Maybe human civilization is more resilient than I suspected. A very simple bit of evidence of that came my way this morning. NPR Weekend Edition this morning featured a segment about young people becoming farmers. It’s a trend apparently. The reason this struck me is that I’ve wondered for some time whether the abstractions that make up my life (words, legal theories, financial products, information
etc.) have become too prominent in the way we think about “value” in contemporary life.I’m not complaining about abstraction itself. I love meta stuff. I live in a world of ideas and have what I like to call a “language fetish.” But what troubles me is that over the several thousand years we’ve been civilized, we have increasingly favored the abstractions over the tangibles.
It’s not that language or the Morse code has been valued more than jewelry and gadgets. Those things are just as much “abstractions” for the purposes of this point. The source of their value is abstract. What I mean by “tangible” is not merely tangible. I mean something tangible whose value derives from something essential to survival. Food, water, air, land. . . . I know that music is “essential” to a life with any meaning, but right now I’m really just talking about physical survival.
Also, by “favored” I don’t mean we have chosen to consume literature rather than food (quite the contrary) — I am talking about “favoring” abstractions in the way our system of trading values is prioritized.
I think we’ve divorced the idea of value from the essentials to an amazing (you might even say alarming) degree. The value of money is an abstraction. It’s an indicator for every other kind of value. But we’ve so reified that indicator that we now call money “wealth” and treat it as the source rather than just the indicator of value. Then, there are stocks, derivative securities, indexes valued by the movements of derivative securities in the market. . . . indicators for indicators for indicators for something that has “value” as defined by our priorities, many of them nonessential to survival.
Why do I care? Well, because when we treat all value as equally fungible, then it matters very much whether the value really is “equal” in the final analysis.
I have a great bookmark that says “when I have a little money, I buy books. If I have anything left over, I buy food and clothes.” I really do love it. It expresses a sentiment that resonates with me at some level. If I had to shave a few years off my life in order to read, I certainly would. But honestly, if I really had to choose, in the immediate sense, between food and books, I probably would pick food. And without doing any research to back it up, I would hazard a guess, that even among avid readers, an overwhelming majority of people would pick food.
What’s more, the essential stuff of life (food, water, air, land) is finite. It really is, in an as yet unchangeable way, finite. We hear a lot about “creating wealth” by “growing the economy” to safeguard against poverty and want. But the way we’ve been “growing” that wealth (which we now almost unthinkingly equate with money, the stand-in for wealth), has nothing to do with safeguarding the essential wealth of our animal lives; it has to do with new and varied ways of “growing” the indicators (money, securities, etc.).
I won’t comment on the current financial market here. That’s a different discussion, and my friends can tell you I have been sounding the alarm bell for years. But I didn’t have a blog back then and frankly, I never had the leisure to write a full treatise, which is what the topic deserves (I was too busy surviving, working my way through school, trying to make a living by building my abstraction-driven professional life).
Back to the point: the essential stuff of our physical lives (let’s call it “survival wealth”) is limited. We are consuming and wasting resources at rates greater than ever. (Also, when we think about increasing “production” we forget that some of what we’re doing isn’t so much “production” as “extraction” but this entry is already too long, so I won’t pursue that line of thought). Yet, we kid ourselves that we are getting “wealthier” by generating things of abstract value, and treating them as interchangeable with survival wealth.
The person who invented the ipod, a person who manufactures it, the people who market it, package it, or sell it, the musicians who produce the music we put in it . . . all of them have done something of value. That value is recognized by those of us who want to consume it. Because money is the general unit of value and it is fungible, all those folks (inventor, packager, musician) who get paid with money actually do increase their own [access to] survival wealth because they can buy food, water, land, etc. But they have not created, or in any way increased the amount of survival wealth that exists. By helping bankers and issuers design financial products that are legally sound, I have done absolutely nothing to increase survival wealth and yet by doing so, I have eaten well and been considered a “productive” member of society. Interesting, right?
Now, I’m not suggesting that only organic farmers and environmental scientists deserve to eat. And I think ipods and books and airplanes and space exploration and The Daily Show (and for those who are into such things, baseball games, designer handbags, or Speed Racer) have all enhanced our lives so wonderfully that it makes sense that we trade some units of value (that we could well use for food) for such things and people who make such things possible can earn their food in these ways. The ipod is important enough to me and my work is important enough to my client whose work is important enough to his investors whose work is important to somebody who is an opera singer or a sommelier whose work is important enough to an environmental scientist or organic farmer to make all of this work. It’s the market, a cornerstone of human civilization. It’s a beautiful thing.
But I think there is a danger in forgetting the difference between survival wealth and, let’s call it “enhancement wealth” especially when the market, our system of trading values, becomes increasingly centered on the enhancement wealth (“media” is one of the most consistently profitable industries) and perhaps even more seriously, on the indicators of wealth — ever more remote from the actual wealth, of either the “survival” or the “enhancement” variety.
To state (what should be) the obvious: no matter how much money we create even through the most legitimate, honest to goodness trading in whatever we deem “valuable” and no matter how much we “grow” that money through trading in financial products, that money will mean nothing if all the pollinating bees disappear, if seedbanks go bust because of terrorism or because we have run out of places on earth that are naturally cold enough for storage, if soil depletion from over-planting and overgrazing just makes sufficient food impossible to grow, if the air becomes unfit to breath, or if we run out of clean water to drink.
So, donate money to the Met. Pay for Knicks tickets. Pay for tickets to the one-time only showing of your next-door neighbor’s indie film at the local porn theater. Hire me as your lawyer (or buy my novel when it comes out). Become a performance artist specializing in Just Standing There and charging people handsomely for it.
But please remember, that meanwhile, all of us get to eat, and not contribute very much (even indirectly) to the food supply. Nor, unfortunately, do we want to. This is part of what’s been bugging me most. All through the 20th Century, young people seemed to have yearned to move away from the family farm and rural communities and “make it” in the cities, where “things were happening” and where all the money was. In the 1990’s every other adolescent I knew wanted to be a journalist or filmmaker or lawyer (yes, lawyer, believe it or not!) and those are great professions. . . but who’s gonna grow the food??!!! And why can’t the professions that make food “happen” have some more cachet?
Well, I breathed a sigh of relief this morning when I heard that farming is a trendy new career choice among the youth, many of them are from cosmopolitan cities and educated families.
How cool is that?