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How to Make Love to Your Money
Published on January 1, 2004 By Phil Osborn In Current Events

Listening to Julia Butterfly Hill discussing living with Luna on KPFK and loving it. I especially liked her intro, with the concept of the spiritual integration, starting with your own breathing and loving your body and then loving the chair that supported you, and the floor that supported the chair, and the whole universe that made you and all of it possible. Didn't find much to object to at all until she started in on her economics. Typical left ignorance. Too bad, as I agree with her so totally up to that point.

My Randian capitalist friends would go crazy listening to her, but I'm thinking about those Scandinavian economists who were written up in the Wall St. Journal and then recently in Scientific American. They showed that the real market value - to the total market - of things like wetlands was often many times the price the areas were sold to developers, or the final value of the development even. This kind of calculation reflects a market flaw. Because no individual or concentrated interest is directly connected to the value loss, but it's spread over many individuals who are generally completely unaware that they're losing anything, a concentrated interest that destroys the wetland for a commercial development makes a profit while the general market loses value.

The leftist/"progressive" position is to blaim the market, but many of the socialist countries - including the former Soviet Union, as well as China - have unbelievably bad environmental records.

The real solution is to reform the property title legal system. We have this quaint Western notion that came right out of the "divine right of Kings" conceptual framework. To wit: it's possible to "own" land. No. It doesn't even make sense.

Ownership is defined as "the right to use and disposal." If I "own" a tract, then how far down does that ownership go? If it doesn't go all the way down to the earth's center, then it could all collapse, right? Into a huge sinkhole, if someone else tunneled or drilled or extracted beneath my tract, right? But if I do own some conic section down to the core, then I can remove it into outer space when we start building space elevators like NASA is talking about. Then what happens to the surrounding tracts? Oops - a sudden volcanic eruption can really ruin your day. So, either alternative leads to an absurdity. We all depend on people NOT drilling under us in ways that cause our land to collapse, and our neighbors depend on us NOT removing any huge chunk of our land, as well. Thus, the concept of "land ownership" as such is invalid.

So, what IS a valid concept of land "ownership"? The Chippawa Indians lived in an area that had truly severe winters, surviving by trapping, which required about 6 square miles per nuclear family. They had VERY strict concepts of ownership. In fact, everything was owned by some individual and there was NO way to even express the concept of joint ownership. They even had sophisticated concepts of intellectual property, including dreams and magic spells. These were your ultimate individualists.

However, they could only own the land as long as they demonstrated use. They could not own more than they used. They could leave an area fallow, but they lost title if they left it too long. And, if someone needed to cross the land to get from point A to point B, they could not forbid them, nor could they forbid them from hunting for personal immediate consumption as they passed through, as those rights anticeded their claim.

Valid land "ownership," like any property ownership, really consists of a bundle of rights, acquired by various means, but never in contradiction to prior valid claims. And it always involves not just the right to use and disposal, but also the responsibility to prevent that property from hurting your neighbors. Now, how to implement that - as in the Scandinavian study....

One way would be through "land trusts." In a land trust, individual owners pool their titles, typically retaining their original use rights, subject to the terms and conditions of the trust contract. This pooling gives the trust itself enormous effective capital to draw upon for access to credit for major land improvements, while the large amounts of typically contiguous land make it possible for the trust to negotiate effectively with developers, bringing in more money for the trust and its original land owners.

At the same time, costs that previously could be externalized, such as environmental damage to wetlands, become more and more likely to become recognized as internal costs. More rational choices can then be made about land use, choices that - especially for very large land trusts - take into account long term consequences over a large scale. Also, the information capacity that naturally emerges with this awareness means that the trust board will be likely to recognize their potential liability for irresponsible stewardship even if most of the costs are externalized to fishermen, for example, who might find it legally feasible to sue the trust, while it would be impractical to sue many separate owners.

I personally like the Wobbly concept - One Big Union. If we all do come under a single social contract, then nothing is externalized, right? So, the issue is how to implement a new kind of social organization that isn't a monopoly state, with its inherent tendancy for a ruling elite or a mess of conflicting interest groups to screw everyone,fighting over the power buttons. It has to be ground up, not top down. Only the issues that are generalized to everyone should be determined at the top. Purely local issues should be locally decided, right down to the individual. People should be left alone if they want that, and allowed to pursue whatever goals they choose, even if we think they're crazy or evil - so long as they're peaceful, and so long as their pursuit doesn't impinge upon the rights of others.

Or, we could keep going the way we are, with irresponsible corporations ("responsible corporation" is virtually an oxymoron, as the nature of the corporation as such is that it has "limited liability," whcih means.... the rest of us get to absorb the costs of the excessive risks and short-term ventures that become attractive when you are legally capped in liability.) destroying the earth. Or, we could impose strict state regulations, and who knows if the Christian Right won't include their own agenda... Who will be in charge tomorrow?

Or we could do the really responsible thing, which means being "moral" AND "practical." The two are not in contradiction, BTW. If they appear to be, then you've misidentified what it moral or what is practical. Moral refers to the value dimension. How could something be "practical" if - net net - it destroys values? How could something be "moral" if it can't work? See Ayn Rand for further discussion of this.

On a relate note:

It's not about money. Money is just an accounting tool. I trade my labor making something that other people want and will also work to get, for an accounting entry, the proof of which is a bunch of paper reciepts we call dollars or kopeks or franks or pounds or pesos - depending upon who is providing the guarantee that these reciepts actually stand for anything real. A whole lot of other people agree to accept these receipts because they know that they can use them to get what they want.

Money let's me deal with an intelligent spider on Mars who completely disagrees with me on virtually every single subject, who hates my guts on principle, thinks that I stink (literally), believes that God will turn me into fertilizer while they will go on to great web of paradise - or worse. But I don't have to kill that bizarre "person" or chose to die myself, because we both use money. With all our profound antagonisms, money we share in common. Instead of vendetas we live in peace, each pursueing our own respective incompatible values, in fact, benefiting from each other's existence.

So, I love money. Money is wonderful, but like any "thing" of value - food, shelter, philosophy, love, it can be perverted. Because of its abstract nature, it lends itself to fraud.

If I trade my extra bushels of maise for your extra cow, we both think that we're going to benefit. Otherwise we wouldn't make the trade. If the maise has rotted and been contaminated with ergot, then you will not benefit as you expected. If your cow is dying of BSE, I am not going to benefit. So we make stipulations to our trade that we know that the goods we offer are of good quality, and we specify remedies, perhaps a voiding of the exchange, if the goods don't meet the description. Or, we can just take our chances - caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

But caveat emptor, while it may be the most efficient policy in trades of little significance or risk, imposes a high risk cost in matters of greater value.

Since you may have eaten or otherwise disposed of my maise by the time I discover your cow is ill, we specify alternatie remedies, but the purpose is always the same, to retain equity, to make it possible and desireable for us to trade in the future, to enable us to specialize and have the option of disposing of unused wealth - to be fair.

Since we may disagree as to what is fair, or whether the goods are satisfactory, we may include in our agreement a stipulation that either of use can call for an outside arbitrar to make an assessment. Arbitration emerges as a specialized profession when there is enough demand, and professional arbitrars are hired because they have a reputation for fairness. Any specific arbitration may only yield enough compensation to sustain the arbitrar for a little while, but any perceived malfeasance by an arbitrar will destroy or seriously damage his long-term livelihood.

To ensure that you or I may not simply take the goods and run, we may each post a bond that stands behind our reputations. That bond is held by another third party under contract to release it only under stipulated circumstances, such as an order stemming from an arbitration.

The bondsman also relies upon his or her reputation to convince you to use him. And, of course, he himself may post a bond with yet another independent party to back up his services, in case we find reason to complain.

Or, we might agree with someone else to have them cover the bond, in return for a fee. We might go to a bondsman, or perhaps to an insurance company for this service.

All of this is possible, but cumbersome and unwieldy in a barter economy. Money minimizes transaction costs, making possible a virtually infinite network of financial relations, secured by our trust that most people will act honestly, because most people - if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) - will find that any incentives to behave as a criminal are outweighed by the long-term costs. The arbitrar knows that any taint of dishonesty will hurt his business, as does the bondsman.

Note that none of this requires a state. All these transations are voluntary, contractual, un-coerced. And the system described so far exists now and exists in virtually any market economy.

Money makes this virtually infinite web of interaction possible, much like the internet. The problem is that money, because it itself is so abstractly related to those "things" that we buy or sell, can be manipulated. A standard that is widely accepted must have a source that guarantees that it is stable.

Money qua standard, in fact, inevitably becomes one of the primary uses for it. How does a business or an individual make a decision to make something to trade? Clearly on the basis of profit. Profit is the increase in value that results from productive work. We always try to make a profit; it's how the mind works.

What kind of mind could operate on seeking losses? We act to acquire value. How else could we possibly act? We see that something could be more to our liking if we chose to take some action. So, we chose to act. If we didn't want the projected outcome, we would not act.

What we think is of value to use personally may vary enormously. We may be wrong! Our chosen values may be impossible to achieve. Suppose they contradict each other, are physically impossible, are mutually exclusive? Then we will fail, no matter how hard we try. Thus we could say that these are inherently flawed value choices. They cannot in fact be real values, as we cannot, even in principle actually pursue them.

Nothing guarantees we will chose the best values to pursue or the best way to pursue them, but pursue them we will, so long as we are alive and conscious. Consciousness itself is never just the registration of form. It always implies a desire, a need, a reason to expend the energy to pay attention to something in particular - something in a value connection to us.

We are thus always implicitly selfish, implicitly seeking personal profit. In our dealings with others, we are still seeking to achieve OUR values, even if our chosen values may include the smile of a child, our lover's pleasure, our community's safety and well-being. We cannot choose to act against our subjective interests, because whatever we choose to pursue then becomes our subjective interest.

Any con game - religious, political, personal, family-based - that tells you to give up your selfishness, is just going to make you a slave to someone elses interests. Ask yourself, why, if it's immoral to pursue your own happiness, is it somehow moral to pursue making other people happy? (And if you make them happy, then, by the same standard, are you not doing them a disservice?)

The false alternative bugaboo that is used to sell this meme is that acting selfishly Means hurting other people, that your gain is someone else's loss. But we did not steal civilization, culture, technology, language, art and the vast produced wealth surrounding us from each other. We invested our time and intelligence to produce that wealth. Culture based on ubiquitous theft have existed, but not well or long, and certainly not at a level anywhere near what we have.

This should not be taken to excuse or condone the injustices done in the name of "civilization," against technologically primitive cultures, such as native Americans, Australians, Africans, Asians, ect. These people were often dealt with criminally and deserve compensation whenever it is reasonable and feasible to do so justly. However, the railroads and skyscrapers and symphonies and internets were not stolen from them, even if some of the resources employed by the cultures that did produce those values were stolen. What's fair is fair.

If we accept the idea that our gain is someone elses loss, then we can choose to be good or happy, but not both at the same time. We can be predators or victims. We can gang up with other people to steal value from members of other gangs in a never-ending Hobbesian war of all against all.

If we notice, on the other hand, all the opportunities for synergy, if we see ourselves as inherently of value, and other people to be inherently the MOST valuable thing in our universe, then we can work together to make more values for us all, and we can celebrate each others productivity, instead of stewing in envy.

Which brings us back to externailities, and how loggers can live with Julia Butterfly. How can we build that social contract, that one big union that rightly takes into account issues on the basis of the proper scope and focus, not running your life or ruining your productive business, but simply making a proper accounting of costs that takes into account everyone, everywhere, all the time?

So, then I sent the following email to Julia at her organization:?

Date: Thu, 1 Jan 2004 20:48:21 -0800 (PST)
From: "Phil Osborn"
Subject: Julia Hill Butterfly - Some Clarifications and Proposals
To: info@circleoflife.org
Hy people;
Hope this gets to Julia, as I am totally impressed by the talk she gave that was rebroadcast today - 01/01/04 - on KPFK. I happen to be running for the Station Board there, BTW, but that's not what this is about.

See my blog site for the article I just entered which was inspired by Julia:


Hey! Thanks, Julia! For being.


And got the following response, published by permission:

Date: Fri, 02 Jan 2004 15:26:46 -0800

Subject: Re: Julia Hill Butterfly - Some Clarifications and Proposals
From: "Aaron Lehmer"
To: "Phil Osborn" Hi Phil, Thanks so much for writing! Julia is pleased to hear that you have been inspired by her words and actions in defense of the Earth.

She does not have an e-mail account due to her busy schedule. However, we make sure that she receives her messages.

I won't focus on our areas of disagreement -- which basically boil down to our skepticism that a laissez faire-style economy can address the extreme power imbalances, social injustice, and environmental deterioration that would inevitably result -- but we definitely agree that social and ecological costs must be better internalized. That is something Julia has been working to achieve ever since she began encouraging dialogue between workers and environmentalists while in Luna. There is definitely much to be learned by the experiences of those involved in land trusts and with progressive unions who are working with ecologically-minded people and communities affected by intensive logging.

Thanks for keeping the dialogue going -- that's what makes democracy great!

Yours for a sustainable future,

- Aaron and the staff of Circle of Life


So, I wrote back, as follows:

> Hy Aaron;
> > Is it ok if I stick this on my blog - your response,
> that is? Just thought it really made a great example
> of the kind of reasoned dialog that people can engage
> in, if they choose. Either way, thanks a bunch for
> your quick and thoughtful response.
> > BTW, have you looked into the Mondragon Cooperative?
> $8Billion industrial democracy, one worker, one vote,
> ~50 years of continusous success. To me, as an
> anarchist, their experience demonstrates what ordinary
> people can achieve working together, without resorting
> to top-down or state-dictated "solutions" imposed by
> whatever coalition has the reins of power.
> Phil Osborn

With this response:

Date: Mon, 05 Jan 2004 11:23:13 -0800
Subject: Re: Julia Hill Butterfly - Some Clarifications and Proposals
From: "Aaron Lehmer"
To: "Phil Osborn"

Hey Phil,

Sure, feel free to post my message to your blog. And yes, I've studied the Mondragon system. I wrote my thesis on the benefits of economic cooperatives, in fact. They're incredible examples of successful economic democracy in practice -- and are flourishing in many sectors throughout the world. Great to see that anarchists such as yourself are taking an interest in their potential!

Kind regards,

- Aaron

Such a pleasant and productive exchange! Now if we could just live our lives that way....
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