of our candidates was strong in some areas, and weak in others.  Could we add together the best of each, and create a new system capable of getting the job done?

We’ll take a moment next week to explore the nature of identity, and then return in two weeks to see whether or not we can go ahead and construct a synthetic Employment-Creation System capable both of rescuing Capitalism and putting an end to War.

NEXT WEEK:  Identity

Science

Third in a series on ending war.

If Sport can neither take the place of War, nor of Consumerism, then how about Science and Technology?  Together they compose a powerful economic engine, with advances in technology shaping and reshaping the global economy both through the development of new consumable products and through technological advances in the production, distribution and marketing of those products.  And unlike the deliberately trivial consequences of achievements in Sport, achievements in Science have a very real, significant and consequential impact on the world.  But how does it perform against our criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits: Science and Technology do reasonably well on this criteria.  Individuals are certainly challenged by science to their intellectual limits, and scientific achievements such as the construction of supercolliders or the exploration of space can challenge a nation’s resources and capacity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  This criteria is a bit of a cipher.  Science and technology jobs are certainly well-distributed throughout society, but always adjuncts to other organizations.  Scientists and technicians work for governments, for corporations, for universities, and so forth, but we don’t necessarily see the same kind of distributive hierarchy we’ve seen for other Employment-Creation Systems (ECS).  In addition, science and technology jobs tend to be the province of an educated intellectual elite, rather than a general population.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  Science and technology diverge here.  Science and scientific innovation bears a strong imprint of the ideology that creates it, in terms of such things as decisions over what projects should be funded, and what lines of inquiry are worthwhile.  However, technology is nearly useless as a test of ideology, because it can so easily be alienated from its origins.  A computer is a computer, no matter where it is made and what the ideology is of the people who manufactured it.
    2. by being definitive:  Here the same subclause that ruined Sport claims another victim. The test of a science, not in absolute terms, but in terms of its place in human life, is the technology you can create with it, and the test of a technology is the usages to which you can devote it.  In practice, what this means is that Science and Technology cannot take the place of War, because it is too easy and too common to adapt them to the purposes of War.  The pursuit of Science may be an end to itself, but the test of Science devolves into the same old physical battle, except played out in a high-tech manner.

In fact, as it so happens, there is a wonderful historical example of Scientific competition used between nations as a substitute for open aggression –the Cold War.  The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were unwilling to risk the disastrous consequences of an all out War between superpowers, so instead they sublimated their struggle for ideological superiority into a race to achieve clear scientific and technological superiority.  On the plus side, this led to some amazing scientific breakthroughs, most notably the achievement of manned spaceflight and the lunar landing.  In addition, it produced an extended period of relative peace between the two nations.  Finally, it arguably achieved a victory without violence for the United States when the USSR peacefully disbanded.

On the negative side, however, the arms race –the uglier side of scientific progress –led to the invention and stockpiling of “doomsday weapons,” weapons capable of killing vast numbers of people at once, many of which are no longer in secure hands.  In addition, the “peacetime” of the Cold War was in some senses a fiction, since the United States and the USSR were still fighting out their ideological battles in “hot” wars conducted through intermediaries like the Vietnamese and the Koreans.  So we might consider this a partial solution, but one that comes at what is potentially too high a cost.

NEXT WEEK: Art

Sport

Second in a series on ending war.

The most obvious and ancient substitute for War is Sport. The origins of the first athletic game are lost in the mists of history, which means that Sport has been helping individuals and nations release their aggressions for a very long time.  And given the billions of dollars spent on Sport, it stands a proven economic engine. But how does Sport perform against our crucial criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge nations and individuals to their utmost limits:  The answer to this one is both yes and no.  Sport challenges individuals physically to their limits, to the very limits of human possibility.  Arguably Sport can also challenge individuals mentally and emotionally.  But Sport doesn’t challenge nations in the same way that War does, nor does Sport encompass a wide range of arenas-of-challenge, such as technology, in the same way that War does.  True, there are technologies attached to Sport, better running shoes and sports drinks, illegal performance enhancers such as steroids, high performing playing surfaces, split-second cameras, instant-replay television, advanced prosthetics, and so forth.  However, there is a very real sense in which such things must remain peripheral to Sport in order for Sport to maintain its integrity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  In modern life, Sport has divided into increasingly segregated groups of participants and viewers, with there being a relatively small pool of full-time, dedicated athletes versus a relatively large pool of people whose only connection to athletics is through watching it on television.  That, however, is a reflection on the modern condition and not on Sport itself.  Theoretically, everyone can participate in athletics in some capacity.  Like War, corporations and Feudalism, Sport has a pyramidal hierarchy that distributes athletic experiences, but in this case, the nature of the pyramid is quite different.  Instead of a system where orders filter down from the top to the bottom in a chain of command, the Sport hierarchy is based on a League system.  At the top of any major sport is an elite national or international league, whose stars are the best at their sport in the world, who command huge salaries, and whose numbers are quite limited.  At another level down are minor leagues, less prestigious associations of players that often serve as training grounds for the lucky few who make it up to the next level.  Further down are college leagues, amateur leagues, youth leagues and on down to office teams, neighborhood pickup teams, and so forth.  In general, the system guarantees that any given player will have a chance to compete against other players of similar skill level and commitment.  Very few people can play at the top of any league, but very few people can’t play somewhere at the bottom.  In addition to its main hierarchy, Sport also generates a wide host of auxiliary jobs surrounding the athletes –coaches, trainers, athletic gear producers, and so forth.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  This is where it really begins to fall apart for Sport.  Athletic contests are games, and their rules are arbitrary.  This causes two significant problems for us.  First, it raises the issue of picking a sport to serve as the locus of meaning.  In other words, if the United States wants to make American Football the game that decides geopolitical destiny, and Canada wants to make it Hockey, how can that decision possibly be arbitrated?  Second, it reduces the expressive power of Sport in relation to ideology.  In other words, one team may play a completely honest game, the other team may cheat when it can, and such things may offer consequential ideology-based differences between the teams, but both teams basically have to agree to abide by all standard rules in order to play the game in the first place.  That limits the impact an ideology can have on a team’s success, which in turn limits the value of sport as a test of ideologies.
    2. by being definitive:  This is the killer blow for War versus Sport.  War is definitive, and Sport is not.  For example, take a look at the most prestigious, well-respected, universally endorsed athletic competition on the planet, the Olympics.  The Olympics represent a wide range of sports, selected by an international panel, which lessons the issues discussed in regards to subclause “a.”  If any athletic event could stand in the place of War, this would be it.  But when Hitler’s Aryan athletes were humiliated by African-American runner Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics, Hitler didn’t retire from the world stage in disgrace, his racist ideology definitively debunked.  Instead, he invaded Poland.  Sport can never be the last word when it comes to physical conflict in any world in which War still exists. No nation with the power to reshape the world through War is going to settle for having its reputation be established by Sport instead.

Next Week: Science

I grew up in a generation that vowed never again to go to war. And yet here we are, in it up to our eyeballs all over again. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in office, or how many protests there are. When will it ever stop? *

In the previous series of blog posts we explored the question of why unemployment is so high, which led to the ways in which Consumerism is coming to the end of its usefulness as an economic engine.  That in turn led us to evaluate War as alternative manufacturer of employment.  Although War initially seemed to us like an ideal employer, we soon discovered a dark side which not only forced a reevaluation of War’s economic strengths, it further led us to the conclusion that War needs to be eliminated as soon as possible if humanity is to survive.

If you recall, we said that Employment-Creation Systems (ECS) need three characteristics in order to be viable.  They need to (1) create jobs, (2) distribute jobs and (3) make jobs meaningful. But in order for our new ECS to additionally serve as a viable replacement for War, we need to expand on those criteria a bit.  A War-replacing ECS needs to:

  1. Create jobs that challenge nations and individuals to their absolute limits.
  2. Match people with those jobs.
  3. Make jobs meaningful by placing them in a larger context that
    1. Serves as a test of competing ideologies
    2. Offers a definitive answer.

The new part of criteria one is important, because people and nations both need continue continual challenges in order to stay at their best.  It’s no coincidence that Wars often come at times of peace and plenitude when things seem almost to be going too smoothly and too well.  Criteria two is no different from any ECS, and we’ve already discussed subclause “a” in criteria three.

Subclause “b,” however, turns out to be the real sticking point, the secret to why War has kept its position of primacy in human affairs over the millennia.  War is definitive.  It has clear winners and losers at the end of contests in which nothing has been held back, and both sides are literally fighting for their lives.  War is physical, and immediate, and its results are self-evident.  For any substitute for War to not devolve into an actual War, therefore, it must offer results equally as incontestable and final.

NEXT WEEK: Play ball!

How do you define reality and illusions in life?

From the time I was very young, I worried about the question of whether the true nature of Reality was as we perceive it or not.  And if we could be deluded about the nature of Reality itself, what did that mean in terms of our relationships with others, others who might be mere figments of our imaginations?  These questions troubled me for a good twenty-five years, until the answer came to me, fittingly enough, in a dream.

In that dream I was a student at a large, international boarding school.  The students were all gathered in the spacious courtyard when we received the disturbing announcement that the world was coming to an end.  There was a predictable mix of reactions from the amassed crowd –panic, denial, grief and anger.  There was also a untraceable rumor that began to circulate that there was a select group that would be chosen to survive the dissolution of the universe.  As for myself, I took the news quite calmly, perhaps because of my secret conviction that I was among those who would be saved.

Later in the dream, night had fallen, and the outside gardens were quiet, deserted and already beginning to fade at the edges.  There was no one around as I entered, for the last time, the vast, almost limitless mansion that had housed our beloved school for so many generations.  As I climbed up the wide empty staircase, I passed a group of huge circular machines, patiently cleaning and polishing each surface of the ancient building in preparation for its destruction.  I saw no other living creature until at last I made my way up to the roof.  There the air was suddenly full of light, music and laughter as the teachers of the school gathered to hold a last party for those students who still remained.

I could see the teachers for what they were now, something far older, wiser and more powerful than human beings, something angelic, almost divine.  I sought one of them out, a beloved teacher of my own from when I was very young.  She took me aside to a dark and quiet part of the roof and there we spoke under the starless sky.

As we conversed, I realized the rumor had been wrong.  It was true that I would survive the end of the universe, but there would be no group of the elect that would escape with me.  It would be me and me alone.  I also knew somehow that my teacher was as aware of this fact as I was.  Yet –and this was the amazing thing to me –even knowing this, she viewed me and treated me no differently than any of her other students.  I knew that she loved me, but I also knew that she also loved each one of her other many students in the same way, and with the same depth, even though I would go on living, and they would soon dissolve into nothingness.

“What was this all for?” I asked her.  “What did it all mean?”  I wasn’t asking about the end of the world,
but about everything that had come before –the school, the hard work of educating students, the careful cleaning of a building that was destined for destruction, the party thrown for guests whose time was measured in minutes.  What possible significance, meaning or value could any of it have in the face of the end of everything?  “Was any of it real?”

“Love,” she said.  “Love is real.  Love is meaningful. Love will survive.”

At that very moment, a bell tolled and the world faded away, as I awoke to the realization that it had been the truest dream I ever dreamed.  I had been in another world –the world of my dream –and it was also true that it had had a limited lifespan, and that it had come to an end, and that I alone of all its countless inhabitants had survived its apocalypse to journey into another world –the world of my waking life.

More than that, however, I knew also the last words of my teacher were also true –that Love is Real, that Love is meaningful, that Love survives, and that no action undertaken with Love is ever wasted.  And though I knew that the rational, objective part of my mind could call her nothing but a fiction of my subconscious, I knew that she had achieved a portion of Reality though the depth of her Love.  I could still feel its solidity like an embrace.

The experience resolved a problem that had distressed me since childhood –is this world we live in Real?  Or is it a dream or an illusion?  Are the people, things and places around us as solid as they seem?  Or are they as likely to melt away as snow in the heat of the sun?

What I learned is that the objective Reality of our world doesn’t matter.  We are all, in the largest frame of reference, figments of God’s imagination, characters, as it were, in God’s dreams.  There is still validity and Reality to the way we live and the way we treat others, regardless of any objective reckoning of fact and fiction.  The teacher in my dream was Real because of her values and the way she cared about her students.  The same type of Reality is available to you, and to me, be we disembodied brains in vats, figures in someone other person’s dream, or even fictional characters.  And though it was not a part of my dream, I have also come to understand that the converse must also be true –that giving way to cruelty and hatred renders a person as unreal and as insubstantial as the shadowy wraiths and cardboard monsters who haunt our dreams and are so gratefully forgotten with the approach of morning.

The Cake is a Lie

Tenth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

After reading last week’s post you may be thinking that War is such a wonderful thing that we should just forget about peace and just promote nonstop full-time worldwide warfare –and then no one need ever be out of a job ever again.  While this is a strategy that governments have flirted with throughout time, the cold hard fact is that War has reached the very end of its usefulness in human life.  Always possessed of a hideous side beneath the mask of glory,War has become so dysfunctional and destructive that we are fast approaching the point where one of us has to go –either humanity or War.

But what went wrong?  How could such a longstanding relationship have turned so sour?  And what about all the things we just last week claimed make war such an ideal employer?

  1. It creates jobs:  True, but by crippling bodies and destroying infrastructure, it can ruin productivity at the same time.  And War also “cooks the books” so to speak when it comes to lowering unemployment.  Sometimes it does that by creating more jobs –and sometimes it does that by killing off the potentially unemployed.
  2. It matches people with jobs:  True, but the vast majority of wartime jobs are generic “cannon-fodder” positions, base-level soldiers with no particular prior skills, qualifications or future prospects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It is true that War can bring out the finest and highest in human nature, bravery, honor, ingenuity, courage and so forth.  But War also notoriously brings out the worst and the most base in human nature, including rape, torture, murder, and genocide.  And in terms of helping us discover which ideology is better than which other ideology, war is actually a terrible method..  Figuring out which ideology is better by fighting a war is like figuring out which computer is better by using each one to bust open boulders.  The characteristics that lead it to win such a contest have nothing to do with the important aspects of the computer, and even the computer that emerges victorious is likely to be damaged beyond repair by the exercise.

Even with all these nasty characteristics, War presents itself well enough and performs well enough as an economic engine that it has remained a perennial part of the human experience for untold generations.  Yet there has been a fundamental shift in recent times that has made War unsustainable.

NEXT WEEK:  Why War must be stopped.

War, What is it Good For?

Ninth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

I’m a huge hippie pacifist. But with all due respect to those great Motown songwriters, Mr. Whitfield and Mr. Strong, the answer to the above question cannot possibly be “absolutely nothing.”  In every generation, in nations across the world, in human societies since the dawn of recorded time, people have gone to war. We must be getting something out of it. Our species –all evidence to the contrary –just isn’t that stupidly self-destructive to keep on pursuing warfare for no reason whatsoever.

There are multiple answers, but one of them is that war, as awful as it may be, is a highly successful Employment-Creation System, under the criteria we established in past weeks.

  1. It creates jobs:  In addition to the millions of people employed directly on the frontlines as soldiers, war employs many millions more in activities directly or indirectly related to war-efforts: in munitions factories, in agricultural production, and so forth and so on. At the conclusion of wars, new jobs are created in cleaning up and rebuilding after the destructiveness of the battles.
  2. It matches people up with jobs:  There’s a large range of specialty positions in most armies, so recruits can theoretically be matched with positions that suit particular skills, interests and talents, ranging from electronics to cooking, to strategic planning.  There’s also ample numbers of positions available for people who are particularly ambitious, or who have exceptional leadership qualities.  In addition, there are roles in armies for people who would have grave troubles fitting into civilian life –people with a strong desire to kill other human beings, for example.As far as how jobs get assigned, however, we’re back once again to the old Feudal pyramidal hierarchy.  In place of a king, the armed forces have a Commander-in-Chief, in places of Dukes and Barons, the armed forces have Generals and Majors, in place of the lower aristocracy, Sergeants, and in place of the peasants, privates.  Ultimately, the responsibility for creating the jobs goes back to the Commander-in-Chief, who decides what countries to invade, and so forth.  The details of carrying out those orders, where to build a base, where to attack, etcetera, are determined by the military hierarchy, and the orders are carried out somewhere close to the bottom of the pyramid.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Armies tend to use “the carrot” during peacetime (“see the world!”  “get money for college!”  “gain valuable skills”) and “the stick” in more desperate times (enlist or go to jail, you coward!”) but beyond these more superficial motivators is something altogether deeper and more primal.  Summarized neatly by the U.S. Army’s longtime recruiting slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” War does indeed provide the challenges that push humanity to its highest heights, not only as individuals, but also collectively –at least in theory.For nations as well as at the level of each soldier, a major portion of the attraction of war is the concept of being tested to the absolute limits (and of course emerging victorious).  And in the big picture, war isn’t just about national interests and secure borders,  but about field-testing an entire ideology, an entire way of life and belief system.  That’s why nations meet on the field of battle –to find out “are we right, or are they right?”Islam vs. Christianity.  Capitalism vs. Communism.  Catholics vs. Protestants.  Fascism vs. Democracy.  Fight it out and may the best ideology win –and then spread.  That’s the unspoken promise of war.  After all, everyone loves a winner.  Why else would Germany and Japan have re-patterned their societies after the example of the United States after the conclusion of World War II?

NEXT WEEK:  The horrible downside of war.

Back to the Future

Eighth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

It may seem odd to look back at Feudalism, universally considered one of the most unpleasant and backwards economic systems ever invented, as the first stop on the quest to replace Consumerism.  However, in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you’ve been. Consumerism’s ways of meeting the employment-creation criteria may seem like the most natural and obvious ways possible, but a lot of that comes from the fact that we are already immersed in a Consumerist system.  Feudalism actually meets the same criteria, but in a much more primal way.

  1. It creates jobs:  Unlike the “franchise” model of Consumerism, where everyone works together to create jobs, in Feudalism the ultimate responsibility for creating jobs falls on one person, the King.  The King sets the agenda for the overall big projects of the nation, typically invading other kingdoms, or building mighty works like castles or cathedrals or –if you have a extraordinarily enlightened King –kingdom infrastructure.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Feudalism’s model for job distribution is extremely simple, yet in its own way, elegant.  If you’re a Duke or equivalent aristocrat, you work directly for the King.  You send men for his armies, food for his table and his court, and money to pay for his projects.  Each of the Dukes is surrounded by a host of minor lords, who support the Duke in the same way the Duke supports the King.  And each of those minor lords has a small team of servants and larger assembly of slave-like peasants who work like dogs to keep him and his family in what passes for a lifestyle of local luxury (and to generate the thin margin of excess that gets passed upwards).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It doesn’t seem like much of a booby prize for a modern observer, but even the work of a peasant in a Feudal system is ultimately the work of the nation as a whole.  Each person’s individual labor goes not only to support and sustain his or her own life, but also in support of all the King’s grand projects.  This is why a King who demands too much of his subjects is ultimately a more successful King than one who demands too little.

It may seem like so much ancient history, but actually Feudalism never completely went away.  A modern multinational corporation is nothing but a Feudal society dressed up in a nice shirt and tie.  The CEO is the King, the Vice Presidents are the Dukes, the middle managers are the minor aristocrats, the entry-level white collar workers are the servants, and the factory workers are the peasants.  Instead of invading other kingdoms, they take over markets.  However, unlike in Feudalism, there is at least some social mobility in corporate life.  It may be rare, but people do occasionally travel from somewhere near the bottom to somewhere near the top.

At any rate, the purpose of looking at Feudalism is not to posit it as an actual improvement over what we have now, but to see how very possible it is to meet the same employment-creation criteria in very different ways.

NEXT WEEK: War

The Downside to Consumerism

Last week we looked at the upside of Consumerism, the ways in which it functions well as an employment-creation system.  This week we’ll look at the darker side of our trusty economic engine.  Seventh in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

The question of course, is this:  If Consumerism works so well, why are people out of work?  Who turned off the jobs spigot?  As it turns out when we take a closer look at how well Consumerism meets our criteria for a great employment-creation system, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as we painted it last week.  Let’s take a look at the criteria again.

  1. It creates jobs:  An unlimited supply, right?  Not really.  Theoretically the kinds and quantities of consumer goods that can be produced (and thus the number of jobs producing those goods) are only limited by people’s imaginations.  But in reality, there’s an actual limit to how much people want to acquire.  Most people in the First World already have far more consumer goods than they need to live a comfortable –one might even say luxurious –life.  This leads to the problem we discussed in week three (“The Global Pyramid Scheme“) of markets drying up.There are a number of ways in which consumerism compensates for this effect, but they all have problems attached to them.  One way is by making cheaper, more disposable products that wear out faster (such as blenders that break on the third usage) –which is wasteful.  Another way is to stimulate people’s desires for new and different products –which involves making them unhappy with what they already have (as in the case of cell phones that are already out of date a month after being sold) .  A third way is to promote ostentatious excesses (such as the purchase of giant gas-guzzling automobiles).  In addition to making our lives unhappy and filled with cheap crap, these techniques also accelerate the depletion and pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.  Consumerism is a driving force behind impending shortages of such vital and irreplaceable resources such as clean water, oil, fish populations, trees, and unpolluted air, a trend pushing us in the direction of an ever-accelerating environmental disaster.One cutting edge “solution” to the problem is the invention of “virtual” consumer goods, simulated objects that are bought, sold, coveted and “gifted” on various websites and in various virtual reality environments around the internet, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to World of Warcraft and Second Life.  These objects don’t draw a lot of resources, they don’t take up any physical space, and people love them.  It’s a perfect solution, except for the fact that people are now spending huge portions of their lives in the pursuit of shiny objects that don’t, strictly speaking, even exist.  Plato would be horrified.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Apparently not as well as it once did, but that’s more of a symptom of jobs drying up than the cause.  A more serious concern is Consumerism’s poor prioritization of projects, since it elevates trivial industries (say, the marketing of soda pop) to positions of central importance, while letting projects vital to the future of humanity (such as preventing mass extinctions) languish.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where we run into real problems.  As you recall, Consumerism makes jobs meaningful through the money you earn from working those jobs, and money is meaningful, not just for its raw purchasing power, but because it allows us to each measure our own self-worth against that of those around us.  But reducing everything to money has its downside as well.  It’s nearly always possible to increase your profit margins (at least in the short term) by doing some bad or immoral thing such as clear-cutting the forest primeval, farming out your labor to five-year-old workers in a Third World country, or putting sawdust in the chicken nuggets.

The upshot of all of this is that Consumerism is faltering.  People are no longer in tune with its devil-may-care, spendthrift ethos, and the loss of confidence in the Consumerist philosophy is having a very real effect on global markets.  Furthermore, the stopgap measures that gave Consumerism an extra century or so of viability have run their course.  Now like the snake eating it’s own tail, Consumerism has begun to consume itself –one reason, perhaps, for current pop-culture’s tendency to endlessly regurgitate and redigest it’s own recent past.

The problem, of course, is that Consumerism is what is keeping Capitalism afloat, and when it comes to Capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is nothing else.  Competing systems, such as Communism, have been much worse.  But is Consumerism the only possible employment-creation system that can rescue Capitalism, or are there other options?

NEXT WEEK – Feudalism

Spend ’till you drop

Sixth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Let’s take a good hard look at our old friend Consumerism, the dominant Employment-Creation System (ECS) in the modern world.  In many ways it works quite well, and it fits all the criteria we outlined last week.

  1. It creates jobs:  Consumerism creates what has always seemed to be an unlimited supply of jobs, all revolving around the manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution of consumer goods –the famous fabulous prizes of Capitalism.  Blenders, cars, t-shirts, posters, paperweights, computers, microwaves, gold teeth, embroidered wall-hangings –the list goes on, and on, and on.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Consumerism distributes jobs via what might be called the “franchise” method.  Anyone can buy into Consumerism at any point in time –just create a product and put it on the market.  You’ve just manufactured your own job, and if you’re successful enough, you’ll create jobs for other people as well.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where the true brilliance of Consumerism comes into play.  Many, perhaps most, of the jobs in a Consumerist system are not intrinsically meaningful.  With notable exceptions, consumer products aren’t saving lives or making the world a more beautiful place.  However, each and every job in the Consumerist framework has a quantitative value attached to it –that value being the amount of money you get for performing it.  The amount of money for a Consumerist job is related to the amount of money earned by selling the consumer products that generate the job.  The amount of money earned by selling the product is in turn based on the price of the object.  The crucial part of the whole thing, the part that makes it all work, is that the prices are quasi-objective.  No one person or government sets the prices, they are all assigned automatically by the actions of people buying and selling on the open market. In other words, we all set prices collectively, by establishing through buying and selling what we are willing to pay for things.The utility of this system of evaluation is that it gives us all a way to measure our own self-worth, i.e. in terms of dollars and cents.  In our society, under the Consumerist system, your status, your value as a person in society, is roughly equated with your purchasing power, your accumulated wealth.  The day you first get a job, you secure entry into a global system that allows you to compare yourself –quantitatively –to every other person in the system at any given time.

    This in turn provides the motivation that keeps people working.  True, for people at the very low end of the income scale (a vast number of people, largely invisible to the those above them), the primary motivation is survival, the need to purchase the essentials of life, food, shelter and clothing.  For everyone else, however, no matter how it may be disguised, the goal is status, the getting ahead in the system represented by accumulating more money and more goods.

NEXT WEEK – The Downside of Consumerism

The Bright Side of Unemployment

Fifth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Don’t jump off any tall buildings yet.  Despite the abundant Direness, things are less bleak than they appear.  The problem may present as though we’ve run out of a scarce resource –namely jobs, particularly meaningful ones –but viewed from the proper perspective, it becomes clear that we are in fact suffering from an overabundance of a different resource –namely human labor.  And an overabundance is a better kind of problem to deal with than scarcity.

It may seem hard to believe that this could be a problem at all.  After all, the imagination is staggered by the sheer volume of worthy projects in need of more workers.  Desert reclamation, space travel, teaching in the inner city, bridge building, planting trees, the list goes on and on.  Yet the things that need done rarely seem to get matched up with the people who need things to do.

You can’t just throw the people and the projects into a jar and shake it up to see what settles out.  You need a system –a system with the following characteristics:

  1. It creates jobs:  Your Employment-Creation System (ECS) must have a deep (ideally endless) supply of projects that need to be completed.
  2. It distributes jobs: Your system needs a way to match people with projects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Most importantly, your system must provide a unified larger context for its workers that motivates them to complete their assigned tasks.

For those readers with an economics background, it may seem like there are some important things missing from this list:  Supply and demand, channels of distribution,  methods of production, and so forth and so on.  But what I’m describing here is not a economic system, but rather an Employment-Creation System.  For example, here in the United States, our economic system is Capitalism, but our employment-creation system is Consumerism.  Capitalism provides the overall system, but Consumerism generates the majority of the jobs.

NEXT WEEK:  A closer look at Consumerism.

Dire Trend #3: Busywork?

Fourth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

(Adapted from an essay originally presented on 4/4/05)

Most Americans are familiar with the phenomena of “busywork” –time-consuming tasks of dubious meaning and value, which much be completed according to precise but arbitrary parameters. Such tasks –generally consisting of pieces of paperwork to be laboriously filled out –compose a large portion of many people’s jobs (as trenchantly chronicled in the movie “Office Space” in which the main character’s entire career hinges around the use of one form versus another).

Few people realize, however, the extent to which busywork has come to dominate the American workplace, or have questioned the sinister implications of such a seemingly innocuous phenomenon.

The reason for the existence of busywork is as follows: In a money-based economy, wealth is relative. My spending power increases when the spending power of those around me decreases. However, there are some absolutes, and one of the most foundational absolutes is human labor. In order for anything to actually be produced, there must be human labor involved, and the value of human labor is physically bounded by the amount of productive work a person can do in a day.

What this means is that, in order for a people to become wealthier than the limits of their own labor, they need to me able to control, directly or indirectly, the labor of a large number of people. Direct control of other people’s labor, as in slavery, is ultimately inefficient, because one person can only exploit the labor of a limited number of people before facing the inevitability of a revolt. However, indirect control of labor solves this problem through the magic of hierarchy. If I control a small number of people –ten, for example –it takes relatively little force and coercion, particularly if I share the benefits of their labor with them.

A part interest in the labor of ten people is not enough to create immense wealth. If each of those ten people controls ten other people, however, and those people control ten other people, then I quickly reach a situation where I have a part interest in the labor of a thousand people (or, to extend it another level, ten-thousand). Now my wealth is greater than those of my laborers by several orders of magnitude.

One of the problems with this setup is that the vast majority of the actual productive labor that keeps the company running takes place at or near the bottom. There are other functions that take place higher up the hierarchy –skilled labor and technical work such as engineering and design for example –but the need for such labor is generally not extensive enough to fill the vast pyramids that compose mega-corporations.

This is where busywork enters the picture. The filling out of forms, shuffling of paper, and completion of meaningless tasks keeps people in the middle of the corporation busy, and thus prevents them from causing trouble. The busywork also structures the organization and keeps it from collapsing, by limiting opportunities for advancement and by placing barriers to productivity.

This last point demands some explanation. Why is productivity in the middle a bad thing? The answer is that the function of middle management is to maintain the organization and to keep the hierarchy from collapsing. Productivity is not the chief function of the middle. If people in the middle are too productive, it calls into question the need for the vast numbers of people in the middle. If I, as a mid-level employee complete tasks too efficiently and effectively, then why does the company need all the other workers at my level of the structure? It is only a useful fiction that my employment is maintained primarily for my productivity. Rather it is maintained for my utility as a channel through which wealth can flow upwards.

Thus, success in middle management is largely dependent on the ability to keep people busy, but not productive. In other words, the function of middle management is to create busywork. The more busywork that is available, the more the company can expand, and the larger the structure will be, thus creating a greater concentration of wealth at the top.

This explains a phenomena noticeable in many offices. One or two people may be the ones doing all of the actual productive work in the office, but they are surrounded by a vast number of other employees who are essentially supernumerary and parasitic. The employee who does the actual work, however, is less likely to be promoted or recognized than a co-worker who continually creates meaningless projects, and thus increases the workload on those around them.

Why is the hardworking employee disdained and the parasitic employee celebrated? The former endangers the employment of those around him or her by demonstrating their uselessness, but the latter ensures the continued employment of his or her coworkers by disguising their needlessness .

Unfortunately, this phenomena creates employment at the price of the death of creativity and human potential.  To restate the problem, our society is unable to generate a quantity of meaningful jobs sufficient for the working population, and so, in order to avoid mass unemployment, it must create jobs whose only real justification is their own existence.

NEXT WEEK:  The Bright Side of Unemployment

Dire Trend #2: The Global Pyramid Scheme

Third in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #2 – The Global Pyramid Scheme: This second trend is a little easier to miss than the first one.  Did you ever get a letter –or an email –promising you $625 in the mail? All you had to do was send five dollars to each of the four people’s names above you on a list, add your name to the bottom of the list, and send the letter on to five (soon to be former) friends. This is what is known as a pyramid scheme, and it sounds like a great deal. Basically, the people at the beginning of the scheme, the top of the pyramid, get paid by an ever increasing pool of people at the bottom of the pyramid. It really does work as advertised, at first, but the same law of mathematics that promises exponentially huge payouts dooms the scheme to an unhappy ending. After only a short amount of time, you run out of people to recruit at the bottom of the pyramid. The very large group of people who come in at the end of the pyramid scheme pay money that goes to the people above them on the pyramid, but they never get any payment back because there aren’t enough suckers left to recruit under them.

Pyramid schemes never completely die off because they seem so promising. Most people learn pretty quickly to avoid the most obvious chain-letter type schemes, but millions of dollars are routinely lost in more upscale Ponzi-type pyramids, such as the one run by the crooked financier Bernie Madoff.

As many shock waves as were set off by the collapse of Madoff’s pyramid, however, it was small potatoes compared to the biggest pyramid scheme of all –the one played by nations. It works like this: In order to become wealthy, a nation industrializes, which means it opens up factories and begins mass producing consumer goods. In order for this to work, however, a nation needs a constant supply of low-priced raw materials, and a market full of consumers ready to buy the finished products.

When what are now the “First World” countries industrialized, one of the ways in which we accomplished that task was by entering into an exploitative relationship with less fortunate countries around the world.  In that relationship we obtained raw materials from them at artificially low costs, and sold back finished products to them at inflated prices. This relationship still continues, but there is now also a second tier of industrialized countries –places like China and India –that are still subsidizing the luxurious First World lifestyle, but that are also entering into their own exploitative relationships with countries further behind on the pathway to industrialization.

Like the Madoff investment group, the payoffs are great for the top of the pyramid –so far–, but a collapse is inevitable. The number of people in the world is large but finite, and the resources of the Earth are vast but exhaustable. Now that countries as large as China and India have entered the game, the chances of there being enough new recruits further down the pyramid to keep the system running are becoming smaller and smaller.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #3

Dire Trend #1: Debt

Second in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #1 – Runaway Debt: I think everyone has pretty much noticed this one, and if not, it’s because we’re collectively putting our fingers in our ears and shouting “Na na na na!” at the top of our lungs. In a nutshell, our government has run out of money, and is paying for everything on borrowed funds –as have other governments all around the world. It’s the same as when you or I put the rent on a credit card to make up for having no money in the bank. That means more money is going out than is coming in, it leads to exorbitant interest fees that make it ever harder to catch up, and sooner or later you reach your credit limit and get cut off. If that happens to you or me, we declare bankruptcy and lose our homes. If it happens to a Third World country, you end up with riots and the rise of warlords. I don’t think anyone knows what happens if it happens to the world’s premier superpower, but it seems unlikely to be good.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #2

I’m bright, talented, hardworking, well-educated and have good social skills. Why can’t I find a job? After I graduated from college I worked for about two years for a small company, but they went under over a year ago. Since then I’ve been pounding the pavement with no results. I couldn’t even land a retail job I’m overqualified for. What the [CENSORED] is going on?*

Dear Jobless,

In the smaller picture, you may be doing something wrong –looking for the wrong kinds of opportunities, not projecting a professional image, showing up for your job interview with spinach in your teeth –something that can be fixed. It’s quite probable there are specific practical steps you can take that would lead you to finding and obtaining a job you would be very happy with, at a nice salary, with friendly, cheerful coworkers. That’s all possible in the smaller picture.

This is a philosophy column, however, and the big picture has less to do with your brightness, your talents, your work ethic, your education, or your ability to carry on a conversation and chew gum at the same time, and more to do with the impending –some would say ongoing –collapse of our society’s economic system.

I am not an economist, nor do I play one on television, but there are three current trends that require neither a Harvard degree nor a psychic sixth sense to read as warnings of dire consequences ahead. Understanding them might just be your last best chance at a brighter future.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend # 1