Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Case for Prefigurative Economics

There has been a lot of buzz about possible reforms to the current economic system in the US and alternatives to it. I am concerned that this effort is being led by similar mentalities that created the current highly dysfunctional and unjust system. Let me explain. The current system was designed by the ruling class, mostly white men from privileged backgrounds. And the new system is being designed by mostly wealthy white men. Though they may give lip service to things such as increasing relative equality, you will rarely hear them speak of changing the power structure which gave birth to and maintains this economic system and they are not interested in participatory decision-making processes. They still think that they have the best ideas and that the undereducated, relatively unsuccessful bulk of the population doesn’t know how to run an economy or what is actually in their best interest.

There are economists, techies, politicians, social entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who think they have the latest and greatest gimmick (sometimes inaccessible, high tech tools) that will help save the world. Though some of their ideas may be good, they have done little reality checking with the rest of the population and what those people would actually want their economy to look like. They are not interested in listening to and incorporating ideas from regular folks. Underlying this I think is a dangerous attachment to their own egos. They want to assuage their guilt and at the same time become or remain rich or famous. I put Bill Gates in this category. They are not willing to get down with the people to hear their ideas or do the grunt work of building the new economy. They want fancy, sexy applications that they will get credit for. They are not interested in sharing power, the base of their wealth or acknowledgement. They are not interested in being a part of the most basic unsexy things that need to happen to create change. And they often say things like the system we have is not so bad, it just needs some adjustment and innovation. Tell that to the millions who have died from hunger, pollution and hazardous, slave-like work conditions.

Yes, I may be exaggerating the point here in order to illustrate what I see as a potentially serious threat to the integrity of the restructuring of the new economy. History is littered with good intentions gone wrong (as well as nefarious intentions). Royalty, politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, financiers, academics, scientists, representatives in the UN, World Bank and IMF all think they know best. Though they rarely do unless they are they are the best of listeners, humble and not corrupt or driven by ego. It is not that we should shut these people out, we need everyone’s hands on deck, we are all in this together and everyone has a piece of the truth. But I find that even when I am giving the space to speak among these men, I am rarely listened to. And I also know that your experience shapes your perspective on reality and your perspective shapes your decisions. I would not want decisions about our economy to be based on a small, relatively homogeneous range of experience that would affect vast numbers of diverse kinds of people. We don't need more charity, modest reforms and techno-fixes handed down from high pedestals, lest we keep living the same story over and over again. We need to build the new economy from the grassroots up with collective participation of the people. If inefficiency is the price of collective, participatory decision-making, I'd choose less stuff and more peace and justice.

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