Penny Red has recently addressed the question of how we start using the untapped resources our physically, and particularly our mentally, distressed people can offer. We still haven’t figured out (at a systemic level) that the answer to a changing economic map is not necessarily to change the people until they fit the work; it can be to redesign the shape of ‘work’ until its flexible enough to fit the people. I am not going to try and further that argument, for my esteemed colleague knows the specific field better than I do. However, one of the questions that debate raised is about the difference between what a thing is, and what it looks like once we’ve measured it: I’m going to talk about analytical structures instead.
One of the things that is heinous about our education system is that it has been designed to give much of our society the idea that they understand statistics, without actually teaching them to understand statistics. I know this from bitter experience; as a history graduate who went into telecommunications engineering, I had a lot of geeks explaining to me exactly why I was wrong, without really helping me learn to be right much.
Most groups of 4 people that I know include at least two computer programmers, who are a special case, but a survey of most groups of 4 people in my pub would not provide even one of them who could adequately explain the difference between an average, a median and a mean (I’m one of those who can’t). Most of our population has trouble understanding that ‘8 times more likely’ is not necessarily that significant when the base rate is 0.003% chance. 0.024% chance is still very small; and our political masters have no hesitation in using that fact to their advantage when it’s time to scare the populace. Whether they got it from the professional news media or vice versa, I cannot say.
Another thing our education system teaches people to believe they understand is economics. They don’t. The professionals in the field don’t understand economics, for the same reason that Michael Fish got it wrong in the 80s. Systems which are sufficiently complex that they require non-linear analysis (such as the weather) don’t work like machines. Our economy does work rather like a machine, a point I’ll return to later, but our society does not because humans don’t like being subject to a designed obsolescence.
Traditional macro-economics was designed by men who were inventing a new world. Muscle-powered society was giving way to machine-powered and then electric society. The human mind, fairly obviously, is affected by its environment; and the men of that era who sought to see into the abstract and describe the world saw it as a kind of inexorable, immensely complex machine and so they described it in those terms. Even for the world they actually lived in, this analysis was insufficiently subtle. It created the abject poverty and child-slave labour in Victorian England, it created World War I and the Russian Revolution. But in those days, it was possible to enforce a flawed vision of society as a machine upon the masses, because mechanisms for change were still restricted to bloody revolution.
After WWI it all changed. We were still an industrial system, and so (up to a point) the mechanistic metaphors still worked. The The Wall Street crash set the pattern for the next 70 years. The one time we almost broke out of that way of thinking, they shot everyone and went into Vietnam anyway; and that was after Eisenhower had warned them against the “acquisition of unwarranted power by the military-industrial complex”. This, by the way, is why our economics in the West look rather mechanical; they’re being deliberately engineered to be that way. Machines are good at producing predictable results. Our system is a machine for funneling money towards those who start with capital; ie. the ancient Christian adage ‘To him who hath it shall be given, from him who hath not it shall be taken away’.
When we invented the internet, we kicked off a systemic alteration of human society on the same level as the Industrial Revolution and the Rennaissance. Muscle-powered society gave way to mechanical society, which is in turn now giving way to information-driven society. But none of the metrics for analysis that we use in determining the worth of an individual within our society have evolved beyond the mechanistic. They could have; by the end of the 1960s, there were alternative models available but they were not adopted. Why not?
Because it is entirely in the interests of the Establishment to retain our current ways of thinking about economic contribution, because they are the only ways of thinking about economic contribution that keep the Establishment, established.
The tasks of “production” (in the Marxist sense) are, and will be, increasingly mechanised; therefore, those who continue to work in production will increasingly be cybernetics engineers and mechanics: and also, a steadily shrinking percentage of the population. Unless we all decide to stop having kids, each generation is going to be larger than the last; for a look at ways to stop people having kids, examine China’s One Child Policy and see if you think it’s still a good idea. Therefore, we are, without a doubt, going to have an increasing problem with population who cannot, due to technological advancement, work in production.
Therefore, whether we start figuring it out now, or when its too late, our society will, at some point, need to evolve metrics for measuring an individual’s contribution which are neither mechanistic, nor purely material, but deal with the ephemerals which govern people’s lives.
Why is a banker worth more than a teacher? Because no-one knows how much each child the teacher trains will earn. Without that, no-one can add up the columns and put a monetary value on the contribution the teacher has made to society: whereas a banker’s ‘contribution to society’ is easy to count, it’s his bank balance. Of course, in practice, his bank balance is society’s contribution to him, not the other way around.
How much is a really good child-minder worth? At the moment, the only metric which we have available is based on how much money the parents of the children make versus how much they’d make if one of them had to bring up the kids. This is not only a bad metric for measuring anyone’s contribution by, (because of me someone else makes money; on the other hand it most certainly is the typical measure we use in this society) it also indicates a disturbing lack of respect for our own future.
How much is the contribution to society of a bus-driver worth? Speaking as someone who has to commute to work, frequently at extremely anti-social hours, on London’s bus network I am inclined to argue that a bus-driver’s work benefits more people on a daily basis than a TV Chat-show host does (note; benefit != entertain). And yet…
We need to start valuing those contributions which are not commodities; and we need to stop seeing increased capacity to consume (ie. financial affluence) as the only viable way of keeping score on someone’s contribution to our civilisation.