Kindness by Design

14 Jul 2021 · 6 min read


Painting of heart with hands of multicultural group

Sometimes I find myself making good headway through a book, only to be suddenly stopped in my tracks by a particular insight that suggests an entirely new way of thinking about a problem.

And then on certain inspired occasions I find my thoughts ricocheting from one such idea to another, something like one of those steel balls bouncing around in a pinball machine, darting back and forth to ever greater heights.

I came across one such passage recently in Kate Raworth's excellent 2017 book, Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. There it was, staring up at me from page 180:

Economics, it turns out, is not a matter of discovering laws: it is essentially a question of design.

What a novel, seemingly radical, notion! And yet, once considered, it makes perfect sense. We know that the many strange and complex ways in which we humans create value for ourselves and others didn't just spring up one day; they weren't discovered, full-blown, created according to some natural laws: no, they've been conceived and fashioned by humans in accordance with our sundry motivations, values and notions.

And then another quote came to mind, this one from Steve Jobs:

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.

That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

And, of course, Steve's idea amplifies Kate's. When we humans are first starting out, we are entirely focused on learning the way things are; but then, if we take the next step, we learn that we can change things, we can make them better, we can build things that other people can use: even new economies.

And then, in another excellent book, Michael E. McCullough's The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, I came across this passage:

Concern for the entire world? How, exactly, are you supposed to pull that off? Each Axial Age society came up with its own approach. The Hebrew scriptures of Second Temple Judaism, for instance, directed the wealthy to set aside some of their crops for the poor. They also called for the cancellation of onerous debts and the restoration of land to its original owners during the Jubilee year (every fiftieth year).

And the “Jubilee” reference then brought to mind the Robert Hunter lyrics to the song “Sugaree,” which I had first heard performed by Jackie Greene:

Shake it up now, Sugaree.
I'll meet you at the Jubilee.
And if that Jubilee don't come,
Baby I'll meet you on the run.

But how is this idea of a Jubilee year connected to the original thought by Kate? Just in this way: writing a law calling for the cancellation of onerous debts and the restoration of land to its original owners in every fiftieth year is, very plainly, an act of design. It's not something that just happened, or a law that was discovered: it was a law that was written.

And while this idea of a Jubilee every twenty-five or fifty years may at first glance seem rather odd and arbitrary, we can see a certain sense to it, even from our vantage point in 2021. After all, as recently as 2013, economist Thomas Piketty undertook an extensive analysis that basically confirmed the conventional wisdom that, if capitalism is left to its own devices, then over time the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

And while capitalists may regard this tendency as only right and fair, and the natural result of a sort of economic meritocracy, a few problems arise.

  • If this tendency is allowed to proceed without intervention, then eventually a few will have everything, and most will have nothing.

  • While one can make an argument for allowing economic competition between individuals to reward some more than others, if society allows the resulting wealth to be passed down from one generation to the next within families, then the playing field for individuals is no longer level, since some individuals now start their competitions considerably ahead of others (see the antics of Donald Trump and his offspring for anecdotal confirmation of the problems with this approach).

  • Even if we conceive of our modern economies as games, in some sense, with individual players competing to maximize their winnings, we must concede that all games have to start over at some point, for a few reasons:

    1. first, because when some players get so far ahead of the others it makes no sense to continue the competition;
    2. second, starting over gives all players a new chance to compete on a level playing field; and
    3. third, starting over gives all players a chance to apply what they've learned from past wins and losses to a fresh competition. (Even the NFL has to give losing teams the top draft picks in order to keep the playing field reasonably level.)

And so we see that, in our American economy, we seem to go through cycles of wealth accumulation leading up to a gilded age, followed by some rectifying progressive action that restores a decent degree of wealth to the middle class. In other words, we have our own sort of jubilee every fifty years or so – we just don't seem to be smart enough to recognize it as such and institutionalize it.

So perhaps we might come around to thinking that economic kindness, instead of being something indulged in capriciously by bleeding-heart liberals who are occasionally feeling generous, should in fact be a regular practice that is designed into our societies.

Then perhaps more of us might manage to avoid the fate prescribed by G. K. Chesterton to those too focused on the singular goal of amassing wealth:

Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.

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