Most people believe that the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry are real and the legitimate facts resulting from scientific investigation over the past few centuries. Most people also believe that economics is a science. Well, it’s not quite that simple. Human behavior often follows consistent patterns – not quite “laws” – but as we all know people “break the law” frequently enough. In fact, people are partly rational, partly irrational, and partly non-rational. Neither economics nor sociology/anthropology, neither political science nor psychology, are entirely scientific.
Recent debates between conventional and behavioral economists testify to the limits of trying to force economics into a purely scientific model of knowledge. The purely “rational actor” conventional economics imagines, demonstrates those limits. The person who always seeks only the most monetarily profitable outcome does not exist. People choose their actions on any of numerous criteria, not just economic rationality. Besides, it’s often not all that easy to make the most economically rational choice.
Even the laws of natural science operate within limited parameters. We observe the laws of Newtonian physics to be entirely consistent within their limits. But they do not explain much in the post-Einstein world of quantum mechanics. The far less reliable “laws” of “free market economics” do not apply when markets are not free – which is most of the time. Yet, a great deal of effort is expended trying to convince government policy makers and the public otherwise. Corporate lobbyists want us all to believe that the corporatist economy must be retained because it is an expression of the laws of free markets – which it is not.
“Laws” of Convenience
In conventional economics, the underlying factual problem is that markets dominated by a few corporations are not free at all. In fact, the influence of the ‘free market’ ideology results in a lot of federal laws that have given more and more power to corporations. But that process is part of a package of claims that help sustain an oligarchy of corporate convenience, in part by perpetuating the fiction of free markets.
Another key ingredient supporting corporatocracy is the ideology of economic growth. The claim that well-being of the population depends on continued growth of the economy serves the economic elites quite well, if nobody else. The bankers get their compound interest; the corporate executives get their bonuses based on increased stock prices; the congressmen get their corporate campaign contributions and ‘dark money’ electoral support. Nature knows no political laws of economic convenience.
We ordinary actors in the economy are anything but free. But our willing participation in the consumerism that enables economic growth increasingly depends on debt. Corporate control and suppression of labor participation in the fruits of production require increased consumer indebtedness to keep consumption and growth going. The increasing concentration of power, income, and wealth in the economic elites, can only continue through debt-based consumerism.
Experiencing the Laws of Nature
In the debt-driven economy, we are constantly bombarded with incentives to consume more and more questionable products. That is what keeps the economy of growth going. But the so-called convenience of the many superfluous but cleverly distracting products ultimately becomes a burden, both physically and economically. Look at all the storage units spread across the suburban landscape. Too much stuff.
The consumerism of the endless growth economy drives continual demand for more energy to drive the factories and factory farms, and run the vehicles, appliances, and various toys of the consumer culture. The result is unequivocally clear. Massive carbon emissions over the 200 years of the industrial era have come home to roost. Drastic reductions in the burning of fossil fuels are necessary for survival. So are reductions in energy consumption. Both are needed to reduce carbon emissions.
Some energy production can be converted from fossil-fuel to renewable sources such as solar and wind. But every energy production technology requires energy to manufacture and install. We must also reduce the wasteful use of energy; that means reduce consumption. As Ozzie Zehner put it, “…the united states doesn’t have an energy crisis. It has a consumption crisis.”*
Most talk of reducing emissions involves replacing fossil-fuel energy production with renewable sources of energy production: solar, wind, and the highly counterproductive nuclear and biomass strategies. But far more efficient and economical strategies are readily available now. Retro-fitting existing buildings and factories to reduce energy consumption would create many jobs and require no new technology research. Local production for local consumption should become the norm. Just doing it is necessary. But whatever the mix of strategies, none of it will work until the consumerist culture recognizes that we will always experience the fruits of our labors in the laws of nature.
* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.