Reflection 104: Myth of the Market

May 18, 2009

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I remember climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire on a hot, August day. Not the actual climb so much as the heat and the glare. I hadn’t liked the feel of the pack against my back, so I’d stashed it between the roots of a shady tree at the base of the trail. My hat was in that pack, along with my water bottle. It was a glorious day with no wind, yet brutal in its way. Bare granite reflected the heat, broiling me from above, baking me from below. Like mad dogs and Englishmen, I kept on as if I didn’t know any better. Dazed, not caring about the view, I touched base at the top and immediately turned down. I can’t recall any details of the decent. My one thought was water in the bottle snug in my pack. My throat was dry, my eyes itched. I pictured myself reaching the tree, ripping open the pack, drinking, drinking. Which is pretty much how it went. I sat on the moss at the base of the tree for ten minutes thinking what a fool I had been. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Desperation increases the value of that which you need but cannot have. My million-dollar swig behind me, I drained the bottle with a trickle worth almost nothing.

 

Supply and demand in the marketplace are said to set the value of things. The crucial question is, What’ll you give me for this? What’s it worth to you? Not later; right here, right now! That’s how barter works. On Bosworth field, King Richard III would have paid his kingdom for a horse. I would have given ten dollars for a drink on Monadnock. When the farmers’ market is about to close, the asking price for produce that won’t keep drops through the floor.

 

That’s the going price. But beyond pragmatics, what’s the true value of a drink of water, or of a horse for that matter? Does our market economy reflect the true value of the goods and services on which our livelihoods depend? Beyond the marketplace, what is the true cost of milk, hamburger, plywood, gas, a flight to Honolulu from Los Angeles?

 

Depends on who you ask, where you ask, when you ask. If, as I have heard, the entire watertable of Afghanistan is polluted, then a drink of pure water to quench your thirst in Kandahar is worth more than you’d think. Which is why people drink so many boiled fluids in the form of tea, coffee, yak’s blood, etc. And non-Muslims drink alcoholic beverages that kill germs.

 

What do we need to sustain life? For starters we need clean water, fresh air, good food, shelter from the elements, clothing that suits us to the prevailing climate, waste disposal, transportation when we need it, healthcare, love, security, social order, and so on. If our life truly depends on such items being available, then in a very real sense they are priceless. If we can’t survive without them, the question then becomes, what is the market value of life itself?

 

Ask any mother to put a price tag on her child’s head and she’ll say, Don’t be ridiculous! Look at what parents go through in rearing their children. Without complaint. Just the opposite—with boundless love. What’s that love worth? Everything to the ones who give and receive it. Very little to those outside the loop of household intimacy.

 

We all depend on a healthy planet. How does the market evaluate that? Has it done an assessment on a comparable planet? Could it even locate one comparable to Earth? Clearly, sadly, the market ignores the issue completely. As if Earth has nothing to do with all those goods and services it evaluates with such care. Which reveals the entire economic enterprise—including the market at its core—to be the sham that it is. Put simply, the economy we have is not worth bailing out when it gets itself into trouble. We need an Earth-centered economy that puts our values where our bodies are, not just our minds.

 

Market economies are a myth because they neither work nor exist. They are a false claim made by those who benefit from the idea of a market as a ruse for hoodwinking the public into parting with (formerly, “investing”) its money. There is no fair and equable way to set price levels on goods and services that are priceless by definition. The price of anything is what the market will bear. That is, what the seller can get away with. In that regard, most of us are chumps most of the time. Looking to make a killing, but chumps nonetheless. Exhibit A: Clientele of Bernie Madoff and his cohort of Ponzi-scheming impresarios. Exhibit B: The rest of us who didn’t see it (the collapse) coming because, beyond our usual haze, we were in a state of deep oblivion.

 

The market works as long as we believe in it. Lose that innocent trust, and it immediately collapses as a myth before our eyes. Which is where it belongs, a heap of rubble at our feet. Instead of setting fair value, the market deceives us into mistaking the sacking of the Earth for liberty and prosperity. Which is exactly what Friedman and Hayek claimed for a free market economy. Which turns out to be just another theological fantasy to keep the people doped-up and happy while their pockets are being picked.

 

The whole enterprise rests on the notion of private property—that Earth, its land, and its produce can be owned by elite members of one of the species that owes all to its sheltering niche (nest) and habitat. The only problem with the market economy is that it leaves out the best parts—its absolute dependence on the goodness and toleration of the planet that makes it possible in the first place—and which it sacks day by day. Aside from those minor flaws, it makes a good bedtime story.

 

But it’s daylight now and time to awaken to the world that truly supports our every endeavor—the natural world run by complex ecosystems beyond our control—which we repay by setting up phony markets making it easy for us to take far more than our share, and by smearing our offal and toxic waste across its flesh.

 

So much for marketing dreams and billing the Earth. It is one thing for the market to collapse; another for Earth to collapse as collateral damage. Even if we didn’t mean it, we are responsible nonetheless. Behind every exchange of goods and services, all barter, all trade, all economic enterprise, all supply and demand, all private property, all ownership, all liberty and prosperity—stands the Earth. When it fails, we are lost. When it fails due to our efforts and our lack of caring, we are guilty. When it fails because we aren’t conscious of what we are doing, we are truly pathetic.

 

I have read papers in academic journals arguing what one American bald eagle is worth to the human economy. A certain mode of thought looks upon ecosystems as providing services having calculable market value. But the real question is what is the value of the human economy to that eagle, that ecosystem, or to any assembly of creatures, plants, fungi, and bacteria, or to Earth itself? Very little, it turns out. Or, if we are of any value to Earth at all, it is a negative value meaning we owe a debt for everything we have taken and placed on the market. When we see what we have done and are doing to our home planet, then, and only then, can we lay claim to being fully conscious. Until that time, we are in the market solely for personal gain, and are blind to Earth and its plight at our mistreatment.

 

In the forty years since that dry hike on Monadnock, I have made a point of bringing water in my fanny-pack. Even people who are not fully conscious are capable of learning. Life experience is the true master teacher. Just as sweaters are knit stitch after stitch, consciousness is built one episode at a time. If we live long enough, and are open to experience, we begin to get the hang of being fully conscious.

 

Now that many of our great institutions are in full collapse, we have an opportunity to ask what we might learn from the experience. Do we really want to rebuild the economy as it was before—or can we view this as an opportunity for trying something new? Like basing whatever economy we come up with on the fact that the true burden of humanity’s wellbeing rests on the many ecosystems supporting our every endeavor. Maybe human life can be sustainable after all. It’s an idea worth looking into. Let’s explore what happens when we submit our wares to Earth’s marketplace instead of our own, and see if we get any bids from other species.

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 104: Myth of the Market”

  1. tp said

    In the days I “owned” one-ninth of a Maine Island, it occurred to me I could have a t-shirt printed “LANDLORD OF EAGLES”, until I concluded they could with more justice wear t-shirts “TOLERATOR OF HUMANS”, and that the planet could hoist a banner “HOST TO ALL KINDS OF RIFFRAFF.” Right now I have robins nesting right by my front door, so I do all my going in and out through the back — I acknowledge that they own their nesting space more than I do, whatever it says on my ownership papers. It’s the notion of owning that we have to get rid of before anything can change.

  2. Steve Perrin said

    I agree. Ownership not balanced by stewardship and respect leads to ruin for all concerned. What a sad story. –Steve

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