Currency

Self determination

To most people currency means government issued money used within a nation or a group of nations. US dollars, Chinese yuan, Korean won and Brazilian real are all currencies. Currency is important for political and economic self-determination. A national currency allows nations to pursue their own economic policies, although the options are constrained by global economic forces.

Local or regional currencies can supplement national currencies, most notably when communities or regions want to achieve a higher degree economic independence. Supranational currencies like the euro reduce can economic independence. To maintain some political and economic independence in an increasingly integrated world, currency is key. For that reason currency is more of a political subject than an economic one.

Reserve currency

Reserve currencies facilitate international trade. In the past decades the US dollar was the most used reserve currency. This arrangement allowed the United States to enjoy a higher standard of living and have a large military paid for by foreign nations. That is because the United States can print US dollars and other countries accept them as payment.

This arrangement gave foreign nations a competitive advantage. By buying US dollars for their currency reserves, competitors of the United States were able to suppress the exchange rate of their own currency and sell their products cheaper. This harmed US exports and it allowed other countries like China and Japan to build up their industries.

The reserve status of the US Dollar made the FED responsible for the international financial system. The FED had to rescue foreign banks during the financial crisis of 2008 so that US taxpayers ended up backing foreign banks. The FED probably had no other choice because if the FED hadn’t acted, the global financial system might have collapsed.

International Currency Unit

For that reason it may be better to have an international reserve currency that is not a national currency. The future International Currency Unit (ICU) can be a weighted average of national currencies. It may require an international central bank to guarantee stability in the international financial system. As long as central banks make decisions that have significant consequences, an international central bank will be a troublesome construct.

Only when central banks do not set interest rates and do not print currency, it might be feasible to introduce an International Central Bank (ICB). For that the ICU as well as the underlying national currencies may need to be a Natural Money currencies. Natural Money currencies require little or no central bank oversight as financial instability is the result of usury. Furthermore, with Natural Money central banks do not set interest rates.

50 euro
50 euro

The euro

The euro is an interesting experiment because it is a currency shared by a group of nation. The nations of the euro zone are sovereign but have given up their national currencies. Initially it was thought that the European Union would become a federation like the United States with a strong centralised government bureaucracy. But history took a different turn, and the European nations remained sovereign while the size of the centralised European institutions remained small compared to the United States.

The euro produced political and economic tensions. Previously, when every nation had its own currency, the differences in competitiveness between countries could be dealt with via exchange rates of their national currencies. If a country could not compete and exports were outstripping imports, the exchange rate of its currency could be lowered so that exports would become cheaper while imports would become more expensive. In this way the country could remain competitive in international markets.

Apart from the economic issues, there are also political concerns. People in Northern Europe feel that they pay for the debts of Southern Europe while people in Southern Europe feel that they are faced with austerity dictated by Northern European countries. The available options appear making the eurozone a federation like the United States or reverting back to national currencies. The benefit of a larger currency like the euro more efficient financial markets and lower interest rates.

If their government budgets are sustainable then Southern European countries can benefit from these low interest rates. Returning to national currencies doesn’t have to be the end of the euro either. National currencies can be introduced alongside the euro. Existing balances in euro will then remain in euro. The euro can be a weighted average of the national currencies making up the euro zone. This would make the euro look like the proposed ICU. It could be a step towards introducing an ICU and the ICB.

Private currencies and cryptocurrencies

Private currencies are not issued by a government or central bank. Proponents of private currencies like cryptocurrencies promise that they can provide an alternative payment system independent from governments and banks as well as an alternative way to issue stock. They believe that private currencies like cryptocurrencies can supplement or even replace existing currencies issued by governments and central banks.

Currency is important for political self-determination. For that reason governments have usurped the prerogative to issue currencies. Private currencies can undermine the power of governments, hence nations. Cryptocurrencies can facilitate crime, scams and tax evasion, so they their use is likely to become regulated or even banned in the future. Governments may also start to issue cryptocurrencies themselves.

Until now cryptocurrencies have not been stable. Payments in these currencies are cumbersome and only attractive when there is no regular payment system. Financial markets in these currencies are non-existing. A currency most allow for debts denominated in this currency. It must be easy to lend or borrow money in financial markets. And if the interest rate in the market is negative, then the currency must facilitate this, otherwise the economy may be disrupted.

Local currencies

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Austrian town of Wörgl issued a local currency with a holding fee, which worked like a negative interest rate. The ‘miracle of Wörgl’ suggests that negative interest rates could have prevented or ended the Great Depression. The miracle also revealed something else. It was not possible to use the local currency outside Wörgl and because of the holding fee people spent it so the economy of Wörgl improved while the Great Depression intensified elsewhere.

The local currency allowed Wörgl to achieve a degree of economic independence. In the midst of a worsening depression the local economy improved so that unemployment dropped. It demonstrates that currency can be important for local, regional and national self-determination. If international markets fail to help a municipality, region or nation, it may be able to help itself with the use of a currency.

The Wörgl money was an complementary currency that circulated alongside the Austrian currency. It has been tried to copy the idea but only a few times it has been a great success. If the economy is doing well then a complementary currency often makes little sense. And complementary currencies often depend on a the commitment of the local people to the well-being of their municipality or region to the point that they prefer local or regional products simply for the reason that this promotes the local or regional economy.

Disconnecting from international markets can allow a municipality, region or nation to build its own economy but local products may provide less value for money than products from international markets. When the disadvantages of free trade outstrip the benefits then that is justifiable. Many successful national development stories include shielding national markets from international competition in order to build up a national industry. Once a country becomes developed and wealthy, the justification for trade barriers disappears, as they deny people the benefits of better or cheaper products from abroad.

Featured image: 50 pula bank note. Bank of Botswana.

 

Morality clause

Legal is not always fair

What is legal isn’t always fair. The role of morality in law may be too small. People have different views about what is right and what is wrong so the prevailing liberal view in many Western societies is that people should be free to do as they please unless their actions harm others. Even that view can justify a greater role of ethics in law as humanity is on suicidal path. If moral views converge in the future the role for ethics in law can grow.

For now we need to focus on what is most important as we could easily get trapped in issues of secondary importance. Moral issues can be contentious and people reason according to their beliefs and political views. The following arguments people with different political views use against each other illustrate that:

  • Leftists might be concerned with the rights of criminals in jail but not of the rights of unborn children who are innocent of any crime.
  • Conservatives might be concerned with the fate of unborn children but as soon as they are born in misery their compassion suddenly vanishes.

It is easy to simplify matters in this way. This is how issues are framed. And as soon as you are dragged into a dispute it is hard to stay moderate. Moral issues are often complicated. Euthanasia can be an act of compassion but it can be turned into a way of getting rid of undesired people. Perhaps criminals have had a poor life and never realised that they had a choice but making them suffer can give victims a sense of justice.

Leftists and conservatives have different moral views and can be passionate about them. This is difference of opinion rather than an absence of morals from one or both sides. Rational debates might help to clarify these matters and balance the laws on these issues.

In some areas ethics are needed urgently because the capitalist market economy is destroying our planet. So the primary focus should now be business and law. Research has shown that CEO is the job with the highest rate of psychopaths while lawyer comes in second,1 possibly because traders in financial markets were not included in the survey. Media came in third, possibly because it was a British research. Salespeople make a rather unsurprising fourth position.

Vulture capitalism

Rural areas in the United States are turning into an economic wasteland. Closed down factories and empty malls dominate the landscape. Communities are ravaged and drug abuse is on the rise. One reason for this to happen is that jobs are shipped overseas. Several factors contributed to this situation, but a major cause is CEOs not caring for people and communities. In many cases other solutions were possible.

Paul Singer is wealthy hedge fund owner. He made a fortune by buying up sovereign debt of countries in trouble such as Argentina and Peru at bargain prices and starting lawsuits and public relation campaigns against those countries to make a profit on these debts at the expense of the taxpayers of these countries.2

In the United States Singer bought up stakes of corporations in distress. He then fired workers so that the price of his shares rose. In the case of Delphi Automotive he and other hedge fund managers took out government bailouts, moved jobs overseas, and cut the retirement packages of employees so they could make a huge profit.2

Vulture capitalists prey on patients too. They buy patents on old drugs that are the standard treatment for rare life-threatening diseases, then raise the price because there is no alternative. Martin Shkreli was responsible for a 6,250% price hike for the anti-retroviral drug Daraprim. Many people died because of his actions.3 Perhaps he should be in jail for being a mass murderer but he is not because what he did is legal.

Profiteering at the expense of the public

In the years preceding the financial crisis of 2008 there was a widespread mortgage fraud going on in the United States. Few people have gone to jail because much of what happened was morally reprehensible but legal. Financial executives and quite a few academics share this view.4 And so nothing was done. Perhaps fraud can be proven some day but that may take years if it ever succeeds.

Healthcare is another domain for fraudsters and unscrupulous corporations. Patients are often not in a position to bargain. Perhaps that is why privatised healthcare performs poorly compared to government organised healthcare. In 2015 the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act, making municipalities responsible for assisting people who are unable to arrange the care and support they need themselves.5

The municipalities were ill-prepared so fraudsters took advantage of the situation. Most businesses are legitimate but several private contractors enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers and people in need. The Dutch prosecution is overwhelmed by fraud cases and it is not always possible to get a conviction because of loopholes in the law. Until these loopholes are fixed, several schemes remain legal.6

In the United States hospital bills are feared. A routine doctor visit for a sore throat can result in a $ 28,000 medical bill.7 And so many people in the US go without healthcare because they can’t afford it. Efforts to reform healthcare in the US haven’t succeeded, perhaps because those who send $ 28,000 bills for sore throats have plenty of money to bribe politicians into keeping the US healthcare system as it is.

Attributes of the law

First we have to recognise why it is so hard to prevent these things from happening. On the political front it is because once politicians are elected, they can do as they please until the next election. Lobbyists prey on them. Citizens have few means of correcting politicians, except in Switzerland. The Swiss have direct democracy. Swiss citizens can intervene in the political process when they see fit and fix laws if they think that is needed. Direct democracy might help to fix many of these issues.

Laws are often made with the best intentions but it is not possible to test them in a simulation to see how they will work out in practice. So once laws are enacted, unexpected problems pop up. The process of law-making is slow and it can take years before issues are fixed, at least if they are fixed at all because law-making is often political process, and that can make it rather complicated.

Even more importantly, the underlying principles of law benefit the savvy. The system of law is the way it is for good reasons. No-one should be above the law and people as well as businesses should not be subject to arbitrariness. The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. It is agreed that the law must be prospective, well-known, general, treat everyone equal, and provide certainty. Only, in reality not everyone is treated equally.

Laws being prospective means that you can only be convicted for violation of laws in force at the time the act was committed. Legal certainty means that the law must provide you with the ability to behave properly. The law must be precise enough to allow you to foresee the possible consequences of an action. Businesses prefer laws to stable and clear. Corporations invest for longer periods of time. If laws change they may face losses. If laws are not clear, investments won’t be made, and a country may end up poorer.

With the rise of neo-liberalism came the era of shareholder capitalism. Making profits became a goal in itself. Greed was considered good. Wall Street traders and CEOs were seen as heroes even when they were just psychopaths outsourcing jobs for profit. There was little consideration for the planet, people and communities. Consumers preferred the best service at the lowest price so businesses were pressed into cutting costs and moving jobs to low-wage countries. Ethics in business were a marginal issue at best.

A bigger role for ethics

More and more people believe that ethics should play a bigger role in business. Activists pressure corporations. That may not be enough. Corporations must be competitive and can’t make real changes if that increases their costs. Levelling the playing field with regulations is an option but that may not be sufficient. The law needs a morality clause, making unethical behaviour unlawful, even though the action itself is not explicitly stated as forbidden in the law. That increases the cost of unethical behaviour.

A randomly selected jury of laypeople could make verdicts in these issues. Perhaps it is better that the legal profession stays out of these matters because it is not a legal matter in the first place. There are a few issues that come with a morality clause. Ethics in business can be a political issue. People may differ on what kind of behaviour is ethical and people may differ on what kind of unethical behaviour should be punished.

Introducing a morality clause to enforce ethical behaviour in business affects legal certainty. It will be harder for businesses to predict whether or not a specific action is legal. Business owners may incorrectly guess moral sentiment and believe they did nothing wrong. The uncertainty that comes from that might reduce the available investment capital for questionable activities. But that may not be so bad. And if immoral profits and bonuses from the past are to be confiscated, it affects the prospectiveness of the law.

International treaties like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been set up to accommodate the unethical practises of corporations and to protect those corporations from making those unethical practises unlawful. Because that is often what reducing the regulatory barriers to trade like food safety laws, environmental legislations and banking regulations often amounts to in practice.

In most cases it can be known on beforehand what actions are unethical. For instance, investors in corporations that extract fossil fuels should know that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. They are gambling with the future humanity. So if some countries decide to outlaw the use of fossil fuels then these investors should not be compensated.

Perhaps you have serious doubts about this proposal as it upsets the very foundations of the current system of law. And I can imagine that you think: “Where does this end?” But there is something very wrong with the current system of law. Business interests often take precedence. So do you want the law to protect the psychopaths who maximise their profits at the expense of people and the planet? And do you really think that the law can be made without failures so that corporations and savvy people can’t exploit them?

Featured image: Of course the laws are always functional. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Kevin Dutton (2012).
2. The death of Sidney, Nebraska: How a hedge fund destroyed ‘a good American town’. Charles Couger, Alex Pfeiffer (3 December 2019). Fox News. [link]
3. Vulture capitalists prey on patients. The Sacramento Bee (22 September 2015). [link]
4. How Mortgage Fraud Made the Financial Crisis Worse. Binyamin Appelbaum (12 February 2015). New York Times. [link]
5. Social Support Act (Wmo 2015). Government of the Netherlands. [link]
6. Gemeenten starten onderzoek naar Albero Zorggroep. Eelke van Ark (31 October 2019). Follow The Money. [link]
7. How a routine doctor visit for a sore throat resulted in a $28,000 medical bill. CBS News (31 December 2019) [link]

New World Order

version 2

The direction of history

We are heading towards a single integrated world order, sometimes called New World Order. Humanity is converging in three major ways, intellectually, economically and politically. The spread of religions and ideologies made it possible to unify different peoples under the same set of ideas. Trade and money enabled the cooperation between strangers all over the globe. And the increased cooperation between nation states is paving the way for a closer integration of governments.1

The world is now run by a global elite of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, scientists, opinion makers, writers and artists. No matter where they live, whether it is New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Dubai or Cape Town, these people increasingly have the same interests, the same viewpoints about the world, the same culture, and increasingly live similar lifestyles. The individuals in these elites have more in common with each other than with their fellow countrymen.1

Globalisation

Globalisation has transformed the world. People everywhere around the globe are now interconnected. They cooperate and compete. Globalisation started more than 500 years ago when Portuguese explorers set sail for Africa to find new trade routes to the Indies. In 1492 Columbus discovered America while trying to do the same. In the centuries that followed the world became more interconnected. Globalisation really took off in recent decades when several developments converged. These were:

  • the rise of neoliberalism around 1980
  • the fall of communism around 1990
  • personal computers and digital data storage
  • optical fiber and Internet making it possible to connect people around the globe
  • global standards for data exchange making it possible for every computers to exchange data with every other computer
  • software enabling cooperation between people and businesses around the globe

At the end of the 1970s economies in the Western world were stagnating. It was argued that poor business conditions and international competition were to blame. This marked the rise of neoliberalism. From the 1980s onwards regulations were reduced and the free movement of labour and capital were promoted. It became easier to move jobs to areas with lower labour costs. Entrepreneurs were seen as heroes and making profits became a goal in itself. It was the era of stock market capitalism and financial engineering with little consideration for people, communities and the environment.

The fall of communism gave further impetus to globalisation. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. A few years later the Soviet Union was dissolved and the European Union became enlarged. From then on it seemed that there was no alternative to capitalism.2 Countries like China, India and Russia realised that they had to compete on the global marketplace and began to transform their economies. Every country did this in its own way. For instance, India specialised in services and information technology. China became the global industrial powerhouse where everything is made.

Computers and data storage made it possible to store documents and other data like pictures and recordings digitally. In the 1980s the personal computer entered the homes of many people. Computers were also used in businesses but the impact of information technology remained limited. Rxchanging data between computers was still difficult because computers often weren’t interconnected and software suppliers used different formats for exchanging data.2

That all changed with the emergence of the Internet. Netscape turned out to be a crucial catalyst. It allowed people on personal computers to look at web pages anywhere around the world. Netscape turned out to be a killer application that made Internet very popular very quickly. Investors suddenly realised that Internet would change the world and that large profits were to be made. It resulted in a massive overinvestment in everything related to Internet during the Internet bubble of 2000. One of those overinvestments was in optical fiber. As a consequence the price of data transport dropped dramatically.2

Standards for data exchange emerged. Software suppliers were forced to support them and began to focus on facilitating the interaction, competition and cooperation of people around the globe, effectively enabling the world to turn into a global village where people everywhere can participate. This transformed the way people cooperate. The traditional way of organising is top down via command and control. The new way of organising is via teams of people sharing a responsibility for a task or a product, making more complex cooperations possible. China and India were able to develop. These countries were integrated in the global economy. Businesses used more cheap overseas labour, workers in developed nations were faced with job insecurity and lagging wages.

In 1977 Chinese leaders realised that communist China needed to embrace capitalism. For two decades progress was into that direction was slow. That changed in the 1990s but doing business in China remained problematic until in 2001 China became member of the World Trade Organisation. From then on China conformed to international law and trade practises. It became attractive to do business with China. Corporations moved their production to China and China became the industrial powerhouse of the world.

The rise of China and India

Half the world’s population lives in Asia. In China or India alone live nearly two times as many people as in the European Union and the United States combined. The same is true for Africa. If people everywhere around the globe obtain a more equal portion of wealth then the relative importance of the European Union and the United States will decline. If current trends continue, China will be the most powerful nation in the near future. The Chinese economy may be the biggest in the world already.

Chinese leaders are preparing for a New World Order under Chinese leadership. Chinese policies include economic colonisation of developing countries like the United States and European countries have done previously. For instance, China grants loans to developing countries to build their infrastructure. If they fail to pay back these loans, China may take possession of assets like mines, harbours and corporations as payment. If India is going to follow suit, it may become China’s main contender. At the same time the importance of nation states is declining and they may even disappear in the future.

Global cooperation

Businesses are closely integrated with their global supply chains. Doing business has become a global affair more than ever. Issues like trade, climate change, human rights, disease control, international crime and financial markets require international agreement and cooperation of governments. The Old World Order was based on the sovereignty of nation states, which means that at least in theory, there was no higher authority than the nation state. All nation states were equally sovereign, at least in theory, and their power was restricted only by the treaties they signed.

Nation states are increasingly under pressure to conform to global standards as actions of one nation affect other nations as well. The global elite influences the decisions on these issues but they can’t completely ignore ordinary citizens. The elite believes it acts for the benefit of mankind and that we need more international cooperation or even a global government. This is reflected, for instance, in the words of the British politician Denis Healey, who had been involved in Bilderberg Conferences in which members of the elite gathered in secrecy. He told the Guardian:

To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated, but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn’t go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.3

The elite is first and foremost a social network. Globalists have friends and they have friends and they have friends too. Meetings like Bilderberg are just the tip of the iceberg. Still these meetings can influence political agendas. For instance the European Union has been discussed at Bilderberg and it may well be that these meetings helped to make the elite agree on more European cooperation and integration. Europe had just been ravaged by two world wars so it may have seemed a good plan. But that plan would not have succeeded if most Europeans didn’t feel the same. A side-benefit of globalisation is war becoming less likely because waging war is becoming more costly. Wars disrupt supply chains. As a consequence businesses may leave warring countries and not come back.

Neoliberalism or neofeudalism?

Many people in China and India have seen their living standards improve. In fact, globalisation may have been the best development aid. Nevertheless, the greatest winners are wealthy oligarchs all around the world. A 2017 report from Oxfam points out that the world’s eight wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 50%.4 There is no global government or binding international treaties so nation states end up competing to please large corporations and billionaires.

In the 1970s the situation in Western Europe and the United States was different. Most people were middle class. Since then a growing divide between the rich and the poor emerged. This coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which is the idea that more should be left to the markets and that governments shouldn’t interfere.

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s when the ruling class was in trouble. The economy was stagnating. Unions had a lot of power. The cost of welfare states became a problem. Businesses were struggling because of the competition from low-wage countries. And so the elite started to promote freedom of the markets, privatisation, entrepreneurial spirit and individual liberty. The power of labour was curtailed. Welfare was reduced. Wealth inequality began to increase. Many jobs moved to low wage countries.

Conspiracy theories

There is a conspiracy theory claiming the elite has a secret plan to create a New World Order where ordinary humans will be mere serfs. Rather than seeing the globalisation and the emerging oligarchy as a result of social, political and economic developments, conspiracy theorists believe it was deliberately planned by the elite. They see the elite as an evil cabal. Indeed, the elite doesn’t seem to like democracy and human rights when these values conflict with their interests.

In the decades after World War II the secret services of the United States toppled democratically elected governments and supported dictators while claiming to promote human rights, freedom and democracy. The politics of trade and power often conflict with principles and morals. It is often argued that if you don’t play this kind of dirty politics, you will lose power and the world will not become a better place either.

The political system of the United States is corrupt by design. Politicians fund their campaigns with donations. They accept money from large corporations and wealthy individuals so they tend to represent their wealthy donors rather than their electorate. It is not surprising that conspiracy theories thrive in the United States. It is also a business for ‘independent writers’  in a ‘free market’ to constantly come up with new ‘disclosures’ of ‘secret plots’ to keep their readers entertained.

Investigative journalism of good quality is time consuming and costly. If you don’t come up with interesting finds from time to time, readers may get bored. News outlets are often guided by advertisement income so journalism is either non-offending or of an extremist nature. Political division may further promote this process. If the political climate is moderate and people are willing to pay for high-quality content, the situation might improve. And more involvement of citizens in political decisions may be required.

Deep state

Politicians come and go but many officials remain within the governmental institutions for a longer period of time. Most of them aren’t democratically elected. Often they are specialised technocrats that have the best knowledge of the field they are working in. Most of them believe to work interest of the public but they can obstruct democratically elected officials. But technocrats probably are not what is meant by deep state.

The deep state consists of the interest groups that have captured the government to profiteer at the expense of the taxpayers. One can think of lobbyists and think tanks who represent the interests of businesses that live off government contracts or benefit from favourable legislation, for instance the Military Industrial Complex. These people work covertly via social networks to influence politicians and other officials.

A better political system

The elite doesn’t care for ordinary people. Perhaps individual members care, but as a group the elite behaves as if they don’t. The elite is living in a bubble and has no idea about the plight of ordinary people. The rise of populism in Europe and the United States signals a growing discontent. If the economy goes south, things may get out of hand. It may therefore be a good idea to aim for political reforms to increase the legitimacy of government institutions by involving the citizens in decisions.

Direct democracy as practised in Switzerland can help to do that. It gives the citizens more control over their government. Making direct democracy work requires a culture of reason and compromise, issues rather than people taking the centre stage, and an adequate education of the citizens. It may be hard to build credible institutions top down so direct democracy may be the best way to achieve that.  The Swiss have confidence in their government while political debates tend to be rational. Direct democracy it is not perfect and perhaps it hampers innovation. For instance, women received only the right to vote in 1970 because men decided about that.

Direct democracy can be a beginning. It gives people more power to shape their own future. And with power comes responsibility. With direct democracy citizens can’t blame politicians for their mistakes. They can only blame themselves. As a consequence they may inform themselves better and debate options in a rational manner. This can make people venture outside existing ideologies and beliefs and look at the evidence and apply logic instead. The New World Order could be directed by everyone. Wouldn’t it be great?

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The World Is Flat 3.0. Thomas Friedman (2007). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
3. Who pulls the strings? (part 3). The Guardian (2001). [link]
4. Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world. Oxfam (2017). [link]

Black sheep Frank. Tele2 marketing campaign

Animal rights

Our pets get love and attention but most animals in industrial farming live in poor conditions, at least if living in their natural habitat is their prerogative. Thinking about animal rights is sometimes seen as a luxury for leftists who have nothing else to worry about. Industrial farming can’t be ended so easily as humans don’t like to change their diet. But farm animals can feel pain and have social needs like us. Animal rights activists have a serious case here.

People like to eat meat and they want it to be cheap. The plight of animals will not make them change their minds so easily. The same applies to the contribution of meat consumption to climate change. Still, the end of the mass suffering of farm animals could be near. Artificial meat and meat replacements may soon be more widely available, be cheaper and taste as good, even though many people won’t believe that now.

Whether or not animals have a good life in their natural habitat is a matter of debate. Faced with predators, food shortages, and humans, life in nature can be hard. And in most areas nature isn’t what it used to be as humans have completely altered the ecology. With humans came the animals that profit from them like mice, rats, seagulls, magpies, foxes and cockroaches. Other species can suffer as a consequence.

In populated areas there is little left of nature so the remaining wildlife may need management. For example, magpies eat chicks of songbirds. As magpies profit from humans by eating their leftovers in the winter, more of them survive and more chicks will be eaten. So is it better to shoot magpies so that songbirds may survive? And if there isn’t enough food for all deer, is it better to shoot the weak? Animal rights activists have trouble accepting this.

Featured image: Black sheep Frank from a Tele2 marketing campaign

Happiness

The point of technological development and social change

Whether this universe emerged by accident or has been created intentionally doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t exist to please us. The universe either exists to please no-one or it exists to please our creators. The same is true for technological advancements and social changes. These things don’t happen to make us happier. For instance, humans switched to agriculture, not because it made them happier but agriculture could feed more people so that farmers soon outnumbered hunter-gatherers, even though farmers were more miserable.1

So what’s the point of technological development and social change? What’s the point of agriculture, cities, writing, money, empires, science, industry, human rights and democracy if these things don’t make us happier? Making people happier is often not the reason why things happen. For instance, private property, individual rights and independent courts emerged because countries that had these things did better economically and came to dominate the planet.

Technological advances happen because investors expect to profit from new technologies or because governments see some use of it. And so scientists fetch budgets for their research and get busy. Efficiency considerations do the rest. More efficient designs win out. This is for instance the reason why Natural Money may be the money of the future. Making people happier may be a side-effect of Natural Money but economic efficiency is the reason why it may become the money of the future.

Social reforms may make people happier, but it is a lot harder than you might think. For example, equal rights for women and minorities, and many other social justice issues have a long history, and are yet to be fully resolved. It is difficult to alter views and attitudes from the majority as well as the minorities as cultural differences are an underlying cause of these issues. Trying to resolve them can lead to social conflict.

Social reforms don’t necessarily make people happier. If there is a social norm, for example of the man being the head of the family, then women may be happy with this arrangement. Introducing feminist ideas can produce tensions and women may not always become happier as a consequence, let alone men. Perhaps propaganda can help. If people are taught that women and men should have equal rights, people can be happier with such an arrangement.

So what makes people happy? It is an important question. There are several issues that seem to have an effect on our sense of happiness:

  • chemical processes in the body
  • human needs
  • money
  • expectations
  • desires
  • having a sense of purpose
  • social and political environment

Chemical processes in the body

Some people are always happy despite adversity and poor living conditions. Some people are always angry even when they prosper and have no serious problems. That has something to do with chemical processes in the body. But if happiness is about chemical processes in the body then making people happy is about inventing the right pills and distributing them. Indeed pills can help to end a depression. Many people believe that pills give a false sense of happiness, but more and more people take pills to feel better.

maslovpiramid
Maslov’s hierarchy of human needs

Hierarchy of human needs

Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of human needs. He thought that basic needs such as food and shelter are paramount. If these needs are fulfilled then people become interested in security. Maslow thought that if you don’t have food, security becomes of secondary importance, and if you have food and security, love and attention become more important. And if you have all that, it becomes more important to be respected and have a sense of purpose in your life. And even though the hierarchy is contested, the needs Maslow identified aren’t questioned.

Money

Does money make you happier? A lot of research has gone into this question. The results aren’t surprising. If you are poor then more money will probably make you happier. Poor people often worry about making ends meet. As soon as you can buy the things you need and have no financial worries, the picture becomes confusing. In that case more money can make you happier, but only if you spend it right. What is right is a personal consideration. So if you have the money, you should go on that vacation or go to that concert, but only if that is what you really want to do.

Expectations

Expectations can be important. If you expect to get a small car, and you get a medium sized car instead, your expectations are exceeded. That can make you happy for a while. But if you expected to get a big car, and you get the same medium sized car, your expectations are not met. And that can make you sad for a while. In both cases it is the same car. If you expected less, you are happy with the car, but if you expected more, the same car makes you feel bad. People tend to adapt to a new situation so after a while the happiness or the sadness from missed expectations is gone.

Similarly, if you are better off than others, it can give you satisfaction. Alternatively, if you are worse off than your peers, it can displease you. Happiness can depend on the people you compare yourself to. The attention given to celebrities, their riches, and their beautiful husbands and wives can give you the unpleasant feeling that you have to keep up with them. This can make you go to the gym or the plastic surgeon and buy things you can’t afford and turn down potential spouses that don’t look so great. The advertisement industry aims to make us unhappy so that we will buy more stuff. It can also explain why people in more equal societies are happier on average.

buddha
Rock cut seated Buddha statue, Andhra Pradesh, India

Craving

Gautama Buddha also weighed in on the issue. He was the founder of Buddhism. You may have seen a statue or a picture of him because he has become quite popular in recent decades. Buddha taught that people are always craving for temporary feelings and things. This craving causes a permanent state of dissatisfaction. As soon as you have achieved a desired feeling, for example love, or acquired a desired object, for example a car, you will start to crave for something else. That probably sounds very familiar.

Buddha also taught that this craving will tie us up in this world so that our souls will continue to reincarnate and suffer from craving. Only when we stop craving for temporary feelings and things and disengage ourselves from this world, we can disappear into nothingness, which is a state of eternal peace. This is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.  This type of happiness is a tranquillity caused by detachment from mundane affairs that may come close to not caring.

Meaning

Last but not least, if you think that your life has meaning, that can make you happy. Religious people may be happier than atheists because they may believe that they play a role in the great cosmic scheme of God while atheists may believe that their life has no purpose. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with a similar conclusion. He researched a group of women and interviewed them about their daily activities, and which activities gave them pleasure. He also asked the women what made them happy.

It turned out that caring for their children were amongst the activities that gave them the least pleasure. But when he asked these women what made them the most happy they answered that their children made them the most happy. Perhaps the children gave meaning to their lives. Perhaps these women were just deluding themselves like religious people. Similarly, if you think that your job is important, that may give meaning to your life, but that can be a delusion too. If you didn’t do your job, someone else probably would. Delusions can make us happy so it may not be irrational to have them.

Social and political reforms can be worthwhile

If we contemplate social reforms we might need to ask ourselves: “Will they make us happier?” Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from political and social institutions in this respect. That doesn’t mean improvements aren’t worthwhile. If they aren’t then it doesn’t matter where you live. So why do so many immigrants come to Europe or to the United States? Most immigrants try to escape poverty or flee for oppressive regimes.

Perhaps people in Africa and South America learn about the life in Europe or the United States and become dissatisfied because they are worse off. Whatever their motives might be, it appears that prosperity and social institutions do matter. And that is why it can be a good idea to engage in social and political reforms, and to aim for the highest standards everywhere around the globe.

In ‘advanced’ countries the roles of the state and the market economy have increased at the expense of the family and the community. This may cause alienation and stress as humans have evolved to live in smaller groups, not in the anonymity of the state and the market. Reducing the role of governments and markets may require enlarging the role of communities and families. Life in communities and families wasn’t ideal either so people may not become happier if that is going to happen.

Pictures:
– Rock cut seated Buddha statue, Andhra Pradesh, India CC BY-SA 3.0. Adityamadhav83. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22764139