Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Are you ready to talk about misfits? Not like, the punk band, but—
Micah Saul: Damn. I was seriously just about to start singing “Last Caress.”
Anderson: Oh, you know one of their song names. You are so much further ahead of me.
Saul: [sings] I got something to say…
Anderson: Let us never speak of them again. No one’s going to take us seriously now. And that’s probably good.
Saul: Let’s talk about misfits. Or specifically, let’s talk about the misfit economy.
Anderson: This conversation is with Alexa Clay, and she’s in the process coauthoring a book called The Misfit Economy, looking at pirates, hackers, gangsters, prisons. All sorts of places in the underground, where people are distributing goods, making goods, consuming goods, very differently.
Saul: Right. These weird black markets, but also gray market economies that have arisen on the fringes of the mainstream market economy.
Anderson: Yeah. Typically, economies that have appeared in desperate situations. And I think a big part of the premise is of course that in those situations you see a lot of innovation.
Saul: So, yes. Alexa Clay. As you said, she’s writing this book about these economies. She also works for Ashoka Changemakers. And she’s a fairly prolific writer, writing pieces for Fast Company, Forbes, Wired, Guardian. And actually, we saw her speak in New York when we were both there all those many moons ago.
Anderson: Yes. It was at WFMU’s Radiovision conference, and she was talking about piracy. We thought, “Ah. That would be really cool to bring into The Conversation.” You know, we’ve talked a lot about bigger economic systems. Let’s talk about these really small, scrappy economic systems and see how do they change the conversation. Do they? Or are they just capitalism writ small? Or greed and growth writ small. So let’s dive into it.
Alexa Clay: I think I’ve always tried to understand really the origins of things, and was very interested [in] economic history and really seeing economic history as a way of combating just how closed-off our current ways of thinking around the economy have become. And so I looked it ideas from the 17th and 18th century. You know, early economic thinkers, that were really more philosophers, who thought about the economy as this vast project of how do we think about wellbeing? How do we think about happiness? How do we all think about our different roles within the economy as a reflection of the society that we’re trying to create?
So, that’s where I guess my real interest in the economy came from, was really a rebellion toward sort of traditional economics. And got more and more thinking around people that are marginalized from the core economy. People that traditional economists and economic historians don’t really look at. And so that brought me into conversation with gangsters, with political agitators, with people on the fringes, basically, trying to understand what what are those motivations? We have this idea of sort of rational self-interest within economics. But how different cultures and different kinds of economies get created around the world within the black market system, or with the informal economy?
Aengus Anderson: What about the traditional economy or traditional economic theory? Which of course those things seem like they’re probably not even that closely related, but—
Anderson: —we’ll talk about them as if they were. And then we can break apart later if we want. But the traditional economy. What about that seemed like it needed to be critiqued to you?
Clay: I think at a fundamental level I just believe in human agency. And I think that everyone should feel like they can participate and shape the economy, rather than feel like they’re experiencing symptoms of the economy. When the recession happened, there was all this chatter around well, the Fed is going to do this. Or the banks are going to do this. And government is going to do this. And there was no narrative around what people are going to do. Or how we could sort of rise up together and do things a bit differently in terms of manufacturing, or in terms of alternative energy, or in terms of building more resilient communities. There was just…there wasn’t that kind of conversation happening. And so I think my interest is really in broadening the idea of the economy so that more people can feel like they’re included in the conversation.
Anderson: Why do you think the economy seems like this kind of deus ex machina thing that’s just kind of doing stuff off in the distance and we’re victims of?
Clay: From a historical perspective, it hasn’t always been that way. A lot of people point to the sort of…this marginal turn, right. When people became really preoccupied with this idea of utility. And towards the end of the 19th century when economists really began to be focused far more on taking ideas from science, from disciplines like physics, and applying them to economics. And so as economics tried to become more scientific and play the game of parading itself around as a science, it really lost the ability to actually cater to a more grounded, human kind of conversation. A conversation about distribution of resources. A conversation about how we should sort of run our industries or think about innovation. It became much more mathematical during that time.
Anderson: How does that mathematical formula actually apply to what’s going on in the real world? Does it describe it reasonably well?
Clay: I don’t think it does. I think it depends who you talk to. I’ve always been really suspicious of disciplines that try and distance themselves so much from what they’re studying, this sort of move towards objectivity to me, when you’re within a discipline that really touches people’s lives. Interest rates correlate with our own moods, for example.
So, one of the biggest things that interests me about the economy is this relationship between these massive trends and how we feel as people at an individual level. I think most people, when they feel things that they think are really subjective—you know, they have all these different kinds of emotional states. I think a lot of that is tied to economic events that are outside of their control. And there’s not a really good understanding of how these dynamics work together. How these objective phenomena begin to influence our subjective wellbeing.
The best example is perhaps looking at ideas of consumption. So, you can look at objective indicators of what it means for us to be in the sort of age of affluenza, or this consumption-based society, and you can see that under those conditions people become more short-termis. You can see that play out in terms of the kinds of returns that companies are looking at, or even sort of hedonistic things that people will do, wanting to buy something now rather than wait till later.
Anderson: And that’s in a consumption-based economy?
Anderson: So, you might not see that in a more production-based economy?
Clay: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think because of this consumption-based economy, you can see increases in people’s unhappiness, right. This has been well documented. But I think that’s something that’s really excit[ing] about the economy that we’re switching into, which is more about this sort of maker spirit. This this idea that everyone can harness or become a productive agent within the economy.
And so, I think that sense of not only this idea of making increases happiness, but you really belong to something. You feel like you actually have a sense of purpose. And I think everyone should have that opportunity. Everyone should feel a sense of belonging, feel like they’re actively shaping something. That they’re not this passive respondent to these economic forces.
Anderson: This makes me think of the fourth person I spoke to in this project, who was Colin Camerer, the neuroeconomist.
Anderson: We started with a little bit of neuroeconomics and talking about how classical economic theories don’t take into account psychology, basically. And that as we are learning more and more about psychology, we’re able to get a better sense of how people make choices. Is that something that’s motivated your work as well, as you’ve started thinking about the economy? Were you influenced by neuroeconomics in any way?
Clay: Definitely. I think neuroeconomics is something that owes a lot to historic theories of the mind and the economy. And so, when you say that psychology hasn’t really been this bedfellow of economics, it really has, and maybe they sort of separated and became divided. But back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the foundations of economics was based on psychology, was based on a lot of rich insight from the sort of moral sciences of the time. And I think that’s what’s really interesting. Because I don’t think you can design an economy without factoring in human beings, and without factoring in how human beings are going to feel within a certain situation.
I think neuroeconomics is possibly used more for sort of hypothetical situations. I would fault it for that. It’s more descriptive in ambition. So it’s not necessarily discovering new models and how we would actually live and be within those models. It’s more really trying to falsify certain ideas or understandings of human beings. But it’s done a lot to say hey, we have empathy. But you know, 17th century thinkers thought we had empathy, too.
Anderson: So, we talked about the current system leading people to maybe feel a loss of agency within it. I want to flesh that out a little bit more and get into why that’s not a good thing.
Clay: I think human agency is just critical to everything we do and all the illusions we have about freedom and choice in democracy. And I think whatever it is that I end up doing, and I think what the misfit economy as a project is about, is actually the first step in bringing human agency back into the equation. Speaking to people who don’t have a voice in how the current economy works and yet are a vital component of it.
When you look at agency historically really, and understand all great innovation is based on this principle of human agency, this idea of invention, a thought occurs to us and we can try and bring it into the world. You know, life is short. We’re only leave here for a little while. And we all have some kind of responsibility to feel like we are contributing in some capacity. So you don’t have to be an egomaniacal sort of dictator to understand what human agency is about.
Anderson: It can just provide a type of grounding and meaning and…
Anderson: So we’ve got this critique of of the present, with a lack of agency. Let’s move into the pirate economies. The unconventional economies. Let’s talk about a few of them first.
Clay: So the misfit economy, it’s a label we just made up, really. But it’s a sort of brand or identity that we think is powerful because for some reason everyone feels like an outsider, at some level. But the examples that we explore in The Misfit Economy are really folks in the black markets, in the informal, in the gray market economies. And so we talk about 18th century pirates and understood how some of their egalitarian models that they used to govern their pirate ships are things that we could apply today. We were in India and we hung out with gangsters in Mumbai and really tried to understand what is motivating them, how the life of a gangster was changing, and the kinds of things they thought about.
One of the the best interviews I had was recently with King Tone, who is no longer allowed to go by that name, but is the leader of the Latin Kings out in New York, for a while. And when he was leading the Latin Kings, he was trying to sort of pivot it as an organization to become much more of a social movement. And the cops at the time, the FBI, felt really threatened by that. Because they wouldn’t do it on the terms of the government. And so in prison, he was reading a lot of people like Martin Luther King, people like Malcolm X. These other kinds of social change heroes, and really learning from them, understanding from them, trying to figure out his place within this landscape. And coming out, it’s then hard, because everyone wants him to take up the reins of the gang again and go back to that life. And so he’s now this totally…he’s got this different identity. And he’s got to figure out for the first time how to play enough by the rules of the system so that he doesn’t get in trouble. That he can sort of prove himself. While also helping particularly youth. Folks that he really identifies with. Trying to get them more opportunities, particularly economic ones. Trying to get them better integrated into society. And just knowing that the likelihood of that is very slim.
Anderson: So, what is the economic lesson we learned from him?
Clay: What he teaches us is really about change management. He had inherited an organization. The former leader, King Blood, basically had this reputation for violence. He had to totally rebrand this gang. And he built alliances. He reached out to local civic leaders. He reached out to churches, to all these different organizations, to really create a different message behind the Kings.
And what’s interesting is this started out as a sort of internal task force, this secret internal task force within the Latin Kings. This kind of cultural revolution, rebranding, within the gang. And so it wasn’t him coming out saying, “We need to do this.” But he worked and listen to every different borough that he was representing, to figure out how he could reposition this gang more along the lines of a cultural institution.
Anderson: I find it really easy to relate to this story and go, “I can now think of the gang as a commercial entity,” right, as a business. But that is me applying my understanding of the traditional business economy to a gang. How would I go the other way around and say here’s something that the gang does differently that I can then apply to the traditional economy?
Clay: Well, I think one thing—two points, really. One is that gangs, during their heyday, they were massive organization. A gang is no longer that. A lot of the heads of these organizations have been taken out strategically by the FBI. So they’re now much smaller. And they operate much more nimbly. And so I think you had this massive trend of big gangs, and you’ve seen this trend in big companies. And how companies are facing similar ideas about how they should actually sort of downsize or spin off elements. And this isn’t a direct “what companies can learn from gangs,” but the sort of trajectory of downsizing that gangs have followed is now one that companies are beginning to explore.
I think much more interesting is looking at gangs as learning organizations. Understanding how they learned. They actually developed, in the Kings, different curriculum around how to do things, around empowerment, around just ideas, culture. They have a whole religion. And this is something that I think companies can apply, too, is actually develop their capacity as learning organizations. And I think the whole approach to curriculum development that the Kings had is one that other organizations could benefit from. And interestingly, now it’s one that King Tone is thinking of how he can create a curriculum for youth empowerment, and actually develop an interesting kind of program to do this in New York, and Brooklyn specifically. So, not being tied to the gang, but it’s an innovation that happened in the gang that he’s now using as a kind of civic program.
Anderson: You’ve looked at gangs. You’ve looked at pirates. You’ve looked at prison economies. Is there a central theme that you’re pulling from them in terms of how they might critique the current economy we have? Has that informed your critique of it?
Clay: Definitely. I think the whole thing we’re learning in The Misfit Economy is around a greater spirit of informality. And that’s something that we see that organizations today are in desperate need of. Because they’ve become far too formalized and dehumanizing, specifically large corporations. So, the pendulum towards formalization has just become far too strict. I think one of the greatest flaws with a lot of organizations is they tend to codify rules or principles that make sense for certain decision scenarios within a context. And then the context fades, and you still have that rule. It’s like junk DNA, except it’s still sort of infecting the current logic of the organization.
Anderson: Some of the conversations I’ve had in this series have really gotten into the underlying logic of markets and of capitalism. And when I think about these misfit economies, it seems like they fit into that pretty well. They’re just like smaller versions of bigger corporations. But it’s the same underlying mindset of competition and getting ahead. Or am I mischaracterizing them.
Clay: I think capitalism isn’t this sort of monolithic thing. Capitalisms, plural, sort of exists. And so even within misfit economies, you find in certain instances someone is entirely selfish in a situation, particularly when it involves drugs. Like, you can see ways in which people are motivated by money, and that’s a huge motivation. When we look at hacker communities, you can see other motivations at work.
Saul: I don’t think there’s one model where you can say, “These economies are conforming to one sort of ideal type that we have for capitalism at large.” But I think what’s interesting through The Misfit Economy is to explore all the diversity of economies that are really out there and actually see them reflected in the mainstream economy, too. You know, it’s not like in the misfit economy is this totally other system that we haven’t heard of. We’re all human beings, and economies evolve based on the design constraint of the fact that we’re human.
And I wouldn’t even say that they’re all— You know, there are certain misfit economies that are utterly sort of Marxist or offer some grand alternative. But yeah, I think they are small tweaks, or different ways they think about governance or motivation that can sometimes be helpful as a mirror to our current system.
Anderson: Wes Jackson was a thinker who I spoke to. We got into growth, and the fallacy of growth; at some point limitless growth in a finite system. Is there just a madness in the genetics of our traditional economic system, where it kind of doesn’t know how to stop growing. Like, to stop growing would lead us to a terrible economic problem. Do these informal economies or misfit economies help us with that, or are they following the same patterns of continual growth that the large economy is.
Clay: Yeah, and I think the growth conversation is one that is really interesting. I think particularly when we look at different kinds of communities that get formed, everyone defines progress differently. And so if you believe in growth as a kind of progress, then you sign up for that game. But certainly in the misfit economy there are other games at work that people play by.
You know, hackers play by very—you know, it’s not like they’re trying to sort of grow, per se. Pirates, certainly there’s a sense that booty, or increased revenue is a good thing. But they don’t have quite the same variables around growth. And certainly with gangs, you see gangs really downsizing and not wanting to grow at the same level. And it’s impossible now, really, to often distinguish between social capital and and gangs, because gangs have just become these sort of community networks.
There are definitely alternatives to growth. I think the challenge with growth, which is this awful pariah that everyone is plugged into, is to really understand the alternative there. But it’s just so hard because growth is the game that everyone is playing. And you really need to be able to make an alternative that is appealing to people to get them to jump. From a psychological perspective, if you have too much technological innovation or too much growth, people don’t adapt well. If you have too slow growth, people feel very stagnant. So it affects people at a personal level.
Anderson: Do you think they feel stagnant because we’re sort of conditioned to expect it? I’m thinking like, if we were to teleport into the Middle Ages, would they have felt stagnant?
Clay: Probably not, right, because you’re living for the afterworld. So the idea of growth, your orientation to it, really depends on your relationship with time and where you put your emphasis. And I think a lot of cultures around the world today wouldn’t even abide by the same idea or sense of progress that we have.
And even in economics, it’s really the most crass kind of progress that we’re looking for. We’re not looking for spiritual progress. We’re not looking for growth and wisdom, you know. We’re really looking at growth in the worst terms, even in the most short-termist kinds of terms.
Anderson: So, there have been lots of people in this conversation, the big conversation of the project, throwing out different ideas of progress. What’s your idea of progress?
Clay: I always really resented this idea of this sort of sense of there being a kind of telos that we’re sort of evolving towards. This idea that there was something uniformly, normatively, better to strive for. I don’t think I have one defined idea of progress. I think at an interpersonal level, I like to be around or meet people that I think have really committed to their own evolution and exploration, and feel sort of enriched. But I almost like anti-progress, in a lot of ways. I think understanding and preserving those things that you don’t know makes for better knowledge, and for a better kind of person to be around. And I think we’re all so rushed—
Anderson: What do you mean by that?
Clay: Um, it’s kind of— I mean that’s the nature of Socratic wisdom, really, is just preserve those blind spots, you know. You need to preserve your ignorance, and understand and bring emphasis to those places where you are ignorant, because that’s what makes you a better human being, a better decision-maker. We spend so much time trying to figure everything out, and so little time actually just contemplating things that we really don’t know. And that’s really important.
And keeping those levels of uncertainty, I think that’s where everything comes from. I love the sort of Amish kind of figure. Or someone who could see progress more by the relationships that they’re making, or all these other ways, against this idea of technological progress, or someone who thinks we’re at the height of civilization. I just don’t think that’s fair. I guess I can’t believe in progress because I have a belief in just fairness. And I feel like everyone should be entitled to their own idea of progress. And not even progress, but just be able to feel like they can create their own standards for what’s important to them.
I don’t know. What would you think? Would you have an idea about where you’re trying to progress? I mean, it’s interesting, too. Like, even things like this. Often these kinds of radio shows or experiments that one takes, the less agenda you have the better off you’re going to do. And so, if you can abandon the idea of progress for something like this, it often just…right?
Anderson: I completely agree. I mean, that’s one of the luxuries of being able to work on a project like this. And one of the reasons I sort of wanted it to be the weird format that it is. Because that makes exploring a lot of these things, on their own terms, easier.
One of the things that I like about the series is it’s putting forth a lot of ideas of types of progress. Normally, talk about in terms of the good. What is the good, and how do you have a practical society-wide conversation about the good? Does it always boil down to an arational assumption (and whether you call that your notion of progress, or your notion of the good, or value). And if it boils down to those, as it seems to do every time, can you have conversation? And does conversation matter?
Clay: And that’s what economic should be about. I mean, it’s one’s relationship with the good. The economy is about a system of providing us with basic things so that we can live the good life. And then that becomes corrupted by economists to be this thing called utility. Which becomes then increasingly abstracted. But it’s really that conversation. Yeah, what is your relationship? What are you trying to maximize?
Anderson: I spent a lot of time thinking about the philosophy underneath economics. But not as economics being or needing to be in some way conversation that is innately philosophical. But I guess if you’re talking about the distribution of goods, then—
Clay: But it’s what you value, right?
Anderson: Right. Right. And that’s… It’s that interesting—like the double use of the word “value,” right? It is both the value within the economy, the value as a moral thing within one’s understanding of the world. This makes me think of of the conversation I was having with Douglas Rushkoff about quantification. Going back to our more classical economics theories, which quantify a lot of things. And when those theories start to really become normalized everywhere and you stop seeing them as theories, and it just…the quantification of economics, always thinking in terms of price or quantity, that can bleed over into quantifying a lot of other things. And maybe that makes it harder to have that conversation about progress, about those other forms of progress.
Clay: This debate also happens a lot within the NGO world, social entrepreneurship, whatever you want to call it. As people try and think not only how do you measure things like numbers, profits, etc., but how do you measure the good that you’re creating. Maybe you’re saving the environment, or you’re “saving” people of some disease, or whatever. How do you begin to measure that? And I think the challenge there is, once you begin to quantify things, you introduce an idea of progress to a program, right. Because then you measure yourself against things that you begin to measure. So, you have these numbers that then take power away from people to actually begin to change elements of the program.
Yeah, I mean, I think quantifying can be really dangerous. But at other times it can be really helpful. I remember I had this cool conversation with David Harvey, who’s a Marxist. I can have a Marxist moment, you know? But I could never just fully be within a sort of Marxist perspective. And we were talking about wetlands. And I was talking about someone I knew that was doing his best to quantify nature. So, looking at how you could basically create a sense of the wetlands’ value to this community. And he was quantifying, quantifying. And he eventually ended up saving these wetlands, because he could show, in an economic argument, their bigger value to this community.
And Dave Harvey thought that was an interesting example, but he also thought it was capitalism taking over nature. Now nature needs a value. And within the Marxist lens, everything becomes sort of commodified, right. So now he’s doing this with nature, to defend it. Sure, it defends it. Maybe that’s a small victory in the present. But it’s just part of this bigger narrative where everything is getting quantified and given numbers to.
Anderson: Hm. I would think—and maybe this is just me showing my ignorance—that a Marxist perspective would be influenced by a lot of the same values. Because ultimately if you really want to justify saving the wetlands, you can do it in a way… So, I was talking to this this geoengineer, David Keith, and he was talking about, look we can we can talk about saving nature all day long. And he’s like, “I can give you these various anthropocentric arguments for why it’s in your best interest.” But he’s like, really you just want to save it because you want to save it, go out, be in it, done.
Anderson: And I would think that Marxism, like a more capitalist approach to the wetlands, would kind of still see it in material terms. Because that other thing, that go be in nature thing, is coming from a totally different, arational space, right. It’s a spiritual attitude towards the environment, which can coexist with Marxism or capitalism, but isn’t part of either of those things.
Clay: But I think— So, I totally agree. But I think Harvey’s point is he brings capital and space. He has all these really interesting ways of looking at ways in which capital comes to dominate our interaction with a given space. And so that nature only has value because it’s plugged into this frame of reference, it’s becoming increasingly quantified and we look at it through economic value. And I think it’s ultimately, for him, encroachment, really. This comes to penetrate all of our lives. And the big sort of Venn diagrams that a Marxist would look through is historically we had this big circle of society. And economy was a small circle within society. And society created norms. And the economy was just local markets; it wasn’t that big. And now we have, today, this big circle of economy and the small circle of society. And the economic system that we live in informs so much of our norms, behaviors, etc. And that transition is a rough one, because it means that you can’t program the economy in the same way. That you used to be able to sort of control society, and its norms, and its morals, etc. You don’t have that same control, because society is being marginalized.
Anderson: Which is a really strange flip on its head. And it also seems like when you do that flip, when the economic sphere becomes bigger in some ways than different social spheres, how do you then address the economic sphere, right? I mean, it’s become reality. It’s become invisible in so many ways, you know.
Clay: It’s interesting to look at it say, through marriage, right. Marriage is something where we would have…or even dating. We would think about it through these terms of courtship, of meeting someone. People write poetry about it. There are all of these feelings there. It’s something very special. But you can also look at it through a market perspective, right. And increasingly you see ways in which markets are coming to determine who people end up with—
Anderson: Oh my God.
Clay: —and how people marry. In India for The Misfit Economy, we met a lot of matchmakers, which was super interesting. We were staying at one guy’s house, and someone delivered this resume at his door. And it was basically a marriage proposal. It was the first step of a marriage proposal. And I was in New York recently and hung out with someone who had a whole Excel matrix with different guys listed that she’d dated, and she was doing a sort of comparative analysis. She was from a finance background. But to me that’s really scary. You can see the ways in which market logics are creeping into private life. And so decisions that used to be about other things. Are now very much…have been grasped by the market.
Anderson: And so what I wonder is, here we are talking also about the big Conversation, with the capitals, where we’re hoping to have a better future with a lot of different people. And how do you have the Conversation in a world where quantified thinking is so naturalized? Where you have a spreadsheet of different people who you will spend your life with, maybe. And that if you don’t feel that way, where’s the common language?
Clay: Is your fear that people who develop a more insular kind of culture, they’re not going to be able to speak to one another?
Anderson: That may be some of it.
Anderson: And the other part of it may be that there’s actually nothing to talk about.
Clay: I think you can bridge those things. I think people are living in ideologies, right. And so the point of conversation is to sort of strip us of those ideologies and human desires. You know, those haven’t changed much. You can look back at ancient times and you can see that people pretty much had all the same emotions, were talking about basically the same things. So, I think it’s really just the ability to deconstruct ideologies, and to do that through really honest and direct conversation. And I think what’s scarier is people can’t really see themselves as different from the ideology that they take on.
Anderson: You know, what I was talking about with Lawrence, the philosopher, was enlightenment liberalism, in the most optimistic, positive way you could possibly imagine. Saying, look we’ve got this pluralistic communities. What do you do? Well, you have to agree on some definition of being reasonable. To be willing to enter into conversation without the use of force. That was his lowest level good.
Clay: But, right so you’ve excluded now like, terrorists. Or all these others, potentially.
Anderson: Right. And he acknowledged that. And that’s kind of the tension in that whole strain of thought. Like, say you want to have a reasoned conversation with a fundamentalist. For them to engage in that conversation with you, they have to be more of a liberal than a fundamentalist. So, essentially to have that conversation with them, they have to be…you.
Clay: And I think the other— I mean the whole construct is kind of Rawlsian, right? Like, you have this—
Anderson: We talked a lot about Rawls.
Clay: Okay. Yeah, I really don’t— The British…I did school in England, and they make you read a lot of Rawls, too. But I never liked it. It’s so hypothetical. It’s just so like, “Okay, let’s all use this same deliberative rationality and agree on the ways in which we would come together in consensus.” And I think from a government standpoint it’s really difficult to say “this is the one formula” that we want to sort of take.
There’s this funny book within economic history. It’s called The Passions and the Interests. And it basically describes the situation under which someone that might try and beat you up instead—because you have money—just wants your coin purse, and how money or capitalism actually comes to tame the passions. I think you can say maybe a lot of the sort of violent drives that we have have sort of been sublimated towards these capitalist pursuits.
Anderson: Does that rely on most people having enough to lose that they don’t resort to violence?
Anderson: Like, a floor of affluence, basically. And if you fall beneath that floor of affluence, then our market society is not going to placate you.
Clay: I think you can see that with terrorism, right. A University of Chicago professor looked into this, but basically showed that those who sought refuge in terrorism were really ones that were economically marginalized. It grew so fast in areas that hadn’t been part of significant wealth gains in the Middle East, who hadn’t been part of that oil money, exactly. Certainly there are leaders that don’t fit that description, but on the whole you see that it was really economically motivated. And in a lot of areas, it’s sort of saddening the degree to which being economically included, and having access to that income, can subdue a lot of the great passions that people have. If it takes them away from violence, it’s probably a good thing.
But it also—just getting back from a trip to China—it’s so dystopian over there. Everyone that I met in—you know, I didn’t go to the West of the country, which is a bit more culturally intact. But in Beijing and Shanghai, it’s the pursuit of money. There aren’t really many other things that people are thinking about.
Anderson: You mentioned a moment ago some sort of cautious optimism. On the whole, are you optimistic about the future?
Clay: Yeah, I think so. I’ve seen signs of things coming recently that have the real power to be transformative. It’s funny, I was talking to someone who’s in her fifties and monitors East London, which is a very hipster kind of area. And she basically said, “The hipsters are curing their apathy through knitting.” And you can see the growth that these kinds of hobbyist art forms within these communities that used to be largely apathetic youth, as a gentle sign of optimism. But it’s also like, this whole maker spirit is something that I am tremendously excited about. I think we’re going to do manufacturing, and think about production, in very different ways, and it’s going to become much more democratized.
And this idea of a citizen sector. This idea that we won’t have to be dependent on large corporations to provide us with things. That we can certainly learn from them, but that they’ll either have to sort of evolve rapidly and become more agile and nimble and embedded in communities and societies, or they’ll really have to go extinct. That’s one trend that I’m seeing. But certainly there are a lot of other big kinds of trends out there that could totally hamper it. And being in China, none of what we’re doing here matters at all. Basically, whatever China does and locks into, from the perspective of the economy and the environment, is how the future is going to be guided. A lot of our reality will be determined just because of the sheer size of population, and the fact that we’ve been selling off our economy to them. So, yeah. I mean, I think optimism but also like other variables at work.
Anderson: Does conversation matter?
Clay: Definitely. I mean it’s all about conversation when, particularly institutions, have such hackneyed language. And the moment that you start talking about something real, people sort of light up. I haven’t worked with corporates very much. But when I do it’s almost like therapy for them. That’s the only service that I would ever provide as a consultant, is the ability for them to think in a fresh language about what they’re doing. And to begin to sort of reimagine what they could do with the resources that they have.
We determine our ideas of progress with language. We determine narratives that act to guide us, that motivate us. And stumbling upon a new kind of phrase can just open up entirely new possibilities. And that’s what happens with the economy, and that’s why conversation about the economy is so important. Because if you can get one person to reframe something, or to think about something slightly different, it can be really transformational.
What is it that you want to achieve? What is it that you want to value? It’s our sort of first line of defense as human beings. It’s what we can sort of preserve ourself against the massive forces of capitalism and of corporate politics and things like that is, language is the thing that can cut through all that.
Aengus Anderson: Well, we’ve worked through this one a couple of times and it’s really taxed our economics vocabulary. So here goes. This is number five, and were rolling.
We’re talking about the economy in a really big way here. I think probably one of my favorite things Alexa does is she talks about the economy as a moral philosophical issue.
Micah Saul: Right. Comes from our own morality and is the engine for dispensing the good life, whatever that means.
Anderson: Kind of the material sidekick of all of our lofty fantasies of what a society should look like.
Saul: Or at least that’s how it started.
Anderson: But it certainly doesn’t seem there now, does it? I mean, I don’t find a lot of moral philosophy in the Wall Street Journal’s business reporting.
Saul: Or the Financial Times.
Anderson: So, that’s broken apart. And now I think Alexa’s arguing, pretty persuasively, the economy’s treated as a thing of its own, having its own rules, its own logic. It’s a game that we made and we forgot that we can make it any way we want, almost.
Saul: It’s become one of those big systems that we talk about throughout this project. It’s too complex and interconnected and ouroboros-like for any human to actually wrap their brain around it.
Anderson: And the upshot of that being that it’s really hard to feel like you’ve got a lot of agency. At least unless you’re at the very top, right?
Anderson: Most people don’t feel like they can really change the economic model. And they’re right. That’s the other part. They are right in feeling disempowered. So what’s bad about the loss of agency? I mean, she talks specifically about, you feel disempowered as a person. That makes you unhappy. So there’s a psychological aspect of it.
Saul: I think there’s an interesting sort of vicious cycle there, where if you feel disempowered, you are less inclined to try to exert any agency over it, and it’s going to get farther and farther from its moral or philosophical roots.
Anderson: Until you’re losing at the hands of the economy so badly that you have to be an agent. Well, and that’s where you get a misfit economy. You get an economy for people who are outside of the traditional economy. It isn’t serving them, and they are…they’re still agents. They are creating their own systems out there on the periphery.
Saul: it’s kind of cool that she diagnoses this larger sense of disenfranchisement, and then kind of looks at the few places where you can find people who are not powerful who are agents. We should really connect to Gabe Stempinski’s conversation here.
Anderson: With the sharing economy. And a lot of listener comments were people who felt that while the sharing economy may be a great idea, it was not the Conversation with the capitals because it was sort of an adjustment to the status quo rather than a really new idea. It wasn’t a critique of the growth system. It wouldn’t ultimately lead to anything more than maybe the Jevons paradox, creating greater efficiency in how we use resources, thus allowing us to grow further.
And you know, as we talk about misfit economies, I think we need to keep our listeners’ critique there in mind and ask, do these misfit economies really represent another type of model, or are they iterations upon the kind of status quo that we’ve heard pretty thoroughly beaten up by thinkers from Korten to Jackson. People who really criticize the growth system.
Saul: You touch on that some in your conversation with Alexa, but I don’t know that that was answered. I’m gonna take a quick detour, which I think is also going to get us to that same question, which is another connection to Colin Camerer.
Anderson: Back in episode four.
Saul: All of…eight months ago?
Saul: So, for those that don’t remember or maybe haven’t listened, Colin Camerer is a neuroeconomist at Caltech. So, Alexa is very aware of neuroeconomics. But she feels it’s too theoretical.
Anderson: Yeah, I think the biggest part of that, really, is where she feels that it’s descriptive. It looks at a systemic and goes kind of, “Here’s how we operate. Here’s how the economy operates. Okay, those things are different.” Well, that’s a pretty formidable critique, but it doesn’t really give you a new system. It doesn’t lead to a big moral conversation about justice. It doesn’t get you sort of the massive change that she seems to want from the misfit economies.
Saul: Right. I’m going to turn that around, though, and and ask are these misfit economies offering that fundamental new idea? Or are they just the larger economy writ small?
Anderson: I think there are a couple ways we can go about it. First, we can say well, she gives us two examples where we’re talking about the Latin kings. We’re talking about first, gangs as a whole downsizing, getting more nimble. That’s a trend that corporations can follow. To me, that seems like an adjustment. That’s not a sea change in operations. So we can set that one aside.
Now, misfit economies as learning organizations, that’s kind of interesting. But is it a sea change in how we think about the economy? Is having a different and more flexible structure for adaptation and change in say, a gang or a prison economy or a pirate economy… If you applied that to a corporation and you had an incredibly nimble corporation, does that really change the big picture? Does it say, undo the growth model?
Saul: I think it certainly has the potential to, perhaps. But I don’t see a causal link between a more nimble learning economy and…therefore not not based on growth.
Anderson: And maybe we’re coming into this with a false assumption that the growth economy is a problem.
Saul: I guess that’s an important thing that we inform listeners when our biases are becoming very apparent, we should recognize them and point them out. I too have been very convinced by people like Wes Jackson that our current model of growth is unsustainable and dangerous.
The thing is, that actually is not necessarily what Alexa said, anywhere in this conversation. To be coming at it from that angle, we just need to make it very clear that that’s what we are thinking about.
Anderson: At the same time, even if that was the goal—and I do think that’s an important question that needs to be answered—some of the other economies that we didn’t get into in this conversation might offer better clues than say, a gang economy. We didn’t really get into the depths of like, what does a hacker economy look like? Is that a different economy? Does that embody different value choices? I don’t think we really know. Then maybe this is just a lack of my own imagination. I really don’t know if these misfit economies are the model for that sort of massive change. I can see them taking us towards more agency. I can see them taking us towards local communities.
Anderson: Which are having much greater control. So, conceivably could have a lot more happiness. That seems really laudable.
Saul: That’s what I wanted to say, was that Alexa views one of the biggest issues with all current economic models is that lack of human agency. If these misfit economies are solving that issue, that’s where she sees them as being very important. And offering new change.
Anderson: Can the misfit economy kind of serve as a stepping stone along this path towards increasing human agency first? Which of course increases happiness, presumably. And then gives people the ability to sort of change the larger economy, in a way that seems impossible now? So maybe the misfit economy itself isn’t going to critique or really overhaul the big economy. But maybe it will give people a tool to do that later? I don’t now.
Saul: It’s funny. It makes me think of a connection we hadn’t made yet with the the Happiness Initiative.
Anderson: That makes perfect sense.
Saul: Right? In some ways, this is very much connected with that idea. And I think actually they’re coming from very similar places. People are distanced from the economy. And if we can reframe what the economy means and what the economy is supposed to do, and include happiness and include connectedness, does that provide the tools to solve those broader problems that Jackson points out?
Anderson: That’s a good question. I think it’s also probably a good place to leave it. There are a million more things we could talk about here.
Anderson: But we can’t have an outro that goes on for six hours. Though we would like to. And we will probably continue this conversation offline, and you should too. Or continue it online, with us.
That was Alexa Clay, recorded November 1, 2012 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.