Economics of Needs?

Last week I ranted on about Putin’s idiocy and its ramifications for human survival, focusing the question on our ability to produce food (or potential lack thereof). But a lack of food is not actually the story that is getting the most headlines in this disaster, is it. Understandably. Fortunes are not made — and lost — in feeding people. There is a good deal of agriculture that does not directly benefit any humans, and most of the indirect benefits are not edible. Conversely, most activities that do actually feed humans are done largely outside what we call mainstream agriculture — because mainstream agriculture is not focused on producing food. It is centered on producing profits. Just like the rest of capitalism. 

What headlines there are on the economic disaster that Putin has been blamed for setting in motion are centered on the harm done to those profits through the lens of fossil fuel supplies, not on harm done to people. Though there may be human faces attached to stories of escalating heating costs and food scarcity, these are not the main stories. This is not the news. It is not new at all, or even perceived as a problem on an average news day. That a large number of humans the world over do not have their needs met is the ground state of our culture, the predicate of our economic system — one which is not built to meet needs. We could easily feed the entire world and keep every body sheltered. Not doing these things is our normal. It’s not headline news. What makes the headlines is when we can no longer pull increasing profits out of schemes based on feeding people and keeping bodies sheltered. When we can no longer extract profit from human need, that becomes news… because that is upsetting to the property-owning class… who own the news.

To their credit, journalists seem unwilling to tell this story of diminishing profitable returns without including the human element. Perhaps this is just to assuage their own guilt, but they do make effort to tell us those stories of actual people that are affected by the headline events. So we hear about seniors and single parents who are suffering the cold that comes from oil and gas bills that are up to two or three times greater than they were a short time ago. We hear about the hunger that is likely to stalk those living in the Global South as fertilizer manufacturing is reduced. We hear that everywhere there is an inability of stagnant wages to keep up with increasing costs. And yes, there have been huge increases in costs, though most predate the invasion of the Ukraine and therefore have little to do with the conflict. It is more the case that both the precipitous increases to costs of living and Putin’s decision to secure territory on Russian borders both stem from the same roots — increasing biosystems instability, depleting energy and increasing scarcity of all other resources. War and famine and homelessness always follow in the footsteps of socio-economic breakdown.

And again, all these human stories are not new. Not even in the sense of being novel in the last few years when fuel costs became erratic due to the pandemic. Most humans the world over have experienced hunger for prolonged periods throughout their lives. Most humans the world over do not have sufficient shelter from cold or heat. Most humans have never had wages that covered or even kept pace with the costs of living — which are always increasing by design. If the prices charged to consumers were not inexorably rising, there would be no increase in profits. This is how our economic system works, what it is designed to do — not meet human needs, but increase profit shares.

So what constitutes an economic system that does actually ‘manage the household’ as the term is defined? What would an economy that meets needs look like? I’m fairly certain there would be more producing food and shelter for actual humans, for one thing. But I suspect there would be much less of what we now call economic activity. There would be fewer ways to turn needs into money. There would be almost no ways to get more wealth out of a transaction than the resources and labor put into it. There would be less manufacturing of need, probably less manufacturing period. Human needs are actually quite small and not easily met through industry. It takes a great deal of persuasion and force to keep industry viable, much less profitable. 

This is, by all accounts (here, among others), how humans have managed to meet needs for all but a small fraction of our existence. This is how most needs are met now, in truth. We don’t successfully derive our needs for love or respect or self-actualization through profitable transactions — Facebook and other social predators notwithstanding. But in the material realm it is not much different. Most homes in the world, most meals, are not obtained through mainstream economic activity. Most food is produced on small farms for very local consumption and with little or no profits accruing to the producers — except a happily fed community. Similarly, most homes are never sold. They are built to accommodate needs. 

It’s frankly nauseating how little is produced that is not eventual trash. (If not immediate trash…) However it’s simply staggering to consider how much of the multi-trillion-dollar world economy is focused on a small percent of the human population. Paul Mobbs, among many others, has shown that “half of climate impacts are attributable to just 10% of the global population; and 10% of the impact is caused by half the global population.” But then when benefits are calculated, even the ‘wealthy’ one percent of the world do not figure. Most of the global one percent — a group composed of people that live well above the global norm in affluence, though many are at or below the poverty level in their own wealthy cultures — are barely able to afford the expensive cultures they inhabit, and are increasingly not able to do so. Hence the news… Those who benefit from all this waste and misery are so few they fit into conference halls at Davos each year. Mobbs points out:

It is the pursuit of economic policies which benefit this globally affluent minority which lead to the largest increases in carbon dioxide emissions; but the rate of emissions falls when this globalised economy contracts.

Only when this minority accept that they must shrink the economy, to contract the ecological demands of the modern lifestyle, will we solve these critical problems. The maintenance of a high-consuming lifestyle for a minority is not compatible with the maintenance of a liveable Earth system.

Taking apart this mess would harm wealth, would more than decimate most fortunes. It would halt quite a lot of manufacturing. It might even interrupt supplies of things that enable some humans to live. But we did live without all this until quite recently. And we can probably figure out how to localize production of our needs, even of things like insulin and prosthetics and pacemakers. (Though we’d likely have less need of such things if we lived healthier lives and stopped, you know, poisoning and violently attacking each other…) But are we willing to go there? Because this really is on us. We in affluent countries need to bring down this system by disengaging from it. We need to stop supporting it even though it will hurt.

But the point I am making is that it is hurting now. Hurting most of us alive now, human and otherwise. Harming and maybe destroying all of the future. We just need to see that. To read the underlying causes of the news headlines and be aware that we are contributing.

Are we willing to be upset about the plight of humans who do not have their needs me and not care that meeting those needs would harm profits? Are we willing to center our stories on people? Are we willing to tell stories in which we freely give food and shelter to those who need it? Can we have an economic system that meets all needs except for profits?

We may not have a choice soon. It may be that or extinction. So I suppose we’ll see. But what do you think? Would we be able to turn our backs on this economic system that requires things like hunger and homelessness and war? And would we be able to do that in time for it to make a difference? And what does that world look like?

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

Wednesday Discourse

This is the part where you can respond. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I will usually respond.

You can also take these ideas ‘home with you’ and mull them over. Journalize about them. Meditate. Talk with your family and friends — and random people you meet on the street. These are questions that we all need to answer for ourselves, so that we have something bright and solid to hang on to as we slide into the murk.

Might as well get started.

2 thoughts on “Economics of Needs?”

  1. “Would we be able to turn our backs on this economic system that requires things like hunger and homelessness and war?”
    Sadly, not likely. At least not from the top-down. The people who have so much invested in the system will do everything they can for as long as they can to keep it going until they no longer make money. Then they will retreat to their bunkers, private islands, or Mars and wait to see what happens. That’s why it’s even more important for the rest of us to envision a different economic system, so when the current one collapses, we have something viable to fill the void.

    “And what does that world look like?”
    It should look different in different places. I am partial to a network of interlinking small villages with each village creating its own village economy and its own solutions to very specific problems. But within the village network there will be sharing and trading of goods, ideas, knowledge, etc. so that everyone’s needs are met and no one person or village is more powerful than any other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “There would be almost no ways to get more wealth out of a transaction than the resources and labor put into it”… I totally agree minus the “almost”.
    Physics tells us one fundamental Law: the Conservation Law. There is no way to get more out of a transaction than what we put in to that transaction.
    Physics tells us another even more fundamental Law: the Law of Entropy. Every transaction will always have an efficiency less than 1 unless it is perfectly reversible. Therefore we always get out less than what we put in any transaction.
    Economics has found the trick to cheat Physics: by inventing Inflation. So that things get more expensive tomorrow to cover the losses of today. And the poor pay the difference for the profits of the rich.

    Liked by 1 person

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