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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mind and Morality for the New Economy

The Mind and Morality of the New Economy

A new more sustainable and hopefully more resilient economy is emerging.  It is racing to become established before the old economy destroys us.

The new economy has been announced by its prophets in their books, seminars, and symposiums.  But the new economy is not emerging from classrooms, think tanks, or media outlets.  It is not the product of philosophers, economists, political thinkers, or journalists.

It is emerging through hundreds of thousands of experiments in doing business and creating livelihoods that connect to building community while respecting the earth as the condition of human life in its fullness.

The new economy is a matter of neither reform nor revolution. Tinkering around the edges with a few more rules while preserving the old ones is not bringing in the holistic, systemic change in arrangements and institutions in our way of doing business. But neither would imposition of a whole scale change by force or fiat modify our personal and social habits.

The new economy, some call it “sustainable capitalism,” is resulting from innumerable on-the-ground efforts: new ventures in “earth friendly” manufacturing and agriculture, renewable energy enterprises to displace carbon-emitting producers, urban planning and development for sustainable communities and agriculture, public and private community-based financing and investment, community oriented businesses and cooperatives, experiments in liberating education that fosters innovation in science, art, and creative earth-friendly technologies, organization and development of voluntary organizations that promote a sustainable economy.

I saw many of these experiments in the Central Valley of California where I worked for fourteen years. My friend Randy the farmer and self-educated expert in renewable energy is planting fast growing trees and crops in uncultivated fields linked to three other enterprises in non carbon-emitting fuel production. Arnold is developing cork type roofing that will eliminate much of the need for heating and cooling of homes. Keith is working with city planners of fourteen cities to create new communities and remake old ones that will meet strong California air, water, and energy sufficiency goals building grass roots popular support as they go. John is using the dumped waste from Southern California and the Bay Area; and Courtney is pushing the development of wind and waste power that could make the Valley, and perhaps most of California, energy independent by 2025. I was also a part of a team of federal leaders that engaged with state and local officials to engage with and link up these experiments with public and private support.

I am now encountering experiments in the new economy on the East Coast where community development corporations are partnering with governments and businesses to shore up community banks, green housing in walkable neighborhoods, bicycle corridors, urban agriculture projects, cooperative food buying from local farmers, and so many more endeavors.  And interfaith and other community-based groups are pushing cities, counties, and states to support these experiments through tax and investment strategies.

The institutions of the old economy are resistant; so dominated are they by those for whom the old rules have worked so well.  Never mind the growing gap between them, the extremely rich, and the extremely poor with a dwindling middle class.  Never mind the numerous popping “bubbles” of boom and bust stressing families and neighborhoods. Never mind the depletion of earth, social, and political resources. Never mind the rapid warming of the earth and change of climate, the loss of localism in business and commerce, and the increasing concentration of power in transnational corporations with little allegiance to the community or nation of origin.

David Korten (Agenda for a New Economy) at a symposium I attended in DC spoke of the need for a new narrative or a new creation story that images God not as a Judeo-Catholic Royal Patriarch supporting feudal hierarchical organization. Nor as an industrial age Protestant CEO designing the machine universe and oiling it from time to time. He proposes an “Integral Spirit” made up of humans joining consciousness and action in connection with the Earth in a way that wealth is defined not as the accumulation of consumptive capacity measured by money, but as relationship with others and with resources of the planet measured by happiness.

So if, according to the first sociologist Max Weber, the old economy arose out of the cultural meme soup of Calvinism with its predestined divine plan, material reward in God’s grace, and commandment to subdue the earth, we need a new theology to support an economy that is founded on much different principles. Theologians inspired by the new physics and biology as well as drawing from mystic traditions and ancient earth religions are at work to provide that new Mind.

And political thinkers and philosophers, persuaded by neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and anthropology, are busily crafting an ethic that critiques the morality of a destructive economy and founds a morality for a more sustainable one. I call this ethics for the new economy “the Ethic of Integrity.”

The Ethic of Integrity is neither absolutist not relativist; but relational. It is based on the symbolic interaction model of human nature arising through environmental anthropology and neuroscience. This model portrays the human species characteristically adapting to its environment through symbols (metaphors, images, language, memes), giving rise to a consciousness of self in relation to other selves towards objects in the world in time and space on a background of unconscious memories, intentions, instincts, desires.

Human symbolic behavior operates between many polarities that are continually in tension. The imperative that arises from the fact of dynamic human being, the “should” from the “is,” is the imperative to integrate one’s self with oneself and with others. The human task is to act in the present, holding tension between the past and the future, between the interiority of thoughtfulness with the experience of the outer world, and between the real and the ideal.

It is the imperative of being fully human that founds a morality of an economy in which all the capitals--social, political, historical, ecological, spiritual, not just financial--are taken into account. The economy is the system of livelihood, achieving what will keep a person, a community, and a species alive. The old economy, by not assigning value to all the capitals or by separating them, is using them up by growing only the financial one. That is why it is destroying the very conditions of human life.

While the emergence of the new economy is in the hands of those who are actually taking on ventures based on the new Mind and Morality, the theologians, philosophers, economists and political thinkers can help. They can forge the link among the experimenters. They can interpret the importance of what they are doing. They can indicate the meaning they are weaving together in their ventures.  Most important they can articulate the new Mind and Morality that will push the new economy past the tipping point, before it's too late.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Better Angels

Our better angels are slain during this season of new birth and light.

Twenty first graders and seven of their caregivers in a place called Newtown. We may never know why; and as with many of the wrong questions the answer may be that there is none.

Now there is a lot of talk about guns and mental illness in America. Let's hope it is just the beginning of dialogue towards meaningful action, not just another pop-up to soon go underground. Again.

I am convinced with Joel Klein that no amount of policy related to guns would have prevented this shooting. But nevertheless we need to use the occasion to develop a strong anti-gun strategy. We need to see Obamacare as just a first step towards getting the almost half of us who have had an incidence of serious mental illness the assistance we all need.

My NRA cousin Vinnie dittoheads that "guns don't kill people, people do." Yes people with guns! People have guns to protect themselves from other people with guns who have them to protect themselves from people with guns. So add more guns, Cousin Vinnie says.  Arm the principals and teachers.

In earlier meditations, I have written much about the American culture and its religion and the way it reenforces our economy and politics and is in turn reenforced by them. I have shown how that religion is often carried by the organized religions and their scriptures and rituals.

You won't be surprised then if I think that to adequately deal with the issue that surfaced in Newport, we must plumb the depth beyond specific policies and consider the American Mind and Morality that conditions our public and private behavior.

We look no further than the past election to see what appeals to that Mind and Morality:

  • economic growth as increase in consumption capacity (money)
  • strength through capacity for violence
  • domination of earth and its resources
  • power over the weaker: working poor, women, aliens
  • individual rights over collective responsibility
  • corporate interests over public interests
  • money's influence in politics.
And consider our heroes: the skilled cowboy shooter, the rough tough marine, the meanest football cruncher, the cop who stops bad guys with superior force often outside the rules.

The Mind and Morality of the new economy and politics, as laid out by Speth, Korten, and Alperovitz, and which I have labeled the Ethic of Integrity is so different and in conflict with the dominant ethic.

My mentor Hannah Arendt (On Violence) concedes that violence is sometimes necessary. But that's it. Violence belongs to the realm of necessity and not the space of freedom. It can be excused, but never justified. People walking around with weapons is the antithesis of a civil society just as Cormac McCarthy depicted in the Blood Meridian (the story of our past) and The Road (the story of our future). Freedom does need boundaries, enforceable rules and laws. But freedom means active engagement in speech and action without violence.

So in the national dialogue that is hopefully just beginning, let's get to the depth. Let's accept our history of founding through genocide and development through slavery and war so we can let it go and create a new story and a new ethic that will issue into a new economy and politics.

If that were to happen then our slain better angels, in the season of new birth and light, will confirm the miracle of resurrection.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What is Growth?

Yesterday I attended the Atlantic American Works Summit. Some smart and very respected people discussed the American economy, taxation policy, the debt and how to fix it: Alice Rivlin, Peter Peterson, Robert Hormats and many other experts in business, competitiveness, and innovation guided by the Atlantic's James Fallows and Steve Clemons.

Some common themes:

  • The partisan stalemate is terrible for business and the economy much more so than any particular policy or ideology.  Moreover the partisans are distracting attention from real issues.
  • The regulatory framework and process is antiquated and needs total revision for the fast moving global economy.  Right now it is impeding innovation and growth.
  • Long term debt will bring America down and curbing entitlements, especially related to health care, and tax reform are essential to deal with it.
  • Corporate tax rates should be lowered (even though effective corporate taxation is not much higher than the G7 countries) in order to be more inviting to companies to come and stay.
  • Returning tax rates to Clinton era rates or even higher won't make much difference to business decision making but will provide needed revenue to deal with the long term debt.
  • The most important investment need is in education, especially advanced education for the new higher level jobs; this includes investment in Research and Development.
  • Public investment in developing and maintaining infrastructure is both job producing and supports business and commerce.  We can do more smart spending to stimulate the economy at the same time we set a framework for reducing the long term debt.  
I saw no evidence of disagreement. This was indeed the sensible establishment singing in chorus on how to save the American and perhaps global economy. All were balanced in respect the public and private sectors. All saw the role of government investment and taxation policies, as well as defense to secure global commerce, in promoting a strong economy.

There was some talk of climate change and carbon taxes, alternative energy and energy independence, reduction of health care costs by seeing the major drivers (fee for service, end of life interventions, lack of budget, defensive medicine), but no real engagement in these issues. There was also talk about "all playing by the same rules," especially in relation to living wages and environmental production, but how these rules might come to be and what they are based on was not discussed.

There was universal talk of growing the economy and growing jobs. But there was no questioning of the meaning and measure of growth. This was simply assumed. There was universal talk of investment in education and growing the jobs we need, but the jobs we need were simply assumed to be those that would fill rennewing and new businesses, especially those in or using high tech.

And there's the rub!

It was clear to me that GDP is the standard and that financial resources or money is the measure of growth; and that any production that increased these financial resources was good no matter what its effects on human nature or the environment. Well, that's too strong. These folks do care about human being and the environment. But they assumed that people would decide in a free market, encouraged but not limited by the public working through their governments, by their choices and habits of consumption as to what is good for them. Or do they? The question never came up.

And that is my problem with the discussion of the new global information driven economy. There is little discussion of the values and principles which drive it except those that are given by some doctrinaire religion or ideology or simply assumed as conventional wisdom. It is at this level that we need an educated discussion--one that uses but goes beyond math and science, business and politics, law and accounting. Yesterday the experts said that it was important for the public to be informed. But there was no discussion of popular education processes by which citizens could discuss and act on the what they want beyond more money.

How about investment in this kind of education? That would be growth!