Issue 135: The Space To Think
Debt stifles critical thinking and perpetuates all that is flawed with the economic system. But there is a new economic ideology that seeks to change the status quo.
There’s a quote I read recently on the student debt situation in the US attributed to Noam Chomsky that goes like this…
“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”
As I sit at my desk this morning feeling the mild yet important sense of urgency to get invoices issued, allocate client payments, and generally get my business affairs in order after a lengthy pause, I realise that this quote applies to us all and in all circumstances. Pressure to fulfil certain obligations focuses the mind, ignoring all other demands for our attention. Where those obligations are financial, and given that money or the lack thereof is often the difference between living and dying, it tends to keep us from matters that are arguably more important to our survival.
The social and cultural imperative to earn and contribute weighs heavy. The idea is so utterly ingrained in our psyche that not to follow the pre-written script for a successful life leads us to believe any alternative to the current system inconceivable. Not to have a degree, for example, is to consign oneself to flipping burgers or sweeping the street and low if that’s the career we want for ourselves or our children. Arguably, an undergraduate degree is not worth the paper it’s written on, given the number of people that hold one. A Masters is hardly even enough to distinguish you from your competition these days.
And perhaps that’s the problem. We’ve entered a game, the only game in town, it seems, that can possibly bring about a life worth living, but it has the opposite effect to the one it promises. It’s almost unquestionable that young people should do anything other than enter college. Machines make furniture and build houses, so manual work is all but gone. And what’s left is so below the required cultural status, it’s not even considered. To do so is to go against the grain and pre-written script of education.
Some enter manual work, of course, the trades, for example, or perhaps the visual arts or performance. But even there, the market dictates your lot. It decides how much you should be paid and spares you not from the cycle of debt that awaits us all. Very few escape the debt cycle, and under its weight, we can’t think. Everything we do is focused on getting money to pay off debt or give us a well-earned break from the toil of daily work–a holiday, a new TV, to trade our old smelly car for a brand new model, a pizza and a few beers–anything to distract us from the pressure. But all of this serves to perpetuate the problem. The majority feel this. I felt this.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow1, calls this perpetual struggle to overcome obstacles “chronic dissatisfaction”, and we make all kinds of attempts to overcome it. Religion is the answer for some, but the author warns that this investment in external imagined sources of power is no longer adequate after a time. The pursuit of wealth and status is perhaps the modern equivalent, but they can’t provide the solution either. The quality of life cannot be improved this way, Csikszentmihalyi says. Only by direct control of our experience, the ability to derive moment-to-moment enjoyment from experience, can we overcome the obstacles to a fulfilled and contented life. But how can we do that when most of us struggle to stay above water?
Csikszentmihalyi view might sound idealistic, and it is. In all human experience, there is a flip side–we cannot have the good without the bad. However, that doesn’t mean we’ve got to accept our lot. Change happens all the time, but we’ve got to take the prompt and cease ignoring it if that change is to change to something better. We can’t think straight when we’re under pressure, and debt causes immense pressure on ordinary people’s ability to think. Financial implications, the expectation of pain, narrow the scope of our ability to make informed choices and decisions. Under the pressure of debt and money concerns, nothing changes for the better, and that goes for governments as well as ordinary people.
“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn't matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is… but it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on doing things you don’t like, and to teach your children to follow in the same track. You see, what we're doing is, we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children, to do the same thing so it’s all wretch and no vomit. It never gets there.”
The above quote is taken from a video I first saw about ten years ago. It’s meaningful for many reasons, but mostly because it verified what I inherently thought to be true but was reluctant to accept–I was incompatible with the system. I needed a new way of working. In fact, most of us are incompatible with that system. It makes us sick, and psychologists and HR departments try desperately to cure us, to make us efficient, productive and healthy. For what? To keep the system going, of course, because for it to stop is inconceivable.
But there’s a new economic ideology taking hold spearheaded by economists such as Stephanie Kelton. This new ideology2 says that Governments can run on a deficit perfectly well, and people’s basic needs can be catered for, freeing them from the daily pressure to survive. Covid has shown us this in glaringly obvious terms, and the voice in favour of Universal Basic Income, for example, is getting louder. It’s part of a solution, a better way to run the financial affairs of our society and perhaps the financial affairs of families too.
With basic needs catered for, maybe we’ll have the freedom to pursue activities that we’d really like. I don’t mean frivolous stuff like buying TVs and getting drunk—we use those things to medicate ourselves. Instead, I mean activities that Watts spoke about. We might have the space to think rather than act knee-jerk to challenges and difficulty. Maybe we won’t feel so threatened by people of another skin colour or religious persuasion. Wealthy people living comfortable lives are not the ones on the street rioting, shooting guns, getting involved in crime. It’s the people with fuck-all that are disenchanted. Lack of financial resources breeds social unrest.
Currently, daily work for most people is a means to pay back debt–a hamster wheel that we can only get off if we stay the pace. If you’re lucky, you can pay off your mortgage in your fifties. Most don’t, however. Some don’t even have enough life, leaving their debt to their children. All of this means that we don’t really have a democracy with people capable of making informed decisions because of the burden of debt and the pressure to survive make the decisions for them. There has to be a better way, and the new economic ideology may be a chink of light we need.
Universal Basic Income is just one tool in the hands of the new economic ideology, and I’m so excited about this movement that I’ll be writing on this over the coming months. Modern Monetary Theory3 is at its heart, and if you haven’t heard of it by now, give this episode of The David McWilliams Podcast a listen.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer, Dordrecht.
Kelton, S. (2020). The deficit myth: modern monetary theory and the birth of the people's economy. Hachette UK.
Visser, H. (1991). Modern monetary theory. Books.