Back to the Future

“There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.” – Neil Young, “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”

They say that economics is the study of the distribution of scarce resources for the benefit of society, and this morning I am thinking about a resource I think in short supply today which you might call “the future.” It is an odd thing to think about. Time, we all know, will keep moving in the same forward direction, at the same rate. A few years ago I became fascinated with the Augustinian conception of time, (and forgive me, dear reader, if I muck this up) which is subjective, i.e. dependent on the person perceiving it. At the end of his Confessions, Saint Augustine asks the question, Where is God? And his answer is that God is in the future. Perceiving God is perceiving the desire to go on, to hope for something, to believe, to love. When we come into the world, we have no conception of self, and time is an everlasting now. Then, at some point, we come to understand that we are not our mother, that our mother is a separate person. This generates a cycle of terror and comfort out of which the conception of the self arises.

Bear with me, people, I’m going somewhere with this.

There’s a sort of random scene in the old animated film The Sword and the Stone, one of the classic Disney fairy tales, where the wizard Merlin turns himself and his young pupil Arthur into squirrels, and they have an adventure in the trees. Arthur, as a squirrel, meets a young lady squirrel, and soon they are flirting, playfully chasing each other and exchanging looks. At the end of the scene, Arthur is forced to leave her to turn back into a human being, and the lady squirrel is sad and dejected. Merlin’s comment on the scene is that love is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe.

At the risk of sounding like a long dead South American communist revolutionary, love is an essential driving force for the human condition. An infant cries, and is comforted by it’s mother’s love. Why do we go on? Love. If we have not love, we have not a reason to go on. That is, without love, there is no future. God is love. Augustine’s observation, I think, is basically true for all of us. Being human, being alive is caught up in believing in a future, and that is caught up in the memory of love.

You know that line from Jesus about how man cannot live on bread alone? This is basically what he’s on about. He isn’t talking about proper nutrition, he’s talking about love, and how we all need to love and feel beloved. And if that seems too obvious, perhaps you are blind to the poverty all around you.

But let’s talk about the bread part of that statement. Pretty much anyone will tell you, everybody has to eat. You need food and water everyday. All the love in the world won’t help you without the material necessities of life.

So, there’s this thing called secular stagnation that Larry Summers has been talking about for awhile. He and other people like Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, and Olivier Blanchard have all been making similar noises about the general lack of economic growth in the past few years. One of the key parts of the arguments they’ve been making is the general lack of stable employment in the world today. The thing about living under capitalism is that you need a job, and more importantly, you need an income, because consumption is based on income. The problem we are facing is not the scarcity of resources, but the scarcity of incomes.

That is to say: if there aren’t enough jobs, then not everyone can sustain themselves. If you cannot sustain yourself, the future begins to disappear. And as that happens, you lose your ability to love, and therefore your ability to perceive the future, or to perceive yourself in the future. There are not enough jobs. Do you hear me? Not enough jobs. A shortage of jobs means a shortage of income, a shortage of income means social instability, and instability degrades the perception of the future. The future is the scarce resource. Time itself is constrained by a collective failure of imagination.

 

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