Thursday, December 29, 2011

Economics 2.0

I have a modest alternative in mind for the Occupy Wall Street and its variants that are spreading their tentacles across the developed world. Let the 99 per cent lay a siege against all the banks and ask for its money to be returned, something that James Stewart underwent as the head of a bank in the 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life. That way, we can no longer blame ourselves for lining the “one per cent’s” pockets. If you think I’ve lost my marbles, you are not the reader Charles Eisenstein wants to attract through his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society In The Age Of Transition.

This book is Eisenstein’s clarion call to the world to jettison all its prized possessions and get together again to build a new world. This world would invert all the cherished tenets of conventional economics and instead use new concepts like de-growth, underproduction, non-ownership and negative-interest currency. Negative interest on reserves and a physical currency that loses value with time ensure that we don’t hoard money and instead lend it out to people without, here’s the kicker, expecting it to be returned. That’s the motto of the citizens of Planet Eisenstein: to eliminate currency and bring back the system of a selfless economy.

Economic de-growth puts the brakes on our unfettered quest to conquer every Maslow hierarchy and scale new peaks without giving any thought if it’s worth our time. Thus, de-growth will allow us to work less for money and enjoy the beauty of life. Eisenstein upends every theory of economics and tries to topple every master who is perched atop, be it Malthus or Keynes or Marx. In an interview with the Dazed And Confused magazine, Eisenstein said: “People think we’re too materialistic, but I think the problem is that we’re not materialistic enough. We settle for cheap mass-produced stuff made by people in a degraded state of paid starvation at the expense of the ecosystem. Materialism to me means treating matter as sacred and making as beautiful a thing out of it as we can.”

In a world dominated by cold hard cash, it’s a stretch of the imagination to envision a sacred economy in action. But then, what’s the harm in it? If John Lennon’s Imagine can be a classic, why not at least venture out to create an economy that embodies new values like human dignity and sustainability? Eisenstein’s child-like enthusiasm to overhaul the financial system is extremely gratifying. He tries to find withering life under every unconventional stone of economics. He hits and misses but he never gives up. Even he admits the fact that he’s being “hopelessly naïve, vague and idealistic” but one can’t contend the fact that he gets a few things right. In this age of smartphones and uninhibited access to others’ personal lives, we have somehow forgotten that sharing a song or link to an article is not as altruistic as donating blood or kidney. Eisenstein wants to put the H back in humanity.

Some of the things that the author proposes in his book are straight out of Communist Manifesto. In modern-day China, that last true-blue bastion of communism of yore, no one is allowed to inherit a house after the death of their parents. That’s why we read newspaper reports that the one per cent Chinese are investing elsewhere in the world. In such circumstances, a book like Sacred Economics makes for essential reading.

This distilled elixir of Ayn Rand’s utopia in Atlas Shrugged is the backbone of this hefty book. And that happens to be its Achilles heel as well. While imagining this hybrid of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged kind of world, Eisenstein starts to sound as if the world is divided into two people: brainiacs and idiots. He thinks that people shouldn’t be working for wages. They should strive (read: work) to create something beautiful all the time. “We’re not born to just survive — we were born to contribute to the world in a way that makes use of our talents,” he says.

And his point of reference is the garbage collectors. So deluded is Eisenstein that he believes recycling waste will eliminate these “menial” jobs and people can channel their creative energy towards something more sustainable. Clearly, Eisenstein hasn’t heard of something called shadow economy. At a time when an entire layer of ancillary jobs is disappearing, be it the gas station attendant or the ticket agent at airport or employees at retail stores who would help customers find difficult-to-locate products, Eisenstein thinks we don’t need to have these jobs at all.

As long as Eisenstein’s magpie eye is focused on current economics, the book is devastatingly good. Once he starts mining the depressing but brilliant lecture that David Foster Wallace gave at the Kenyon College, Ohio, in 2005, the book turns into a rah rah manifesto for Ayn Rand fans who will lap up anything that barely resembles her utopia. That’s why this book will never eclipse the dinner table talks. After all, we all have to get suited up for the next day at work.

Charles Eisenstein
Evolver Editions
469 pages; Rs 843


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