Sunday, September 18, 2011

Scarcity in Search of Abundance

I just completed a weekend workshop with several intrepid University of Virginia students organized by the Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development (SEED @ UVA). Over the course of the two day session, my concern for what passes as business education heightened as I watched students struggle with a lack of practical awareness of cross-border business. That this weekend seminar followed on the heels of a much more intensive workshop last week with an expanded group of exceptional globally minded collaborators, made my impulse to broaden commerce and finance literacy grow all the stronger.

While I could select countless topics to unpack in today’s conversation, the theme that struck me most profoundly is our unconsidered assent to the Malthusian principles of glut and scarcity. Its corollary – that economic goods exist when scarcity is present while abundance is ‘free’ – serves as a fundamental animating fallacy of our current economic understanding. To understand Malthus, one must apprehend his critique of his secular predecessor, Adam Smith in which he commends a deeper inquiry into the relative contribution of a consuming and working population in light of access to resources, command of application of labor thereto, and the consumption capacity of systems. The Reverend Thomas Malthus has a particular seat at today’s table as an Anglican clergy and Professor at the East India Company College – two sources of inspiration and patronage that undoubtedly shaped his work and are ignored at our present peril.

What neither of these seminal economists and (a)moral philosophers adequately addressed or understood was the tyranny of colonialism that shaped their understanding of systems. It is then, no accident, that in the application of their principles, colonialism (in its modern incarnation – mercenary military interests serving anonymous corporate patrons) is an absolute necessity. As treated in previous writings, the notion that ‘resources’ are ‘free’ is a principle that can only be promoted in an Occidental world view in which humans are sovereign ‘over’ all things. The notion that it is the role of human enterprise to manufacture economics around the controlled use of scarcity is as Anglican now as it was two and a half centuries ago.

However, there is a particular form of scarcity economics I find instructive and inspiring. It is a component of a very complex economic system which, by most historians’ accounts, led to an economic system lasting over 1,500 years. Credited to be the innovation of the great Chinese diplomat Chzan Tsan in the first century BCE, the Chinese refinement of industrial scale silkworm husbandry led to an impulse to use this manufacturing mastery to launch one of the most audacious efforts in global trade. Sending caravans from Beijing and Xi’an to Venice by way of Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and then by boat to modern Italy, a great economic mystery unfolded. When one embarked on this journey, an elegant dance between abundance and scarcity played out in a rhythm and syncopation unfamiliar to modern business. Imagine the following.

When I’m leaving Beijing, my pack animals are laden with an ABUNDANCE of silk. For my own PROVISIONING, I pack some porcelain dishes, some paper and calligraphy in SCARCITY , and sufficient food and water to feed my crew and our animals. By the time I reach Turfan, several of my animals have been eaten as they passed through the inhospitable deserts and mountains and, as they die, I need to trade bulky silk for other artifacts. These trades have a particular dynamic. My ABUNDANCE of silk meets a relative SCARCITY of the same in the Gobi desert. In the Gobi desert, gold, weapons and some precious stones exist in ABUNDANCE. I trade my ABUNDANCE for local ABUNDANCE and the value of the trade is the uniqueness and SCARCITY made visible through my enterprise. At no point in this transaction is there any absolute SCARCITY or ABUNDANCE – just a shared IGNORANCE of each others’ context and provisioning. Along the way, my ABUNDANCE of silk is transacted across relative ABUNDANCE to local ABUNDANCE trades informed by the capacity I have to transact. Gold, and precious stones – much smaller and more transportable – start moving in relative ABUNDANCE until I reach Tashkent, Blakh and Merv where I trade more silk now for the local ABUNDANCE of spices. I even amplify the value of my trade by trading my SCARCE porcelain for even more local ABUNDANCE. In Qom, I trade for silver and smith work. In Baghdad, I trade for art and clothing and by the time I reach Tyr, I have relative equivalence of the legacies of my trading. All along the way, my endeavor brought my ABUNDANCE – unknown to my trading partners – into local ABUNDANCE – unknown to me – and in my transaction, I find neither Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, John Maynard Keynes, nor Milton Friedman.

What makes this model compelling – beyond its obvious millennial success (in contrast to our barely 40 year old failed post-industrial model) – is that I realize that the enterprise value exists in the systematic REMOVAL OF INFORMATION ASYMMETRIES. Unlike the ignorance arbitrage that is central to all of our current economic systems where we rely on cabalistic monopoly collusion between governments and their corporate patrons, true value was discerned through the uniqueness and cultural enrichment of trading partners. And rather than pulling a ‘duty-free’ regression to ‘globalized monotony’, the value of the network is maximized when local uniqueness is celebrated and optimized.

It is regrettable that the commerce and business schools across the globe – including places once central to the Silk Road economy – fail to learn from the brilliance gleaned from principles of this amazing trade innovation. Seeking to pretend that modern economics somehow transcends these core principles insures that our students are incapable of functioning as moral citizens in a global community of transacting parties. It also blinds us to the ABUNDANCE from which we can be empowered and through which we can engage those around us. Here’s to Chzan Tsan – let his wisdom inform us again.


  1. David,

    Yesterday morning, in a dream, Rudyard Kipling complained to me that his original line was, "East is East, and West is West, and ever the twain shall meet", and that his editor insisted on 'never'.

    Appreciating the expansive view you share here, bringing a broader vista on questions we live the implications of, whether we ask them or not, I want to register agreement and acknowledge the salience of your insights. For instance: "...the enterprise value exists in the systematic REMOVAL OF INFORMATION ASYMMETRIES. Unlike the ignorance arbitrage that is central to all of our current economic systems...".

    In light of Gregory Bateson's baseline definition of information: "news of difference"... and Bucky Fuller's simplest definition of wealth: "know how"... and that K.Eric Drexler would use two main categories of information, cultural and genetic (which correlated to 'interior' and 'exterior' in Ken Wilber's AQAL model), it's no real paradox that our so-called post-industrial era is said to be an age of information. You've reached around that apparent irony to point to the whereabouts of value. Value which isn't diminished by our failure to recognize it, but which is lost to the degrees we trade it for it's demise.

    Without touching on fiscal aspects of the trade off, an essay I wrote in '89 also spoke to the displacement of value. ( I recall reading the essay to an audience that included Diane Miller of the Christic Institute, who came on my invitation.

    And I'm glad to find that you recognize what I've called the 'transposed perpetuations' of colonialism.


  2. Kerry,

    First of all, thank you for this post. I love your term 'transposed perpetuations' as this is such a vital component of understanding the unconsidered assumptions and their consequences in self-proclaimed post-modernism.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave