provocation 223. aug 19
An allegory about the modern economy.
Once upon a time a small group of hunter-gatherers discovered a good sized pond and found that it was full of fish which they caught and ate and these fish became the center of their diet. The group grew and more people fished at the edge.The number of fish caught was related to the number of people fishing.The economists wrote equations. After a while of good living, space at the edge was harder to just walk up to and altercations broke out. Stronger men seemed to find themselves in the most favorable spots for an easier catch. The economists watched all this, related the population to the catch, and helped draft some rules to apportion the space along the pond’s edge. Some of the men found it better to go make fishing poles from somewhat distant saplings and trade the poles for fish. But what was not noticed, because better poles kept the catch proportional to the population of people, was that the total number of fish in the pond was going down. What they did see was that with more men fishing with better poles the catch remained reassuringly constant per person. More children wee born, more men made fishing poles. All seemed more or less ok, until. Ah, until.
After all, this is a fairy story. Until with no new pole innovations the number of fish caught was suddenly in decline, not enough to feed the fishermen and heir families and the pole makers and their families. The fish being caught were smaller and fewer. The economists had always assumed that more effort would mean more fish caught. Maybe a new technology would lead to more fish more easily caught. What they missed was that there were no longer enough fish to feed all the people. More effort, better technology, would not help. Other small groups had discovered other ponds, fields, herds and followed a similar path. There was nothing more out there.
In our time we have extracted much of the wealth from the land and the sea and sold it to the bulging population. But competition started pushing prices up, so we loaned money to the bulge – mostly against the value of their homes – to keep buying. What was not noticed was that that prices were higher, more welfare was distributed, and the people were skinnier (or fat from bad food which is the same thing) and living in increasingly poor housing or on the street. The society, having stripped the environment and the people, could no longer feed them all. Less food, more people, more debt, more anger. The economists looked for a new configuration of people and resources that would work, little realizing that there as no way to configure all the variables except possibly a wise leader who could with authoritarian verve bring land, technology, people into new equilibrium. But there was no such person in sight and what there was of “leadership” would lead to to much pushing and pulling, taking lots of time and making it impossible to get to any such new configuration and equilibrium. Any new technology would lead to the loss of jobs in old sectors and continue to deplete the environment. The old elite would look for robots algorithms and gated communities as defensible liveabe islands and this turns out to be, for lots of logistical reasons, an illusion.
So we are stuck. We can either start here and struggle for creative solutions, or just withdraw and let the curtain come down, figuratively to hide the reality from ourselves, or realistically, the drama is over.