title:Economic Sacred Cows Are Out of Milk
No matter which decade you went to college you probably took econ. As David Brooks of The New York Times writes, “economics was the queen of the social sciences.” Psychology, sociology, history and anthropology were “easier”, not quite so solid. No longer.
Economic theorists used to assume that people everywhere were natural “profit-maximizing creatures trending toward reasonableness.” They believed that as people throughout the world became better educated and richer, tribalism and nationalism would be replaced by global institutions maintained by advanced means of communication.
It was a good idea at the time. Now we know that:
1. Education has not made people more moderate. In the U.S. highly educated voters are more polarized than less educated ones. In the Arab world some of the most educated are the most fanatical.
2. Humans are not “profit-maximizing creatures trending toward reasonableness”, but “socially embedded products of family and group”. People use the limbic and reptile portions of their brains to make economic decisions, not the neo-cortex.
David Brooks writes, “Alan Greenspan said that he once assumed that capitalism was ‘human nature’. But after watching the collapse of the Russian economy, he had come to consider it ‘was not human nature at all, but culture.’ During our first few years of life, parents, communities and societies unconsciously impart ways of being and of perceiving reality that we are only subliminally aware of.”
3. Perceiving reality. The value of truth is absolute, its nature subjective. What we think is real and true and right is not what someone else thinks is real and true and right. I refer you to quantum mechanics. Imagine everything, including yourself, as a field of energy arranging and re-arranging depending on your focus on it.
Recognizing this fact might put some milk back in our economists’ sacred cow.
Instead of putting money into education where there is no cultural support for the kind of education we’re financing, why not realize, study, and act on specific cultural perceptions of reality. I entered a student’s home once, invited by his mother because he needed help passing 8tth grade English. English was their native language. There were three television sets in the home, but no books and no dictionary. I could not change the culture of the home in one visit.
Instead of imposing our systems in other countries and then wondering why they didn’t work, why not find out their cultural realities? David Brooks points out that East Asians and Jews thrive commercially wherever they settle. And no matter how much we have invested in Africa to build factories for economic development, none of it has worked.
Instead of assuming that we are reasonable most of the time, admit that we are rarely reasonable across the board. Admitting to the miracles and mishaps of the human mind is the first step, albeit a big one. Understanding that early childhood cultural influences have a powerful effect on adult behavior at a subconscious level is a major step.
Understanding often precedes forgiving.
I’ve been sick lately. I try to force getting well faster than my body agrees to. I ended up injuring myself more. That forced some digging into the old limbic brain. I stirred up some guilt feelings for being sick in the first place. Now that I understand my impatience, I’ve made it onto the next step. Whew!
May you understand yourself today.
Copyright 2006 Cole’s Poetic License