David Axelrod, Ph.D.

Economics for Spiritual Growth


Economics where spirit also matters.

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Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

Posted on July 29, 2015 at 8:40 AM

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda




I’ve heard this phrase when people talk about not living up to expectations. All those couldas, and shouldas, and wouldas, mean nothing after you have acted. However, they can be quite important before hand. So, how do these three work together in a way that helps us understand the deep connection between economics, spirituality and creativity? They connect through their roles in decision-making and choice. Let’s start with some basic definitions.


Maybe the most foundational concept in economics is feasibility. When we say an outcome is feasible, it means that outcome could actually happen. It “coulda” happened if only we had chosen to make it so. Economists tend to avoid considering policies or goals that are not feasible. When we attempt to achieve something that is not feasible, we do not get the outcome we choose and also use up the time, energy and other resources that might have been used to achieve another, more feasible, goal. Occasionally attempting the infeasible means harm or death (like trying to fly off a mountain with no equipment or special clothing). Moreover, feasibility changes over time. When someone says “I coulda” it means she could have done it then, and can not do so now. Feasibility is about the external constraints we face in making choices. The more technical term would be exogenous constraints


When we say we “shoulda” done something, it means we could have benefitted from constraining our own behavior. If we had chosen differently, a better outcome might have occurred. Should is about how we focus and limit ourselves. These are about internal constraints. Technically they would be called endogenous constraints. However, it is a balancing act. Most of the benefit from internal constraints show up in the future. For example, becoming proficient at a sport, or playing music, requires practice. Sometimes one must constrain what they choose to do to assure that get the time to practice. Exercising is another example. For many people exercising is not very enjoyable, and there are many other things they would rather do. However, by consistently exercising they expand what is feasible for them to do in the future (such as staying strong and healthy longer).


So, what about “woulda?” When we say we “woulda” done something, it means we would have done it if not for the constraints we faced: I would have visited Chicago, if I had the money, or I would have gone hiking, if my leg wasn’t injured, or I would have gone out to the buffet, if I wasn’t fasting. These are about preferences. They are a statement about what

I would have preferred to do if it was feasible (coulda) and within my self-imposed limits (shoulda). We will discuss latter the deep spiritual and religious connection between endogenous constraints and preferences.


In economics, the decision making process is understood as selecting the most preferred alternative given the constraints one faces. The simplest model is where a consumer (someone who buys goods and services in the market place), is choosing between two goods and has a finite amount of money to buy them with. For example, if a loaf of bread costs $5, a jar of peanut butter costs $3 and you have only $15 to spend, how much of each would you buy? First an economist would consider what is feasible. Any combination of bread and peanut butter that costs less than $15, in this example, would be feasible. As practice you can make a list of all feasible combinations.




Economists generally assume that people prefer to buy more than less, if they have the finances to do so. In this case, the consumer would not choose to buy no loaves of bread while only buying 3 jars of peanut butter. If they bought no loaves of bread, they would buy 5 jars of peanut butter. The rows that have a bold font are the combinations that economists would tend to focus on as likely choices. We can not immediately say which one would be chosen since each depends on how much the consumer values bread relative to peanut butter. However, in this case an economist might also assume that the consumer is actually interested in how many peanut butter sandwiches they can eat. Therefore, any combination that has no bread or no peanut butter would not be chosen, when there are other combinations that have some of both. In this case, an economist might conclude that the consumer would be either 1 loaf of bread and 3 jars of peanut butter, or 2 loaves of bread and 1 jar of peanut butter. The actual one chosen would depend on how much peanut butter the consumer likes in their sandwich.

This is how economists narrow down from a wide range of possible outcomes, to what seems to be more likely, and rational, outcomes. By observing how people actually buy in the market place, the prices of commodities, and income to spend, economists infer the underlying preferences. They use these to predict how people would behave when prices and incomes are different.


However, all of this assumes a tacit constraint – people do not steal food. This might be because the store has anti-theft technology that makes it impossible to steal. Then again it might be because the consumers themselves have religious beliefs that constrain them from stealing. What makes holonomics different from standard economics, is the latter. We consider that people may have preferences over their morality (internal constraints) and may find value in religious expression through this.


Preferences themselves can thus be contrasted to this and understood as the spirit with which a person lives. Thus a person with a generous spirit tends to give much without being told to, or would gravitate toward a religion, a morality, that embraces generosity. On the other hand, a person might not have a generous spirit, yet, having chosen a religion that requires generosity, will act in a generous fashion. Some people act well because they do not want to be punished, some because they want to see themselves as good, and others because they are good.


This leads us to a first key insight: economic activity is an outgrowth of the science, religion and spirit of the people of an economy (as well as the material resources available) . Let us consider these three further.


Science is the study of the observable universe. Physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines, all have in common the accumulation of observations, called data, as the basis for understanding how the world works. Theories are developed to explain how what is observed fit together. However, theories are also expected to make predictions about what will happen. If new data is collected that contradicts these predictions, the theory is considered flawed, and work on a new theory begins. It is a never ending process. However, what makes scientific work practical is how it improves technology. Technologies, like wireless devices and computers, are what allow humans to build and produce as much as we do. Science is the basis for expanding our knowledge of what we can, and can not, do.


In contrast religion tells us how to constrain our selves . Religion is the basis for knowing what we should, and should not, do. This can have substantial long term-benefits, as well as costs. Common among almost all religions is a calendar of important events. Nature religions tend to focus on change of seasons, and were essential for knowing when to plant, harvest, feast and prepare for the depths of winter. Whatever the deities worshipped and legends honored, it would have been a tremendous advantage to adhere to the behavioral cycles of the year. Other moral aspects, such as prohibitions against murder and theft, would have made it easier and more sustainable for people to live together in large communities. This expanded what they could do together, whether in dealing with the exigencies of the natural world, or in competition with other communities. On the flip side, such moral imperatives were often associated with punishment and ostracism. If these were too stringent or the punishment to severe it could actually decrease adhesion to society, as well as generating unnecessary suffering. Moral superiority could mean having a better set of values (how one constrained oneself), or could mean having a greater authority to impose those values (how one constrained other people).


Spirit, as the animus with which we choose to behave, is the core of what we would, or would not, do. A kind spirit tends to express kindness in their actions, limited only by what is feasible. An evil spirit tends to harm and cause pain on others, when they are unconstrained. A strong spirit has very distinct and compelling preferences. Indeed, most spiritual work requires one to imagine what one would do if you could do anything. This is very similar to discovering what your preferences are when you have no constraints. Part of a spiritual path is becoming clear about what are your preferences, and what are your internal constraints. The deepest spiritual work involves personal and universal identity, where the distinction between internal and external is questioned. The implications can be profound.


When seen in the light of the above, what we do in the economy, and even how we understand economics, can not be separated from the scientific, the religious and the spiritual. Economies do not just produce goods and services while making money. Economies produce people and ecologies that experience life, including spiritual expression, religious meaning, and scientific curiosity.



Decision and Choice


In every day language, deciding and choosing are usually interchangeable. Indeed, from the outside, when a person has decided on a unique action it is almost identical to a person choosing that unique action. However, there are some important distinctions between the two. A person decides by cutting away those alternatives that are neither feasible nor effective. In fact, the root of the word decide comes from the Latin "to cut off." In contrast, the word “choose” comes from a common root, which in Latin was “gustare” meaning appetite or taste. A person chooses when they express their preferences in an alternative.


This distinction is similar to that between rational and emotional. Decisions are based in reasons. Choices stem from having passion. Deciding can be done mechanically, as in a computer algorithm. Choosing requires an expression of self. One can decide between unsavory alternatives. It is very difficult to choose any of them. There is a reason that economics has been referred to as the dismal science. It is only when a person faces undesirable outcomes that the value of economic thinking becomes obvious. Otherwise, passion and desire is compelling enough to lead to action.


The core difference between science and theology is similar to the distinction between deciding and choosing. Scientists rely on not only reproducible results but also disconfirming evidence, proof that their hypothesis is wrong, to progress their field of study. Knowing what does not work can be useful for discovering what does work. Theologians progress their field by finding/developing more effective motivation for choosing what one believes.


However, the relationship between science and theology is not necessarily adversarial. One can see a cycle, based on our limited resources, to seek and implement truths about the world. Scientists do the best they can to have the most realistic models and comprehensive understandings of how the world actually works. The outcome of that process, the "best guess" of what is real, is the input to making choices based on that best guess. At some point an individual pauses from the search for truth long enough to do practical things, like grow food, build houses and roads, heal the sick, have children, and if necessary, fight their competitors. It is in these moments that their energies must be invested in what they are doing, to get the most out of it. They must have faith that what they believe is real, or at least enough as to avoid being paralyzed by doubt. Einstein is attributed as saying, "Science without Religion is lame, Religion without Science is blind." The scientific will be outraged when told to believe something that they have evidence is false. The religious will be outraged when shown evidence that what they believe is false.


Also important is the distinction between science and scientists, as well as theology and theologians. Science is a process for gathering knowledge. Scientists are people who practice science. Since they are people they will hold faith in something, even if transiently, to get things done. To that extent, yes, scientists are like theologians. If nothing else, it is faith that the data they have received over the years is true and accurate, and not fraudulent. This is also true for theologians. The modern economy is based on the vast majority of people having faith that they will be able to have the resources they find needful, when they need them. Without this faith, money is worthless and urban centers unsustainable. Faith, in other words, is belief-capital and is one of the inputs of production in an economy.



Thus, what I do is a manifestation of my “woulda-shoulda-coulda”. My sense of well-being is my subjective experience of what I did as well as my preferences and constraints. We could also say that a person’s sense of well-being is an impression of their reality, spirituality, morality and feasibility.


What a person can do is essentially the environment that a decision maker finds herself in. Someone with a wide range of feasibility is often described has having great latitude in their behavior. It is the space within a moment to choose. Hence exogenous constraints can be said to be latitudinal in nature.


In contrast, a persons internal constraints, their morality, decreases the latitude of action within the moment. However, what distinguishes preferences from internal constraint is that such constraints are taken on before the moment of choice. They are something committed to for a duration. The benefits from these constraints typically show up in the future. Someone that commits to regular exercise may increase their physical latitude over time, but it requires narrowing what they do now in order to achieve it. For some people they accept limiting themselves in terms of pleasures and behavior for benefit in the afterlife and/or heaven. Thus, internal constraints are longitudinal in nature, they can only be meaningfully expressed (or inferred) over time.


Preferences are the spirit that animates the moment of choice. The economist Keynes spoke of “animal spirits” motivating market behavior. They embody our goals, aspirations, desires and attractions. They are the inner light energizing our choices. As such they have a luminal nature. While many economists assume that preferences are static and do not change, this does not have to be the case. Tastes change. What we consider valuable and urgent also changes. One of the great ironies of life is that as we do get what we want, our wants tend to change.


When seen from the above perspective, there is an important insight. For finite beings, external and internal constraints are experienced differently. We clearly distinguish between how the world around us limits what we are capable of doing, and how we limit ourselves (even if it isn’t always clear to us!). There is a distinction between someone refusing to feed you, and you refusing to eat. This