From Field to Plate...

Seven Tomorrows Part 4

Monday, November 14, 2011 @ 04:11 AM
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BANTAM NEW AGE BOOKS                  1982





The intent of the scenarios is to heighten our sensitivity to the consequences of current choices, not to foretell the inevitable or enchant us with the most desirable future. As a mental exercise, they should increase our agility in choosing and understanding our possibilities and adapting to our realities. They give us a sense of the potential interplay of forces, events, and human choices that shape the future. What lessons can we learn from them?

The Official Future extends the trends and aspirations of the fifties and early sixties. For that reason it remains a desirable future for many Americans whose values were formed during those decades. But the clash of that image against the realities of the seventies and eighties renders the Official Future a less than likely scenario. Mature Calm does not demand all the good breaks from a benign set of circumstances as the Official Future does. But Mature Calm does depend on a degree of social cohesion that is unlikely in our highly fragmented society. The Center Holds may be attractive to some, but it suggests calling off the American experiment in human freedom. Periods of crisis and distress color the other four scenarios. Living Within Our Means and Apocalyptic Transformation achieve something close to happy endings, at least from some contemporary perspectives.

But it is difficult to regard as desirable any scenarios that begin with such dark days, furthermore, from such problematic beginnings, Chronic Breakdown and beginnings of Sorrow appear to be at least as likely if not more likely outcomes.

In short if we fail to take charge of our destiny, we may find that the most desirable futures are least likely, while the most likely are the least desirable.

The scenarios set us a problem. A healthy economy seems to be necessary to insure peace, freedom, and a sense of hope about the future. But the inertia of history deeds us a situation in which the health of the economy depends on an energy system so fragile its survival may take us to war on the one hand, or toward the authoritarian management of economic and natural resources on the other. Or both.

In this concluding section we tackle the interplay of energy, national security, the economy, and finally, our basic values. As the diagram on page 29 and the scenarios show, the future cleaves not only on the external vicissitudes of a world in transition, but also on the personal values upheld by America’s inhabitants. While not ignoring the very real problem and challenges that confront us, we nevertheless assert that the problems will be approached in very different ways depending upon the values we bring to bear on the problems as we perceive them.

Aside from the events and characters, the major fiction of the scenarios is their hindsight, in this final section, we reverse the perspective and look ahead. Having no wish to compete with alarmists or doomsayers, we do not identify any single issue as the crisis for which we must drop everything else to free our hands for some singular solution. There is, rather, a need to describe an ethical and perceptual stance that does quite the opposite, a stance that positions us as a nation for a future that none of us can possibly know or predict. The future we eventually inhabit will doubtless contain elements from several if not all of the preceding scenarios. Just as the scenarios will mix in a mélange too rich for any single story, so too the central issues of energy, national security, economics, and values mix in a tangled web of interdependence. Having explored in narrative hindsight the interconnections of issues to generate different scenarios, we now explore those same interconnections with analytic foresight to more directly address the problems posed by the consequences observed in the scenarios. Problem-solving, not prediction, is the ultimate purpose of the exercise of scenario building. Having seen, in however fictional a form, the probable consequences of certain decisions, we now have an opportunity to avert some of those less desirable consequences – if only we comprehend the interrelationships between issues and the role of present choices in determining future outcomes.

Chapter 10: Energy

Chapter 11: Limited Insanity: On the Prospects of Nuclear War

Chapter 12: Cultural Economics

  • The insecurity of the energy system that leads to freshening of the winds of war is mirrored in economic insecurity.
  • In recent years a number of analysts have succeeded in demonstrating that the fundamental tenets Keynesian and neo-Keynesian economics are inadequate.
  • Neither monetarists policies influencing the money supply, nor make-work programs aimed at unemployment have halted the reduction in real wages and profits.
  • The basic engine of the economy has been the production of increasing amounts of material goods at a lower price for more people.
  • The cornucopia of material goods available to the American consumer spilled forth from complex interactions among cheap resources, rapidly expanding markets, ready access to capital, technological innovation, and hard work.
  • Now that resources are rising rapidly in price, birthrates are declining, and consumer markets are nearing saturation, we can expect, and we are seeing, a reversal of market patterns: people are only able to buy a few goods at higher prices, and they don’t like it.

As long as productivity increased, consumers could borrow against rising incomes to finance current consumption wants. But it takes productivity growth to repay those loans, and with declining productivity we are becoming saddled with both burdensome debt and the inability to raise sufficient capital to invest in newer technology to improve our productivity. Inflation may have made our debts easier to face, but it has made capital ever more elusive, hence investment in productivity ever more unlikely, hence a defensive shift from production to consumption ever more inevitable. We are not likely to invest in productivity because we are spending too much for government services, from transfer payments to current defense expenditures, on top of paying off the debt for the war in Vietnam. Corporations are too eager to report profits rather than re-invest in productivity, and individuals, too, prefer consuming to saving. We have played a game of mirrors on ourselves until we have confused image with reality, inflation with wealth. For homeowners, inflation and low interest rates increase the values of their homes enough to allow them to finance more consumption – so why stop inflation? For government, inflation makes it unnecessary to set priorities. Everybody can have everything because tax revenues increase with rising wages. But finally many workers are realizing that while their incomes have more than doubled, their purchasing power has risen by only 10%. We hid the cost of energy by regulating its price so that we failed to make necessary efficiency improvements. We became less productive in the process. Hiding the costs of environmental quality has further added to the inflationary spiral of declining productivity and inefficient investment. Environmental quality is not a luxury, however much business might wish it were so. We have erected a costly environmental regulatory apparatus rather than tackling the necessary costs head on.

  • Economists tend to see only as much as their tools can measure and manipulate. If their categories fail to include some significant variables, then no amount of tinkering with the old levers will be adequate to new realities.
  • In a nutshell, newer theories are needed to relate economy to ecology. Features that were earlier dismissed as “externalities,” like environmental pollution, are now coming home to roost.
  • An expanded theory is required that will relate not only the supply and demand for capital, labor, goods, and services, but also for natural resources.
  • The rational pursuit of individual interests (equals profits) will inevitably lead to the depletion of common resources to the detriment of all.
  • Social planning for social needs must replace the pursuit of profits if we are to increase the efficient use of resources, change the ratio of energy use to production, and thereby revive our economy.
  • The lesson of recent history seems to suggest that a new economic theory needs to expand not only by incorporating the externalities of energy and ecology, but that a new theory must also find ways to include the almost intangible – therefore previously ignored – factors of cultural values.
  • It cannot be a coincidence that the countries currently making the greatest gains in productivity are countries where relatively homogenous values reinforce a willingness to work in cooperation and competition.

If we are to extend the domain of political-economic theory beyond the variables of supply and demand to include both resource allocation and cultural values, then we must confront the overwhelmingly obvious fact that the United States is a country consisting of highly heterogeneous groups. We cannot appeal to any unified set of values to galvanize such a diverse population into higher productivity. Instead, we seem beset with a “zero-sum” society in which, as economist Lester Thurow argues, one group can improve its lot only at the expense of some other group. Since we lack the will to make the hard decisions of loss allocation, our diversity takes the form of mutually imposed paralysis: no group will let any other group get away with anything. This crisis of mutually imposed impotence applies to the adversary relationships between labor and management, business and government, consumer groups and producers, doctors and patients. Our adversary culture has increased the cost of almost everything from health to insurance to automobiles.

  • How can we supplement market mechanisms with some degree of anticipatory planning when we are both unwilling to fall back on a managed economy and unable to appeal to a common tradition of cohesive values?
  • The idea of accommodation need not require concession or surrender of one’s own values.
  • The trouble with an adversarial approach to certain issues is that accommodation smacks of compromise.
  • There will be no solution to these problems as long as they are fought on the field of a knock-down battle between socialism and capitalism.
  • We believe that the most hopeful course in the decades ahead depends upon our willingness and ability to decentralize some of the basic institutions of American society.
  • There comes a point of diminishing returns beyond which the economic and political advantages that accrue to larger organizations are offset by organizational inefficiencies resulting from sheer size.
  • In addition to its cost-effectiveness and efficiency, appropriate decentralization offers a solution to the problem of internalizing cultural ideals into an expanded theory of economics.
  • Decentralization is the organizational structure most appropriate to our ideological tradition of freedom.
  • Freedom in a decentralized setting is the opportunity to define local norms for behavior. It is an opportunity for communities to carry on different traditions.
  • Cottage industry is inappropriate to the production of ships. Conversely products like soap and toothpaste are easy to manufacture and package in local facilities that obviate the need for advertising and expensive transportation and distribution.
  • Conflicts abound and they will persist. The next chapter will reflect upon the attitudes required if we are to keep these potentially benign passions from devolving into destructive conflicts.


Chapter 13: Conclusion

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