Some economists have argued that American drive is based on the principle of “the sky is the limit.”
This is what motivates us to do our best so as to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top. Break the glass ceiling, we urge our female counterparts, and you, too, can be the queen of your corporate domain.
But aren’t we mixing metaphors here? Are motivation and competition not based on a questionable assumption about scarcity and abundance? Are we fighting to get a bigger piece of the same pie or is the pie ever-increasing in size? How these questions are answered makes a big difference in how to view competition.
When I taught my first Business Ethics course, I asked the students to tell me how much money they dreamed of earning when they graduated. “The sky is the limit” came up, and most were unwilling to put an upper-limit on their earnings. We spent two hours listing all their spending fantasies so as to come to a figure that would satisfy them all.
I don’t recall the figure, but it was well within reason of high-end earners. Asked to pledge right then and there to give away to charity every dollar they earned beyond that figure, whatever it was, adjusted for inflation, they all looked puzzled and declined my invitation. Pledging wasn’t as popular then as it is today with Congressional representatives.
If there is no limit on how much one can spend? Does it mean that the pie is indeed ever-increasing in size? Does that also mean that there is abundance in the world? Put differently, should we simply abandon the presumption of scarcity — there isn’t enough to go around — as a limited and limiting idea?
Empirically speaking, is there abundance? Given what we read in the business news or hear on television networks, it seems that we hardly have enough resources to feed ourselves. Is this hype real or fabricated? If it’s not real, why would anyone want to fabricate anxiety-driven views of scarcity?
Instead of speculating on the motives of others, whatever benefits may be in store for them personally or institutionally, let’s focus on the supply and demand curves economists like to refer to. If demand increases, we are told, and supply remains the same, prices will go up (only so many houses right next to The Broadmoor). If supply increases while demand decreases, prices go down (too many apples that begin to rot). But what if supply remains unlimited, like the air in the sky (even though they sell air-rights in New York City)? What if everything is abundant?
There aren’t enough jobs, the unemployment rate keeps going up, and the economy cannot grow without more jobs being created. How does the idea of abundance work here? We have plenty of natural resources, energy and agriculture, that can be more fully exploited. What prevents a more abundant exploitation? Is it regulations?, Then reduce them. Is it production technologies?, Then invent more of them. Is it distribution channels?, Then expand roads and rivers.
What about environmental concerns? What about other costs? Investments in our abundant natural resources, including human ingenuity (in the form of education and intellectual property), should be seen in the broadest context. When seen as such, we would realize that our defense costs, for example, could be converted to the development of domestic energy sources so that we wouldn’t have to protect the seas around the world to ensure safe oil transportation to our refineries.
Instead of worrying about scarcity, we should think about our abundance, the blessing of having enormous energy and food and intellectual resources. With this in mind, we can enact local and national policies that would make sense for the long run, that would improve the health of the economy.
So, when El Paso County is worried about “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing), it should not only look at the actual deaths from this process (none on record so far), its ongoing technological evolution (more time + more use = improved methods), but also look at the price in human lives we have already paid right here at Fort Carson, when soldiers who were sent to Iraq of Afghanistan didn’t make it back.
It may be a global economy, it may be a “flat world,” as Thomas Friedman reminds us, but it’s the local economy that pays the price for national policies. If we could supply our own energy needs right here, why should we import them from across the world? If we can eat the food farmers grow right here, why would we want to ship it across the continent? This is no xenophobia, just common sense.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and believes in the abundance of our blessings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com