What is Value?

where does it come from? how do you make it? can we have some?

If we consider minimum viable products, cost reduction, customer engagement, and the many other mechanisms and metrics of contemporary business, we find our current economic regime embodying the Freudian pleasure principle: what smallest amount of effort will yield the greatest returns?

And from here we can observe modern culture as a mobius strip, the myopic instant-gratification psychology of the consumer bleeding into the psychology of the producer, the business owner, the entrepreneur. The object of desire shifts, while the desiring itself remains the same.

Any attempt to dislodge or reconfigure this pattern (for one person, let alone any group) is at best dubious. The logic of value generation as a form of extraction—of always taking more than you give—reverberates through our psyches as an almost immutable law. How else is value made?

This question, whether we are conscious of it or not, will continue to haunt our era, determining a whole host of runaway effects prophesized by climatologists and labor activists alike.

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Taken from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (2018)

The good news is that an enormity of answers exist.

Many, new and old, have dedicated themselves to this question of value and how its current logic of extraction must change if we are to avoid further planetary disharmony. The answers they come up with are as diverse as you might expect. Some have taken dives into the history of monetary theory, while others have revealed the smoke screen of modern economics, while still others have taken a fine-toothed comb to contemporary business practices and their feedback loops of expropriation. The overwhelming verdict, however, is that our conceptions of value must be broadened.

What this means is that we must move away from what economists have spent centuries referring to as "externalities" and recognize that these variables (e.g., ecological disequilibrium, industrial waste, weakened public infrastructure, mass migrations, civic unrest, social malaise) must be incorporated into our measurements of personal and collective success. It means our current value metric has excluded broader conceptions of value that we are now coming to see as critical to sustaining life, and that it is therefore our responsibility to find ways of incorporating these forms of value into current economic structures.

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"Diverse Economies Iceberg" taken from the Community Economies Collective. See also Redrawing the Economy, a global research initiative mapping seen and unseen economic activity to arrive at more expansive conceptions of labor, value, and interdependence.

How do we even begin to approach a problem that big? Well, a good starting place would be to ascertain what these other forms of value are. For example:

Surely, many books could be written revising and adding to this list. But rather than attempt an exhaustive taxonomy, my aim here is to illustrate how impoverished our current definition of value is, and how much room there is for improvement. Once we are able to grasp these other forms of value generation, be it as an individual, organization, or society, we can begin the work of developing metrics to account for these variables and incorporate them into our frameworks for success.

The Double Bind

The real meat of this conundrum arises in the context of running a business. When maximizing shareholder value governs an enterprise, all other conceptions of value are all too easily jettisoned as irrelevant. But, more importantly, accounting for alternative forms of value in this scenario would seem to be, by definition, experienced as a financial loss. ("Who in their right mind would invest time, money, and energy into an initiative that promised no returns?")

This is the double bind the business world experiences: the pressure to stay afloat directly impedes its ability to give back. Or so it seems.

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While it would be easy to read this recent NYT article as self-parody, it seems significant that today's business leaders are now openly discrediting the deregulatory, free market fundamentalism of the Chicago School. At a time punctuated by union elections, demands for a Green New Deal, and the waning cogency of neoliberal ideology, there seems cause for hope that a new era of economic sanity approaches. (Cartoon taken from The New Yorker.)

My combined interests in consulting and political economy has driven me toward imagining this exact possibility. Given what we know about the structural limitations put on businesses, what strategies would allow businesses to follow through on a broadened conception of value generation and invest resources back into the collective, while simultaneously ensuring some kind of ROI?

Some might call this a contradiction in terms, but I see it as an open-ended question. As I mention in my post on heterodox business strategy, there is always the possibility of piloting an initiative which yields indirect rewards to your business.

The key here would be to start thinking sociologically: "How might an investment in the material wellbeing of my workers, community, or society trigger a trickle down effect that my business would feel?" Maybe it's as simple as better benefits sparking higher morale, productivity, and retention rates. Maybe you offer employees student debt forgiveness. Maybe you lobby for affordable, green energy housing for your remote workers. The point, however, is devising what we might call a dual-purpose investment: on one hand, you're pouring resources into an initiative that will boost competitive advantage, brand recognition, and retention; on the other hand, the initiative is producing tangible good for a larger community that transcends conventional value generation.[2] It's no easy task, and would most likely require tremendous collaboration, but the rewards could be unparalleled—especially when we consider how these kind of initiatives could completely rewrite the rules for an entire industry depending on who's leading the charge.

Narrative Strategy and the Future of Value

As for consultants, there are ample opportunities here for what Tom Critchlow, Toby Shorin, and others have been calling narrative strategy, a style of executive coaching which mixes editorial production with 1-1 advising in order to craft cohesive and compelling visions for organizations. Its application spans everything from internal memos, team-building, product design, partnerships, company missions, and more. In my eyes, it's the perfect modality for translating potentially complex initiatives which attempt to address multiple needs, as described above, into actionable gameplans.

And the best part is, the tools to do it are already in abundance. Many strategists already specialize in storytelling, cultural analysis, and design. Narrative strategy allows these skills to align with a larger purpose. It's the connective tissue needed to bridge radical new entrepreneurial frontiers with on-the-ground organizational hurdles and interpersonal roadblocks.

As Brian Dell puts it: "Articulation is the first product." It jumpstarts workers, investers, users, and every other stakeholder. And, as we know, it'll also jumpstart governments, interest groups, and public audiences. So the question becomes: what new kinds of stories are going to allow today's leaders to reposition their business for success while recalibrating their operations for a more egalitarian world?

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For further resources on the future of value, I recommend Brian Massumi's 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value, Frederick Harry Pitts's Value, and David Beech's Art and Postcapitalism.

[1] Kate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism, 46.

[2] It's worth noting how this would differ from the current interest in so-called "impact investing." As Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute recently documented, the latter carries several flaws that stand in direct contradiction to the impact investors hope to generate. The primary criticisms include a fatal misunderstanding of the extractive economics such funding relies on, the obscuring of far more direct, publically-administered solutions in favor of pro-market gimmicks and privatization, and the depoliticization of what is fundamentally a clash of political interests. For a dual-purpose investment to rise above these flaws, it would require involvement in a far more meaningful process of accountability. This might include taking a more honest inventory of the operations that enable such investment funds and their socioeconomic effects before declaring the success of such impact, considering investing a much larger percentage of profits, and embracing explicitly political language. Anything less enables a moment of good PR but falls flat for a populace increasingly skeptical of most philanthropy and increasingly in favor of socialized remedies. As Rutger Bregman famously put it at the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos: "We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes, we can invite Bono once more, but, come on, we've got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes—all the rest is bullshit, in my opinion."