Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Machine and The Garden

WE are prisoners of the metaphors we use, even when they are wildly misleading. Consider how political candidates talk about the economy. Last month President Obama praised immigrants as “the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.” Mitt Romney says that extending theBush-era tax cuts will “fuel” a recovery. Others fear a “stall” in job growth.
Call it the “Machinebrain” picture of the world: markets are perfectly efficient, humans perfectly rational, incentives perfectly clear and outcomes perfectly appropriate. From this a series of other truths necessarily follows: regulation and taxes are inherently regrettable because they impede the machine’s optimal workings. Government fiscal stimulus is wasteful. The rich by definition deserve to be so and the poor as well.
This self-enclosed metaphor is the gospel of market fundamentalists. But there is simply no evidence for it. Empirically, trickle-down economics has failed. Tax cuts for the rich have never once yielded more net revenue for the country. The 2008 crash and the Great Recession prove irrefutably how inefficient and irrational markets truly are.
What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.
Gardenbrain challenges many of today’s most conventional policy ideas.
Consider Regulation: Under the prevailing assumption, regulation is an unfortunate interruption of a frictionless process of wealth creation in a self-correcting market. But Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend. And regulation — the creation of standards to raise the quality of economic life — is the work of seeding useful activity and weeding harmful activity.
Is it possible to garden clumsily and ineffectively? Of course. Wise regulation, however, is how human societies turn a useless jungle into a prosperous garden. This explains why wherever on earth one finds successful private companies, one also finds a well-regulated economy, and where regulation is absent we find widespread poverty.
Or Take Taxes: Under the efficient-market hypothesis, taxes are an extraction of resources from the jobs machine, or more literally, taking money out of the economy. It is not just separate from economic activity, but hostile to it. This is why most Americans believe that lower taxes will automatically lead to more prosperity. Yet if there were a shred of truth to this, then given our historically low tax rates we would today be drowning in jobs and general prosperity.
Gardenbrain, in contrast, allows us to recognize taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden.
A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth. Reducing taxes on the very wealthiest on the idea that they are “job creators” is folly. 
Jobs are the consequence of an organic feedback loop between consumers and businesses, and it’s the demand from a thriving middle class that truly creates jobs. 
The problem with today’s severe concentration of wealth, then, isn’t that it’s unfair, though it might be; it’s that it kills middle-class demand. Lasting growth doesn’t trickle down; it emerges from the middle out.
Lastly, Consider Spending: The word spending means literally “to use up or extinguish value,” and most Americans believe that’s exactly what government does with their tax dollars.
But government spending is not a single-step transaction that burns money as an engine burns fuel; it’s part of a continuous feedback loop that circulates money. Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood. To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.
True, not all spending is equally useful, and not every worthy idea for spending is affordable. But this perspective helps us understand why the most prosperous economies are those that tax and spend the most, while those that tax and spend the least are failures. 
More important, it clarifies why more austerity cannot revive an already weak private economy and why more spending can.
Seeing the economy this way does not make you anti-capitalist. In fact, nothing could be more pro-business and pro-growth than a Gardenbrain approach — because by focusing our attention on the long term over the short, on the power of markets to create wealth through evolutionary adaptations and on the health of the whole rather than a part, it gives us prosperity that is widely shared, sustained and self-reinforcing.
Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to be great gardeners. Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. This is how a fruitful economy grows.

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are the authors of “The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.”

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