Let’s put some ‘civil’ in civilization

Over the past few weeks I have been reading some anthropology about hunters and gathers and have decided these so-called primitives are really the most civilized Peoples of all times.  I absolutely do not want for myself or anyone else to go to that life style but I do think we should evaluate their cultures for ideas we could adopt.  We need to put the civil in civilization.

In this post I propose to look at some of the things that make our society uncivilized and contrast these with what we know about hunters and gathers. A lot what makes us uncivilized are sources of in justice –  overpopulation, forcing people to do things according to the values and morals of others and exploitation of people and resources.  Generally these injustices are not a part of the lifestyle of hunters and gatherers.

59889This guy used to think that violence was a natural part of human nature and we  just have to live with it.  After reading about hunters and gatherers I am not so sure.  These people are generally known for being peaceful and non-violent.  One group, when threatened by some war-like neighbors just disappeared into the forest.
It would be interesting if an anthropologist would do a detailed study of this aspect of their lives.

Hunters and gathers must be expert psychologists as they have to teach their young to kill animals while remaining non violent in their human relationships.  There often appears to be a spiritual aspect to their hunting.  Apparently a lot of social control is with verbal tactics such as teasing or ridicule.

In contrast most civilized countries maintain standing armies, sometimes used for social control of populations and in some places it is acceptable for agents of the state to execute innocent people who happen to be in their way. Some people claim the right to force others to live by their values and morals and are often very successful at getting state support in the form of legislation.  Our civilizations are also very tolerant of psychological violence. In spite of all the feminist propaganda we hear, women are very skilled at this type of violence.  Violence is so pervasive in our societies that very few people get through their lives without experiencing some of it.

History tells us that so far all civilizations have failed although many people believe our own will last forever.  As so many civilizations have failed this is a major issue.  One theory is that previous civilizations have failed because they have depleted their topsoil.  If this is true we need to proceed with caution as a lot of our food supply is dependent upon adding chemicals to the soil.  We need to put a lot of effort into studying agriculture.  It is too important to leave to people who make their living from it.

This blogger believes the major threat to our way of life is that we have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources on the earths crust.  Yes, there are lots of resources left but cost of extracting them is such they are mostly useless unless we have some major technology breakthroughs.
In  contrast there is archeological evidence that the bushmen of the Kalahari desert have maintained their civilization for up to 200,000 years.  They did this by living hand to mouth, seldom  having more than a day or two of food on hand and not over exploiting resources.

A significant feature of hunting and gathering is that most decision-making is by individuals.  Leadership is low-key and individuals can easily move from one small group to another. The bushmen’s  time came to an end when their territory was taken over by farmers and herders with the help of modern technology such as boreholes to provide reliable water supplies.

It is not clear if there was a natural transition from hunting and gathering or if farming and herding developed independently.    What is significant is that the latter made for different social dynamics in that some people could make decisions that affected others.  As these other types of food provision involved food storage they also led to residence mostly in one location, more and more complex tools and a more material lifestyle.  This was probably the start of the decline into our uncivilized history.

Probably the most important of all freedoms is the right to make decisions according to our own values and morals. In our society this is a complex issue with many limits.
The first limitation, shared by hunters and gatherers, is the need to provide ourselves with food and shelter. We must spend some time on this although most hunters and gatherers devote far less time to this than we do. Anthropologists have found that a lot of them devote only 15 to 20 hours a week to this basic activity. The rest of the time they spend socializing, performing rituals, doing crafts or sleeping and being lazy.

The rest of the limits on freedom to make decisions follow from our economic organization often with religious sanctions. Modern technology and the use of oil in agriculture probably means we only need to work two or three hours a week but the work ethic requires us to work 40 to 60 hours a week. If one does not do this much work one is a deadbeat on not doing ones share. This is great for those people who want others to support their empires but not so great for the environment and the resource base and our right to decide for ourselves what we want to do.

Possession of money gives us freedom to make decisions but the way in which it is created is a limitation. Most of the money used in our exchange of goods and services is created when banks make loans in what is known as fractional reserve banking. This is a complex but easy to understand process that is fully explained in many places on the FunnyMoneyArtPowell-finalinternet including this weblog and the e-book by this writer, Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy. As money is created by bankers they determine who gets it and what projects are undertaken. Creating money with an income scheme and national exchange trading scheme as proposed in my book would mean a major transfer of decision-making power to individuals.

Another limit on our ability to make independent decisions is the extensive use of marketing techniques by major corporations. I have often thought the best psychological insights come from marketing people and they do not hesitate to use their knowledge to influence how people think and what they do. Sadly, we have got to the point where a lot of people consider exploitive marketing to be normal, legitimate and even desirable. Some major Canadian companies have recently made the news because of the pressures put on their sales people, like to sell expensive internet or phone services to people who will never use them.

It is amazing how easily so many people get hooked into agendas set by others. It is easy to avoid being influenced by the marketers; just avoid television and social media. It is also easy for me to say that as I left home before my parents bought a television.
Not only are hunters and gatherers known for their peacefulness, they are also known for their equality. If people are not trying to aquire lots of material things, then economic equality becomes natural.

In our own culture we are aware of increasing inequality as more people suffer from the falling economy but we do not know how to change things. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to have the same standard of living as everyone else. It is painful to see people homeless and having to rely on food banks.

This writer believes inequality could be corrected with an income scheme and a true market economy. One of the features of a market economy is that competition wipes out the profits that allow some people to become rich.

The books I have read say little about sexuality but it appears most hunters and gathers are casual and accepting. Nor do they appear to have the sexual problems which plague so many people in our societies. It could be that we have something to learn from them about sex .

The key to what we call civilization is the agricultural surplus which is the food production in excess of what the producer needs for his own survival. Generally hunters and gathers do not have an agricultural surplus because once they have enough food for a day or two they stop working knowing that more is easily available when they need it.

The agricultural surplus is a two-sided coin. It releases people from food production to do other things some of which are positive and some of which are destructive. It can be the start of the decline onto the slippery slope into uncivilized behaviors,
The agricultural surplus presents a people with two questions; what to do with it and who makes the decision. These questions open up opportunities for people whose personality is to tell others what to do. This writer believes each of us should have to right to decide how his/her share of the surplus should be used.

Some economists like to tell students consumers control the economy in their spending decisions. This is correct so long as we make the right decisions. Many people want to go off the grid and live the simple life in the bush but that is not easy to do. The people who create the money want the rest of us to work at their projects rather than our own.

We have good material standards of living because our economy has been labor intensive and the demand for bodies has allowed us to extract from the elite a nice portion of the agricultural surplus. As technology increases and robots do more and more of the labor we are losing our bargaining power. The rich get richer and more people become poor. Frightening and uncivilized.

There is a slight ray of hope in our two or multi party electoral system. Some politicians are realizing tha to get votes they have to allow voters some share of the agricultural surplus.

There are lots of anecdotal evidence that our economy is on a down trend. Lots of people are suffering and lots more are likely to suffer. There are many unknowns in the future and most of them are frightening. Our goal should be to minimize the suffering and maximize the enjoyment of living.

We are unlikely to ever get consensus on how to deal with this situation as many people have a strong vested interest in the status quo. However, if we do not try, there will be no progress.

I once heard an engineer say, “If it is working, it is not complex enough.” I was not impressed with his engineering and I do not want to apply his principle to economics. Let us keep it simple. The challenge is to get the best out of technology without the technologists telling us how we should live to meet their goals.

This post has focused on some of the negative features of our civilization. I want to continue to enjoy the positive things, like being able to write this weblog, but I also want to correct some of the injustices and uncivilized behaviours. Genius is 90 per cent plagiarism and we should look for good ideas wherever we can find them.
The hunting and gathering lifestyle appears to be a lot simpler than what we have and it also appears to be a lot more civilized. Let’s put the civil back in civilization.

Note: Once upon a time this blogger took a course in Economic Anthropology and since then I have frequently read books on anthropology and especially economic anthropology. Prior to writing this post I read the following books:

Affluence without Abundance: The disappearing world of the bushmen, By James Suzman, 2017.

Hunters and Gathers: History, Evolution and Social Change, Edited by Tim Ingold, David Riches and James Woodburn, 1988.
Politics and history in band societies, Edited byEleanor Leacock and Richard Lee, 1982

Advertisements

Equality – the impossible dream

Charlie can’t breathe

The most evil of all people are those who believe they can force their religion, beliefs, values and will upon others.  There are evil people in all nations, religions and cultures.

Inequality is an issue that will probably never go away because it has traditionally been the natural order and because its solution, perfect competition,  is something few people will be able to accept.

Inequality was a feature of Roman and Medieval societies and probably of most historical large-scale civilizations.  To find true equality one would probably have to look to small tribal groups where everybody knew each other and were probably related.  (I suspect these groups had relationship problems in that lots of people didn’t speak to each other.)

In historical civilizations the elite depended upon the work of the peasants for their food and luxuries.  The challenge was to confiscate as much of the agricultural surplus as possible while leaving enough for subsistence.  Probably a factor in the calculations was the supply of workers.  If there was a shortage, the workers were able to retain a little more than when there was a good supply.

Inequality has historically been so much the norm that the general prosperity following  the industrial revolution should be considered an aberration. One of the things which has happened since the start of the industrial revolution has been  the exploitation of energy and mineral resources found in the earth’s crust.  The result has been a lot of prosperity which had to be shared with most of the population because the prosperity depended upon the labor of the working people.  Once again supply of workers was  a concern and generally  there was a shortage – until recently.  With a limited supply of labor the elite had to tolerate sharing some of the wealth.

In historical times the agricultural surplus was probably taken with the use of force or the threat of its use.    Since the industrial revolution the elite has discovered a less messy way of getting the greater share – legislation which restricts competition and allows for profits.  If we had perfect competition there would be no profits, we would have equality and the one percent would be just like the rest of us.  Licensing, copyrights, patents, health and safety regulations and tariffs all work to restrict competition.  If we did not have copyright Bill Gates would be just another programmer and we would all be using super great software. Recent prosperity has been so great leaving some for the rest of us was not an issue.

Other ways in which  the elite exploit us are  by the work ethic and debt.  So long as we believe in the divine nature of work we will continue to produce the profits which the elite need to maintain their fortunes.  So long as our money system is based on debt we will be chained to our employers.

It may be the golden age of prosperity is coming to an end.  We still have lots of mineral and energy resources but the most easily accessible have been taken.  It now takes more energy and effort to get at what is left and this limits the potential for future growth.

With the end of growth and a surplus of workers we are ripe for a return to historical inequality.where the elites take for themselves most of the agricultural surplus and leave a minimum for everybody else.  The difference is that we now have technology to replace workers.  This guy does not want to think about the implications of this.

It is my understanding that in some parts of the United States some local level governments are getting a significant part of their revenues from petty  fines enforced by police.  This source of revenue falls heaviest on poor people.  The justice of this program is questionable. Another source of revenue is called civil forfeiture where authorities confiscate the proceeds of crime even if there has been no conviction.  Once again this has potential for abuse and raises justice questions.   I am sad to report that my home province of British Columbia uses this process.

I have to wonder if these developments are part of increasing inequality and a return to inequality enforced with force in that they have a lot of potential for abuse of poor people and involve police.

This writer is pessimistic about the future.  To increase equality we will probably have to increase competition and introduce an income scheme.  These are controversial concepts although they will never come into being if we don’t talk about them.  In the meantime,   probably the best way for individuals to deal with inequality is to become a part of the minority  and one does that by taking advantage of legislation which restricts competition.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Wealth, money and inequality in the twenty-first century

How much capital there is in the twenty-first century may not be relevent to our prosperity.  What is likely to be more relevant is the resource base and our capacity to create money.  Taxing the rich would be one, hardly original,  way to deal with inequality.  Another way would be to increase competition so that there are fewer profits to tax and to introduce a basic income scheme which would reduce the supply of workers.

These thoughts are prompted by all the hype about the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.  I must state I have not read the book.  For this post I have relied on several articles in The Economist.

As I understand it this guy has collected a lot of data which shows how inequality has been increasing.  One of the big criticisms has been that some of his data may be inaccurate.   So?   There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

One of my concerns is with the word wealth because I think it may be misleading.  The word wealth derives from the part of the definition of money which says money is a store of value.  But the store of value does not always hold.  Wealth can sometimes be lost a lot quicker than it can be earned.  Inflation, the failure of enterprises or government haircuts can very quickly rob people of their savings or wealth.  All of these have happened and are likely to continue.

Piketty says we have inequality because the return on capital tends to be higher than growth.  But  wealth may not be relevant for economic growth.  Much more important are the ability to create money (the availability of credit) and the availability of easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  It may be that people with some “wealth”  have easier access to the credit which is necessary for economic projects.  One of the reasons for the current economic downturn may be that we have consumed the most accessible energy and mineral resources.  What remains is difficult to extract.

A while age I enjoyed reading about the building of the pyramids because this was done without money.  The Egyptians may have stored some materials but most of the work was done “in real-time” without capital.  Our own economy may work in a similar way with money representing “real-time” purchasing power.  When one invests money one is transferring current purchasing power to somebody else.  The money supply or the supply of credit is more important than wealth or capital because what is needed is purchasing power to facilitate economic activity.  Purchasing power which has been transferred will not always be returned intact.  It can be reduced by enterprise failure, inflation or a government haircut.  Money or the supply of credit is created when the banks make loans.

Apparently a good part of this book is statistics to show the concentration of wealth in several industrial countries.  But inequality is a two-sided coin.  It may be that inequality is increasing because there is less income going to workers and this is because wages are falling from changes in the supply and demand for labor.  During the industrial revolution and the recent golden age of prosperity there has been a steady demand for workers and wages have risen.  With the recent improvements in technological productivity and the economic downturn the demand for workers has fallen and so have wages.

The rich are getting richer because they operate in fields where government legislation restricts competition and because they are good at working the system to exploit others.  During the golden age of prosperity when there was abundant production and wages were high this wasn’t a problem for the rest of us.  Now that the economy is on a down trend the inequalities are becoming more noticeable.

Piketty starts his analysis of inequality with the industrial revolution but I have it in my mind that inequality has been a feature of most large-scale civilizations through the millenia.  A longer-term analysis might give a  different perspective.  I suspect the a high degree of inequality is the norm and we have recently been through an abnormal period.

Piketty proposes to deal with inequality via taxation of the rich. Some other ideas might be to increase the amount of competition in the economy which would reduce profits or to introduce a universal basic income scheme which would work to decrease the supply of workers and thus bring up wages.

So far as I can see the main accomplishment of this book is to generate some economic hot air and to divert some “wealth” to its author.

Inequality: the buzzword and the norm

Gerald_G_Fairy_sitting_on_MoonIt appears the latest economic buzzword and current explanation for economic problems is inequality.

Historically inequality has been the norm for most large-scale societies.  Just think Roman Empire and Europe during  the Middle Ages.  Wherever societies have been large enough to have rulers who did not know all their subjects some people have used their strength to exploit others and most of the time the others were left just at a subsistence level.

Starting with the Industrial Revolution things started to change.  People became more efficient at extracting resources and making things which meant increasing prosperity.  A shortage of bodies in some parts of the world allowed more people to claim a share of that prosperity.  To some extent our income and standard of living is a function of the supply and demand for bodies.

It may be that this golden age of prosperity has not been experienced by all the people currently living on this planet and equality is still the norm for lots of places.

In the last few years things have been changing.  We have exploited the most easily accessible resources upon which our prosperity has been based and there are more and more people demanding a share of what we do have.

So there you have it.  We are returning to the norm where a few people are able to claim most of the available resources.  And some people will say we can overcome all economic problems if we can return to more equal economy.

Inequality through the ages

Another explanation for the economic crisis which is frequently being heard is income inequality.  Here’s a link to an interview with 2001 Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz who has just released a book on this theory.

The idea is that with inequality people at the bottom don’t have enough money to spend to keep the economy rolling while people at the top just don’t spend enough.

Another view is that people at the top  should be allowed to get rich because they use their money to invest in new projects and this will keep things going.

Take your pick.

However, inequality is not new.  Through the ages it has been a part of most if not all large civilizations.  Previously the elites used force to expropriate the economic surplus.  Now they use legislation that restricts competition to get their riches.

Probably the most equal of societies have been the small so-called primitive aboriginal groups.

The sharing of wealth between elites and the rest of us has been a relatively recent phenomena.  It is probably a function of the supply and demand for people and the increasing productivity which started with, or just before. the industrial revolution and has continued until just recently.

If and as the economic decline continues there will probably be even more inequality.

How to increase economic equality

Here’s another prescription for getting the economy back on track, this one from Robert B. Reich, the former secretary of labor, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.”

The economy won’t really bounce back until America’s surge toward inequality is reversed.

I’m not certain this would restore us to the golden age of prosperity but it would certainly ease the human pain of the downturn.

One way to deal with inequality would be to try to move the economy closer to the perfect competition ideal because in perfect competition there are no profits and therefore everyone would be equal economically.

Here are some things we could do. (yeah, right)

– Basically rescind all economic legislation most of which works to restrict competition so that some people can make profits.

– Do away with patent and copyright legislation

– Give subsidies to consumers rather than producers.

– End most licensing requirements.

%d bloggers like this: