Economics vs. plutonomics: increasing returns

Diminishing returns

The “law of diminishing returns” is a concept from economics that many people learn from popular culture, even if they have no particular interest in economics.  This concept, like that of the “invisible hand” and many other concepts from economics, is almost as widely misunderstood and misapplied as it is known.  This concept can also be used in a comparison that helps to reveal a fundamental distinction between economics and plutonomics, demonstrating the inherent limitations and tendency toward oversimplification in the former.

Increasing returns

In plutonomics, since capacity is recognized as a factor in wealth, certain types of activities produce increasing, rather than decreasing, returns over the course of a sufficiently long period of time.  In particular, when an activity results in an increase in both enjoyment and an increase in the skills needed for that activity, each marginal unit of engagement with that activity will produce, over the longterm, increasing returns, as long as increasingly complex substrates for the activity are available.

Reading is a good example.  With each book one reads, one’s body of knowledge—including vocabulary and knowledge of historical facts, for instance—and one’s ability to read increases.  Over time, a reader finds that she can read a new book in less time and also gain as much or more from that new book as she would have at an earlier stage in her reading career. She has the ability to appreciate, for instance, many more allusions, literary devices, and so on that the book has to offer than she would have earlier in her career.

This very experience is often found when an avid reader reads a book as an adult that they had previously read as a child:  there is a lot more to the book than the reader had had the capacity to appreciate in the earlier stage of life.

This result can be, albeit imperfectly, translated into terms that an economist might understand: the increase in the “return” from the marginal book occurs because the “cost” in terms of time and effort has decreased while the “benefit” has remained constant or grown.

Note:  increasing returns will depend on availability of suitable substrates.

When time permits, this entry will expanded and supplemented with additional examples.

Special Challenges for Modern Abolitionists: Part 4

Preface:  This article is the fourth installment in a series discussing obstacles to abolition—the ending of all slavery—that movements for proto-abolition—the ending of human slavery—did not have to face.

Thanklessness:  the gratitude gap

Another significant obstacle that an abolition movement faces but which is not faced by a proto-abolition movement can be called the “gratitude gap”:  when slaves are human, those human slaves—once freed—can express gratitude to the people who helped emancipate them.  Specifically, because humans understand the tangible impact of abstractions, a former human slave understands and appreciates the labor of those who helped to change the political and economic system that once held those former slaves in bondage.

Thus, for instance, former human slaves could express their thanks to someone like Thaddeus Stevens or Angelina Grimké, even though they had never interacted directly.  Such gratitude not only rewards proto-abolitionists for their work after it has been completed, but the promise of such appreciation in the future also helps to motivate proto-abolitionists to hang in there before their work is done.

Unfortunately, abolitionists cannot expect any such reward from the animals for whom they work.  A cow will never know that a human manager is out there building an abolitionist political party on her behalf.  A mouse will never know that a human lawyer is out there fighting for animal rights.  Yes, an animal may indeed be eternally grateful to a human who physically opens a cage and carries that animal to freedom, as in the case of a beagle who is rescued from a torture (“vivisection”) laboratory.  But more abstract work performed by the many other people who participate in such a rescue will never be understood by the beneficiaries thereof.

That’s okay, of course.  We will win without the need for appreciation.  But it’s probably a good thing to accept from the outset that working for abolition will be a “thankless” endeavor.

A look ahead…

In this “Special Challenges” series, we’ll explore additional ways in which proto-abolition or proto-emancipation movements differ from abolition and emancipation movements.  If you have comments, suggestions, or contributions, please feel free to send them along.

Photo used with permission: Pig in window by Agnes Cseke. Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.

Pig corpse in window | photo by Agnes Cseke
Pig corpse in window | photo by Agnes Cseke

(Original article pub date:  11/26/13 (FB); 12/3/13 (EthicalVeganism))