What is it Worth? Devaluing What Matters Most

The other day, MT posted a really interesting lecture which got me thinking again about worth. In the lecture, Michael Nielsen discusses how a wiki-styled web source that was used and added to by experts in a given field of science could increase the rate of problem solving through collective contribution. Arguably, it could act as a powerful learning tool for new researchers and provide inter-generational knowledge transfer that could lead to massive improvement in research and development rate.

However, these projects have failed to attract persistent interest largely, as Michael explains, because they have little value to one’s career.

Rash judgements of worth can be found wherever you look in developed societies.

The most obvious would have to be tax. There is certainly some valid wariness not only due to historical governmental spending of this money, but also the seemingly endless loopholes exploited at the top-end earners, however in a more honest and balanced system, greater commonwealth spending would lead to stronger basic services for everyone.

Taking this further; where a society has greater equality – where the top-end earners are not a tiny percent of society, earning in many cases more than a thousand times as much as the average worker, but instead at most a several times as much, also making up a higher percentage of the population – there would be greater transfer of money among the society, allowing greater enterprise and access to jobs, goods and services. I’d also argue that “top jobs” would be sort out not by the most cut-throat ambitious, seeing as exorbitant wages are not the driver, but rather the most talented – leaving events like the GFC less likely to occur.

Another example would be transport. It would be cheaper to the individual if there was greater emphasis on public transport and urban development that complimented pedestrian and public transport over the use of personal vehicles. Yet, day after day millions of people sit in slow moving “freeways” and artery roadways wondering why everyone else is slowing their progress to and from work – hardly the selling pitch harped on about by land sellers about being a mere short drive from “X”.

Wherever we look, the cynical choice of individualism, coupled with it’s inefficiencies, reins supreme.

We’re all guilty of it and even if we wished to change our personal behaviour, it is impossible to think and act by community principles alone.

Therefore, the principles that provide us with the only viable options – the most worthwhile option – are the more expensive individualistic ones. We choose a personal vehicle for ourselves and another for our partner because it’s simply easier. We get angry about taxes, selecting instead increasing school fees for our children and to choose whether or not a visit to the doctor or dentist is really fits into this week’s budget. We’re increasingly fickle in the face of rising living expenses and turn on any politician at the slightest mention of reform or new taxes – leaving in such a democracy nothing more than yes-people hoping the stay in term long enough to actually do something meaningful (possibly why the Labour parties here and in the UK have been in recent years shy to talk about their successes?) and show-boaters pretending to be on the side of the working battler, promising to keep things just as they are for the sake of the blue collar worker, while in reality protecting industry endeavours.

All the while, the real potential value is ignored – as with the new avenues of collective problem solving in the above example – for the sake of what is in essence probably a sense of self-preservation. Maybe this is why the AGW deniers alarmist shrill that “mitigating and adapting to climate change will collapse the world’s economy…” continues to hold so much popularity (best estimates being a cost around 1 – 2% of the worlds GDP and then there’s also the potential rewards from greater R&D and innovations… hardly worthy of this alarmism).

But value is the important thing here and neo-liberal economic models are absolutely rubbish at addressing so many humanistic values.

For instance; how much value would you place on the health and education of your children? How about being able to meet your household financial needs while working less and therefore having more time for socialising? How about being able to get a good night sleep / reduce your stress levels?

What value would you place on a strong sense of community? I’m not talking about the nosy neighbour peaking through the curtains (whom, after seeing their nose on a daily basis for five years, you still don’t know their name), but a place where you can walk around, where you know the shop owners (yes, owners, not middle management of a multi-national company) by name, where there’s annual (monthly… weekly…) activities that claim whole street spaces with stalls and activities, where you can feel safe that the people around you are good people who will keep an eye on your adolescent child when they’re out with friends, where there’s inviting parks, safe clean public transport; a strong sense of collective ownership and pride – this is a strong sense of community!*

These things are all truly priceless and believe me, regardless of what a certain advertisements might say, you don’t need a credit card to obtain each step to reach “priceless”, it doesn’t really rely on financial gain.

Regardless of whatever political, religious or other ideological standing anyone is, most people would value humanistic principles – their friends and family and knowing that the world they leave behind is as wonderful and as prosperous, if not more so, than the one they had known – among the highest they can rate. Sure, they might like to show off their massive new flat screen TV, feeling a fleeting sense of worth, but that will fade, much as the technology’s reliability or comparative worth over the years.

The value of humanistic principles don’t fade.

We don’t talk so much about them because it’s difficult. In doing so, we challenge many of  the practices on which we currently rely. The social paradigms currently being experimented in developed nations rely on ever stronger individualism. Many commentators like to refer to Orwellian predictions, going as far as suggest that the various wars (many of the current ones being under the heading “war on terror”) as being a real world equivalent to the distraction of the changing war on Eurasia and Eastasia, but I disagree. Such individualism is enough of a distraction. So much so, for instance, that the working class is willing to rally and protest against universal healthcare, as we witnessed in the US last year.

Personally, I feel that much more discussion and education needs to address humanistic values, rather than simply finance and risk assessment. As Steve Vanderheiden says in Ethics beats self-interest in carbon tax debate, human ethics are paramount and far more valuable at the core. By talking about the economy and taxation, we fall into the individualism trap, distinctly separating into the two warring factions – much of which fuels the endless debate over AGW. All the while genuine discussion regarding resilient cities and energy, food and water security and global poverty remain on the fringe of “polite” conversation, when they should be central not only to discussion, but policy.

David Korten has some excellent posts on the dysfunctional individualistic society and how we have slipped backwards and decreased the value of the principles should mean most to us as citizens in it’s wake.

I find it disheartening to hear that amazing avenues opened to us through the information era are overlooked and that we’re stuck in the Red Queen’s madness – having to run faster and faster simply to stand still. We cannot hope to keep this up, nor can we keep deluding ourselves that resources are endless (or, if we are aware of this; that we/the market will sort it out when we hit that pothole). But first we must be willing to honestly answer one question over and over again, until it sticks; what is the true value of this?

* See How sustainable communities can influence childhood health for another reason as to why healthy communities are so valuable.

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