Saturday, December 11, 2004

Is a dollar alive?

To emphasize this is a space where "outside the box" (desperate?) thinking is encouraged, let me try to pry the argument about whether "safety pays" away from monetizing costs and benefits (previously discussed here and here) this way. I'll start from a very strange direction by asking: Is a dollar alive?

Take a virus. While there is some reason to say that a virus isn't alive, we traditionally speak of a "live virus" because it has almost all the characteristics of other microbiological agents we generally deem as living. It is true a virus must hijack the host's cellular machinery to reproduce itself, but this is a typical commensal or parasitic relationship similar to other organisms and their hosts. In fact a computer virus has every bit as much claim to be "alive." It hijacks the host computer to reproduce itself and employs the network to spread to other hosts. There seems little about either a biological or computer virus that disqualifies it as a living organism.

Which brings me to the "dollar" (or similar unit used as a means of exchange). If we adopt the perspective of a greenback that wants to reproduce itself, getting humans to invest it in a production process like chemical manufacture is one way it could do so. Dollars in, more dollars out. Those dollars then need to be invested again, where they produce still more dollars. The chemical is the dollar's way of making another dollar. True, a dollar has no "intention" of reproducing. But neither does a virus or a bacterium. Like a virus, the dollar just works that way in a particular physical/social environment.

From this point of view (the dollar's), the object is to find the most efficient way to reproduce and survive. The firm and the people who run it are the host machinery it uses. In some sense they are irrelevant. The good employer and the bad employer are just different kinds of mechanisms. The dollar itself must evolve and adapt to different environments.

So the task at hand (for us) is to contour the environment so that when the dollar reproduces itself it does as little harm to the host machinery and its parts as possible. That is where regulation and other societal mechanisms come into play. In cohabiting with humans and other organisms, the dollar can reproduce itself in benign or malignant ways (just like other organisms). We, like other organisms, have the opportunity through our own defense and adaptive mechanisms to coexist as peacefully as possible.

This formulation is admittedly unorthodox, if not weird. And by treating workers and bosses in the same way it seems to ignore power and political relationships in the dollar's human hosts. These relationships become central when we discuss how to recontour the landscape (the environment the dollar negotiates in its quest to make another dollar). What the change in perspective attempts is to effect a subtle shift away from an argument about the best (cheapest, most efficient, safest) way to make a chemical or a table saw, to another question, what's the safest way for a dollar to make another dollar.