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Friday, December 19, 2014

Economics is about value systems, not just numbers

Editor’s note: This is an essay from a contributor to the online magazine NightlyNoodleMonthly.com.

I spent my whole life trying to figure out what the worst thing in the universe is, and 30 years later, I got it. Being boring or uptight. No, uptight. Being uptight.

I feel like all people ever say is, “How are you?”

Poets just talk about all this weird stuff that doesn’t matter and they don’t make any sense. Say something that moves me but matters. Fucking poets, what’s wrong with them? I want everything I say to be poetic, but I don’t want to be associated with the poets. 

Alan Watts talks about how money is supposed to be a unit of measurement of wealth, yet somehow we’ve turned it into the actual wealth. The real wealth is having a house, having people around, having food. The systems of measurement are not the wealth. It’s like saying we don’t have the wood to build a house because we don’t have inches to measure the wood to build the house. We need inches. During the Depression, people were like, “We can’t build the house because we don’t have the money, the measurement system of wealth, even though we have the wood, we have the concrete and we have the people to build it.” 

Anyone who thinks they understand economics doesn’t understand economics. Economics is more complex than numbers. It’s all built on a confluence of different value systems. If one is insensitive or unaware of the complexities of human value systems, they might say something totally number based. For example, if you enact this set of political policies, the numeric response is the average person has 100,000 dollar bills. I can enact this social legislation and it’s like 2 plus 2, right? Four will pop out. And they go, “Yeah, we’ll do the same thing,” but instead of one of the twos, they enact legislation like “Do or don’t give the poor a hundred bucks.” And yes, the math will keep popping up. Twos are variable in the equation because it’s social legislation. I can make it so that 99 percent of us have 100,000 dollar bills if we make the other 1 percent do all the work. The “economic” systems say there are ways of getting dollar bills in our bank, but how do we get there?

Sure, we’ll have it if we steal it from other countries, but our value systems say we value not stealing it from other people. So when people say they understand economics, they don’t. Economics is intertwined with social systems that are always evolving. Words are unavoidably interpreted by people, and so the way we acquire value systems through interpreting words means economics isn’t as simple as 2 plus 2. I talk about what I value. I value not hurting people and people not hurting me, and I value art, but that’s subject to me interacting with the word “value,” with the word “art,” with the word “hurting.” Unfortunately, economics is not numbers. As counterintuitive and against the grain as that sounds, it’s the truth. I mean, there are a bunch of numbers mixed in there with the number of pieces of corn that we produce each year. And, thank God, it’s not just numbers. Life would be pretty dull.

I wake up in the morning — what’ll I have today, two or five? It’s shitty. And that is the whole thing about being human: We all have our own value systems. We both might want to give to the poor, but I might want to give the 5,000 pieces of corn, and you want to give them 500 pieces of corn. My brother was like, “But I took five classes on economics,” and I was like, “You could take 5,000 classes and you still wouldn’t know. ‘Cause you just learn the numbers.”