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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Surplus population

We need a new economics.

Economics--in the sense of a way of thinking about exchanges, measuring exchanges, and rewarding exchanges.

Exchanging things is the heart of human interaction. The simplest human actions can be seen as an exchange. A mother smiles at her infant, and the infant smiles back. The exchange is rewarding to both. The reward is priceless--it cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

What has happened in our world is that exchanges have become more and more tied to money. Unless an exchange can be measured and symbolized by money, it is worthless. The result is that millions of people are unable to take part in the most fundamental exchanges: exchanges for food, housing, and medical care. Such people become, in the words of Charles Dickens, "surplus population." They are not needed. They should be allowed to die.

This is not what Jesus preached.

This is not a new problem. There was a surplus population in the thirteenth century, when the first followers of Francis of Assisi began to live among the people. Francis's approach was to forbid his followers to use money. In fact, they were not even to touch money. (Money in those days was confined to coins, and did not take the paper and electronic forms that it has in our time.) Francis saw people hoarding coins. With those coins they could buy land and drive people off that land. The coins represented power, just as money does today.

The difference between now and the thirteenth century is that back then the Church had great influence in society. The friars, as representatives of the Church hierarchy, used their influence to bring about a re-evaluation of how people looked at money. They focused on use, as opposed to possession. One ought to possess only what one could use in some meaningful way. Their re-evaluation had an effect on how people looked at money and exchange, and made the society more human and compassionate.

An executive today can "earn" $60 million in a year. What can he or she do with $60 million? One such entrepreneur in the 1980s would go into a restaurant, order everything on the menu, choose one item, and throw away the rest. Even that, though, would only cost a few thousand dollars. But $60 million?

Big house, big car. Huge house, huge car. Three huge houses, three private jets. What for?

It's a game. Show your rivals that you are important. What you use the money for is irrelevant. The point is to win the game of showmanship. But that money could be used to provide food and housing for thousands of people.

We need a moral re-evaluation of what money is for. "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath," Jesus said. Money was made for human life, not human life for money.

We are facing a head-wind of ideology, a theory that explains why it is right and just that one person make $60 million in a year. The ideology says that unless we allow that, in fact, unless we praise that, people will quit exchanging things and the economy will fall apart. When we praise the "earning" of $60 million in a year, everyone is motivated to produce more, and everyone is better off. A rising tide lifts all boats.

But it doesn't. Many boats sink. A Christian society is concerned about the people in those boats. We cannot let a nice theory baptize the sinking of millions of boats and the people in them.

What can we do to change this situation?

I suggest that we do what they did in the thirteenth century: start focusing on how we use money. We should confine our possession of money to a reasonable expectation of what our money can be used for. We should quit using money as a marker for power and prestige.

There is no chance that the people now making $50 million will voluntarily change their thinking. But people make $50 million because they invent something that 50 million people want--for example, computer games, or cars with seats that raise and lower, move back and forth, and are warm in the winter even before people sit in them. The economy depends on things that people want.

We are those people. The more of us that think about how we can use what we have, and not on how what we have makes us look important, the more things will change.

But won't this cause people to buy fewer computer games and nice cars?

That brings me to the second aspect of what we need: new ways of measuring exchanges.

The Exchange of Services and How to Measure Such Exchanges

I have a neighbor who has had a stroke and can no longer work for her living. I go next door and get her shopping list, go to the store, and buy what she needs for dinner. I exchange my time and effort for . . .  for what? For her appreciation and gratitude.

Right now there is no way to measure the value of that exchange. The exchange is worthless in our economy. We have to figure out some way to pay me for what I do, and to let her have the resources to pay me.

We need a new kind of money. Let's call it the "prayer." One prayer can buy fifteen minutes of my shopping time. My neighbor can reward me by giving me three prayers.

This is not a new unit of measurement. Some years ago Catholic Charities in my town would give a monthly food basket to people in exchange for prayer. That was not a meaningless exchange. Even a homebound and ill person can pray, and thereby avoid the stigma of accepting "charity."

A prayer is a combination of time and attention. When I pray, I spend time doing it, and I attend to what I am doing. That is valuable. That creates an exchange.

Prayer can be exchanged for regular money. You give me $50 and I give you five prayers.

I don't have to believe in a god in order to pray. I just have to take time and give my attention to the well-being of my exchange partner.

We have never been able to figure out how to provide enough "jobs" to get everybody involved in economic exchange. There are only so many things we can make, and we are on the verge of destroying our environment by making so many never-used things. I walk through a department store and ask myself, "how many of these things will end up in a landfill without ever being used by any human person?" The landfill gets bigger and bigger, and the atmosphere gets more and more carbon-saturated. The oceans rise higher and higher, and the storms get fiercer and fiercer. We need to slow down, quit trying to measure everything by traditional money, and start basing exchanges on something that a) allows even the weakest among us to contribute to exchange, and b) does not increase power and prestige.

A prayer has the advantage that it involves an exchange between two specific human beings. It cannot be hoarded. It can't be stored up. It makes us slow down and smell the roses.

Recently I attended a meeting that showed an hour-long film titled "Transitions." The film suggested ways that people can use other forms of exchange. One form was quantified, so that a person could go into a market stall, get a batch of carrots, and "pay" the owner by exchanging a text message recording the units of payment. No money changed hands, but the medium of exchange allowed the transaction to take place in an ordered way. After the film the group of about thirty people broke up into small groups and envisioned society in 2030. One idea that came up more than once was the idea of a "time bank." People could exchange their time for a tangible good. That seems very similar to what I called a "prayer" exchange.

Some years ago I read a review of a book that proposed that there be a separate kind of money for high-flying investment games, and for ordinary day-to-day exchanges. Economists can tell us if and how such a scheme might work.

We need to find such a scheme. It is unconscionable that in a world with as much creativity as ours, millions, billions, of people cannot contribute their time and ability to others.

There should be no such thing as surplus population.