Predatory Economics, Nurturing Economics
- Michael Britton, Ed.D.
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Michael Britton, Ed.D.
In the wild, a predator treats the physical life of another as food. What matters is that his own strength is maintained, not that the other is dead. In society, economic predation is concerned only with increasing its own resources and position, improving its own future, and it does not matter that the result is that others lose their resources, the future they’d hoped for. It does not matter that the conditions of their lives grow measureably harsher, more insecure, or that they themselves become demoralized, unable even to confront what happened.
Not all who have this impact on the lives of others intend to be predators or think of themselves as predatory. But the activity is predatory whenever the vulnerability of others is seen as an opportunity to be exploited. By contrast, nurturing sees in vulnerability a hint of a stronger, more flourishing life that might develop; the hopefulness of a nurturer lies in that possibility. Nurturers love to see anyone fragile, vulnerable or young growing stronger, clearer, more resilient, more capable, wiser, more able to love in this life, more responsible, better at being good and effective human beings – and like to contribute to this flourishing of life possibilities when they can. Psychologists think of this on the individual level, but we can speak of this on the historical scale as well: Nurturing likes seeing other societies, communities and cultures being resilient, growing in confidence, taking more effective care with their lives and their future, being happier – and likes to contribute to that flourishing as a country or a culture when they can.
Nurturing involves a measure of devotion to the growth of other individuals and other societies, as well as one’s own, a measure of sacrifice. Just as a mother’s nursing means sharing of her own body so that her baby grows physically and emotionally stronger, nurturing means sharing know-how, wisdom, access to opportunities and to connections, when that sharing can help another’s future open up. Nurturing encourages another’s spirit to dare to try, their determination to grow better as a person, community or country in knowing life’s joys, loving well, learning life’s most important lessons, becoming responsibly productive, and taking steps toward maturing as good human beings. Mature nurturing requires a feel for, a practical understanding of, what it means to do human life well, as a person, a community or a country.
There is a cost to organizing economic life around growing one’s own wealth while leaving others weakened. It impoverishes the soul, leaving little scope for one’s heart or for the wish to nurture others along in life, to give generously, to awaken resilience and joy in others, to encourage them to take better care with their own lives. When the intention centers on profit, our relationships are narrowed and our therby humanness diminished, the capacity for empathy is blunted or corrupted and life is hollowed out. If the intention is to encourage life’s growth in others (and in one’s self), the world of business, investment and regulatory arrangements can come alive with empathy, generosity and the joys of doing well together. The world can be more fruitful.
To give an example on the level of business-to-business practice, a carpet company paid for research into which dies were biodegradable and therefore contributed to sustainability and which were not. Upon getting the results, they called their competitors together for a meeting in which they gave the competitors this proprietary information, in detail, for free, out of a sense that the more of us doing right by the earth, the better for all of, thereby encouraging the capacity of the other firms to do good, as well as the larger good of society and the planet. (The Next Industrial Revolution) In a similar vein, open-sourcing gives away programming for the common good. And crowd-sourcing has been used to solve medical and scientific problems by asking specialists, and anyone else around the world able to contribute, to help solve complex medical and other problems – without pay. People have proven eager to help, and breakthroughs have been achieved.
Mostly, however, those people are free to do this thanks to steady incomes from jobs in the regular economy. So what about business in the regular economy? Corporate charters have traditionally been written so that management is required to produce profits for stockholders, making it illegal to put other objectives ahead of profit. There is a movement to write corporate charters such that social or ecological outcomes are the mandate instead, reflected in Mohamed Yunus’s concept of “social businesses.” Then there is the question of how to help people shift their actual intention and behavior. One key lies in the reward structure of the business or bank. As is well known, the financial sector, by incentivizing risk-taking and externalization of vulnerability, increased both exponentially. By contrast, in the Grameen Bank, Yunus and his colleagues have undertaken rewarding managers for focusing on encouraging their clients to improve their lives. “In the World Bank, a staff member’s success is linked to the amount of the loans he has successfully negotiated, not the impact his work has made. We don’t even consider the amount of loans made by a staff member in our reward system.” What is considered in regard to a manager includes instead making sure “all the children of all his borrowers are in school.. [and] all his borrowers move out of poverty. (Yunus)
In the Great Game of nation-states, it can be very difficult to look with compassion and generosity on other countries and want to see them prove resourceful in making a good life for themselves, a life marked by mature humanness, responsible effectiveness, and happiness – especially if this might diminish the profits taken by one’s own country and its businesses or investors. Consider the matter of advising another country to sell off its state-owned enterprises. Western economic advisors have often strongly advised other countries to sell off their state-owned businesses out of predatory intent, not infrequently accompanied by coercive threats at times when those countries were in vulnerable positions, vulnerability being considered an opportunity for forcing them into taking actions they did not wish to take, i.e. an opportunity to violate their making up their own minds and reaching decisions on their own as to what was in their own best interest. But that has not always been the intention. There were times when consultants wanted to see another country prosper and thought that selling off state-owned businesses would free up the businesses to become more dynamic while unburdening the government. They approached their role as advisors with certainty that this would work and must be done. But in nurturing humans as they chart their own destiny, a measure of uncertainty is often more appropriate in both parties as the path forward gets figured out. Nurturing seeks to catalyze the other party’s ability to think through the resources they have to work with and how best to use them. It takes a certain humility and respect for others, a looking to see them come alive on their own behalf, rather than pursuing an experience of one’s own expertise. Deciding in advance what is best for another country often fails to take into account matters that only those in that culture are able to factor into account when deciding the best way forward for that country. While there are times others need to listen to expertise, it’s also the case that the vulnerable can overvalue the strong and thereby give away discovery of their own genius. As it has happened, selling off state businesses and resources has often meant a give-away of resources at bargain rates, under-financing a country compared to the money it could have made by the sale -- while reducing the government’s resources and thereby impairing its ability to provide for its own people in future times of difficulty. State-owned businesses are among the resources a country has created over decades and, while they may or may not be great resources, they are amongthe resources out of which the country and its government must forge their future. It is they who need to take the measure of what best to do with those resources in making their future.
In a similar vein, corporations, consultants, banks and international financial institutions should be encouraging countries to be very careful in taking loans, so as not to mortgage their future against a prosperity that may or may not materialize -- and not to open themselves to sudden inflows (and outflows) of capital. Many countries have been drawn into mortgaging their economic future despite a high risk of default and consequent discovery that they had mortgaged their sovereignty as well. (Perkins) Nurturers want to see governments exercise genuine concern and care for their own country. When China imposed strict controls over the investment of capital from outside, it was demonstrating national self-care, something a nurturer would be glad to see and would have suggested in the first place. A nurturing stance looks to see governments, banks and businesses limiting the inflow of investment from the outside to what is useful and repayable, so as to responsibly regulate their own vulnerability against the whims of financial markets. In addition, because nurturing is about helping others improve their lives, it gravitates to long-term relationships, not overnight quickies. That means capital investments will not and cannot suddenly be withdrawn at the whim of financial markets. Having a reliable future depends on this, and that’s a blessing nurturers want to see others experience.
At the same time, investors must exercise responsible self-care by making investments with careful and sustained attention to those being invested in – which means a heavy investment in pursuing their transparency and the soundness of their books. Corruption on the receiving end must be easily discoverable along the way. It must also be actively looked for. Exuberant wishful investing and ignoring the possibility of being deceived are reality-based, and nurturing pays close attention to the realities of life. Investors are more likely to focus on those realities if they are the one who bear the vulnerability to risk. Investing cannot be an irresponsible give-away, nor can it be an overexcited pursuit of bonanzas. Genuine nurturing involves a rising to responsibility on the part of both parties, in the interests of a better life for both. It’s in real life that people grow happier and more effective or not; that’s what investment should concern itself with.
On the level of the global economy, free-trade has not turned out to be the nurturing policy it was expected by many to be. Subsidies for wealthier countries and their industries, and regulations on imports from the more vulnerable countries, have increased the wealth of the more powerful at the cost of impoverishing the economic liveliness, self-sufficiency and sense of pride and control over their own fate on the part of the vulnerable. When a party grows stronger by means that leave another weaker, predation is taking place whether it is so conceived or not. An economics born of generous, nurturing intent is obsessed with seeing other countries, other classes and other peoples getting their own economic liveliness going, and with seeing them formulate a future for themselves that is sustainable, responsible and happy.
Nurturing, like predation, involves a relationship between a party that presently is more powerful and one that is more vulnerable. The intention in nurturing is that the gap in power and dignity in the relationship grow smaller because the more vulnerable party grows in perceptiveness, clarity of purpose and effective conduct of their own lives – including vis a vis the more powerful party. Frequently this means nurturers face situations wherein a more vulnerable party wrestles with how to protect itself from the greater power the nurturer actually holds. Mature, experienced nurturers regard it as a good thing when the vulnerable set boundaries against them and assert their own integrity with dignity and skill. The more powerful party’s best use of its own power at those moments lies in encouraging this growth in the vulnerable of the confidence to live by their integrity, by respecting the newly developing voice of the vulnerable rather than becoming defensive and perpetuating the asymmetry of whose judgment really counts – or setting out to keep the vulnerable off balance and beholden by sewing self-doubt or seeing to it that efforts at national or class self-care fail.
At least sometimes nurturing lies in getting out of the way and letting others develop relationships of their own choosing. This does not mean indulging the vulnerable in any direction they want to take. The lines a nurturer looks to see respected by the newly-assertive are the lines that separates integrity from predation, and self-care from exploitation. Nurturing consciously intends to grow the capacity to nurture in others, not their capacity to become predators.
On the level of the global business system, there can also be cross-class nurturing, as when entrepreneur-inventors find it personally meaningful and rewarding to get to know people in poorer sections of the world, asking them what would make their economic lives work better, and working with them as equals in figuring out how to make that happen, given the constraints of capital that characterize their lives, whether this be amid rural or slum poverty. Paul Polak makes a case for capitalists, with their know-how and connections, setting out to empower the vulnerable in a very different manner, as summed up in Wikipedia:
Three principles guide Paul Polak Advisors…
• 1) To have a sustainable impact on global poverty, businesses should treat poor people as customers and producers rather than as recipients of charity;
• 2) Businesses can generate positive returns for investors by serving consumers in base of the pyramid populations with average household income in the range of $1–$2 per day; and,
• 3) By changing how they design, price, market, and distribute their products, businesses can make a transformative contribution to ending extreme poverty, while making profits for their investors.
I mention this also to point out that in setting out to implement a nurturing intent in the complex economic world that exists today, we all start from wherever we are right now. The question is what impact any of us set out to create in our encounters with the other peoples, countries and classes– and what impact we actually have on them. The tide can be turned, from predation as a systemic imperative to strenthening each others’ lives, and it can be turned by all of us no matter where we are starting from -- if we make our resourcefulness available to others trying to grow their own. This includes those who have benefited from a system that organizes behavior and thought so that predation takes place but who, upon understanding matters, would prefer to engage in nurturing from here on out. Those who are sitting on large masses of capital have choices to make not just about which projects will likely work out but about the kind of world they want to nurture into existence: one marked by high inequality between the successfully predatory and the very weakened vulnerable, or one marked by deliberately fostering equality and encouraging responsible autonomy and self-care on the part of other countries, classes and peoples.
In pursuit of a nurturing economic liveliness around the planet, how do we foster nurturing intention and skill in those who are wealthy – and in those who are predatory? Nurturing a capacity for nurturing across the global economic system is another layer in the transformation of our shared existence from behaviors that exploit to behaviors that grow all of us, including masters of predation, in a deepening of insight, a maturing in the intentions brought to relationships, an interacting such that the vulnerable of this world grow less vulnerable, more spirited, more resilient and skilled – and we all become more reflective on what matters in life and how best to make a life we all truly cherish. And yet often the powerful are so immersed in systemic practices that are predatory in impact that they can’t stop themselves. Stopping them requires delegitimizing what they are doing, while mobilizing the power within the reach of the vulnerable to organize life independently of the powerful so that their power becomes meaningless and collapses. The vulnerable of the world should exercise the self-care to organize an alternative world rather than wait for the powerful to change this one. (Sharp)
Taking from others to enhance our own lives creates a world that merits apprehension rather than trust. Surviving predation discourages integrity and generosity. Genuinely caring that others find their integrity, their resilience, their path into the future, their growth into maturity, makes for feeling safe and less stressed, putting everyone at less risk of metabolic syndrome, the disease complex that marks preoccupation with predation and its risks. The more the policies and decisions that make up our economic liveliness reward caring for each others’ lives as well as our own, the safer it will be to trust the world we live in enough to genuinely relax and feel the joy of living. Nurturing intent, not shrewdness, makes trust and joy worthwhile, safe and fruitful.
Eisenstein, Charles. 2011. Sacred Economics. Evolver Editions. Berkeley, CA.
Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.
The Next Industrial Revolution, DVD. Earthome Productions.
Patel, Raj. 2010. The Value of Nothing. Deckle Edge.
Perkins, John. 2005. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Plume.
Polak, Paul. 2009. Out of Poverty: What works when traditional approaches fail. BK Currents.
Sharp, Gene. 1993. Dictatorship to Democracy. Green Print Housmans.
Stiglitz, Joseph. 2012. The Price of Inequality. W.W. Norton. New York.
Yunnus, Muhammad. 2007. Creating a World Without Poverty. PublicAffairs. New York.