David Suzuki, the octogenarian, Canadian academic, science broadcaster and environmentalist, recently posted a very interesting video. In it, he asserted that economics is brain damaged. He’s probably right. What has this got to do with artists and innovators, though?
The thrust of his argument is that economics is not a science. It’s a set of (warped) values, dressed up and dignified as a science, but it’s a sham science. The example he gives is that valuable things that the planet provides are “off balance sheet”, when accounting for commercial activities. They’re called “externalities”. If you wipe out the rainforest, denude the oceans of fish or hunt a species to extinction, economics says that’s fine, as long as you make a percentage profit on the activity.
The underlying assumption, in economics, is that there will be another resource to exploit, when you completely exhaust one, so just move on and invest in the next thing, and making a killing on that, according to the money accountancy. If there are no more fish, then invest in papermaking instead. Once you’ve cut down all the trees to make cardboard, you can then invest in computers. As long as the returns are there, economics says that it’s all right. The free markets are functioning properly.
The whole economic value system is based on a demonstrably false premise, though; that resources are provided by the planet infinitely. Nowhere does it admit that once those resources are fully exploited, they’re gone for good. It has no way of accounting for that lost value. It appears on nobody’s balance sheet, even though it is clear that humanity is the poorer for its loss and that something of tremendous potential economic value has been eliminated forever.
So, if a valuable species of tree, such as Australian semi-temperate rainforest cedar, is wiped out by economic over-exploitation (as indeed it was), and is gone forever, were those pieces of fine furniture made from those trees correctly valued? Under our current accountancy practices, yes they were. There was a resource, people cut it down and profits were made from selling the furniture that resulted. The fact that this resource is no longer available for future generations, probably forever, appears nowhere on those balance sheets. That cost was an externality.
This is what is so brain-dead about resource exploitation. It doesn’t count the true costs. A dollar’s profit is a dollar’s profit, no matter what you had to destroy to get it. In effect, economics, in its end game, will turn the entire planet into a wasteland, but will be unstoppable, because during that reign of terror over all of humanity, shareholder profits will have been maximised and optimised. What they’ll be able to spend those profits on is anybody’s guess, when all that remains is a lifeless husk of a planet.
Brain-dead economics counts human resources in exactly the same way as it accounts for Earthly resources. The health and vitality of a population, and its creativity, are all taken as a given. They will be in infinite supply and you don’t have to count the conditions necessary for their very existence in your profit and loss accounts, because those things are externalities. It doesn’t matter that you have to feed a population healthy, nutritious food, in order for it to produce work and engage in creative endeavours. You don’t need to account for the cost of warm housing and space to create. The assumption that companies exploiting those human resources make is that those things will just be provided somehow and you don’t have to pay for them. All you have to do is get the labour at the lowest cost, by bullying and coercion.
Of course, somebody has to pay to educate people, to hone their creative skills and to obtain spaces where creative work can be carried out. The cost is borne by the artists and innovators themselves.
Unfettered free markets, in the past half century, have successfully exploited artists and innovators to create unprecedented corporate profits. However, they have done so by hunting them to the edge of extinction and destroying their habitat. It is now so expensive to find a place to engage in creative work (due to the nature of the property market), that the supply of creative industries is, in many places, drying up. The feedstock to those creatively driven mega-corporations is perilously close to extinction. There is nowhere to learn to be an artist, to practice and to create, without facing starvation. In many cases, workshop and studio space is completely beyond the means of the average artist.
Innovators, too, have been hunted relentlessly. Whereas once it was possible for some bright young engineers to start an innovative enterprise and to flourish, the operation of financial markets has made the process so unfavourable to entrepreneurs, of this type, that no sane person would buy into the bargain. What bright and promising start-ups there were have been absorbed into larger monoliths, often bought and closed down immediately, to remove competition from a core corporate product.
What’s the result of the loss of creative habitat (workshops and studios), the destruction of creative ecosystems (networks of mutually supporting creative industries) and the extinction of innovative entrepreneurs? We see it all around us. There are no jobs created. When the steelworks or dockyard or manufacturing line closes down, there is no creative industry to fill the void. There is no equivalent of a Google or Apple in the UK, Europe and Australia. A few large global corporations own everything and they can steam-roller competitors at a whim.
Creative industries have produced remarkable economic value, given their cost. Yet, there’s nowhere to rehearse, let alone start a band and not many places to play, when you do. Finding studio space large enough to accommodate the work of an artist, sculptor or photographer is nearly impossible, in most capital cities, where there has been a net loss of workshop and light industrial space to high-priced buy-to-rent residences.
In effect, it is increasingly impossible to have a bright, creative, innovative, artistic idea and to then create an enterprise around it, to allow the artist or innovator to flourish in their work. They can’t even get started. If they do, they are prey to much larger companies that will buy or crush them, as they see fit. Creative people are treated as disposable, interchangeable resources, but the reality is that this resource has been over-exploited. It is effectively economically extinct, having been driven to the margins and now engaging in creativity only as a hobby, funded by working a day job.
What is the net cost of that loss of entrepreneurial, creative talent (the feedstock to the very economy which has devoured it), which cannot now find a way to work and flourish, economically? What is the true cost to the economy of this loss? You won’t find the figure on anybody’s balance sheet, because it isn’t counted at all. It’s an externality.
It is for this very reason that an evil, eugenic, master plan to cull the population of the planet doesn’t need to exist. The workings of Capitalism, functioning entirely as intended, will do the same thing. The economy will progressively chew through its human resource base, making them sicker, more miserable, depressed and obese, just so that profits can be made. It will drive the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirits in that resource pool into extinction in exactly the same way that it over-fishes the oceans.
The rush to greed, without considering the limits to the exploited resource (i.e. us), pre-programmed into the correct workings of the brain-dead economic system we have chosen to worship, will have exactly the same effect as an evil Illuminati plan to enslave and degrade us all. We’ll be crushed for profit until it will be impossible for us to create, to make art, to create new inventions and to provide new software and devices to improve the lives of humanity. It just won’t be possible, when the education and workspace required is out of our economic reach as nascent, individual artists.
Dumbing down is just a side effect. When the cost of learning and perfecting our creative powers becomes prohibitive, then the population, as a whole, will inevitably become deskilled; less capable of providing the creativity and dexterity that industry has previously thrived on exploiting. This is why the fish caught in over-fished seas become smaller and immature. They’re caught and eaten before they reach maturity. Artists, similarly, will be, as a group, smaller of stature and less mature, because they will be used and spat out by record companies and the like, long before they have accumulated a fulsome body of work or matured, as artists. This effect can already be observed.
When I was a younger man, there were many companies doing research and development, routinely. Now, outside of Silicon Valley or China, not so much. There are pockets of research and development activity, bought and paid for by global multi-national corporations, but the benefits to the local economy aren’t available, because the profits are repatriated. Engineers are being farmed and harvested, but the proceeds of the bounty go elsewhere. Because there are so few alternative opportunities where they live, these engineers work cheaply, too. That means they don’t have the disposable income to buy art, or sponsor creative industries locally. They’re too busy fighting to pay for their inflated, sub-standard, tiny housing.
So, I submit that the unfettered, but fully-intended functioning of unregulated markets, in an economic system we call Capitalism, has all but hunted creative people to extinction. It is almost impossible for a young person to start a band, make a record, become a painter, create a start-up enterprise, write a book, perform, dance or do any of the thousands of other fundamentally creative pursuits and still flourish as a viable economic actor in the economy. Even if they get started and can miraculously afford the cost of their work spaces, they are prey to larger companies that will buy, close, outcompete or otherwise thwart the creative person.
Can creatives retreat to creative day jobs? Within corporate settings, creative humans will be paid the least money possible, so that their lives are endlessly precarious. They will not receive rewards that are proportionate to the value of their creations. These factors, in turn, will foreshorten their lives and affect their health, limiting their creative potential and productivity.
Meanwhile, we’re all fed nutritionally depleted food-like substances, while our living environment is progressively polluted, poisoned, despoiled and ruined. A privileged few will, temporarily, live lives of opulence, fuelled by the profits they reap, but even they will have to live on this planet with the rest of us. They cannot close themselves off from facing the consequences of their externalities forever, as much as their balance sheets might convince them they can.
So, the brain-dead, doomsday juggernaut of Capitalism rolls relentlessly onward; ruthlessly crushing everybody and everything beneath its wheels.
Is this what we want?