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Understanding Non-Essentials in the Economy

"We amuse ourselves to death" remarked Neil Postman. Almost the whole entertainment industry and much of the hospitality and travel industries depend on our desire for ever more amusement. Is the surfeit of amusement unnecessary and even harmful? The 2019 Covid-19 pandemic suggests so.

A truck carries biscuits made in Glasgow to London, and a truck carries biscuits made in London to Glasgow. Is that really necessary? 600 miles of unnecessary fuel consumption and climate change emissions, and two whole driver shifts, wasted on something not necessary>?

Ship with massive load of containers passing down the Suez Canal - Reuters

Ship with massive load of containers passing down the Suez Canal (Reuters)
Definition of Non-essentials: "Anything that passes down the Suez Canal"? (CG, 2021)
How many of these goods are really important?

Jim Radford, author and singer of the famous song, The Shores of Normandy and the youngest person to take part in the Normandy Landings in 1944, tells how he was serving on a ship with sophisticated, new guns that could shoot accurately beyond the horizon, and wondered whether it would not have been better to have spent a fraction of the huge funds spent on them had been spent on preventing the need for them, e.g. with better negotiation.

Yet another business meeting or conference just because someone expects it. Is that really necessary? [Note Spree]

And, perhaps to cap it all, is David Graeber's account of Kurt's "bullshit job", in which he works for a sub-sub-sub-contractor to the German Military. His job is to help soldiers move offices. Instead of the soldier carrying his computer and other chattels 5 meters along the corridor to another office, Kurt is called to do this for him, often having to hire a car to drive 100-500 km and fifteen forms have to be signed in the process. A bullshit job is one where "if the position were eliminated, it would make no discernible difference in the world. Likely as not, things would improve" [p.2]. As Graeber remarks [p.6], "Contemporary capitalism seems riddled with such jobs."

See also other examples at end.

But, politicians tell us, these non-essentials all boost 'the economy' and so are a Good Thing. But maybe they are neither essential nor good. Many of those above are harmful.

I searched for discourse on non-essentials in the economy and found none or almost none. The economic-growth-at-all-costs seems to preclude even discussing the possibility of non-essentials. We should have discussed this in the fields of economics and politics etc. for ages, then we might have some ready-made theories. But since we have not, and it is now urgent that we act, I have suggested that we use aspects to help us at least think about the worst cases so we can take action.

This page tries to open a door to discussion.

About The Economy

The economy' (GDP, money-flow) expresses money-enabled human functioning - economic activity - of which some is Good, some is Harmful. The Good and Harm can be of various kinds. For example, aviation does huge amounts of harm (per passenger) in climate change emissions, while gambling does huge amounts of harm in addictions. Other examples include the meat and dairy industries (harm of animal cruelty, biodiversity loss, and obesity), the hospitality industry in wealthy cultures, when it demands exotic foods to be grown in less-developed nations at the expense of the people's food-growing lands and of biodiversity, plus climate change emissions from transport, etc.

Should such activities be banned? I do not believe so. It can be argued that some of this economic activity does some Good. For example, the hospitality sector provides some enjoyment and sociality, and aviation provides some useful urgent travel or rescue. Even gambling might provide some valid fun. Who can judge?

When I look at each harmful sector as a whole, I see that much of it seems non-essential. Alan Storkey wrote, "[This] focus is crucial, because even partly addressing global warming depends on it. Further, normal health and sanity usually depends on shrinking consumption of food, alcohol, travel, the work associated with much consumption and a lot else. The study has to be normative from the start."

This may be why Jesus told us clearly, as recorded in Matthew 6, that we should not seek material wealth, but seek first the Kingdom of God. Link that with the prophets, and there are grounds for believing that, when we the affluent demand our non-essentials at the expense of the livelihoods and even lives of others, in God's sight we are evil. While we might not be able to draw a sharp boundary between what is Good and what is Harmful in each sector, I do believe that we can identify the worst cases. So I want us to differentiate what is essential from what is less so, and ask people to curb their less-essential demands - beginning with myself.

I believe that we need wisdom here, and expect to have to exercise responsible judgement, rather than hoping for some logic on which we can depend and behind which we can hide. Did God not give us the dignity of responsibility for the whole Creation? This includes taking responsibility for our impact on it. Galatians 5:23: "self-control". Ezekiel 16:49 "affluence, arrogance and unconcern" is what led God to destroy Sodom and exile Judah. Alan Storkey wrote, "The root religious theoretical move is dethroning utility or subjective optimisation which allows no criticism of what the subject wants, or [of] maximisation, or [of] individualism[,] and excludes stewardship, meekness and the value of the creation."

Such wisdom and responsibility requires that we recognise the importance of perspectives; see later.

What Categories of Economic Activity Are There?

Early on in 2020, I thought there were three categories: Good, Harmful and Useless (or Non-essential) - see for example, the short Youtube Moving the Global Economy Towards a New Normal, which offers a normative model of the global economy. Unbeknownst to me, Alan Storkey had already suggested four similar categories, "1 goods, 2 bads, 3 indifferents and 4 stuff needed to cure the bads".

However, it now seems to me that both sets are ill-formed, heterogeneous, because they imply non-essential or indifferent is different from either good or bad/harm. Indifferent might be, but non-essential is certainly not. Rather, it is a different aspect, and economic activity that is (non-)essential is at the same time either good or harmful (or both). We have harmful activity that is essential and harmful activity that is non-essential.

So, instead, I suggest that think of two aspects of dimensions: Good and Harm or Bad, and essential versus non-essential. This gives four possible types of economic activity, of which I give an example in each cell:

Good Harmful / Bad
Essential Good food
Good relationships
Rescue helicopters
Non-Essential Opera Surfeit of flying

Adam Smith made a further differentiation, into: Essentials, Conveniences, Luxuries, with the latter two being two different types of non-essential.

That table is too simple, as we shall see later, but at least it expresses the basic idea.

What Do We Do About Non-Essentials?

I do not believe that all non-essentials should be removed (banned). Some might offer Good without Harm. Much in the aesthetic realm, of music, sport, leisure, fun, games, art, literature, opera, theatre, film, and even some scientific or mathetmatical explorations, might be non-essential and bring some good into our lives. But surely! my art and theatre should never take precedence over justice to others and the basic needs of others. Wisdom is needed here. However, much of non-essentials in the affluent cultures and nations of the world is Harmful. It is the Non-essentials that are Harmful that we should cut down on.

So, in trying to decide what to cut down on, perhaps the first thing is to look at what is Harmful and ask to what extent is it Non-essential or Useless? Target that first.

Classes of non-essentials:

I can immediately see at least three basis classes of non-essential economic activity (whether good or bad, and whether conveniences or luxuries) - and others will be found.

All the employment and money-flow associated with any of these, it could be argued, is non-essential in the economy.

Discussion / research: Find out how much of each, but first find a way of measuring how much of each.

Proposed Action

I formulated some of that into two entries submitted to the Heywood Foundation., to first clarify it as a problem or opportunity that the Covid-19 lockdown has given us, to consider how to shrink sectors of economic activity that are harmful and high in non-essentials, accompanied by a proposal for "speedy research" that would enable us to act wisely and justly with the worst cases. It involves research to understand:

And with this to identify and consider the worst cases. In order to avoid elevating some aspects and completely overlooking others, I advocated using Dooyeweerd's aspects for all these; see below.

You may download the Heywood submissions (pdf).

Discussion: Where Do We Divide Essential from Non-Essential?

I posted the Heywood submissions on ThinkNet, and discussion ensured, which was critical of the whole idea of non-essentials, but actually raised some very important and useful points. I give most of it here, with main topics emboldened, followed by discussion of these points.

Richard Gunton posed, on ThinkNet, the question about how we define "non-essential", and a discussion ensued, of which the following contains the main contributions. I have emboldened what I see as main issues within this, which deserve discussion. Richard continued,

"The answer will tend to be worldview-dependent, won't it? Indeed, a Reformational view surely tends to attribute some importance to activities in all the aspects. But I imagine that different people's lists of 'definite' non-essentials will include religious worship, sport, cinema, arts in general, cosmetic surgery, air-travel, and many more, all of which would be on other people's lists of essentials. Does your project call for some kind of public discourse on shared values and the common good?"

He later added,

"I would have to start by asking 'essential for what?' and rejecting the binary distinction implied by non-. ... If we meant 'essential for staying alive', then of course we could say that food, water and air seem to be essential. But what is food? Is meat essential? In my view not, but some would disagree. Are grains essential? I'd say yes, but not if you press me to name one particular kind of grain (my wife needs a gluten-free diet). Then there are cultures where the traditional diet includes no grains (but plenty of meat). Are vegetables essential? Ditto. And so on.

"And those examples relate primarily to the biotic aspect, where arguably there's least flexibility for worldviews to affect our activity. Then what about social contact - is that essential? Most of us would say yes - although Covid lockdowns have shown how far many of us can manage without much of it. But then there are hermits and recluses.

"Your reference to Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God seems to me to relativise the 'non-essentials' category even further. To seek first the Kingdom of God can mean, in exceptional circumstances, martyrdom. What else is essential then?

"So I'd argue that essentials / non-essentials is a false dichotomy. Instead we should think about prioritisation (relative value), and how the prioritisation varies with culture and worldview. Wouldn't this be a more feasible research project? And perhaps the Covid lockdowns provide us with an interesting natural experiment to reveal how societies (or at least national governments) prioritise a range of goods. I've been pondering how to set up such a project, and I'd be interested in collaborating to try and make it happen."

Karl Heintz added,

"I think that definition ignores the role of historical opening in the motion of "non-essential" businesses. Many things essential to our daily lives (e.g. e-mail) would have been considered non-essential 100 years ago, if not inconceivable. "

And Petrus Simons added,

"Adam Smith (The theory of moral sentiments) divided objects into: essentials, conveniences and luxuries. Of course, we define these things differently today. They also have different meanings in other than Western cultures. However, one of today's problems is that we have expanded the range of 'conveniences' enormously, using modern technology and modern materials such as plastics. The Evergreen [the huge container ship that blocked the Suez Canal early in 2021, and in relation to which Chris Gousmett defined non-essentials as 'anything that has to come through the Suez Canal.'] is likely to carry a huge amounts of conveniences. The size of the ship itself points to economism (low unit costs of transport) and technicism (the size of the ship, designed apparently without allowing for the type of risks such as experienced this week)."

Later, the following emerged:

"For this reason I would recommend the word 'important' instead of 'essential'. I also stand by my view that it's a matter of perspective - and this is why I would prefer to talk about 'value'." [RG]

"I see the idea of 'essentiality' as a simplifying tool at the intersection of subjective situations (of particular individuals and groups) with the law-structures of creation, under the direction of some religious motive." [RG]

"Denoting something as 'essential' in some context protects it from critique while lesser priorities are negotiated, but nothing (bar the Kingdom of God) is essential out of context, in my view." [RG]

"I do accept the rhetorical value in the binary language you used for the submission to the Heywood Foundation. But although it's easy to point to provocative examples of 'essential' vs. 'non-essential', I don't think these are particularly helpful for probing the question analytically." [RG]

This discussion raises many important, interconnected points. Let us take some of them further, as follows, in order to increase understanding.

False dichotomy between essential and non-essential

Of course that is correct, especially if we focus our thinking on trying to define a sharp boundary. However, when we step back we can indeed see two contrasting extremes, especially when 'my' non-essentials take (unwitting, perhaps) precedence over other people's essentials. Where there is surfeit of harmful non-essentials, it is fairly obvious, even if we cannot define a precise boundary, so the fact that we cannot define them at this time should not debar us from discussing the idea and taking it forward.

So the dichotomy is not entirely false. There is some distinction that does require addressing, even if analytical thinking cannot ever define the sharp boundary that it seeks. Instead, therefore, this might suggest we need to think in terms of value and importance rather than essentiality. In any case, the three notions are intimately bound together.

However, value and importance cannot fully substitute for essentiality, because they have different connotations, derived from different aspects (see below). RG usefully introduces the idea of law-structures of Creation (another word for aspects), and it is by reference to these that we can understand the difference.

The notion of value, though primarily either economic or ethical in meaning, also implies the idea of "more", which is quantitative, as does the notion of importance. This is why the phrases "more value" or "more important" are almost always meaningful.

By contrast, "more essential" is not so meaningful (except when used as a synonym of "more important"). Essentiality does not imply "more", does not have the same quantitative component. Instead it implies, as you earlier pointed out, a binary distinction; either something is essential or it is not. So instead of the quantitative, we find the analytical law-sphere. That is not its primary aspect however. Its primary aspect is, as you have already alluded to, pistic. It speaks of ultimacy (the word you use to name that aspect) and, as you point out, only the kingdom of God can be called ultimately essential. Instead of the word "more" the prefix "non-" is appropriate - at least in its ultimate sense.

"Essential" also, I might suggest, has some economic meaning too, and maybe formative, in that it is meaningful to ask "essential for what?" Essential implies both resource (economic) and achievement (formative).

Which Discourse Are We In: Philosophy or Policy?

RG's mention of "rhetorical value" not being useful for "probing the question analytically" highlights the fact that we have two different discourses. Probing the question analytically is the discourse of philosophy, and in that discourse, non-essential versus essential may be a false distinction.

However, the discourse in which I inserted my call to understand non-essentials (the Heywood Foundation) is that of decision-making, rather than of philosophy, because what I was talking about was the responsibility that policy-makers have, and the need to act urgently, given the climate emergency. Whereas the discourse of philosophy calls for an approach that beings all things into consideration, the discourse of decision-making moves in the opposite directon, to making sharp distinctions between options, and even opposing them to each other. Most decisions involve analytical distinction, of either-or.

(They might indeed employ quantitative reasoning in order to arrive at decisions, but usually the quantitative constructs are converted into analytical binary distinctions by comparison of one quantity with another (the switch from less-than to more-than).)

Of course, policy and philosophy are linked, but they are different. The content of the policy might involve quantities (e.g. tax breaks) but they tend always to manifest themselves in distinct ranges.

Policy-making aims to achieve some rectification of wrongs, but there are those who resist this, especially those who are affluent, well-resourced and well-connected.

So, to sum up: When we are in a philosophical discourse about the nature and norms of economic activity, we need to beware of false dichotomies, and recognise the complex nature of non-essentials, allowing for something more nuanced than a binary "non-", and should also refer to value and importance. When we are in a policy-making, decision-making discourse, we should recognise the need to make sharp distinctions, and should probably focus on the clear cases of difference, and especially the worst cases of non-essential harm.

Advantages and Dangers of Thinking in terms of Non-essentials

Even within a policy-making discourse there are both advantages and dangers in thinking in terms of non-essentials, and corresponding dangers and advantages of thinking in quantitative terms of value.

One danger of thinking in quantitative terms of value, is: do we not give the affluent excuses? We (the affluent) can always argue that "xxx has value" - we can find some value in relation to some aspect. So, those who want to protect their own interests, conveniences and luxuries, can always add up the various pieces of value from various aspects into some total that would exceed some quantity that policy makers require - so that policy is not set against them.

Furthermore, does not over-emphasising the quantitative tend to hinder decision-making more generally? Especially if we end up with quantities near some comparison value.

As we shall discuss below, much of the cause of harmful non-essentials is sin, such as hubris or greed. It may be that the very act of pointing out the non-essentiality of what hubris wants to protect and idolise is actually a useful contribution because it dethrones it, because "essential" has a pistic component; see below. Merely using the word "value" or "importance" fails to do that, IMHO.

On the other hand, as RG put it well, a danger of "urging the language of non-essentials upon the powers that be could, in our secular humanist climate, have unintended consequences. I fear that neoliberal political discourse considers, for example, job-creation and economic growth as essentials, and religious freedom, free speech and debt-release as non-essentials. At some points, therefore, the 'non-essentials' approach could backfire."

Both have dangers. So perhaps, when forming policy, we should think neither in quantitative terms of "more" or totalling (value, importance), nor in binary either-or choices (essentiality), but in terms of wisdom and judgement as we actively think about all the aspects involved. That will be the emphasis and also the assumption below.

Adam Smith's division into essentials, conveniences and luxuries.

A very useful refinement to the idea of non-essentials. But it does not in itself address these other issues. (Also, might convenience be a kind of luxury? Presumably Adam Smith discussed that - bring his ideas into the discourse.)

Historical opening; Cultures and Worldviews

Things seeming essential today that were non-essential 100 years ago, such as email. Likewise, different cultures expect different things to be essential and non-essential. Different worldviews deem different things to be essential and non-essential.

These are good points, in which at least three issues may be discerned.

These points mean that historical opening and cultures must be taken into account, but they must never be allowed to dominate the discourse. We must always take it into account within a wider global, cross-era, cross-culture perspective. In Dooyeweerd's terminology (whose aspects I am employing here) this refers to the formative aspect, which itself needs to be opened by those later than it, including the social, juridical, ethical and faith aspects mentioned or alluded to above. See below on wisdom.

I discuss more aspects of this below, but first, another multi-aspectual issue about non-essentials.

Aspects of life and reality

Richard mentions two aspects, the biotic and social. To what extent is life essential? To what extent, healthy social relationships? This is another application of Dooyeweerd's aspects. In the previous point, we referred to the wider perspective that takes juridical, ethical and faith aspects into account alongside the formative-historical one; those were aspects that constitute what it is to be essential or non-essential. Here we consider different kinds of essentiality and non-essentiality, by reference to aspects, of which Richard refers to two. Food is essential to living. But relationships are essential to social life. And then there are things like justice, ethicality, worship, enjoyment, etc. Those are all aspects of our lives for which various things are essential if they are function well.

See below for discussion of aspects.

If aspects indicate, as I believe they do, the Creator's intention for the good of all Creation, then every aspect must be part of God's will. The problem, however, is when we prioritise *my* / *our* enjoyment over justice for the poor, and especially those in LDNs [less-developed nations]. We will see that, to consider all aspects together (in loose, misleading parlance, "to balance them"), we should employ, neither logic nor quantitative comparisons and 'balancing', but wisdom, responsibility and care - and those are some aspects of the previous point.

Kingdom of God

Non-believers might wish to skip this part, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I wish to take it into account as part of, not religion, but of economic reality, because I believe that God is actually actively involved in wanting to bless all Reality.

That the kingdom of God and

Jesus of Nazareth said "Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you" [Matthew 6:33]. Jesus' words leading up to this verse indicate that we do not need all that we have become accustomed to in our Western lifestyles. This verse provides a positive promise: God is actively engaged in providing what God deems essential for those who truly follow Jesus.

It has been the lived experience of countless of Jesus' disciples down through the ages that this is true. I think, for example, of Paul (Saul of Tarsus), of Francis of Assissi, of George Muller of Bristol (who decided to trust God for resources without telling humans about it) and was able to found orphanages on this basis - such that 3million went through his hands during his lifetime, and various missionaries like Hudson Taylor, James Fraser, Gladys Aylward. Their needs ('essential') were all met. Sometimes abundantly, but sometimes barely.

Example: At one stage, George Muller was looking after 300 orphans. He knew there was no food. Yet he believed God would supply. So at breakfast, he sat the 300 young people down, and said 'grace' (the prayer that many Christians say before a meal) to thank God for the food. Immediately, a knock came on the door. It was the baker. He explained, "I felt I must bake bread for you this morning" - and delivered enough for their meal. Then there was another knock, at which a milkman or farmer explained that he was on his way to deliver milk but his cart broke down and, not wanting to waste it, he decided to let the orphanage have it.

God sometimes actively provides what God knows is essential for those truly follow Jesus. But God does not always do it to our timescale, plans, and not even to our comfort. Sometimes, God does it in a way that increases our faith by exercising it.

As a disciple of Jesus, I wish to take God's active provision into account - but to understand the conditions under which it is valid. These seem to be

This brings us to aspects

Aspects of (Non-)Essentiality

Here I go through aspects of reality, as distinguished by Dooyeweerd. Each is a sphere of meaningfulness and law that defines basic kinds of value, of functioning, of things, and so on, whether mathematical, physical, mental, social or societal.

I find them useful for helping me think about the diversity of Creation - and Dooyeweerd's approach is especially useful in Christian thinking because it is based on the fundamental idea that all meaningfulness derives, ultimately though maybe indirectly, from the Creator, God. And meaningfulness implies value, good and thus norms. It is also helpful because Dooyeweerd offers us an understanding of the idea of shalom, in which all life functions well together, as Reality (including humans) functioning well rather than dysfunctionally, in each and every aspect together. Good functioning in all aspects is require by, and constitutes, shalom.

Dooyeweerd's aspects can therefore help us think about essential versus non-essential in a nuanced way, which surpasses any false dichotomy, and yet allows for a recognition of the distinction implied by "non-". There are two ways in which Dooyeweerd's aspects apply to this:

In thinking about all these, we need, not so much logic, as wisdom, responsibility, care and proper perspectives.

For each aspect, I present the aspect and a link to its discussion on the Dooyeweerd Pages, a note of what is meaningful within its sphere, and then what is (non-)essential for each aspect of life to function well, and then how each aspect is important in our approach.

Understanding Surfeit

Briefly, to act wisely in reorientating economies, we must understand what leads to non-essentials. Examples:

The latter two especially influence the direction of our economic thinking and policy-making, towards either responsibility and generosity or biodiversity loss and climate crisis.

===== Here I intend to elaborate the simple table set out above. To be donw.

Examples of Non-Essentials

First, a list from Alan Storkey, which exemplify different failures in consumption:

"Whether we use Andrew's terms or other ones, the waste must be 30-40% of GDP, and the importance of identifying and cutting this in part addressing global warming is obvious. Clearly, we all tend to privilege our own waste, but the meek will inherit the earth...Norms of efficiency, enough, what is good, 'dying to self' etc should shape our understanding of good and bad consumption. Alan S."

Now a few in a bit more detail:


References

Dasgupta P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. HM Treasury, U.K.

Goudzwaard B. 1984. Idols of Our Time. IVP.

Graeber, D. 2018. Bullsh*t Jobs - The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It. Penguin Books.

Postman N. 1986. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Shown-business. Heinemann, London.

Notes and References

Each year, Microsoft Corporation hosts a spree in the USA at which maybe 25,000 people attend. In 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it went online, and only 800 people attended. The other 24,200 people thought it was non-essential.



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About This Page

This page, URL= 'http://christianthinking.space/economics/non.essentials.html', is on-going work, designed to stimulate discussion in economics from a Christian perspective, as part of Christian Thinking Space.

Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.

Created: 5 April 2021 from Some Non-Essentials, adding major section on the difference between essential and non-essential. Last updated: 7 April 2021 Responding to further debate, which led to rewriting the Introduction to The Economy, and adding section about the Heywood submissions, and modifying other text. Added in Alan Storkey's material. 8 April 2021 incorporated more from the Thinknet discussion; created new sections on discourses and on advantages and dangers of thinking non-essentials.