Tag Archives: ideals

economic value in terms of pie: an analogy for communism, capitalism, prosperity and social justice

The best kind of science science serves to advance some aspect of human endeavor (e.g. health, understanding, wonder). It is a contribution. The same can be said for art, engineering, or commercial enterprise. Work done in this manner will create a world far better than one where there is a perfect cornucopia of material prosperity. In fact, a culture of service is more idealistic than a utopic vision of material prosperity. And I believe that it’s achievable, while state-sponsored universal material prosperity isn’t.

Why do I say this? It comes down to pie. Would you rather have a disproportionately small piece of a very large pie (and get more pie), or a equal share of a small pie (and get less pie)? I think, ultimately, a lot of people would rather take the lesser quantity of pie as long as it was ‘fair’.

That doesn’t make rational sense, but we are not rational creatures. We are spiteful, semi-domesticated primates. Monkeys will do the same thing: they will give up their own small treat to see a rival denied a large one.


The maximal economic condition would be capital highly concentrated in the hands of those who continually invest it in labor-saving technology. This is the ‘trickle down’ notion. The workers are paid the minimum viable amount, since they will fail to invest wisely any excess. This produces a huge surplus of economic goods, but the world is divided into two groups: those who can afford to have any/all of the goods that they want, and those who can afford just enough that they are motivated to work very hard for just a little bit more. This assumes, of course, that there is a good way to catch cheaters: people who end up with a large slice without making any pie at all.

Here’s the crux: under these idealized conditions, the most people get the most pie possible (that’s good) but the distribution is not fair (and that’s bad). Even the people who are working really hard for a disproportionately small piece get a lot more than they would if the pie were smaller, but they feel disenfranchised because they have relatively little. So what do you want: a fair slice, or a large pie?

That has been the central economic question of the 20th century: communism (fair slice) or capitalism (large pie)? Could there be a third alternative? I think there is. I think that it’s possible to see past the total numerical economic value and see more fundamental needs. I think we can work on those. And that can co-exist with either system. The big upshot is this: I see the world arguing over the big pie versus the fair slice but what I want to see is people wondering if maybe they would like a different sort of pie altogether.


green politics, chemistry, utopia and simplistic economics: greenwashing

Green is fashionable now, and that is great. “Green chemistry” is becoming a buzz word, and that is great, too: “green is the new nano!” Nanotechnology, as we all know, is derived from the Greek root meaning “successful grant application.”

If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you all about the Future when we would do away with material scarcity and people would have “enough“. I was young and naive. There is enough right now. And I’m not a communist: I don’t think the solution is taking it away from those who have in order to give to those who have not. The solution is not try to make more stuff, but to try to live a happy life. The solution is not to satisfy more wants, but to want good things. The solution is not for the rich to have less, but for people to see each others’ needs instead of their own desires. A happy culture is one that values service over material prosperity.

Where does Green fit into this? It’s hubris to think that we can grab the world by the carbon and shake the prosperity out of it. “Better living through chemistry,” is only half of the issue. We can make more stuff (e.g. chemicals, beef, plastic, homes, anything), but it has to be directed by a culture of service or it is just that: stuff. For it to be wealth, it has to represent substantive connections between people. Green can be just more stuff, or it can start to recognize the interdependent nature of the scientific game we are all playing. Our research means better living not through chemistry, but through the contribution we make to a safer, cleaner world – a goal that is only definable in terms of our connectedness to it and to each other.

The big upshot is that green is good, but look out for “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is where an organization cashes in on the Public Relations benefits of going green without making changes that reflect the rhetoric. It’s the same with the term ‘organic.’ It’s fine, but be careful that it represents what you think it represents. As Mark Bittman tells us in his TED talk while chilean farmed salmon fed organic chicken bones flown on ice in a huge freight plane from south america to your doorstep may be technically organic, it doesn’t represent the ideals. It’s elitist and unsustainable and the green sticker doesn’t change that.