Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Job's Economy

That's Job as in The Book of Job. Yes, it's time to get Biblical. The Book of Job may be one of the oldest books in the Bible, but it actually contains some interesting wisdom pertaining to the new economy.

The basic story is very simple. Job is an upstanding guy who does everything G_d tells him to. Despite this, lots of bad things start happening to him. Job gets pretty upset and challenges G_d saying, "Hey, I did all this great stuff, and look what you gave me!" To which, G_d replies, "What the hell is wrong with you? The universe doesn't work like that. It's way cooler." Then, when Job finally accepts that the universe doesn't owe him anything, he regains all his former wealth.

At the core, this is a story about Quid-Pro-Quo a.k.a. something for something. Job expects the universe to work based on a quid-pro-quo agreement. He does some good, he gets some good. His sense of fair play is deeply offended when it turns out the universe doesn't work like this at all. What's more, we sympathize with Job. We feel his pain because we too often feel as though the universe isn't being fair.

The interesting part is, we've built our whole economy around this faulty notion of how the universe works. Money is the very essence of a quid-pro-quo agreement. I do something for you. I get something back from society. In fact, society actually owes me to the tune of however much money I have. What's more, we believe this core agreement to be at the heart of wealth production. It's nearly impossible for us to imagine how we could have an economy without this tit-for-tat way of doing business.

We forget that this is not actually how wealth is built in Nature. Nature is a complex system that exhibits emergent properties. The type of emergence that underlies true wealth production has almost nothing to do with quid-pro-quo. In many cases, the coming together of seemingly unrelated elements produces wealth far in excess of the sum of the parts. How would you describe that in terms of quid-pro-quo?

G_d says something like this to Job (albeit it not explicitly spelled out with these concepts). What's more, when Job finally "gets it" that being a good human being isn't about extrinsic rewards, his happiness returns.

Here is my strong intuition. If we lessened the degree to which we base our economy on quid-pro-quo we would create a lot more space for the emergence of new types of wealth. Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc. are examples of this new kind of wealth emerging as we speak. And Lord knows the Old Testament was all for Wikipedia... :)

1 comment:

  1. This is a great point that comes up so often in property rights debates. We constantly hear copyright owners arguing (paraphrase) that they deserve to capture ALL the value that their work provides to others. If anyone gains access to their work for free then they are being stolen from. Of course this is not the way the world works. This line of reasoning leads us to absurd conclusions...what if the person who "invented" fire tried to extract all future value from the use of fire?

    The moral context you propose provides some interesting insight. It seems that this faulty reasoning relies on the notion that people are fundamentally evil and greedy and therefore you must protect your intellectual property or you will be left penniless. In many cases that seems to be self-fulfilling prophecy. Alternatively, those creators who are most open and generous generally find that attribution of credit and value returns to them naturally.