A short post for you after the recent long post. I work as a translator now, so am reading material I ordinarily would not read. Everything is food for thought, and one set of documents for chemical giant BASF’s R&D labs got me thinking about research and development as a metaphor for social welfare (W).
To stay viable over the long term, a corporation or other large enterprise must reinvest some portion of its profits (surplus) into R&D. If it does not, it risks being left behind by either other large companies who do have sufficient capacities for R&D, or innovative start-ups eating up their market share.
But R&D is risky. You simply cannot know in advance which money-pit is going to produce the next new wonder product the whole world can’t do without. So it takes courage and faith to invest in this area. Nowadays, the big boys often save on R&D and just buy out successful start-ups, ‘out-sourcing’ R&D costs to pioneers and society generally. But for a socioeconomic system to have sufficient surplus to fund sufficient numbers of pioneers for keeping society ‘modern’ and ‘competitive’, there must be high and well-paid employment, sufficient free time, a good welfare safety-net, and good education. So, we can see that surplus, or excess, or fat, is essential for development of the new.
This is true across nature generally. The number of seeds an apple tree produces every year would be far in excess of requirements if every single seed took root and grew into a mature and productive apple tree. The number of sperm a fertile man can produce far exceeds the number of children he can help to raise, ditto the number of eggs a woman can produce. The examples are endless. Excess is ‘natural’. And you cannot know in advance which seed, which new idea, which egg is going to produce the wonder X the world didn’t know it was waiting for, nor can you know what the ‘negative’ consequences brought into being by product/offspring X are going to be. Uncertainty is inescapable (and beautiful). Not being able to predict and control all outcomes is what makes life worth living.
What is clear, is that evolution/change/innovation/development requires excess, or surplus, or fat. Efficiency is a useful skill or modality, and successful living systems are most often efficient users of energy, for example. But if razor-sharp efficiency is all you have, if you are an efficiency one-trick pony, you spend your entire life merely surviving, until some New Kid On The Block knocks you over with its new tricks.
In this light, social welfare can be thought of as cultural R&D. We cannot know which of the millions of artists, inventors, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers, piss artists, ‘good-for-nothings’, lost souls, etc., are going to be ‘useful’ to society, today or tomorrow, nor what ‘usefulness’ really is, especially over the long term, but we can know, or assert, that a vibrant culture – one not geared to 100% efficiency and capable only of taking care of immediate, day-to-day needs – must take a risk and invest constantly in that which may never produce anything ‘useful’. Cultural vibrancy is the overarching ‘meta-useful’ product of welfare.
And the metaphor I’ve just presented does not consider the perhaps more important factor of morality; what does it mean to judge, either by majority or dictator or monarch, what is valuable to society, and what is not? There can be no list, no top ten or hundred Valuable Things a society should nurture and protect, where everything lower down on the list can just be wiped out.
Then there is the matter of Dignity of Interbeing, which means we should be very careful about consigning anything to the trash heap just because we can detect no immediate use for it. We are not so all-knowing that we can be sure we know what we’re doing. Humility is vital to long term survival and health.
So, things like a guaranteed income, the slowing down of the rat race – which Just Knows that more More MORE! is what life is all about –, the steady demotion of money and the careful promotion of real wealth, are in fact sensible, pragmatic proposals, wise R&D investments back into culture we will bitterly regret not risking, should we fail to do so. And while we suffer the nightmare of Money=Wealth, and insist on using this terrible equation as sole determinant of all society should value, we continue to impoverish ourselves in pursuit of a ballooning vapour-wealth which is destined to vanish anyway.