Andrés Bernal – Support Scientists Who Work for the Public Good

Let’s work to build a culture that generates scientific knowledge and technology committed to democratic values.

Andrés Bernal is a scholar, theorist, and activist who serves as an advisor for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and shaped the jobs guarantee of the Green New Deal. He is a proponent of Modern Monetary Theory as a way to support the battle against climate change and fair living and working conditions for all citizens.

Cross-posted from Inverse

Thanks to GIMMS for drawing our attention to this article

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The wonders of the scientific method were imparted onto me from a very early age. My father, a practicing pediatrician with a background in virology, emphasized the importance of a framework for making sense of the world based on critical thinking and curiosity. Memories of my childhood include a fascination for learning about the cosmos, human consciousness, and the meaning of life. By the time I enrolled in a university, I decided to study the history and application of knowledge itself by pursuing a degree in philosophy.

Illustration of road vanishing into the distance with clods on the horizon and a large red planet and night sky behindComing of age during the rise of the internet, I saw my generation go through a period of deep transformation to the underpinnings of our social relations. I saw changes in the way we communicate with one another and vast improvements in how we cure disease, but I also saw shifts in our capacity to bring about great destruction through weapons of war and the tools to destabilize the planet’s ecosystems, like fracking, for the sake of human convenience and private greed.

My journey studying philosophy and later, the social sciences, encouraged me to more thoroughly appreciate pluralism in methodology and epistemology. I learned to think about the scientific method as not independent from but rather cogenerative within the socio-economic conditions, legal institutions, and power relations of any particular social order.

Today, the predictive power of scientific inquiry has made it glaringly clear that we are running out of time to stop the catastrophic consequences of pumping billions of tons of carbon emissions a year into the Earth’s atmosphere. Given the capacity of the human mind to create in ways that have shattered paradigms for our entire history as a species, why is it that we continue having to battle climate change denialism and a crisis in the capacity of science to serve to its full potential?

Scientist wearing white lab coat and net hat, looking down a microscopeIn the United States, there has been a long-term trend in the reduction of federal commitment to funding scientific research. As the economy and daily life have become increasingly financialized, scientific practice has grown even more dependent on funding via private industry. Universities, and educational institutions in general, are under constant pressure to operate more like for-profit corporations that ensure monetary returns with commercial applicability.

There seems to be a dominant belief that whether it comes to improving the practice and cost-effectiveness of medicine, understanding the animal kingdom, or building the renewable energy infrastructure needed to stop civilization threatening climate change; the starting point must be market incentives.

It is obvious to me that some individual incentivizing and competition can play a positive role in encouraging innovation and ingenuity, but the current trend toward publicly underfunded science and privatized education in the US, marked by conflicts of interest, massive administrative bureaucracy, burnout from overworked scientists and students, and the stifling of creativity and risk-taking, are all signs of the destructive limits of market fundamentalism and increasingly profit-driven control over the production of knowledge.

This is a stark contrast to the interdisciplinary curiosity, the collaborative thought, and the organic spontaneity that is critical to a culture that generates scientific knowledge and technology committed to democratic values and ethical deliberation. Doing this requires an approach to science that is grounded in inquiry as a public right, with its applicability beyond “national security” or short-term returns on investment mostly valued on crude financial terms.

Field with ploughed land on the left half and grass on the right halfAs we face the planetary crisis of climate change and ecocide, the paramount task ahead requires bringing together expertise and technological breakthroughs with the long-bending arc of justice and the quest toward social evolution from our most predatory habits.

I believe the mass mobilization as part of a Green New Deal is a vital step in the right direction. When we understand that economic prosperity, sustainability, and justice can and should be part of the same holistic conversation, we can begin to imagine how technology and knowledge can be a tool for liberating ourselves as opposed to threatening our own existence.

One of the most exciting prospects about the Green New Deal includes addressing the question of how to “pay for” such an agenda. At the interdisciplinary intersection of macroeconomics, policy, law, accounting, and the sociological history of money and debt, the growing popularity of Modern Monetary Theory is, in my belief, bringing to the social science of economics a paradigmatic revolution reminiscent of the ideas of the philosopher-historian Thomas Kuhn.

Most relevant is that when we understand the spectrum of monetary sovereignty and the distinction between currency issuers and currency users, we can see that the operational realities of federal finance in the US look nothing like households or firms.

Audience in theatre facing stage with hands raisedAccording to MMT, proper analysis on the limits to government spending in the US are not budget revenue concerns, but resource and inflation constraints. The logic that we must limit federal spending for the sake of a balanced budget or by adhering to national debt hysteria becomes exposed as basically superstitious orthodoxy. Rather, evaluating the merits or risks of a federal budget depends on the availability of particular industrial, technological, labor, and material productive capabilities, in relation to the issuance of the currency.

This shift to available capabilities also better enables us to have a much-needed debate about the appropriate role and scope of private banking and lending, as well as how wealth is best produced and distributed.

Federal financing becomes concerned with generating productivity and achieving social goals, such as improving overall well-being and achieving full employment, including the plan in the Green New Deal for a federally financed, locally administered jobs guarantee, all while maintaining the stability of prices.

I believe that providing public resources for the best use of our capacities that ensures quality science is interconnected to an economic bill of rights including universal healthcare, quality public education, the right to dignified employment and working conditions, and the necessary support for scientists and their research not out of fierce competition for funds but as a public good. That is the way we can ensure what economist Yanis Varoufakis calls a future that looks less like the world of The Matrix and more like that of Star Trek.

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1 Comment

  1. If true philosophers would get the top job with pay to match and no responsibility, as with politicians and bureaucrats now, I might be persuaded of this Green New Deal and money ad lib to match through the Money New Deal without true conservative oversight. Reading the article in question, I realise that a new Ism was born not so long ago. Perhaps it has already been named, but if not, I would Christen it “Academism”. The academic practitioners in the West have become a force to be reckoned with. If I were a scholar, or had the wherewithal mentally to become one, at my late stage of development, I would study this phenomenon at length. The academic world has been of interest to me for decades. Years ago I mused and thought it took after the (Christian) priesthood. I might well be proven right on that. Philosophically speaking, this academic development may well be very natural. It is in the nature of phenomena that there is no causeless cause, so Buddha tells us(as we have been told, and it was written).
    I now recall from my younger days, the skills of riding a bicycle and how to change direction without falling over. One leans in the direction of intended travel while steering briefly the other way. This is not academic but, indeed, it is scientific. The bicycle and rider fall, gravity-wise, towards the direction of travel. Once this is accomplished the rider quickly steers the other way, the right way, in order for bicycle and rider to go back to balance before falling over. In a fashion, riding a bicycle in a straight line necessitates the same strategy but on a more subtle level. I see here by strange coincidence similar action in the road travelled by humanity at large, in particular where matters political and academic are concerned. There is a certain automatism or natural cadence at work. To change direction, humanity veers the wrong way briefly, falls the right way and steers back the right way to regain both balance and the true course of natural development.
    G.K. Chesterton, if memory serves me right, a bit of a nutter, for religion, possibly, remarked, it is written, that if people stop believing in God, they can start believing in anything-slightly rephrased, that is. Already we know from experience that people who believe in God do in fact believe in anything under the sun, and more besides. I think, however, that Chesterton had a good point. When people stop believing in their God, or gods, they need to regain their balance. This they do by steering/thinking the wrong way until they realise they are astray-that it doesn’t quite work out as intended or expected. Then they steer and believe the way they are falling/failing/believing and regain their balance until such time as it becomes apparent that they are yet again failing to perform according to their, or some significant other, expectation or hoped-for satiation. Whatever happens, things must be happening.
    True philosophers (as opposed to and over and above fake philosophers and academic philosophers) know when it is time for guru meditation. The Green New Deal doesn’t look like GMT to me. The GND is not to fly one’s non-academic flag on or take for one’s bearings on, or stake one fortune on, or set one’s watch by, but for consciousness raising it may turn a teick or two.

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