The cold inhumanity of neoliberal economics

Ben Cohen
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by Ari Rutenberg


"A man must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings."

--Albert Einstein, from an interview in the New York Times, September 1952.

We cannot separate the economic value of the world from the motives of mankind. To attempt to quantify all of reality is cold, inhumane, and ultimately a futile way of looking at the world. It is a method of solving problems that will always be found wanting. It is a crude and heartless attempt at understanding the intricacies of human existence.

As an economist by background, I am intimately familiar with this system and all of its deficiencies. There is no way to quantify much of what human beings do. It is simply irrational and beyond mathematics, the same way some emotions are beyond our ability to articulate in words. And to make assumptions about the future actions of people and expect the future to fit the prediction is simply foolish.

The saddest applications of this philosophy are when they are applied to the people’s lives and to the environment. When Blackwater murders Iraqis in cold blood, they are never held to account for their actions except to compensate the families of those who have been killed with money as if there is some kind of parity between the two, though I suppose for the neocons there is. How can we put a monetary value on human life?

Second is the environment. You often here economists and MBA-types talk about how its too expensive and too difficult to improve our relationship with the Earth. This is because someone calculated the value of all those resources yet to be extracted and how much it will cost to clean up the pollution and figured out that, hey, we can’t make our margins if we pay for a clean environment. How can we put a value on the Earth and, essentially, the survival of our species? To me it is both unfathomable and unconscionable to try and value our planet and our species the same way we value a ounce of gold. Beyond the fact that our economy is a system working within the Earth system, and thus cannot exceed it in size and cannot violate its physical rules, like how much carbon the planet can absorb naturally, how can one value such beauty and grandeur. For people who claim to love God, they certainly seem callous when it comes to his great work.

How can we put a value on a beautiful sunset, or a snowstorm, or a walk through the forest? How can we quantify our most basic instincts and connection to nature? Well in my mind we cant. We shouldn’t try. And the fact is we shouldn’t even be considering it. The loss of humanity and compassion required to make such calculations are some of the reasons our society has become so cold and disconnected from it members. We are not islands, either from our fellow humans or from the environment we live in. We cannot treat ourselves, or our planet, as if it is simply a stockpile of resources to be used up, at least not if we want to survive.