Mendaciousness—Capitalism and the Testimony of Integrity
August 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
I said in the introductory post of this series on capitalism and Quaker testimonies that, in terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in what it likes to call the open market, capitalism has built lies into its very structure. It also encourages deceit by its practitioners. It lies about its overhead, about the true costs of the resources it consumes and the wastes it produces. And it lies to its end-users in its advertising.
The material culture of capitalism requires raw materials, resources that come from our Mother Earth to make and do the things it sells to consumers. It assumes that half the balance sheet of the Earth—the planet’s assets—are available for the taking. As for the liabilities, especially the accounts payable—to these capitalism turns its gigantic blind eye.
This cavalier attitude toward the Earth’s bounty should be noxious to anyone or any culture that holds a biblical worldview because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; actually this is only one translation of this passage, and not, I suspect the most valuable one, both to us and to the writer of the Psalm—but that is another post). In this view, the Earth is not even a gift, but actually a loan. God has put it into our hands for right use and we will be held accountable for that use. But, when it comes to economics, our society is anything but biblical in its worldview, and the more conservative you are, and even the more conservative Christian you are, the less biblical your economic worldview is likely to be.
But back to capitalism and the Earth’s balance sheet. The “households” in our economic system factor the current cost of the resources it extracts from Mother Earth into the prices it charges for the goods and services it provides. Businesses pay the current value of these resources in the market. They factor in the cost of the rights to extraction; they factor in the cost of the resource as determined by competition for it in the market; they factor into the end-product price the cost of its transformation into capital goods. It’s worth noting, however, that the players in these markets try to distort the markets or manipulate them in order to get advantageous prices. This works especially well in the international market for raw materials, where the over-developed nations almost always hold resource-rich developing countries at a disadvantage.
However, the current value of a resource is not its real value. We do not really know its real value, because it is likely only to go up over time as the supply dwindles. More importantly, while a given resource (say, molybdenum, which is used in specialty steels, and which only a couple of countries currently produce)—while a given resource may be quite valuable to us today for our consumption, it might be desperately necessary some time in the future to our descendants for something we cannot today even imagine. Capitalism is oblivious to our descendants’ needs and it cares not a whit for the fact that they will curse us for our profligacy.
To account for this unknown potential value of Earth’s assets, we should be creating escrow trust accounts to help our descendants cope with the shortages we are creating. And we should be doing the same thing with the resources themselves; we should be holding some percentage of all that we extract as a trust against the demands of the future.
We do neither of these things. We lie about the true cost and value of our capital.
We do the same thing with the true cost of our waste management. Capitalism does not figure into its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which ought to be part of its overhead, and never is. And when—or, to be realistic, if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.
This is especially important for wastes that do not biodegrade, but remain toxic and present in the body and bloodstream and organs of Mother Earth more or less permanently. And because Mother Earth is us—because our very bodies come from her—these wastes remain toxic and present in our bodies and bloodstreams and organs, as well.
The great killer disease of the industrial age was tuberculosis, the destruction of human lungs caused by the use of coal as a fuel. The great killer disease of the post-industrial age is cancer, the mutation of cells by toxic foreign substances. Thus some serious percentage of our healthcare costs should be included in the overhead cost of waste management.
Capitalism pretends that the only cost it must bear for managing its prodigious waste stream is the immediate one of getting it some distance away from its producer and providing for some minimal treatment before it gets poured back into Earth’s bloodstream or buried in her soil-flesh.
The superfund put aside for the treatment of “superfund” sites should be the model for the entire economic system. The goal should be zero toxic, non-recyclable waste returning to Mother Earth, zero toxic substances in our own bodies and those of our children—and a massive escrow account fed by some meaningful percentage of every economic transaction set aside to solve these so-far unsolvable problems in the future and to fund research and care for a public health increasingly threatened by capitalist dung.
The true cost of eliminating carbon dioxide, or uranium waste, or the 50,000 or so chemicals that we have never even tested for toxicity, would be staggering. So we just don’t think about it. Let the great-grandchildren deal with it.
In fact, if we really did account properly in our pricing for the destruction of natural capital and the remediation of capitalist waste, the system would collapse. Short-term greed is the main reason we don’t deal with these issues, but the reason we don’t even talk about it is the existential threat to the system itself that transitioning to an honest economic system represents.
Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of intense competition for market share. This tempts economic households to psychologically manipulate their consumers through advertising. This manipulation distorts human relationships by turning consumers into objects. It tends to misrepresent the true character and value of its goods and services to make them seem more valuable than they really are. It tends to hide any negative aspects of its products and services. It resists attempts to keep it honest and transparent. The tobacco industry is the classic example. More recently, the lies and subterfuge about credit default swaps and mortgage derivatives brought the entire system to its knees—and taught the liars no real lessons at all.
But misrepresentation of products and services is just the more or less visible surface of its mendaciousness. More troubling really, is the ways that advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams. It tells us that consumption is good for us; that low prices that allow more of us to consume more, are good for us; that we actually need the things that in reality we simply desire. It tells us that the good life is defined by the things and experiences that we can buy in the marketplace.
The catch-all phrase (in America) for this constellation of lies is “the American dream”—owning your own house and as many good cars as your family thinks it needs, providing a good education for your children, securing freedom from fear of want, healthcare, and acquiring some things that provide, or at least represent, a comfortable life. Now, given the system, who could argue? These are all good things that anyone would want.
Only the earth cannot sustain seven billion American dreams. Nor is it true that you need all these things to be happy or fulfilled. And especially, it is not true that a mass production–mass consumption economy is the only way to have these things.
Is it? Are there any alternatives to this kind of system? These are my first queries for Friends. Here are some more:
How do we remain true to the testimony of integrity when our entire social, and material, and perceptual, and cognitive, and physical, and even emotional environments are totally saturated with lies—with salesmen seeing in me the pathway to their quota, with plastic bubble-wrap for individual pieces of processed cheese product, with images of half-clad women tugging on my pud with the promise of some fantasy fulfillment, with ideas like “the American dream”, with ads and billboards everywhere I look, with false desire trying to crash the gates of my amygdala? Why should our spiritual discernment and environment be polluted by this trash?
And now to the core: Would I be willing to pay the real cost of sustainable resource capital management and waste management with markedly greater prices for everything? And with my or your (probably) stagnant wages, how could you or I? Would I be willing to utterly change my lifestyle to accommodate a truly sustainable economy? For instance, would I accept the inevitable percentage of vermin that bulk food distribution inevitably entails—not just bring my own containers to the store—so that we could limit food packaging to the every minimal and the truly recyclable? How much am I willing to sacrifice, so that Mother Earth—and her creator-logos-the-christ—are not crucified on the cross of our economy instead?