Moana, Complacency, and the Enduring Appeal of Steady-State Economics

Even a cursory reading of Disney’s Moana suggests that it is built around a not-so-Straussian story of complacency and risk-taking. (Now try listening to it on repeat for a year because your four year-old loves it, and it starts to take on, like, layers, man.) Moana’s island is both a rich source of happy subsistence and under threat from a mythological enemy that seems like a clear metaphor for overfishing. Thus she constantly struggles with a desire for exploration that she feels duty-bound to discipline, and yet her failure to be dutiful is ultimately the salvation of her people as she learns to navigate the dangerous oceans beyond the safe harbor of the island.

You can find happiness right where you are

Like many Disney films, the ordinary storyline tells the fantasy story in reverse: in the ordinary A-story we see a culture suffering from stagnation and accepting the need for new discoveries and risks. In the supernatural B-story we see that the trickster god’s risk-taking is to blame for misfortune, and human piety is required to achieve a mythical overcoming of divine vengeance and the rejection of creativity and innovation in the name of divine–but soporific!–fecundity.

In the A-story, a group of Pacific Islanders end their nomadic wayfaring to settle in a reef-protected idyll that promises them a flourishing steady state. They develop traditions and rituals that ensure stability with minimal growth, which includes communal ownership of the means of subsistence, as well as rites of cultural passage that refuse innovation:

“Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need.”

Yet this steady state is itself the result of great innovations: for instance, the villagers of Motunui have discovered uses for every part of the coconut tree and the taro root. And one of those innovations–fishing nets from the coir fibers of the coconut–threatens to deplete their local fishing stock. Over a long enough period the island has become unsustainable, slowly growing beyond its own carrying capacity. Yet the current chief, Moana’s father Tui, can’t see the need to return to their wayfaring traditions because he was traumatized as a child by going beyond the reef with a friend, who died in the unprotected waters. Moana’s rebelliousness thus finally meets with her  obligations as the future chief, and so she ventures out beyond the reef on her own to learn Pacific Ocean navigation techniques.

The B-story stars the trickster god Maui, who once stole the heart of a maternal creator god, Te Fiti, in order to grant her life-giving powers to humanity in the form of divine creativity and innovation. The care-giving Te Fiti is thus transformed into the vengeful volcano god Te Ka, who–thousands of years later–is blamed for the shortages on the island of Motunui. The B-story resolves when the heart of Te Fiti–the power of creativity–is returned to Te Ka by Moana, and Te Ka’s desire for vengeance is sated: restored as Te Fiti she becomes so complacent she literally returns to sleep. Here it is the desire for risk-taking and innovation that causes trouble, and the supernatural resolution comes from eschewing novelty for tradition.

Moana’s first encounter with Maui depicts him as coasting on the laurels of his earliest accomplishments (creating the sky, sun, and wind; inventing or discovering coconuts; stealing humanity fire like Prometheus) while trapped in a cave. Moana doesn’t appreciate these ancient achievements and demands that Maui return the heart of Te Fiti, launching a few picaresque adventures. Maui eventually teaches Moana wayfinding for the A-story, but along the way, Moana and Maui go to the realm of monsters to steal Maui’s magic shapeshifting hook from a giant crab named Tamatoa, another figure of complacency, who has mastered the art of fish attraction so completely he doesn’t need to do any work to feed, they just pour right into his mouth.

The stories thus resolve with the sacrifice of cosmological creativity in the name of mundane risk-taking: the volcano/nature goddess goes back to sleep, making it safe for the islanders to take moderate risks to navigate to new islands. The Motunuians’ political economy is shown its way to a new equilibrium steady state, nomadically moving from island to island in order to avoid depleting the resources of a single place.

Complacency, Stagnation, and the Duty to Grow

In a recent triptych of books, Tyler Cowen has been exploring a kind of generic theory of political economy that appeals to me. In The Great Stagnation (recall), Cowen argued that many of our recent economic woes were due to discovering that much recent growth had been illusory. In Average is Over, he argued that current long-run trends are all pushing towards increasing inequality. And in his most recent book, The Complacent Class, he spins the story of decreasing innovation and increasing concentrations of wealth as related: too few comfortable people are taking the risks that would lead to the next big economic (or political) revolution which would be disruptive enough to lead to major increases of overall wellbeing. (In a sense this is really a tetraptych because his free ebook of meta-ethics, Stubborn Attachments, argues along the same lines that we have serious obligations to future generations to continue innovating.)

So: Cowen thinks most of our biggest economic problems are due to a lack of growth and invention. That’s not to say that the pace of novelties is decreasing, but just that few of these novelties are truly innovative in ways that would substantially change the quality of our lives. Computers seem like a big deal, but they haven’t been that big. They haven’t fundamentally changed the way our lives work as much as, say, the washing machine did. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving a billion people from starvation. Mark Zuckerberg just gave billions of people a distracting website where we can fight about politics and look at cute animal pictures. If someone masters self-driving cars and trucks, maybe that will be the kind of disruptive, physical economy shift Cowen says we are morally obligated to pursue.

But we’re complacent, see? We don’t take those kinds of risks anymore. We make off-color Twitter jokes, or rap musicals about the founding fathers, when we should be moving mountains. Elon Musk is a genius, and a weirdo, and a comic book villain, because that’s what it takes to start a new car company, send rocketships to space, and redesign the electrical grid around solar power. The rest of us don’t do that kind of thing because we don’t like risks. We don’t even move out of town for new jobs as much as we used to do.

If you buy Cowen’s argument in Stubborn Attachments then we actually have a kind of limited obligation to try to innovate, because compounding innovations are what will make the future better off than the present. (In philosophy we talk about this as the “intergenerational justice” question, or under the heading of John Rawls’ discussion of the “just savings principle.”) We are ourselves massive beneficiaries of past generations’ efforts to store up for their posterity the technological and artistic achievements of their own and previous epochs. We owe the future the same.

Cowen even bites the bullet in arguing that we should be wary of making prioritarian investments in the poorest or most needy members of the current generation if they come at the expense of slowed discovery and invention. (Often these goals are not at odds, but when they are….) But he’s clear that the bourgeoisie are the real problem, insofar as we bask in our current quite high standards of living without taking the risks that could lead to greater growth. For the most part, then, Cowen’s target is not the poor but the well-off.

The Steady-State Economy

Whenever I teach environmental policy or ethics courses, we spend some time with arguments like that of William Ophuls or Herman Daly or Wendell Berry. I’ve probably taught Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay once or twice a year for more than a decade. There’s even a utopian novel, Ecotopia, depicting a California that has seceded and voluntarily created a non-growth economy (with a dash of hippy free love that eventually sways the uptight unreliable narrator.) The gist of the arguments all boil down to this: perpetual physical growth is impossible on a finite planet. Too many humans, living too good a life, will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth. Or perhaps even worse: we’re already there! Life as the American middle class is unsustainable and will lead to our destruction.

So we need to either find our way to new planets or learn to live within the planet’s means. And given the near-impossibility of terraforming within our solar system, we might as well get used to the idea that economic growth cannot continue forever now and work to arrest it. The parts of our political economy that are addicted to growth need to be reined in, and that’s most of them. Apparently we need more farmers and fewer philosophers; more plumbers and fewer petroleum engineers.

Depictions of the steady state economy usually emphasize more egalitarian and communal cultural mechanisms. But my sense is that steady states usually depend on strict deference for authority and a lack of disruptive mobility. Abilities vary, but roles are assigned (as Moana’s is) by birth. What marks out stable societies is a clearer connection between cultural prestige, political power, and economic privilege. I think that’s part of the appeal that steady state political economy holds for cultural elites in particular; a community where our mastery of the seminar room will be rewarded with attendant power and wealth, and we won’t have to defer to stockbrokers who got rich by taking big risks with other people’s money. (I always associate this critique with Lynn Sanders’ “Against Deliberation” but there are other sources for this insight, including Karl Marx himself.)

The problem is that infinite growth does look impossible on a finite planet. Certainly we can sustain a little more growth, at least for a while. But the obligation to future generations may be to waste less electricity on Bitcoin mining and spend more time fighting for adequate policy responses to climate change! While Cowen might not disagree with those priorities, he certainly doesn’t seem to think that growth (understood as innovations and discoveries and cultural production) is limited. We’re not getting closer to any recognizable ceilings, for the simple reason that there are still diseases to be cured, technologies to be invented, and novels to be written. Even the rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is still unfinished!

This is how I think about the error of the steady-staters: that they assume the old model of growth, where production and consumption occur primarily in terms of linear increases in resource use. This is what we measure, kind of, with GDP. But some kinds of innovation and invention are different: they create lots of value for lots of people without really costing a lot. A pill saves a life, and it only costs fifty cents to make; the pharmaceutical company will register some of those gains as profits contributing to GDP, but then the patent will expire, and it’ll SEEM like stagnation. But in fact, it’s a permanent increase in our shared wealth. More people live, but they live for cheap. (There are ways that this is supposed to be captured by the surviving worker’s productivity and the fall in drug prices is supposed to impact inflation measures, but it’s imprecise.) Growth is a misnomer: creating new things and ideas and experiences is the good bit. And there’s no reason to stop.

Aue aue
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain

Aue aue
Te fenua, te mālie
Nā heko hakilia
We know the way

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.


Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.