The Autistic Intelligence of “Free-Market” Economics

28 12 2010

Autism: a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.  – Wikipedia.

Autistic Economics: a situation where one theory, that illuminates a few facets of its domain rather well, wants to suppress other theories that would illuminate some of the many facets that it leaves in the dark. – Post-Autistic Economics Network

The Problem: Markets are Incomplete as a Steering Mechanism

The received economic theory and embodied socio-biological system by which humanity lives today will not solve the larger ecological issue of our time, which is how do we live sustainably on this finite biophysical planet. A pricing system of ‘free markets’ coupled with an ideology of hyper individualism will now begin to extinguish not only human civilization, but much of the biosphere as well.

Such a system, so conceived, has led to unprecedented material welfare the world over, there is no doubt. Yet, it has been clear for some time that money-based free-market pricing is adaptive only moderately and in constrained situations. As recent economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Georgescu Roegen have demonstrated – for at least 50 years now – there is never a genuine, inter-generationally neutral valuation of resources, human time, merchandise, services etc that arises from money based prices. Even with some attempt to deliberately take into account buyer-seller asymmetry of information, cross subsidies, externalities, and monopolistic pricing and production – the four failures of markets to which the received economic theory admits – all prices and values are arbitrary. Georgescu Roegen calls prices “parochial.” The pricing system is not a reliable steering mechanism.

Individualism is a False God

More pernicious and troublesome to our human predicament today, however, is our collective, neurotic belief in individualism. I am talking in particular about American culture, where the individualist psychology creates a culture of predatory capitalism where exploitation of children, sick people, elderly, animals and the environment is considered routine and acceptable business practice. Historically, America has been the land of opportunity. People from all over the world have immigrated to it in order to leave the oftentimes oppressive, unfree and impoverished homelands of their ancestors; and to seek and build their own fortunes in this open, resource rich and “pro-business” nation state. What has transpired here over several generations, and now amplified by its apparent “triumph over communism,” is a self-perpetuating belief of constitutional libertarianism, that lives psychologically in practically every man, woman and child who grows up here.

This psychology, while in the past it may have served some “developmental” purpose, it is now completely at odds with the survival of our and other species of beings. In a nutshell, the nugget of American free market individualism, to which academic economists give lip service, is the lonely person whose view of life is strictly of self and self interest. His or her emotional, affective world is reduced to ego and egoistic advantage. His entire universe of feeling is reduced to, in the words of psychiatrist Trigant Burrow, “social adaptation in the light of personal and social gain.” All relationships, even intimate ones, are opportunities for self gain. In America today, pursuing one’s livelihood, engaging with others and with society is a solitary game of manipulation and exploitation.

Furthermore, as Burrow also identified, “in this artificial gauge of conduct measured by standards of personal advantage there has established in the individual a criterion of life that rests upon an unwarranted assumption of personal supremacy and absolute privilege.” “Each of us is an unconscious overlord striving to secure the supremacy of his own personality.” (p. 24…29?, Social Basis of Consciousness, Burrow) Through this neurotic distortion of life abetted by the American cultural belief in libertarianism there becomes this inflexible assumption of personal absolutism and autocracy. Every adult American is a petty tyrant. Each person is utterly self centered and autocratic.

It would be merely ironic, if it were not now catastrophic, that this orientation is emblazoned in a philosophy of political economy called “Neo-liberal” and “neo-classical” theory. This theory, espoused by such folks as Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate, Robert Lucas, the Bush/Cheney/Gerstner syndicate, even domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh considers money and markets, coupled with extremely self-centered, sociopathic individuals to be a steering mechanism for society as a whole. It is social Darwinism dressed up as moral norm. Dog eat dog, trust is for fools, he who has the most toys wins, government is the problem, he who has the gold sets the rules, might makes right. What started with Reagan’s famous comment in 1980, “government is the problem,” climaxed in 2006 when Vice President Dick Cheney sneered, “So?!” when ABC correspondent, Martha Radditz pointed out that most Americans were against the war that his administration started.

At that moment, the Vice President of the United States needed no longer hide his contempt for democracy. His personal victory and ideological triumph were complete. His game plan was right in line with the hyper individualism, Social Darwinistic doctrine of our day: Get “elected” to office, pillage the public sector. When self interest is everything and public interest is a laughable nothing, then attaining absolute power and exploiting people by the millions is simply rational. By Cheney’s thinking, you would be stupid if you did not do this.[1] By the end of his term, 2008, the country was in ruins – overextended by adventurist war to the tune of trillions of dollars (to future taxpayers) per year, and freefalling into a financial collapse from which will probably take a century to recover. Needless to say, the reforms that will resolve this climax of the doctrine of self interest are beyond Cheney’s comprehension.

Not only is the external system of markets and money-calibrated exchange and investment incomplete, but the internal psychology of individualism is misguided, delusionary, and dangerous.

Markets Do Not Determine Right Scale

The free-market pricing system is not a generic problem-solving device that allows human culture to find a ‘natural dwelling’ in balance with the rest of the earth. Its ability to adapt human needs and physical options is adequate only in narrowly proscribed situations. It works in some places, but despite its widespread popularity among American economists and the American people in general, it is not going to solve our ecological problem of scale. Finding “right scale” – how big the human “footprint” should be – will not be achieved through the free-market system alone. Other forms of human communication and deliberation must be used as well (more here about this:   ) At best, the market as an economic mechanism is incomplete.

The classical/neoclassical theory of markets and prices, which has been operative since Adam Smith, has also been wrong about social inequality and poverty. But, as many have pointed out (such as Herman Daly), with steady economic – physical – growth over the past couple of centuries, the errors of the theory around inequality were mitigated. As long as everyone’s boats floated higher, it didn’t matter so much that inequality kept growing.

Now we are reaching the upper limits of physical impact that the human species can have on the earth. Over the next 40 years, if the human population doubles as demographers expect (see Exhibit 1), and these beings intend to attain a material standard of living equivalent to the USA (see Exhibit 2), there is no way this earth will sustain such a move without catastrophic alteration of itself. Nonetheless, with our free-market-pricing logic, we are driving headlong into this future.

Exhibit 1 Exhibit 2
Source: Angus Madison

CHARTS TO COME

By our conventional economic wisdom, particularly the free-market, money-calibrated pricing system, we will deplete all non renewable resources like oil and coal, and along the way, we will extinguish many if not most animal and plant species (so called “renewable resources”). A pricing system figures into this in only, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen would say, a “parochial” way.  No matter how scarce and therefore high priced these dwindling animate and inanimate things become, the simple fact of large numbers of human mouths will wipe them out. And, as an artifact of the money and market-priced system, ever-widening personal income disparities will generate some persons and corporate entities who CAN afford to purchase these very highly priced items.

To be clear, the intelligent and needed schemes, such as cap-and-trade systems or intergenerational equity schemes, are not strictly market systems, even though they may use markets for key parts of their process. In these systems, the upper limit of resource use, i.e. the right scale, is determined prior to the market process – by political debate and scientific consensus. The “cap” level is not a money-auction result. The cap quantity is, for example, the total amount of carbon to be allowed into the atmosphere; it is the total number of fish to be taken in one season; etc. These upper quantities are determined by stakeholders in deliberation. Rights to produce within that determined quantity is allocated by a market auction, but not the level itself. Strictly speaking, the process for managing resources with these schemes is outside of the so-called autonomous system of prices and interconnected markets. Thus, our “steering system” has extra-market devices and they are other than market competition.

The neo-liberal vision does not want to recognize this. It wants everything to be market driven.

Economy is a Communication Process and Markets Serve Only One Kind of Communication

The deliberation required to set and design the right scale of our human habitat is not widely recognized as categorically separate from the market process. Until this is recognized, and until the dynamics of that deliberative process are better understood and integrated with market activity, our world civilization will not have a generalized steering device concerning its economic actions. Indeed, the steering process we believe ourselves to possess – individualistic, self-serving action mitigated by competition – will make things worse. Prices and markets do perform adaptive functions here and there. But it is wrong to consider the pricing system as sufficient unto itself. Given the mandate to steer us collectively to right balance with the earth, the economic theory of free-market prices is glaringly inadequate. It won’t get us there.

Now, one of the virtues of the received neoclassical theory of economics (what I’ve been also calling the ‘traditional theory’ and ‘conventional wisdom’) is that it conceives itself as a communication system. This is true. Frederick Hayek wrote a wonderfully lucid piece in 1945 about how an economy of prices and free markets enables a society to manage its limited materials in the most adaptive and responsive way. Hayek’s statement as to how knowledge is used by and is distributed throughout society by thousands of independent budgetary decisions informed by market prices – a wholly decentralized process – is essentially a recapitulation of Adam Smith’s insight of the “invisible hand.”

Prices and markets perform an information processing function. What I am going to put forth in this essay is that markets are a specific instance and kind of communication, “information processing” device. Not only do we need other kinds of devices, but we need to articulate a broader, more general conception of communication in order to see new possibilities of a general steering device for spaceship earth and species being of homo sapien.

Communication and information processing is the solution to our ecological and social problems, to be sure. It is just not only with prices and markets. There is a more comprehensive manner of communication that will be the solution. In this essay, I attempt to articulate this more general conception of economy as a communication process.

Economics – both from theoretical and practical knowledge interests – needs a more comprehensive view of communication beyond the market and pricing system. This broader conception, as I will attempt to demonstrate, shows up most conspicuously (from the standpoint of traditional economics) as two new domains: the domain of intersubjective knowing among people (including science, deliberation of many kinds, culture, education, enterprise management, and so forth) and the domain of intrasubjective knowing – individual consciousness aka self consciousness, self actualization, etc. – as constituted in conversation.

Making this expansion of economics as communication requires an epistemological shift out of Cartesian duality toward what is being called a participatory epistemology. The characteristic of participatory knowing is that the awareness, whether individual or group, is part of a process of unfoldment. Objective detachment and rationality of the knower is never completely possible. There is always a quotient or component of indeterminacy, uncertainty, unconsciousness, and ambiguity. The individual person is sentiently dealing with a whole field of dynamically changing relationships with other persons and things. There is never an all knowing “God’s eye view” for the individual nor group. Any rational objective assessment that does happen, is more of a snap shot in time. Rational behavior in either markets or the broader economic process is not only “bounded” (as Nobel economist Herbert Simon suggests) but is only a stepwise, punctuated static fractal image, so to speak, of a much bigger chaotic, indeterminate and overdetermined process. How the human should “be” in this – including his or her action – will never be adequately conceived by a theory that subscribes to the Cartesian duality of subject-object. Cartesian duality, while valuable in many ways, is ultimately blind as a critical guidance of action in and engagement with the world. Another mode of awareness, complementary to the Cartesian mode, is needed. It is characterized as lucidity, intuitiveness, participation-in-process, non-duality.

The Solution: Conscious Economics

How we understand economy, at individual and collective levels, and in theory and practice, is what is critical for our finding our appropriate ecological footprint on the earth. Consciousness needs to be put squarely into it. Two critical aspects of consciousness here are the personal, which amounts to self observation and emotional maturity, and group, which amounts to cultivating a public receptiveness to pluralism, empathy and compassion.

The field of behavioral economics, although explicitly psychological, is not “conscious economics.” Too often, its unexamined intentions are how to get more productivity out of people; how to more cleverly market consumer goods to people; how to harvest capital gains in asset markets ruled by mob psychology; and so forth.

A conscious economics, stemming from a non-dual, participatory epistemology will lead to a completely reconstructed economy-ecology because it explicitly incorporates human intersubjective dimension (including how one shows up in conversation with others) as well as mindfulness of the individual, observing his or her own internal narratives and conversations. Once these interior depths and transpersonally emerged identifications are accepted into economy, then a much greater adaptability, power, and grace is possible.


[1] The Carlyle Group, Cheney and Bush’s investment firm, is one of the largest private equity firms in the world. Josh Kosman describes these firms as predatory. See “Private Equity: The Buy Out of America.”





Creating Better Futures

16 12 2007

 

Book Review 

Creating Better Futures: Scenario Planning as a Tool for a Better Tomorrow.

By James Ogilvy

This book is mistitled, in my opinion. It is less a business book (on the technique of scenario building as an adjunct to strategic planning). It is mostly a philosophical critique of the idea of human “progress” and “betterment” in the postmodern world. Ogilvy shows how it is possible that we can still believe in progress and that we ought to strive to create better futures, even when our traditional standards of “good,” that we formerly took from religion and science, no longer stand solid.

Ogilvy’s argument is a wonderful marshalling of philosophy, literary criticism, anthropology, social theory, and psychology with the emphasis on the “interpretive turn” in philosophy. (Early in his career, Ogilvy taught philosophy at Yale.) In clear writing and unmatched erudition he shows that despite the loss of these universal and absolute guidelines, there are ways “forward” available to us if we choose to use them.

One of his main points, in fact, is that it is precisely this unprecedented range of choice before us that measures our freedom. As a species, we have never been as free or as mature as we are now. And while these may be difficult times due to the inherent ambiguities of the loss of absolute standards, we are poised, each of us, to live even freer than ever before. The ambiguity of what is good, and the inescapable fact that we choose how to interpret our world and circumstances (and not have it interpreted for us by religious dogma or not at all, as in the case of science), is exactly the measure of our freedom. Yes, it is confusing; yes, it is messy; yes, there is the possibility of evil. But this is the “price” of freedom.

The “choosing of better futures” is where Ogilvy places the practice of scenario building. This practice can be done across the spectrum of organizational “units” from corporations, to businesses of smaller numbers of people, to government agencies and non profits, to community groups. For the actual techniques and specifics of facilitating the scenario process, Ogilvy dedicates only one chapter. In the other 12 chapters, he fits the importance of the scenario practice to the larger philosophical points he raises. Readers who want more detail on how to facilitate scenario workshops are directed to other texts, especially the one by his colleague Peter Schwartz (with whom, along with Stewart Brand and two others, he co-founded in 1988 the consultancy, Global Business Networks, GBN). Also, I was happy to discover many PDFs that can be downloaded from the GBN website that discuss details of the scenario process.

The majority of Ogilvy’s book, therefore, is the philosophical underpinnings of why scenario building should be considered the logical locus for individual and collective choice of social alternatives. Or as Ogilvy likes to call it, the “moral fulcrum for lifting the better over the worse…and prying the present toward a better future.” (p. 16 and p. 153).

This is the juice of the book. And Ogilvy presents many great things to think about:

Theory of the “some.”

Not the individual (the “one”) nor the entire collective (the “all”), but communities of people (the “some”) are the appropriate “units” of socio-political discourse, meaning and power. These may vary in size and numbers according to the scope of the issue(s). “The nation state is too big for the small problems [e.g. education], and too small for the big problem [e.g. global warming],” says Ogilvy. P. 54

“The community, the corporation, and the company are the subjects of social history, the creators of alternative scenarios, and the choosers of paths into better futures,” says Ogilvy (p. 67). These groups are “limited communities of interest defined by geography or by profession or by any or a range of other criteria.” P. 54

Ogilvy says, “Neither the Individual nor the Collective is ontologically given…[but if they] are seen as possible achievements…then their advantages are complementary rather than conflicting. The collective needs the spark of creativity and autonomy [of the individual]. The individual needs language, community, and all the rest of the benefits of society [the collective]” P. 86 “The social philosophy of the ‘some’ finds in groups a useful synthesis of creativity [and motivation and freedom] attributed to individuals and the power attributed to collectives.” P. 101.

Ogilvy goes on to show how the theory has implications for “representative” government. He makes a very cool analogy between representation politically and representation epistemologically. The two thorny issues are similar in many aspects, and now, with current paradigm shifts in the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology), particularly the demise of the “copy theory of truth,” we can rethink our conventions around sampling and representation in politics. “Communities [are] the appropriate units of representation – the players – in representative democracy.” (p. 67) “We ought to be able to learn to live together in communities of communities.” P. 224 He also links the psychological concept of individuation to the issue of representation and sampling. (p.64)

Finding Ethical Norms in Groups.

The philosophy of the some is also the linchpin of how we find meaning in our lives in the absence absolutes. While we no longer can resort to truths that transcend time, for all human beings, everywhere, we don’t necessarily have to fall into the utter subjective relativism where each person is free to do his or her own thing. We can derive moral norms by which to live from the friends, families and communities in which we live. They may not be as all powerful and eternal as the religious ones that humanity used to go by. But they certainly can be powerful enough – in terms of having obligatory sway on the person – than mere personal whim. There is an in-between place – pragmatic and practical – where norms have force, even if they are not absolute.

“Just because there is no universal code of ethics for everyone everywhere, it does not follow that we have to submit to a subjective relativism that says anything goes. The slope is slippery, but we can stop short at cultural (not subjective) relativism. The unit of moral integrity is not one (the individual subject), not all (everyone everywhere forever), but some (a corporation, a company, a community, a culture).” P. 126

Ogilvy cites Jurgen Habermas’ important distinction of “natural law, which is the object of our theoretical interest, and conventional law, which is the product, not the object, of our practical interest.” P. 96. In other words, as humans, we have different classes of interests: the theoretical, which when we pursue this interest, we generate knowledge that is the basis for science and technology; and the practical, which we face day to day in how to live our lives and whose ‘knowledge’ includes shared ethical norms and meanings, which are co-created thru interactions with others.

Scenario building is the deliberate pursuit of practical interest. Groups of people come together to articulate the norms and shared hopes for the future. This future is near-term – i.e. not eternal – about which participants agree, more or less, as to what is desirable and good. “Habermas and his forefathers are the closest thing we have to an honorable ancestry for scenario planning,” according to Ogilvy. P. 97.

Part of the shift is the legitimization of other intelligences besides the purely mental-rational. These are intuition, emotional, social, empathic. (p. 25) To pursue our practical interests, i.e. finding meaning and ‘doing the right thing’ in our day to day living, we turn the old scientific humanism paradigm on its head. “There is more room for emotion …than the bloodless objectivity of the scientific worldview.” (p. 35 ) Today, says Ogilvy, “We must not be afraid to use our minds on behalf of our hearts.” P. 97

The “relational worldview,” ethical pluralism and ‘heterarchy.’

Ken Wilber and Deepak Chopra are great for shining light on subjectivity and interpretation in human understanding, and in particular, how this applies to getting your own life together. Ogilvy is equally great unpacking all this but focuses on its implications for social activism, organizational development, and politics and economics.

Our ‘understanding of understanding’ is changing: away from the laws-and-causes scientific explanation (where observer and observed are distinct) and towards the interpretive study of meaning (where observer and observed are aspects of a single consciousness gestalt).

In much of his book, Ogilvy describes what he calls the “relational worldview.” This is a shift from a focus on things and absolute truth, to a focus on symbols and interpretations of them for meaning. It is a shift from identity to a focus on difference. It is an emphasis on relationship – among people, among symbols and interpretations, among subpersonalities within the individual – as the focus for finding meaning and understanding of life. It is a shift from scientific, cause-and-effect, mechanical explanation to narration of history and the telling of stories. It is a falling into time and historical drift, which implies that progress will not necessarily happen of its own accord, that there are competing histories, i.e. a contest of interpretations of whence we come, where we are, and whither we go,’ and that we must get together and collectively choose what we want. There is a democratization of meaning; an ethical pluralism; and the necessary, if uncomfortable acceptance of ambiguity in our lives – because this comes, part and parcel, with freedom to choose.

Finally, according to Ogilvy, a relational worldview includes recognition of a new aspect to our understanding that impacts our ethics. ‘Heterarchy,’ according to Ogilvy, is not hierarchy nor anarchy but in between. It is not that only one thing or nothing is good but that too many things are good. There are circularities in preferences, and first principles, which require us “to serve several masters” not just one.

Given this relational worldview – where human, group interpretation is central to living the good life – scenario building is a foundational practice. It is the creation of multiple scenarios, and then evaluating strategies to deal with them, that people share their values and hopes with each other. This kind of conversation is profound because it is an act of courage and freedom, a building of solidarity, and a giving of meaning and worth to the individual person who participates.

“Where meaning is concerned, it is not a matter of getting closer to the “truth.” Where meaning is involved, alternative contexts can determine widely divergent significances for the same [thing].” P. 126 For example, we can view the rise of information technology as an instrument of big brother and the loss of privacy. Or, we can consider it as the means for true democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.

The leitmotif of scenario building is this: with a group of people you spin out possible scenarios for the future regarding some thing or issue (e.g. a company, community, region, organization). Then, the group discusses and formulates strategies for dealing with each future possibility. In the discussion, the values and preferences of the individuals come to the fore and are made explicit. A person’s conversation might take the form of, “If such and such happened, then our organization might have this happen, and, in my belief system, this would be bad because…” Scenario building is a structured speculative conversation of a group of people that allows them to tell each other what is important to them.

“Power, leadership, property, consumer, health, and education [for example] might take on very different meanings in the different contexts of scenarios,” says Ogilvy. (p.130)

Ogilvy’s discussion of how groups make history is much more explicit than Flores et al in Disclosing New Worlds (which Ogilvy nonetheless references in his book p.105). “Communities create history by framing alternative scenarios, identifying a range of strategic options appropriate to those scenarios, and choosing among them.” (p.105)

Scenario building is how to deal with the fact that we as free agents drifting through history must interpret our world (and not apprehend it deterministically or by commandment); that we do this interpretation with others; and that there is no absolute quality to things independent of our interpretations. The qualities of things are aspects of our interpretations and relationship to them.

Humanity is a work in progress, there is no resting place, all meaning and interpretation is contestable. There is ambiguity and uncertainty. “We are a bootstrap phenomena,” he says. (p. 95) Ogilvy suggests that we can deal with the perceived nihilism of this in two ways: “God is dead. The self does not exist. O woe. We are doomed…Or … God is dead. Daddy’s gone. Now we can play.” (p. 87)

Reframing government and the private sector.

Ogilvy sees privatization and the rise of markets as inevitable. It is a historical movement, he claims, that is of comparable epochal import as the separation of the nation state from the all encompassing polity of the Church (in European history). Just as Locke, Hobbes and the rest had to construct philosophical legitimacy for the existence of the State (i.e. they had to look elsewhere beside theological arguments – because now the state was a new authority in opposition to the church), so too do we need to develop a new legitimacy of the market (because it is a new social-organizing principle whose legitimacy is not given by the state). Ogilvy says that this is not a blanket endorsement of privatization across the board. There are certain public goods such as health, education, public safety, and others. We have to take a case by case – i.e. “industry by industry” – look to separate the public from the private sector.

In his interpretation of the long view, the long time in coming of the primacy of the market, Ogilvy comments how it is a relatively benign institution. “Passion is so much safer when sublimated through the displacements of the marketplace than when it erupts though the sublimations of religion and politics,” he says. (p. 36)

This reminds me of Jeremy Taylor’s claim (in The Living Labyrinth: Exploring Universal Themes in Myths, Dreams, and the Symbolism of Waking Life) that the marketplace was the compromise and somewhat awkward cultural institution adopted by humanity when the patriarchal, marauding, pastoral tribes of central Asia started pushing up against the matrilineal, settled civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean. Marketplaces and trade are better solutions to inter-cultural conflict than territorial warfare and pillaging. But, some may say, compared to the old days, they are boring. All the passion’s gone!

Ogilvy points out that, with the rise of middle-class civilization around the world now, with marketplace as norm, it confronts us with a question of legitimacy. “Precisely in the modesty of its mission, the marketplace appears to be heartless and bloodless,” he says. (p. 35) We are seeking more room for emotion in the emerging millennia. (p. 35)

Ogilvy then cites that we consumers are moving away from buying material goods per se, and are seeking experiences and services. The “experience industry” is now the vogue of market economy. “The marketplace provides a place where consenting adults can get together for safe passion,” he says. (p36) This has to be sorted out regarding the public goods that marketplaces do not effectively provide.

Individuation, the information economy, and the end of mass production.

“The quest for vivid experiences,” says Ogilvy “is part of the sublimation of the economy, part of the shift from the solid goods of the industrial economy to the intangibles known as information and services.” (p. 30)

Ogilvy ties the information economy to personal individuation and maturity. The customization of products (and the demise of mass manufacturing) is allowing each person to be who they truly are and still be served by the market.

“The old shell of oppressive conformism is breaking … One by one, individuals are emerging from the realm of necessity – what nature or nurture tells them they have to do – and stepping forth into the realm of freedom toward what they want and hope to do. A new technology, an information technology whose essence is to differentiate, will be there to greet them.” (p. 223)

I like this book a lot. I found insights on just about every page, even in material that I thought I already had a good grasp of. It is a rewarding read.

Nevertheless, I do have some residual skepticisms:

Ethical pluralism is incompatible with and does not address religious fundamentalism. There will be this face off and tension. Fundamentalists will not embrace scenario building. To put my complaint another way, the only absolute that ethical pluralism requires is that everybody acknowledge that there are no absolutes. Ogilvy mentions the difficulty of cross cultural scenario building and common cause. He mentions Salmon Rushdie as a case of someone who has got into trouble living in two cultures. Ogilvy, appears to be saying, oh well. This is an upper limit to scenario building. It can’t solve everything. My issue is that in this post 911 era, where the extremists seem to be setting the agenda for political discourse, and are framing things in terms of a clash of civilizations, scenario building doesn’t have much to say and flatly doesn’t work in this discourse. It doesn’t apply here. Ogilvy’s book was published on the eve of i.e. before 911.

Ogilvy’s endorsement (or, at least, claim of inevitability) of the market economy, privatization and the information economy, while very nuanced and carefully argued with many caveats and qualifications (e.g. we still have public goods and mandates, there are known limits of the marketplace, etc.), is incomplete, I believe. He does not squarely address the debilitating, system-changing tendency in free market economies of concentration of wealth and power. He may be committing an ontological error of his own around such symbolic things as “public sector” and “private sector,” “consumer” and “producer.” For example, there is quite a plurality of interpretations about where the line can be drawn between the Federal Government and the military-industrial complex. There may be tremendous fragmentation of consumer tastes reflecting the individuation and emerging sense of freedom of expression of consumers. And this may be happily met by the information technology of producers to deliver custom goods. But there is also a self-amplifying consolidation of power by large producers in merchandise, financial and labor markets. This consolidation is often abetted by the very same information technology. The range of choice, of which Ogilvy speaks, is superficial. The consumer may have greater selection of merchandise to purchase, but fewer vendors from whom to purchase it, and fewer employers by whom to earn the money to spend for it. Ogilvy seems to minimize the importance of social equity, seeing the main limits of markets being the lack of access to them by lower income folks. I see the limits of markets being the other way around: that, over time, the highest income folks (including corporations and ‘regulator/regulatee shapeshifters’) get all the goods, property and resources. There is a structural and emergent quality of markets – concentration of wealth and power and out-and-out cheating – that Ogilvy does not address. (He has written an essay on Greed, that I have yet to read and where he, perhaps, addresses this.) In any event, I don’t see how scenario building addresses these aspects of markets.

The sufficiency of scenario building in general. I may be misreading Ogilvy, but it sounds like he claims that scenario building is all that it takes to create better futures. To me, it is necessary, but not sufficient. It is the necessary first step in a many phased process that is followed by execution and management (to use business terms). In other words, the main part of better futures is the working, playing, and living in them – not just the brainstorming of them. Ogilvy seems to be saying that all you need to do is get together with your group, brainstorm and discuss various possible futures, and agree on what you want. With that, your work is done. Ogilvy does address the issue of “what next” in several papers that are available, as I said above, from the GBN website (in particular the one called, “After the Scenarios: Then What?”

All in all, this is one of the most inspiring books that I’ve read in years. I feel ‘straightened out’ by Ogilvy’s masterful pulling together of the several philosophical, psychological and social strands of thinking. While I was familiar with most of this material, I lacked a coherence and cogency that Ogilvy’s book now provides. Whole new and better futures are opened to me by this one book.