MoneyMirage
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MoneyMirage

28. Why do humans make things?

The Lion Man is an exquisite 31 cm mammoth ivory carving, depicting the head of a (now extinct) cave lion on the body of a man. He has a slender, cat-like body with the hips and thighs of a lion. His head gazes alertly and directly. (We know he’s alert because the back of the right ear shows the furrow caused by the ear turning to listen to sounds).

Lion Man was made around 40,000 years ago in Swabia, south-west Germany. He is utterly useless — if you define usefulness as something that aids physical survival. He was used for something else. The wear on his body suggests he was handed around between many people and rubbed often, perhaps as part of a religious or magical ritual.

Lion Man, it seems, was ‘useful’ in bringing shared meaning to the community and helping it bind together. And this was clearly important to these people. How do we know? Because of the immense time and effort that went into making him. Archaeologists replicating his production process reckon it took over 400 hours to make him. That’s ten weeks full time work (by today’s standards) of hard, patient, skilled work.

Given the harsh and difficult living conditions of the time, this represents a significant prioritisation of scarce resources, and behind it (of course) lay a complete ‘supply chain’ (or nested hierarchy of specialist recipes). This included hunting and killing the mammoth (which required huge amounts of effort, skill, organisation and coordination, as well as bravery) and tools of many different shapes and sizes that were needed to tackle different aspects of the carving. Each of these tools had to be made: in this case, the highly skilled task of flaking chips of stone that had to be constantly re-sharpened.

In previous blogs in this series I’ve explored many different aspects of material production. But throughout, I dodged a fundamental question. Why bother making all that effort? What’s it all for?

These questions are profoundly important. Lion Man was a ‘product’; the ‘output’ of a long, detailed and difficult process of production. But he wasn’t an ‘economic’ good, produced for the purposes of physical security or sustenance, or for sale. What he shows is that from the dawn of time, production has never been for purely ‘economic’ purposes. People produced things for social, cultural, religious, aesthetic and many other purposes as well as for instrumental uses. (Just think of Angkor Wat, the Pyramids, Chartres cathedral and countless other expressions of human imagination and ingenuity.)

Human purposes

If humans sometimes devote huge amounts of effort producing things that have no ‘economic’ purpose, what does this say about us? About what real wealth looks like? About why we do what we do?

When push comes to shove the purpose of production is to make things that help people feel better in their lives. We produce things to eliminate negatives such as pain and suffering) and to accentuate positives, enriching our experiences of being alive. The negatives can be physical (like hunger, illness or hypothermia) but they can also be emotional (anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair). Likewise, the positives can be physical (creature comforts and luxuries) and emotional (such as ‘happiness’, feeling that we belong, that our lives have meaning, etc).

Whether positive or negative, emotional or physiological, the acid test of the things we produce is whether it makes us feel better than we otherwise would have done. Humans don’t produce things just to ‘make money’ but to achieve all four of the above purposes: eliminating physical and emotional pain and suffering, and enriching physical and emotional experiences.

If this is the case, some important things follow.

First, wealth is not something that happens ‘out there’ in the accumulation of goods or money. It happens ‘in here’, in humans’ experiences of life, when goods and services are used. The real measure of the value of a product is the human feelings it helps generate. (The opposite is also true. If something makes people feel bad rather than good, we are producing what John Ruskin called ‘illth’ rather than wealth.)

Second, most things we produce have both physical, physiological and emotional impacts — and both count towards their overall value. Take food. For most of human history, most people spent most of their time finding ways to eat. They had to, to sustain themselves physically; to avoid the misery and despair of starvation.

But food production was never just about physical survival. Reaching back into the mists of time, humans never just ate food for instrumental survival reasons. They devoted huge amounts of time, effort and attention on the creation of culinary delights, creating entire cuisines: physical, sensual enrichment. And they have never eaten alone. Preparing and eating food has always been a social activity, used as a means of bonding emotionally with others, sharing experiences and connecting with them. There is social and emotional joy to food as well as physical necessity.

Third, eliminating physiological and emotional pain and suffering and enriching peoples’ lives physically and emotionally, apply just as much to the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. We can produce things in ways that require drudgery, alienation, bullying and risks to human life and limb (Ruskin’s ‘illth’). Or we can produce them in ways that build peoples’ skills and capabilities, create social bonds of belonging and trust, and open up possibilities. The process is as important as the outcome. In fact, in many ways, the process is the outcome, a crucially important theme which I’ll increasingly return to later.

Fourth, we need production as much for social and emotional purposes as for physical, sustenance purposes. To listen to an exquisite piece of live music, you need exquisite musical instruments: each of these instruments needs to be made. (The first known musical instruments, flutes made from mammoth bone, were discovered in the same group of caves as Lion Man. They are thought to be between 42,000 and 43,000 years old.)

Fundamental misconceptions

Why stress these points? Because, currently, we’re labouring under some damaging misconceptions. The way people talk about economics today, its as if the (bogus) ‘laws’ that economists pronounce upon were some sort of unavoidable, externally imposed force, like gravity, that we just have to submit to. And that the ‘economy’ is an absolute fundamental — that we have to ‘get the economy right’ before we can turn our attention to other desirable but less important things (like bringing shared meaning to the community and helping it bind together).

The underlying assumption is that human wellbeing is based on a series of separate layers, the first being the most fundamental, the second being slightly less fundamental and only addressable once the first has been achieved, and so on.

But as Lion Man shows, this is not what happened and it’s not how human beings tick. Human needs and purposes are not layered. They’re fractal. Our social and emotional needs run through our practical instrumental activities like a stick of rock. Attending to humans’ social and emotional needs is not an afterthought, to be turned to after other more important economic matters have been attended to. And what people produce (and how they produce it) are not dictated by abstract, externally imposed ‘laws’ like ‘supply and demand’. To the contrary, what we produce and how we produce it is embedded within, and a by-product of, our social values and norms, cultures, belief systems and so on. ‘Economics’ is not the premier social science that it claims to be. In fact, it’s best understood just a sub-branch of anthropology.

What makes people tick?

Why do these misconceptions matter? Because if we really want to find ways of improving peoples’ lives — of creating real wealth and not just money — we need to attend to the full range and richness of human purposes.

At this point you might be getting a little uncomfortable. Isn’t this all a bit hand-wavy? Vague? Mystical even? Not at all. All I’m doing is pointing to some simple facts that economists with their bogus claims to have discovered ‘laws’ of economics that have scientific precision, have done their damndest to ignore.

The fact that the only real measure of wealth creation is human — subjective, lying in humans’ experiences of life, qualitative — doesn’t mean that it is random, arbitrary or impossible to understand or assess. Quite the opposite. Across all the ages and every culture and every place, humans have displayed multiple commonalities. Anthropologists have identified hundreds of ‘human universals’ — behavioural traits that are common to all human societies.

You can see a list of these human universals here including multiple attempts to alleviate pain and suffering and to enrich experiences, including food sharing, religious beliefs, and music.

So now, in this blog series, I’m going to change tack. I started out by exploring the money mirage. I then showed how we can get a much better understanding and explanation of the production of material wealth without referring to things like money or profit. Now, having dug deeper into the purposes of production, I’ve shown that real wealth is “the sustainable enrichment of human lives”, where enrichment isn’t just material and physical but also psychological and emotional — what makes people feel better about their lives.

That being the case, I’m going to leave money and production aside, to focus on people. What makes people tick and how can we put the huge recent advances in understanding on this front to good use?

Next in this series: 29. What makes humans tick?

Previous: 27. Searching for Better: Engine of Wealth Creation

The full contents of this blog series can be found here.

Bibliography

Books and articles I found particularly useful researching this blog include:

  • Peter Drucker, The Ecological Vision: Reflections on the American Condition, Routledge, 1992
  • John Ruskin, Unto This Last, Collins, 1970 (First published 1862)
  • Robert Blatchford, Merrie England, Journeyman Press, 1976 (First published 1893)In The Ecological Vision, Drucker wrote:

In The Ecological Vision, Drucker wrote:

“I do not accept the basic premise on which economics as a discipline is based and without which it cannot be sustained, let alone that it is the dominant one (and even less that is the ONLY sphere as so many economists maintain, especially the true believers of the Austrian School)… for me the economic sphere is one sphere rather than the sphere. Economic considerations are restraints rather than overriding determinants. Economic wants and economic satisfactions are important but not absolutes. Above all, economic activities, economic institutions, economic rationality are means to noneconomic, that is, human or social ends, rather than ends in themselves. And this means that I do not see economics as an autonomous ‘science’.

Here, Drucker nails the true status of economics.

In Unto This Last, Ruskin wrote:

“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings …. Money is just the shadow of the true gain, which is humanity”.

Precisely!

In Merrie England, Blatchford wrote:

“A full grown man can be well fed upon a daily ration of 1lb of bread, 1lb of vegetables and 1lb of meat. Add to this a few groceries, a little fruit, some luxuries in the shapes of wine, beer and tobacco; a shelter, a bed, some clothing, and a few tools and articles of furniture and you have all the material things you need.”

But what of the mental needs of life?

“You may describe all the things as pleasures, or recreations, if you choose,” he continued. “Of Knowledge there are almost numberless branches. Modern science is a vast storehouse of interest and delight … to the student that more fascinating, more thrilling and more marvellous than any romance.”

“But science is only one branch of knowledge. There is literature, there is history, there are foreign countries and peoples, there are languages and laws and philosophies to interest and inform us… As a mere amusement the acquirement of knowledge is above price. But it has another value, it enables us to help our fellow creatures and leave the world better than we found it.”

“As for Pleasures, their name is legion: walking, rowing, swimming, football, cricket; the arts and the drama; the beauties of nature; travel and adventures. Mere words cannot convey the intensity of these pleasures … The variety of pure and healthy pleasures are infinite.”

“Then as to Intercourse. I mean by that all the exaltation and all the happiness we get from friendship, from love, from comradeship, from family ties. These are amongst the best and the sweetest things in life.”

Here Blatchford is talking about real wealth, as opposed to the desiccated, emaciated, dehumanising vision of ‘wealth’ promoted by modern economics.

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