Monday, September 14, 2009

Toward a Metric of Human Waste

I mentioned yesterday that I hope to attend tonight’s Objectivist talk at NYU (8pm, Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, Room 401) by Yaron Brook and John Allison about the causes of the financial crisis — but I also hinted I’m wary of ideologues oversimplifying the highly complex issue.

Demonstrating that one might still analyze the technical details of the crisis and reach largely anti-statist and even anti-regulatory conclusions, though, is the nuanced special issue of Critical Review on the topic (Vol. 21, No. 2-3), about which I’ll write more during next month’s “Month of Utopia” entries. In the meantime, you can read the editor, Jeffrey Friedman’s Weekly Standard article on the topic, a retort to (fairly market-friendly) Richard Posner’s book calling the crisis A Failure of Capitalism (though it depends on what one means by capitalism, of course — one of Friedman’s main points in his intro to the Critical Review issue is that modern finance has been shaped as much by regulations, which now look unwise in retrospect, as by pure market activity).

Friedman and other contributors to the CR issue are now blogging about the important, possibly epoch-defining topic at (Nobelists are cropping up everywhere lately — I mentioned two yesterday, and Vernon Smith has weighed in on the CotC blog already).


If economics could handle vast, mind-bogglingly complicated big-picture systemic questions half as well as it pretends to, my unsophisticated, amateur-curiosity-driven, highly philosophically-loaded big question would be this:

If total human output — all the energy we put into everything, not just big public or business endeavors — is taken to equal, say, 100, I often wonder what percentage would be left if we subtracted all the energy put into things I’d consider (in a fairly tolerant, non-too-judgmental sense) demonstrably socially destructive or irrational (in the sense of thwarting rather than facilitating stated ends).

That is to say, what would be left with if we subtracted all the energy put into (a) governing, (b) fighting about different styles of governing, (c) theorizing about governing, (d) war, (e) crime, (f) fighting and intellectualizing to prevent war and crime, (g) coping with regulations and taxes via grey markets and the like, (h) doing things based on false premises such as the expectation that wheatgrass will prevent cancer or that going to church once a week will grant immortality to the soul (or that reading The Secret will confer telekinesis-like powers over random events or that buying Axe body spray will end your involuntary celibacy), (i) being willfully irrational or self-destructively overemotional, and (j) simply treating other people like crap in ways that defy any game-theoretical expectations of the actor being made more happy or avoiding retaliatory crap (say, anger-induced actions that impede rather than grease the wheels of general human interaction)?

My plainly-vague guess is that not a whole lot of daily human effort falls outside these accursed categories. Or at least, far less than you’d think at first glance from the all the ostensibly-heroic striving and struggling human beings do.


And here’s the more depressing thought — though it’s also exciting in a sort of sci-fi way: How glorious and pleasant a world is the one we are denied by people continuing to do items (a) through (j), that is, how amazing is the just-barely-inaccessible world that I wish I lived in (and am trying in my small, feeble way to encourage, both at work and in my private life)? How badly have we been robbed (by ourselves, so to speak) by the fact that virtually everyone is a nut or a jerk or both, or is at best deluded by macroeconomists, macrobiotics, or cult leaders?

I somehow grew up, without too much effort, thinking logic/evidence and kindness yield the shortest distance between point A (desire) and point B (happiness) — and all subsequent experience has confirmed these suppositions. Yet experience also teaches me that surprisingly few people operate on those premises, and many are consciously not even trying to get to B. There is an infinitude of other operational premises to choose from, after all, and people get very attached to them, whether it’s “Mock others to feel strong” or “Just keep wishing until good things happen” or “Keep eating to distract myself from the problem of my obesity” or “Make our voices heard and government will solve the problem.” People are nuts, or at least are often mildly wrong. Few seem to care. What a waste.

And (speaking of waste) if all this sounds like inhumane, arrogant griping — as if I’m the killjoy here — keep in mind how many people on the receiving end of humanity’s irrationality have it far worse than I do. Take for example the little girl living in statist economic deprivation and religious marginalization in a garbage dump in the documentary Marina of Zabbaleen, which I plan to see tomorrow night at 8 at ImaginAsian Theater — perhaps making the fate of large American banks seem secondary, perhaps making such things seem even more urgent.

No comments: