Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Matters

I’ve spent much time this past year sifting through my life, examining old goals, retelling old stories, wondering what matters.

I’ve stumbled into some new initiatives, and have found myself investing time in ways I would not have imagined a year ago. Still wondering: what matters?

The events of the fall and early winter, Hurricane Sandy, the shootings in Newtown, even the election and then the endless hype about the Mayan calendar and end of the world, and the fiscal cliff and end of the economy, have made the question ever more insistent: what matters?

The Money Lenders, Marinus van Reymerswaele,
Netherlands, 1540
Scouting out memento ornaments for our Christmas Eve celebration, I found myself wondering: does this really matter?

Considering cheeses for a holiday cheese plate, the question came again: does this matter?

Reframe it: if I knew this was the last week I’d have to spend with my family, would I be spending my time buying one last present?

Or listening to arguments about the fiscal cliff?

But is that the best way to judge what matters?

Can we google it? Check wikipedia?

Apparently, “new” matters. New car, new phone, new computer, new outfits.

Or growth: did the economy grow?  Is the GDP up, or down?

Rights? My right to own a gun? To ensure my money is spent on things I agree with, and nothing I object to? My right to live, love, learn in any way I want?

Our family went last night to see Steven Spielburg’s Lincoln. There on the screen, Daniel Day Lewis enacted Lincoln’s struggle with the same concern.

Did public acclaim matter more than political momentum? When held in the balance, which was more important: attempts to preserve the union, desires to see slavery ended, prayers for peace, insistence on the possibility of a enduring democracy?

And how balance personal with public: his son Robbie’s desire to join the army, his wife’s grief at the loss of their son Willie, the attempt to maintain integrity while in the midst of political maneuvering, the weight of exhaustion and longing for rest.

Even the lesser characters of the film showed the weighing of what matters: principle against pragmatism, fear of an unknown future against guilt over an intimately known injustice, ambition against love of a sibling lost in battle, public approval against private pangs of conscience.

What matters?

One of the books I gave as a gift this Christmas was What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. It’s by Wendell Berry, with a forward by Herman E. Daly, professor of economics at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

In the forward, Daly calls attention to what he considers a deep, destructive confusion in our understanding of what matters, a confusion embedded in our use, or perhaps misuse, of the word “economy”:
Aristotle distinguished“oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word “economics” is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics. . . . 
Where today do we find chrematistics masquerading as economics? Certainly in the recent Wall Street fiasco—“selling a bet on a debt [as] an asset” as Wendell succinctly put it. It is amazing that people who have recently engaged in this disastrous stupidity on such a massive scale still have any credibility at all! Yet belief in “free markets” as the philosopher’s stone that alchemically transmutes the dross of chrematistics into the gold of oikonomia remains strong.
Other examples of chrematistics at work include monopoly pricing, tax evasion, subsidies, rent seeking, forced mobility of labor, cheap labor from union busting and illegal immigration, off-shoring, mergers, hostile takeovers, usury, and bullying litigation—not to mention the airlines’ successful shifting on to their customers the labor previously done by former travel agents, check-in clerks, and baggage handlers. Externalizing environmental costs—shifting the cost of depletion and pollution from the producer to the general public, the future, and other species—is probably the most common and most disastrous chrematistic maneuver. The unaccounted costs range from irksome noise, to mountaintop removal and filling up of valleys with toxic tailings, to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to global climate change and species extinction.
Several pages later, in the first essay of the book, “Money versus Goods,” Berry approaches this question from a different angle:
 “A proper economy . .  would designate certain things as priceless. This would not be, as now, the “pricelessness” of things that are extremely rare or expensive, but would refer to things of absolute value, beyond and above any price that could be set upon them by any market.
This past year, I've been looking for ways to stand against "chrematistics" as Daly describes it: processes that place high value on profit, and no value on things like healthy food, well-managed land, functioning families. At the same time, it occurs to me I've been trying to move toward "priceless" things: relationships, beauty, ideas, community.

In our chrematistic economy, the things of greatest value are often the things most easily devalued: the care of a parent for a tiny child. What's the dollar value on that? And if it doesn't pay, shouldn't mothers and fathers hurry back to work?

A golden sunset over a quiet lake. Can that be privatized? And if not, surely there's an appropriate fee?

My plan in the weeks ahead is to spend more time sorting through what matters, why, and what the implications should be as we arrange our lives and advocate for an economy that reflects real value.

But as we start the new year, I’d like to hear from others. One of the things that matters to me- a lot - is conversation. Shared ideas. Listening to voices other than my own.
Money Changer and His Wife, Marinus van Reymerswaele,
Netherlands, 1549

So - how do you decide what matters?

How does your daily schedule reflect what matters?

How does your budget reflect what matters?

And what would it look like to live in a “proper economy” that prioritizes “absolute value” and "priceless" things, that refuses to commodify the things that matter most?