Seeing “What Is” — The Economics of Abundance

Seeing what is, what we actually have.  Versus what we would like to have or what we would like to think we have.  What there actually is.

This is the invitation I am finding all over the place these days.  People inviting us into a conversation about what actually it is we have, and whether that is what we want.  I also find that what look like different conversations might actually be about different dimensions of the same conversation.  I will use four examples to highlight what I am seeing, and I will use the 4-step Harmonic Vibrancy Move process to frame the conversation.

The first step of the HVMove process is to see if we experience a gap, a gap between where we are or what we have and where we want to be or what we want to have.  The chorus seems to be singing that there is something better available to us.  Whether we talk about being disengaged, large systems change, income disparities, impact resilience, or efficiency gains, many people are clear that we are not experiencing the abundance that is available to us.

The second step of the HVMove process is to see what agreements look like where people are having the experience we want to have.  I have shared many examples of the kinds of positive deviance in agreements, experience, and impact resilience we are finding through our Global Initiative to Map Ecosynomic Deviance and Impact Resilience.  Agreements that support the full, unique creative contribution of everyone involved.

The third step of the HVMove process is to see what our current agreements look like, in comparison to the desired agreements seen in the second step.  Here I have recently found a four-part harmony giving voice to different dimensions of our current reality, each highlighting both the economics of abundance and the dimensions of our current reality that bring out the scarcity.  In the agreements evidence map, I refer to these four dimensions as the economic, political, cultural, and social lenses on the human experience.

The fourth step of the HVMove process is to see what to change in our fundamental assumptions and our agreements around the structures and processes that guide our interactions.  Much of the conversation I find today tends to focus on how to deal with the existing scarcity-based systems or how to reject them.  Through the Global Initiative, we have also found thousands of examples of positive ecosynomic deviants, people who are figuring out a different response.  Starting from an assumption of abundance, not scarcity, they are designing whole systems based on creative human beings who interact with each other in very creative ways, achieving much greater engagement, efficiency, effectiveness, innovation, impact, and resilience.  We are trying to figure out what they are figuring out and share that with everyone else who wants that–who wants to live from abundance, every day everywhere.

What Is Your Preferred Flavor of Freedom? — Recommended Readings

Anderson, Charles W. Statecraft: An Introduction to Political Choice and Judgment1977, New York: John Wiley & Sons.  Click here for snippets from the text.

Anderson, Charles W. Pragmatic Liberalism. 1990, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Charles W.  A Deeper Freedom: Liberal Democracy as an Everyday Morality, 2002, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Click here for his free podcast-course on Political, Economic and Social Thought.

Freedom is a concept that is easy to understand.  Right?  Since we throw this important word around a lot, we must all be clear that we mean the same thing when we say it, right?  Not according to the late Professor Charles W. Anderson.  Referencing the classical use of the word “liberalism,” which comes from the same word as liberty or freedom, Professor Anderson distinguishes four schools of liberalism, each based on very different foundational assumptions about what freedom is, how it shows practically in the world, and how to support it.  The four schools he suggests are: classical, utilitarian, egalitarian, and pragmatic.  According to Professor Anderson, classical liberalism focuses on individuals living their own life as they see fit, with minimal interference.  In utilitarian liberalism, the individual maximizes freedom by maximizing the utility–the calculated net benefit of benefits minus costs–of the consequences of every decision.  In egalitarian liberalism, the emphasis is on the equal opportunity to experience freedom, based on equalizing starting points, rights, and access to opportunities.  In pragmatic liberalism, the individual engages in a world that is too complex to understand fully, so the task is to consider the practical impacts of an action, and to take that action to see what happens. In his podcast-course, which I highly recommend, Professor Anderson provides a very engaging, 54-lecture tour through the development and use of schools of political, economic, and social thought, highlighting the ebb and flow of definitions of what it means to be free, and how the different schools of liberalism have come and gone, multiple times.

This series of books shows how the application of these different understandings of liberalism lead to different politics, different institutions and roles.  “Political decision making takes place in a context of institutions, roles, and relationships” (Statecraft p25).  “To act politically is to attempt to impose direction and form on the course of human affairs…Everyone makes political decisions.  But often we do not recognize that this is what we are doing, even while we are doing it.  Political activity is not confined to the affairs of government.  It is present in every human association.  In essence, we act politically whenever we make decisions on behalf of other people and not for ourselves alone.  Politics means planning and organizing common projects, setting rules and standards that define the relationships of people to one another.” (Statecraft pvii).  Here he references the ecosynomic question of “who decides and enforces?” and power over the five primary relationships.  A further nuance in Professor Anderson’s book looks at the “tension between the values of liberty and equality.  All liberals endorse both, but classical liberals tend to emphasize the former and [egalitarian] liberals the latter” (Statecraft p20).

Within this framing of schools of liberalism, this book series lays out practical suggestions for statecraft: how to look at public policy, making choice on behalf of other people; political strategy, coping with power and influence; and political structure, the design of institutions.  I highly recommend these books and Professor Anderson’s podcast-course.

Being Curious — Most Viewed Posts

Something piqued my curiosity about the most viewed posts of my blogging on ecosynomics and vibrancy since mid-2009.  Of 282 posts, the two most viewed looked (1) at the big questions every culture has seemed to explore for thousands of years, and (2) at the process we observe when people are able to align in a deeply collaborative way.  As both posts seem very appropriate to much of the work the global Vibrancy community is co-hosting with groups around the world today, I thought I would repost the links to them today.

Some people have shared with me that they have favorite posts that they like to share with others.  Do you have a favorite one?  I would love to know.

Is the State of Nature LOCKEd In or enLUMENSed?

Are we locked in to or liberated by our natural state?  This is an old question.  With a hat tip to Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, perhaps I provide a new twist here.

If Nature is the essence of the reality we experience as living beings, what is real to us?  How do we define reality?  People seem to know that the tangible things we can touch are real.  We can touch them.  They are part of Nature.  People also seem to acknowledge that people, animals, plants, the planet, and the universe all change over time, they develop, they evolve.  We can see this.  This changing over time is also real, it is also a part of Nature.  And, people direct much of their creative efforts towards things they envision, designs for a home, for work together, for a meal to be prepared, for a journey on the road ahead, for what the day looks like.  We invest lots of energy towards this vision, this possibility, this potential.  We can see this.  This potential is real, and is a part of Nature.  So Nature is composed of what we can touch right here right now, in this space-time, and of what we can see changing over time, and of the potential to which we can see how to give our future resources.

What seems obvious about reality might also be supported by the physical sciences.  Physics uses similar definitions of what is real in Nature.  Particles that attract each other in particular structures to form matter.  The kinetic energy of the particles in motion over time and in relationship to other particles over space.  The potential energy of the particles in relation to a field or system of particles.

If that is Nature, who is experiencing Nature?  I have suggested in previous blogposts that we can conceive of human beings as Homo lumens, beings of light.  There is plenty of data from our research to support this suggestion, as well as thousands of years of wisdom teachings.

If we are Homo lumens living in Nature, what do we experience?  What would our experience be like without human agreements, before we put in place of all the agreements we consciously and unconsciously accept?  Philosophers have called this the “state of nature.”

I have asked this question of people in hundreds of groups in over a dozen countries in the past two decades.  In what people share, I see a pattern.  People describe their experiences, awful to great, through the vibrancy they experience in five primary relationships: to the self, another human, a group, to the creative process of nature, and to the spirit of the source of creativity.  I experience greater or lesser vibrancy for me, with you, in what we each contribute to the group, through the process of nature, out of the spirit of the creative force.  So Homo lumens feels more engaged in reality when it experiences greater vibrancy, as experienced through the five primary relationships.  This is our experience of the state of nature, a state prior to the rules of society.

When trying to understand how we humans think about reality and how we engage with it, I have found four basic lenses that we use, over and over again, throughout human history, to define our human duties and privileges.  These lenses ask the questions of how much is there, who decides and enforces how to allocate what there is, with what criteria, and what are the rules of the game?  We also think of these as economic, political, cultural, and social questions, respectively.

With each lens, Homo lumens seems to naturally seek to maximize a different dimension of the human experience.  Through the economic lens, asking how much is there, Homo lumens seeks greater abundance of resources.  Through the political lens, asking who decides and enforces, Homo lumens looks to maximize power, the control of how people are related (to self, other, group, nature, spirit), or relatedness.  Through the cultural lens, asking what criteria are used to decide and enforce, Homo lumens wants to maximize what it most values, the wellbeing experienced in its primary relationships, the vibrancy it experiences.  Finally, through the social lens, asking what the rules of interaction are, Homo lumens works to maximize the harmonic experienced in the synthesis of the contributions of each unique voice.  Abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, harmonic.  This seems to be what Homo lumens naturally seeks to maximize in the experience as a living being in Nature.

We do not have to be told to do this, we naturally do.  And, many times we forget.  For those times, as Homo lumens, we create agreements–ways of thinking that guide how we engage in Nature.  We agree with each other, through unwritten codes of natural law and through written codes of social law, that each individual Homo lumens has the liberty to decide for its own potential, development, and use of existing capacities, with others who equally have the liberty to decide for their own potential, development, and use of existing capacities, in the contribution of the unique gifts each Homo lumens brings to any given group, manifested through their own access to the creative source and process.  These are the rights or privileges of Homo lumens.  We desire to maximize these rights, until they infringe on the rights of another.  For these cases, as Homo lumens, we have created agreements in the form of laws to remind and protect ourselves.  Laws, derived from the word that means “to lay down,” are where the individual lays down the right to something, where the individual is deprived of the freedom to choose one’s own response.  These agreements can be guideposts to remind us of the experiences we want to have as we individually and collectively attempt to maximize the abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, and harmonic we experience.  These agreements can act as guideposts, when it all works well, and as penalties or constraints when it does not work well.

My colleagues and I have spent the past decade actively searching across the globe, for examples where people are learning to maximize the individual and collective experience of abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, and harmonic, through their agreements and their experience of the natural state of Homo lumens.  We are mapping the global social topology of human agreements, at their best, at their worst, and at their most common, in a diverse set of cultures.

GRASPing Ecosynomic Lenses

My colleagues and I have developed, over the past two decades, a systemic approach to strategic understanding of complex social systems.  We frame this work with the term GRASP, which reminds us of the five key elements of the strategic systems mapping: Goals, Resources, Actions, Structures, and People.  You can learn more about the GRASP framework and the strategic systems mapping process in our free online course (click here) or in a paper we published in the British journal Long Range Planning (click here).  Essentially, GRASP integrates the five big questions of strategic thinking:

  • Goals. Identify why the organization exists and what its global goal is. Identify stake- holders and their goals.
  • Resources.  Identify those resources that drive value (value-driving resources) for stakeholders and those that enable value (enabling resources). Balance the resource needs for all key stakeholders.
  • Actions.  Act at the level of enabling resources.
  • Structure.  Identify the linkages between goals, resources, and actions.
  • People.  Bring the organization to life. Identify the incentives of those groups that control parts of the organization. Align the organization’s structure and incentives to max- imize the organization’s potential.

In the Agreements Evidence Map, Ecosynomics suggests four lenses for looking at human agreements, asking the questions:

What does the GRASP map look like, from the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map?  The GRASP map describes each of the four lenses, and how they fit together in a social system.

From the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map:

  • the Resource lens looks at the enabling and value-driving Resources in the GRASP map
  • the Allocation lens describes the decision and enforcement policies and perspectives used by the People, the stakeholders, in the GRASP map
  • the Value lens highlights the Goals of the stakeholders in the social system, how the value-driving resources describe those Goals in the GRASP map, and the criteria People use to make the decisions they enforce
  • the Organization lens captures the Structure of the relationships amongst the goals, resources, actions, and people, as well as the Actions described by the rules of interaction, in the GRASP map

From the perspective of the GRASP elements:

  • the Goals describe what can be seen through the Values lens for the different stakeholders in the social system
  • the Resources describe the enabling and value-driving resources seen through the Resources lens
  • the Actions capture what people can do within the rules of interaction in the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the Structure describes the relationships amongst the elements of the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the People describe who makes decisions and enforces them, as seen through the Allocation lens, with what criteria, as seen through the Values lens

Thus, GRASP frames the agreements evidence mapping in integrated, strategic systems terms.

4 Lenses on Money, Its Economic, Political, Cultural, and Social History — Recommended Readings

Dodd, Nigel, The Social Life of Money, 2014, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.  See introduction here.

Graeber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Ideas, 2002, New York: Palgrave.  See online here.

Martin, Felix, Money: The Unauthorized Biography, 2013, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  Read an excerpt here.

Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money, 2004, New York: Routledge.  See online here.

In my continuing deep dive into the Ecosynomics of money, I highly recommend these four huge sweeps through the broad and deep literature of money, from the perspective of economists, political philosophers, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists.  They represent four very different, seldom overlapping explorations of millennia of thinking and practice with money across hundreds of groupings of people.  Not a single one of these is a quick read, rather authoritative, deeply mesmerizing journeys through thousands of minds, with clear frameworks, disciplinary perspectives, and excellent writing.

Given the massive sweep, both broad and deep, each author takes in these four tomes, I will not attempt to summarize or synthesize their work here, rather acknowledge the perspective they bring, showing you the invitation they offer you, if you choose to dive into their waters.

In The Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel, a German philosopher and sociologist writing in the late 1800s, takes the philosopher’s stance, specifying what value is, how money is a symbol for value, how this symbol plays out in the consequences of money as a substance in social processes, and its impact on social values, such as individual freedom, and on specific institutions, such as marriage, work, manual labor, and life style.  Very dense and full of extraordinary insights.

Oxford-trained economist Felix Martin takes a historical dive into a wide range of stories in Money, taking the reader into the deeper stories and context in which political-economic innovations played important roles in the evolution of money, from shifts in its form to the expansion of markets, political and economic actors, and levers of monies use, such as interest rates and success metrics.  A very entertaining read, diving into the rich stories along the way of money’s evolution.

David Graeber, a Chicago-trained anthropologist, provides a beautifully articulated exploration of what hundreds of anthropologists have learned about how peoples around the world have evolved their own understanding of and application of systems of value.  Typical to Graeber’s writing, like his book Debt, he shows how the economist’s assumptions about how money evolved out of barter run completely against the hundreds of deep, long-term anthropological studies of the very societies economists claim to represent.  There have been many nuanced perspectives of what people value and how they reflect those values in the currencies they use.  This is a deeper, nuanced read for the more academically inclined.

Sociology professor at the London School of Economics, Nigel Dodd explores the development of many streams of sociological research into money systems, diving into what the original authors meant, contemporary interpretations, and how these various streams have evolved.  This deep literature review covers sociological perspectives that see money as capital, as debt, as guilt,  as waste, as territory, as culture, and as a variety of monetary utopian visions.  If you can’t see the forest through the trees or the terrain through the forests, this broad scholarly journey through dozens of thick journals, shows the patterns of forests, highlighting the dimensions for a synthesis of the sociology of money, as seen from different cultures on the planet and different points in time.

Four perspectives on money and what hundreds of deep-thinking, often very practical, philosophers have observed across the planet for millennia.

 

What Specifically Differentiates High Vibrancy Groups from Everyone Else?

Ever since my colleagues and I realized that we had identified “high vibrancy” groups as an emerging phenomenon, where people were experiencing sustainably strong outcomes and experiences by living in abundance-based agreements, people continuously ask us, “What is different, specifically, about these groups?”

We can use the four lenses of the Agreements Evidence Map to be very specific about what we have found so far.  Our dataset includes survey responses from 2,500 descriptions of groups in 93 countries and longitudinal field work with 92 groups in 10 countries in the past 5 years.  The four lenses include the economic, political, cultural, and social perspectives.

To be clear, we started with the group’s outcomes, and found their experience.  We have identified thousands of groups, large and small, that sustainably achieve far-beyond-normal outcomes, often for decades.  They are able to catalyze far more of the potential energy latent in their interactions with each other.  When looking into what made them so strong, we found that they all described energizing human interactions.  They are much more vibrant, which is why they became know as “high vibrancy” groups.

Economic resource lens.  How are the “high vibrancy” groups different?  Through the economic lens of resources, we see that these groups have completely different resources than most groups.  When high vibrancy groups look at their community, they have an abundance of resources.  From the perspective of the three levels of perceived reality, they see great potential energy in the latent resources they have in the potential of the people, their relationships, and their creativity, potential energy that is just waiting to be released.  They see kinetic energy in the dynamic development of capacities and relationships, as they consciously choose to release the latent energy.  They see huge resources in the currently available capacities throughout the community.  The resources they have are almost infinite, and they account for all of these resources, because they are strategic.  Compare that abundance of resources with groups that only perceive the tangible resources they have right now.  What is the relative perceived valuation of a company with 10X more resource available for the same cost?  This is the economic resource part that differentiates higher vibrancy groups.

Political allocation lens.  We find in our field research and in the research of others pointing at the same phenomenon, that high vibrancy groups distribute decision authority and responsibility to all five primary relationships (self, other, group, nature, spirit), giving each relationship the power for decision-making enforcement, throughout the organization.  When decisions are made by each primary relationship where most appropriate (e.g., me for myself, in support of the other, towards a unique contribution to the group, manifesting possibilities, through constant creativity), then a higher percentage of the organization is highly engaged.  Compare that decision making authority, power, and engagement with groups that centralize all decision authority in one primary relationship.  What is the relative value to an organization of highly engaged people versus disengaged people?  This is the political decision and enforcement part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Cultural value lens.  Our long-term work within many of these high vibrancy groups shows that they experience far more of the value available within the five primary relationships on a daily basis.  They experience the integration of the value of high vibrancy relationships to self, other, group, nature, and spirit every day, in living into the latent potential, dynamic development, and constant realization of their aspirations and outcomes.  Compare that with groups that say they value human potential, development, and learning, while they simultaneously shut down or minimize the expression of potential and development in one’s relationship to self, other, group, nature, and spirit — “Do that on your own time; here we have work to do.”  This is the cultural value part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Sociological organization lens.  In the high vibrancy groups we have met, human interactions are organized to integrate adaptive and hierarchical designs for collaboration.  There are clear structures for processing information throughout the organization, and resilient, dynamic processes for adapting mindfully to new information, perspectives, and categories.  They are both adaptive and hierarchical, integrating the best of both, to maximize the unique, hjgh-value harmonic available when people synergize their interactions.  Compare that experience of human interactions with groups that primarily focus on formal, hierarchical structures that funnel people into functional silos.  This is the sociological organization part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Costs of scarcity.  From these four lenses, we can begin to see what differentiates high vibrancy groups from everyone else.  They are completely different: economically, politically, culturally, and socially.  Because of all of these differences, they tend to win more in the short term, because they offer and invite much more value in the moment of the exchange, and they are more sustainable over the long term, because they are more resilient and able to catalyze the latent value already available.  What is the cost of not doing this, the cost of scarcity? Are the benefits of abundance, of releasing the latent energy at least as great as the costs of not releasing it?

Zooming in on Your Agreements, from 500,000 ft to 50 ft

Most of us accept that the experiences we have every day are conditioned by realities we have to accept: “That is just the way things are.”  At the level of each experience, this certainly seems to be true.  I get paid for the work I did today, because that is what my labor contract specifies.  I pay for groceries with dollars, because that is what the federal bank provides as currency.  There is not much choice in this, from what I can see at this level.  What can I see if I zoom out from this 50-foot view of the specific experience to a 5,000-foot view of the system that directly influences my experience – from a view of the proverbial tree to the forest?

5,000-ft view through four lenses

From the 5,000-foot view, I can see that a series of assumptions determine the resources I have access to, who decides and enforces the rights of access to the resources, what is valued in my experience, and how I interact with others.  Is this system consistent everywhere always or is it dependent on higher level assumptions?  Zooming out to the 500,000-foot level, I can see the whole region within which those assumptions lie, observing that in different areas the assumptions are different.

500,000-ft view through four realms

From this 500,000-foot view, I see four realms of inquiry that have intrigued humanity for thousands of years: the economic, political, cultural, and social.  These four realms describe who makes and enforces the rules (politics) using what criteria (culture) about how people interact (social) and what people produce and exchange (economics).  I can see that in different regions of the earth and in different times, there have been very different ways that people have responded to what they see in each of these four realms.  There are many political systems, cultural systems, social systems, and economic systems over the time and space of human existence.  What do these four realms look like when I zoom back down to the 5,000-foot level of the specific system I live in?

Zooming in on your agreements

There seems to be a certain logical process to these four realms, at the 5,000-foot level.  What is there (who has what), who decides, with what criteria, and how do people interact?  The economic, the political, the cultural, and the social.  There are specific rules that I can see at this level that determine how we deal with the economics of resources, the politics of decisions, the culture of values, and the sociology of organization.  In earlier blogs, I have described these as four lenses (resources, decision, value, organization) through which I can see my experience.  Through these lenses, I begin to see that what seem like fixed rules – that’s just the way it is – vary significantly from one system to the next.  If they vary so much, then maybe they are not fixed rules, rather simply agreements that I have unconsciously accepted in my daily experience at the 50-foot level.

Is there only one job I can have?  Do I have to accept the conditions of the contract?  Is there only one currency I can access for getting my groceries?  When I look around, at other systems, I see that there are many options.  Other people have developed other responses, other agreements, when they looked from the four realms (500,000-ft view) through the four lenses (5,000-ft view) at what they wanted to experience on a daily basis (50-ft view).  They look at their work differently.  They have different conditions for their work.  They use different forms of currency.  I begin to see that these are all choices.  Choices designed at the 5,000-ft level, which I experience at the 50-ft level.  Choices that are guided by an evolution of what can be seen from the four realms at the 500,000-ft level.

50-ft view through the experience of my agreements

Daily life happens at the 50-ft level.  In that daily experience, someone decides and enforces who has access to what resources and how we interact, using some specific criteria.  The quality of these factors directly influences the quality of the vibrancy I experience.  If I want to experience greater vibrancy in that daily life, it seems important to occasionally zoom out to the 5,000-ft view to look through the four lenses at the system that influences my experience.  And, every once in awhile, it seems important to zoom out to the 500,000-ft level to examine the lenses I am using to design the system.

Maps for each level

To work with these three levels, we need a perspective, a theory of how they relate.  As Albert Einstein said, “Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.”[1]  Cartographers have provided theory-based maps for each level.  Ecosynomics shows how the maps of these three levels fit together.  At the 50-ft level, we can use “agreements maps.” At the 5,000-ft level, we can use the four-lenses map.  At the 500,000-ft level, we can use the four-realms map.  These maps can inform what we see, as we zoom in and out, and the agreements we consciously choose to experience in our daily lives.


[1] Albert Einstein quote, as related by Werner Heisenberg, cited in Salam, A. (1990). Unification of Fundamental Forces. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 99.

Errors from Bad Theory or Unlabeled Assumptions?

People love to criticize a bad theory.  It must be bad, because it was wrong.  The theory predicted a specific outcome that did not come true or failed to predict an outcome that did come true.  Most theories missed the “Internet bubble” and the “financial crisis.”  The theories prescribed certain actions to achieve greater well-being and they failed to achieve that greater well-being.  They are also not able to explain what actually happens in examples of success.  Should we therefore throw out all of these theories?

I suggest that we don’t.  Many of theories were developed by very smart people working very hard over long periods of time, attempting to describe rigorously the actual phenomenon they observed.  So there might be something there we want to preserve.  What might, then, be another explanation for why the theories seem to not help us see what is happening?

I suggest that many of the recent errors in predictions come from unlabeled assumptions.  When we assume that the universe must work in a specific way, we take for granted some very important assumptions.  As we take them for granted, they often remain hidden, so we never test them.  I suggest that for most of us, political economics and the implications it has on our daily lives is full of this kind of unlabeled assumptions.  In this blog, I will briefly share anecdotal, qualitative data I have to support this, as well as initial quantitative data, and a deep review of the political-economic literature.

Anecdotally, I have asked thousands of people in over one hundred groups in a handful of countries in the Americas and Europe, over the past five years, about their experience of awful groups and great groups.  Through these conversations, we discover that people know the difference between awful and great groups, and they prefer great groups, yet they spend most of their life in energy-depleting group settings they describe as awful. They almost always say that the reason they do this is because they have to.  Then they always ask, “Don’t I?”  Yet when they compare these energy-depleting groups with energy-enhancing groups, they realize that the difference is in the explicit choice of the agreements.  They then realize that in most of the energy-depleting groups they never questioned the underlying agreements, which I have called the 4 questions that changed the world in an earlier blog post, and in many of the energy-enhancing groups they clearly chose the agreements.

This anecdotal evidence is supported by survey data we have collected from 1,750 individuals describing their experience of groups in 89 countries.  In these responses, we see that in the energy-depleting, fatiguing, low vibrancy groups, the agreements are given and people tend not to even realize they have accepted these agreements.  In the energy-enhacing groups much time is given to continuously exploring, testing, and being clear on the agreements that guide the group’s interactions.

From the literature review, we find these four big assumptions, which are described as separate fields of inquiry:  resource theory; allocation mechanism theory; value theory; and organization theory.  Each field has its own practitioners, philosophers, journals, conferences, language, and industry-wide standards of excellence.  And they are separated from each other.  They are so abstract, as I describe in a previous blog post, that they are unseen.

Put into plain English, these fundamental assumptions determine: how much we see of the resources around us (resources); who decides and enforces how to allocate those resources (allocation mechanism); the criteria they use for that allocation (value); and how people interact with each other and those resources to generate that value (organization).  These are not separate, unrelated disciplines, rather I suggest they are four different lenses on the same experience.

By labeling these assumptions, we can begin to see them, and we can begin to see how the different political-economic theories we have today work with and influence them.  Until we make these fundamental assumptions explicit, by giving them common labels, we cannot see what we have learned from the insights of billions of people living in these systems for centuries.  It is time we started labeling them.

4 Questions that Changed the World, Again and Again

Most of our experience, awful to great, energy depleting or energy enhancing, is determined by how we answer 4 questions.  These 4 questions have influenced the human experience of billions of people for thousands of years.  And people have answered these 4 questions in very different ways.

I invite you to explore what these 4 questions are, how they have changed the world over and over again, and how you can choose your own response to them.  With this you will be able to shift the experience you have and the outcomes you achieve, from a different response to 4 questions.

What are the questions?  Philosophers and practitioners alike have explored the questions that determine humanity’s moral, political, social, cultural, and economic arrangements for thousands of years.  In all of the different societies around the globe, these leaders consistently converge on 4 questions: (1) how much do we see when we look at our resources?; (2) who decides how to allocate the resources and how to enforce that allocation; (3) what criteria is used to allocate those resources; and (4) how do people interact with each other and those resources.  Four straightforward questions.

It turns out that there are technical terms for these four questions.

  1. Resources.  How much do we see?  In economics today, this is the “resource” question.  What are the assets or resources we have at hand?
  2. Allocation Mechanism.  Who decides?  Who decides who will decide how to allocate the resources and who will enforce that decision?  This is the political question of power: who has the power to decide and enforce the chosen allocation of resources.  In economics today this is called the resource allocation mechanism, the way that resources are allocated.
  3. Value.  What criteria do the resource allocators use?  In economic, political, and philosophical frameworks today, this is referred to as the value theory.  What values  guide our decision making?
  4. Organization.  How do people interact with each other and with the resources?  In economics today, human interactions are guided by organization theory.

Historians and observers of comparative political economics show that people throughout the ages of answered these four consistent questions in very different ways.  The different responses have radically changed the world in two ways:  they have addressed different needs across different societies, and they have evolved within each society.  Each geographic region of the world and the cultures that reside there seem to have very different orientations towards what is important in their society and the principles to achieve them.  Additionally, over time, each of these societies has learned about what worked and what did not, and groups within the societies have changed the guiding arrangements: they have evolved.  In other words, they changed the world by trying different responses to the 4 questions, and by learning and adapting their responses over time.

Now it seems that one of the very difficult things about these responses to the 4 questions is that are very hard to see.  At any given time, they seem to be given as fact.  That is simply the way that the universe works.  In one society, the king decides because it is his divine right.  In another society, it is the pope.  That is just the way it is…until it changes.  Then it was the most powerful companies that decided, or the elected parliament, or the richest families.  The responses changed over time.  And they remain difficult to see.

I suggest that the responses to these 4 questions are difficult to see, because they are given to most people in a society as laws, laws that are enforced by the power structure.  You just have to accept that this is the way things are.  I observe that most of these responses are also very abstract, making them difficult to understand and relate to in one’s daily experience.  Let’s see a couple of examples.

Within each of these 4 questions reside a few other questions with which a whole society is designed.  Unpacking these will help us see why these responses seem so abstract and disjointed, thus hard to see.

  1. Resources.
    • How much is there right now?  In economics, these are the “factors of production,” inputs to the process.  Economics cleanly classifies all resources as either land, labor, or capital.  The focus is on “right here, right now.”  Most look into the world and see scarcity, some see abundance.
    • How do these change, over time?  This question looks at the development of resources over time.  This focuses on the dynamics, capacity development, and relationships in influencing how much resource is available at any future time.  Most people think about what resources are available right now.  Far fewer think about the dynamics of generating those resources over time.
    • What are potential resources?  This is about seeing what resources could be available, whether they are now or not.   Very few think about potential resources that could be developed in the future.
  2. Allocation mechanism.
    • What is the motivating objective of the political-economic system?  What is the moral imperative?  What is the system trying to achieve?  Different groups have focused on material or spiritual well-being for the individual, equality amongst the citizens, well-being of the group, balance with nature, and closeness to spirit.
    • What primary relationship(s) best serves that objective?  Who has the “power” to decide, to set the rules of the game, to call upon force to enforce those rules?  What is the chief organizing principle?  Who are the owners of land, labor, capital?  Some groups chose the self as the guiding principle for individual freedom, such as neo-liberal markets.  Some chose equality with the other, such as egalitarian systems of justice and social democracies.  Some gave primacy to the solidarity of the group’s well-being, such as corporations, nation states, and collectivist societies.  Others gave most value to the relationship with nature, such as tribal communities and ecological groups.  And yet others gave the most focus to the relationship with spirit, such as theocratic communities and Buddhist societies.
    • What structure-process does the system use to make decisions in that relationship?  What is the power structure?  How many decide?  Few, representatives, many?  How do they decide?  Whose opinion, whose vote, whose enforcement?  Behind-the-scenes design (invisible), out-front debate (others vote – others opinion), election (you vote – representative give opinion), or participatory (you vote your opinion)?
  3. Value.
    • What is valued?  Material well-being at the outcomes-things level of reality?  Economic surplus?  Possibility, development, and outcomes for all five primary relationships?
    • What is the mode of exchange of what is valued?  What are the currencies?  What properties do they have?  Is everything exchanged through scarcity-based, interest-based money?  Are other currencies used, such as time banks and non-interest-based currencies?
    • Who gets what part of the value generated in the exchange?  Who “owns” the surplus value?  This is the economic value distribution question.  For land owners it is rent, for labor owners it is wages, and for capital owners it is profits.
  4. Organization.
    • Why do we come together?  Economic efficiency?  For a shared higher purpose?
    • How do we agree to interact?  Competition?  Cooperation?  Co-opetition? Collaboration?
    • What form best supports our agreements?  Economic specialization and division of labor around tasks?  Interwoven, integrated collaborative conversations?

Different groups across time and across geography have mashed together sets of the different responses listed above to the 4 questions and their subquestions.  The good news here is that much has been learned as billions of persons have lived in these natural experiments over the past hundreds of years.  The question is whether we can learn from what they have learned.  I suggest we can.

To begin to see how to learn from the insights gained from all of these groups, I have found two shifts to be very helpful.  First, rather than seeing these as four independent questions, much as they are developed and treated today by people in different professions (e..g, resource economists, comparative political-economists, financial economists and philosophers, organizational theorists), I suggest they are four different lenses on the same experience.  The four questions shed light on different dimensions of the same experience.  This leads to the second shift, looking to one’s own felt-experience of the harmonic vibrancy of the group as a pathway to seeing the agreements that influence that experience.  This takes seemingly disconnected, very abstract frameworks such as contract theory, factors of production, monetary theory, pricing theory, and allocation mechanisms and shows how they are actually just ways of looking at the harmonic vibrancy you experience in a group and the outcomes that result from that experience.

The main point is that these 4 questions that have changed the world many times are now available for you to choose a response to.  It is now up to you.  I delve more deeply into these 4Qs, their implications, tools and processes for seeing them, and choosing your response in this blog and in the book Ecosynomics: The Science of Abundance (ecosynomics.com).