Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex recently wrote what I think may be a candidate for the most outstanding blog post of all time. Go ahead, read it. I’ll wait. It’s a lot more intelligent/witty/intellectually original than anything I have to say.
I think what affected me so strongly about it was that I have never seen my view of society explained so eloquently:
“The system is not your friend. The system is not your enemy. The system is a retarded giant throwing wads of $100 bills and books of rules in random directions while shouting “LOOK AT ME! I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” Sometimes by luck you catch a wad of cash, and you think the system loves you. Other times by misfortune you get hit in the gut with a rulebook, and you think the system hates you. But either one is giving the system too much credit.”
Which is not to say I think Scott got it exactly right – if he did, I’d just spam a link to his post, instead of writing my own. What I think he misses is that the education delusion in society is only a piece of an even more disturbing societal trend.
We now live in a society that tells us that everyone needs a college degree. You need this degree or you won’t be able to get a good job. You need the job so you can buy a house, have two point four kids, and oh yeah, pay off all those student loans. Except your degree isn’t even getting you a good job – to set yourself apart from the pack, now you really need to go to graduate school. Except post graduate education is increasingly looking like a horrible choice. So you settle for something outside your field, or maybe longer hours than you’d like, a longer commute, or less pay. You spend your drive home passing billboards for products you don’t want, and when you get home and open your favorite blog, it might have a banner or two on the side. And then, on Facebook, there’s a link to a website telling you 26 ways only people like you understand XYZ (with more ads on the side). And somehow, sometime the idea gets into your head that maybe you need a new car – Jessie just got one and ey loves it. You wouldn’t be able to afford it, except you just got your merit raise at work, and they’re offering 0% interest for 18 months. And suddenly despite your 3% raise, you are still barely making do and living paycheck to paycheck. Sadly, this (or worse) is the end result for a huge proportion of the population.
I tend to look at evolution and capitalism in very similar ways. They are both blind idiot gods and are capable of enormously powerful creations. Most importantly, they both operate by the single truism that the only things that will continue to exist are those that are sustainable. Genes sustain themselves in the gene pool by passing on themselves on from generation to generation. In business, it takes the form of creating demand. This can drive an extremely positive outcome – it’s the force behind innovation and economic growth. But just as often, it takes the form of advertising or designing products to fail.
On a very basic level, every business needs at least two things to survive: customers and employees. In a pinch, you can lose the employees. By some amazing coincidence, capitalism has evolved a system that is perfectly sustainable for both of these things. Artificial demand keeps employees buying things, creating customers. Those customers continue to need money, creating employees. The end result is about a third of everyone’s day devoted to nothing but spinning the wheel of capitalism.
This is probably more unfair to capitalism than I should be. It is, like I said, responsible for most of the innovation of the 20th and 21st centuries. Capitalism isn’t evil – it’s just purposeless. As Scott said, the system is a retarded giant. Unless we, as a society impose a purpose on it, through responsible consumerism, moderation, and in some cases, regulation, the only results will be those that benefit the system itself.