This excerpt from a discussion by Ken Webster focuses on a necessarily ‘wholistic’ or ‘integrative’ understanding of the circular economy:

“Hanauer and Liu (write) on the existing economic story and what they call the “machinebrain” rationalistic approach.

It’s fairly standard fare:

Call it the “Machinebrain” picture of the world: markets are perfectly efficient, humans perfectly rational, incentives perfectly clear and outcomes perfectly appropriate. From this a series of other truths necessarily follows: regulation and taxes are inherently regrettable because they impede the machine’s optimal workings. Government fiscal stimulus is wasteful. The rich by definition deserve to be so and the poor as well.

The roots of a circular economy, in contrast, lie with those thinkers and designers who recognise that:

Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic.

The source for this quote is still Hanauer and Liu. It’s a matter of science, that is what economies are and they follow the ‘rules’ of feedback rich systems. That’s still a very dry, hardly understandable description. What is needed is a suitable metaphor group – a more consistent metaphor, which is more explicit than for example; “taking insights from living systems” which is common in many overviews of the circular economy.

Here is Hanauer and Liu’s suggestion:

– An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.

Gardenbrain challenges many of today’s most conventional policy ideas.

One almost visceral reaction to the notion of a garden as a metaphor, let alone ‘Gardenbrain’ as a descriptor is that it reduces or diminishes the human from being in charge to a kind of stewardship. It means a kind of humility, working with the system, being in partnership – it’s somehow ‘fuzzy.’ A garden is also, well, just an old man’s [sic] pastime, an irrelevance surely in the big picture of a technological, fast moving increasingly urban world run by technocrats managing, controlling complicated systems. It’s potentially a big turn off.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but one reality for the ‘machinebrain’ orientated for sure…let’s go on a little. Looking into Hanauer and Liu’s ‘Gardenbrain’ reveals these consequential reframings
Under the prevailing assumption, regulation is an unfortunate interruption of a frictionless process of wealth creation in a self-correcting market. But Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend. And regulation — the creation of standards to raise the quality of economic life — is the work of seeding useful activity and weeding harmful activity.

Is it possible to garden clumsily and ineffectively? Of course. Wise regulation, however, is how human societies turn a useless jungle into a prosperous garden. This explains why wherever on earth one finds successful private companies, one also finds a well-regulated economy, and where regulation is absent we find widespread poverty.

OK, this sounds much like the circular economy, advocating “optimising system conditions” rather than interfering in the detail or seeking to micro manage anything. Taxes are reframed too, of course. Compare the existing ‘story’. Taxes take…“money out of the economy. It is not just separate from economic activity, but hostile to it. This is why most Americans believe that lower taxes will automatically lead to more prosperity.”

But for Gardenbrain types this question illuminates the key role of circulation:

– …taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden. A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth. … Jobs are the consequence of an organic feedback loop between consumers and businesses, and it’s the demand from a thriving middle class that truly creates jobs. The problem with today’s severe concentration of wealth, then, isn’t that it’s unfair, though it might be; it’s that it kills middle-class demand. Lasting growth doesn’t trickle down; it emerges from the middle out.

It’s perfectly obvious; perfectly consistent, as all effective deployment of metaphor should be. Feedback rules; feedback reinvigorates. It is restorative and regenerative as with “circular economy” aspirations around materials, but explicitly applied to how jobs are created and the process of tax and invest. Note here that it’s not “tax and spend” since ‘spend’ has connotations of spendthrift, to lose, to diminish the organism [“I’m spent”], of waste. Hanauer and Liu write ‘The word spending means literally “to use up or extinguish value,”’

Making sure there is enough demand for products and services is therefore an obligation of governance and is part of creating effective economic flows.

This flows metaphor is, furthermore, deployed in a very interesting way:

Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood. To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.”

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