By David McCarthy
This is my 26th monthly column on the New Economics, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity and the challenge it has presented. This month I’d like to invite you, the reader, to participate by doing some conscious contemplations in the realm of economics. It is actually one of the features of the New Economics that ordinary people—not just specialists—are “allowed” to think about economics and join the conversation. Sometimes they have better ideas than the professionals.
Contemplation is sometimes understood as being similar to meditation, perhaps with mystical implications, but what I mean here is different than that. What I’m asking you to do is to use your thinking mind, your powers of reflection and analysis, to address certain economic matters in a conscious and focused way. The topics could be of your own choosing, or based on some suggestions I’ll make below. In simplest terms, what I mean by contemplation is “thinking things over.” If we allow ourselves the space to do this, we will have a chance to go deeper, beyond surface judgments and into a place of greater clarity and understanding. In many ways it is more important how we undertake this practice than exactly what topic we take on, because once we get experienced at it, we can take on anything. The basic point is to take a bit of time specifically for this, perhaps just a few minutes, or as long as you like.
The contemplations I will suggest are general categories, from which you could get more specific. Or, you could start fresh on your own. Some of these ideas involve switching points of view from what you normally would take. Here goes:
Reversal of fortunes
If you are financially comfortable, try thinking about what it would be like to be one of the billion people or so poorest people worldwide—those whose income is something like a dollar or two a day. If you are poor, try thinking about being one of the “one percent.” (The most recent figures I could find defined the top 1% in the US as households with incomes over $370,000 per year.) If you are “in the middle,” try either one, or both. The main point is to think about people with radically different circumstances than your own. How might they see things? How might they think about you?
In this type of exercise, try to think about economic behavior absolutely without any bias, judgment, or personal “spin”. Just think about what people do, what companies do, what nations do. I am not suggesting we abandon our values. But sometimes the judgments that are based on those values prevent us from really seeing the way things happen. I know that I can tend to be very opinionated about things, and that sometimes it holds me back.
Ordinarily, we look at things from our own point of view. Interestingly, if we develop a degree of detachment, we can consider things from a radically big-picture point of view: 7 billion human beings, countless beings in the animal realm, the natural world, and all interacting in patterns of deep interconnection and interdependence. When I think about things in this way, I need to hold back from some sort of generalization and just see it as a vast panorama—beautiful, tragic, complex. Somehow I find it both unimaginable and, well, imaginable. How about you?
Causes and effects
When we think about the interdependent world, we inevitably start to think about causes and effects. Perhaps you could consider the whole causal sequence of, say, how a piece of fruit comes to be on your table. Or take a complex manufactured item, such as an automobile. Thinking through the entire life cycle of things like this, with all the materials, processes, and human dimensions is a very complex subject. And what about the psychological causes involved with products that are more intangible, such as entertainment? Why do we want the things we want, and what do we do to get them? And of course, what are the effects of all these things? How do the effects themselves become causes?
If you don’t have the inclination to actually do these contemplations, this might have been a fairly boring column! But if you do, you may find yourself in a rich world of imagination.
If you have any interesting ideas that come out of these contemplations, and would like to write them up, I’ll put some of them in next month’s paper. Email them to me at email@example.com.