How did we get here? I don’t mean just the pandemic, or the great recession we only recently came out of, or the great depression we may be going into. i mean that America doesn’t work anymore. Not in any meaningful way. Not in a sustainable way.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic like mankind hasn’t seen in 100 years, and yet we still can’t get it together to fight this thing. Oh, scientists are working on a vaccine, a year away maybe. They’re working long sleepless nights and thinking always about the goal, the magic bullet. Not so much the rest of us, the populous, the politicians and preachers; we’re at each others throats looking to blame someone, someone else. Some wear masks and wash hands and clean clean clean. Others wave the flag and brandish guns and declare the freedom has been lost, because governments have finally failed them utterly, shuttering their businesses, depriving them of Nascar or reality programing.
How did we get here? Darwin failed us. Well no, not Darwin, but our brains. Our lizard brain has well prepared for for, ah well not much: simple tool and fire making maybe, escaping from the saber tooth tiger, reproducing, gaining protein for our clan. Lording over others. But its singular purpose is acquisition, and it can easily overpower the thinking brain if we let it. Modern Americans are glad to let it do its thing, and it’s damaging our society, and our real economy, perhaps beyond recovery.
First some perspective, some history. Our brains went into overdrive when homo sapiens created agriculture. The thinking part of our brain began to grow, not from physical challenges, but from mental challenges, opportunities. We learned to teach, not just copy, and each generation improved on the last. Then we discovered certain grunts, sounds shaped by our tongues and lips, could be given meaning. Language evolved and it allowed teaching to evolve exponentially. And our brain grew in size and in ability to make inferences across time, to imagine the future and invent tools and systems to shape our environment. Social evolution took over from physical evolution. But we retained our lizard brain. We don’t need it much anymore, but some of us have learned to use it to control and direct others of us. Not so good.
Our lizard brain is the never-enough part of us. Never enough food, never enough sex, never enough spear points or digging sticks. That served us well a million years ago when life was brutal and short. We didn’t live long enough for the acquisitive desire to get us into trouble. Now we do.
Over millennia we became amazingly well suited to science and used it to become by far the most powerful species on the planet. We acquired so much physical wealth, grain, oxen, carts and horses, spears and gunpowder, that we had to invent money to manage the transfer and control of this wealth. All well and good, until some of us began to think only of money, not where it came from, or whose labor, We began to trade in pieces of paper instead of manufactured goods or food. We disassociated well-being with how many, or what, pieces of paper, or things, we own.
We trade the pieces of paper for huge caves, uh houses, with a bath and a half per household member, and two televisions, a robot that listens for our every whim, transfers some of those, now digital, pieces of paper to a warehouse somewhere and our joy arrives the next day. But the new appliance, set of dishes soon lose appeal and are put into storage; pieces of digital paper forgotten.
But they still have a cost. The money has to be replaced with labor, time, life, so we can accumulate more unnecessary objects that we soon forget. Lizard brain. We trade life for things. Sometimes we trade life for big things, like the house big enough for a dozen people, for two, or one. This requires a wonderful thing called debt. Debt allows us to have what the lizard brain desperately wants instantly instead of waiting for the money to be earned. This wonderful new thing, debt, requires an institution or person called a bank or lender to go between the owner of the house to the buyer of the house. For this the bank keeps a not-so-small, though it looks that way to the borrower’s lizard brain that is only thinking how wonderful it will be to live in the new house, portion of the borrowed money. This portion, through the magic of compound interest, can double the cost of the house. But the lizard brain ignores this and overrules the thinking brain. Of course we need our cave, er house, for shelter, but perhaps not one for a dozen. But the lizard brain doesn’t think like that; more is always better.
Back to the pandemic. How are we going to pay for this, who’s going to figure a magic way to wish away the piles of debt we’ve accumulated as a group because no single person can think away the foolishness of easy money. Who is going to buy this debt? You. One way or another. Sooner or later. And you have your own debt load to carry. Is it heavy yet? Do you have enough stuff yet? But I just got a big tax cut you say. I can spend that or use it to get the bank to lend me more. And the big debt. The one we all owe?
With the advent of mass media, and focus groups, and psychological research, all purposed to get your lizard brain to override the thinking brain. Soon the modern economy comes to depend on the lizard brains of millions to stay focused on getting and spending. Consumption is god. In the New Testament Jesus only became angry once. He was angry at the money-changers, the bankers, in the temple. The perviors of debt, preying on the lizard brains of His people. That’s why for many years Christianity did not allow debt. I challenge you to find a modern of the faith who would disallow debt. Times change. Of course we do need the institutions of debt in the modern world. The U.S. need massive amounts of debt to fight WWII, How much government debt, corporate debt and personal debt is reasonable, necessary, good. We don’t seem to be capable of asking that question. We just listen to the lizard brain, and want more.
And politics? A healthy society? Well those are a different story.