• Posted: Sep 13, 2013 14:44:17
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The U.S. Congress has been in recess for the past several weeks. They are about to resume deliberations. On their agendas will be the issue of Syria and Assad's confirmed use of chemical weapons along with a re-examination of oversight of the NSA and its powers to eavesdrop on both domestic and international communications. Both issues are of weighty international importance. But the issue likely to cause even more disturbance to both the U.S. and world's recovering economies is the seemingly benign issue of government spending.
One might think social scientists would have something relevant to contribute to such Congressional deliberations. But unlike the physical and biological sciences, truths revealed by the social sciences tend to be softer, less clear-cut, and subject to nuance. The problem is that humans learn, improvise, and adapt. Their behavior is not predictable in the same way that interacting physical phenomena like mechanical parts, electronics, and chemicals are. If word gets out that a policy of some sort has been set, whose design has been based upon previous observations of human behavior, people will alter their behavior to, in some manner, avoid or exploit the new policy. We learn by absorbing and processing information. But the state or quality of information absorbed and processed does not accurately predict subsequent behavior. Instead, we all find ourselves continuously swimming in a social environment of good and bad information resulting in behavior based upon processing of that information that is accurate, misinterpreted, missed, ignored, or intended to out-smart. The interpersonal result we face is a rainbow of stratified effectiveness in dealing with both the physical and the social. Little wonder we find dealing with each other to be endlessly taxing of our patience and goodwill. And little wonder many who run for Congress proclaim commitment to "fixing" that situation, via one economic or legislative ideology or another.
If one asks where does wealth comes from, the simplest answer one gets is that it comes from work. But that answer is incomplete, insufficient on its own, because there are plenty of people who work, and work very hard, yet never achieve anything resembling wealth. No, the answer has to be something more like: "Wealth is achieved through the leveraging of work." The notion of leveraging being the idea that some work is worth more than other work. If one is in a position to trade one's own work for the work of many, then one is in position to accumulate wealth. In effect, to accumulate more work than one can use.
So, how is it that some work gets valued higher than other work? Again, there is a simple answer: the marketplace. But why would any rational person say to themselves that their own work isn't worth as much as someone else's work? The fact is, most people probably don't say anything of the sort to themselves. Instead, other's say to them: "Your work isn't worth as much as mine and, therefore, you should pay me more while I pay you less." And we believe them? Why? Why should we do that?
In the normal course of things, few of us are capable of functioning entirely on our own. We need the knowledge and work of others to complement and complete our own efforts. We are very much interdependent. But the finesse of deceiving each other as to the value of our own work relative to the value of work by our fellows is troubling. Such deception appears to be the foundation of wealth, but it seems also to be the foundation of poverty and subservience.
When Congress begins again to work on "fixing" our economy, I suggest they not overlook the fairly obvious fact that wealth creation seems inextricable bound to the creation of poverty. And, I would also suggest that only government has the potential to moderate that particularly unsavory aspect of human social reality. While many would seek to unfetter the creation of wealth through cutting or increasing or more pointedly administering government spending, we'd be foolhardy to not also consider how to moderate the legacy of poverty that will very likely result from such policies.
While most of us would love to be richer, do we really want to be richer knowing others will then become poorer? Perhaps not. But finding a way to achieve greater wealth for all, instead of for just a few, seems only likely to happen if we all accept and take charge of our inescapable mutual interdependence. Letting chips fall where they may is just not going to cut it.
Sunday, September 1st, 2013
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