Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New Capitalism

It's now considered a myth or gross exaggeration that the Inuits used to put their seniors on ice floes and send them adrift into oblivion. In extreme times of famine such things may have been considered but it was not a normal part of their culture. This approach however has become an acceptable practice in times of extreme wealth such as we have in the west.

In our GDP growth obsessed economics the value of companies are based on their ability to continue growing. The value of all things are reduced to their exchange value within our system which monetizes everything. Nothing is real unless it can be counted and booked within the appropriate column on a ledger sheet. This system is so efficient and works so well that we have erroneously applied it to everything in the world and begun to use it to measure every kind of value including the value of people.

When taking count of value we seem to be missing a great deal because we don't have the appropriate columns within which to place some things. Is a young university grad worth more than a aging retiree? To corporations looking at their human resources the answer is clear. The young person has more future growth potential and therefore more value. Almost everyone one will agree that there is considerable value in the life of a senior but because these values are not the kind that can be represented on balance sheets they are considered by some hardened capitalists to be wishy-washy and irrelevant. So our culture metaphorically sets our seniors onto ice floes by warehousing them in homes, over-medicating them to make them more manageable, and generally disrespecting their value.

A similar insensitivity to cost is ironically causing ice floes around the world to melt. Corporations produce their products and in doing so expel a great deal of pollutants into the atmosphere. Up to now no appreciable cost had been assigned to the damage that it was causing. Because they were not held accountable, there were no costs to enter into their ledgers. But just because it wasn't counted doesn't mean that there were no costs to consider. The costs were simply shifted and distributed societally. The corporations didn't pay for it but collectively we all pay for it in the end.

We have to do a better job of considering social value and social cost when redesigning our new capitalist system. This process is already fully underway even if it hasn't been noticed by the old capitalists. A new capitalist system is being designed in an open source way by all of us collectively. We do this when we engage in free music downloads, support companies that try to do no evil, and create content and applications to share amongst ourselves. This new system of value exchange seems better suited to address questions of social value and social cost as these considerations seem often to be at the heart of the discussion when they were not even considered before.