Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the Rise of homo sapiens economicus

As a so-called fact, those statistical derivatives people toss around about life span improvement, like: "the reason your life expectancy is 75 years and not 45 years is due to capitalism" are questionable. Also questionable is the notion that it is some sort of advance. It would appear that an increasing percentage of people are being kept alive at greater expense, like the cost of creating technologies (drugs are technologies) that keep Type 1 diabetics alive. I learned from a physical anthropologist that more people died in the relatively brief hundred and some odd thousand years of modern humans from tooth infections and directly related factors than any other cause. I don't know how true that is.

Anyone who has bothered to sort through the pile of debris we call history will recognize that technology and capitalism are not co-related in a one to one formula. Thus to assume an economic system causes technological innovation is something of a logical fallacy. It's more like they share characteristics in a Venn diagram.

Human beings have been creating and sharing technologies at least since they discovered how to chip rocks to make spears and knives. They were probably using "found" tools long before that, and that use of tools or technologies would be called "technique". Both technology and technique are shared and they are subsets of a larger set we can call human culture. Human innovation is involved in the creation and use of all technologies and associated techniques. This is a factor of our ability to create systems as groups to increase our survival potential.

Capitalism is merely an economic system that creates a mold that favors homo sapiens economicus. It is not a culture. Though it's arguable that some version of mass global culture results from its principles now.

To maximize its economic imperatives, capitalism needs to employ techniques of efficiency or there won't be any surplus capital to reinvest. Efficiency always come down to energy. So efficiency is a factor of the study of physics in the real world. It's generally true that those efficiency techniques arise from individual effort, but once discovered they can be institutionalized. Thus, as populations grow and centralize, as maximizing energy sources and flows comes to bear on survival, that brings on the techniques of institutionalization. Since the so-called discovery of the "science" of management by Henry R Towne in the late 1800s at the height of the Robber Baron era, bureaucratic efficiencies have grown in status as a field and are now a subject taught in most major universities, because, after all, they are important to "the system". Institutionalizing as a social process is therefore another effect of the evolving technology/technique process, and individuals often find themselves at odds with institutions. This is true of those who think of themselves as capitalists, artists, intellectuals and all sorts of individuals. Institutions are system creating and generalizing factors and not all individuals want to fit the mold of an institution.

Technologies also evolve correlated to the employment of techniques. It seems no technique can be invented that cannot be improved. The question of improvement often hinges on the energy equation involved in changing one technique for a better one. Decision makers often calculate that improvement may not give enough return on investment so they stick with what works. Whole techniques are involved in making those calculations.

Yet techniques do evolve and they do make the application of technology standardized in societies that adopt them. As the techniques become vertically integrated on a global scale (one of the real effects of "deregulating" the global environment through NAFTA, GATT, and other trade agreements), more societies tend to mirror each other. Entrepreneurial spirit plays a role in this evolution, but with the increasing size of societies it becomes increasingly minor. Once a system of institutions based on these evolving techniques is in place, large privately-owned collectives, known as corporations, swallow up the results of these spirited individual innovations and often put them to use in the system in ways that fit the overall spectrum created by the need for efficiency. Interestingly, public collectives, such as those we see evolving in China, Japan, even the United States, follow that same pattern of these transnational private collectives that are pushing for deregulating the global environment now. Thus these efficiency techniques are employed by all major political state systems in the world now and as a result economics has become a major defining factor in modern societies. Hooray for homo economicus! The bold new homo sapiens!

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