Until the Tennessee state curriculum ushered me into an economics class, my high-school grades were A’s. Then suddenly axioms like “No such thing as a free lunch” were being taught as facts on a level with the speed of light and the dates of wars. “What’s the only viable system?” went the call-and-response. Modern capitalism! “Why does socialism fail?” There’s no incentive to work! Which struck this teenage atheist as so much religious dogma. I told my teacher he should be abolished under the separation of church and state. He told me my GPA should drop.
His judgment became prophecy before mine. But in the years since, I’ve needed only to read the words of revered economists to rekindle my old instinct. Milton Friedman said the Great Depression, no fault of the market, “was produced by government mismanagement.” Keynes said in 1931, “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.” He acknowledged the moral problems in his system’s disincentives for good behavior more than some of his acolytes do these days, i.e. the ones who hold ideas like his to be unrivaled paragons.
In the early nineties, a few years after the Iron Curtain’s fall, a book called The End of History gained currency for a while. In it Francis Fukuyama argued that, thanks to a brief peace in some of the world, “we may be witnessing …the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” These dreams of apotheosis, tantalizing as they may be, are myopic to the past and blind to a future that promises to keep transpiring after we die. I imagine four thousand years ago in Egypt it seemed unlikely that pharaoh worship would ever wane, and it’s hard today to picture market fundamentalism evanescing like so much fog; still, imagine the citizens of 6011 revering a belief system of the ancient dead that totters already now. Sure, it’s one to which we’ve long collectively adhered. Crowds create perception. Likewise do we crowd together to announce our dissatisfaction in failed ideas.
Here’s a common charge against the usefulness of gathering in crowds to respond to problems: it squanders energy and time. I find the Occupy protests worthwhile in part because the airing of their idea has caused its spread, but some friends of mine who work for a state Senate campaign say resources are being diverted away from keeping the Virginia Senate in the Democrats’ grip. Political involvement isn’t a zero-sum game, yet these friends have shown me evidence that food and time donations have dried up in the wake of our local protest, and that most of the local movement’s leaders didn’t vote in the last election. One fears that certain Occupiers clamor for democracy that they won’t take part in.
The movement’s ongoing success must grow in part out of perception of its wisdom, of its rightness. So, predicated on my desire for such an outcome, and on the belief that every thinking person’s every hour holds value just as quantifiable as that of paper rectangles, here’s a thought experiment for the Occupiers: Two years ago a mathematician named Timothy Gowers proposed in his blog what he called “massively collaborative mathematics” to solve the thorny Density Hales-Jewett Theorem, for which only a circuitous headache of a proof had existed. Seven weeks later, the team found a “genuinely new type of solution with surprising aspects and ingredients,” according to Gil Kalai of Hebrew University.
Perhaps the Occupiers already have been engaging in “massively collaborative economics,” if you will. The goal, as I see it, would be devising a system to encourage right behavior, where there’s no disincentive to do good. Where fair is fair and foul is foul. Where avarice and usury and precaution are our devils for the next century. As a starting point I would suggest E.F. Schumacher’s Buddhist economics, based not on the abstract valuation of goods and services but on the minimization of suffering and violence. I risk readers’ exasperation here at a notion that sounds ideological: “that’s Communism,” would go the typical reaction. But market fundamentalism is ideological and creates suffering, yet we submit to it and consider it to function passably.
It seems silly, the idea that we’ve built even scaffolding toward a system one could truly call a nonpareil, as the free marketeers deem their religion. This is not the end of history. Ten thousand years from now, to pick a number that’s yet a tiny sliver of the near-infinity that beckons beyond our death, we’ll seem blinkered to any who peer back at our consensus that it’s a necessary evil, or not an evil, to give all wealth to a lucky few. But perhaps we are perched somewhere beyond the beginning. On Sat 15 October upwards of one million gathered to protest worldwide. If another million gather in squares tomorrow, and one in a hundred spend their thinking-hours in the crowd designing, via massively collaborative economics, an oblivion to which to damn all economic inequality, we’ll have a hundred thousand hours to figure out a viable incentive for doing all the good we can’t be forced to do.