entry 9 - dronings on economics
this entry contains swear words, discussion of defunding the police, heavily edited drone singing, and relatively uninformed musings on economic theory. it seems polite to warn you.
brain log begun
27.2.2021 - 22:18
i had a conversation with a close friend today, and i spoke about the difficulties of trying to distinguish between wants and needs. want for what? need for what? i am greedy enough, energetic enough, curious enough, ambitious enough, thoughtless enough to want everything. so what do i actually need?
the answer to that question is more complicated – in my mind, anyway – than it seems like it should be. some things seem obvious: i need food (nutrients), water, sleep, movement.... but now are we getting into grey territory? without movement, my muscles could cause me more pain, growing weaker until i am unable to hold my upper body as i sit on this bench and type these words. but what kind of movement do i actually need? is it necessary to lift weights to make my biceps look like chris hemsworth's? is it necessary to run every day? is stretching enough movement? am i getting enough aerobic exercise to keep my heart healthy? do i even understand what the fuck i'm talking about?
in fact, rewind a bit, and these same qualitative questions apply to all of those needs: what kind of food? dino nuggets and waffle fries? barley-brussels sprouts-sweet potato bowls? 8 hours of sleep? 7? 8.75? 2 liters? 4? need for what is actually a pretty important part of that definition! do i need to write this brain log entry for my mental health? can i even measure my mental health? if i can't measure it, is it even helpful to speak about it?
i think many people might experience anxiety from reading all these questions. it might be like a story where you read about the main character struggling over and over again with the same emotional blockage, unable to see the ways they could transform themselves and their situation. i've asked questions like these in past brain log entries, and this is only the 9th entry.
fortunately, i have an answer – at least a temporary one: what i need most is joy.
i believe i need to fill up every activity with joy. cleaning the kitchen, learning about systemic racism and what i can do to dismantle it, folding tiny little baby onesies as i prepare for the birth of our child, switching to water after my 5th beer since 13:00, typing words that may not be read except by that poor alien doomed to comb through my ramblings in their future-dead-end-job. except if these aliens are really hip, they'll have their own algorithms – or at least use and adapt our existing algorithms – to read, catalogue, and document any information from the billions of words we humans leave behind, sifting for useful tidbits to share in “human history“ courses, and discarding the rest.
i recently read the words “nothing in nature is disposable“ in emergent strategy, and i agree with this maxim, but i am still wanting to devote time and attention to labeling those of my thoughts that are ready for the compost pile. in fact, maybe thinking of this entire project as contributing to a philosophical compost pile is the analogy i'm looking for. i dump thoughts here, mix them together with the shovel of backspaces and punctuation, and hope that they will prove useful to someone else after they've had time to sit and grow.
it's time to write about my financial behaviors, and that means it's also time to write about capitalism. and that also means that it's time to take a break from writing, it's union policy. here's some music while you wait:
i don't know much about economics – you should not consider anything written here to be 'information,' in the sense that it will deepen your own understanding of economics. look elsewhere for that sort of knowledge. here, we will delve into my incomplete understandings, fueled gently by a book my economics-major-brother gave me for christmas that i have yet to fully engage with: '30-second economics,' edited by donald marron. how does my current level of knowledge influence my financial behaviors? how important is currency to me? how necessary is money to my life?
i can't just let go of my idealized desires for society. 'i can imagine quite a bit,'¹ and it's difficult to operate by the 'rules' that currently govern the flow of currency and also hang on to imagined ideas of what is possible – possibility never ceases to compel me. in casual conversation with friends i have used the phrase 'money ruins everything' – specifically when talking about music and other arts forms – and i really believe the truth of this statement (for me). when i have to consider the financial viability of what kind of music i create (how much listeners will pay to listen to it), it vastly limits what i can create. even if i believe a different type of music would be more interesting to me and a small group of people around me, it is difficult to spend time creating this type of music.
a really good example is what you're listening to now, if you clicked play above and have continued to read. is this music i could charge $20 per ticket to listen to at a live concert? is it even music you would pay $1.29 per song for on itunes? a reasonable question you might ask is 'tony, why did you make this?' and the answer has nothing to do with currency: i made it because i felt like it.
i've said in previous entries that feelings are worth considering! and my current feeling is that feelings are not often a factor in economic theory. assuming you know all the relevant information, you should behave in a rational way that serves your own financial self interest, right? for me, at least, it's not that simple. i am deterred from behaviors that might benefit me personally because of what i see as their adverse effect on others.
board games are an excellent illustration of the difference between economic theory devoid of feeling and the real, very emotional world that our brains inhabit. in the game 'agricola,' it not only benefits you to make a move that is good for your farm on that turn, but it is even better to make a move that both benefits you and removes a possible move for your fellow game players. if you see that someone has just built pasture fences, and there are 5 sheep on the board, but you don't have your own pasture to place those sheep in, you might want to take the sheep and turn them into food with your cooking hearth, because it's pretty good for you, and it prevents the other players from having enough sheep to eat and breed them, which could result in lots of points at the end of the game. the other player might say 'bro that's a dick move,' but you could logically argue that you're just doing whatever it takes to win the game. the rules of board games typically only allow for one winner. while playing board games, we enter a space that, for me, temporarily suspends the conventions of cooperation and consideration for other's feelings, and we play to win. that's what the rules say to do! when the game is over, real life feelings might be hurt, but you can always play your trump card: 'it's just a game, bro. chill.'
often i feel like this is how my country views capitalism: a game with clear rules, clear winners, and no necessary consideration for feelings. this pisses me off, because when we discard the importance of other human's feelings, they sometimes die. now, as i've said before, is death all that bad? who is death bad for? death can be economically devastating for survivors! i make more than twice as much money per year as my partner, $38,000 to her $17,000.² if i died, i think she would be ok; we have lots of friends and family who would step in with the necessary resources – we are very lucky.
i view it as luck! again, in a board game, we can all sit before the game, read the rule book, discuss strategies that we think will work with this particular set of rules, and play from a relatively equal starting place, allowing us to celebrate our skill if we win. although, most games include significant elements of luck, just like life. it's lucky for me to be born a white italian-american man in this wealthy country. it's like playing risk, reading the rule book myself, and then destroying the rule book before any other players can read it, refusing to offer them advice of any kind. if i win that game, will i celebrate my 'skill' against these other players who not only didn't know the rules but weren't allowed to know the rules? fuck that nonsense.
but information is available to everyone, right? well, not exactly. even though i am a professional musician, there are many musical concepts that i don't understand. if i wanted to understand more about the exact cents of just-intonation, for example, i could google all of that terminology and probably even find a video with some nice demonstrations of singing in tempered and just-intonations and exercises for practicing hearing and singing the differences. but if you are an aspiring singer who didn't study music in college but wants to know more about why you sound out of tune sometimes singing the third in an a capella group, you might google something like 'why am i out of tune?' and get a slew of articles that may lead you in a less useful direction, or simply overwhelm you, obscuring a good starting place. knowing enough about what exactly you don't know is extremely helpful for finding the information you seek amongst the deluge of published material.
which is why i'm grateful for this book my brother gave me – and yet i'm still intimidated by assimilating and using all of this information, as you may be able to tell since i have been writing many paragraphs of preamble, occasionally opening the book, getting lost in its words, and closing it again.
for many years i was intimidated by audio engineering, it just seemed too vast and too frustrating to begin to interact with. when the pandemic enveloped us, i offered my amateur skills to a church choir, and edited a virtual choir for them. i offered to do this for free, or rather, i did not request any currency in exchange for the effort. i'm uncomfortable with the idea that i may have prevented an experienced audio engineer from collecting currency by offering my services for free, but i also know that removing currency from the equation allowed me to build the project on my own terms, on my own timeline, in my own feelings. it removed the fear that my work would be inadequate. i believe that is what typically holds me back from learning and absorbing new information, fear that after trying to learn, my behavior will still be inadequate, that i will 'lose.'
economic systems are also ideologies, philosophies, suggestions for how things 'ought' to be. finally, from the introduction of 30-second economics:
"but economics isn't just a science. many economists, myself included, believe that our insights into how the world works have implications for how the world should work in general. as a result, the scientific theories of economics blur into political theories of the good society."
"important theories are not always right." (for me)
as a musician, i struggle with the value to society of what i do, and the wants/needs distinction permeates everything. do people need music? do people need dress shirts? do people need 9 microphones to record music that they don't even attempt to sell? i think we want to be free to want and acquire whatever we want, and decide for ourselves how necessary it is to us. i want that. do we need freedom?
here's what 30-second economics labels the 'austrian school:'
"only individuals have the ability to determine their own costs and benefits, because these are entirely subjective. this means that the most efficient way of organizing economic activity is to allow the market to spontaneously coordinate between the preferences of the myriad consumers in society. prices then perform the most important role in an economy because they reflect all the disparate information in the economy."
any time economic theory speaks of 'the market,' i definitely get confused. what does that really mean? the market can't exist without people, right? i think another way to say that is 'the most efficient way of organizing how people spend their money is to allow people who buy and sell things to spontaneously coordinate between the preferences of all of the people who spend money.' i set my price for my musical services based on what i think you will pay for it, which depends on your preference for my musical services.
why do i zone out even as i'm trying to write about this? what about this is so difficult to understand and make tangible, relevant to my life? as i write, i feel disconnected, out of touch with the meaning of this activity, getting further removed from what i'm actually thinking, losing the purpose of the brain log. it's frustrating not to understand a concept that you feel like is necessary to understand. but do i need to understand economics? do i want to understand? for what purpose? i do want to understand, because i want to understand everything, but will i become happier and more joyful if i keep writing about this?
what i really want to get at is the language we use when we talk about capitalism. capitalism is evil. capitalism is inevitable. capitalism is good for everybody. none of those statements feel true or useful to me, but they are all statements you can find on twitter, as people argue about what's the 'best' system for us (for them). i think my language around capitalism could be off-putting to someone who doesn't agree with me. here's a thought from my brain: 'capitalism encourages us to use up all the resources of our planet in order to make ourselves wealthy and comfortable.' if you disagree with that idea, or think it's downright ignorant/crazy, it might make it hard for you to engage with the rest of my thoughts here.
i do think that just like the economy is not a thing that exists separate from people, capitalism is not a force that exerts its own will – people exert their will through the systems we create. so if i say capitalism is evil, i am talking about real people, and that's why the phrase rings false for me. if i say capitalism is inevitable, i am again talking about real people, and the phrase also rings false, because i don't believe people are infallible or that one system is really going to work for all 7,000,000,000 + of us (it feels useful to write out all the zeros for 7 billion).
here's another honest thought that comes up frequently: i am wary of buying a house because i know that there is not enough housing for all humans, and my buying of a house removes that house as an option for someone else. we're back at the board game comparison: i don't want my move to restrict someone else's move, i don't care about winning. i would love to get to the end of the game 'monopoly' and everybody would have the same amount of money and property, and we'd all cheers and celebrate our fun times together. why is singling out a winner a feature of these games? does that sound like hippy-go-lucky bullshit to you? 'we can't all have what we want, tony.' but maybe we need to have the same opportunities as each other in order to have as joyful of a society as possible! but maybe not enough humans care about that to actually make it a need.
this wariness of buying a house is an example of one of my financial behaviors that i'd like to focus on. in my cultural bubble, buying a house is the most sensible thing you can do. 'it's a good investment!' meaning, it will make me more money in the future, which undoubtedly will make me happier, right? but again, for some reason, i care about ALL of the humans on this planet. i think my own happiness and security is tied to theirs. and so if i behave in a way that prevents them from securing their own place to live, i see it as hurting myself in the long run. hurting my future child by not behaving in a way that will encourage humans to take care of each other.
i think the idea of even a moderately sized home being occupied by only 2 adults and 2 children is insane. the nuclear family model blows my mind. for me, it seems like the ultimate manifestation of impatience. i would love to live in a space with 10 other humans. we would have to communicate with each other often, we would have to adapt to sharing space, we would have to learn each other's cleaning preferences, resting preferences, entertainment preferences, financial preferences, and be willing to compromise and transform our own preferences in order to maintain a happy equilibrium. this is not easy stuff, but to me, it seems absolutely necessary to make enough space for all of the humans on this planet. if i keep pursuing this idea of carving out a big space for just me and 3 other people, i – whether i mean to do this vindictively or not – am removing a possible 'move' for someone else.
it's possible you don't believe me when i say i would love to live with 10 other humans in a house normally 'meant' for 4. that i'm not prepared for how difficult that would be. but, because i am me, and i spend lots of time in my own brain exploring these things, i know that you should feel comfortable believing me. i believe i have the patience and energy to adapt to that way of life. my desire for it makes it a possibility.
the real trick is finding 10 other humans who are similarly willing to transform themselves and deeply share with me. this is, i believe, not a thing that capitalism encourages us to do. however, capitalism has no quarrels with the worker cooperative, from what i can tell. if you decide to co-own a business with one or 10 or 100 other people, and the business successfully sells products that people buy, then it's all good. i don't want to imagine that all the impetus for systemic change is on individuals, but i do believe this is the power of individual commitment to cooperation. if we learn to share our resources in this way, i do believe there is a deeper well of joy for all of us on the other side of that learning.
this is the shit that i love to talk about, and it fires me up so much that i forget all about my lack of knowledge of how economic systems work, my lack of knowledge of what the difficulties of cooperative ownership and living actually are. it's easier (for me) to dream than to learn.
there's so much more to say about this subject, but let's diverge briefly: i just spent a fair amount of time combing through my downloads to delete old things, and noticed an album i purchased almost three years ago by dina maccabee – i have never even listened to this album! i purchased it because i have sung with this amazing human and want to support her independently created and distributed art; i purchased it through bandcamp, which is a universally beloved-by-artists site, but one detractor is that when you download music, it doesn't necessarily show up immediately in your media player, for me, itunes. i have to take the extra step of moving the downloaded audio files over to itunes so that i can more easily listen in the car from my phone or ipod. i failed to take this extra step 3 years ago, and so i failed to experience this music for such a long time!
this extra step seems like a corollary to the extra steps of living with 10 other people. it's just easier to do things the way most people around you are doing them. to do things differently is to create extra work for yourself, work that – capitalism points out – is unpaid. the sin of doing things for free. does that seem dramatic? it's how it feels in my brain, like i'm a fool for doing extra things that bring me no extra currency. wasted time! god, those words are insidious.
however, i'm listening to the album now as i write, and it's wonderful. i love hearing my friend's voice and her flowing song structures. what's the rush? why not buy an album and wait three years to listen? is it really impacting my life or enjoyment that deeply to have forgotten about a purchase for a while and now return to it? my cultivation of patience has prepared me for this; this music has been worth the wait, worth the time, worth the currency it cost me.
i don't want to fully embrace the philosophy of capitalism because i don't want it to poison my interactions with art. i don't want to be judging whether things are 'worth it.'
i'm writing again the following weekend, reflecting on the fact that this is the first brain log of the year that i decided to write over 2 weeks instead of 1. last week i got to the previous paragraph and just had so much more to say that i didn't want to rush out what i already had, i wanted to take my time. in my mind, i was fearful that this would set a bad precedent, losing the momentum of the weekly schedule, but here i am, diligently recording my thoughts once more. let things take their time.
since writing the board game comparison, i've read the section on game theory in 30-second economics, which made me laugh with joyful realization: "the aim is to understand strategic interactions where outcomes for one 'player' depend upon the choices of others."
thinking of economics like a strategic game is literally what a lot of individuals do. why does this seems so ludicrous to me? because i believe the rules of capitalism have not been widely distributed or shared with all individual humans on this planet. you can blame that on us individual humans who haven't sought out that information, if you want to, but i think if you do that, you are imagining that all of these other humans already possess the exact same blend of physical, monetary, and mental attributes that you do, and this is just not true. the way your parents interacted with money and shared it with you has most likely subconsciously affected the way you relate to currency, and made certain things seem 'obvious' to you that are not obvious to me. it's obvious to me how to sing a tritone. why do you always fuck up that interval in our sight singing drills, bro?
you can reject that comparison on the ground that currency is essential to life because it purchases you food and shelter, whereas music knowledge is dispensable because it can only bring you joy and happiness, ephemeral concepts that don't keep you alive.
and AGAIN i say: what's so good about just being alive? being alive and full of joy is one thing, being alive and full of despair is quite another. don't put words in my mouth, i'm not talking about other people here, i'm talking about me and my thoughts. what's good about being alive for me?
i, personally, have discovered that i don't need a lot of currency to maintain a state of shareable joy. i do need some, enough to buy nice food, to pay rent, to pay for car repairs, buy all of the accoutrements that accompany a baby, and so on. equally important to maintaining my personal state of joy (again, you're probably different, it's just statistically likely) is music, creation, conversation, movement, meditation, writing.
here is a thought that has influenced me from adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, speaking of the ways we are socialized:
"we learn to compete with each other in a scarcity-based economy that denies and destroys the abundant world we actually live in."
perhaps it's more correct to say this thought confirms pre-existing thoughts rather than influences them, as i have only read this book recently, and felt a deep sense of agreement when i read these words. there is enough for all of us! enough space, enough food, enough love, enough money, abundance! but moving it all around to everyone who needs it is complicated, so complicated as to intimidate me out of even trying to figure out a solution. it's too big of a problem. unless i embrace another concept from emergent strategy which says that the 'large is small' and take solace in the fact that my small-scale economic transformations do actually matter, they do contribute towards the creation of a more equitable distribution of resources, however imperceptible – the change can be perceived.
this year i became an official dues paying member of the democratic socialists of america, the denver chapter. i paid $45 and attended a new member's orientation zoom meeting, where i learned about their jail support program: members set up a table outside of the denver city jail and offer bottled water, conversation, a phone charger, snacks, and other simple touches of humanity to the people being released from the jail.
i think this is the coolest fucking thing ever, because i've developed strong feelings about what i perceive as the dehumanization of prisoners. trying to keep with the theme of economics running loosely throughout this entry, consider being put in jail in the game of monopoly. you either have to roll doubles, have a 'get out of jail free' card, or pay $50 to leave (expect a more detailed mathematical exploration of the percentages of your net worth that getting out of jail costs you in denver vs. monopoly in a future entry, but i don't have time for that today). put another way, in order to get out of jail, you either have be lucky or have the money to pay – not just have the money, but be willing to pay that money.
getting into monopoly jail in the first place is fairly random – landing on a specific board space, drawing a card, etc. for me, this is much like the randomness of our economic situations that causes one to consider crime as a viable action in the first place. is it an individual's fault if their parents are poor? is it one person's fault if the society around them is racist and actually makes it harder for them to obtain a well paying job? or to obtain the education required to obtain that job? is it really trayvon's fault that he was walking home with a hoodie on and some other white man thought he looked dangerous so approached him and eventually shot him? it's both random and not random: random that one person is black and another is white, but the hate and suspicion held by one of those humans is based on hundreds of years of racist ideas, absorbed and acted out both unconsciously and consciously.
you can argue that some people are 'bad,' but i don't know what the evidence for that is. as i write, i'm starting to feel passionate about convincing you of something, but i'm not sure that's what this brain log should be about. perhaps i'm really just arguing with myself. i don't believe people are inherently anything moral. i believe we learn senses of morality from all of the stimuli around us. we learn to survive, and we base our decisions of what's a 'good' way to survive based on what we see around us. my parents went to college, so i thought it was a good idea for me to go to college – though instead of studying something that would've got me into the economically lucrative fields of petroleum extraction or law, i studied music, which has always been a far less clear path towards economic security.
all this to say: i joined the democratic socialists of america, and they invited me to sign a petition to defund the police in denver and aurora. did tony just say "defund the police??" what a fucking hippy! i am indeed a fucking hippy, but just listen to what i'm thinking. what i'm thinking may not seem right or logical to you, but let's see what happens if you hear me out and then i argue with myself some more.
i read this paragraph of the petition and thought: 'well it's obvious when you say it like that!'
"our communities don’t need police. the problem of policing is not an issue of a few bad apples; the entire orchard is rotten, and always has been. we know what works: we need the police demilitarized, we need their massive budgets slashed and reallocated so the systems designed to support and protect us - medical and mental health care, affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, education - can be properly funded."
- defund and dismantle denver and aurora police departments, petition from actionnetwork.org (bold italicization mine)
this paragraph accentuates why economic debates can be so passionate and fierce: currency is tied to life. i'd like to say, 'under capitalism, currency is tied to life,' but honestly, i don't really understand the details of the creation of the money, and have never felt confident about making some kind of judgment about the necessity for currency to exist in our everyday human interactions (that admission might inform your reaction to my support of the idea of defunding the police department) i am a big believer in possibility, so it seems likely to me that there is a way to organize ourselves where the amount of currency one possesses is not so directly tied to whether or not you can receive physical or mental health care, food, and a place to rest your body away from snow, rain, and other uncomfortable natural realities. but, like i said, i don't really know shit about shit.
i do not think, however, that 'defunding the police' is a radical or unreasonable suggestion. we make adjustments to our city budgets all the friggin time. for whatever reason that i don't fully understand, currency is limited, i can accept that. that means that if we want to put more money into another department like education, we have to pull the money from somewhere. since i believe that better education, medical and mental health care, affordable housing, and substance abuse treatment would actually incentivize people to commit fewer crimes, it makes very logical sense to me to take some money away from the department that is arresting people and put that money into programs designed to lower the number of people we feel like we need to arrest at all.
i've written in previous entries that i take a pretty moderate approach to the language that i use, but that i respect and see the value of more extreme language as well. to me, defund the police means 'give the police less money, so that we can give other departments more money.' but that's not nearly as fucking catchy. i'm not down with the phrase 'abolish the police' coming out of my own mouth, unless i'm speaking to someone i already know agrees with me, because i do think taking economic steps to remove the need for a police department at all is an awesome goal. i just wouldn't lead with that language when talking to someone i'm still trying to get to know.
but is that goal realistic? well maybe not, but how would we be able to figure that out if we didn't try diverting our funds in a new way? we have to do this in a safe way, so we don't make a huge change at once and fuck up the balance of society, but we also can't figure out how things could work differently if we don't actually do things differently. to make a 1% cut to the police budget and 1% increase to the education budget, for instance, would not likely teach us anything about the possibilities ahead of us. but perhaps a committed 2% swap every year for 10 years in a row might be a pretty tremendous experiment to help us change and adapt to different ways systems can serve us.
what's possible definitely depends on how hard we try. i can dream of the possibilities of what i can play on the piano if i practice, but if i don't actually sit down at the piano and practice in a disciplined way, i won't ever realize those possibilities. what if i spend too much time blogging, and a miniature mental tony dressed in a tuxedo started parading around my brain with a sign that proclaimed: "defund the brain log!"? the other miniature mental tony's might be pretty pissed off until they read more about how this tuxedo clad tony plans to take some of the time removed from blogging and divert it to piano practice. "oh...." they might say, "we actually haven't been practicing piano very much lately, maybe that's a good idea. let's not abandon the brain log completely, but let's make some conscious adjustments to how much time we spend writing vs. practicing."
can you imagine our political system working like that? politicians speaking to each other like that? despite the 'unrealistic' character of that description, i can totally picture that. humans are capable of such understanding and change and transformation. now i will re-read this monstrosity of an entry and try to come up with some kind of concluding thought. are you enjoying the music?
i would like to align my desires for creation with my needs for survival. right now, i believe my needs for survival include taking care of other people, and honoring all of our feelings to create what we like. i believe we need to celebrate each other's preferences as equally valuable to our own. and then, i want to be willing to experiment when our preferences collide. if you want more police with higher salaries and i want more teachers with higher salaries, we may not both be able to get what we want, may not be able to fulfill our own preferences. working through that conflict might involve reading 20 minutes worth of someone's deep thoughts, making an attempt to find commonalities that you didn't see before.
i have much love, respect, value, and time to listen for anyone who has read this far – and even for those who gave up at the first notes of drony singing! see you next time.
brain log ended
7.3.21 - 15:54
1: two billion points if you get this reference and can also explain its irony when used to describe my imagining of non-capitalistic economic systems. (back)
2: is it weird to you that i just state my annual salary so casually? if so, why? i'm genuinely curious why we don't do this more often. (back)