Economics of Happiness vs. Corporate Globalization

I just watched the condensed version of the award winning film, “The Economics of Happiness.” It is available on the Local Futures website. It confirms just about all the research findings on climate change, globalization, poverty, pollution, violence, and a host of other issues I have followed for the past decade while writing my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation.

The book is in the last stages of editing before submission for publication. So, given the complexities of the publishing industry it is not likely to be released until the end of the year — assuming everything goes well. Meanwhile, I will be renovating this website and include some excerpts from the book in a new section of pages.

Part of the research I’ve been engaged in while writing the book involves trying to understand the idea of progress as it has evolved in the industrial age and how that relates to actual human happiness. As it turns out, genuine happines — as compared with the momentary exhiliration that might result from buying some new product — is found most consistently among people who live in just a few places in the world. Those places,  called “Blue Zones,” those few places in the world where the special circumstances just seem to produce contentment, and where most of the world’s centenarians live. They have completely avoided globalization…so far.

In contrast, most of us live in cities and suburbs where we are increasingly isolated from real face-to-face relationships that are not mediated by complex institutional requirements imposed upon our time and our minds. Our relations are increasingly mediated by complex economic and institutional requirements that leave little room for direct human relationships with other persons — as themselves.

Our emotional, personal, interpersonal, and thereby cultural lives become entangled with a process of “intermediation” by layers of social complexity. This is embodied by corporate state taken as a whole, the essence of what Chris Hedges calls “The Empire of Illusion.” The globalized economic-growth leviathon is the “technosphere” that Dmitry Orlov argues we must shrink to improve the declining odds for human survival.

Sheldon Wolin refers to the larger political-economic structure of the corporate state in which we live as the “inverted totalitarianism” of Democracy, Incorporated. An essential element of complex civilizations is the “intermediation” of endless layers of social complexity between people who would otherwise simply exchange one valued good or service for another — or just socialize face to face.

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, attributes the collapse of complex societies throughout history to such complexities. John Michael Greer predicts a Dark Age America resulting from the convergence of climate change, economic crises and cultural collapse, the beginnings of which we already experience. He predicts a process of “disintermediation” of economic activity over the coming several hundred years, accompanied by major population decline, leading to a new feudal period.

I think ecological, climate, and societal collapse will unfold much faster than Greer expects, unless drastic climate action and radical societal re-organization can be initiated very soon. Many others, of course, comfortably assume that economic growth and technological innovation can get us out of any fix. They are dead wrong.

Michael.E.Mann

Michael E. Mann

Jon Foley, in a conversation with Michael Mann on the occasion of Mann’s receipt of the seventh annual Stephen Schneider Award, said that in contrast to such blind optimism, “Hope is where you role up your sleeves and get to work.” That is the kind of Hopeful Realism I like to hear.

 

Diary of a Mad Jubilado: (first in a series)

Jubilado Jubilee

“So much to do, so little time.”  That cliché never meant much to me.  The “so little time” part had no meaning.  I was busy with my life and there was always tomorrow.  It seemed as if I had all the time in the world. Careers go fast if you are busy and engaged. University teaching, for example, is not as simple or easy as most imagine if you take it seriously. In my case, like many professors, I was constantly challenged by students who were either ill-prepared or thought they already knew everything there was to know.  Many felt they merely had to get through this class in order to get that “piece of paper.” Any class was just another obstacle to getting the college degree.

Many unprepared students lack not only information about the world and about diverse fields of study; they also lack the critical thinking skills needed to excel in any field. That seems to be no deterrent to the ability of humans to be certain about whatever they happen to believe. Many just do not reflect on how they came to believe what they believe. It is very difficult to teach adults or even post-adolescent college students how to think clearly when most of the forces affecting their lives push them to believe one thing or another regardless of the evidence. Too much education is about accepting knowledge because of the authority behind it, rather than the evidence for it. Yet, many of my students retained their underlying curiosity despite the appallingly poor elementary and high school education that failed to prepare them for “higher learning.”

So here I am, more than a decade into ‘retirement’ now, with so much to do and so little time, it seems, to do all the things I want to do.  The term “retiree” always struck me as an odd word with a rather ominous tone, like “Senior Citizen.”  In some cultures, for example in the few “Blue Zones” around the world, where an inordinate number of elders live beyond 100 years, the local language has no word for “retirement.”

I have always liked the sounds of Spanish.  “Jubilado” is the Spanish equivalent of “retiree” in English.  “Jubilación” is “retirement” in Spanish.  Interestingly, the biblical meaning of “Jubilee” is “a yearlong period observed by Jews once every 50 years, during which Jewish slaves were to be freed, alienated lands were to be restored to the original owner or an heir, the fields were to be left untilled, and all agricultural labors were to be suspended. Lev. 25.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jubilee?s=t).  It seems that the underlying theme was not unlike our notion of a “vacation,” a distinct break with the ordinary oppressiveness of everyday life. Yet, those long-living denizens of the Blue Zones don’t take vacations, they just live consistent happy lives uncomplicated by industrial modernity.

Jubilee can also refer to the cancellation of all debts by the sovereign in ancient times when the accumulation of debt had become too burdensome and the concentration of wealth to extreme for the economy to function well. Wait, does that sound familiar? We may very well need a jubilee today. (For a fascinating account of debt and money in history, read David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.)

It all seems a matter of how human groups have defined their relations to material objects in relation to one another. Most folks today look at money and debt as absolutes. They are not.

Nobody has cancelled my debts; thus, I remain the “Mad Jubilado.”

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NOTE: An earlier version of this post first appeared in http://www.aparallelworld.com, a site that brought environmentally conscious consumers together with like minded vendors in their area, until trolls and Russian bots took it down by so disrupting it that it could not continue on its small budget… a sign of the times…

Always at a Distance: The Decline and Fall of Direct Human Relations

The other day, I called around to find the best deal in town for getting my cracked windshield replaced.  I had been given a couple of recommendations, one form a friend and one from my mechanic.  So, of course, I did an internet search for windshield replacement shops nearby.  I picked three the two that had been recommended and a third that was a larger corporate operation.

I looked at customer reviews and saw a very bad one for the shop my reliable mechanic had recommended.  I always look at internet reviews with a skeptical eye, since some can be either self-serving in all the wrong ways, or spiteful for questionable reasons.  With windshield repair shops, you don’t find large numbers of reviews such as you might for books on Amazon.com.  So, I called all three and found a wide range of prices, from around $150- to $225-.  But something more interesting and annoying happened.

When I called “Safe-Shield” at its 888 number, it turned out to be a national corporate telemarketing site, tho the local shop.  I should have known.  When I told the woman on the other end of the line that I wanted a quote, she began asking all sorts of demographic and identifying information about me.

Finally, I said, “you don’t need my life story to give me the price quote I asked for.”  That was not what she wanted to hear.  She attempted to get through her scripted marketing pitch on all the reasons “Safe-Shield” was a better choice.  When I finally insisted on and got a price from her, I was shocked that it was nearly $75- more than the price my friend’s recommended shop had quoted.  That’s a third more!

I had finally gotten that quote after having run through a long automated menu tree before being subjected to the tedious sales pitch.  Why?  Because the local shop that is either a franchise or a wholly owned subsidiary entity had no control over its own relationships with its local customers.

Fact is, auto windshield repair and replacement is an inherently local transaction.  Each shop does not produce its own product or have its own supply chain.  They all draw needed parts from the same wholesale distributors of auto glass.

Later, I had a conversation with the owner of the locally owned shop, which I had chosen for the job.  He had the best price and had quoted it to me immediately without asking me for any information other than the make and model of my vehicle.  I could not resist telling him that the corporate shop’s telemarketer had quoted about $75- more than he had.  He simply replied that he could not understand how people could charge so much.  This man sells and installs products for people in his own town, with whom he may have other relations as well.  His responsibility is personal not merely a matter of being employed by a largely anonymous organization headquartered in some other state.

The implication I took was that an honest man would be embarrassed to be known to overcharge his neighbors like that.  Such a man does not objectify his business relationships with others as a distant telemarketer would.  He views them with human respect and makes a good living in the process.  Whoever runs that local shop for the corporation probably makes much less money than an honest shop owner.  The corporation, of course, makes more.

The point here is not how much anyone makes, but how humans relate to one another in an economic context.  As complex modern economies have “integrated” and corporations merged and consolidated, less and less room has been left for immediate interaction between two individuals, each of which has a personal stake in the interaction.  “When Corporations Rule the World,” as David Korten puts it, humans interact at greater and greater social distance from one another.  Their mutual indifference to their mutual humanity is correspondingly greater.

A lot of people are starting to get it.  They realize that the way things have become organized, nothing human matters any more in the conduct of business, except the pretense of human caring.  They [we] want to engage with other people in real transactions close up, as actual persons — not just actors in a scripted business ritual.  This is part of what the “buy local” movement, as well as the “slow food,” the “farm to table,” and the local and public banking and finance movements are about.  People in communities are doing business with their neighbors instead of being subjected to distant corporate criteria for economic transactions about which no negotiation is possible.

It is important to note that reducing distances in economic exchanges is a critical element in transforming the corporate growth economy into many local ecological economies.  Only by breaking the cycle of growth addiction and financial centralization will there be a chance to transform our failing economic systems to make them both humane and compatible with the earth systems upon which they depend.

Solutions to seemingly diverse problems appear to converge.  A recent and growing body of research on happiness and human well being is informative.  Beyond the basics, happiness and subjective wellbeing do not increase with greater wealth and power.  Happiness is greater in nations with lesser GDP [gross domestic product] than in the economically “advanced” nations.*

Both happiness and survival of the human species is now dependent upon reorganizing social relations.  We need steady-state local economies where transactions occur primarily among  people who engage with each other, not at a distance,, but in good old face-to-face interaction.

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* James Speth provides a good summary of the research fields of happiness and well-being in chapter 6 of The Bridge to the Edge of the World (Caravan Books, 2008).