08 June, 2008

This isn't really complete, but there's NOTHING happening

So, I'm not even sure if what follows is a complete thought, and far from a developed notion, but I wanted to run something across the cheese graters of your minds.

I think I'm a communist. At least, I have no better way to describe it, although saying that I all of a sudden subscribe to a socio-political system may be premature. More like a critique, and I'm sure I'm not alone with this one.

Earlier today, at the mere mention of the word "Green," in the context of marketing eco-friendly products as green and the continuing greenification of our country, the old wheels started turning in my head. This all culminated with me yelling, in my mind, at a Prius owner.

The upshot of all this is what I see as negative trends in our national economy, attitudes, and awareness. "Going green," "Green cars," "Green energy, "Green foods." I hate those phrases. Of course, I support cleaning up our lives with regards to waste, emissions, and overal ecological impact. However, that is not what I see happening with America today, even though I see more "green" commercials than ever these days.

Certifying organic farms through the ridiculous beauracracy, carving out "natural" plots of land from mega commercial farms, creating giant conglomerates of natural farms--all of this kind of activity (and this is just talking about farming) fails to address what is to my mind a more serious and fundamental problem: The System.

You all know me pretty well, and probably know where this is going now.

By "the System," I basically mean America, with all the prevalent attitudes and practices that go along with it. The system of life that we have created is flawed, and it has spawed satellite systems that process, package, and market products as varied as meat, cars, sex, love, and little plastic baubles that make funny noises when you hit them against something.

So, the problem I see is that people eventually realized the system was flawed. That happened about the time we realized we're killing our planet. The reaction was largely positive, and great steps have been taken towards improving our lot. We have, since the initial golden period, lost sight of our goal. We've decided to process, package, and market green-ness and saving the environment, and we've stuck them on the shelf between little organic potatoes and all-natural acai juice.

It's a luxury to be natural and to buy organic. It costs more to drive hybrid cars, eat organic vegetables, and live a cleaner life. It costs more because we haven't changed the underlying system that created the cheap and dirty life in the first place. Rather than changing that system, we're forcing all the square pegs that are noble-minded and positive into the proverbial round hole.

So, I think I'm a communist. The natural, clean, organic, efficient methods of living should be readily available to society at large as we work to change this country into something that doesn't quite so closely resemble an open sore on the planet.

I desperately want to be missing something here. Tell me that I'm being naive, and that the direction we've taken really is the best we have right now, and it's getting even better. I'll stop here to let you all respond, and since obviously you're not posting much anyway, you'll have plenty of time to think and react.

Peace out, much love, word to your mother.



Elliot said...

I mean, I think "communist" is a bit too narrow of a concept to really fit the sort of general malaise you feel regarding our System.

Communism (Marxism, more precisely) is a certain way of interpreting the dynamics of society. But you don't say much about how you see those dynamics; rather, you articulate a goal about where we should go. But how do we get there? By massive, state-dominated central control of the means of production? Or by technocratically (and democratically) tweaking the decentralized mechanisms of the free-market to change incentives to reflect different values? Or is there a third way? Is our whole paradigm too limited?

I, for one, don't really think you're a communist. Skepticism as to the salubrious nature of capitalism could be the beginning of an anti-market worldview, but it doesn't in itself denote communism.

spencer said...

I like to think of my mind as the finest side of the cheese grater--the kind that only works with hard cheeses like parmigiano reggiano. What you've articulated here is more of a goat's milk brie. Delicious, but ultimately too squishy to grate.

In any case, you may well be a communist, which is fine. Some of my best friends are communists. As James points out, since all you have at this point is a critique, you should probably call yourself a Marxist.

However, I would still like to examine your arguments. Why might one be against the marketing of "green" consumer goods? I can think of a couple of reason.

First, perhaps "green" terms don't have much meaning. As you say, "natural" food is often grown on large mega-farms. But the problem here is not the words are used but the fact that their official definition doesn't have enough bite. Make them stricter and they'll have more meaning.

On the other hand, you may object to the "commoditization" of environmentalism. Before, everyone in the movement had the purest of intentions, and now people are using it to make money. But are the effects of this actually bad? People are certainly buying more "green" products than they did in 1980, because they didn't exist then. Why not use social pressure and people's vague sense of moral responsibility to advance environmental goals? It's far far harder to persuade everyone to adopt your visceral convictions than it is to guilt them into buying Seventh Generation toilet paper instead of Scott's.

A more serious objection is that the prevalence of "green" products means that people can assuage their guilt by making a few token "green" purchases while still driving their Hummer two blocks to the grocery store. I have three responses to this objection. First, if the person is buying legitimate carbon offsets, I think that's perfectly fine. They are reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere from what it otherwise would be. Second, even if their token purchases are just the "green" versions of a few products they usually buy, this is still something. It is not clear to me that these people would have made greater sacrifices had "green" products not been available. If they don't know that the "green" purchases aren't doing enough, give them more information! But third and most importantly, this is ultimately an empirical question that neither of us (currently) has the data to answer.

Ultimately, the solution to all of these problems is a strong carbon tax. Then "green" products wouldn't have to be called "green", they'd just be called "cheap". (And I must strenuously object to yelling at Prius owners--a couple days ago, a Prius owner gave my companion and I a ride home from a garage sale yesterday when we were in a distant neighborhood with a giant box of plates. She was extremely nice and even gave me a couple of Obama stickers before picking her wife and daughter up from basketball practice.)

Moving on. I'm not sure what "golden period" you are referring to when you say that we've somehow fallen from enlightened leftist grace. Perhaps the Seattle WTO riots? I'd say that leftist movements have only grown stronger since then. Since Marx? Since "An Inconvenient Truth"? I don't think "we" have lost sight of any goal, it's just that the market has found that the goal of a cleaner planet is actually profitable. Why is it profitable? Because more people care about it (are willing to spend money on it, even) than ever in our history. I'm not saying this is enough by any means, far from it. But it is not regress, it is progress.

I agree that it shouldn't be a luxury to buy "natural" or "organic" things. But in my view, the best way to change these things is to make the "system" work better. Eliminate corn subsidies, tax carbon, enforce stricter penalties for animal cruelty. Doing these things will guide people to choose the right path.

The basis of my view is that it is not society's ideas that matter, but the incentives that it provides to its members. I simply don't think it is possible that everyone can be convinced that climate change is the most serious problem in our world and that this would translate into action. There are just far too many collective action problems involved. Moreover, we don't have the time to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Purity of intention, if it is worth anything at all, is worth nothing if it hinders actual, practical attempts to solve problems.

Cassady said...

See, this is why I need you guys, you tell me who I am. You always have the words I can't quite find, and Spencer, you've managed to save markets for me yet again.

I knew from the start that communist wasn't the appropriate word, my struggle began with just that--what to call myself, how to identify my core beliefs.

All I was faced with during this inward stare was dissapointment and disgust that enough people don't seem to care in face of all the dangerous facts of our situation that are out there. It's those visceral feelings I have that I want America- and humanity-at-large to share, because in my case they actually motivate me towards productive action.

Perhaps it's self-righteous and just straight wrong to say that people don't care. I'm too much the Kantian to let people off without more strictly following the moral imperatives that are so blindingly obvious with regards to saving our world.

Spence, I'd like to touch on your first point. Good one. The actual use of the term "Green" hasn't been an official or concerted effort by government or companies to promote something. Rather, some clever marketing major secured his job future with a random thought in a planning meeting--well, that's more likely in my opinion. The problem with the word is that it's just a feel-good that doesn't really tell you if you've made a choice that has had at least some positive ecological impact.

On the other hand, organic farms have quite stict standards to meet before they can be certified as organic. "Organic" carries some weight where "Green" comes up short. Still, there are problems with the way organic farms are dealt with. When they carve out a plot of land from a mega-farm and start using all-natural means of cultivation for a few years, they become organic. The shortsighted error with this, is that there aren't regulations about distances between conventional and organic farmlands, nor sequestering conventional farmland run-off into those supposedly "organic" areas.

That should be easy enough to deal with, but right now it's just frustrating.

As I've said before Spence, you've saved the market for me yet again. My earlier malaise has subsided a bit (oddly coinciding with the rain stopping), and I'm a little more calm about this whole thing.

Market forces work when they're allowed to, and I like that. As more bio-friendly products get out there, they get cheaper, and general attitudes change, the market will lean people towards making those better decisions about which products to purchase.

And you're right, even if it's only here and there for the time being, every small decision that DOES get made represents a step in the right direction.

As for that elusive Golden Period...I don't even know. I suppose in my ill-formed, cheesy mind I pictured a noble beginning to the serious environmental movement--probably along the lines of William Wallace leading a small band of not-quite-starving middle-class Americans into battle against corporate fat cats over oil prices. (That'd be an interesting movie: Braveheart 2...oh wait, Mel Gibson already did that, and called it 'The Patriot...'my bad)

So, the question has been posed to me whether is society's role to impose various regulations requiring ethical actions from it's members (ala Marxism?) or whether society ought only to build the system that enables positive incentives to shape those choices. A good question it is, too. I feel right now that I identify with the second more fully--however, my original post reminds me that I was initially upset that the system that is in place to provide those incentives is not what it should be.

I'm going to cellar and age this gooey, mal-formed cheese for awhile. Soon, my friends, it shall be the sharp cheddar of reason that puckers the mouths of policy- and home-makers alike!

*On a side note, I didn't actually yell at the Prius driver, it was in my head. And it felt more like the dam-burst feeling when Robin Williams finally gets Matt Damon to break down in his arms. I was just upset that driving a Prius, to a large extent, means that you've already made enough money within the broken system to allow yourself the 'feel-good' choices of the monied classes. What I should have felt was gratitude, I suppose, that at least one of those monied people had made the better decision and not bought a new Hummer.

Eremita said...

Well, Spence, I'll take your jab personally and make this point about "society's ideas." We idea-philes are not suggesting that something like the an environmental crisis can be solved by everyone deciding to go against incentives because of their moral convictions. And I agree, it would be nearly impossible to convince "everyone" to perform some meaningful act when the incentives are against it. Nevertheless, when all the (money) incentives are against a change, you better hope that ideas can come in and save the day. "Everyone" doesn't have to be convinced, but a number of policy-makers do. And someone's ideas better be convincing enough to pull those people away from their money incentives (big lobbies of non-green industries). If the convincing idea is laden with the promise of future incentives (personal or public), even better. I'll admit that this is usually the case, and I don't think that damages my point. And one further note (though I don't think that this is what the environmental movement will require) sometimes if those few minds of policy-makers can't be changed in a reasonable amount of time, a shift in the "societal ideas" of a large block of the voting public can make that change happen from the bottom up. It may be rare, revolutionary, and generally unnecessary, but it does happen and we in a democracy can expect it of ourselves when we find we are the voters, not the policy-makers.

Cassady said...

Eremita highlights the struggle I feel...pretty much all the time.

I said before that I like the market system, because market forces work--generally. I also happen to be of the mind that US trade policies, special interest groups, and just plain money-influence go a long way towards damaging otherwise healthy markets. This is where my latent anti-capitalism sets in.

So, I generally can approve of the free market, but I also want people to, ala Eremita, recognize the power and promise of those good, moral ideas for change and progress.

What it boils down to is that I ask more of people than can reasonably be expected at this point in time. Sad panda.

spencer said...

Glad I could help, though I don't think I was saying anything particularly insightful.

I will nitpick and say that to "impose various regulations requiring ethical actions from it's members" is not Marxism. I'd call it perfectionism (ala George Sher or Robert George), though most formulations are typically very conservative.

spencer said...

Eremita, I did indeed mean to provoke you with that jab, so I'm glad you responded.

To your point: I disagree with you that ideas are working against incentives (not strictly monetary, but economic incentives in general.) I don't think you can find an example of a change in society that is driven by ideas fighting against incentives. Rather, the ideas that gain prominence are those that are supported by the incentives of the current institutional structure.

Indeed the reason that a large bloc of voters can exercise any influence at all on politicians is because politicians can lose elections or get bad press.

Eremita said...

Well I have zero confidence, Spence, that I can convince you in this chicken-or-egg argument, but... I'll comment anyway. If you're saying that people advancing ideas make use of incentives to be successful, or, more simply, that ideas can be incentives, well then...it seems that we are agreeing. I mean, that is exactly what I am trying to say, that voters' ideas ARE incentives to politicians.

However, if you're saying that the very ideas we have are determined by market forces (not the success of the ideas, but which ideas we have), then I have to disagree. I cannot think of ideas as merely rationalizations we have AFTER THE FACT to explain societal changes driven by the market. I'm still traditional enough to think one reasonable way to look at history is as not-inevitable, as directed partly by revolutionary thinkers.

Putting the question of ideas-as-real-incentives in the light of history as well as social change brings up the fundamental reason I am uncomfortable with abandoning the reality of ideas: to do so questions the existence of human free will. It emaciates the concepts of change, of history, of the human pursuit of knowledge. Though I am sure people of Spencer's persuasion can claim that people still have "freedom" in a history driven only by economic incentives, surely they must admit it is not the kind of free will someone of my persuasion believes in. It is because of this that I think the view of ideas as rationalizations, as less-than-real incentives, is not only a boring view of human life, but also a dangerous one.

spencer said...

Well, let me try to respond because I think I'm not making quite as strong a claim as you state in your second paragraph (although I am making a stronger claim than the one in your first paragraph.)

First, let me disclaim that I think ideas are very personally important and I certainly act as if I have the freedom (as we all should) to pick between competing ideas, etc. And this is exactly why we are having this argument, no?

But, like any good social scientist, I think that patterns of behavior emerge on the level of society. Although we may each have (or at least believe we have) free will, there are systematic tendencies in our decision-making. If you don't agree with this, I'd point you to the successes of economics, sociology, political science, etc. Note that these are of course statistical relationships, not deterministic.

I'm not making any claim that the specific ideas we have are somehow generated or determined by economic forces. Rather, I agree with your parenthetical: the success of ideas is determined by economic forces. I don't think that ideas are after-the-fact rationalizations, but the ideas tend to arise as reflections of economic conditions in some way.

This is not to denigrate the individual ideas or thinkers in any way. But I think that it is useful to think about what ideas catch on in an evolutionary way. Lots of people have lots of ideas every day. But some ideas fail quickly, others sputter about, others are wildly successful. For example, the idea of markets as way to allocate resources has been, more or less, wildly successful precisely because societies that adopt markets are successful themselves and so are able to spread the word. So you might say, "A-ha! The power of ideas is manifest!", but the success of the idea is inextricably linked to the economic success (or, in the case of, say, Marxism, non-success) of it's carriers.

Elliot said...

Very interesting conversation, all. I would just like to defend the Prius as some sort of upper-class only car. According to Toyota site, the Prius starts at 21,000. Ford and Chevy have some four doors in the 12-18,000 range, but the Prius is squarely in the middle class price range. Add to that that you nearly never need to pay for gas and you're saving in the range of (20 mile commute/day by 30 mpg by 210 days/year = 140 gallons/year by $4/gallon) $560 a year. And I'd say that's a low estimate -- most people drive more with worse gas mileage. Of course, such a car should be much cheaper when the true costs of gasoline are factored in. But just sayin'.

Eremita said...

As a true idea-phile, I am arguing FOR using the economic/social/popular success of an idea as a major component of judging it as a good or bad idea. I mean, that ideas influence and are influenced by the world is precisely what I am arguing for...so I do not disagree with the claims in your last post about what historical economic successes can show us about ideas, and I agree further that studying incentives as social scientists can help us predict how that will happen in the future.

But these claims are a far cry from the original claims you made earlier in this thread: that "it is not society's ideas that matter, but the incentives that it provides to its members" and that convincing people of an idea would not (ever?) "translate into action."

I don't think it is philosophically tenable to simultaneously hold those more radical claims, the ideas-as-incentives points I think we are agreeing upon, AND a robust concept of human free will....and, therefore, a reasonable view of history and change.

spencer said...

Okay, so you've caught me in a contradiction. If ideas have no effect on human behavior, then how can they cause some societies to be more successful and some less successful? I do buy the evolutionary argument, so I'll concede the point that ideas can't affect human behavior.

However, I will retreat to a weaker version of the claim. Let's say we want more people to do X. What's a more cost-effective way to change people's behavior: a campaign to convince them that X is good, or a subsidy for X? I'd argue that economic incentives are more cost-effective by an order of magnitude.

Eremita said...

Yay! In good faith, then, I will admit that I have concentrated on arguments intended to underline the importance of ideas exclusively, though in reality the general public misunderstands both the power of ideas and of economics.

I'll put in this last point here: Spence you said that if "we" want people to do X, "we" should give them economic incentives to do so. I agree this is an effective way to get the public to do X. But if "we" are not the policy-makers who can give us economic incentives - if instead we are members of the public who would like to see policy reflecting our ideas...then convincing the right people must be our method. Granted, using incentives (donations, votes, boycotts) are great ways to do this, so you can go around and around with this argument but...still I hope this shows why forgetting that ideas are the power of the voters is a bad plan.