Jeremy Lent on Shifting Values in a Pandemic


Jeremy Lent, founder of founder of the Liology Institute and author of The Patterning Instinct, talks to Rob about how values shape our economics and our reaction to the pandemic, and how the pandemic could, in turn, provoke a shift in values in favor of community and against neoliberalism.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Jeremy Lent. His book The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. It’s been something that I know people at my staff and my people that work with me, journalists who’ve talked to me about on and on and on. So I would say this is an exciting day for me, Jeremy. Thanks for joining me, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Jeremy Lent:

Thank you, Rob. I’m so happy to be here in conversation with you.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I know you’re involved in many dimensions. I’ve read a number of your works around corporate governance, ecological studies, the potential end of neoliberalism and what lies beyond. But really, I’d like to just explore where you are. I know you run an outfit in Berkeley, the Liology Institute, and are very concerned with deep transformation of society. And like I said, I found your work very intriguing and very exciting but I should stop talking so I get to learn more. Tell me, the pandemic, what’s on your mind? What’s on your mind? What does this mean for society?

Jeremy Lent:

Well, one of the things I think we need to realize is that right now, we’re so focused on some of the short-term fall outs of this pandemic and which of course are extreme and that’s where we should be focusing a lot of our attention. But what I think we really need to understand is that the long-term impacts are going to be huge and quite potentially way, way bigger than many of us realize.

So my sort of primary message about how we need to think about the long-term impact of this pandemic right now is we need to think bigger than many of us are thinking. We need to realize that a year or two from now, we’ll probably have good treatments for the COVID-19, we’ll probably have a vaccine. And in terms of the coronavirus direct impact, life will be back to some new version of normal. But I think that we’ll just begin to see some of the dominoes falling then that will lead to really change in the scale that we haven’t seen probably since the Second World War. I think it’s that big a transformation we’re entering into right now.

Rob Johnson:

And if you were to, how I would say it, take out your zoom lens in light of the maladies that you’ve diagnosed in society over time, where would you want to focus? Where would you want to begin, which you might call that deep transformation?

Jeremy Lent:

Yes. Well, I think one of the things we need to realize is that the fact of this big transformation coming is not necessarily a good thing because I think the risks of the dark powers of the surveillance states and the authoritarian regimes and the disruption of democracy are every bit as big as the opportunities. And so we need to both be aware of what we have to defend against as well as be aware of the potential for very positive change. When I think about that, I like to talk about this notion that I expect some people listening or already have heard of this concept of the Overton window, which is this really interesting notion of what are the themes, the issues that actually can be talked about seriously in mainstream political conversation.

And in fact, the word Overton window came from this person, Overton, who was a neoliberal back in the early days, whose idea was to shift the Overton window so that things that couldn’t be seriously talked about back in the ’60s or ’70s could be. And of course, we know that the success of that sort of neoliberal discourse did exactly that. So things that were totally unthinkable back then became political norms. And this time, I believe the Overton window is blown wide open. So there are things that are being discussed, right now, very seriously in mainstream political discussions that couldn’t even been thought about just a month or two ago. Such as on the one extreme, things like a far greater degree of state surveillance. And on the other extreme, things like universal basic income that I think could be a powerful wedge.

So I think that probably the most valuable thing we can do in this time right now as we’re looking at what is really urgent pressing issues right now but what can also be almost like fractal wedges for future change is look at, what are the things that can really make an impact now that people have to talk about, which also could lead to long-term systemic transformation?

Rob Johnson:

I’m always attracted to musical analogies and I started hearing, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” in my mind as you talked about the Overton window. And someone once asked me, I worked for six years in the United States Senate with the Budget and Banking Committees and someone asked me, “What is INET’s role in Capitol Hill?” And I said that whenever there was a meeting on Capitol Hill, the conventional wisdom has… It’s like a bell curve, there are boundaries. And people who are elected or represent just really won’t go very far outside or at least a vast majority of them won’t. So the question for INET is, how to change the conventional wisdom that will be accepted in meetings in 20 years?

Jeremy Lent:

Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

And I think this is a very, very important and deep notion, not only in the positive sense of a vision but of what you’re not supposed to do. And I think the neoliberalism experience, say of the last 40 years or slightly more has made valid and legitimate a whole lot of things that have very harmful side effects and is often confused what I will call the means with the ends. Markets are a tool. They’re a tool to facilitate something that are the ends that philosophers, theologians, and humanists talk about. Markets are not a deity. I know I’ve been doing a lot of reading of your work related to the technology and related to the corporate structure and their role in society.

How would I say? These almost religious like sensibility surrounding economic and political structures can be very, very dangerous. And it’s only in a time like this when, like I say, we’re kind of shaken awake to re-examine them. So I think your work is more important right now than it’s… How do you say it? Than it is on the average Tuesday.

Jeremy Lent:

Right. Yeah, thank you for that. And I sort of agree about, I think one of the fundamental fulcrum that needs to shift is this concept of how we view markets. And I think you probably know the really far thinking economist, Kate Raworth, who wrote Doughnut Economics, and something I love in her book is she uses the analogy of fire to talk about markets, that there’s no question about markets’ effectiveness and power. And oftentimes when there’s discussions between right wing or left wing kind of conversations, somebody feeling they’re more on the right wing might say, “Yes, but look how important markets are, look how effective they are.” And Kate Raworth point is, yeah, think of it like fire. Everybody agrees that fire is tremendously powerful and can do incredible things but nobody then says, “Well, therefore we should just let fire go unrestrained anyway because it’s so good.”

In a house, we have a fireplace or we have careful gas suppliers to manage it. And so similarly, we need to recognize that markets left unrestrained do have this massive transformative capability. The thing is, what they tend to do is corrode and destroy many human values and institutions that work for the common good. And so we need to recognize that markets don’t have to be abolished or cut away from normal society. They have to be constraint so they work in the most effective way along with many other domains of human, both economy and other forms of human interaction.

Rob Johnson:

I was very attracted to the subtitle of your book, I remember when I got it, The Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. I’ve had a very strong sensibility, I think it kind of emanated from working on a conference, our plenary conference in 2017 was in Edinburgh, Scotland. So I went and got a look at a time around the theory of moral settlements and before the wealth of nations, and Adam Smith and David Hume’s work and their correspondence with one another. And I got the sense that moral and ethical discourse had been at the center of public policy making, and the church had played a very profound role. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, the complicity of the church with the power of feudal Lords landed aristocracy started to be challenged and which you might say disrespected. And so you saw this transformation of the language of governance, which I will call dry and aseptic technocratic value-free scientific mask.

And then economics and politics and public policy went on with this kind of value-free charade for many years. And when we saw the extreme socialism, the Mao and Stalin and Lenin and others, that was almost the excesses of the fantasy that technocratic control could do everything. And obviously, we saw a backlash against that. But in the power that was then, which you might call bestowed upon markets to be this deity that provided for everything. And then how would I say? As an alternative to the state socialism and authoritarian work, it became clear that the outcomes of the market did not validate which you might call the moral implicit faith or unconscious faith. And it feels to me like it’s a time to return now to a moral and ethical discourse. That the aversion to being associated with the corrupt church does not obviate the need for moral and ethical discourse 200 years later at a critical time like this. How do you see the way in which this discussion should unfold or be repaired from here on?

Jeremy Lent:

Yes, I think you raise just a great point that it’s really what we need is a shift in values even more than any of the specific technical or policy kind of initiatives that we might be talking about. And then as you’re saying to the subtitle of my book, one of the things that I think that for me came up really crystallized through that book, The Patterning Instinct and the research on it was this realization that the deepest level, culture actually shapes values. So civilizations or a people’s culture leads them to come up with a set of values and those values are what have shaped history all the way from millennia ago to the present day. So if we want to look at where we are going in the future, we need ultimately to look at our value system, and that has to be where the change has to take place.

And when we look at our current system of values, in fact, it’s interesting that you mention sort of back in Europe 18th century or even earlier because actually, there is many elements or foundational elements of our worldview that really came from ideas and theories that developed way back when, during the scientific revolution in 17th century Europe and in the 18th century. And some of these ideas then got further elaborated in the 19th century. And what I find so astonishing is that the concepts and ideas that many leading thinkers in mainstream sort of thought today, just take for granted these ideas from hundreds of years ago that have actually been shown to be completely wrong by modern science.

And of course, not only are they wrong but they’re also destructive. But the amazing thing is that it’s so ingrained in our culture that there are these sort of concepts that people just take for granted even though they’re actually been shown to be scientifically wrong and work against the benefit of humanity and life. And just some examples of that is this notion, for example, of seeing nature as a machine. And then seeing humans as being totally separate from nature.

And one of the most important ones, it really have led so much to some of these foundational misconceptions in mainstream economics is this concept of a human as ultimately being identified as individual. And then not just as an individual but as a rational maximizer of benefit as an individual. And each of those elements have been shown by modern science in many different disciplines to be just wrong. And yet, that’s the basis for what people then unfold as their sort of theories. And those are the misconceptions that have led to this market-based thinking that has taken us on this destructive path we’re on.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I often think of what I call the Horatio Alger myth where people are allowed or encouraged… I shouldn’t say allowed. They are encouraged to put their head down, work hard, stay in school, dah, dah, dah, dah. But the myth is, and if you do so, you can control your own fate. Another notion I find very disturbing is the notion of economic justice where economic justice as used by a traditional economist suggests that you have what’s called a marginal productivity. And if you’re paid more than that, you’re subsidized. If you paid less than that, you’re exploited. And if it’s right in balance, then everything is fine. That’s economic justice. But the problem is if the marginal productivity, which is a metaphor, is such that you cannot afford a reasonable life for you or your family, it doesn’t feel anything like justice. And where I think it explodes is that that marginal productivity is not just about you and your talent and your ability and your perseverance. It’s the product of things like health and education systems that are collective social designs.

So when someone has a miserable life, rather than blaming them, we have to re-examine the systems that underpin the ability of a person to “be paid their marginal product,” whatever that means, and be able to live a prosperous and healthy and satisfying life. And I don’t see any… I see this dialogue constructed around many facets of economics to almost implicitly justify cruelty as though it is not cruelty. And I always laugh. I used to live near Madison Avenue. I’d walk down the street and I’d see all the advertising agencies and I just look at the building and I say, “You guys don’t exist,” because economists say everybody’s got preferences and the market translate those preferences into demand and everybody gets what they want.

And I don’t know. I often think that the blind spots of economics are the single most important ingredient in the forming of business schools because there, they have to teach people to play the real game, not the ideal legitimation fantasy that economic theory represents.

Jeremy Lent:

Yes. I think that it’s all true and I think that what we really need to look at again is what are some of the deepest structures of thought that have led to this kind of mis-characterization of what people are and what fantasies and so many of these other qualities? And I think that if you begin from the foundation that says that, “People really just identify as individuals.” And if you believe that they are these kind of rational maximizing computers essentially, then you can sort of come up with some system that maximizes some kind of computer algorithm that people are assumed to have that may look something like this kind of neoliberal system we have right now, but that’s why those fundamental assumptions need to be called out and shown to be wrong.

And one way of looking at that is just to get the sense of what I mean when I say humans actually don’t really identify just purely as individuals, we’re told that that’s what we are by our mainstream society. But if we look back at actually what makes us humans, like what is it that some of the defining human characteristics from an evolutionary point of view? Really, when humans first sort of branched off from other primates, when we became who we are as humans, it was a whole slew of what are called moral emotions that evolve. Things like a sense of fairness, a sense of compassion, a sense of altruism, a sense of actually being part of our actual band and our community not as individuals.

So even right now, if you look at the values of indigenous groups to the extent that they haven’t been corrupted by mainstream culture, what you’ll see is that people who are too focused on themselves as individuals at the expense of the group are considered basically there’s something wrong with them. It’s almost like a pathology that they have because part of the actual identity of somebody as they grew up in that community is their set of relationships with their close community, but also with all of humanity and maybe just as important with all of life.

So I think that this is what we need to recognize that actually for humans to flourish, we have to begin to rediscover what is actually our natural way of identifying, which is different layers of community. And then once you realize that, you realize that an individual human flourishing can’t happen by themselves in some sort of vacuum. And it can only happen when individual is a part of an actual happy flourishing community itself. And when the society as a whole is organized in a just way. And when human civilization as a whole is not gaining by destroying the natural world, but actually finding a way to harmonize with all of nature.

So these are completely different set of values, which if you apply them and start to sort of think about economics in that way, you come up with very, very different ways of really just even how you’re thinking about it, and which of course leads to very different results.

Rob Johnson:

I remember reading a fascinating PhD thesis from a gentleman who is now deceased, René Girard, who was at Stanford University for many years. And the name of his book, which I have here just to my left was Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. And his PhD, I believe was done at University of Indiana. The subtitle was Self and Other in Literary Structure. He made a study of something like 20 or 30 of the most famous novels of all time. And he said, “People are obviously attracted to this. In other words, the patterns that they perceive or see in the novel structure and characters is something that might be revealing in the sense that it resonates with people’s enthusiasm as familiar or that’s inspiring. That’s what it feels like to be alive.”

So he went through and he wrote this book and he came out at the back end with a theory of what he called mimetic desire, which essentially you’ll find people who are your mentors, you find people who are your teachers, you find people you like, you find people you admire and you formulate your tastes through learning, through appreciation, through interaction with other people that it’s a collective product. And he talked about some of the darker side of this or the more stressful central side of this where at times you are pitted against other people. He describes in a metaphor, an art auction, where I learned from you that I should really like the paintings of EW Cooke who’s a 19th century nautical painter. And we both go to the auction only one of us can win. So at some level, to maintain our friendship when one was going to win and one was going to lose, we both agree to dislike and scapegoat something else so that we can, how do I say, create a way of not embracing the tension between the two of us because it’s not consistent with what inspired us both to like the same artist.

And he goes through all of these as examples of passages in novels. But I often thought he was so much further advanced in understanding the kind of yearnings and desires and satisfactions of people by studying literature than which you might call the rather IC mechanical framework that economics imposes on the individual and the consumer.

Jeremy Lent:

Yes. I like where you’re going with that. It leads to a very interesting insight which really comes a lot from the research done in cognitive science and really sort of how our minds form. Which is very much along the lines of what’s this writer was describing as you just took us through, which is really our values and our ways of making meaning, our ways of making sense of the world. They are not on sort of pre-wired in sort of brains when we are formed. What we have as humans and this actually formed the name of my book is a Patterning Instinct. We have an instinct to pattern meaning into the universe around us. How that gets done depends to a large extent on the culture into which we are born. So because of our patterning instinct that we learn even before anybody tells us to, we learned the language of our natural, of our parents and our culture.

And as we grow older, we learn to look at the world in the way that our culture tells us to not so much explicitly, but implicitly. It’s not like cultures go around and saying, “Here are the six things as how the world works according to our world here.” But because of everything that’s done and everything that’s talked about and the values people have is based on underlying structures of thought. People just automatically, instinctively take that into themselves and assume that’s the natural way things are. And what’s so dangerous about our current world situation is that because of mass media and because of the fact that basically transnational corporations really own the media that inculcates ideas into people. Really around the world from when people are just very, very young, just the first few months their lives really, they are just bombarded with inputs that tell them, “Implicitly your job is to be a consumer. Your status is based on how much material prestige you have over other people. You need to compete against others in order to get more of something so you can win according to these values.”

Yeah, it’s not just advertising, which itself is a big part of it, but just a very implicit messages that come from stories and comes from the ways in which different people have prestige in mass media or internet. That’s actually how people form their values. And of course corporations know that so well and there’s this amazing quote from Wayne Tiilliky, the chief executive of General Mills, or at least once he was, where he talks about, “When it comes to targeting kid consumers at General Mills, we want to get them early and have them for life.” And that’s really what corporate America does. So what’s it’s so important is to work very hard on deconstructing these value systems that are put into people’s mind so deeply that they don’t even realize they have them. And so it’s not my starting point, if you will, from what you were describing from what that’s writer was suggesting.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. His name is René Girard.

Jeremy Lent:

Thank you. Yes. What René Girard was suggesting is, it’s really great when people actually seek out where they’re going to get that value from, seek out the book or seek out the thing. But what happens to the most people is it’s put into their minds without them even realizing it, which makes it even more powerful because then you need to be conscious of something in order to deconstruct it.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I sense that Girard was familiar with the world of… What am I call? Implanted indoctrination. But he also sense that people could see with studying older novels, were looking for things from John Dos Passos or various 19th century writers that resonated with truth when they could feel they were being surrounded by untruth.

Jeremy Lent:

Right. Beautiful.

Rob Johnson:

And your sense, you said it gets driven in so young and so hard and so deep, you may not even know how to recognize unless you’re extremely uncomfortable in response to… How would I say? It’s like an awakening, “Oh, boy. I didn’t see this. I was misled and now I’ve got to deal with the consequences.” That’s a little bit like the pandemic right now.

Jeremy Lent:

Yes. How true is that? And I do think that that point you just said is actually one of the reasons that I continue to have hope for this possibility of significant transformation in our cultural systems and our value systems, even in spite of everything I’ve just described and everything that we see going on around us. Because these values that are put into people’s minds are actually false values. The values, things that say to people, “You are this kind of totally separate individual and you need to be competitive. And the meaning of life is basically to accrue as much wealth as possible and to have as much status as possible in what you’re doing, what you seem to do.” These are all basically fake values. They’re values that leads to the accumulation of a lot of wealth for a small elite and they lead to the destruction of the quality of life for most human beings. And certainly the destruction of the richness of biodiversity on the earth.

And people know that, which is why there is so much of a sense of anxiety and so much of a sense that people have that something is very, very wrong with our system. And that’s where I believe the hook comes. I think that those of us here who are engaged in trying to offer alternatives, what we need to really do is do the best job possible of laying out true meaningful coherent alternatives with value systems and economic systems that arise from those value systems that actually show what is possible for a future rather than the system we have right now. There’s something that Slavoj Žižek said that’s real famous quote that, “It’s easier really to visualize the end of civilization as a whole than to visualize the end of capitalism for many people.” Because that notion of this is the only way. The Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative kind of quote. That is become so embedded in people’s minds that people truly don’t even realize that there are other alternatives.

And in fact, one of the things that I feel it’s also so important for us to do is we’re still living… So much of our mainstream dialogue is still stuck in at least a generation ago when it was free market capitalism with democracy versus socialism and authoritarian state led socialism. That’s all obviously history. And yet we’re still often told the only alternative to this free market, neoliberal capitalism, is some sort of states dominated a socialist model. That’s simply not true. There’s so many great ideas being put out there for different ways of organizing as a society and an economy where there is still markets. Where markets have a place to play but there, it’s based primarily on this recognition of community and this recognition of flourishing at different levels of scale rather than just this notion of unfettered market capitalism.

Rob Johnson:

I’ve always been very attracted to the writing of a man who was said to be Wittgenstein’s favorite student. His name was Stephen Toulmin. His daughter, Camilla, works with me at INET related to climate issues and other issues in Africa. But Stephen Toulmin wrote a book called Cosmopolis: The Hidden History of Modernity. Essentially starts the book at the time of the 30 years war and the Protestant Reformation. And he talks about the danger and the hostility and how many had equivalent of retreated into the monastery to hide from the controversy. And what emerged was the rather abstract antiseptic language kind of but Cartesian perspective of the enlightenment and that it was supplied to natural science with some substantial benefit. But when it was adapted to social science, and was a mis-specification along many of the lines you’ve described today, it created fault lines.

And the challenge that he wrote, and he wrote this book in the late 1980s after he had seen the ’60s and all the rebellions and the civil rights movements, the antiwar movement and then the backlash, during the Reagan era. And he said that, “It is the characteristic of society to become indoctrinated and familiar with a certain mindset. And then when the fault lines become apparent, the pain gets so extreme that people essentially become frightened and the lurch back to the familiar rather than driving forward.” And as I listened to you, I think these ways of painting a vision or challenging the vision as things are breaking down to create a constructive magnet for the future is absolutely essential. I reminded also of a book that I’m very fond of by a woman who was poet named Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s called the Life of Poetry.

In the first segment of the book part one of I think three, it’s called The Resistances and the first chapter in The Resistances is called the Fear of Poetry. I’m very fond of how music and poetics and art, affect us and affect our sense of right and wrong. And how you say help us evolve our values. What Muriel represented in the opening chapter was that when there was bombing during world war II up off the Scandinavian coast, she was put on a boat with people to go to New York. They were largely Europeans evacuating their home. And she was a poet so she would try to read them poetry and she saw them not experience joy or cure. They just shut down. They didn’t want unfamiliar stimulus. And so I guess I use that as another example of this emotional condition. When you’ve got to move forward, you’ve got to develop a confidence and a textured sense of faith in the vision and faith in people or you may wallow for a particularly long time in your fear and lurch back to exacerbate the kind of problems that have brought you to the crisis in the fear that you experience in the present.

Jeremy Lent:

I think that what you’re saying is so true. Here in the United States, we’ve seen that only too painfully over the last few years where we see a big section of the population who had values of their lives demolished by this growth of neoliberalism and growth of sort of capital globalization and all these different things. And rather than responding by saying, “Yes. We’ve got to do something different.” They responded by essentially being manipulated by media to believing that they should blame outsiders for that. And we have to sort of go back to some mythic notion of when America was like a stronger country or whatever it was. And then right now with Democratic Party, we see the primary the person who now we know is going to be the candidates for president again, talking about how we need to get back to the Obama era.

We have to sort of move back to something that people can feel most stable about. And I do feel that long as people are trained to go back to something, obviously we’re not going to be forging the paths to hopeful and exciting future that we really need. But I think that as we were saying at the beginning, this crisis we’re in right now does offer a lot of hope for the potential that people will look for something very different in the future. And I think if we look at the Second World War as an example of the kind of thing that we may be discovering right now, what we see is that, there was a lot. There was like huge devastation took place and a real collapse of the systems that people thought couldn’t be changed or shouldn’t be changed. And things looked at so devastatingly bleak.

And many times during that period. And yet that led to really a whole vision of different kind of world. The different kind of world order, different set of values, different way of organizing economics and human society, that really led to all kinds of positive benefits in the decade since then, even though they themselves or some of those positive developments have now caused a counter reaction, which we need to respond to now. But I do think that that’s where we have some hope that even as things seemingly begin to unraveling, and it’s the unraveling itself that offers the potential for what I like to think of as a reweaving of a structure that could be potentially more beneficial.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I was listening to you when you were talking about the democratic candidate Joe Biden. It reminds me of how Ronald Reagan essentially sold nostalgia maybe to a narrower white male community than all of America. But he was talking about going back to a point of tranquility after the turmoil of the Vietnam war and civil rights and other oil shocks and things like that. But I wanted to ask you a question related to what I’ll call analogy you drew to World War II and war preparation, Franklin Roosevelt inherited and the economy and society in tatters and the New Deal, seem to invigorate or inspire faith in governance that lasted at least through the Lyndon Johnson administration. Not in a straight line, but it certainly was an uptick in the credibility and the integrity of governance in a way that affected many people positively.

And when he prepared for world war II, I think there was a notion that these people were good, leading with good intent. I don’t see a similar psychology following the financial crisis of 2008 and the bailout, whereas Joseph Stiglitz said, “The polluters got paid and everybody else suffered.” So the credibility of governance as we saw the tea party on the right, occupy on the left and despondency that led to first under the Obama administration, Republican control of the house, then the Senate, then the White House. I wonder now how we can… Which you might call, establish the credibility for moving forward? And what I think is different now, that’s why I drew the new deal in contrast is that much of what needs to be changed now is the structure of governance. That in itself is unrepresentative in his… Which you might call massive contributor, to many of the socially and environmentally and other dimensions of unsustainability. And maybe it’s the nature of governance itself that should be in what you might call, in the center of your zoom lens for the transformation in a direction that restores credibility.

Jeremy Lent:

Yes. Well, I think that there was one candidate for the Democratic nomination who did have the trust of many people because he spent his whole life telling the truth basically, and speaking authentically. And of course that was Bernie Sanders. Obviously at this point, we don’t want to get stuck in what ifs, but I do think that given the fact that Joe Biden is going to be the candidate, I think anybody who really once to see a transformed vision for the future has to essentially do what Bernie has just been strongly putting his energy behind the last few days and really get behind that. Is not to just get despondent and sort of let Joe Biden just go to his centrist roots and be driven in that direction, but actually put all the energy that was really looking for alternative ways to have democratic party leadership towards. And getting Joe Biden himself to pivot towards what is still possible.

Because I think that assuming we do have and some version of a fair election in November, and that we have Joe Biden then actually in the White House, there’s a possibility that that trust in government could get reinvigorated if there is actually a situation where things like a Green New Deal and the bold moves such as universal basic income and other bold moves that of course Joe Biden is still dragging his heels on, but it’s still early days yet. But such some version of universal health care that’s not tied to people’s place of employment. But these like real true structural changes in society, there has to be this real massive grassroots effort towards pushing the Democratic Party to that place. And I think it’s going to be hard quite honestly to move somebody who is by nature a centrist in those directions. But I think events may actually take care of that issue because things are going to get so much more extreme than they’re even seeing right now. Is these dominoes keep falling that even somebody like Joe Biden might find himself forced to turn to people with more visionary and transformative ideas.

Rob Johnson:

Well, many people suggest to me that Franklin Roosevelt started out as a wealthy elite, quite… We might call centrist conservative, and he rose to the challenge. So I don’t know that we can necessarily rule that out. But I think some of the problems now in my sense, and I refer to my research director, Tom Ferguson’s work, are really about a systemic problem where even a good hearted Democrat has to raise a lot of money to get elected or to get on the stage and have a chance at being nominated and elected. I mean, we talk about people in the 2016 election having to raise 900 million or a billion dollars to be considered eligible for the nomination. And the question is, what are you selling for that money? I know Donald Trump ran in his campaign in 2016. I’m from the state of Michigan and I was there preparing for a conference and watched some of his oration on television, but how do we say it, directed at the Michigan electorate. It was all about, “The system is rigged. The system is rigged. No one is representing you.”

And it caused some real… How do we say? He created a magnetism by acknowledging the dysfunction in governance. Not that anyone would say he’s done a great job of repairing it, most would call that a campaign of seduced and abandoned. But it’s fascinating because I sense there’s always least, worst and relative things in life, but my sense is that both sides are encumbered by the structural money politics system in a way that destroys broad-based representation that we’ve commodified social design.

Jeremy Lent:

I think that that’s all true. To some degree we have to be engaged in some of these… The political battles that you’re describing to shift things in a different direction. And at the same time, I think it’s just as important to be working at the community level to recognize that a lot of the changes that we need are not necessarily going to come from the top down over the next few years. But need to essentially comes from the bottom up. So I think people need to be turning their attention a lot to, “What can we do not just at the state level but at community levels to really take the future into our own hands and actually start to live into the future we want even while mainstream politics is lagging behind?”

Rob Johnson:

Let’s shift our focus a little bit. You came on with me to discuss the pandemic, but when I dive into your reading is that, how do I say, recent writings, I dive in as the reader, you are very, very concerned about the relationship between what you might call economic growth, corporate structure and the exhaustion of the natural resources in our planet. The ecological economy seems from what I read of yours to be in very dire circumstances. And that predates the pandemic. Could you share with me a little bit of where your thinking is in that regard and what inspired you to address it?

Jeremy Lent:

Sure, absolutely. Yeah. Well, the simple facts are that one of the foundational structures of our economic system is that it is a growth-based system. And we’re all familiar with this sense that unless the GDP is growing at say up to maybe 3% a year, that’s considered to be not what could lead to the most prosperity. And yet when you take… Just like we’re talking about, we’ve all gotten comfortable now with this notion of exponential curves as regards to the coronavirus. But there’s another exponential curve, which is actually far more damaging in the long run to our global civilization. Which is simply this growth curve of the rate at which we’re consuming the resources of the natural world. So if you look at the way in which we are consuming the Earth, we are already at something like 40% over our sustainable capacity.

And every year that we grow the global economy we are really heading faster and faster towards a precipice. And many, many scientists… This is not something that just a few environmentally focused activists to focus on or anything like that, but there’s tens of thousands of scientists have written warnings to the world, which they have published in peer reviewed journals to explain that we can’t go on in this way indefinitely. And of course everyone’s familiar about climate breakdown and the fact that right now even if were to go at the rate that governments have agreed that they are going to commit to do, we would still be at three degrees Celsius above their baseline level by the end of the century, which most people project is not consistent with a continued global civilization. There’s too much disruption that takes place.

That’s just from a climate breakdown, but it’s so much greater than that. It’s a much, much bigger ecological breakdown. And some of the statistics are just mind-blowing and such as, 60% of animal populations have been lost since 1970. So basically of all the animals in the world in 1970, those populations have declined by 60% in the past 50 years. So these are huge number. Or another incredible statistic is the fact that at the current rates they’ll actually be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish by the middle of this century. And the problem is that we can solve these kinds of issues through technical fixes or just simple policy fixes. We have to look at the underlying structures. Because as long as we have a growth-based economy, we’re going to continue in that direction.

And of course this growth-based economy is dominated by these for-profit trends national corporations whose actual charters tells them that they have to grow their earnings. Otherwise, of course, the board of directors, the CEO can be sued by shareholders for not doing their job properly. So we have a system that is really hell bent on self-destruction. And those are, I think, the fundamental issues so that when we’re looking at this current problem of coronavirus, the solution is not to get over it and then try to get growth back to where it was before. But the opportunity is to look at some of the fundamental ways in which we can shift how we relate to each other and how we relate to our economy so that we could potentially reroute, redirect the future direction of society in a way that’s not taking us directly to the precipice.

Rob Johnson:

And I guess what is inside of this is, is there a design or is it this decentralized, everybody maximized for themselves or? So there’s an unconscious awareness of the collective damage we’re doing? Or is it a… How would I say? I remember in one of your articles you talked about, there should be a crime of ecocide which corporations or individuals could be convicted of. In other words, a way of… How do I say? Using a social means of deterrent or threat of penalty to heighten their awareness and change their behavior.

Jeremy Lent:

Yeah. Well, that’s actually one great idea. There’s actually a group and called Stopping Ecocide which is based in the UK, which is actually working to try to get a law accepted at the International Criminal Court to define the crime of ecocide. So that people who are say, corporate executives who are involved in the willful destruction of a completed ecology could actually be accused of that crime internationally. And that is an example of the kind of systemic change that we need. But I think to look at this question of, well, who’s doing it? We have to look at it from a more systemic perspective. We’re not looking at just… Of course there are a few basically bad people who are just focused on their greed and recklessness and ready to destroy everything in front of them to get what they want.

I’m not saying that’s not the case, but I think that… And there’s always good and bad people in the world. It’s the systems that are driving people towards the behavior that is so self-destructive, that we have to be looking at changing. And in fact, I wrote an article a couple of years back, which looked at this notion of how the corporation itself, the whole design got set up back in the 17th century, it’s almost like a form of AI, if you will, that we as humans created that is actually working against our benefits. So what I find so interesting is that a number of famous scientists have talked about the threats of artificial intelligence, of AI getting out of control. And what happens if somebody creates some sort of system that’s so powerful that it optimizes for something that doesn’t actually relates to human welfare, but it does it so powerfully that nothing humans can do can stop these forces from being unleashed on the world.

And I do think, of course this risk of AI, like that is a real risk. But I think what people don’t realize is that as humans, we created a form of AI just like that in the corporation. And people understood in the 17th and 18th centuries, that there was a fundamental problem with these for-profit corporations. Because they were incentivized to take risks where the downside was not as great as the upside. There is this notion called moral hazard. And it was only in the 19th century actually, and in the United States suddenly after the Civil War and all the chaos that ensued after that, that corporations became and ensconced with the power that they have now in our country and basically over the entire world. And I think that one of the most valuable things we can do, and this is one of the things I would like to see personally become a central back in the Overton window we talked about earlier, that isn’t even mentioned other than by a few far thinking politicians, like Elizabeth Warren is an example.

Is this notion of reining in the power of corporations. And actually fundamentally changing their charters so that rather than being charted in order to maximize corporate profits, they should be chartered with what’s called the triple bottom line, Which means basically a bottom line for for-profits and also for people and for the planet. Meaning that they actually have to have in their charter something that says that they have to optimize not just to make as much money as possible, but for their employees, for the people who live in the areas where their plants are located and even for the quality of the customers that they are marketing to. And for the quality of the customers that they’re marketing to. And at greater scale still is the planetary level. They have to optimize for global and natural ecology. So if they are destroying our natural world, that would be something that they can’t do while maintaining that charter.

And that’s something that obviously it’s a massive change compared to what we used to now, but it’s a change that would really require a simple new and law. It doesn’t require fundamentally altering massive elements of our global infrastructure. But that one change alone would change the roles that would lead to different behaviors that would spread globally very quickly.

Rob Johnson:

I remember you had talked about several changes. One was the renewal of the charter. I found that very interesting because I had read books on the history and the origin of corporations. The limited liability corporation was considered at the time a social institution whereby granting at that status, it would perform certain things for society that could not otherwise happen. So re-examining that corporate charter and making sure it’s aligned with public purpose frequently and then demanding as I think you alluded to, a multi-stakeholder agenda, is what modern language calls it, where more than just shareholder maximization becomes important. That I’ve even seen the business round table and some business leaders talking as though that were true. Duff McDonald wrote a wonderful book called The Golden Passport, about how Harvard Business School has so much influence, but got so far off course in the era of Michael Jensen and shareholder maximization.

But I see these things as very important vis-a-vis the corporate institutions. What do we do vis-a-vis the very wealthy individuals? One of your pieces that I read talked about how… I think it was six people have a higher net-worth than half of planet earth and what these kinds of accumulations of wealth and power, the foundations that they can create, the way in which they determined what public good is said to be and the kind of taboos that they respect. I know the gentleman on Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winner Take All philanthropy pointed some of these contradictions out. But what remedies in structural design would you see vis-a-vis the accumulation of wealth?

Jeremy Lent:

Right. Yeah. Well, I think it was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said a year or two ago, something like, “Every new billionaire is a policy failure.” And I think that is just completely correct, that it’s not that somebody who becomes a billionaire is therefore a bad person in doing so. But what it is is that a system that allows that kind of wealth to be accumulated by one person is a system that is basically not working for the full benefit of humanity as a whole and for society as a whole. To get a sense of that, if you think of somebody like Mark Zuckerberg who I think own something like over 70 billion wealth, what he was successful in doing was simply one tweak to one system so he could sort of beat out other competitors. And because of the scale effect of the internet, he became fabulously wealthy. But there’s absolutely no relation of the value being offered and being actually produced for the community and what people get back in return.

So I think a simple way of relating to this situation is to simply cap billionaire’s assets at a certain level. I suggested in one article I wrote $5 billion, but that’s just an arbitrary number. But it should be, and it can be at a level where they still have way more than enough wealth than anybody could possibly need but those extra funds that they have as a collective group, which is something like… I think there’s a few thousand billionaires own something like nine to $10 trillion right now, which if you think of that in terms of GDP, it’s like the wealth equivalent of Germany and Japan combined. So imagine what you could do with that kind of wealth if we’re not in the hands of just a few people who were interested in optimizing for themselves. And of course some people respond by saying, “Well, look at what people like Bill Gates does. That he does so much good.”

And I’m quite sure that Bill Gates is a very an ethically driven person who truly cares about the future of humanity and wants to do good. But the point is that obviously… And he’s just one person, whereas other billionaires don’t necessarily have that view. But it’s really a little bit like going back to the divine right of Kings. If people were arguing hundreds of years ago against the divine right of Kings, somebody could look at something and say, “Well, look at this King. They’re trying to do something good.” It’s not a matter of the person but the institution that allows that kind of power is itself wrong. One thing just to clarify about that, I’m not even suggesting that the extra wealth that these billionaires have should be just taken away from them as if it’s back to some kind of communist revolution type thinking. But for the minimum, they could be obliged to put them into trust. And there’s those trusts dedicated to truly life affirming activities. And so they could have some say over how and where that trust actually focused on its money.

But it would have to be mandated that those kinds of trusts couldn’t get involved in the political process. And also it would have to be that a group of objective citizens would have to have some control over that so that you don’t just have some billionaire such as an Elon Musk type person just putting all their money into these kind of crazed endeavors such as trying to start a colony on Mars when we are destroying our own life support systems here on earth.

Rob Johnson:

I think about this questions quite often. And there are two things that were triggered in my mind as I was listening to you. One, is a book by a woman named Andrea Gabor called After the Education Wars. And in it she had worked, I believe in and around Michael Bloomberg, but she was studying the reform of public education and how, what’s your mind call top-down autocratic management control as embodied in the plans of Mark Zuckerberg in New Jersey and bill Gates in many places reflected a certain mindset. And she had written the biography of the management theorist Frederick Deming, who had worked with particularly the Japanese on how to create evolution, creativity, productivity in a bottom up perspective by empowering the people on the shop floor, on the assembly line. Because they are there and if you trust them to have a sense of purpose.

Well, what she found is that Deming’s teaching was adopted by a community for their public schools in Texas. And instead of accepting big foundation money… This was a Texas community. About the size of new Orleans. And they had tremendous results in the reform and the performance of education compared to many of the top down design systems. I once made an interview with her, I thought the book was fantastic. The second thought is I would encourage everyone to read two books by the late Ernest Becker. He wrote a book called The Denial of Death, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. And another book towards the end, it was his last book called Escape from Evil. And what he posits is that wealthy people are just like other people, which is our bodies will be finite, but they try to create eternal admiration or life for good deeds. But that doesn’t always play out. That good deeds say, associated with making $80 billion or whatever, stays in the place of being considered a good deed. In other words, you spend your whole life pursuing a goal and you’re a winner, and then they decide that wasn’t a healthy metric or a healthy system. And that these wealthy people then become very, very fierce and defensive in protecting their legacy because of their fear of meaninglessness.

And I just throw this into the cocktail that we’re creating here because the notion of wealthy people being smarter, better or doing more has a resonance of truth at times, but it can lead to a kind of mindfulness that reminds me of the Beatles song called What You’re Doing. So look what you’re doing. I’m feeling blue and lonely. Would it be too much to ask of you what you’re doing to me? And I sense that we need broader based participation. I’m interested in your proposal of how the money above $5 billion could be put into trusts, but the structure of the representation on defining what it’s used for and how it’s implemented is very important. So that it continues to serve by public purpose rather than the aggrandizement of a few individuals.

Jeremy Lent:

I think that that’s completely rights. And if you think about something like that, and again, how wonderful it would be if ideas like this did become part of this to sort of move back to the Overton window is we’ve been talking about. And so if you do think about that, you would need to make sure that a trust that got created like that was not to actually controlled by the billionaire who created that money. But they could have enough influence over the direction of where that trust went. That they could feel some of the benefits of exactly what you are describing. So they could feel that as they saw their funds actually be used for positive purposes, they could get the sense of honor. And see their name and those kind of elements that help their reputation. Make them feel good about what was going on with that money. But it would have to be something where the control was arranged according to principles that became generally and essentially consistent with the values of the different kind of society.

So in fact, I point to anyone who’s interested and to say a set of principles like something called the earth charter, which is a framework for a sustainable and peaceful global society. It was endorsed by over 6,000 organizations that was a crazy UN project. Got developed over some decades. And they have a wonderful set of parameters of what a true and flourishing value system could look like. So it wouldn’t be too farfetched to basically create certain parameters for what these kinds of trusts could be focused on coming out of some kind of crowdsourced authority like that that could lead to hugely, hugely beneficial transformation for our society.

Rob Johnson:

When I was a ploughing around your website and looking at your writings, I saw a reference to a future book, I think you called it The Web of Meaning as a working title. Could you share with us a little kind of a glimpse into the future of what you’ve prioritized and would like to express in the not too distant future?

Jeremy Lent:

Sure. Thank you. I’d be happy to. As we’ve been hearing over this conversation, one of the things that I focus my own writing and analysis on is the fact that our future can only really get redirected when we change the value system that it’s built on. And my book, The Patenting Instinct is a historical book. Ultimately, it goes all the way to the present day and looks at the current value system of our modern society. And it shows how the underlying values, the misconceptions of what that based on have been leading us into this destructive path that we’re on right now. So this book that I’m writing right now, it’ll actually be published next spring. It’s called The Web of Meaning, with the subtitle, Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in The Universe.

And what it does is it actually shows up these misconceptions that our modern worldview is based on. Some of these things I’ve talked about earlier, such as that our identity is just purely separate individuals or that nature is a machine or the humans are separate from nature. And it shows how many of these ideas came from, these ideas from hundreds of years ago in the scientific revolution, but are plain wrong. So it shows how the findings in modern science, like sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive science and systems thinking, actually point us to the same co realization that many wisdom traditions point as to. Whether it’s Buddhism or Taoism or indigenous wisdom, which is ultimately that we are all interconnected. That in fact, just within ourselves, we’re sort of connected mind body organisms. That we’re connected with other human beings that are far greater degree than we realize. And humans and the rest of the non-human natural world, are deeply interconnected.

Not just genetically, but also in terms of the ways in which we relate to each other and the way the flourishing of an individual requires the flourishing of the community and the flourishing of all of life. So this book really is designed to offer a solid, rigorous, and coherent foundation for a different kind of worldview of connectedness that I think is necessary to go to the flourishing future that we actually need for our global civilization. And that future itself is one that many of us nowadays are talking about in terms of this notion of an ecological civilization. Like the idea of a civilization which is based not on this kind of wealth basis that our modern civilization is on, but actually a life-affirming civilization. One where the actual structures of community interaction, structures of economy, and the structures of global relationship actually take their principles from the same principles that have led ecologies to be sustainable and flourishing for in some cases, millions and millions of years. That kind of resilience that they show.

Rob Johnson:

Well, Jeremy, I’m marveled today in listening to you and exploring your lateral pattern recognition skills and integration across disciplines. Your independence of thought and your capacity for choosing and zooming in on the most important questions and with an eye towards remedy and with an eye towards healing is extraordinary in… How do I say? In great demand I think in light of the pandemic and what we’re going through. I hope in a few months, you and I can come back and make another episode looking at the pandemic and beyond or… How do I say? At least from a different vantage point. But this has been a delightful experience today. And like I say, thank you very much for joining me.

Jeremy Lent:

Thank you so much, Rob. It’s been a delight talking today with you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

Rob Johnson:

Thanks. Bye-bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

JEREMY LENT is an author whose writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led our civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. His award-winning book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day. He is founder of the Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated worldview that could enable a flourishing, life-affirming future for humanity.

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