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Monday, September 24, 2018


A lot of cars I ride in have a gauge on the dashboard called a "tachometer." It tells how fast the engine is running, using "rpm" (revolutions per minute) as the unit of measurement. My car seems to operate in the 1000 to 2000 range most of the time. The engine can run a lot faster than that. Toward the end of the gauge the scale turns red--DANGER. If your engine is running fast enough to get into that range, the engine might destroy itself.

I suppose any piece of moving machinery is in danger of running out of control and destroying itself. Some people used to install a gadget called a "governor" on their cars--a device that would keep the engine from running past a certain limit.

Our economy is a runaway engine. We do not seem to be able to slow it down enough to keep it from destroying our environment. Every person in the economy is under pressure to produce more and more, faster and faster. That is how we measure "productivity." Productivity is supposed to make all of us wealthier. So we pile up material things. Our landfills get bigger and bigger. We waste more and more on packaging, and these days, we spend more and more on moving stuff from one place to another. It is becoming possible for every meal we eat to be delivered to our door.

That is capitalism. It baptizes greed.

"Greed" is a moral term, not pleasant to hear. We prefer words like "incentive." Capitalism incentivizes everything. But the more we incentivize, the more we are digging our own graves--in our landfills. We need a governor.

I think I have a candidate for such a governor. The governor that could slow down our overly-incentivized economy is a rule that everything we do should take account of what it does to other people.

We already do a lot of that. We do not let people pave over wetlands, because we know that wetlands are necessary to keep biological diversity intact. The norm against paving over, which is challenged by capitalist enthusiasts, is broadly supported, which means that we have a moral agreement about its value. We just need to extend our thinking further, and pay attention to the costs of our behavior that we are making other people pay instead of ourselves.

Another way to look at this is to say that we need principles of accounting that take account of the costs of what we do for everybody in the human community.

If every economic decision were to take account of the effects that decision will have on every person in the world, capitalism would slow down--it would be governed. Our environment might be saved. As it is, if the engine does not slow down, it will damage the environment so much that the whole structure will come crashing down, and then capitalism will no longer be salvific but demonic. It is already demonic for a large proportion of the world's population. It will just be demonic for everybody. In the worst case scenario, the human race will become extinct. We will not be the first species to disappear from the earth.

We don't need socialism. We need capitalism under control.