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Rabbit Holes 🕳 #16
From using economics outside of economics, to climate reparations, electricians saving the planet and interspecies democracy
Rabbit Holes 🕳
As always, here are five perspective-shifting ideas that I’ve come across recently:
Why are we using economics in domains outside of economics? It’s a simple question but one that reveals so many underlying mindset structures that dominate policymaking.
“Over the last half-century, economics has infiltrated parts of the federal government where it has no business intruding. It can be a useful tool for policymaking, but it’s become the only tool. It’s time for economics to back the hell off.”
“The Marxists (of whom I am not one) have an excellent term for this ideology: Economism. At a time of extreme political polarization, an Economicist bias (pronounced eh-co-nom-i-sist) is practically the only belief that Democrats and Republicans share.”
“Let me state before proceeding further that I harbor no ill will toward the economics profession […]. In addressing matters of economic policy, it’s the best we have until something better comes along. I’ll even concede that Economism has notched some significant victories over the years. […] When economic insights and/or market solutions achieve the desired policy result, I applaud them.”
“But Economism isn’t merely a governing tool; it’s become just about the only governing tool. For half a century, economists have had their finger in every conceivable pie.”
“In academia, the Economicist ascendancy reached its zenith in 1992, when University of Chicago economist Gary Becker won the Nobel for applying the principles of economics to (among other topics) criminal justice, marriage, and racial discrimination. Economism conquered popular culture in 2005 with the publication of Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, yet another University of Chicago economist […]. Freakonomics was a sort of Economicist Manifesto for the masses. Market reasoning, the authors argued, could explain, well, anything: why people cheated at games, why crime decreased, why prostitutes outearned architects, what made children perform better in school, why Black viewers didn’t watch Seinfeld. Morality, the authors explained, ‘represents the way that people would like the world to work—whereas economics represents how it actually does work.’ The arrogance was magnificent. Readers couldn’t get enough. Freakonomics sold four million copies and spawned three sequels and a podcast.
“[However,] the Great Recession of 2007–2009 began an anti-Economism backlash that’s gathered strength over time. […] ‘The categories and the vocabulary of the market,’ Leon Wieseltier, editor of Liberties journal, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014, ‘are being used in realms where they do not belong.’ […] The post-2009 wave of anti-Economicist literature [identified] the profession’s various blind spots even as the federal government continues, indiscriminately, to apply economic reasoning to noneconomic policies.”
The article then dives into a few anti-Economism critiques, here are just a few of them:
“Economists overvalue modelling: People sometimes compare economic forecasts to weather forecasts, but that’s out of date, because computers have made weather forecasting much better; where once your weatherman could see only two or three days in advance, now he can see one or two weeks in advance. Hurricanes no longer surprise us. Financial crises still do.”
“Economists undervalue data: ‘If economists wished to study the horse,’ Devons said, ‘they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’’ The inability of the economics profession ‘to validate its most important hypotheses empirically,’ Skidelsky writes, ‘means that it has a strong tendency to slide into ideology.’
“Economists don’t get societies. ‘There is no such thing as society,’ the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1987, and (quite rightly) she caught hell for it. But economics is premised on the choices of individuals, not societies, and therefore tends to miss how individuals within a society affect one another. […] The Economicist presumption that individuals operate in isolation lies at the heart of the problem known as the Tragedy of the Commons, first described in 1968 by Garrett Hardin. […] Ironically, it took an economist, Indiana University’s Elinor Ostrom, to note the Economicist bias in biologist Hardin’s theory. In the nontheoretical world, Ostrom pointed out, societies had shared resources for hundreds of years, because people weren’t half so collectively dumb as Hardin supposed; they understood their livelihoods depended on preserving common resources and, under the proper conditions, would temper immediate private gain to protect public property shared by all.”
⚡ Want a career saving the planet? Become an electrician.
I love this insight as it links to a bigger challenge or what I would rather call an opportunity: We need to find an adequate story of sustainability that’s more aligned with the every day realities of blue collar workers.
“When we think about solving climate change, we often think about things that, in one way or another, plug into an electrical grid: Solar panels. Heat pumps. Efficient air conditioners. Wind turbines. Electric cars and electric car chargers. Induction stoves. Transmission lines.”
“But installing all of that electrical stuff — the solar panels, the heat pumps, the transmission lines — will require something that the United States doesn’t have: lots and lots of electricians.”
“There are around 700,000 electricians working in the [United States] today, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be around 80,000 new electrician jobs available every year until 2031 — and that most of those jobs will just be in replacing the existing workforce.”
“Steyer [CEO at Greenworks] blames some of the current shortage on cultural assumptions about working in fields like construction or electrical work. ‘Over the last 20 years there has been very negative messaging to millennials and Gen Z about the trades,” he said. ‘There were a lot of articles saying, ‘All blue collar jobs are going to go away, everyone is going to be a knowledge worker or a care worker.’‘“
“Ultimately, however, the need for electricians may be a feature of the clean energy transition — not a bug. ‘These are jobs that don’t get automated or offshored,’ Matusiak said. Once, moving away from fossil fuels was viewed as a dangerous move since it might cost the country jobs in coal mining or other fossil fuel industries. (The coal mining industry today employs around 37,000 people — less than six percent of the number of people employed as electricians.) Now, Matusiak argues, more and more people are realizing that switching to clean energy will create many more jobs than it removes. ‘I take it as a good news story, not a bad news story,’ he said. ‘These are jobs that are also career pathways.’”
🌎 Climate Reparations
We’re finally talking about the so-called loss and damage at COP27. Climate reparations is such an important topic because it again links inequality – and also (neo)colonialism – with climate change and its effects.
“Small island states and many countries in the Global South, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been pushing for loss and damage to have a prominent place on the agenda at the climate conference […]. The argument is that the countries that carry much of the responsibility for the climate crisis should provide finance to address loss and damage caused by its impacts.”
“Ammar Ali Jan, a Pakistani historian and activist, notes that much like there is now a more general agreement on how colonial rule thwarted development in colonized countries, the same idea applies to the impact the Global North’s climate emissions have had on the Global South. ‘Reparations’ itself is quite a loaded term historically; the idea of accountability that the Global North will have to accept when it comes to their role in climate change – that comes attached to these kinds of payments – seems to be far more of a barrier than the money itself.”
“‘What’s interesting is that the climate reparations demand is coming from civil society at large, because when the floods happened, a lot of people started asking how the situation had gotten so bad and they found a connection to historical emissions,’ says Imran Khalid, director of governance and policy at WWF Pakistan.”
“The concept of compensation for affected countries isn’t new. In 1991 a proposal was made, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, to address the idea at the UN climate summit. By the time the 2007 talks came around, this was being called the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Yet wealthier countries of the Global North have continued to put off the idea of a separate fund for loss and damage by claiming that the adaptation and mitigation funds cover that principle.”
“[…] ‘Aid’ as a concept is not only limiting but humiliating. ‘They’re playing a white saviour role as if they’re here to save us, but they’re not here to save us, we are frontline fighters,’ says Bangladeshi climate activist Farzana Faruk Jhumu. ‘It’s not about money. It’s the accountability that is important.’”
“True reparations are not just an amount of money put on the table. They involve the dismantling of a system that has for years kept power dynamics in favour of the few, and for many activists COP is a part of the problem.”
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⚖️ Ecorepresentional Law & Interspecies Democracy
Why can’t plants vote? Should humans be the only species making the decisions on this planet? Sounds crazy? Well, first read this…
“The last three years have been an explosion of laws and campaigns towards the rights of nature,” says Grant Wilson, the executive director of Earth Law Center, a nonprofit that helps develop such laws. A set of lakes, streams and a marsh in Florida sued a developer last year, attempting to stop the construction of a 1,900-acre housing development amid the adjoining streams and wetlands. The waterways, which had been granted legal rights in a landslide county vote, are the first (and still only) natural nonhuman entities to defend themselves in U.S. courts.”
“The new laws in some ways mimic Indigenous cosmologies, which often describe a world where no sharp line divides human and nonhuman beings. Indigenous leaders have been instrumental in passing rights-of-nature laws in many countries, and several U.S. tribes have embraced the idea. Still, some Indigenous thinkers suggest that “rights” are a deeply Western concept that cannot capture the personal, reciprocal exchange between human and nonhuman beings. When we conceive of obligations to our family, after all, we do not typically talk about rights.”
“[…] While the concept is a powerful tool, it is just a beginning. ‘You write three words into a law or a constitution — ‘nature has rights’ — and it’s transformative. But really what we need are relationships with nature and whole systems of society that are in harmony with nature.’”
“Once well established, ecoprotective law could evolve into what [philosopher Jonathon] Keats calls ‘ecorepresentational’ law, which would give standing directly to nonhuman beings. What if, for example, trees were named the owners of the land upon which they stood? Ecorepresentational law might in turn grow into a future where species could receive patents for the “intellectual property” contained within their genes: if a medicinal plant inspires a drug, the profits from its sale would be placed into trust for the plant. Keats calls such future laws ‘ecocompensatory.’”
“[And the list of new law ideas] goes on: ecogenic, ecometric, ecocompatible, and, ultimately, ecocratic — law that is developed in collaboration with other species.”
“Human beings make up less than one percent of the planet’s biomass, Keats notes, while plants and nonhuman animals together make up more than 80%. They’re spread across the world’s many biomes — including places human beings can barely access, like microbes and crabs living on thermal vents in the ocean bottom. ‘In other words,” Keats wrote in a primer explaining his vision of multi-species governance, ‘they’re deeply informed, and have much to tell us.’
“Democracy is not a uniquely human institution.”
“As the writer and philosopher Eva Meijer writes in her recent book ‘When Animals Speak,’ female African buffalos often stand and stare in one direction or another before sitting back down. The biologists who noted this behavior at first presumed the buffalo were stretching. Then, after two years of study, he realized that once enough bison stood and gazed in the same direction, the entire herd would move that way: this was ‘voting behavior,’ he determined. Herds of red deer, too, move only after more than 60% of the adults stand up.”
“Most discussions of interspecies democracy begin with moral reasoning: we believe that many animals are sentient, yet they have no say in the political systems that define the world around them. Most philosophers then ask how can we expand our current systems to include their views. Keats’s thinking on ecocentric laws rests on a more radical premise: our political systems are fundamentally broken and may need to be replaced. […] Keats says, the process of recording a banana differential or a record of fruiting might be useful: a public database describing plants’ experience could inform the votes of sympathetic politicians, or a corporation could put plants on their board. The process of collecting the data could open our eyes to the fact that we live in a more-than-human world.”
That’s it for this week!