20.4. Cutting Ourselves Off from Change
There's a powerful urge, within both academia and corporate offices, to believe that "in the long run" everything socially unhealthy will disappear (at least as far as is practically possible) through some sort of inherent, numerical logic of the marketplace. Of course, as Keynes once remarked, in the long run we're all dead.
But in the shorter run the decisive fact is not that we've arrived at some optimized equilibrium, but that, as growing human beings, we are on a path. And along that path our task is not the maximization of some pre-established, purely numerical "value," but rather the discovery of our values, the struggle to become worthy of them, and the exercise of creative imagination and disciplined work in socially incarnating them.
Jensen and Fagan's argument effectively disconnects business from human progress. How could a business pursuing "value maximization" in the 1950s have helped society move toward the kind of environmental responsibility that subsequently expressed itself in recycling and pollution control? How, that is, do you work toward meaningful change if your only option is to measure current proclivities and then cater to them?
You might reply, "Well, as people change and become more environmentally responsible, they will be willing to pay for `green' goods and services, and businesses will leap forward to supply them." That is true enough. Fortunately, there were people willing to work toward change, and to spend their money accordingly people whose attitude toward life and their own responsibility was not entirely shaped by the "greed is good" school of thought.
But why are these people not to be allowed within the corporation's doors? Why must they leave the most human part of themselves outside? What our lives are about is growing and changing; are we helpless to make the corporation an instrument of our growth and change? We are helpless if, within the corporation, we must abandon as a private "whim" every value that has not already found expression in a profit-maximizing price. To insist on an impermeable barrier between the individual as value-expressing ("whim-driven") consumer, on the one hand, and the individual as value-free, numbers-driven producer on the other is simply to insist on radical schizophrenia.
"But corporate America clearly is driving social change." Yes. That is the fearsome thing. It is driving change, but we are not driving it, except as willing servants of a largely autonomous mechanism. Hardly a surprise when economists have pushed so far toward conceiving the whole process including our own participation in it as a mechanism. When you achieve change by subverting conscious human choice, what you get is the play of subterranean instincts, needs, and passions a play that easily slips into chaos.
It only needs adding that, in a sense, Jensen and Fagan are indubitably correct, for as we have seen, they began by saying, "If we wish to maximize the standard of living. . . . " So they indicate from the start that they are interested in society only so far as it can be reduced to numbers that is, only so far as it can be abstracted out of sight. We have no way to know what they are substantively correct about, because they've disavowed all substance. Their recipe verges on the tautological: you can best maximize the numbers by maximizing the numbers.
The standard-of-living abstraction goes hand in hand with the gross-domestic-product (GDP) abstraction, which, as many commentators have pointed out, simply measures market activity money changing hands:
It makes no distinction whatsoever between the desirable and the undesirable, or costs and gain. On top of that, it looks only at the portion of reality that economists choose to acknowledge the part involved in monetary transactions. The crucial economic functions performed in the household and volunteer sectors go entirely unreckoned. As a result the GDP not only masks the breakdown of the social structure and the natural habitat upon which the economy and life itself ultimately depend; worse, it actually portrays such breakdown as economic gain. (Cobb, Halstead, and Rowe 1995, p. 60)
The authors of that remark go on to observe that, by the prevailing standards, "the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce."