1892. Economics doesn’t know what people want.

The provocation is simple: economics doesn’t know what people want.

Some related thoughts. (probabaly too long, the smokey hot weekend made thinking go lazy)

Adam Smith was a little like Einstein: a personality and perspective so powerful that we don’t see much else, before or after. Though in Smith’s case, the immediate next generations of people writing about economics, took part and left parts. Economics has become, since Smith and in part his doing – the study, theory, description, analysis of how people use resources to buy scare goods and make money in the process.

This assumes we know what people want, and that what ever it is, can be purchased in a market. Could we have an economics that encourages us in a more humane direction?

The corporations (aided by politics) have worked hard (aided by people like Edward Bernays and the use of advertising, “public relations,” to convince us that what we want can be bought. But a little honest reflection will cast that in doubt.

What then really is economics if not an aid to manufacturing and banks to draw us into a world where we work for cash at really stupid jobs of only slightly mitigated slavery, or inherit it after an early life of learning how to be privileged?

I see a car, I see a restaurant, I see a girl, I see a street that leads to the center. I want a house and a vacation not to quiet but to a trendy outdoors where the cool people are, I want I want I want. But what do I really want?

Along with our being encouraged to want things we can buy, it has been assumed that we want more, we want change, we want improvement.

We think we see a large percentage of Trump supporters feeling left behind and left out. But there is another view: such people do not want change and improvement: they want continuity. They like the suburban house with tasks to do, the garage loaded with stuff, like may an outboard and an aluminum boat and a tow (not frequently used but wow it can be useful). They like high school, they like school-sports, they like soda and sex and the constant feeling of belonging somewhere, in a neighborhood among people who are familiar (great word).

But that world is being taken from them. It is becoming unaffordable (mortgage payments leading the way and joblessness undermining the whole).

John Berger has an essay that begins with a quote. “The earth shows up those of value and those who are good for nothing.” He writes (I am substituting “Trump supporter for his “peasant”)..

And he continues…

Modern history begins–with the principle of progress as both the aim and motor of history. This principle was born with the bourgeoisie of an ascendant class, and has been taken over by all modern theories of revolution. The struggle between capitalism and socialism is a struggle about the content of progress. Today within the developed world the initiative of this struggle, lies, at least temporarily in the hands of capitalism, which argues that socialism produces backwardness. In the underdeveloped world the “progress” of capitalism is discredited.

Cultures of progress envisages future expansion. They are forward looking because the future offers ever larger hopes. At their most heroic these hopes dwarf death. At their most trivial they ignore it.(Consumerism). A culture of survival envisages the future as as a sequence of repeated acts for survival… no overall increased is envisaged. …. This may help explain why an experience within a culture of survival can have the opposite significance to the comparable experience within a culture of progress. Let us take, as a key example the much proclaim conservatism of the Trump supporters, their resistance to change; the whole complex attitudes and reactions which..allows them to be counted as a force for the right-wing. First we must note that the accounting is done by the cities, according to a historical scenario opposing left to right, which belongs to a culture of progress. TheTrump supporter refuses that scenario. And he is not stupid to do so, for this scenario, whether the left or right wins, envisages his disappearance. His conditions of living, the degree of his exploitation and his suffering, maybe desperate,, but he cannot contemplate the disappearance of what gives meaning to everything he knows, which is precisely, his will to maintain continuity, no (upwardly mobile urban employee) is ever in that position, for what gives meaning to his life is.. the revolutionary hope of transforming it for more money which is received in exchange against his life to be spent in his “true life” as a consumer. “ No surplus. He is not ware of it a such because ends just meet. Nothing left over. And life is OK.”

Such a life is a series of routines, integrated with those of others, family, customers, small business. The aim of the daily activity to to be able to do the same more or less tomorrow, and the hope of watching the children learn enough to reproduce the life.

The fact is that the smart kids are under serious pressure to “go to college” to improve their conditions, which means abandoning home and the people they care for and who cared for them. This is a terrible choice where self-development begins with a kind betrayal or at least judgement that the parents’ lives were not as worthy as a new life to be sought in advancement.

Who wants what and what is the role of economics?

The Trump suporters’ conservativeness is not related to property or law or banking, but to tradition, to having a tomorrow that is affordable with honest work and achieves continuity. To have a tomorrow pretty much like today. Gone. So we get Trump supporters.
Economics tends to support a dynamic system of earners, spenders, taxers. In the wings controlling the game are the banks and the compliant politicians. If you can contribute to the flow of cash you can belong, but if not, you are marginalized. If you live in the inner city there is no path to participation without a car. If you fix up your rented apartment with some paint and style the owner will raise your rent or kick you out.If you life is in much of rural America good jobs are hundreds of miles away. The young people are gone to college or the military.

You might think that if there are people unemployed and needs unmet, simply putting them together ought to be easy.

There is another group of people who are not well served by market ideology. These are people for whom life is at its best concerned with nature, relationships, sociability, art and community, desiring to live with mutual respect and optimism. The dominance of commercial society penetrates the pores of anyone who desires to get out of its influence. Think of the wonderful glow of a neon tube and its art curves, but the message of its embodiment in “buy here and now.” And is aimed and getting you to fall into its magic, , take out your credit card, and spend.

The commercial climate panders to our lower side: greed, status markers, combative competition, corruption at any chance for improvement in our probabilities of capital success. Economics basically is in tune with this lower side, not with the higher side of our nature.

Living in Mexico in the 60’s I was struck by the churches: dark inside with magical stained glass and candles, statues and paintings, music, respect, meditation, and architecture, columns and vaults and tiles and space for multitudes, and the poorest person could go there and feel like they are participating in the high-end of their culture despite their personal poverty (and this feeling is based in reality). We have nothing like it.

A piece of history. After WW2 we had the GI bill, often seen as wonderful. But it taught a management theory that you can manage anything with the same theory: fiance, hierarchy, law. No need to understand the content of what was made. The result was rapid but stupid growth. The Japanese showed us up with their emerging mastery of quality in mass production. The GI bill and the education of millions to a bad management theory was not caused but part of the confluence of trends leading to American decline. Think of John Scully going from Pepsi to Apple.

We can rethink all of this.


Additional thoughts.

Can economics model the following in order to help make it understandable?

The Mother of All Risks’: Insurance Giants Call on G20 to Stop Bankrolling Fossil Fuels


Another thought , from Keith Hart on the nettime mailing list

Thanks for the interview, Walter. I am a huge fan of Adam Curtis as a documentary, but less impressed by him as a political philosopher. I prefer to get their thoughts on revolution from revolutionaries like Lenin and CLR James. The latter once told me this:

The number of serious political activists like him in a country at any time is probably only in the tens of thousands. They devote their energies to plotting how to turn the world upside down. Most people, however, want to keep onto what they have and this is good thing, he said. Society would be impossible if people like him were running it without that as the predominant impulse. Great events like war, the threat of invasion or revolution are not chosen by the masses, but they have to come to terms with their objective consequences. Often they discover that they have lost what they were trying to keep or could easily lose everything. Then they embrace the necessity of change and the revolution becomes general.

He gave a hypothetical example. You this this guy at the bus stop every morning, buttoned down, does look at or talk to anybody. When the revolution is a reality, you may see him in his shirt sleeves organizing a street committee. This phenomenon has been identified for major wars as the trigger mechanism, a digital before and after scenario that changes life for everyone. Think August and September 1939. Under these circumstances the political activists may find themselves in a job, since they have spent all that time thinking about transformation.

Adam Curtis, in that 5 minutes slot, talks sententiously about people in advance what they would be willing to lose in the context of large-scale change and then concludes that they would only be willing to lose a bit. Of course they would, so would everyone according to James’ logic. But sometimes history happens to us in devastating ways and they were have to live in new ways which might include embracing wholesale change. Subjective radicalism is more likely to come after than before the objective event.


remembered this 5min part of an interview with Adam Curtis regarding your question

The question is “Do you really want change or do you want just change things a little bit?”
49:50 “you spot real change, when …”

risk aversion, or the price tag you might have to pay

Another thought . From TED poverty is lack of cash not character



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s