Thursday, November 29, 2007

Economic Theory

What is the real basis of value? How does the first person in line get the money to spend on what the next one in line has to offer?

If the real basis of value is the finite resources of this planet, we will reach the ultimate limit long before the sun blows up. If prosperity depends on the rate at which we irrevocably consume the Earth, the size of the party determines how long it can last.

This basic fact is obscured by thousands of years of business, evolving on top of the relatively uncriticized practice of digging something up and dragging it to town to sell. Once humans determine that they need something, efficient acquisition of it becomes an understood, unquestioned function. If you want coal, you mine it. If you don't want people dying in tunnels, you blast the top off the mountain and shove the debris aside. Cut trees for wood, drag fish from the sea. Drill oil wells. Do what you have to do.

Early in the settlement of North America by European colonists, some pioneers founded fortunes just by blazing trees with an ax and then entering the land claim with the appropriate colonial governing body. It wasn't quite money for nothing, but it beat having a job. But in order to realize their investment, these early land pimps had to have paying customers.

Coming at it from another angle, fortunes are made by producing or controlling the distribution of the essentials of life: food and shelter. Food is a renewable resource produced through appropriately favorable circumstances and labor, another renewable resource. Shelter, on the other hand, uses materials which may be renewable, like wood, vegetable fibers or animal hides, or durable and reconfigurable, but not subject to rapid regeneration, like stone.

With the harnessing of fire, new amenities in shelter (and cuisine) became possible. At the same time, resources would now literally go up in smoke.

Quarry a building stone and it can be used in its various forms all the way down to sand. But the products of combusted coal aren't nearly so versatile. There's a reduction and considerable loss of matter humans would find usable, even as energy is released. Wood you burn is wood you don't have to build with. And we all know the story on oil. Not only are we running out, the use of it as we race toward that deadline is making our planet's atmosphere look like the lungs of a chain smoker.

Merely saving money at the surface levels of the economy does not mean that you are contributing to a generally beneficial trend. Above the sales floor of Walmart are tiers of executives and major shareholders who don't really have to worry about paying rock bottom price for jockey shorts, lead-laced toys and plastic trash cans. And they never will. Meanwhile, among the customers and associates are many who will face these issues with increasing concern.

No comments: