Psychonomics

In college, I mainly studied literature and existentialism. But I did have to take other survey courses at the beginning, and one of them was economics. I rarely attended classes and only read the textbook the night before the midterm in the night before the final. I finally passed with a C- through sheer luck and a lot of coffee. Since then, I've always referred to the experience as having have something to do perhaps with a boring professor and with the throwaway line that economics has never been my forte.

Lately I’m beginning to see it somewhat differently. I think that I sensed even then that the main aspects of economics, like supply and demand, greatly depended upon the workings of human psychology, and that the economics professor, if he mentioned psychology at all, did so only in passing.

I didn't do a whole lot better in my psychology survey course either, although I think I attended more classes and tried harder to keep up with the reading. But I doubt if my grade there was much better than a B-, since I felt that course was pretty boring, too. But again, only lately am I thinking part of the reason for that as well was that the psychology professor never talked about the relationship between psychology and economics.

Since my early twenties in what has turned out to be a fairly long life, I believed, at least in theory, that interdisciplinary studies were critical to understanding the way the world worked. But only in the last three or four decades, quite a while after the demise of most formal interdisciplinary academic programs, have I really ramped up my focus on putting together a lot of the ideas that still remain separated in the teachings of our schools and universities.

Arguably, there are many fields of study less stunted by this almost universal balkanization of the subject matter of our lives as filtered through an academic lens. Microbiology, astronomy, and so forth might be good examples of this. But all areas that directly or indirectly come under the aegis of the social sciences, including most things political and economic, certainly are quite deeply affected.

As with all of the big complicated patterns that make up human behavior, the one might begin ones analysis of them with a reformulation of Freud's concept of the Oedipus complex in a way that connects it to both social and economic factors. Here the way was paved for me by some (not all!) of the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen, but I also think I've since come to expand upon some of the aspects of this connection.

I think it's fair to say that no one living has ever been able to definitively measure the degree to which sexual desire plays a role in the competition between and among the male, or for that matter female, members of our species. But I also think most would agree that food and shelter, in some form, must for all living things come before sex, in any ongoing sense, in the priority of our existential needs. Whatever one's views on psychosexual development, it's extremely difficult to imagine it running any stable course if all the participants are starving and “left out in the cold.”

So, there are a couple more theoretical assumptions to be agreed upon before we can proceed. As stated, the first one has to do with scarcity. While scarcity can and often does involve competition for desirable sexual partners, for most humans, at least, prerequisite to this matter is the one related to successfully and in some satisfactory way obtaining a roof over our heads and three squares.

Next, from the beginning of life on earth, I think we can safely assume that scarcity has always been with us. And not just in absolute terms, but also in various ways that involve, and here is a dusty old social scientific term I'm co-opting into this new field of psychonomics, "relative deprivation." To give a simple example, this means that even though I do have a house, I still feel competitive with and perhaps even angry at you for having what I consider a better one. And, contrary to the original popular perception accompanying the phrase, most of us know by now “keeping up with the Joneses” is not just a middle-class phenomenon.

Still, some other very important factors are worth noting. The attitude and practice of healthy competition definitely exists and often produces desirable results. And perhaps separately but sometimes related, a benign spiritual connection is often central, if not essential, in guiding us out of otherwise empirically impossible situations. The reliability and efficacy of all this is, however, often mixed up with people's relationship to scarcity.

So here is where we can turn our attention back to that old Oedipus complex stuff. And also where things start to get even more complex (pun intended). Because questions begin to arise, like, do I want that better house because of the house itself, or because I've been conditioned to always want something better by my upbringing? And by upbringing, if I'd been raised at all traditionally, I mean the way my father looked at me competitively, because he had grown to just automatically look at all other males competitively, because he was already always used to competing in the outside world, if not just to get a basic house and basic food, then for a better house and better food to get that better woman he wanted, who would eventually become my mother. (If raised alternatively, which many if not most now are, by single parents of either sex or two parents of the same sex, etc., arguably those same competitive economic pressures would still be in effect, just expressed in myriad different forms).

And so on and so forth.

Given all this, depending on where you start, the old question arises, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the psychology spark the economics or vice versa? Or both? So, voila, we have some raison d’etre for our new study discipline, psychonomics.

Anyway, if this essay is going to be more than just a meandering through a bunch of impenetrable tautologies, somewhere there has to be another point to it.

To get to it, let's just ask the question. What would it take to end scarcity? Not just in terms of empirical supply and demand, but in our heads as well. Because, as it should be obvious to most of us by now, while modern technology is probably able to end the lack of the sheer quantity and quality of stuff available, were we only to put our minds to it, it's our minds themselves, with their centuries-old habit of fearing real deprivation and raging against each other out of a sense of relative deprivation, that remain highly resistant to changing anything.

And asking this question, do we really accomplish anything, or just set up yet another potential tautology? As to the answer of this, I'm not entirely sure. What I think I do know, however, is that if the answer is just more tautology, then given the we-are-on-the-brink-of-extinction status brought on by our currently still-rampaging habits of competition, the future looks bleak indeed. If, however, we can find the time and means to expend sufficient effort on solving the puzzles raised by our new science of psychonomics, well, we might find some previously unsuspected way out of this mess.

Lee Strauss (Copyright @ 2019)