The Confusion of Cost & Value*

*Here’s another “detail” where civilization has got it wrong. We use cost and value as if they were synonymous. They are not. Cost is a negative quantity measured on a linear scale. Value is a quality. That this should be so hard to understand is another example of how deeply bought-in we are, bought into linearity and quantification. That, and a voluntary – there’s no other way to characterize it – abdication of our ability to judge qualities or even distinguish them from impulses and the shortest route to their satisfaction. Qualities are not exchangeable. They are not commodifiable. Commodify love and you get prostitution. Costs, by whatever method of their accounting, describe what is lost to obtain something else. Costs only apply to commodities, never to qualities.

Economics is a fiction attempting to turn linear costs into a semblance of a circular system. We’re fed the line that by paying a cost we provide a benefit and, in turn either directly or indirectly, another benefit will come around to us. This is a line, a lie, since economic costs all ultimately settle onto “externalities.” While these are external to the economic fairy tale, they directly impinge on the Earth’s capacities – including all of our human capacities. We all pay costs, most of them hidden – not so successfully any more, just look at the Gulf of Mexico, before the media has messaged us all into believing it’s “normal” to have a dead sea pumping oil out into the Atlantic in a Gulf™ Stream. These costs accrue and compound and eventually come due; but not in the way the economic fairy tale would have it.

When confronted by something we don’t want to consider we ask for a cost/benefit analysis. This makes us feel as though we’ve done our “due diligence.” – These terms are precious! Due diligence, as if “going through the motions” by following “the letter of the law” was the height of “fiscal” responsibility! Note how fiscal sounds like physical and takes on, by magical transference, the latter term’s grounding in reality. – Cost/benefit, the more elaborate the better, so long as we keep it within the fairy tale context where fiscal is as real as physical.

This farce of magical thinking leads to the discovery of “trade-offs.” The problem is, the trade-offs always go the same way, they restore the fiction of externalities as a viable concept and provide a pseudo-rational cover for doing what should be obviously, patently, insane actions! This should have become clear, obvious to any and all, around sixty years ago when the civilized powers – I don’t use “ironical quotes” on civilized, because I’m not using the word ironically. I’m going to describe precisely what civilized powers do, not what they inadvertently get “forced into” doing, what they intend to do and do better than anything else. – they agreed to disagree on all superficial levels and made a single tacit and binding agreement to risk the total annihilation of the world rather than change their minds.

This was a culmination, not a departure from business-as-usual. Atrocities at various levels of efficiency had been carried out all along; but at this point, with the horrors of a second world war still fresh in everyone’s living memory, in a glee of fervent self-righteousness, this agreement was made and invested with the greatest effort, paid for by us all, and exerted by the “Best and the Brightest” across the two remaining competing branches of the industrialized civilization Brand.

Once this barrier was breached, so that as a consequence, everyone alive today has lived most, if not all, of our lives with this bargain hanging over our heads. This next stage, the one we are now witnessing; the active, piecemeal, yet oh so thorough, destruction of all of the most fundamental physical supports for the continuation of any life on this Earth; has become quite easy. The excuses are as flimsy as ever, and as fervently embraced. Every sort of magical thinking, of transference, of displacement and of projection is trotted out to bedazzle us with the due diligence of our cost/benefit analysis.

Here’s a different sort of cost/benefit analysis, the one I made today, as I do every day on visiting a nearby beach. I’m walking my dog. The first choice I make is between having her feces add to the nitrogen imbalance off our coast or bring a plastic bag to carry dog shit with me as I walk. I choose the bag. The next choice I have is whether to fill this bag with any or all of the plastic I find – the third most common item on this shore after sand and rocks – or walk on by, as do all but a vanishingly small minority of the people I have ever seen there, or on any shoreline. There must have been others, over the years, I must have seen someone else pick up some of this trash instead of willfully ignoring it while they look for a “treasure” in shells, or more elaborately, with headphones, wearing camouflage, and carrying a long wand of a metal-detector and a mechanical scoop, hunting for “valuable artifacts” under the sand. It’s just that I cannot remember anyone specifically, at least not today….

One choice I don’t have is to throw their selective blindness in their faces, or to in any way disrupt their pursuit of happiness. Another choice I don’t have is to confront those who benefit from perpetuating all this plastic – not us, those of us locked into a world where plastic is more ubiquitous than shells on this beach, an average beach, even a relatively “pristine” beach. But those individuals with the power and the clout to enforce upon us all that we live in this particular kind of world – and compel them to eat what I’ve collected. It’s a good random sampling, one part dog shit, standing in for misplaced nutrients turned into wastes by overload, and ten parts, or fifty parts depending on how meticulous I am at policing the swath maybe twenty-feet wide and a quarter-mile long that makes up our walk. Why compel them to eat it? Is this some fit of jealousy over their “wealth?” No, but because they should have a taste of what it’s like to be any of the countless creatures; invertebrates, fish, reptiles, mammals and birds who have no choice but to ingest this sort of crap every day as they attempt, and increasingly fail, to go about their lives. They don’t have a choice, as I don’t have the choice of compelling their/our tormentors with this bit of enlightening indigestion.

Costs and values. Values are priceless! We all know that, there’s a commercial! Conveniently, that removes all values from our cost/benefit analysis. On my walk, I’m living the results of the repeated, ongoing decision to place word over reality. It goes as deeply as that. But no deeper! This is where our Shoal Hope lies. In our fervor, with all of our due diligence, we misconstrue the loss of a mere attitude of mind and conflate this into something we insist is less acceptable than the total annihilation of life. In the end, our panic and our insistence is no more substantial than that of a willful child upset at not having his way and holding his breath to teach the world a lesson. The only difference is that this willful child, the ultimate terrorist bomber, has nuclear weapons and access to all the power it can accumulate from this Earth to back up its threat and ensure that when it dies, it will take us all along with it.

Suicides all want to die. They feel trapped and see no other way out. This applies to individuals and to cultures. Jumpers, as we’ve learned from some who failed and returned to tell the tale, realize in free-fall that the death they were after has already occurred, and they then so much want to live. The death they have witnessed was the death of their narcissism, their acceptance that something was of greater value than their willfulness. Today, as individuals and as a culture, we have been in free-fall now for the better part of a century. What percentage of us will have this realization before we hit bottom?  How many will be fortunate to have a second chance? How many will ever recognize that the joy and love of life itself is always only available to us after we’ve brought about that attitudinal death within ourselves? It’s a pity we all have to come to such an extremis wholesale. Cultures we now deride as “primitive” had processes that brought each member to this realization upon their maturity. During this brief – yes a few thousand years has been brief in the total span of human existence – excursion into collective psychosis, the replacement of word for reality, we have lost sight of this in our pursuit of fantasy. This pursuit has led directly, not through “mismanagement” or “evil-doers” spoiling the fun, to the death-seeking state we are all in today.

I was mesmerized by the sight of Don Draper‘s dapper silhouette free-falling past Madison Avenue’s twice abstracted towers at the opening of Mad Men. That show was about the formative moment of my existence, the years when I was born and raised into the world shaped by those “players.” I think what I was catching in that image was precisely this insight into free-fall and the death of the death-wish in self-destruction. The paradox is that the suicide feels compelled to self-destruction by something as insubstantial as a mere refusal to change their mind. The irony lies in their inability to realize this while they still have a choice, only to have their decision arrive effortlessly once they no longer have control over their lives. They die filled with true regret for never having lived once their pseudo-regrets and protestations of powerlessness – those dis satisfactions which led to their seeking their own deaths in the first place – no longer pertain.


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