Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Letter to Deborah Orr


Dear Ms Orr,

I was very pleased to read your article of the 13 July 2012, Yes, banking’s a mess, but be part of the solution. Move your money!, and further encouraged by last week’s Now Cameron wants us to spend again. And borrow. Have we learned nothing? I don’t follow the newspapers as I used to, so cannot be sure how rare such articles are, but my impression is that the mainstream has yet to grasp this particular, all-important nettle as fully as it ought (I note The Economist, The Independent and The Financial Times have recently identified the money system as a systemic problem). The money system and its relationship with perpetual growth consumerism lies at the heart of today’s many problems, and urgently needs to be addressed. Thank you for addressing it.

I have been studying the money system and money itself for many years now, but am not writing to pound you with the details of that research. My hope in reaching out to you in this way, is that you might tackle a topic closely related to the money system and consumerism: basic guaranteed income. Basic guaranteed income was supported by Martin Luther King and is (was) proposed by various economists, including Milton Friedman. The idea is rare in that it both unites and divides across the political spectrum. It cuts to the heart of why we have an economy in the first place, what it means to earn a living, challenges the received and seldom questioned wisdom that money is wealth, yet somehow also measures wealth (value) accurately, and presents government with the tantalising (yet frightening) option of simplifying the entire tax code to ‘finance’ guaranteed income. Like no other idea I know, this one opens up a can of worms which never fails to excite debate – one we sorely need.

I’ve lived in Berlin for over a decade now, but only last year came to learn of Ralph Boes. Boes is a Berlin-based philosopher-writer who has taken on the might of the German state by challenging what he sees as the anti-constitutional Hartz IV system (unemployment benefit), which he equates with forced (meaningless) labour. The first line of the German constitution is “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” But if people claiming Hartz IV do not accept the work assigned to them by the state (often for 1€ an hour), however real an affront to their dignity, they are sanctioned, and can end up on the streets. Homelessness is on the rise in Germany. Boes himself is claiming Hartz IV benefits, and has written a Brandbrief (an open letter of defiant political intent, which I recently translated into English), which he personally handed to Angela Merkel (among others). His determination is to reject any paid work offered to him by the state on the grounds that he works full-time for no pay, campaigning across Germany for a basic guaranteed income. His action constitutes an overt and public attempt to invite sanctions. Over a year later, he has just received his first threat of sanctions (30% reduction in his benefits if he does not apply for a job in a call centre), but is still working full-time for no pay. He threatens to go on hunger strike if sanctioned and also to take the case to Karlsruhe (German Constitutional Court). My reading of the situation is that he has the state somewhat on the run, though if the state is to remain the biggest bully on the block, it is obliged to defeat this annoyance by hook or by crook.

How does this relate to the UK? You wrote another article some years ago challenging the patronising New Labour position that everyone can be successful, that with a little help and a push, every citizen can shine and be a useful contributor to the economy. Your article changed my way of thinking about the economy and economic activity (GDP activity), and is the other reason I am approaching you with this sprawling topic; I hope to find in you an open and serious listener, since you are obviously well aware of these fundamental questions, and are prepared to tackle them. In a similar vein to that earlier article, Boes talks eloquently about what he calls the “right to laziness”. Here is a quote from his Brandbrief:

“I hold sacred all work which springs from the earnest inner concern of a person
-          regardless of whether it is performed externally or internally
-          and regardless of whether or not it is “gainful”!”

Success cannot be objectively assessed, the path to it cannot be prescribed. People are only free to ‘fail’ and ‘succeed’ on their own terms and in terms of their personal development when they are free of existential angst, a freedom granted by a guaranteed income. Today, after many decades of breathless technological innovation, we simply do not need human labour as we once did. Can we let the primary consequence of this inescapable fact be that those humans not needed for the production of goods and services are treated by society as useless? Killing off the economically unnecessary (e.g. through war) – regardless of moral issues and to be extreme for a moment – would be no solution, since we only need a percentage of the population to be economically active. We already produce more than we can consume, and the unemployed have too little purchasing power. As if to exacerbate this well known capitalist challenge, we have a money system which forces perpetual economic growth on us, since it creates money almost exclusively as interest-bearing debt, as you highlighted in your article. This means that to pay off the interest owed – which is not created alongside the debt – on the debt-money created, more people have to take on more debt, forever. When people stop taking on new debt, defaults increase, the money supply consequently shrinks, and financial crises ensue. The money system we have today is thus in essence a Ponzi scheme: if it is not growing, it is collapsing. Perpetual growth is thus the impossible gold which backs this money system, an obviously untenable situation. We are seeing the terrible negative consequences of this across the planet today.

As sane people recognise, the economy cannot grow forever. And why should it? Where is it proven that of all things, economic activity is so vital, good and supernatural that it alone should grow forever? Why do politicians insist on economic growth? What’s wrong with non-economic activity, such as friendship, volunteer work, parenting, reading, strolling, musing, chatting, lazing, etc.? These things must shrink if the economy is to grow forever.

The pat answer is that economic growth creates jobs (though we now know jobless growth and jobless recovery are possible!). Why are jobs so important? Because they are more or less the only economic mechanism we have of equipping consumers with purchasing power, and also, sadly, the way many of us derive our sense of self-worth (I note suicides among over-55 males are on the rise). A basic guaranteed income flies in the face of this system of values, and says people should be freed by an unconditional income to contribute as they decide, not as money decides, not as The Market decides, not as The State decides. We shouldn’t have to earn money to live, we should be freed to live and contribute by a guaranteed income. To be against guaranteed income is thus to be for the idea that only economic activity (a.k.a. consumerism) is valuable, or that it has far more value than non-economic activity. In Boes’ view, we should not be compelled to earn the money we need to survive, doing work the world either does not need or is damaged by, in the name of something both impossible and destructive anyway: perpetual economic growth. Again, this situation is untenable.

A guaranteed income cannot mean the end of work. There is only work. This is an issue of definition. From a physical point of view, everything is always at work, including humans. Whether sleeping, holidaying, laughing, crying, digging, gardening, breastfeeding, fornicating, etc., we are always doing something. Even decay after death is work. Thus, no longer needing to work economically to survive cannot mean not having to work at all, nor can it mean not having to create a place in your community for yourself: to feel needed and valued by others requires work. Guaranteed income presents us with the cultural challenge of redefining work, utility, reward, success, value, etc. I consider that an enormous challenge, but one we are forced by circumstances to explore and take on.

Why should money and economic activity have such a death grip on our cultural sense of value and contribution, of what is possible, of what we can afford? If ever we needed to free ourselves of this grip, it is now, and to do so we need the help and work of people like you, Ms Orr. Ralph Boes’ efforts in Berlin against Hartz IV and to promote guaranteed income may be local to Berlin and Germany, but need global attention nevertheless, since the connotations of his work are relevant to us all. If we are to take on The Money Power (US President van Buren’s phrase) as you have and others are beginning to, we must be prepared to tackle our cultural relationship with value and utility too, since today both are almost exclusively defined by money.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
Toby Russell

P.S. Further reading, should this enormous topic indeed interest you:


16 comments:

Debra said...

Good for you, Toby. I hope that my homonym will read this letter...
That said, I feel moved to do a little nitpicking, as always.
I feel that it is very important to flesh out, and expand the meaning of the word "economic" in our current political debate.
Equating "economic" with "exchanges involving MONEY" is a great part of our problem.
If you take a good look at our language, we talk about being.. "interested" in something, for example.
That simple observation shows that the big words are in domains that are not EXCLUSIVELY devoted to money.
As I like to remind people, Jesus's teaching gives us a very good example how metaphors... work, right ?
As usual, the biggest problems are under our noses, and we are blind to them...
I still maintain that our reductionist attitudes towards language are creating much of our suffering at this time. Perhaps this is.. business as usual ?
This position may appear... abstract, and in the stratosphere, but I think.. not.
As for the idea that we are always working... I do not agree at all.
The "always" word is key. It introduces the absolute.
We are not always working.
Indeed, the much maligned FEMININE principle suggests that we are NOT always working.
What a totalitarian world, Toby, if we were... always working.
Suggesting that we are always working gives credit to the infatigable, constantly pushing masculine principle which is good, but... NOT ALWAYS.
How much..work could ? would ? get done if we were.. ALL walking around with constant erections ??
;-)

Toby said...

Hi Debbie,

I agree deeply with your comment about the word "economic", but could not go into that in a letter probably already too long.

But as you have looked at that word, ought we not also look at the word "work". I feel you are too narrow in associating it with the masculine. Like I say, when we are lazing or visiting our muse, we are at work. It's really just a matter of definition. The reason I open up this for debate is because of the reflex reaction people have against the idea of being given money for 'nothing'. I.e. for no 'work' at all. But there can be no thing which humans do which is not somehow contributing to the current and ongoing state of Universe, which is not somehow work. What unnecessary distinction are we drawing when we insist on keeping work and pleasure separate, associating 'economic' work with utility and 'non-economic' work with zero utility. It all comes down to our culture's obsession with measuring things, but again, space did not allow.

Besides, my intent is to arouse debate. I hope the letter does that.

If we (men) were always walking around fully erect, a lot would get done. But how would we measure its utility? Inches are one thing, social utility quite another.

Debra said...

Lol, Toby, I am not all that sure that running around with a 24 hour erection would get a lot of work done...
Your comment just stirred memories in me.
The French word for "work" is "travail".
The still.. FIRST definition (in most dictionaries...) for "travail" is the... work ? that WOMEN do in the process of bringing a child into the world.
Is a woman.. working when she is in labor (as we say in English...) ?
This may sound like a frivolous subject, but it is NOT.
The answer to this question, whatever it may be, carries some far reaching implications for our attitudes towards work.
Woman's WORK.
Is it.. identical to man's work ?
SHOULD IT BE ??
If it is... what happens to our understanding of the word "work" ?

Toby said...

I'm not sure such distinction are helpful to a discussion on guaranteed income, except insofar as to point out that work can be both good and unpayable (at least directly payable -- a BGI sort of pays everyone). I use a deliberately very broad definition of work -- pretty much all acitivity whatsoever -- to encourage responses which lead to discussions on value and utility. Because value and utility must remain subjective by definition, we cannot reasonably maintain uniformly clear distinctions between valuable work and useless work -- such judgments are too subjective, even with the mighty state pulling so many cultural strings.

So, when it comes to our unexamined (at the popular level anayway) and very reflexive notions about work being productive and leisure/play/lazing/sleeping being somehow unproductive because devoid of measurable value, we are dealing with the shallowest platitudes and received wisdoms which belong to a set of socioeconomic circumstances long since perished. The distinctions I am referencing had 'utility' and were helpful back then in the bad old days, but are so hard to let go of today when we so badly need to. Once we have done so, much else will have been transformed in the process, including money, and our cultural understanding of value, utility and work. In my opinion of course. ;-)

Toby said...

I think my response was a bit crap.

Giving birth is unpayable work for functional reasons - who would directly pay? The child? The father? The family? Paying for it in money sounds horrible, absurd. But in an indrect sense, society protects its own and husbands its environment wisely and sustainably enough to be able to carry on protecting its own, i.e., pays for everything one way or another. In this way, a guaranteed income can be one part of many solutions which together act as society taking care of its own. In other words, indireclty paying for all human activity (work) one way or another.

Directly unpayable work is work which if commercialised would be ruined. As the so-called economy grows and grows, it smothers the little space we have left to engage in this kind of work. Here I include things like sleeping, making love, lazing around, strolling in the country or city, chatting with friends, etc. The value and utility of these types of work varies from perspective to perspective (this is of course true of paid work too -- the way society values lawyers and bankers is hardly uniform, though they tend to be paid far more than nurses and teachers), and this variety is of course a Good Thing. To rescue this work, to give it space to breath, while also getting us off our addiction to consumerism and Perpetual Growth, one of the things we need is a guaranteed income.

Perhaps that's a better explanation.

Debra said...

You know how I like to play devil's advocate, Toby...
My Jewish traits ?
In France, almost all of our local museums are free...
And there are often not too many people running around in those... free museums.
Certainly not... the unemployed, for example.
I also don't see tons of people picking the FREE FRUIT on some of the common trees around my home.
Why not, Toby ?
Could it be because... SO MANY PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE POOR, BELIEVE THAT IN ORDER FOR SOMETHING TO HAVE VALUE (in their own eyes, Toby...) IT MUST HAVE A PRICE TAG ON IT AND BE BOUGHT IN A STORE ?? You really don't have to.. work, Toby, to slap down some dollars and cents/euros in order to access the result of somebody else's... sweat and labor. Not much physical effort involved there...
There are quite a few unemployed people who have SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF FREE (!!!!) TIME on their hands, and few dollars and cents...
Why aren't they capable of WORKING IN THEIR OWN INTEREST (not slaving for an employer...) to collect food, or search out leisure activities that don't cost money, Toby ? (Not tons of people taking a little dip in our local stream either. THAT ACTIVITY IS FREE, too...)
I have a theory.. it is because of our own COLLECTIVE PREJUDICES which have become overwhelming (idolatry of money).
To a certain extent... even guaranteed INCOME is a sacrifice to the idolatry of money.
It is a means of telling our fellow man that he CAN NOT EXIST without MONEY itself.
Is this.. true ?
The answer(s) to this question show up our suffocating dependancy on our abstract symbolic systems, and the proportions that such systems have reached in our "modern and democratic" societies, which have positioned themselves AGAINST our natural environment. (I maintain the opposition "artifical/natural" because WE maintain it in our thinking, even if it is an erroneous opposition, as we have agreed on before.)
Is it any wonder that our political leaders in Europe are doing their best to... SAVE MONEY ? (polysemy intended here. I ALSO mean that they are trying to SAVE money.)
We have never been... greater slaves to it than we are right now...
Slaves, she says.
Ugh. What a terrible lack of imagination we suffer from, for such a sophisticated (in our own eyes..) animal with SELF consciousness...
Although I sometimes wonder... what will the hawks do when/if there is no more roadkill ??
They don't.. WORK very much sitting there on their roosts, or on electric wires, waiting for something to get run over...
Decadence in whatever form/domain is SO cheap and shoddy...

Toby said...

I agree with pretty much everything you say, but we can't get out of money's trap in one sweet and graceful move. These things take time. Money is a manifestation of where we are culturally, so it changes as we change. I also agree that work is sacred (as you appear to imply), but when we get down to the nitty gritty of defining work, and particularly how to value it, it gets very difficult and very subjective, which I think is good, which is of course a value judgment. The only quibble I have is with "cheap and shoddy". I think even decadence has value. It's all a matter of perception.

Debra said...

To me, decadence has value... as an alarm signal to an already existing culture.
It also has value... to a competing culture which moves in to take over...
Being lazy is not evil, in my book, Toby.
It is an antidote to the 24 hour erection.
But, being lazy 24 hours a day is the OPPOSITE of having the 24 hour erection...
Opposites... collide.

Toby said...

Yin and Yang, baby!

Opposites unite and collide. Erections tumesce and subside.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist! ;-) )

Debra said...

Time for another poem, right ?
Your (our ?) greatest resistance is through poetry.
I believe...
I like those tumescent... images.
Great promise, there.
Keep it... up... ;-)

Toby said...

O you muse, you!

(Compliments will get you everywhere.)

Debra said...

For fun, Toby, you should get your hands on an Oxford English Dictionary, and check out the etymology of "business".
Hours of fun, and contemplation if you do this.
There are over 24 definitions of the word "business" in mine (dates from the '70's).
The meaning "work of some sorts, profession" intervenes only in definition.. 12.
And in definition 21, the meaning of "commerce"...

The word "business" has the root.. "busy" in it...
It goes back to the 15th century. A Renaissance word, NOT Ancien Regime, I think.

Very appropriate to our CURRENT discussion, don't you think ??

Another point : I think that the number of definitions of our words continues to diminish, within a given country/nation, due to the CONCENTRATION of globalization ?

Toby said...

Idle hands make the devil's work. Stay busy, be about your business, your busyness, by the sweat of your brow. Industry, thrift, work before pleasure, work must be a chore, unpleasant, by definition. All that stuff blobbed into an enormous cultural boil the size of the planet, full of the most confused legacy puss, and it's been brewing for centuries. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water; I'm a big believer in hard work (which can be very pleasurable of course) and thrift, but, as with all things, we can idolize work, and I believe we of the Anglo-Saxon West have done, to our great detriment.

I don't know about the number of definitions diminishing, though that might be the case. The number of words is growing, so maybe there's less space for definitions! ;-) And is it a bad thing that words become more specific? Perhaps, and perhaps not. I guess it depends. What do you think, Debbie?

Debra said...

It's not a question of words becoming specific, it's a question of axing polysemy.
Several definitions for the same word, differing from one context to another.
Polysemy is one of the ways that "and" works out in our world.
And "and" introduces multiples, as opposed to... "or".
Check out Golem's last post, and my response buried late in the comments.
"Hearts AND minds", the initial title of his new film, changed to "Heart vs. Mind"...
I'm working hard on giving "and" as many chances as possible, Toby.
How do you get people together (and your world too, don't forget Charles Eisenstein's view of this) if the word "and" isn't in your vocabulary ?

Toby said...

Not being a linguist and enjoying the fruits of playing with words in poetry, I can't see how axing polysemy would be beneficial, let alone possible. Language is uncontrollable.

I'm with you on the and. (And what a sentence that is!) I just spent some time looking for a talk given by John Perry Barlow on Leibniz's very western conviction that the universe is binary (either/or), which he put down in writing, dispatched it to the Chinese emperor of that time, and received a polite and grateful answer some months later, saying, actually, we believe in both/and. Hearts and minds, both together, that's the ticket. I couldn't agree with you more.

Debra said...

Toby, one of the reasons why Western civilization is so caught up in the binary stems from Jesus's multiple binary proclamations..
Like in, "no man can serve two masters", or
"You're either for me or against me".
That said... in order for our language to, ahem.. work, if "both/and" need to get their just deserts, well... "either/or" do too, right ?
That is... both/and thinking, huh ? ;-)