Society

The Lord Is My Shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Psalm 23

The exquisite 23rd Psalm is one expression of what philosopher Karl Jasper called "The Axial Age." This period from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE is when, in China, India, Persia, Greece and among the Jews in Exile in Babylonia, civilizations seem to have gathered themselves up and found new expression through Lao Tzu, Buddha, Zarathustra, Plato, Socrates and the writing down of the Old Testament. It was a period of revision some 5,000 years after agriculture led to the beginnings of property rights and the creation of greater accumulated wealth. Civilizations arose in China, the Indus valley, the confluence of the Tigres and Euphrates, the Nile Valley and Abraham gave birth to three great monothestic religions.

The Axial Age is said to have focused attention on the individual, witnessed in David's Psalm above, a paeon to the relation between the Lord and an individual.

Emphasis on the individual is a cornerstone of our United States Constitution and Adam Smith in the Scottish Enlightenment, setting the foundations of modern economics with his famous "invisible hand," where each acting for his or her own purely selfish interests unwittingly, through the invisible hand of the market, achieves the benefit of all.

Now, 2,500 years after the Axial Age, we have learned much that may be of use as we face what historian Thomas Cahill called a "hinge of history." Our many civilizations around the globe are being woven together as never before in history. We will partially shape what we become.

I write to raise a large question: Do we need to examine our Axial Age anew? I think we do.

Begin with our evolutionary history as social primates in the clan 50,000 years ago. We did something beyond the market: We shared fairly.

Watch: I meet you on the trail, you have caught a rabbit. "May I borrow half your rabbit? I'll pay you back in kind very soon," I ask. You agree. I take half your rabbit for my dinner tonight, mark a stick as an IOU and give it to you. Credit is born, as is a rude form of money in the marked stick.

Why did we do this? Because food was scarce and fluctuating. Tomorrow I might catch the rabbit. By sharing fairly, we survived.

Modern economic thought, derived from Smith, hardly sees itself as descendant from the Axial Age, but in its emphasis on the individual, is so derived.

However, Smith is fundamentally wrong that market price, the foundation of our capitalism, is the only measurement of value, even in the workings of our late capitalist economy.

A famous framework called the "Edgeworth box" shows this.

You have more apples than pears. I have more pears than apples. A simple box figure shows a region where you and I are both better off, happier, have "higher utility" if I trade some of my pears for some of your apples. This is the region of a mutual advantage of trade. We are invited to trade. The apple to pear ratio of this trade is the market price.

But, central to the Edgeworth box is an embarrassment to Smith and modern economics: the famous "contract curve." This is a mathematically defined line across the region where we are both better off trading apples for pears (the region of mutual advantages of trade), along which all the advantages of trade have been realized, and on the contract curve itself you cannot be made happier without making me less happy. The curve is called Pareto Optimal.

Because different points on the contract curve correspond to different ratios of trade of apples and pears, the different points correspond to different prices. But economics in terms our individual actions for our own selfish benefit has no account of where we end up on the contract curve so these different prices cannot determine by themselves where we end up on the contract curve.

Where we end up can be sheer market power as we each battle selfishly for all the advantages of trade along the contract curve. But what if I do not have to trade with you? What happens?

Our social primate evolution steps in. This is seen in the famous "utimatum game." Here it is: I will give you $1,000,000. First, you must offer a fraction to Bill. If he accepts I give you the money and you give the agreed fraction to Bill. But if Bill refuses your offer, I give you nothing and neither you or Bill get anything. Bill knows the rules and that I'll give you $1,000,000.

How much do you give Bill? Across all cultures we give 30 to 50 percent to Bill.

Why? Because if we offered $1, Bill, enraged at our selfishness, might refuse: "Unfair!" he would say.

Beyond economic theory, market, invisible hand and price as the only sense of value, we base our actions on an evolved sense of fairness that, it turns out, we share with the higher primates.

But, similarly on the Contract Curve, if I do not have to trade with you, we are in the ultimatum game. If you are too selfish, I will feel you are unfair and not trade with you.

Fairness trumps price. And I am willing to bet, an evolved wisdom about being together in the clan trumps selfishness as we live together. Capitalism ignores that wisdom.

This fact nudges late capitalism off its foundations, at least a bit, as do the demonstrations on Wall Street now occurring.

What does this have to do with David's Psalm and the Axial Age?

That age allowed the individual to emerge from the clan. But in an emerging global set of interwoven civilizations on a finite planet, well past the Bronze Age, where we have no notion of "enough," where we crowd together and use up planetary resources and where we truly make our worlds together in interwoven mutualisms, not merely as individuals, perhaps it becomes time for our civilizations to again gather themselves up to find our way to be our own shepherds together, take enchanting time to rest besides green pastures and still waters, and even, beyond religions' appeals to our better emotions, discover how fully to recognize our shadow sides and harness them to what we would choose.

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