Beyond Scarcity: Re-Inventing Wealth in a Progressive World

We are bound to make the world in our own image. So we had better be sure we have the right values in mind as we think about our selves in this historic transition.

The current economic crisis is causing a massive redistribution of wealth across society. With a newfound capacity to shape our nation’s destiny, progressives can take this opportunity to redefine ourselves – especially our ideas about wealth and prosperity – as we seek to build a flourishing society.

It is often the case that people who dedicate their lives to the betterment of society are hindered by a particular obstacle – what I call the scarcity mindset.

This mindset can be described in several ways:

  • The belief that a person has to compromise his or her values to make money.
  • Harboring an impoverished view of wealth as merely money or accumulation of material stuff – and seeking to avoid being identified with this activity.
  • A recurring feeling that there just aren’t opportunities to do something meaningful and satisfying.
  • A cynical view of collaboration.
  • The belief that people who seek wealth are selfish or greedy.

This mindset can be explained in several ways. One mechanism comes from the study of system justification, a theory developed by NYU psychologist, Jon Jost. Jost observed that people in oppressed groups often internalize negative stereotypes that the dominant group perpetuates to justify its superiority. An example of such a stereotype is the “gangsta thug” that frames inner city black young men as violent thieves who peddle drugs and guns. This stereotype has been internalized by many inner city youth and reduces the aspirations and self-confidence necessary to engage them in the process of rebuilding their communities.

Progressives are in a similar situation with our political views. Conservatives have set the terms of debate for decades, introducing their ways of thinking about government, markets, human nature, and yes, prosperity. Their view of prosperity should be familiar. Just think of the glorification of wealth in our media-saturated, celebrity-worship society and you’ll get a solid impression. Conservatives typically view wealth as material accumulation within a rampant form of capitalism. A “good” business person exploits everything possible to increase the riches of his estate.

This view of wealth is appalling to progressives. Our sentiments are motivated more by the empathetic bonds we feel with other people and the natural world. So what happens when we recoil with disgust at this exemplar of selfishness and greed? A negative stereotype is introduced – that the progressive businessperson or political activist must oppose the accumulation of wealth. We must “take the moral high road” and sacrifice personal comforts for the sake of our communities. In short, we are to be ascetics, “hair shirts,” hippies, low-wage teachers and social workers, and so on.

We project this negative stereotype onto ourselves, thus defining our identities in opposition to that which we detest – the conservative elites’ view of exploitation for personal gain. This is what one might call a “reactive trap,” because the dynamic is one of reacting to the views of another group. What we need to do instead is empower ourselves with a proactive position on prosperity. More on this in a moment.

Starving Our Own for the Greater Good

These stereotypes are not merely internalized at a personal level. Our scarcity mindset has been built into many of our institutions, as we can see with progressive philanthropy and the hiring practices at nonprofits. The guiding principle of the progressive world is to starve our own for the greater good.

While conservatives lavish young talent with communal supports and lucrative careers, we refuse to invest in our own. Progressive foundations are only willing to fund projects that are “accountable” and “cost effective” – understood as “accountable to higher authorities” (the funders) and “minimizing waste” by treating workers as an expendable resource. These ideas should sound familiar. They are foundational concepts in the conservative attack on government and the governing philosophy that dominates the corporate world.

This is no accident.

I’ve often heard George Lakoff speak of the divergent philanthropic strategies of conservatives and progressives. He recounts the tale of a few wealthy conservatives – the same families who funded the vast network of think tanks and media outlets that dominate our culture today – advising progressive philanthropists to apply cost-benefit analysis to their grant offering programs. The covert goal of this suggestion was to undermine efforts to build a progressive infrastructure.

This advice was taken. Progressive foundations today typically offer small grants, with lots of strings attached, and the absolute minimum of resources to hire people to do the work. This ensures that “costs” (aka investing in people) are minimized. It also ensures that no money is available for long-term “big picture” work to advance the movement as a whole.

The same is true in the nonprofit world. Progressives must fight amongst each other for scraps from the foundations that support us. Taking a job at a progressive nonprofit is seen as a noble act because of the obvious personal sacrifice one makes in choosing a vastly lower salary to “do good” instead of “make money.”

In a classic sleight-of-hand maneuver, these same conservative leaders followed the opposite path – offering huge block grants with no strings attached to be sure enough resources were available to “do whatever is necessary to succeed!”

We can see the difference in the institutions we have today. Conservative organizations pay salaries comparable to the private sector to attract talent that might otherwise go the corporate route. Billions have been spent in a multi-decade strategy to create a conservative infrastructure in the form of a network of think tanks that keep conservative talent comfy as people shift from think tank to political office back to think tank. Just try to imagine Donald Rumsfield without a six-figure salary while he lurks in the shadows… not a likely scenario.

By contrast, the progressive movement is divided and has no real infrastructure to speak of. Our resources are spread thin across “issue silos” with no obvious connection across them. Conservatives have a refined elevator speech for what it means to be conservative. Progressives don’t have a clear sense of how gay rights are connected to the climate crisis.

As we’ve learned from the study of cognitive policy, we make sense of things through our patterns of experience. Our interactions with progressive organizations reinforce the sense that scarcity is widespread. Every time a passionate young person seeks to “make the world a better place” they are taught that the only way to do this is to volunteer for free or accept subsistence wages as a demonstration of their commitment to the cause. The negative stereotype is perpetuated every time this happens.

Challenging Scarcity at Its Source

The only way to address this problem is to get at the root cause – our deepest understandings of wealth and prosperity. We need to recognize that “doing good” versus “making money” is a false choice. We can – and must – find the middle way and reframe the meaning of prosperity.

Conservatives treat wealth as material accumulation – those who show discipline and work hard can be seen through their material success. We progressives see wealth at a more fundamental level. The progressive understanding of wealth comes from a deeper idea:

Wealth is Well-being

Wealth is seen as the well-being of individuals, society, and the earth. Wealth is already present in nature; it is not “created.” Clean air and water, strong communities, and fertile soils are inherently valuable because our well-being depends on them – independent of markets.

In this view, to “do good” is a form of wealth preservation. We can see this with a form of common wealth that we all depend upon – the air we breath. The logic works like this:

  1. Wealth is anything that creates well-being
  2. Clean air increases well-being, so it is a form of wealth
  3. Dirtying the air reduces well-being, so it is a loss of wealth
  4. Keeping the air clean is preserving wealth.

Put another way, as progressives we recognize that even the hardest working person will starve if there is no food. Conversely, we believe that the Good Life is about more than money (beautifully depicted in this video by Free Range Studios).

Contrast this with the conservative understanding of wealth:

Wealth is Material Accumulation

Wealth is seen as (1) money accumulated by corporations and their investors; (2) “created” through resource extraction and labor; and (3) owned by whomever controls it.

According to this view, people are actors who seek to maximize their profit. Industrious individuals are seen as “creating” wealth through the process of production. Wealth created by industry will “trickle down” to the people. There is no need to protect the common wealth – shared resources of general benefit to society – because there is no concept for common wealth in this perspective. The central consideration is protecting the profits of hard-working individuals (and, by extension, the corporations that represent them).

In other words, conservatives believe hungry people should just work harder and “earn” their necessities, or suffer the consequences.

Progressives can challenge this notion – and end the plague of scarcity in our politics – by recognizing the real source of wealth in the world. As a community, we depend on one another. Economists call this “mutual provision.” A simple example is the division of labor in a complex economy. One person grows crops that another grinds into bread. This feeds yet another who manufactures tools that enhance farming practices. Shared effort is built on the common wealth of the land that supports everyone. The wealth of society grows as people cooperate and share the benefits of their efforts.

At the core of this is the Principle of Human Dignity. Every person is valued for the part they play. Work is dignified because it (a) provides for the provision of the worker, while (b) enhancing the capacity of society to support its people.

The ironic thing is that the very people who seek to promote well-being – progressive philanthropists – are running their institutions based on a model of human exploitation. People are seen as an “add on” to the grant offering. Focus is given instead to a set of material goals for some marginal group. An example would be to fund poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa while keeping aid workers at a subsistence level in our own society. Another is the use of unpaid interns to “externalize” costs and “outsource” the workload – the standard model of worker exploitation cultivated and refined in the corporate world.

Our Own Stereotype – The Protector of Well-Being

We can change this. The first step, famously articulated in Alcoholics Anonymous, is to admit that we have a problem. Our concepts for wealth and prosperity are obstacles to success. We cannot build a fair and prosperous society without living the values we profess. And it all starts with how we think about ourselves.

A good place to start is with the stereotype that “represents” us. We may not be selfish gluttons who bask in the glory of conquest, but neither are we self-sacrificing fools who would rather suffer than join the rat race. What we really are is Protectors of Well-Being. We understand that we are all in this together. It is clear to us that many of the vital life supports we depend upon are being ransacked by runaway capitalism. So we dedicate ourselves to ensuring that those around us are protected against harm and have the opportunity to seek fulfillment.

The source of our wealth is the foundation of well-being. Our rewards are many – providing for our families while also resting peacefully at night because we devote ourselves to helping our neighbors. One very important way that we protect our communities is by challenging perspectives that threaten our ability to provide for one another. We reject the false choice of “making money” versus “doing good” and instead create new institutions that promote well-being across society by valuing the work of nonprofit employees, teachers, social workers, and anyone else who dedicates themselves to the betterment of society.

The timing is ripe for this transformation to begin. The economic philosophies of the 20th Century have lead to unraveling markets and widespread malaise. Now, as we build new economic safeguards and invest in the future, we can learn from this past and change what it means to be wealthy. All that conservatives can muster is an appeal to our selfish tendencies with their calls for tax cuts (and continue to advance their covert agenda to destroy the fabric of society). We can offer a profound alternative that appeals to our better selves and leads to real and lasting change.

Historic Opportunity to Re-Invent Ourselves

You might ask why I’m calling out the scarcity mindset during a time when funding is drying up for nonprofits as we go into a full-scale recession. My answer is that this is an opportune moment for us to set the agenda for the new growth that is sure to follow. President Obama and the Congress have just passed the first stage of an economic recovery plan. The experts agree – we need to invest in infrastructure that lays a foundation for 21st Century civilization.

This is as true for the progressive movement as it is for our cities and towns. Getting progressive politicians into office isn’t enough to solve the climate crisis or reign in terrorist networks in the Middle East. Our problems are bigger than 20th Century thinking. We’re going to need to engage citizens personally and at unprecedented levels. This will require that we invest in each other and value people as a centerpiece of our efforts. A coherent vision based on a different set of values is needed to rise to the challenges we face.

We have the opportunity to go from being underdogs to agents of change, as my colleague Sue Kerbel points out in her article, Now What? A Note of Caution, and An Invitation, to Progressives. This is an historic moment that warrants self-evaluation as we envision a better world. And the vision we project to ourselves will be reflected in the world we create.

Change always starts from within.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.