Human Nature

In the Pursuit of Reason We Lose a Part of What Makes Us Human

Have we trained ourselves to praise a false idol?

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By Hunter Maats, Katie O’Brien

The human race is amazing. We have created the technology to process zettabytes of information and print in three dimensions. Paraplegics can walk again with the aid of robotic suits, and deaf toddlers can hear for the first time, thanks to cochlear implants—and we can watch it all on YouTube. Most unimaginably, we safely landed a probe on a comet that was traveling up to 80,000 miles per hour. Humans are closer than ever to mastery over the physical world. We have become experts at making the challenges in our lives, from illness to food supply to manual labor, less challenging.

And yet, riots erupt after the events in Ferguson, Missouri. ISIS gains territory in the Middle East and striking fear into hearts throughout the West. How is it that with all the advances we’ve made, we are no closer to solving the age-old issues: terrorism, poverty, racism, education, or the environment? In a time when we have more resources than ever that allow us to approach problems from a technical, scientific, purely rational standpoint, why does it feel like we are getting further away from solving the most human problems that face the human race?

Perhaps, in our excitement over our technological progress, we have trained ourselves to worship a false idol. We have gone so far in the direction of being obsessed with technology, robotics, big data—the cold, calculated, and rational— that we have forgotten that the most valuable asset we have in solving human problems is, in fact, our humanity.

This is not a recent development. Since the time of Plato, the West has worshipped reason. It is the ability to think critically that separates man from the beasts. Reason allowed Plato to philosophize, Pythagoras to perform his mathematics, and Aristotle to explore the precursors to science. Reason was considered to be pure, unsullied by our animal instincts. The natural implication, then, was that emotions were the enemy—base and dirty, coming from our most animal selves. Emotions like fear and shame could shatter the philosopher’s stoicism and turn him into a cringing wretch. Even celebrated emotions, such as love (be it romantic or filial), drew contempt for being “irrational.” With the Scientific Revolution, our reverence for reason has only grown. And today, we depend on computers and technology more than ever before, using them to reduce or eliminate what we call “human error.” Plato seems poised to emerge the victor.

The irony, though, is that our belief that science and emotionality can exist separately is no longer scientific at all. Since Plato’s time (and probably before) we have known that emotions can affect our decisions. But in the last few decades, science has shown exactly how our emotions work, what they do… and why trying to separate ourselves from them is a Sisyphean task. Our ability to think and our ability to feel are hard-wired together in our brain.

The outermost parts of our brains are responsible for high-order brain functions, including perception and abstract thinking; it’s how we can conceive of things like the internet without actually seeing them. But just because we have these sections of our brains doesn’t mean that our animal instincts have disappeared. Deep inside your brain is a structure called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh), which can automatically shut down your ability to think. From an evolutionary perspective, this is an impressive and essential capability; when our ancestors encountered a predator, they couldn’t afford to spend time being curious about the genus and species, or admiring the poisonous snake’s beautiful pattern. In that moment, the best response was to freeze and run. Emotion would automatically flood the attention, and critical thinking would go out the window. And while the modern world has thankfully reduced the frequency with which we encounter things that want to eat us, that fight-or-flight response is still in our brains. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I was so scared, I couldn’t think,” that person was telling the truth.

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Fear isn’t the only emotion that can hijack our thinking. Shame causes us to want to hide, anger makes the blood rush to our hands (ever hear of a “blind rage?”), and frustration, jealousy and other powerful emotions all have a neurological ability to mess with our thinking in a major way. Of course, we all have the ability to override our emotions—ask anyone who has felt road rage after being cut off, only to discover that it’s a frantic man driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. When we get a rational explanation, we can tell ourselves that the emotion isn’t necessary or valid, and it will dissipate. But in order to effect that kind of rational override, you first need to be aware of the emotion and what it’s doing. Without recognizing and respecting the power of our emotions, we are left at the mercy of them.

While the neuroscience is fascinating in itself, the ramifications of how we’ve lived without understanding emotions for all this time is the truly amazing part. In fact, by ignoring the power of emotions, we sabotage ourselves as early as our very first day of school. Everyone who has ever been a student remembers the experience of sitting in class next to the classmate whose hand shoots up for every answer. Why does that students just know it right away? What does that say about me? There is also the experience of sitting through an entire class and not “getting” any of what the teacher is saying. As we’ve all been trained to do, students in that situation look for a rational explanation, and they soon find it: the other students are naturally smart, and I am not. As tutors, we have spent over a decade working with countless students who have told us they were “just bad at math” or “would never get Shakespeare” or didn’t have “an ear for languages.” And as soon as they open their books, we can see exactly what the problem is. Their eyebrows raise, worry lines appear and, very often, their bodies pull away from the material. Given the chance, they would literally run away from their textbook. They believe they are destined to fail at these subjects, when in reality, they are simply afraid of those subjects, and their amygdalas have shut down their ability to learn. In other words, students’ feelings about school determine how they perform in school.

The easiest way to identify the power of emotions over the success of the learning process is in understanding what students mean when they say they “feel stupid.” We have heard that sentence time and time again, and although most of us think of stupid as an inherent trait, stupid is a feeling—the feeling of shame. In an embarrassing social situation, shame triggers us to hide our faces and leave the room. In school too, shame triggers us to avoid the source of our shame: our mistakes. Students take a test with a poor grade, wad it up, and bury it in the bottom of a backpack, never to be looked at again. The problem with this, of course, is that mistakes are exactly what we use to improve. Any expert in any field will tell you that systematically facing and fixing your mistakes is what it takes to reach the top. The rational course of action would be to take each bad test and fix the mistakes until they are guaranteed to never happen again. But students do not choose the rational course, because they are too busy feeling stupid.

We experience the emotions of school on a personal level, but we must consider what happens when that emotional approach to learning is cultural and systemic. Emotions trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy in the learning process. When you enjoy a subject, you are happy to spend more time working on it, which in turn leads to faster progress, which supports your idea that you are talented in that area. And when you feel stupid, the opposite happens. You avoid your mistakes, which means that you continually repeat them, and each time you get a disappointing grade, it confirms your “belief” that you are stupid. This cycle is the true danger of emotions, and it stems from a phenomenon called “naive realism.”

Naive realism is the human tendency to believe that what we feel about the world is how the world actually is. Our feelings about politics, religion, and especially ourselves do not feel like “feelings” at all; we tend to believe they are the actual, incontrovertible truth. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote that if he could “nominate one candidate for ‘biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,’ it would be naive realism.” In fact, as Haidt has shown, we don’t build our beliefs from facts. We start with how we feel about something, and then our mind races to find facts that might justify those conclusions. Students begin by feeling stupid, and then they gather data to support and justify that idea. “My mother said she was never good at math. It must be genetically passed on to me. In class, other kids understand right away, and I don’t. So it makes sense that I’m naturally bad at math. Math is a lost cause for me.” No geneticist would support these conclusions, but emotionally they make perfect sense to a teenager.

The irony is that for decades, many Western nations have addressed the educational crisis in an all-too-rational way. Debate focuses on the ratio of teachers to students, the number of laptops in each classroom, and the dollars being spent per student per year. And for decades, the numbers have not added up. We funnel more resources into our students, but we don’t see proportional results. Shouldn’t more teachers, dollars, and laptops lead to more academic achievement? The truth is that it won’t—not until we first learn to recognize and respect the role of emotions in learning. Plenty of students are given brand-new textbooks and never open them.

They are given iPads that they use not for research but for YouTube. Technology and resources are not enough.

While we throw rational solutions at the crisis, nations who have far lower GDPs have higher-performing students, as evidenced by the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores. It is becoming increasingly clear that students’ attitude toward and perspective on learning far outweighs any advantage that technology or resources can provide. In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba tells the incredible story of his childhood in Malawi; unable to afford school, he walked every day to the local library and taught himself out of books. Kamkwamba taught himself to build a wind turbine from junkyard parts, brought electricity to his town, and today, Kamkwamba has given a TED talk, appeared in Time magazine, and just graduated from Dartmouth College. Rationally speaking, more resources should mean more learning. But the truth is that learning is an unavoidably emotional process. Until students, parents, teachers and voters treat feelings seriously, there will be no serious educational change on a personal, national or international level.

School is where we first train ourselves to devalue our feelings and revere rational solutions, and we carry that trait into adulthood, where it quietly drives our politics. There was little room for the idea that feelings matter in the post-9/11 Pentagon. The nation had been attacked. Indeed, the Pentagon itself had been attacked. The solution was simple: kill or capture all the terrorists, and the problem would be solved. Since World War II, the view that all conflicts can be won with overwhelming firepower has been the core focus of US military strategy. The attacks on 9/11 were another Pearl Harbor. We were fighting a War on Terror and Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were all part of the Axis of Evil. America wanted this conflict to be another World War II, but the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were quickly turning into two more Vietnams. Fortunately, the Army had within its ranks a group of individuals who understand what America had done wrong in Vietnam.

The logic of war is that victory comes from killing as many of the enemy as possible, and to that end, our obsession with technology has historically driven Western military efforts. New bombers or cruise missiles or drones boost our morale, because they boost our brute power. That World War II-based logic is the precise logic that the United States applied in Vietnam; this time, however, the more firepower the U.S. put in, the worse the conflict became. The equation wasn’t working the way it was supposed to work. Nearly four decades later, in the documentary Fog of War, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would say the following:

“In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”

The one thing the U.S. military hadn’t factored into its calculations was the feelings of the Vietnamese people. As their family members were killed and their country was laid to waste, is it really a surprise that they increasingly turned against the American people and sided with the Viet Cong? A statistical approach to Vietnam said a high enemy death toll was the key to victory. An empathetic approach reveals the human truth: in a guerrilla war, minimizing death toll is one of the cornerstones of victory. This does not mean that the technology is not an essential part of the effort. But our obsession with technology cannot trump our focus on people.

Building on what we learned from Vietnam, the US military and its allies have moved from trying to kill as many of the bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan as possible, to trying to provide as much peace and security as possible for the vast majority of locals, whose priority is the safety and well-being of their families. The dividend of this new “hearts and minds” strategy was that several of Iraq’s Sunni tribes switched from fighting with Al Qaeda to fighting against them. Considering how the occupation was going, this “Sunni Awakening” as it is called is a truly staggering accomplishment. When it comes to conflicts like Vietnam and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, empathy is the most powerful tool a military can have.

This obsession with purely rational efficiency began in business, and so it is perhaps no surprise that numbers-only analysis, strict hierarchies, and the elimination of inefficiencies have become the cornerstones of the corporate world. While a rational, impersonal management style can certainly reduce costs, it comes at the expense of what corporations (and governments) desire more than anything else: innovation. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of Innovation, Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, had this to say:

“…The best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know— not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.”

Catmull’s emphasis on humility is striking and fits exactly with the vast body of research on innovation. Humility makes space for everyone to share their ideas. It allows for the collective intelligence of the group. On the other hand, hierarchical systems where CEOs expect their employees to do only what they’re told, where the government prescribes exactly what teachers must do, and where armies give soldiers on the ground no discretion leave room for the intelligence of only one person: the leader. Pixar has created an environment that uses emotional and psychological motivators for its employees in order to pursue their core principle: that two heads really are better than one. Whether you measure their success financially or based on how their stories move you, Pixar’s approach clearly works.

While the emotional motivators—the emphasis on shared humanity—is an intentional part of the corporate culture at Pixar, the power of embracing our humanity is already at work in subtler ways in our daily lives, creating tremendous opportunities. Nowhere is that clearer than in the modern spread of ideas. In the summer of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge used social networks to raise $100 million. This represents a 3500% increase in donations over the same time the previous year. While most fundraising drives have to be driven, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge drove itself. Many commentators have pointed to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a great example of the power of social media. However, it is worth remembering that the real engine behind social media is not Facebook or Twitter. It is the deeply human desire to be social, to share things of interest, to help out a good cause, to add to our prestige, and to do something fun and new. The success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (and of websites like Facebook and Twitter in general) is a tribute to what happens when we work with our humanity rather than against it.

Above all, working with our humanity requires letting go of our expectations of the things to which people “should” respond. In 1985, the state of Texas was spending about $20 million dollars per year cleaning up litter from its highways. Studies had shown that far and away, the biggest offenders were men aged between 18-35. Tim McClure (one of the ad agency people trying to solve the problem) described the people they were trying to reach as “bubbas in pickup trucks” who believed littering was a “God-given right.” This group of people didn’t like being told what to do—but they loved their home state. That is how the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign was born. Elderly, conservative government officials in charge of approving the message didn’t like it; they preferred messages like, “Keep America Beautiful.” (One of them even suggested adding a “please” in front of “Don’t Mess With Texas.”) The slogan’s creators politely refused. To have the right emotional impact with men 18-35, it needed to appeal to that ornery, Texas-loving mindset. Between 1986 and 1990, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign reduced highway littering by 72%. The slogan was still so popular a decade and a half later that when George W. Bush accepted the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, he used the phrase in his acceptance speech, making it internationally famous. “Don’t Mess With Texas” struck just the right emotional chord with Texan men. And striking the right emotional chord is what moves people and changes lives.

And so, it’s time we ask ourselves one final question: if emotion and reason are inextricably linked inside the human brain then what is the emotion of pure reason? In pursuit of pure reason, we have aspired to be cold, unfeeling, and detached from our fellow human beings. To achieve “pure reason” we have to choose to feel nothing for our fellow human beings and then we wonder why we cannot understand their behavior. We have robbed ourselves of empathy. So, as we head into era of Big Data, let us be excited about it, but let us be ever watchful that it is paired with an empathy that is at least as big. Emotionally-isolated experts who plan education without listening to teachers and students, military generals who approach their soldiers and local civilians with arrogance, and CEOs who have no room for the mistakes that create innovation will turn the philosopher’s dream of pure reason into a hellish nightmare.

The human race is amazing. We have an unbelievable power to innovate, to create, and to improve the world around us, and to solve the problems that stand in our way. But first, we need to accept that technology alone will not cause people to change. People cause people to change. We are not computers, and that should be a point of pride. It is time for us to take a fresh approach to solving the biggest issues in humanity, by starting from the core of that humanity itself.

23 October 2015

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  • To me, this article has the picture upside down.

    It is not technology that is the problem. Technology is neutral – it is what we do with it that counts.

    The greatest determinant of what we do is the value set we have.

    Sure we have genetic influences on behaviour, and cultural/mimetic influences, and the higher one’s levels of awareness the more important are the value sets one brings to decision making.

    Our society has (for the most part, to a good first order approximation) value sets based upon market values.

    Markets were great tools for allocating scarce resources.

    Markets require scarcity to function (in the more abstract sense, they require poverty).

    Markets cannot give a positive value to universal abundance.

    If you doubt that, consider oxygen in the air, arguably the single most important thing for every human being, yet of zero market value, due to its universal abundance (zero scarcity).

    Technology holds the promise of delivering universal abundance to everyone.

    This is a huge threat to market based values, and to classical conservatism.

    The article above reads almost as a conservative push against universal freedom, though in the guise of promoting emotion.

    Sure we have emotional systems.

    Sure they can be powerful.

    There are many tools used to control people, and ignorance has been the tool of choice for thousands of years.

    It remains true, that the bigger the lie, the more likely people are to believe it.

    The biggest lie of our modern era is that markets will deliver prosperity to all.

    They will not.

    They cannot.

    It is a mathematical and logical impossibility.

    We have the technical capacity to deliver abundance, security and prosperity to all, yet our dominant social valuation paradigm (the market exchange value of money) cannot support it.

    Humans are very complex entities.

    We have emotional systems.

    We have reason.

    We can be highly competitive in competitive environments, and we can be highly cooperative in cooperative environments.

    A deep understanding of evolution demonstrates that cooperation is a far more powerful force that competition, and both play important roles in the process of evolution. And it is clear that it is cooperation that is becoming exponentially more powerful over time.

    Axelrod demonstrated that all new levels of cooperative strategies require attendant strategies to prevent the cooperative being overrun by cheats.

    A strong case can be made that most of the finance sector, and much of our government and justice systems have been overrun by cheating strategies.

    Our educational systems seem largely to be based in acceptance and obedience, rather than in individuals freedom and exploration of possibility in a cooperative context.

    Most of our education systems are based in a very simple understanding of reality.

    I like David Snowden’s Cynefin framework for the management of complexity.

    It breaks systems into 4 arbitrary but useful classes – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.

    Simple systems have well defined boundaries, and essentially obey easily quantified rules, and appropriate classifications of response can be developed for every state of the system, and it makes sense to develop and follow “best practice” rules in such environments.

    Complicated systems have more relaxed boundary conditions with more variations on themes, individuals develop complex context sensitive knowledge from experience that for the most part they are not even aware of until the context arises. Such situations cannot be strictly controlled by rules, as individuals need sufficient freedom to use their expert knowledge to deliver optimal outcomes.

    Complex systems don’t have hard rules or boundaries, they are dispositional. They can respond in any way, but certain modes of response are more probable than others. One needs to probe such system, to sense small changes in disposition to action, and to reinforce those going the way you want, and to dampen down those heading in other directions.

    Chaotic system are not predictable, for any of a potentially infinite set of classes of mathematical and logical reasons. All one can do in the grips of such a system is to act, sense, respond – prediction is of no help – even in theory.

    Reality seems to contain large numbers of each class of systems, and living systems also contain large numbers of each class of systems.

    The idea that life is predictable, even in theory, belongs in the history books. It is not what a modern understanding of either complexity theory or quantum mechanics delivers.
    Some aspects are more predictable than other aspects, and some aspects are not at all predictable.

    Some people have a real problem accepting this reality, or taking sensible actions in complicated, complex or chaotic domains.

    Yes modern technology has both complex and chaotic aspects, and so does every sort of living system (and even non-living things like weather and climate).

    I agree with the final paragraph in a sense, in the sense that people will respond to the context in which they find themselves.

    If we use technology to supply a context of abundance, security and cooperation, then the vast majority of people will immediately respond appropriately and cooperatively.

    If we continue to use markets to deliver a context which is characterised by scarcity, insecurity, competition, uncertainty, and threat, then people will respond in appropriate aggressive and competitive fashion.

    We can use technology to deliver a context which promotes the more abstract and cooperative aspects of being human, or we can continue to use systems which favour older and lower (animal like) aspects of being.

    I am clearly for the use of technology to create an environment that promotes adoption of values that hold sapient life and individual liberty as the highest values.

    And all things are connected in the amazing reality we find ourselves in.
    What we do, what we value, does make a difference.

    I am very much pro technology if we use that technology for the benefit of all, and I am even more pro sapience, and pro liberty – for all – no exceptions.

    And once one accepts the notion of infinity, one is faced with the logical necessity of always being infinitely more ignorant than we are knowledgeable.
    It pays to stay as humble as possible, and to admit that all knowledge has something of a “best guess” aspect to it.

    • Derryl Hermanutz

      Excellent comment, Ted!
      Technology does not exist in a values-vacuum. It emerges within a culture. A culture is a set of beliefs, values and purposes (a worldview) that forms the logical and emotional foundations for a way of living here on this planet. The modern “global” culture is market capitalism, with its exclusively materialist values-system in which anything that cannot be bought and sold for a money price “has no value”. The way people feel cannot be bought and sold (though feelings are expertly manipulated to manufacture public opinions and make people buy stuff), so human feeling has no value. People are only valuable as producers and — if they have money to spend buying stuff that is sold at a profit — as consumers.

      People who produce neither economic value nor profits are useless eaters who have failed in the social Darwinist “competition for survival”. So, as you made clear in your comment, today’s dominant culture of market capitalism has no place for these ‘losers’ to live in this capitalist world.

      In 1848 JS Mill published Principles of Political Economy, and Marx/Engels published The Communist Manifesto. Both books were predicated on the observation that fossil-fueled industrialized mass production had solved the problem of economic scarcity. The future would be about distributing the cornucopia of economic abundance. Today we are drowning in “economic goods”, which fill our houses and storage units and Goodwill centers and garbage dumps. Corporate capitalism deliberately builds in obsolescence so we have to throw away almost new stuff and buy it again. All to maintain money profitability.

      Money is created out of nothing. The problem is that private commercial banks long ago captured a monopoly on the issuance and allocation of credit, which is by far the largest portion (95-97%) of any modern nation’s spendable, investible, earnable, savable money supply. Banks issue money as a for-profit business. Banks must get more money “out” of the economy, than the amount of money banks create and lend “into” the economy. Whic is arithmetically impossible, unless some other party is adding non-debt money into the equation. But no such party exists. Governments sell bonds at interest (debt) to banks that create credit-money (bank deposits) to purchase the new issues of bonds. Governments use bank-issued debt money just like the non-bank economy uses bank-issued debt-money.

      We live in a world of economic abundance that is saddled with a for-profit money system that artificially creates a scarcity of “money”. The banks’ monopoly of money issuance is the root cause of this mismatch between our highly productive value-adding industrial economic system, and our money issuing and allocation system. Money “distributes” purchasing power, to buy the abundant economic production. We do not have a problem of insufficient economic production. Global industry today suffers the phenomenon of vast overcapacity: more can be produced than can be sold to people who have money and who want to buy the stuff.

      We have a distribution problem, not a production problem. Yet the only solution to every financial debt-bedraggled woe is “more production” and “more efficient production”. Producing goods produces no “money”. Producers get money by “selling” their supply of products. Banks “create” ALL of the demand money. Central banks only create bank reserves (banking system money) which can support additional commercial bank lending to “the economy”. But unless creditworthy borrowers go into banks to borrow and spend new money, the transmission mechanism fails, and banks create no new spendable money.

      Central banks could buy zero interest perpetual bonds (effectively non-repayable ‘debt’), and governments could spend (or give) the newly created central bank money into their economies. This adds additional money into the equation, without adding even more additional debt-at-interest, which helps solve the negative sum arithmetic of the commercial bankers’ debt-money system. And it distributes purchasing power into the hands of people who want to buy the abundant outputs that are available but “unaffordable” to people who have no money to spend.

      This kind of accounting analysis and technically simple arithmetic solution to the Money Problem was been well understood at least since Irving Fisher in the 1930s. But the world is ruled by narrow self-interest, not by enlightened reason, and money-monopoly bankers exercise the Money Power. So socially and economically beneficial monetary reform has never been implemented, and anybody who tries is ignored, discredited and ruined, or worse. The evil old animal interests — short term mentality, myopic greed; lust for power, wealth and social status and privilege — still rule the world. Social evolution within mass society (“civilization”) seems to “select for” the ability to win competitions in a dominance hierarchy. So the most ruthless animals triumph, and our “culture” is based on animal dominance rather than humanist cooperation.

    • Swami Cat

      Ted, this comment applies to both your comments.

      I agree with many of your comments, but believe a friendly pushback on a few may be productive to the dialectic.

      Just to clarify, markets, and market based values were almost certainly essential to the technology and innovation necessary to transition from an era of scarcity to relative abundance. I think even Marx and Engels would agree to this.

      This role of markets isn’t just in the allocation of goods as in some kind of static economic model. It is primarily in driving innovation, defined as creating solutions to problems for ourselves or others. The institutions of markets, when functioning properly, channel competition into innovation — creating new or better products, services, efficiencies and processes to new consumers. Thus the dynamic of markets extends both the quality and quantity of the cooperative network (economic interactions are voluntary and cooperative in nature).

      The point is that markets, like science, evolution, sports and even politics, channel competition into the creation of technology and cooperation. Markets are an engine of technology, specifically including the technology which you suggest may someday take us to a non scarcity (problem free?) world. Perhaps, I guess this is possible. At current rates of an 8 fold increase in per capita prosperity each century (driven in part by said markets), within just a few hundred years we will on average all be richer than Gates. Certainly this will shift our values immensely,

      “And it does seem that our currently dominant exchange based (scarcity based) set of values now pose far more risks than they deliver in benefits.”

      I do not see this. Indeed, I would probably suggest that abandoning the “free market innovation machine” as economist William Baumol calls it, is itself one of the primary risks we face. Sure we need technology, but technology is a form of problem solving, and it is itself the product of systemic feedback processes institutionalized into science and markets. Science and markets when properly functioning are constructive arms races. They are Red Queen processes where competitors are forced via an invisible hand to innovate and serve others better and better each year just to stay in place.

      • Hi Swami Cat,
        I’m all for dialectic, and challenge, and I tend to the Feynmanesque of putting out the challenge and see what happens.

        I agree and acknowledge that markets have played a valuable role in our past.

        The problem lies not in our past but in our future.

        The real dilemma we face is the transition from relative abundance to a near approximation of absolute abundance.

        There are many problems in the transition.
        Most of our processes now are optimised for profit, and not necessarily for log term human benefit.
        The doubling time on price performance on computation is now around ten months, and reducing (it is a double exponential).
        We do, right now, have the technical capacity to automate most of the processes of production, and free most individuals to do whatever they responsibly choose – requiring only a half day a week for socially necessary activities from most people.

        We have the technical capacity to do that today.
        But doing that would break the economic system.

        When you can produce any good at close to zero marginal cost of production, the cost of that good drops to the point that the greatest cost is the transaction cost (of time).
        The marginal cost of production of anything digital is, to a good first order approximation, zero.

        The idea that it is profit that drives innovation is only true in a certain domains of relatively simple systems. When one enters domains of complicated, complex of chaotic systems, then market pressures actually lead to decreases in innovation (a well documented fact of psychology – pressure narrows focus and reduces creative innovation).

        What you say about red queen processes and 8 fold increase in wealth per century are true in a classical economic sense, but not in an information or technology sense.
        Information and technology are on a double exponential, that is already less than a year.
        The impact on real goods is tiny at present, that technology is still in its infancy, and it is doubling in capacity every 10 months. If one is looking for signals in a noisy environment, and one can only detect a signal once it hits 1%, then the time from detection of the signal to 100% is 7 doublings or about 6 years currently (and reducing).

        Everything that comes out of this realm are essentially “Black Swan” events to those working with linear models.

        While it is true that very few have any experience of a close approximation to liberty, and most individuals today live in quite constrained realities (defined by the implicit assumptions they do not question, in all aspects of being, culture, language, paradigms, abstractions), real liberty is coming,and with it diversity and chaos in the mathematical sense.

        Very few have yet seriously questioned all the assumptions of the past.

        In an information theoretical sense, all of our feelings, our deep likes and dislikes, many of the aspects of the function of major parts of our brains and the chemical function of our brains and sense organs can be thought of as information systems optimised over evolutionary time.
        We are changing faster that those systems can respond.
        Much of how we think and feel is no longer appropriate to our circumstance.

        Same goes for most of the cultural constructs within which we find ourselves.

        If one adopts values of individual life and individual liberty, applied universally within a cooperative context, then market based systems pose an exponentially increasing set of risks (to both life and liberty).

        Most people still think using linear intuition – it worked well for our ancestors in most situations.
        It doesn’t work well with exponentials.

        We have the potential to deliver universal security and freedom to a degree beyond the imagining of most, and market based thinking, with its need for exchange is, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, the single greatest impediment to achieving such a future.

        Anything that is universally abundant has no market value.

        Markets require asymmetric distribution to function.
        Hence the corporate push through vehicles like the TPPA to extend intellectual property law – which is in practice a creation of artificial scarcity, where none need exist. It is a ban on the free exchange of information.

        One can make a valid economic case for the IP laws that last one technology generation, which is now about two years. Anything more than that is entirely motivated by the greed aspect of profit.
        It is, in reality, corporate imposed poverty for the masses.

        And I work in the IP business. I have owned and operated a software business for 29 years. I speak from practical experience, as well as theoretical understandings.

        And economic interactions are not necessarily voluntary or cooperative in nature.

        People do not have a choice about eating or not.
        I can buy junk food has a high risk of causing cancer quite cheaply, but buying fresh healthy food with a low risk of toxins from weed and pest killing chemicals is very expensive.

        The IP law around GE seeds is insane.
        Non-GE corn farmers who have their crops cross pollinated from neighbouring GE crops have to pay the GE patent holder, rather than the GE farmer having to pay for contamination.
        There are many such insanities in the system, they multiply daily.

        People who no longer live on their own land and grow their own food, do not have the option of not engaging in the market.
        They must buy food to survive.
        They must buy energy to survive.
        If they don’t have work, they don’t eat.

        I’m one of the lucky ones.
        I have land, I have automated systems growing food organically, I have income. I need only work a couple of hours a week.
        I am very much the exception.
        Most people I know work long hours simply to feed and house their families.

        I see the distress of those people.
        I see how much they hate the system that promises so much and denies them all but the most basics, demanding most of their waking hours in return.

        It is an insane system.

        We have the ability to deliver to all, yet most experience what is essentially poverty in a time when we have the technical ability to deliver abundance.

        The problems are not technical.
        The problems are as Mark Twain is purported to have said “It aint what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, It’s what we know for sure that just aint so.” That is applicable on so many different levels to all levels of our economic, social and political systems.

        Human beings are fundamentally cooperative (over 95% of them) if presented with a cooperative context.

        Our current systems are not cooperative.

        They are highly competitive and exploitive, and almost everyone knows it.

        The emperor (markets) has no clothes!

        • Swami Cat

          “We do, right now, have the technical capacity to automate most of the processes of production, and free most individuals to do whatever they responsibly choose – requiring only a half day a week for socially necessary activities from most people.
          We have the technical capacity to do that today.
          But doing that would break the economic system.”

          No we don’t. We may in a generation or two due to marginal cost issues you more correctly point out. But not today. And if we ever hope to get there, we need to tap into the innovation process taking us there.

          “The idea that it is profit that drives innovation is only true in a certain domains of relatively simple systems. When one enters domains of complicated, complex of chaotic systems, then market pressures actually lead to decreases in innovation (a well documented fact of psychology – pressure narrows focus and reduces creative innovation).”

          Poppycock. The market is one of the most complex and chaotic systems ever to evolve, and it works as such;

          Institutions are set up or evolve (property, contracts, rule of law, prohibitions on direct harm and restrictions of freedom or constructive competition) so that the best way to solve problems for yourself is to specialize and integrate your efforts with others to solve the needs of others (often referred to as consumers).

          Profit is a measure or price signal which reveals the value of the service provided but also acts as a signal to potential competitors. Because there is a degree of freedom of entrance and exit in the creation of goods and services, and because consumers try to optimize their value from their purchases, producers must compete to realize profit. This leads to innovation in products, services, quality, efficiency, distribution and delivery. Markets thus become complex adaptive systems which generate innovation and growth. And as the economist Baumol has documented, it is the only economic system which routinely delivers innovation and growth.

          There is thus a red queen effect, producers innovate and pursue growth and profit as competitors do the same. It is a constructive competition to cooperate better with others. The result is the economy around you. We are more prosperous than at any time ever, and by a long shot. Are you unfamiliar with global levels of wellbeing or are you just not connecting the dots?
          Armchair psychology comments add nothing to the discussion. There is no area of large scale cultural advancement which does not tap into the driving force of constructive competition. Sports. Politics. Economics. Science. Every problem solving system depends upon variation and selection, which is in effect a process of competition. My guess is you are simply unfamiliar with the paradigm of CONSTRUCTIVE COMPETITION.

          “If one adopts values of individual life and individual liberty, applied universally within a cooperative context, then market based systems pose an exponentially increasing set of risks (to both life and liberty).”

          Care to elaborate? Please do stick to the topic. No more random rambling on GE or whatever. What are these existential threats? You are leaving something unsaid.

          “Our current systems are not cooperative. They are highly competitive and exploitive, and almost everyone knows it. The emperor (markets) has no clothes!”

          Absurd. Compared to any time in history or to any other species, humans living today are at the pinnacle of cooperation. We now have global levels of cooperation (and constructive competition) involving billions of people serving each other in interdependent ways. That is exactly why we are as prosperous, peaceful, knowledgeable and technologically advanced as we are (granted it is a complex self amplifying system and the results are causes and vice versa).

          How is it that you redefine the pinnacle of evolutionary (3.8 billion years) and cultural cooperation and redefine it as “exploitative”?

          Are you aware of any era in history where people cooperated better than now? Are you aware of any species of non relatives which has been more successful at cooperating at such levels in scope and complexity? I didn’t think so.

          You do seem to have a point about “everyone knows it” This confusion on the current state of humanity seems to be a common paradigm. Kind of a shared illusion. Virtually every article in this new Journal seems to assume they can say “life sucks now” so let’s make it better by reversing everything and doing X instead. First assumption which needs to be checked is whether life does or does not suck compared to any other time.

          Evonomics, the journal for people in denial of human progress and prosperity.

          • robertmkadar

            “Evonomics, the journal for people in denial of human progress and prosperity.”

            This is childish. Swami, you’ve been warned. Also, please change your writing tone in your responses. Name-calling is not fair game.

          • Hi Swami Cat,

            I’ve been in the software game for over 40 years, and done a lot of other things at the same time.

            I knew poverty as a child, I certainly appreciate many of the material aspects of the wealth I enjoy. I both worked hard and got lucky – one seems to need a bit of both in this life.

            I am not in the “life sucks” class.
            I am actually more optimistic than at any point in the past, and I am not unconscious of the risks that exist.

            It seems to me that we have a very good chance of creating a system that universally supports people to do and be whatever they responsibly choose, where responsibility involves taking reasonable practical steps to reduce the risks ones actions (or inaction) poses to the life and liberty of others. And for many, at least initially, that may occur as some sort of rule based framework, and for a larger number it wont.

            I don’t know your background Swami Cat, so don’t know where to begin. And I am confident, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that we have the technical capacity, right now, to deliver an abundance of good food (fresh fruits and vegetables), secure housing and clothing, communications, education, transport and healthcare to every person on the planet. The only thing preventing it is the incentive structures derived from market values that deliver the legal, cultural and political realities that we find ourselves in.

            I have intentionally taken a very broad interest, in many different domains, and attended the 25th Foresight conference in Palo Alto 4 years ago as one example. So make reasonable efforts (several hours reading most days) to keep myself reasonably well informed of developments in many domains.

            There is a sense in which most of what you say is true, and for all that truth, it missed the deeper truth (in a probabilistic sense of truth) below it.
            Yes there can be constructive competition, and there can also be destructive competition.

            Within cooperative entities (at all levels) unrestrained consumption of resources by some subset of the cooperative at cost to the whole, is the definition of cancer.
            Growth, in and of itself, is not necessarily beneficial to the whole.

            And I am all for growth and technology and expanding our capabilities and the wealth and security available from that. And it is clear to me, from a deep study of the incentive structures, that market based systems have reached the point that they now pose at least as much risk as they deliver in value.

            And yes they are complex and chaotic, and all of that.
            And there is another level in which one can look at the incentive structures (from a systems perspective) that give rise to the incentive structures of the market (a sort of double differential, an abstract of an abstract).

            There are many existential risks.
            If you are interested, in being specific, take a look at http://www.lifeboat,org or at some I have in my much older site .
            Markets drive hard for short term profit, and have very high discount rates on long term risk.
            It is easy for those with money to buy those willing to argue any case for enough money. There are many such examples.

            Cancer is one of the greatest examples.
            My own battle with terminal cancer is interesting. I just went where the evidence and the logic took me. I cured an incurable cancer, basically with diet and lifestyle change. I’ve been a strict vegan for over 5 years, having been largely a carnivore for 55 years prior to that. The link between animal products and cancer rates is undeniable. The link between vitamin C and immune function is undeniable. A big part of what our immune systems have evolved to do is fight caner. No 100% guarantees, and some very strong probabilities.
            But no profit in something so cheap as vitamin C (and for C to be effective, it needs all the requisite cofactors, particularly B group and zinc, and effectively all the vitamins and minerals – at some point, each can become the rate limiting step in the chain of production – and vitamin C can be used in huge quantities by an immune system operating at full capacity – 100g or more per day).
            So lots of half truths and deliberate deceptions out there all in the name of profit. There are thousands of examples where profit for a subset is not in the interests of the majority.
            And one does need to have evidential tests, and reasonableness; and it is very difficult for individuals to take on corporate profit machines.

            And not all corporations are dangerous, and some are. Currently the balance of probabilities is definitely on the side of profit, rather than erring towards the long term interests of the individuals within the system.

            And it is really difficult.
            One of the many “hats” I wear is chairing a joint committee of our regional and district councils charged with developing water management strategies that the regional and local planners can turning into planning rules.
            I find about half my energy going into educating planners immersed in rule based systems about the limits of rule based systems when dealing with complex systems.
            Having to find a balance between market needs, recreational needs, traditional values, geological processes, biodiversity and conservation needs, irrigation, power generation, etc.
            It is not easy.
            It is not simple.
            It is, by definition, really complex.
            And pretending that markets have some magic answer, some unerring “invisible hand” is a nonsense.
            Certainly, there are some things that markets do very well, in certain contexts, and they have had huge historical utility.

            And markets cannot deal meaningfully with universal abundance of anything, it is out of scope – reduced to zero value by the market’s requirement for scarcity.

            And we can now deliver universal abundance of a large and growing set of goods and services.

            The only reason we do not, is the constraints of exchange based thinking.

            And sure, there are many positive things that have happened.
            I am not in any way denying those.
            And there are many things that markets do well.

            And there are some things, an exponentially growing class of things involving universal abundance, that markets cannot deal with in a reasonable fashion.

            We could be doubling wealth at roughly the scale of yearly, instead of restricting growth to 2.12% to give a 33 year doubling time and an 8 fold increase every century.

            The needs of markets and capital are now major constraints, at many different levels.

          • Swami Cat

            It seems to me that we have a very good chance of creating a system that universally supports people to do and be whatever they responsibly choose, where responsibility involves taking reasonable practical steps to reduce the risks ones actions (or inaction) poses to the life and liberty of others.

            Historical facts:
            1) since the advent of humanity (and especially since the advent of agriculture), lifespans were about forty years, childhood mortality was over a third, disease was rampant, pain was incurable, dentistry involved rocks and string, people lived among their own waste, violence and murder rates were one or two orders of magnitude higher than today, travel was expensive, dangerous slow, and the average person lived off the equivalent of two to four dollars per day. The average person was also illiterate and unfree.

            2). About 250 years ago a Moral philosopher by the name of Adam Smith presented and popularized a novel way of thinking about the world. The logic was that via proper institutional settings, competition could be channeled into constructive directions. The mechanism involves property conventions, contract enforcement and an impartial rule of law. Due to the logic of division of labor and exchange, it is possible to benefit oneself more by specializing in a narrow but deeper field of expertise, and these divided tasks can then be integrated with other specialists to deliver a superior range, depth and quality of goods and services than generalists can provide for themselves. The process works via voluntary cooperation embedded within a context of competing specialist producers.

            Every voluntary interaction is by definition expected to be positive sum between the participants, thus every interaction is expected on net to enhance human prosperity (externalities and public goods excepted).

            Within this system, PROFIT is both the incentive for the producer to optimize their specialization and production and to eliminate waste and inefficiency. It is also a signal to competitors of opportunity. Everyone chases profit, thus driving profit levels down toward a risk adjusted level of zero. To avoid this, producers enter an arms race of innovation on new products, improvements in design, production and distribution, expansions in markets etc. Free markets generate novelty, innovation and problem solving for fellow humans.

            All prior economic systems DID NOT generate innovation on a routine basis as documented by Baumol. It was haphazard at best and often actively squelched in practice (expropriation, bureaucratic intervention, resistance to change due to separation of the risks from reward, cartels, monopolies, and the tendency of elites and incumbents to resist any and all change).

            3). Since the publication of the Wealth of Nations, and in part due to the expansion in paradigms which it voiced, humanity has emerged out of the Malthusian world described in 1. Markets, science and open access political institutions together have allowed us to become between 30 and 100 times as well off. We are seeing living standards increase at a global rate of around 2% per year or an 8X increase per century. Although markets are clearly necessary, they are not sufficient, and those not participating in markets tend to miss much of the benefits and growth (China until last generation, Cuba, NK, Africa)

            In just the last 35 years, we have progressed from around 50% “extreme poverty” (defined as earning less than $1.90 per day) to less than 10% today. In the last generation we saw almost one billion people rise out of severe poverty worldwide. This was not in spite of markets, it was in a critical way due to markets.

            4). At 2% growth rates, worldwide incomes will increase eightfold in the next century if the trend continues. This will make average global prosperity above the average today for the US. Thus we are on pace to eliminate poverty and extreme insecurity.

            Markets are improving lives and are improving them at an increasing pace. The theory matches reality.

            For you to present the SOLUTION, which is clearly working better now than ever, as the PROBLEM is perverse, to say the least.

            “I don’t know your background Swami Cat, so don’t know where to begin.”

            I am a retired entrepreneur. Products and services which I created, produced and distributed have enriched the lives of tens of millions of families in an important product category.

            “And I am confident, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that we have the technical capacity, right now, to deliver an abundance of good food (fresh fruits and vegetables), secure housing and clothing, communications, education, transport and healthcare to every person on the planet. The only thing preventing it is the incentive structures derived from market values that deliver the legal, cultural and political realities that we find ourselves in.”

            Half right. Markets, science and open access political systems are the three complex adaptive problem solving systems which together are responsible for the human progress and prosperity. Each is necessary. These have created sufficient food, shelter and education wherever they are allowed to flourish.

            Where they are not allowed to flourish, often based upon the folly of central planners who are “confident beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that they will improve the lives of people”, the people are still impoverished. They, like you, viewed the problem through an oversimplified lens of distribution rather than one of value creation and innovative problem solving. They effectively cooked the Golden Goose and wondered why they were so poor. When they learn there lesson and reintroduce the innovation machine inherent in markets (as well as science btw), growth flourishes again. This has been proven dozens of times.

            “Yes there can be constructive competition, and there can also be destructive competition.”

            Exactly! The key is to have institutions which channel competition into the service of cooperation. Once you grok this concept, markets and science and the dialectic process all snap into place. Constructive competition is the key to the continuous process (arms race) of problem solving which advances the human condition. Kill this off, and you kill off the feedback process of innovation and replication. Doing so would threaten the lives of billions of people and would damage the livelihoods of all of us.

            I am sorry, billions of lives is simply too high of a risk to place on your confidence, especially since your views contradict any reasonable reading of history.

            “Within cooperative entities (at all levels) unrestrained consumption of resources by some subset of the cooperative at cost to the whole, is the definition of cancer. Growth, in and of itself, is not necessarily beneficial to the whole.”

            Right. And markets work by definition by channeling selfish interests into the fulfillment of desires of others. To make a zillion dollars in a properly functioning market I would need to solve a huge number of really important problems for other people. I would thus have to CREATE value for others and then cooperatively split that value via a process of voluntary exchange (w/w). The pie enlarges (our pie is hundreds of times larger and tastier now than 250 years ago) and the creator and consumer both benefit. To consume resources, you must create the resource and do so in a positive sum way. Gates, Jobs and Walton became rich making us better off. They baked more pies for humanity and sold them at a profit in order to buy pies made by someone else in a self amplifying virtuous cycle. This isn’t a cancer, and if you think it is you are admitting to a zero sum, pre market mentality.

            “And I am all for growth and technology and expanding our capabilities and the wealth and security available from that. And it is clear to me, from a deep study of the incentive structures, that market based systems have reached the point that they now pose at least as much risk as they deliver in value.”

            You keep saying this without any proper elaboration. Please refute my history or my interpretation of markets. Absent this you seem to be saying let us take what works and is seemingly working better at a faster rate now than ever and kill it off. This sounds absurd.

            Note this journal is about taking economics to an even higher level, a next stage. I am fine with exploring this, and I agree with many of the more insightful articles and prescriptions.

            “So lots of half truths and deliberate deceptions out there all in the name of profit. There are thousands of examples where profit for a subset is not in the interests of the majority.”

            Fraud and deception are the equivalent of cheating in sports. A sport is not defined by cheating, this is a factor of human nature and is by definition a violation of the rules. No system is perfect, or can be, however you cannot criticize a system based upon violations of said system, especially absent comparisons to other systems. But YES, to your final point, markets can’t solve all problems. That is why there are other problem solving systems and domains. I don’t argue for using markets for everything, we still need math, science, politics, logic, etc as other domains.

            And pretending that markets have some magic answer, some unerring “invisible hand” is a nonsense.
            Certainly, there are some things that markets do very well, in certain contexts, and they have had huge historical utility.
            And markets cannot deal meaningfully with universal abundance of anything, it is out of scope – reduced to zero value by the market’s requirement for scarcity.

            If you think the invisible hand metaphor involves magic, then you are simply admitting the rationale is beyond your grasp. Sorry. You do not get it. The invisible hand is a pre-economic speak metaphor for a positive externality and/or spillover benefit.

            If we ever have an elimination of all scarcity (something I asked you to prove is possible today which you have not answered) then I agree markets will no longer be necessary. They will thus whither away,

          • Swami Cat

            Sorry the first paragraph is a quote as is the third to the last. My edit function doesn’t work on iPad.

          • Hi Swami Cat

            I agree and acknowledge most of your points 1-4. I have always been very clear in stating that in situations of real scarcity, markets are valuable tools, and the myth of money serves a very useful purpose.
            No argument.

            That is not what I am talking about.

            And there are some of your conclusions that are not supported.
            As my old stats lecturer drummed into to me, correlation does not imply causation, and it is a good place to start looking for causal mechanisms.

            One can make a very strong case that technical innovation is much more a function of freedom, than it is of markets. And in an age of real scarcity, then markets are, as you accurately describe, a great aid to delivering options to free individuals.

            I do seriously question your implication in 2 that all market transactions are voluntary. There are often huge asymmetries in consequence vs time in respect of transactions. A worker with no reserves has to work or starve, so long as there are more workers than work, the owner of capital need only pay just enough to avoid starvation. I see a lot of that today. I’ve seen a lot of it over the last 50 years. It seems to have been a common feature since time immemorial.

            I had a taste of working for wages in my youth, and decided it wasn’t a path I was interested in following, so have been largely self employed, or worked in a consulting capacity, for most of the last 40 years.

            Markets have for the most part been kind to me.

            And most of what I have done has been in the area of systems design, systems optimisation, and systems support – legislation, property rights, business systems, political systems, manufacturing, service delivery, computer systems (all levels of the ISO model).

            It seems clear that it is freedom, rather than markets, that delivers innovation and problem solving.
            And certainly, in the simpler domains of skills of dexterity, competition does deliver increases in output.
            However, in the more complex domains, of creative thinking, the psychological literature very clearly demonstrates that competition reduces creativity.
            It is freedom, and freedom alone (without the competitive market aspect) that delivers real intellectual creativity.

            Markets have been around for thousands of years.

            What distinguishes life today is the dominance of market values in society.

            What I am saying, is that we are now constrained in our thinking by concerns for the market, rather than concerns for individual welfare and individual freedom.

            The concept “free market” has become equivalent to “freedom” in the minds of many.

            They are not the same.

            I am not suggesting that we go to any sort of central control.
            Quite the opposite.

            I am stating very clearly that the greatest security possible for all individuals comes from creating automated and distributed means of production that deliver abundant goods and services to every individual, on an as required basis.
            About as far as one can get from central planning and central control.

            Completely individualised production systems.

            I am quite explicit about my values.
            1/ Sapient life.
            2/ Freedom of sapient individuals.
            All other concerns are derivative from these.
            Reasonable care for the environment that supports us all, etc.

            I am in a dialectic process with you.

            I am stating quite clearly that markets, as a valuation framework, cannot give a positive value to any universal abundance.

            We have the technical capacity to deliver universal abundance of an expanding set of goods and services.

            Market based thinking, market based values, must always contain incentives to prevent or destroy any such emerging universal abundance.

            I acknowledge all of the historical utility of markets that you describe.
            And I assert that this single aspect of markets now poses significant risk.

            Most digital technologies are now on exponentials that are roughly yearly doublings (a little under in some cases, a little over in others).

            We are currently in the first generations of digital manipulation of physical objects – 3D printers. Little more that kids toys at present, and that will change, rapidly.

            We now have self driving vehicles.

            Watson won Jeopardy.

            Things are changing – very rapidly.

            Markets are reaching the end of their social utility.

            If they cannot deliver a positive value for universal abundance, then they are actively working to keep people in poverty.

            Current digital systems growth has a logarithmic growth factor over 30 times that of the economic system.

            Everything is going to change – big time!!!

            How we manage the transition is the big question.

            I know very well what Bill Gates did. He got lucky, being in the right place at the right time, made a few smart moves, and managed to stay one step ahead of the competition. He leased an operating system to IBM for their PC that he didn’t even own, then he went and bought one off a Canadian guy. You might call it savvy business, or a bit of luck, and it was almost certainly both. He liked playing that game, he was good at it.

            I was playing with computers at the same time. Didn’t make anything like the money Bill did, and I did OK.

            Automation is rapidly approaching the point that it will put people out of work faster than they can retrain.
            Wealth is being concentrated into ever fewer hands.

            Median income, inflation adjusted, has gone down in this country over the last 20 years, though a small group at the peak of the distribution have become very wealthy.

            That is what happens.

            Of course I understood that the “invisible hand” was metaphor.

            What I see, in this country, is values of the market dominating over values of human life and liberty.

            If markets values dominate over human values, then an ever expanding set of people will be driven back into poverty as automation eliminates the middle class.
            The math is unavoidable.

            Other paths are possible.

            Just requires awareness, and choice.

            Our political and legal systems are dominated by money.

            Money rules.
            There are other systems, and they are all subservient to money (to a good first order approximation).

          • Swami Cat

            We will need to disagree on the role of competition to drive novelty, innovation, creativity and even cooperation. I have studied evolution, history, economics, sports, science and to a lesser extent politics and I find competition is a driving force in all of these. Indeed, absent constructive competition (a subspecies of competition) they tend to stagnate and deteriorate. I believe what confuses most people is that first they see cooperation and competition as strict opposites, and they fail to see that constructive and destructive versions of both exist, and that competition can be channeled in support of cooperation (you can compete to cooperate). I am familiar with the psychology of stress, and agree that too much stress is counterproductive, but that isn’t the issue as competition does not require excessive stress)

            I am well aware of correlation/causation, and have extensive empirical support and theoretical justification for my beliefs on both markets and competition. Technology does not just emerge out of freedom, though freedom is essential. The actual spectrum is as follows:

            Worst case: win/lose dynamic which destroys net value with restrictions on freedom
            Bad case: restrictions on freedom OR zero sum value destruction
            Better case: freedom and protection against zero sum activity
            Best case: self amplifying systemic requirement that to win you must add value to others and at an increasing Red Queen arms race level.

            The worst case destroys value and leads to the world of 10,000 BC to 1750 AD.
            The best case describes the modern breakthrough which led to human progress

            The best case describes markets, science, democracy, sports and other systems where excellence and problem solving self amplify.

            I do agree that it is possible that markets and science will lead to a post scarcity world. Perhaps in our lifetimes. Probably not though.

            Thanks for the discussion. I am off!

          • Pity to lose you Swami Cat – just when things were getting interesting!

            I have been a student of the many levels and subtleties of evolution for half a century.

            Competition certainly has an important role in evolution.

            And when one looks at the levels of complexity emergent in evolved systems, it is clear that cooperation plays a very important role in the process also.

            It is a good first order approximation to characterise all major advances in levels of complexity as the emergence of new levels of cooperation. And Axelrod showed clearly that raw cooperation is unstable, and vulnerable to cheating, and requires attendant strategies to prevent cheats (at all levels).

            Yes certainly, there is always a role for competition.
            I enjoy competition as much as anyone else, particularly on the golf course.

            And at the higher levels, it is cooperation that takes on an exponentially increasing importance in the systems.

            It is fine to have competition in markets, provided that there is a genuine sharing of the benefits of such competition.
            The last 30 years is rather light on the genuine sharing (cooperative aspect).
            What we see, in practice, over that period, is an erosion of the “middle class” and an increasing concentration of wealth at the apex of the wealth pyramid.

            I am not proposing that wealth be shared evenly.
            I am all for diversity.
            And I am also clear that to be stable, systems require a level of cooperation that ensures a reasonable level of freedom for all.

            I am perfectly happy that some have many orders of magnitude more that the minimum, provided that the minimum is a standard of freedom that all would consider reasonable – security of person, guarantees of food and shelter, access to education, reasonable freedom and means to travel, freedom to engage with anyone on any project that is not unreasonably dangerous to the life or liberty of anyone else (and an open means of making such determinations), free access to education, communication and information.

            These are reasonable minima in a cooperative system.
            It is the nutrients supplied to every cell in our body.
            Cells in our body that compete for resources to the point that other cells cannot function are by definition cancerous.

            By all means, any individual can be as high functioning as they wish, but not at the expense of a reasonable minimum to everyone else.

            This is what I mean when I say that the focus of our society is out of balance.

            Our society is focused almost exclusively on the competitive aspects of markets, and has lost focus on the cooperative aspects of being human.
            That is a definition of a cancerous tumour.

            Sure, we need a certain element of competition, and that must exist within a larger cooperative context.

            I play golf at a small country club. We cooperate in many ways, via working bees and general course maintenance, to keep the cost of membership down, and the quality of the course as high as possible.
            Most people rate our course very highly.
            We have only one paid greenkeeper.
            Many in the club put a lot of cooperative effort into making it a great course.

            Without that high level cooperation, the competitive experience of playing golf would be greatly diminished.

            Sure, there will always be places for competition at all levels, and at the highest levels of all aspects we require cooperation, if there is to be any real security.

            We need to see much more of that cooperation explicitly extended to all levels of humanity and to all sapience.
            The current focus on money and markets to the exclusion of individuals is not safe for anyone – not really.

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    Aristotle understood emotion. A core feature of his eudaimonic ethics is the education of the emotions: learning how to feel the appropriate intensity of the correct emotion in response to people and situations. In 1987, Ronald de Souza published The Rationality of Emotions, an answer to the legal question of “responsibility” for actions performed under “a blind rage” and other “overwhelming” emotions. American Aristotelian philosopher Robert Nozick recognizes the physiological aspect of “feeling” emotions; and describes emotion as a belief, a value and a response. We directly consciously, psychologically “feel” our body’s physiological reaction as an emotion. An emotional feeling is our “analog response to value”.

    18th century philosopher David Hume broke from the “man is a rational animal” tradition and stated, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the servant of the passions.” Hume is famous for his “fact-value gap”. Fact: A man is pressing a knife into another man. So what? In itself, objective reality has no “value”, positive or negative. But murder induces strong feelings in people who witness them. Value is assigned to “facts” (i.e to objective realities) by conative beings who have needs, desires and purposes that condtion our “interests”. We have an “interest” in reality being one way rather than a different way.

    Our interests are essentially felt and known empirically, not discovered by some process of ‘pure reason’. There are no “universal” values. Suicides do not “want” to survive. Hatred “wants” to do harm. Conquistadores “want” to mass murder and subjugate the native populations of entire continents. Globalized corporate executives “want” to profit at the expense of humanity and the Earth. Name any value that you believe is “universal”, and a cultural anthopologist will show you a past or present culture who held/holds the opposite view.

    All values are conditional upon the specific interests of the conative being who is observing and participating in reality. A competitive culture breeds opposing interests. Bad ideology can generate perverse interests. People respond to their own idiosyncratic conceptions and perceptions of their interests, not to some objectively “true” and morally “good” assessment of the interests they “should” have.

    Hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers live in the natural world, and their interests are conditioned by “nature”: both family/social and the physical environment. Most people today live and work inside climate-controlled buildings in mass civilization — doing little if any physical work, and little work outside in weather — and their interests are conditioned by their dominant culture.

    A core feature of culture is technology. Technology conditions people’s conception and perception of their interests. Technology is not culturally and emotionally-psychologically neutral. Capitalism unleashes technologies as soon as they can be commercialized and sold at a profit, with zero regard for their impacts on culture. In order to sustain demand for ongoing sales, corporate capitalism promotes a culture of technological obsolescence. The intensifying scarifying of the Earth for resources to commercialize — along with the intensifying need to reduce the incomes companies pay out in order to “reduce costs to maintain profits” — is inherent to the logic of for-profit capitalist culture. If the value you live by is “money profit”, then you are committed to the logical consequences of that values-choice.

    Pure reason was Alan Turing’s first attempt at a code-breaking machine, before he told the machine what to “look for”. Without some interest defining the “purpose” of the reasoning, the machine just continues along whatever logical railroad it has been set upon.

    In his 1938 book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi describes how during the 19th century “society” was replaced (in the worldview of the Western ruling classes) by market economy. Market economy is not deliberately governed by men in the interest of achieving some human purpose. Market economy is self-serving greed “automatically” organized by an invisible hand to produce “natural” social-economic outcomes. So, motivated by the sole value of individual pursuit of money profit, market economy proceeds down the logical railroads we have traveled over the past two centuries. As we progress, its social Darwinism and other anti-human ideological consequences become increasingly evident. This is what happens when you let inhuman $Numbers rule the world, rather than subjecting the world to human government however flawed it may be.

  • Hi Derryl
    Enjoyed both your posts, and align with significant aspects of both, and there are also seem to be significant differences.

    There are many issues with the money system, it is an extremely complex set of interacting systems, with more aspects being created every day. It is not controlled by banks, and they are a significant influence. Nor is it controlled by governments or corporations, and they are significant influences. The issuance of credit, in all its forms, at all levels of social players, from individuals, through all scales of business and social groups, to the various branches of government and banking, all play a part in the system we have today behaving as it does.

    Certainly there are evolutionary aspects to it.
    And evolution is poorly understood by most people.
    Evolution is far more than a simple – survival of the fittest competition. And survival is a significant driving filter in evolution.
    Levels of organisation, levels of complexity, levels of coordination, levels of cooperation, when viewed through the lens of systems thinking and complexity theory provide a view of evolution that shows clearly that cooperation is a far more powerful factor in evolution than competition, which is not at all denying the power of competition. Competition is definitely a major part of what makes evolution work. And it is only a part of the story.
    The more complex the system, the more important the role of cooperation.

    Once one can begin to look at evolution through some subset of the infinite landscape of possibilities offered by complexity theory, in a probabilistic context, the view is rather different.
    Some realms assume vanishingly small probabilities (like the realm that assumes that good and bad, or true and false, have any sort of general applicability in the reality in which we seem to find ourselves).

    Once one can begin to grasp that our experiential reality seems to be a software construct of a human brain immersed in a cultural and physical set of constraints, and is only probabilistically connected to the reality in which we seem to exist, then everything changes.
    All knowledge becomes heuristic knowledge, with associated sets of probabilities in particular contexts of experience. The common name, “common sense” starts to make sense in a whole new set of levels, as one realises that common sense makes sense only in experiences that are common. And in a social context, makes sense only in contexts that are socially shared.

    The further one strays from social norms, the more uncommon one’s “common sense” starts to become, and the greater the difficulty of communication of anything non-trivial.

    Human brains seem to be infinitely flexible, yet they do come with certain sets of dispositions that contain sets of information (as both sets of feelings and tendencies to action) crafted there by genetic evolution over deep time.
    They also contain many sets of information and behavioural responses that are deeply embedded in cultural constructs, that very few people consciously examine or question to any great depth.
    Julian Jaynes is interesting when examined from this context.

    When one views human responses from these contexts, in the knowledge of the sorts of extreme events that happen periodically that force transitions from cooperative to competitive modes at different levels of association, then one sees sets of patterns, and sets of possibilities that are not common.

    Yes certainly, human beings can be greedy, can be vicious, can be cruel and unthinking of others, and they can also be kind and loving and caring. Every person has both sets of sets, and expression is highly context sensitive.
    Change of context can bring instant change of behaviour.

    And certainly also, our neural networks are habit forming machines.
    We develop certain tendencies, and these can rapidly self reinforce and block other possibilities that for a short time were nearly equally probable.

    Timing at all levels is crucial to the emergence of new levels of self sustaining patterns.

    Changing focus to money and technology.

    I reassert that technology is neutral, it is what we do with it that matters.

    And certainly there are cultural tendencies present that lead to high probabilities of certain technologies producing certain outcomes in certain cultural contexts.

    And I make the assertion that it is the cultural context, not the technology, that is the driver.
    In a certain sense, any technology with an appropriate set of characteristics could fit into that role in that cultural context – and money is a good example. Some cultures used rare metals, some used rare sea shells, some used rare bird feathers. It was the rareness (the lack of abundance) rather than any other characteristic, that was the key driver. Whatever they used as a token of exchange had to be common enough that it was present in sufficient abundance to work, long lived enough to be useful, and rare enough that it was difficult to flood the market.

    Everything about money, about exchange based thinking more generally, is based in scarcity.

    Exchange based thinking cannot deal with radical abundance. It just ignores it.
    Very few people think seriously about the value of oxygen in the air, three major exceptions are those who do deep free diving, and those who pilot aircraft or climb mountains to high altitudes (I’ve done all three).

    A better test for real value is what is the personal effect of scarcity, rather than some averaged market effect.

    It doesn’t take most people very long to get how important oxygen is when they don’t have it.
    Unfortunately most transition directly to panic, without much conscious contemplation of the profound implications.
    Deep divers spend thousands of hours in deeply meditative states extending their ability to operate under very low oxygen conditions. One has time to think about such things in the extended transition phases to such states.

    As to our interests.
    Certainly, we come pre-loaded in a sense with all sorts of heuristic shortcuts that worked to defend our interests over deep time. These come in the form of genetic influences at many levels on the structure and function of brain, and in similar multi-level cultural influences on how we interpret and experience existence (whatever existence actually is).

    There do not appear to be any definite answers to any non-trivial question.
    It seems that all knowledge is heuristic, based in probabilities derived from experience at some level (ours, or our cultural or genetic ancestors).

    This seems to be what it is to be human.

    And it does seem that our currently dominant exchange based (scarcity based) set of values now pose far more risks than they deliver in benefits.

    It seems that humanity generally is about ready for a transition to the next major level of cooperation, one based in a social context of abundance, where universal respect for individual life and individual liberty dominate our choice of action.

    And liberty in this sense is not some licence to follow whim or fancy, but rather a responsibility to weigh the probable consequences of one’s actions on others, and to do nothing that unreasonably increases the risk to the life of others, or restricts the liberty of others.

    And there are no hard boundaries there.

    Everything has uncertainties, everything rests in the concept of reasonableness, and makes allowance for the unforeseen consequences of ignorance, of complexity and of chaos. For in logic, once one accepts the concept of infinity, we must always be far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable, which is not an excuse for wilful ignorance, and it does give a limit to hubris.

  • 1PricePerspective1

    Having this human body, I have an endocrine system tuned to predator and weather concerns. Much of my brain exists to move my cortex around and to minimize “hard blows”. The question here is what we might do if we did not have those “constraints”.

    • rorysutherland

      Go extinct, surely?

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  • LouisLapierre

    So, basically, you are saying that people society accuse of being without feeling, “Asperger syndrome”, men in general, are better equipped to use reason, because they have a lot less of those pesky “feelings”.

    Yep, I agree ! The capacity of putting mind over matter is very important when using reason.

    Thank you ! You are too kind.