Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why A Marketplace for Time Value?

There have been times when I've struggled to answer this most basic question about my work, in a satisfactory manner at an emotional level. Hence my pleasure at discovering a collaborative NYT article from the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks, which - in its own way - does so, beautifully (HT Farnam St). Put simply, everyone needs to be needed.

Granted, human "need" isn't exactly a strong concept in the current economics lexicon, as I wrote in a post not long ago. Which helps to explain why I often forget to emphasize this perspective. Even though creating a marketplace for time value, is really about setting up a template which facilitates our all too human desire, to be of use to others. In "Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded", the authors begin, "In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive", while also noting the violence around the world which is perpetuated in the name of religion and tyrannical regimes. They continue:
And yet, fewer among us are poor, fewer are hungry, fewer children are dying, and more men and women can read than ever before...There is still much work to do, of course, but there is hope and there is progress.
How strange, then, to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world's richest nations. In the United States, Britain, and across the European continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on helplessness. Why?
A small hint comes from interesting research about how people thrive. In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn't feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth. We all need to be needed.  
This helps explain why pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries. The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are not longer useful. In America today, compared with 50 years ago, three times as many working-age men are completely outside the workforce. This pattern is occurring throughout the developed world - and the consequences are not merely economic. Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root. 
What can we do to help? The first answer is not systematic. It is personal. Everyone has something valuable to share. We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, "What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?" 
Leaders need to recognize that a compassionate society must create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, so that everyone who is capable of contributing can do so...A compassionate society must protect the vulnerable while ensuring that these policies do not trap people in misery and dependence. 
Building such a society is no easy task. No ideology or political party holds all the answers. Misguided thinking from all sides contributes to social exclusion, so overcoming it will take innovate solutions from all sides. Indeed, what unites the two of us in friendship and collaboration is not shared politics or the same religion. It is something simpler: a shared belief in compassion, in human dignity, in the intrinsic usefulness of every person to contribute positively for a better and more meaningful world. The problems we face cut across conventional categories; so must our dialogue, and our friendships. 
Many are confused and frightened to see anger and frustration sweeping like wildfire across societies that enjoy historic safety and prosperity. But their refusal to be content with physical and material security actually reveals something beautiful: a universal human hunger to be needed. Let us work together to build a society that feeds this hunger.  
How is it, so many of our institutions have given us the impression we are not needed? After all, the fact this has occurred, helps to explain why people often "shut down" to some degree in their response to the world. When people don't feel needed, they try to protect themselves by rationalizing that they don't need anyone else, either. Presently, society is attempting to grapple with this understandable reaction.

Only recall how many times individuals will continue to reach out to others, before they finally give up in doing so. Or - if this all too personal struggle is not so easy to recall - it's a process which begins in childhood - a time when children are supposedly not "needed" for important economic/societal functions until they are adults. Children begin to suspect they might not have a vital role to play in community, long before the time comes when they are expected to.

This is the most significant problem, when society mostly selects for the "best" skills. After the cream of the crop has been claimed, there's a wealth of remaining skills that aren't "good enough", that hardly anyone really wants from anyone else. Consequently, when we neglect to appreciate the gifts (including skills) that others would offer, we are in effect taking our cue from a specific organizational pattern which only needs so many individuals, in order to fulfill its stated functions.

In one important respect, the present day process of skills "mining" (arbitrage) is not intentionally exclusionary. Rather, this now traditional pattern was the logical formation for tradable sector formation in terms of economic progress. Certain individuals could be rationally excluded from one modern workplace, even as the marketplace continued to expand and provide further opportunities for employment elsewhere. It was only when non tradable sector time based product (which didn't benefit from exclusionary selection) began to take precedence over tradable sector goods production, that the skills mining process began to take its toll.

Hence it is odd to think how much we've absorbed a certain mentality about inclusion and exclusion which - in many ways - came about largely because of a technological element which we mostly took for granted in recent centuries: the need to define progress, by the ability of public and private enterprise alike, to reduce the time based components of internal organizational capacity. The good news is that a substantial amount of exclusion was actually technically driven in nature, rather than based on purposeful malice. And fortunately, it is possible to organize productive activity, so that people need not be excluded.

A simple technical change for non tradable sector formation, could realign economic activity, so that it is more closely attuned to the matters of the heart. When time value is coordinated in relation to internal factors, individuals and groups alike can build a whole, which is stronger than the sum of its parts. More than anything, I think we've just forgotten that it is possible to align technical and organizational factors with the most basic human components of life. Do a better job of alignment, and it might not be so difficult to find what is written in our hearts.

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