Reciprocity, Not Self-Interest, Supports Sustainable Economies

Scott Deshefy


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Journalism is not only an honorable profession, but lifeblood to democracy. Newspapers, at their best, can be extended lecture halls, providing valid information while chronicling history as it unfolds. Interjecting political criticism is certainly necessary at times. But cognizant of how degenerative hyper partisan politics has become, threatening this nation, I try to buttress my views by incorporating mixtures of science, history, philosophy, and social psychology. Science is fact-based and rationally constructed, political opinion isn’t.  Among the challenges we face as a nation is whether deep-seated divisions, already tearing this nation apart, can ever be repaired to the point “united” isn’t farcical. So, this column’s focus is economics.

Rapacious capitalism, two-party politics and growing resentment of knowledge have fast become engines of peril ─ sources of pollution, inequality, resource depletion, mass extinctions, global warming, social unrest; large-scale cruelty. The kind of capitalism fostered by corporate oligarchs and neoliberal economists, for instance, is undemocratic, unstable and unsustainable. Buying both major parties, capitalists have neutered American politics, normalized debilitating debt and guaranteed financial downturns and joblessness every 4 to 7 years. As UMass economics professor (emeritus) Richard Wolff insists, corporate and big business decision-making should rest collectively with majorities (i.e. workers and other stakeholders), not minorities of shareholders whose votes on business operations are motivated by self-interest. Because each single unit of company asset constitutes a vote, small minorities of shareholders, owning most of the stocks, invariably elect corporate Boards of Directors whose agendas benefit them. They determine what gets made, where, at what profit, and how those profits are distributed amongst themselves and labor. That’s why rich capitalists keep getting richer and CEOs’ salaries are thousands of times larger than workers’ wages. Neither is paid what they’re worth, but what they have power to negotiate. If decisions are made to pollute, replace workers with robots or move operations to China, majorities of people excluded from that decision-making are most impacted, losing jobs, dying from preventable diseases. Shareholders and oligarchs, meanwhile, keep raking in the dough. There was a time when economists worked for public interests, but in today’s neoliberal era, they’re working for big corporations and billionaires instead. Neoliberal economic theory, in essence, is a protection racket for the rich.

Absence of collective decision-making in the business sector is nothing new, of course. When capitalism first replaced feudalism to organize production, it promised “liberty, equality and fraternity” for which France and other parts of Europe paid dearly. But, as the literary observations of Zola, Balzac and Dickens make clear, it didn’t deliver. Two hundred years later, capitalism, at least in its current form, is still a fundamental obstacle to idealistic goals. Based on E.A. Robinson’s poem, Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” which I usually recite at poetry readings, brilliantly encapsulates the servitude and dependence of capitalist societies. America could certainly do better. Today’s predatory capitalism is an antithesis to democracy. Neither does it culminate economic evolution, nor “fix itself” as “neocons” argue, despite recessions proving otherwise. We could choose to enact policies raising taxes on the rich, regulating powerful corporations, expanding public works projects and raising employees’ wages. That’s how FDR got America out of the Great Depression, a Keynesian economics approach collectively urged by organized labor, private businesses and socialists alike. Instead, in the last 30 years (U.S.A. alone), wealth of the upper 1% grew by $21 trillion dollars. The bottom 50% of Americans lost $900 billion ─ a pattern of widening inequality, austerity, globalization and political instability for which neoliberal economists recommend more personal debt, government austerity and globalization to correct. Inequality and instability are unavoidable byproducts of American capitalism because workers’ pay and benefits are determined by surpluses, not by what their labor is actually worth.

Reciprocity, not self-interest, supports sustainable economies and benefits societies (see Nick Hanauer’s TED Talk). Competition doesn’t produce prosperity, cooperation does. The fallacy “greed…is good,” proffered by Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” (1987) is sociopathic. Market capitalism is a cultural evolutionary process in which prosperity emerges from positive feedbacks between increasing amounts of innovation and consumer demand. If innovation is the mechanism with which we solve societies’ problems, consumer demand acts as a cultural evolutionary selection process determining those innovations most useful in averting harm, provided consumer demand is sufficiently farsighted. In America, it isn’t. Ideally, prosperity should come without externalities such as pollution and environmental degradation. As societies become more prosperous, though, complexities of problems and solutions multiply, dramatically. Unconstrained markets, thusly, create far more dilemmas than they solve. Climate change, habitat loss, plummeting species diversity, supply line disruptions, overfishing and exposures to zoonotic diseases are obvious examples. Believing greed, self-interest and individualism are good is not only socio-biologically false, but a mantra that’s culturally corrosive. Inclusion, not exclusion, generates prosperity. Decades of bad capitalistic theory are not only responsible for growing inequalities and political unrest, but the enormity of environmental crises. Just as stable ecological communities have elaborate, multi-source, interconnected food chains and energy webs, the more we include one another as beneficiaries of prosperity, the more stable and sustainable economies become.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.