Ming the Mechanic:
Counting what counts

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Counting what counts2011-11-06 21:33
picture by Flemming Funch

We make many of our decisions based on what we directly perceive. If you have the choice between two cupcakes, and the bigger, more chocolaty one, looks better and the thought of eating it makes you feel better, that's probably the one you'll choose. Unless you directly perceive something else that tells you otherwise, like a little voice that tells you it is fattening, or a hunch that your friend would enjoy it more than you would.

We humans in particular also make many of our decisions based on abstractions that we perceive or deduce. A table of calories in your head might make you not eat the cupcake after all. Its price might have a bearing on it. There are numbers and qualities attached to lots of things, which influence your behavior around them. This is symbolic stuff which carries a meaning to us.

Augmented reality glasses isn't yet something that is available to us, but we act as if we're already wearing them. There's an invisible heads up display that superimposes symbolic values and characteristics on most everything we deal with. Abstract information both changes our perceptions of what's right there in front of us, and it gives a lot of extra importance to stuff we don't see at all, which happens elsewhere. It is in our peripheral attention that we need to pay the rent and that there's a meeting in half an hour.

Within this mesh of perceptions and information we make the best decisions we can. Generally speaking, sane human beings will attempt to make the very best decision possible at any time, the decision that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the disadvantages. That has often been called selfishness, but it could just as well be called intelligence. Of course you choose from what is available the best experience with the lowest cost. And if you don't, it is because you have information that assigns value differently. You might be perfectly happy not getting a new fresh fluffy towel every single day in a hotel, because you know that it saves resources to use the same towel several times.

Not everybody makes equally good decisions. Most people try, but some have a harder time than others extrapolating what information means, visualizing consequences. A small percentage of people are altogether unable to empathize with the feelings of others, and will therefore make decisions that only maximize their own individual interests, no matter what costs and pain it incurs on anybody else, no matter whether they're aware of this or not. But for most people, the more the merrier, and they'd happily extend good decisions to those around them, and to the world at large.

So, if, as I claim, most people are benevolent, and they routinely choose the best decision available, why isn't the world a much better place? Most people on the street would be able to tell you what many of the problems in the world are. Pollution, deforestation, resource depletion, war, injustice, inequality, corruption, crime. Yet all of those things are the direct result of our collective actions so far. Why doesn't it add up?

The problem is bad or missing information. We supposedly live in an information age, but unfortunately it is mostly junk information, and the most useful information tends to be missing. If you have faulty information, you'll make faulty decisions. If the information is missing, you'll guess, quite possibly wrongly, based on the faulty information you have. Garbage in, garbage out. If you try to make a decision about the quality of a product solely based on an advertisement, which is meant to mislead you, you are likely to make a mistake.

There are many ways we might help people have better information so they can make better decisions. Creating networks of trust, where you know who's likely to provide reliable information. Independent information repositories about the activities of companies or governments. Raw feeds from the sources of information. Better visualization tools for understanding publicly available information. Training in critical thinking. But the most direct way is to actually count the right things.

A proper accounting system would change the world. If we actually were able to notice the degree to which value is added and taken away from our shared commons, and this information were integrated into our economic system, everything would change very rapidly.

The all pervasive global economic system we're living in uses a unit of measure, money, which is created out of thin air in bank computers and provided in the form of debt to people who're deemed able to pay that debt back with interest. There are a lot of things to say about that system. One is that it is based on the impossible idea of endless growth. Another is that it per definition will introduce a lot of scarcity and lead people to compete with each other for the perceived scarcities. And, important to this discussion, this kind of money only values that which can produce a monetary profit. Almost all resources on the planet, and many metaphysical resources, like ideas, words, thoughts, songs, have been converted into stuff that now is owned and counted in this unit of money. But what's much worse about that is that it isn't at all the valuable things that are being counted. What is being counted is the potential to produce more of those numbers that we count - money. What is being counted is not really most of the things we find valuable. Yes, some of the things that money can be paid for are good and valuable, but many more are terribly destructive.

Clean air, forests, good education, clean drinking water, happiness, creativity, health. If you have money, you can pay for creating more of those things. But that in itself isn't good business, so you would have had to make your money elsewhere first, before you can show such largesse. The very best ways of making money would be in exploiting natural resources for personal profit, leaving the cleanup costs to everybody else, or in speculating in the money system itself, amassing made up numbers, without producing any actual value whatsoever.

It is all in what is counted. All that is needed is to move our money system from being based on self-reflective monetary profit to being based on something more real and valuable. No, not gold, nothing valuable about that, other than it being rare. Our natural environment would be a good choice. Air, land, water, and its productive capacity. Money could be based on our common environment. Thus the real costs of exploiting it or possibly destroying it would necessarily have to be included in the accounting. As would the real costs of regenerating it, so that it can keep being valuable.

The point is that what is being counted, and particularly what is given a value number, will be noticed. If those numbers actually mean that things are more or less easy to get at, we will start changing our behaviors around them. That a styrofoam cup costs 5 cents, and that it doesn't cost anything extra to throw it "away" after using it for 10 seconds and dump it in a landfill, that's a complete fiction. If all the costs were included, and all the benefits weighed against them, the situation would look very different, and most likely you would make different choices.

Individuals don't have to understand the full implications of everything. We're all busy with our particular projects and preferences. It isn't necessarily practical to become an expert on everything and understanding the ins and outs of how a planetary ecosystem best is managed. The economic system should assist us in making decisions that affect the whole.

It is very simple, really. Free market economics can be a perfectly sound self-organizing system. As long as we count the right stuff. I.e. we count the complete costs of stuff, and we try to count as valuable that which we really find valuable. If that styrofoam cup costs $1, and it would cost $2 to dispose of it, and it costs $0.01 cents to reuse your ceramic mug, you naturally will make a different decision than before. It doesn't take any persuasion, it doesn't take any idealistic desire to do something for the planet. Even if you're acting completely selfishly, the cheaper choice is likely to seem the better one. Unless there really were a unique value in drinking once from a styrofoam cup which somehow made it worth the trouble to make some extra money so you can buy it.

It doesn't have to be called money. We're basically talking about information. When the supermarket writes "Organic" on a sign next to the gnarly little lemons that cost a bit more than the good looking ones, it allows me to make an economic decision. I might be happy to pay a bit more to know that the coffee is "fair trade". But numbers would be better. We all know that $4 is better than $5 when we need to pay it. We aren't all so thoughtful as to consider more abstract implications than that. So, it would be better if the money system itself were based on something real.

If we can simply see the world a bit better, we make better decisions. That seeing includes the numbers attached to things. The numbers we need to pay is an important aspect, but there can be others. Even if nothing changed about how things are priced in today's world, if I had a heads up display that told me the actual costs and actual benefits of a given item, I'd act differently. So would most people. Buy this item for $4 and a kid in Sudan will no longer have clean drinking water, or buy this one for $6, which is produced in a sustainable way. Yes, it needs to be less crude and more sophisticated than that. And it can be. We can be pretty good with numbers. We just need to apply them to the stuff we actually want to measure.

It is a simple game we humans like to play. Give us a number and convince us it is good, and we'll put our creativity and hard work to use in making that number bigger. We're pretty good at it, but it is also our weakness. Unscrupulous people might temporarily trick us into maximizing their numbers instead of our own or instead of our overall shared numbers. We've caught on to that now. Still, we like making numbers bigger, so let's at least start doing that with some numbers that count what counts in the world.

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7 Nov 2011 @ 07:38 by Tim @ : Variables
Hi Ming. I like what you've said, but it's impossible to know all of the information, or rather 'variables' in any given situation or to really know what's best for everyone potentially involved in the outcome of our decision. For me. this is where intuition or, if you will, 'inner guidance' plays a big role.  

7 Nov 2011 @ 17:42 by ming : Variables
Yeah, everything isn't just stuff we can count. The qualities of life aren't just numbers.

But, still, we can do a much better job at it. We can quantify nature to some degree. So and so many square kilometers of rainforest, so and so many millions of tons of fish, so and so much oxygen. So, we can do some kind of approximate accounting of the damage we do or the value that we produce. An accounting that is complete enough that it directly influences economic decisions, not just something that makes a nice news article.

As to our own more fuzzy variables, like how happy and fulfilled we are, yeah, can't easily count that. But we can at least survey it and try to figure out if it is going up or down. To make big economic decisions, I mean. Ultimately what is valuable to us in life is of course something we feel inside somehow, not something one can just calculate in a computer.  

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