Good relationships and good economics

 

Economics is the most fundamental of social sciences because it is about relationships. The study of economics should be about the ways in which we can organize the exchange of goods and services. As this involves interacting with others it is largely about how we deal with family, friends and neighbors. The study of economics should include economic history, the economies of previous civilizations and economic anthropology. It also means we should be trying to organize an economy based on good relationships.

As exchange involves dealing with other people in a variety of different ways from theft to giving, economics involves the study of how we deal with each other.

A fundamental of relationships is that for a relationship to be satisfactory there must be a more or less equal two-way exchange. Sadly our current economy is based mostly on exploitation. The culture of a lot of businesses, especially large ones, is to make as much profit as possible, even if it means taking advantage of customers.

The challenge is to organize our economy so that our economic relationships qualify as being good – equal exchanges. This writer suggests two sources of inspiration; the bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Africa and the perfect completion model of economics.

lion-577104_1920There is archeological evidence that the bushmen have sustained a stable society for up to 200,000 years. Survival has been without wars and exploitation. This is an incredible accomplishment. We owe it to ourselves to examine their society to see what we can copy. Genius is 90 per cent plagiarism.

These hunters and gathers have been well-studied. My reference is Affluence without Abundance: The disappearing world of the bushmen by James Suzman published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

The Bushmen were hunters and gathers living from hand to mouth and relocating frequently. As they had to carry everything when they moved they developed a mindset that had little need or use for material things other than a few basics. Their knowledge of their environment was such that they always had sufficient food available with a minimum of “work”. They worked for survival rather than to satisfy their own or other people’s ambition.

As they always had adequate food, surpluses and savings were not part of their lives or their thinking. This was important as surpluses and saving must be controlled and this can lead to unequal relationships and exploitation.

Leadership was very low-key and social control was mostly verbal via teasing and ridicule. As they lived in small groups the size of which changed with the seasons it was easy to get away from social conflicts. (This is a major problem for Canadian native people many of whom live on reserves and cannot easily relocate.)

This blogger does not want to adopt a total hunting and gathering lifestyle especially as the size of the world’s population makes it difficult if not impossible. However I believe these people have a lot to teach us about relationships and economics and values. It could be we are the ones who are uncivilized.

We often lie to ourselves and the greatest lies are about economics. The greatest lie is that our economy is based on capitalism and markets. This is a falsehood to cover the fact our economy is based upon legislation that restricts competition. So long as we believe the lies we can continue to promote an economy that is unequal and exploitive.

I believe if we really want an economy which encourages good relationships we should use the perfect competition model as a guideline. All legislation which restricts competition should be repealed. This includes patent and copyright legislation and licensing. Subsides should be given to consumers rather than producers in the form of a guaranteed income scheme. Businesses would be mostly small-scale; so small that participants would be unable to control prices with spending and purchasing decisions. These changes would do away with huge profits and most high incomes. Economic growth would not be needed as people would not have to have jobs to survive. These changes would also cause a lot of screaming from the people who benefit from competition.

Another good feature would be better relationships as people would be able to interact without trying to exploit each other.

One of the differences between hunting and gathering societies and the “civilizations” which have dominated history is who makes decisions. When people are working for survival rather than to satisfy ambitions they make their own decisions. When they are working for ambition decisions are made be the owner of the ambition.

Force is one of the ways people get others to work for them. Other ways are psychological – the work ethic, marketing techniques, limiting free speech, limiting voting rights, making people feel guilty and using logical fallacies to influence thinking. The last two have been and are being used to great effect by feminists. My experience of this world and my observations of this world tell me feminism is mostly BS and a control issue. Feminists want to control men and their thinking. They do a lot to discourage good relationships.

A lot of us have been so indoctrinated with the “capitalist” way of thinking we do not realize the extent to which we are being exploited. Some studies of people on their death beds have found that the greatest regrets are for placing profits above relationships.

Most of us have been raised in a culture which places material things above all else. This blogger believes we should learn from the bushmen to adapt to a non-growth economy and focus on good relationships. The perfect competition model of economics provides some good guidelines as to how to get there.

 

Intelligent machines, neurological disorders and decision making

It is tempting to say computers with artificial intelligence will never replace humans with all their neurological disorders but after reading this article in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, one needs to be careful.  It could be wishful thinking.

For me this raises the issues of how we use agricultural surpluses and what impact smart computers will have on decision-making..  How do we use the human energy and time released by technology?

When I studied European economic history the professor spent a lot of time talking about medieval improvements in agricultural productivity.  In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.  The more productive agriculture became the more people could pray or fight as most of the agriculture surplus went to monks and knights.

This professor went on to write a book about the industrial Revolution in which he pointed out the plague reduced the supply of workers who were then able to claim a better standard of living and keep it.  (This made it efficient to replaced labor with coal which was very cheap in England.)

For most of human history those who prayed and those who fought were able to claim for themselves the surplus.  Since the Industrial Revolution the increased production and the supply and demand for labor have been such that  workers have been able to claim a share of the agricultural surplus and industrial production.  To the fighters and the prayers have been added those who manage.  We also have the work ethic and a religious like belief that the only way to share the surplus to have everyone working regardless of how useless and meaningless the work is.

With the development of machines that can make decisions  and with problems in the resource base the demand for labor is going down quickly and lots of people around the world are unemployed.  I fear we are returning to what has been the norm for several millenia – a few people will live in luxury and the rest will survive at a subsistence level.

computer_rageThis post started with an article about smart machines.  I figure that most, if not all of us, have a neurological disorder in that our brains are wired differently.  We behave differently, develop different values and make different decisions. How will this impact on machines that make decisions?  How will our society be changed if decision-making is by computers that do not have disorders?   Will different machines be able to make different decisions from the same inputs or will all machines make decisions according to the values of the people who programmed them?

However intelligent computers develop I enjoy the reading and thinking that goes into this weblog.  I hope I don’t lose that.

Milton Friedman and Money Mischief

I have just finished reading Money Mischief, Episodes in monetary history by Milton Friedman published about 20 years ago.

Friedman is remembered for his interest in the economics of money and banking. However, I have two concerns about omissions from this book.  The first is that he places too little emphasis on the T or Q in the quantity theory formula and the second is that he has missed the significance of interest in the creation of money.

Any discussion of money in economics has to include the formula MV=PT because this shows how the real and financial sides of the economy are connected.  This formula states that the stock of money times the velocity with which it changes hands is equal to a price index times the total of transactions or the quantity of goods and services exchanged.

Friedman uses this formula to support a claim that inflation is purely a monetary thing.  Prices go up when there is too much money in the economy and governments control the total amount of money.

My concern is that he does not appear to recognize the potential of T (or Q) to disrupt the economy.

In the chapter on money he suggests T could go down because workers are “paying less attention to their work and more to the stock ticker.”  A few pages later he states: “What happens to output depends on real factors: the enterprise, ingenuity and industry of the people; the extent of thrift; the structure of industry and government; the relations among nations; and so on.”

He may be excused on the grounds that throughout recorded economic history downward changes in T have not been an obvious problem.

However, there is some evidence that the resource base is now being depleted, or at least the most easily extractable, of the resources are gone.  This is certainly going to impact on the T in the formula.  Other things which could impact the formula are climate change, natural disasters or disease epidemics.

MY second concern relates to the role of interest in the creation of money.  Friedman didn’t see this and I have not come across any other economist who has recognized it.

During the 20th century there was a change in the nature of money from that based on a commodity (gold or silver) to money based on fractional reserves and credit.  (For a more detailed discussion of fractional reserve money and its problems, please see my essay “LETS go to market.”)

So long as money was based on gold the total supply was limited by the amount of gold and could be increased only as more gold was dug out of the ground.  If you look at the formula it is easily seen that this could cause problems in a growing economy.

With the switch to fractional reserve money the problem became reversed.  Now there is the potential for too much money to be available.

One of the differences between commodity money and fractional reserve money is that with the latter as new money is created the creators (the banks) demand that interest be paid on that new money.  I see this as a  built n force requiring that even more money be created to pay interest.  I see this as a sort of Ponzi scheme which from time to time collapses into a financial crisis.

Friedman provides a different take on why the money supply is increasing.  “Whatever may have been true for money linked to silver and gold, with today’s paper money it is governments and governments alone that can produce excessive monetary growth, and hence inflation.”

I have to take issue with him.  Fractional reserve money is not paper. It is entries in the computers of the banks.  Governments are involved in its creation when their bonds are purchased by central banks.  It might be good for governments to stop issuing bonds but I am not sure it is fair to blame them for inflation.

However we create money, the formula makes it clear that if the goal is price stability the money supply or its velocity must be easily variable.

Agricultural surpluses, relationships and Occupy Wall Street

Here is a possible explanation for the Occupy Wall Street protests which are currently happening around the world.

For a relationship to be satisfactory there has to be a more or less equal two-way exchange.

However, there is no law that says relationships have to be satisfactory,  Furthermore, some people take advantage of others by exploiting or coercing them.

How do these observations apply in economics.

Throughout history there has been exploitation of some people by others.  Mostly this has involved agriculture and force.  The surplus has been taken.  Mostly enough has been left for the producers to just subsist.

Starting with the Industrial Revolution three things changed.

First the surplus started increasing so that more could be left for the producers.  Eventually during the recent years of prosperity  the surplus was so large that many people (especially in the industrial countries) could have a nice share of it.

Second, population levels (at least in the industrial countries) have been low relative to the opportunities for employment.  As wages are a function of supply and demand wages have been good and thus the surplus has been shared.

Third, those people who do the exploiting have discovered psychological ways of getting their hands on the riches of the world without using force.  These include legislation which restricts competition,  sneaky marketing, promoting the work ethic and emotional appeals such as to our greed.

To those of us who have been able to share the wealth it has not been clear that we have been exploited.

Once again, things are changing.  There is some evidence we are now using resources at an unsustainable rate and there is now more competition for the surplus.

As the above listed psychological instruments are still working the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer   and the Occupy Wall Street protests are spreading around the world.

Economics and relationships

Relationships are an important part of life but it isn’t clear that economics involves  relationships until one starts reading anthropology. As anthropology sometimes deals with small societies in which there is no money it is much clearer that relationships are very much a part of the exchange of goods and services.

Where there is no money generally people have to work together or make exchanges via gifts. In both situations ones relationship to others is a part of the cooperation or the exchange.  In some cases what appears to be items of little apparent use or value are exchanged in order to define a friendship.

The use of money allows exchanges with many more people most of whom are strangers.  Even so we can consider there to be an economic  relationship  in these exchanges.

It might be possible to analyze economic history and economic development in terms of how relationships have changed or are changing. Clearly relationships in a feudal society were different from those in our own times and probably relationships during early industrialization were different still.

It may be that our relationships are more complex than in earlier times.  We now have relationships, with the people who produce the goods and services we consume, the people we work with, the people we sell to, our neighbors, people with common interests and people who represent government.

In my experience one of the most important things about relationships is that to have a satisfactory relationship there must be an equal exchange between the people involved..  Unfortunately not all relationships are satisfactory.

Studying relationships as a part of economics may not help predict future GNP but it might encourage us to  make our economy more rewarding and satisfactory.

The golden years of prosperity

“The years 1950 to 1973 were a golden age of unparalleled prosperity,” according to Angus Maddison in his 2007 book, Contours of the World Economy.

“World per capital GDP rose at an annual rate of near 3 per cent, world GDP about 5 per cent and exports almost 8 per cent. Performance was better in all regions than in any earlier phase. There was a significant degree of convergence in per capita income and productivity, with most regions growing faster than the US (the lead economy).

“After 1973, there was a marked slowdown. Global growth was cut by half. There was substantial divergence between regions and performance in many of them was below potential.” (pages 71 and 72.)

I am curious about the timing of the end of the golden age – 1973.

In 1972 The Club of Rome published the book The Limits to Growth which suggested that economic growth would be slowed by limited resources. At the time the book was controversial but maybe the authors were not so far off the mark.

Recently we noted a report by the World Wildlife Fund that the world’s population is currently using resources at 150 per cent of the sustainable level. I wonder if we were using resources at 100 percent level about 1973?

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