Total Economic Awareness (TEA) is used in this article to describe a philosophical framework, adopted by many people today, in which every activity is perceived as being of monetary value. It is not entirely new, King Midas had a touch of it, but it has never been so broadly adopted as it is now that it has become a defining feature of industrial capitalism. It is worth understanding a little about the evolution and development of TEA so that we can perceive it more accurately, and determine where it has infected otherwise functional systems.
TEA is essentially a completely commercial view of the world, encompassing both living things and inanimate objects. It is the “business” view of life, a mindset that sees everything as tradable and therefore worth something that can be traded for something else. In theory there is nothing wrong with this, and it is used in the theoretical study of economics; in practice, most traditions and religions warn against its adoption as a singular focus, or its use as an exclusive lens for life.
In the pre-capitalist world there were always some who adopted a TEA mindset, and they became the bankers and traders of their time and place. But their actions were always a minority of total activity, and they existing inside a wider context of other frameworks that had greater standing in their society, like religion and culture. It has only been in the last 50 years or so that TEA became such a widely adopted world view, and that is has become the definition of culture in certain societies; so much so that people refer to themselves as living is a “capitalist society” in which economics has come to define the culture they live in. This increase has been spurred in recent decades by the adoption of fiat currencies, which have allowed so many more people to avail themselves of greater wealth. The early industrialists and oil men at the turn of the previous century adopted TEA as a brazenly deliberate approach to life, developing grand plans for their businesses in which people were simply units of resource, borrowing the dislocated condescension of the aristocracy that preceded them. They set an example of grand achievement by developing huge industrial empires and amassing great fortunes without regard to the toll extracted from the ‘resources’ they used. The damage caused by their activities was obscured by dramatic advances in production and technology, and by their industrial contributions to war efforts.
In the middle of the 20th Century, as fiat currencies replaced gold standards, the example set by the early industrialists was adopted more and more broadly by the populations of the industrialized countries, encouraged by the innate desire for competitive advantage and the apparent absence of consequences. The early TEA adopters never had to acknowledge the real support provided by their societies, which constrained their excesses and caught the fallout that they ignored. So long as the purely commercial world remained a minority of all activity and was constrained to its own sphere, the TEA mindset of a minority could not destabilize the society.
But the untrammeled pursuit of advantage through wealth has a limit, and that limit is defined by the size of the consequences that it ignores (i.e. the extent to which it is exploitative). If 20% of the consequences are unaccounted for, then 80% is the maximum TEA penetration that a society can tolerate; if 50% of the consequences are ignored, then 50% is the maximum. But the theoretical maximum TEA penetration into a society has to be modified by the amount of social support that is present by default, without any commercial activity, and that is, at a minimum, 20%, rising to 50% as the prosperity of a society increases.
The formula for determining the maximum penetration that a society can tolerate is:
Population – Default Social Need – (TEA Penetration x Exploitation Factor)
Assuming that TEA activity has a 20% exploitation factor, then the maximum penetration is 65% is an underdeveloped society with a 20% default social need
100 – 20 – (TEA Penetration x 20%) = 80-20% = 65
and 40% in a developed society with a 50% default social need
100 – 50 – (TEA Penetration x 20%) = 50-20% = 40
The absence of fiat currency in pre-industrial economies meant that TEA penetration never reached much above 10% or 20% and could easily be tolerated, even if the exploitation factor was greater than 100%. If exploitation factors reached up into the 300%-1000% range (slavery) then those activities had to be exported to remote lands (colonies) so as not to destabilize the domestic society. The domestically sanitized presentation of the wealth acquired from TEA exploitation abroad gave it a legitimacy, and allowed the domestic audience to focus more on the benefits of the greater prosperity than on the costs of the fallout from the exploitation.
The introduction of fiat currencies effectively removed most of the barriers to broad adoption of TEA and so the only limit on its growth became the tolerance capacity of the society. The concurrence of increased access to wealth resulting from fiat capitalism and the growing dependent demography, caused by increased life expectancy and greater education requirements, created a collision course between the penetration of TEA and the maximum tolerable penetration rate for TEA. It became a race for individuals to adopt TEA (commonly known as the “growth of the middle class”) before the social tolerance level was reached, meaning the point at which there would be no more room on board that bus.
Constraining the exploitation factor allows TEA to penetrate society at closer to its maximum percentage, and in the beginning of broad TEA penetration this was an almost universally adopted convention – manifested in “a growing middle class with strong labour unions and safer workplaces”. But, as the maximum potential TEA penetration approached, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that even if exploitation was reduced to zero there still wasn’t room on the bus for much more than 50% of the total population of a modern society. So some people adopted the ultimate TEA rationale, which was to increase the exploitation factor by exploiting those running to get on the bus. If there wasn’t going to be enough wealth to give everyone comparative advantage, then you’d may as well stop playing by even the most basic social rules and adopt TEA as a total philosophy, in which those who didn’t grasp the finite nature of TEA should rightly be the victims of it themselves. This final and terminal stage of TEA is where we are today, in which a small minority of TEA adherents have callously figured out that their own advantage is best acquired through the maximization of exploitation. This maximization is achieved through the deliberate obscuring of the exploitation’s effects at the same time as the cynical promotion of TEA. Examples of this terminal TEA include denying climate science while promoting consumer credit to boost wasteful product consumption, and complete destruction of Appalachian communities to produce climate destroying coal.
An alternative to TEA is here.
2 thoughts on “A Brief History of TEA”
No, you got it – that’s exactly what TEA stands for: “to plunder and exploit, not value”.
Not sure I agree with the thread of this argument. Total Economic Awareness seems to imply that a person who is aware understands all the factors of economics together with their innate values and their impact on wealth and society. I don’t believe the industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries gave a fig for economic factors that did not add to their personal wealth. Labor, land and natural resources were commodities to plunder and exploit, not value. AND, far from embracing TEA, 21st Century industrialists and Wall Street gamblers are even more likely to value themselves above all other economic considerations and to undermine all that stands in their way.