Until the Tennessee state curriculum ushered me into an economics class, my high-school grades were Aâs. Then suddenly axioms like âNo such thing as a free lunchâ were being taught as facts on a level with the speed of light and the dates of wars.Â âWhatâs the only viable system?â went the call-and-response.Â Modern capitalism!Â âWhy does socialism fail?âÂ Thereâs no incentive to work!Â 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, Iâve 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, âwas produced by government mismanagement.â Keynes said in 1931, âFor 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.â He acknowledged the moral problems in his systemâs 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 Curtainâs fall, a book calledÂ The End of HistoryÂ gained currency for a while. In it Francis Fukuyama argued that, thanks to a brief peace in some of the world, âwe may be witnessing â¦the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.â 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 itâs 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, itâs one to which weâve long collectively adhered. Crowds create perception. Likewise do we crowd together to announce our dissatisfaction in failed ideas.
Hereâs 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 Democratsâ grip. Political involvement isnât 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 movementâs leaders didnât vote in the last election. One fears that certain Occupiers clamor for democracy that they wonât take part in.
The movementâs 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 personâs every hour holds value just as quantifiable as that of paper rectangles, hereâs a thought experiment for the Occupiers: Two years ago a mathematician named Timothy Gowers proposed in his blog what he called âmassively collaborative mathematicsâ to solve the thorny Density Hales-Jewett Theorem, for which only a circuitous headache of a proof had existed. Seven weeks later, the teamÂ foundÂ a âgenuinely new type of solution with surprising aspects and ingredients,â according to Gil Kalai of Hebrew University.
Perhaps the Occupiers already have been engaging in âmassively collaborative economics,â if you will. The goal, as I see it, would be devising a system to encourage right behavior, where thereâs 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. Schumacherâs Buddhist economics, based not on the abstract valuation of goods and services but on the minimization of suffering and violence. I risk readersâ exasperation here at a notion that sounds ideological: âthatâs Communism,â 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 weâve 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 thatâs yet a tiny sliver of the near-infinity that beckons beyond our death, weâll seem blinkered to any who peer back at our consensus that itâs 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, weâll have a hundred thousand hours to figure out a viable incentive for doing all the good we canât be forced to do.