One piece of my past that got left on the lost baggage carousel of life was a stint as an economics professor with a passion for iconoclasm – if not econoclasm – and certainly bicyclism! I’ve still got some vestigial memories of the theories, fantasies and postulations of how markets work; including that grand-old-dirge of the valuation of priced and unpriced benefits (which allows us to calculate really cool things like ‘optimal’ levels of pollution, the monetary value of a life and the social benefit from ploughing up 10 hectares of National Park to create a new uranium mine – and other related disturbing notions of that kind). In these, my days of reflection, introspection and lots of bicycle riding, it occurs to me that I am as much taken in by the ‘vagaries and psychoses of value’ as anyone else.
By which I mean, I too tend to be a little ‘non-linear’ when contemplating the relative virtues of the next bag of coffee beans vs. a new bicycle vs. a trip overseas vs. policy choices to forestall greengassing our planet into the new Mars.
There’s this theory about how people value stuff. We are just a bunch of tanks filled with that fuel of life called ‘utility’. Utility is an always imprecise metric for happiness, joy, bliss, satisfaction or the absence of pain, depending on how you consider such things. Just like a petrol tank, some of us tend to run utility-guzzling V8’s, and others run on the one million-to-the-gallon we cyclists get.
To economists, utility can be approximated by money. The closer that approximation, the uglier the person, in my view. And it should not go un-noticed that most government policy these days assumes this equivalence to be pretty well perfect. Money is happiness. Mathematically, Money=Happiness. Wealth=Utility. Empty tank=chronic depression. Gross Domestic Product is the stock of community bliss… Greed is Great! Growth in wealth is the purpose of life…
You know the routine. But of course, every politician and bureaucrat knows that the equation is not one of perfect equivalence. The equal sign is a bit blurry. The equation is confused by ‘noise’. People are riddled with imperfections like an appreciation of the arts, the quests of religion, running with the bulls in Pamplona, and choosing to ride the alps for no pay…, and a litany of related challenges to the mathematical precision, if not economists’ utopia, of rational human behaviour. No, the archdeacons of Economia wring their hands on the challenges unruly folk present to the equations of their religion. So much of economics has become an exercise in patch-ups and cosmetic make-overs via a tool box of policy fencing wire and pontificational spin. Which is why economists invented politicians to take the blame for their dodgy theories on why it is that people do what it is that people do.
But, to return to my theme. Knowing about the uncertainty storm that confuses the sacred equivalence of money and happiness, perhaps that’s the place to look to find answers to the more exasperating behaviours of those who resist all arguments contrary to what you or I might believe. In that hazy-fazy place lies an explanation for the persistence of cars, obesity, global warming, Kim Il Sung, Country & Western music, recumbent bicycles and Microsoft Windows…
Which means that any attempt to cajole, encourage, incite or otherwise encourage cycling as a universal transportation choice will always be filtered through that sink-clogged space where the stars of human rationality collide. Which is why the global posturing on global warming is an inevitable frustration for those of us who continue to breath the reality of what it is that cars do to the world we all share. Politics is a diversion from the actions that really count. All that posturing and first class pin-stripe-suited posing is the displacement activity show to which those who refrain from change turn when change is the need with which they really know they must personally engage. Far better to blame the inactions of political stooges than to take up the challenge of personal responsibility. Far better to fixate on the pace and outcome of climate change forums than to do something about the problem yourself.
The problem is that our brains run on multi-utility fuel. The bliss points to which we all aspire can be fudged. We can feign a trip to nirvana with dodgy drugs, cashing cheques on the income streams of future generations and via enslaving the opportunities of others without empowerment to respond. Such as the other species which inhabit our world. That’s the coward slothard’s path to utility optimisation. It’s also a furphy. The consequences of poorly made choices usually hit like the toxic hangover global warming has become.
There’s something clean, pure and encouraging about utility that’s hard won by the virtues of choices that inflict nothing on the opportunities of others (be they vegetable, animal or mineral; earth, wind and fire). Which is why the buzz we get from summiting a hill via the power of pedals, walking a river via the self-containment of a backpack, or meditating towards nirvana cross-legged on a cushion are pathways to glory that’d escape those who aspire to Prada via the plastic-surgery of oil-powered consumerism. That’s a fast burn parody of the rewards to which those directly, intently and insightfully connected to the consequences of their personal actions are more rightly entitled.