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Sender: Steven H Johnson
Subject: Do we see our theories more clearly than we see reality?
Date: Mon, May 26, 2014
Msg: 101020

Hi everyone -

I've just been reading several days of posts and am impressed by the high-level conversations bouncing back and forth among us. Here's my two cents for this evening....

I am often struck by the ease with which our value systems and our theory systems confine and distort our abilities to sense what's really happening.

There's a theory that tells us that labor is paid according to its marginal value, and therefore it's wrong to interfere with free operation of the labor market. Theory creates a powerful norm: People should be paid what they are "worth" in the impersonal calculus of the market.

And if we indeed "see" the world according to that theory, and we act according to that norm, it will feel real.

There's an alternative story to be told about the same situation. Frances Fukuyama sums it up in his extraordinary book, The Origins of Political Order, when he talks about pre-industrial Poland and pre-industrial Russia. In both regions, there were three main actors - the aristocracy, the peasantry, and the state.

In Russia the state sided with the aristocracy and the lives of the peasants became more and more miserable. In order to make sure that peasants wouldn't flee, and thus raise the price of labor, the aristocracy prevailed on the state to tie the peasants to the estates where they lived.

In Poland, says Fukuyama, the state was more friendly to the peasantry and Poland's evolved in a healthier direction.

To bring this same point up to the present, an alternative way of telling the story is to observe that the labor market is shaped by two forces, not just one - it is shaped by a distribution of power, and by a distribution of talent. Furthermore, it's the distribution of power that determines whether the aristocracy receives a gigantic share of the pie, or just a substantial share of the pie. Then, with that larger issue determined, the nation's salary and wage structure shakes out as a market for talent.

Tell that story - and I think we will come closer to understanding the reality of the society in which we live. In the 1980s, our national government became a little bit less like Poland's - in Fukuyama's telling - and a little bit more like Russia's. And with that power shift, the size of the pie headed to the top got larger, while the size of the pie headed to the bottom got smaller.

What's intriguing is that conservatives seem to think it's against the rules to see the world in these terms. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that power makes a difference. Why? Is it because "markets" aren't culpable, they just are? While governments can be culpable, and if culpable, their actions can be changed? Why is the theory of markets treated as a given, rather than as an hypothesis?

As I say, when our value systems and our theory systems are very deeply held, they can get in the way of our capacity to see reality in its all its fullness. That becomes a serious social weakness when it prevents us from being able to see corruption. If we cannot see corruption, we won't act on it, and if we don't act on it, it won't go away.

Steve Johnson

Steven Howard Johnson - Civic Futurist 410-562-0361 Book in Progress: Thoughtful Patriotism


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