A Blindness to Systems

“I feel my fate in what I cannot fear,” poet Theodore Roethke wrote in his most famous poem, “The Waking.” He could have been speaking for any of us; as individuals, communities, or societies, it’s not the problems we dread but the ones we’re unable to take seriously, or fail to recognize as problems at all, that end up dragging us down.

Some of the responses to last week’s Archdruid Report post brought that point forcefully home to me. The theme of that post, as regular readers will remember, is that it’s meaningless to talk about the efficiency of machines vis-a-vis human beings unless the costs of the whole system needed to produce, maintain, and operate the machines is compared to the costs of the whole system needed to do the same for the human beings. In response to the post, a flurry of critics on and off the comments page of this blog presented arguments that simply ignored the system costs I’d spent the entire post discussing. I would have had no complaints if they’d disagreed with my analysis, or even argued against the inclusion of system costs altogether – the logic of dissensus, the deliberate cultivation of divergent strategies, is as relevant to my work as it is anywhere else – but that’s not what they did. Instead, they acted as though the issue of system costs had never been raised at all.

It’s a fascinating lapse of reason, and it keeps on surfacing in contemporary discussions of the deindustrial future. The recurrent debates on the future of the internet here on The Archdruid Report come forcefully to mind. The point I’ve made there is that the survival of the internet doesn’t depend on whether maintaining some form of internet is technically possible in a post-peak world, on the one hand, and desirable on the other; it depends on whether the internet will be able to pay for itself, and successfully compete for scarce dollars against lower-tech ways of sending letters and selling porn, in a future when energy and resources are costly and harshly limited, while human labor is abundant and cheap.

With unnerving predictability, in turn, those who want to dispute my suggestion simply insist that the internet will survive because it’s technically feasible in a post-peak world, on the one hand, and desirable on the other. They don’t challenge the economic issue; they don’t address it at all; they simply raise their voices and talk even more loudly about the technical feasibility and desirability of the internet. What makes this all the more intriguing is that these are not stupid people; one and all, they’re bright and, at least by the standards of the present age, well-educated; catch them on this one point, though, and the result is a mental equivalent of the famous Blue Screen of Death.

From a broader perspective, this same inability to think about whole systems pervades contemporary industrial culture. You don’t have to go as far as the dwindling community of space-colony fans to find good examples, though that’s one I’ll be discussing down the road a bit; just notice how many people seem to believe that all the garbage and pollution they generate goes to a mythical place called “Away,” or that the Earth will provide us with an infinite supply of crude oil if we just keep drilling holes in her. (“We can’t be out of petroleum, we’ve still got drilling rigs left.”) For that matter, the paralogical thinking that drives speculative bubbles – if everybody is going to get rich by investing in the gimmick du jour, what does that suggest will happen to the value of money? – has rarely if ever been as popular as it is in modern America, and it depends as completely on a blindness to the implications of whole systems as any of the points I’ve mentioned.

I’d like to discuss another example at this point, though, because it bears directly on one of the central themes I’ve been developing here in recent months. What would you say, dear reader, if I told you that I’ve come up with a way to eliminate unemployment in the United States – yes, even in the face of the current economic mess? What if I explained that it would also improve the effective standard of living of many American families and decrease their income tax burdens? And that it would also increase our economic resilience and sustainability, and simultaneously cause a significant decrease in the amount of automobile traffic on America’s streets and highways? Would you be all for it?

No, dear reader, you wouldn’t. Permit me to explain why.

Right now, many two-income families with children in the United States are caught in a very curious economic bind. I haven’t been able to find statistics, but I personally know quite a few families for whom the cost of paid child care and one partner’s costs for commuting, business clothes, and all the other expenses of employment, approaches or even exceeds the take-home pay of one partner. Factor in the benefits of shifting to a lower tax bracket, and for a great many of these families, becoming a single-income family with one partner staying out of the paid work force would actually result in an increase in disposable income each month.

This is even before factoring in the financial elephant in the living room of the old one-income family: the economic benefits of the household economy. It’s only in the last half dozen decades that the home has become nothing more than a center of consumption; before then, it was a place where real wealth was produced. It costs a great deal less to buy the raw materials for meals than to pick up something from the supermarket deli on the way home from work, as so many people do these days, or to fill the pantry and the fridge with prepackaged processed food; it costs a great deal less to buy yarn than to purchase socks and afghans of anything like the quality a good knitter can make; it costs a great deal less to grow a good fraction of a family’s vegetables in a backyard garden than to buy them fresh at the grocery, if you can get them at all.

The difference in each case – and examples like this could be multiplied manyfold – is made by the household economy. Economists like to dismiss the household economy as inefficient, but it’s worth remembering that “efficiency” in current economic jargon is defined as labor efficiency – that is an economic process is considered more efficient if it uses less human labor, no matter how wildly inefficent it is in any other sense. Economists also like to dismiss the household economy because it lacks economies of scale, and here they’re on firmer ground. Still, there’s another factor that more than counterbalances this; much of the value of an employee’s labor – as much, as Marxists like to remind us, as the employer can get away with taking – goes to support his employer, while all of the value produced by labor in the household market remains with the family and is used directly, without being mediated through the money economy.

This is why, until quite recently, at least half the adult members of most families, aside from the urban poor, worked in the household economy instead of the money economy. It’s also why a grandparent or two or an unmarried aunt so often found a place in the family setting. This had very little to do with charity; an extra pair of hands that could be employed in the household economy was a significant economic asset to most families. One of the advantages of this, of course, is that elderly people continued to have a valued and productive role in their families and communities, instead of being paid to go away and do nothing until they die, as so many of them are today.

None of these things are any less possible today than they were in the 1920s, or for that matter the 1820s. As a former househusband, I can say this on the basis of personal experience; my wife and I found that we had a better standard of living on her bookkeeper’s salary alone, with a thriving full time household economy, than we had earlier on two salaries with only the scraps of a household economy the two of us could manage after work and commuting. I came in for a certain amount of derision for making that choice, of course, though it’s only fair to say that I got off very lightly in comparison to the abuse leveled, mostly by women, at those women I knew who made a similar decision.

Now of course that touches on one of the most volatile issues touching on the household economy, the politics of gender. For complex cultural reasons, a great many feminists in the 1960s and 1970s came to believe that working for one’s family in the household economy was a form of slavery, while working for an employer in the money economy – often under conditions that were even more exploitative – was a form of liberation. Now it’s certainly true that assigning people to participation in the household economy by gender was unfair, but it’s equally true that assigning them to participation in the money economy on the same basis was no better; for every woman whose talents were wasted in a housewife’s role, there was arguably a man whose life would have been much happier and more productive had he had the option of working full time in the household economy.

Feminism might usefully have challenged the relative social status assigned to the household and money economies, and pressed for a revaluation of work and gender that could have thrown open a much broader field of possibilities to people of both genders; and in fact some thoughtful steps were taken in this direction by a few perceptive thinkers in the movement. In general, though, that turned out to be the road not taken. Instead, the great majority of women simply accepted the social value given to participation in the money economy, demanded access to it for themselves, and got it. In the process, for most Americans, the household economy collapsed, or survived only as a dowdy sort of hobby practiced by the insufficiently fashionable.

Let’s grant at the outset, therefore, that there’s no particular reason why people of one gender ought to be more active in the household economy than people of the other; let’s assume that a great many men will make the choice I did, and work full time in the household economy while the women in their lives work full time for a paycheck. On that basis, is there a point to two-income families shifting gears and becoming families that combine one cash income with a productive household economy? Of course there is, and now more than ever.

To begin with, as already mentioned, a significant number of families with children would gain an immediate boost in their disposable income each month by taking the kids home from daycare, giving up the second commute (and in some cases, the second car as well), dropping the other expenses that come with paid employment, and taking a wild downhill ride through the income tax brackets. A great many more would find that when these benefits are combined with the real wealth produced by the household economy, they came out well ahead. Even those who simply broke even would be likely to find that differences in quality, though hard to measure in strictly economic terms, would make the change more than worthwhile.

Now take a moment to think of the effects on community and society. Take a significant amount of the workforce out of paid employment, and two things happen: first, unemployment rates go down, and second, competition among employers for the remaining workers tends to drive wages up. Some sectors of the economy would be negatively affected, to be sure; sales of convenience foods would decrease, and so would employment in the day care industry, among others; still, these industries would be affected by the contraction in workforce numbers along with all the others, and those employees who needed to find a job elsewhere would be entering a job market where their chances would be much better than they are at present. There would need to be some adjustments, especially to retirement arrangements, but those are going to have to happen fairly soon anyway.

Finally, factor in the impact of such a change on the resilience and sustainability of society. A nation in which a very large fraction of the workforce is insulated from the money economy, and produces a diverse array of goods and services at home for local consumption using relatively simple tools, is a nation that’s much better prepared to face the economic turmoil of the end of the age of cheap oil than a nation where nearly everyone depends for their income, as well as for the goods and services they use every day, on the global economy. A nation in which, let’s say, 30% fewer people have to drive to work than they do today is much better prepared to face the price spikes and shortages that will almost inevitably affect gasoline and other petroleum products in the years to come. A nation in which doing things for yourself again has a recognized social value is much better prepared for a future in which we will have to do much more for ourselves than most people can imagine just now.

So when can we expect the return of the single-income family to become an element of constructive plans for the post-peak future? When will Transition Town programs, let’s say, match up the experienced elderly with novice househusbands and housewives who want to learn how to cook, sew, can, garden, and knit? When will high-profile liberal couples start throwing parties to announce that one member of the pair is quitting paid employment, so that the poor have an easier job market and a better chance at upward mobility? When will people aggressively lobby their congressflacks to get a sizable income tax deduction and special Social Security arrangements for families with one income?

Let’s just say I’m not going to hold my breath. In fact, dear reader, I’m quite confident that even if you belong to that large group of married couples with children who could increase your disposable income by giving up that second job, you won’t do it; in fact, you won’t even run the numbers to see whether it would work for you – and the reason you won’t is that you’re so mesmerized by that monthly check of $2000 a month take-home, or whatever it happens to be, that you can’t imagine giving it up even if you have to spend $2200 a month to get it. That is to say, dear reader, that if you don’t think in terms of whole systems, the fact that the system costs of that second job might just outweigh the benefits will be as incomprehensible to you as a computer would have been to a medieval peasant.

The extraordinary blindness to whole systems that pervades our collective consciousness these days is a fairly recent thing – as recently as the 1970s, talk about system costs got far fewer blank stares and non sequiturs than it does today – and I doubt it will last long in historical terms, if only because the hard edge of Darwinian selection separates adaptive cultural forms from maladaptive ones with the same ruthlessness it applies to genetics. While it remains in place, it will likely cause a great deal of damage, but that in itself will tend to accelerate its replacement with some less dysfunctional habit of thought. Ironically, the Theodore Roethke poem with which I started this post offers a cogent reminder of that. It begins:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We will all, I think, learn a great deal by going where we have to go during the lean and challenging years to come. The hope that we might manage to learn a thing or two in advance of that journey is understandable enough, and the thing has happened now and then in history; still, for reasons already discussed, that hope seems very frail to me just now.