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Capitalism is Inadequate for Addressing "Distinctively Modern" Problems

Part I:  Defining "Distinctively Modern Problems"


    Broadly speaking, the most pervasive problems facing humanity can be sorted into two classes.  Consider “perennial” versus “modern” problems.  Perennial problems are those which (i) have always been with humanity and (ii) cannot be altogether prevented by any amount of human effort or wisdom.  Among such problems are the following:
(1)    vice (i.e., harmful, non-consensual behavior -- something like "gossip" comes to mind)
(2)    delusion (i.e., “magical” or irrational thinking)
(3)    strife (i.e., conflict [especially violence] at all levels)
(4)    inequality (i.e., the “unfair” universe, such as differing levels of talent, drive, etc.)
(5)    poverty
(6)    famine
(7)    disaster
I am happy to say more about this list, but it is not my primary concern here.

    As opposed to perennial problems, “modern” problems are those which (i) are new to modern times  and (ii) are preventable, for at least some future scenarios.  At the bottom, I have listed a variety of problems that I regard as distinctively modern.

    Speaking generally, modern problems can be characterized under the heading of complexity.  As modern civilization is complex, so are its problems, in ways that I shall attempt to explain.  Consider the following properties of distinctively modern problems (the list is by no means necessary or sufficient for making a problem "modern", but is nonetheless highly-correlated):

High Interactivity:  By “high interactivity”, I mean that it is extremely difficult to isolate one modern problem from another, to ameliorate its effects without causing unintended side-effects in problems that are (in some sense) “neighboring”.

Non-Linearity:  By “non-linearity”, I mean that small inputs to a system are associated with large outputs from that system.  While non-linearity is a characteristic of many natural systems, the probability of a modern problem’s being non-linear is generally higher than that of pre-modern problems, or so I would argue.

Positive Feedback:  By “positive feedback”, I mean that the structural relations among modern problems tend to encourage amplification rather than diminishment of the problems.  Consider a simple thermostat-controlled house.  As ambient heat increases, a pointer can be set which diminishes ambient heat through “negative” feedback (i.e., feedback that tends to “reduce”).  By contrast, in positive feedback, the feedback tends to encourage “runaway” amplification.

Closed:  By “closed”, I mean that modern problems tend increasingly to produce “trade-offs”.  If modern problems were “open”, they might be solved merely by seeking new resources.  But, in modernity, genuinely new resources are increasingly difficult to find.  So, ameliorating problems by using certain resources tends to augment other problems that require those same resources.

Distributed Topology:  By “distributed topology”, I mean that modern problems are often characterized by non-hierarchical distributions.  Roughly speaking, modern problems can often be described as “network-like” rather than “tree-like”.  In a network, one need not traverse to a central node to get from one place to another.  There are paths directly from one place to another.  Such paths make control elusive.

Characterized by Power Laws:  Despite having distributed topologies, modern problems are often characterized by “power laws”.  One might naturally imagine that the distribution of edges to nodes in a network is random any time that the evolution of the network in time is not centrally planned.  As it turns out, this is often not the case.  Instead of being “random”, these edges are distributed “exponentially”, in the sense that a small number of nodes tend to have a disproportionately large share of the edges.  Systems (especially networks) that might otherwise seem robust are in actuality vulnerable, due to the presence of such patterns.

Path-Dependence:  All systems evolve in time, by which I mean merely that systems have different characteristics from one point in time to another (i.e., different “dynamics”).  What is difficult about modern problems is that they are increasingly path-dependent in their dynamics, meaning that time-dependent changes cannot be reversed merely by retreating step-wise from a given state back to the state which preceded it.  Increasingly, the path back is not the same as the path forward.

Cataclysmic Potential:  This is the most obvious and therefore intuitive aspect of complexity.  As modern life has become more complex (in ways described above), so the potential for (what I call) “irreversible worsening” has grown.  Indeed, at this time it is possible to imagine some scenarios so devastating as to produce a bonafide discontinuity – that is, a change such that the resulting civilization would not even be identifiable with the preceding civilization.  Nuclear devastation is only the most obvious of such scenarios.  It is neither the most likely cataclysm, nor the worst.

Part II:  Doubts about the Ability of Capitalism to Resolve Distinctively Modern Problems

    The general promise of capitalism is the efficient production of wealth.  Specifically, capitalists believe that, if the private ownership of property is made a paramount principle of social organization, then humans in such a society will produce wealth more or less “optimally”.  Using clever mathematical models, economists argue that certain bounds and guarantees can be placed upon the condition “optimally”.

    The problem with capitalism is not that it has failed but, rather, that it has succeeded too well, or so I will argue.  As noted, capitalism is intrinsically oriented to the production of more -- and still more and more -- wealth.  But the problems of modernity, discussed above, can be addressed only by producing less.  Of what?  Of almost everything that can be considered a kind of “wealth”.

    I claim that it is quite dangerous to assume that we (as a species) will be able to unite sufficiently to overcome distinctively modern problems while working from within the framework of modern, global capitalism.  There is too much interaction, too much non-linearity, etc.  Get one problem under control (energy scarcity, let's say), and another problem that is related goes out of control (e.g., water scarcity).  Only by producing less of everything, by backing slowly away from the precipice, can we diminish simultaneously the complexities that drive distinctively modern problems. 

    Regarding capitalism, then, how can an ideology so dedicated to the production of more wealth be constrained to do the opposite?

    From the left, one hears cries either to abolish capitalism or to regulate it via government.  Mere abolishment seems implausible, to say the least – how, then, about regulation?  As it turns out, the wealth that capitalism produces is not distributed in an even manner.  Capitalists see no problem in this, of course, and I do not here argue that there is anything inherently wrong with the unequal distribution of wealth.  However, it is doubtless true that with great wealth comes great power.  This power can, and visibly is, being used to sway, possibly undermine entirely, the efforts of governments to regulate those who produce the most wealth.  Therefore, there is considerable doubt whether governments are capable of slowing capitalism.

    Meanwhile, from the right, one hears cries that the free market will provide its own solutions to the problems of modernity, if only the market is left sufficiently to its own devices.  I harbor doubts on this score, as well.  For example, free market capitalists believe that, if modern people are sufficiently concerned about certain problems, then their concern will be reflected in their purchases.  For this reason we see the burgeoning markets for “organic” foods, “sustainable” commodities of various sorts, or whatever.  But the rate at which these new sensibilities are developing is so slow as to render almost laughable the idea that the free market is going to save the world from itself in time.

    Capitalism, in anything like its present form, is not the ideology for our times.  Its characteristics are too similar (indeed, suspiciously so) to the very problems most threatening to humanity.  Collective action to address these problems is necessary, but capitalism encourages a kind of “freefall” mentality where everyone trusts that someone is doing something about this.  Perhaps some miraculous technological innovation will create even more efficiency, yielding even more wealth...  But does capitalist ideology give us any reason to expect that this greater efficiency will lead to decreased production?  I don’t think so.

     In summary, my view is that modern problems are something that we should worry about, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of all the generations that are to follow us on this bright jewel of a world.  May those generations inherit no less a world from their forebears than did we.


Part III - A List of Some Distinctively Modern Problems

    Many of these instances are only arguably the result of modernity.  In some cases, the problem plainly existed prior to modernity.  However, I would argue that, at the least, each of these problems exists in a form much more exaggerated due to modernity than it was in the "pre-modern" period (roughly, preceding the industrial revolution).

•    Overpopulation
•    Pandemics
•    Resource scarcity
     o    Energy
     o    Fossil fuels
     o    Helium
     o    Rare earth elements
     o    Copper
     o    Water
•    Pollution
     o    Chemical
     o    Biological
     o    Genomic
•    Immigration / emigration
•    Misinformation (e.g., the “anti-vaccine” movement)
•    Gangs
•    Organized crime
•    Illegal drugs
•    Runaway obesity (note: so-called “first-world” nations only)
•    Oppressive governments
•    Economic instability
•    Corruption of the political process
•    Political intransigence
•    Indigenous unrest (e.g., the Balkans, Central Asia, northeast Africa, Latin America)
•    Sectarian strife (e.g., fundamentalism, Islam)
•    Terrorism
•    Nuclear threat
•    Artifact loss (e.g., cultural & historical artifacts [the human legacy])
•    Cultural extinction (e.g., native language extinctions)
•    Invasive species
•    Biodiversity reduction
•    Habitat reduction
•    Anthropogenic climate change

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Comment by Edward Tomchin on October 31, 2012 at 1:02pm

Not meaning to demean anything you said, but the perennial problems you enumerate can be summed up in the words of my favorite philosopher, Pogo (nee Walt Kelly): "We have met the enemy and they are us."  I've been complaining loud and long that we need to discover a means whereby people can develop a morality they can be lived and followed rather than just mouthed.  I suspect it would have to come from inside each individual rather than be imposed externally.  Religion and law have been charged with keeping people on the moral road but both have failed miserably.  Philosophy and like subjects have been charged with educating us into morality and they too have failed.  I believe there is a solution, but I'll be damned if I can discern what it might be, other than it will have to take into complete account the fullness of human nature.  We are fearful creatures and those fears drive us to commit some horrific acts against ourselves.  If we could find a means to ameliorate these fears, we may naturally become more moral individuals.

As regards what you categorize as modern problems, I see as stemming from the same source as your perennial problems.  They only difference being that our modern technology allows us to exacerbate them more easily and quickly.

You have accurately nailed the general promise of capitialism as the efficient production of wealth.  However, what you see as a problem (the overproduction of wealth) and a solution (underproduction) can only lead to the collapse of capitalism and the return of humankind back to the dark ages replete with war and pestilence of all sort.

The problem with an overabundance of wealth is that it is not distributed equitably.  The gap between the rich and the poor is far too wide and those at the bottom dispair as a result (and who can blame them.) But that problem is being solved.  Since the end of WWII, millions have been raised up out of abject poverty, and while there are hundreds of millions more to be raised up, we are on the right path.  

Capitalism has enabled us to create a marvelous technological infrastructure which has made a tremendous number of lives easier and fuller, healthier and wealthier.  Have you ever noticed that the great systems we have created have been built on a common bond of trust?  Law, for instance, depends solely on trust.  The courts take much argument at face value, trusting that if there is a fallacy or falsity to it, the opposition will raise the issue to be heard.  Since 1971 when the world cut loose from the gold standard, we have had a fiat currency and an economy built on common trust.  It is merely an advancement of the old saw that a man's word is his bond, leaving it up to the parties involved to raise any violation of that trust.

This is not to say that these trusts has not been violated.  They has been numerous times in numerous ways.  It is why we have venues to sort these matters out and make them right. Remember, we are our own worse enemies.  There is no inherently external system into which we are thrust.  Every system that has ever existed has been created and enabled by us.  We the people have brought both good and bad upon ourselves.  Even our ideologies are created by us and we are self-admittedly imperfect creatures, therefore how can our systems be perfect?  The only perfection is that our systems are a perfect reflection of ourselves.

But to the main point, the existence of capitalism: I know of no other system of economics that can produce sufficient wealth to finance the endeavors we assume, the goals we set, and the attainment of our desires.  One might postulate a hundred or more specific situations where capitalism has a fault or has failed, but it is impossible to deny that the wealth of the world has grown far greater and faster than even our population.

In lieu of people becoming moral creatures, we created governments to regulate our behavior to whatever extent possible.  Yes, there are failures of the system, but we always recover and because we always have, we always will.  Stepping outside economics for a moment, we need to have more faith in ourselves as a species.  Our history shows what we have gotten ourselves into numerous and severe jackpots, but never have we done so as in the century past.

There have always been predictions of the destruction of humankind, but in 1945 we actually achieved, for the first time, the means to do so, and in 1961 came within a hair of actually doing it.  But we didn't!  We survived our best attempts to destroy not only our species, but the whole damned planet with us.  We should be celebrating that event, not bemoaning it.

Back to capitalism, restrained it should not be.  Regulated it should.  Adam Smith, the man who first saw capitalism as a natural evolution of mercantilism, also had insight into how it would work and postulated certain rules that described those workings.  He saw that the natural workings of capitalism involved what he termed an "invisible hand" that would set things aright when they became out of balance.  The problem is that most expect this hand to slap imbalances back into place ASAP.  It does not.  The hand actually does not begin to slap things down until they get wildly out of balance, as happened in 1929 and again in 2007, as well as a number of times in lesser imbalances.

In summation, we are an imperfect work in progress, but capitalism is the greatest system we have created so far.  No other system of economics has created so much wealth, has financed such great adventures, nor has the ability to finance (and therefore provide) population-wide health care, education, food, shelter and entertainment.  We have reached the pinnacle of our evolution so far, but this does not mean there is not more ahead.  Another event WWII brought about in concert with capitalism is the opening of the whole world to trade.  We have embarked on a new adventure in capitalism in that another three billion people are in the process of joining free-market trade.

I challenge you to define, even in simple terms, another system that can carry us forward in time, space, thought and deed.  (No offense intended.)

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