Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of economics. But before now, I couldn’t really put my finger on why I disliked economics so much. It was a rather squishy feeling that was hard for me to pin down, but I had an epiphany the other day that I believe I’m ready to articulate now. Basically, it boils down to this: economics has shifted from a way of dividing resources to the science of maximizing profits, which has profound and troubling implications.
This all started because I’ve been reading a book called Plastic Ocean which–spoiler alert!–is about how mankind is filling the ocean with life-choking levels of trash. The author, Charles Moore, does a pretty good job chronicling the rise of plastic in our society, which is now ubiquitous and ever increasing. What got me thinking about all of this is this passage:
Trend lists and corporation websites never fail to invoke sustainability’s buzzword twin: innovation. […] We stake the health of our economy on “innovation,” assuming that it is always good. But when innovation leads to 26,893 new packaged foods and products–often in or of plastic–in one year, 2009, it’s time to slow down and consider the Pandora’s box of cultivating innovation for it’s own sake and start thinking morally and ecologically about the innovations we embrace. (150-151)
There are many other passages in the book about how the fishing industry is a big culprit in this game because they simply just toss all their netting into the ocean once they’re done with it. The reason? Because jettisoning the nets means they could hold more fish, and since plastic makes the netting and other equipment so cheap and replaceable, they earn more money by polluting and taking in the extra bit of haul.
But hey, according to economics, that’s just good business, right? Anything to drive up profit or to cut costs. That’s all anyone can ever talk about. The problem with that, though, is that financial capital is not the only resource out there. And if economics is at its core simply a system for figuring out how to use resources, then a paradigm shift toward focusing solely on money is moving away from a system that focuses on wisely using all resources.
And that gets back to what Moore was saying, and what I was alluding to at the beginning of this post: you cannot use that lens when making moral decisions, yet this is exactly what we do.
It’s what the fishermen in Moore’s book do. Pollution was a bigger problem before the advent of government regular because throwing industrial waste into the river is always going to be cheaper than properly disposing of it. And yes, the environment is a moral or ethical issue because we all share the same environment, and the actions of one or a handful of companies directly impact the rest of us. Does the right of a corporation to make money supersede my right to enjoy clean air or water without toxins?
That’s a perfectly legitimate question, and it gets to the crux of the issue here: economics often attempts place a price tag on things that are intrinsically invaluable.
I don’t think there’s a person alive right now who would agree that killing the ocean is okay. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that “destroying ocean = bad idea.” The ocean is what supports all life on the planet, so killing it or damaging it is kind of a big deal. And I don’t think that anyone would want to live in that world. In other words, preventing that or fixing that is a rational idea.
And yet, if you introduce that idea, the first thing you often hear from politicians, people in businesses, and economists is, “But how many jobs will that eliminate? How much tax revenue will be lost?” As if the health of the very ecosystem we depend on for everything could somehow be measured by job loss or the employment rate. The idea is quite striking: economics makes us reject perfectly rational ideas and courses of action. As if somehow losing 10,000 jobs in the coal sector outweighs everyone breathing cleaner air.
But we don’t need to focus on solely the environment to see how using economics to guide action can be morally disastrous. Indeed, we need only look at the insurance industry.
Did you know that your life has a dollar amount affixed to it? You may think of yourself or your loved ones, spouses and children, as invaluable, but the insurance company certainly has different ideas. To them, you and your family are metrics that can be quantified in dollars and cents. Prior to recent healthcare reform, people with serious illnesses could be denied coverage or dropped unceremoniously from their plans because it was deemed, somewhere in an accounting office, that it was “too expensive” to care for them. Put another way, there was some magic dollar amount the insurance company used as a barometer of sorts: if caring for you would cost less than X, great, you get to live! But if it costs more than X…well, too bad.
Now, these decisions were not made for want of resources. There are plenty of medical resources in America. No, this was simply about the bottom line of the insurance company. Think about that: decisions that affect the health of your children are often made based on how much money the insurance company will have to dole out. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to attach a price tag to human life, and I suspect that the majority of people out there don’t.
Too often, economics makes taking the morally or ethically correct action “cost prohibitive,” to use the business parlance. In reality, the stakes of many of these issues go beyond money, beyond resource use. If the ecosystem we live in dies, so do we. In such a case, there’s no such thing as “too expensive” or “too many jobs lost” because none of that will matter if the ocean dies. Profit margins and stock markets are going to mean less than nothing when rising sea levels kill millions of people and forever alter our lives.
And perhaps, if I could use this conclusion to make one last plea, please stop thinking about life–all life–in terms of economics. It’s irrational and counterproductive, it stagnates our advancement and our health, and it doesn’t have to be that way.