by John Lawrence
We Don't Need Another Gadget
What the world needs now is love... so wrote Hal David in 1965 with music by Burt Bacharach. It was true then and even truer now. We don't need another gadget, we don't need another smartphone, we don't need another IPO which only increases the economic divide between the 1% and the 99%. Economic progress has utterly failed us. It won't prevent the world going up in flames and/or being flooded out due to global warming. It hasn't prevented war and violence crowding out every other story on the evening news and getting worse by the day.
Economic progress fueled by an educational system that promotes Meritocracy has not produced the results by which men and women can live harmoniously with nature, nor the consequence that the material goods that sustain life are widely distributed. We commodify what we think of as intelligence. We grade people from pre-school to graduate school based on their IQ while ignoring their capacity for selfless love, agape, brotherly love, which is the form of love we are talking about here, as opposed to erotic love. We ignore the caregivers, the nurses, the teachers, those who have chosen to join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps instead of the military whom we celebrate. There are no parades or medals of honor for the Peace Corps. There are no 'thank yous for your service'.
Thomas Frank writes in Listen Liberal, "Meritocracy ... is the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best. This is the First Commandment of the professional-managerial class.
These days Meritocracy has come to seem so reasonable that many of us take it for granted as the true and correct measure of human value. Do well in school, and you will earn your credential. Earn your credential, and you are admitted into the ranks of the professions. Become a professional, and you receive the respect of the public plus the nice house in the suburbs and the fancy car and all the rest. Meritocracy makes so much sense to us that barely anyone thinks of challenging it..."
The Downside of Meritocracy
The downside of Meritocracy is that it contributes to the economic divide. Technology has produced scads of billionaires whose products mesmerize us without contributing one iota to making the world a better, safer or more life sustaining place or distributing prosperity more widely. Since the tech revolution of the 2000s, middle class wages have floundered, not increased, while incomes and wealth for the upper few percent have soared. Today the twenty richest individuals control more wealth than the bottom half of the population. That’s 152 million people living in 57 million households. The Walton family of Walmart owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people. Many American billionaires are a tribute to the Meritocracy having got there by their own merits and not inherited wealth. They form a plutocracy, and their offspring will be the recipients of inherited wealth just as the aristocracy of the ancien regime was formed and perpetuated.
Tech start-ups get millions of dollars when they "go public." Wealth is concentrated among fewer and fewer people, but they're all celebrated because they are so smart. Many of these so-called entrepreneurs went to the best colleges and universities. However, some of them like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey (inventor of Twitter and the Square) are actually college drop-outs. They are given credit for growing GDP when all they've done is to increase the economic divide, and their products have not been of the life sustaining variety. If someone creates a company and they do a billion dollars worth of business, this grows the economy or GDP by a billion dollars even though most of that money goes to just a few people. The economy grows and so does the economic divide.
As E. F. Schumacher says in Small is Beautiful, subtitled "Economics as if People Mattered," in order for economic progress to be wide spread what is needed, especially in the under developed parts of the world, is intermediate technology, technology which helps small farmers and entrepreneurs improve their businesses - not high tech. Progress, in Western terms, only "demoralizes the many and makes them the helpless dependents of the rich and expert few." High tech agriculture depopulates the countryside, crowds the cities and turns self sustaining farmers into dependents on the cash economy. NAFTA and globalization has ruined Mexican small farmers as American agricultural products priced them out of the markets.
Intermediate technology, such as simple smokeless stoves and simple solar panels, sufficient to keep one light burning, improves the lot of smallholders while keeping them on the land, but it is not seen as representing progress like GPS operated, automated tractors and GMO seeds which reduce the need for human labor while maximizing yields. Automated trucks being developed by Tesla and others will obviate the need for one of the largest occupational categories - truck drivers.
Meritocracy Commodifies Human Worth
Meritocracy commodifies human intelligence and therefore human worth. The educational system does not promote people with big hearts; it promotes people with big brains. The economic system does the same. Every facet of human endeavor that has economic significance is commodified. However, the capacity to love and care for others is not. It is not thought worth commodifying or rated. It is not considered "talent." If it had economic significance, it would be commodified. Imagine if a college entrant had to provide their SAT score and a rating on a scale from 1 to 100 of their capacity to love or care for other human beings and the earth in general. It seems ludicrous to commodify love; yet people that have a capacity to love are needed now more than ever if the earth and its inhabitants are to survive. The Meritocracy's downside is that it does not value love, only "intelligence" or "talent."
But rather than commodify love, more importantly, we need to decommodify intelligence. The grading system should be done away with. It has a fascistic basis, the commodifyng of people into alphas, betas and gammas such as George Orwell predicted in his novel, Brave New World. True education would be learning that took place without students having to be ranked by grades. Where I went to school on scholarship, Phillips Academy Andover, they ranked everyone in the class from first to last. Besides that they had two honor rolls, first and second, and they did this ranking every quarter. When students have to compete for their rank, true education can not take place, but a lot of anxiety and depression can. Some of the titans of high tech have ignored the whole system, dropped out of college and still became billionaires as mentioned previously. Even though they have proved that grading students is inconsequential to high achievement, they still have contributed to the economic divide with their billion dollar IPOs. We should stop celebrating contributors to the economic divide.
Finland Decommodifies Education
Consider Finland's educational system. It's the total opposite of America's. Instead of control, competition, stress, standardized testing, there is warmth, collaboration and teacher-led encouragement and supportiveness. See How Finland broke every rule — and created a top school system. Yet in an apparent contradiction, Finland's students consistently do better than American students on standardized testing.
We have to revise our notion of progress. The twentieth century saw much "progress" including diesel engines which replaced steam engines on the railroad thereby reducing the number of necessary water stops and station agents. The automobile, the movies, the telephone, the airplane, labor saving appliances, the computer, the internet have all contributed to "progress" because they have created commodities which can be sold and/or billed to individual customers or corporations. Inventions which can't be commodified and sold do not grow the economy. The American economy is based on 70% consumer purchases so the emphasis is on the invention of things which can be commodified and sold rather on things which can help people be self sufficient outside the cash economy or things which can help people and the environment which cannot be bought or sold.
We left the "horse and buggy days" behind. But horses and buggies did not pollute, they did not exacerbate global warming. Diesel engines, automobiles and jet engines spewed greenhouse gasses until the earth started warming perceptibly. Renewable energy inventions have the promise of reducing greenhouse gasses and saving Mother Earth, but they need to be implemented on a larger scale than that of individual sales, and large scale government programs for this or any other form of infrastructure are not even being considered by Congress.
Progress didn't turn out to be progress after all if externalities and the sustainability of the earth are taken into account. High tech reduced the need for human labor, eliminating jobs and widely distributed financial gains. Progress took away the dignity gained from having a necessary and productive job and being able to make a living therefrom. Soon robots will eliminate the need for human labor altogether except that labor involved in service jobs. The Amish and the Mennonites, ridiculed for staying in the "horse and buggy" stage of development, have not contributed to global warming the way adopters of the latest technology have. Did they know something we don't know, were they prescient or did they just do the right thing for the wrong reasons?