can’t see the forest

If it’s THAT broke, don’t fix it

Posted in economy, human rights, money, US by Curtis on 3/17/09

Digg it! | Refer to StumbleUpon. | Add to Reddit | Add to del.icio.us. | Add to furl. | Add to ma.gnolia. | Add to simpy. | Seed NewsVine. | Fark!

The signs of recession are everywhere. At university, there is talk of combining classes and even of laying off untenured instructors. Air conditioning in the school buildings gets cut off at night and on weekends. Tuition rates are rising faster than usual. My drive from home to school is peppered with newly built strip malls, which are mostly vacant. Some families I know that were already living on the edge are not sure how they’ll make it through the year. Job loss is up, and new home sales are down.

I think by now everyone is familiar with the theme and variations which have been presented to explain the economic ‘crisis.’ These explanations sound, to my ear, a bit more complicated than necessary. Is it the fault of starry-eyed first-time homeowners looking to begin their lives fresh out of college with the kind of spacious, effulgent lifestyle mom and dad worked 25 years to attain, or is it the fault of the beady-eyed lenders who agreed to finance them? Are the big banks to blame for using questionable mortgage securities as a profit scheme, or is the government responsible for allowing that investment paradigm to blossom unhindered?

These rhetorical questions dance around complex issues, but in and of themselves, I’m afraid their answers don’t speak to the central problems in the modern economy, which are systemic rather than specific, ideological rather than individual. There are lessons to be learned by inquiring into what went wrong where, but time marches on, and it seems to me that we ought to focus on things we can fix in the future, going forward.

For one, free market, capitalist economies require perpetual growth in order to remain stable. This means, above all, a growth in consumption; people are immersed in an environment in which products are seen as the answers to their problems, and when there are no more problems, new ones are created. This is a favorite strategy of tech gadgeteers and big pharmaceuticals. Yes, it’s funny how medical diagnoses like Restless Leg Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder seem to enter into parlance at about the same time as the drugs which treat them. You might as well not even own a cell phone if it can’t spit out the latest baseball scores or play your favorite MP3s at the touch of a button. Advertising and marketing people are, regrettably, something like the shamans of our shiny new civilization. The way to drive the economy forward is through ever-increasing consumption, even when it outstrips expendable income. The condition of being broke, after all, is merely the stepladder to a whole new level of product promotion and consumption: the product of credit.

Economies like ours also require continual growth in the pool of available resources, and continual shrinkage in pesky overhead costs, such as labor (with the recent trend being to divert a lot of those costs to marketing). This is why we have long, explosive, bloody, multi-trillion-dollar wars in places like Iraq, why we support states like Israel and Saudi Arabia while decrying the human rights records of states like Iran, why Nike runs massive production facilities in Indonesia in which the costs of grossly underpaid labor operations are calculated down to fractions of a second, and why veritable crises in humanitarian wastelands like Darfur or Palestine aren’t very interesting to policymakers.

The new U.S. administration’s solutions to the problem have mostly entailed government spending: hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy corporations just to keep them afloat for another quarter, mortgage relief to beleagured homeowners, and the creation or beefing-up of social programs, some of which are sorely needed. But one wonders what kind of band-aid such policies represent, and how long it can hold together. Talk of increased regulation is interesting and welcome, but what about a more fundamental discussion of what is being regulated, and why? I was taught that a state in which the government enters into a limited, supposedly need-based fiscal partnership with large-scale industry is practicing fascism. I guess that’s not the case when we do it.

Maybe it’s time that we began thinking of a healthy economy not as one which continually grows and deepens of its own accord (“It’s alive! It’s aliiiiiiive!”), but as one which maintains a healthy equilibrium with nature and promotes well-being and security across society, not just to the top-earning 1 percent or so. Let’s develop tenably altruistic concepts like microcredit and equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps accounting curricula need to be rewritten . . . maybe the numbers we’re tracking aren’t the right ones.

In any case, it’s easy to lust for quick fixes and immediate relief when we’re living with the reality of economic recession. But think of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who are hungry, thirsty, and ridden with disease. For them, there are no quick fixes and there is no way forward. How many meals or vaccines would an iPod or a Blackberry be worth to one of those individuals? The way we conduct our state and our economy are, in many senses, directly responsible for the plight of the world’s less fortunate, and they outnumber us perhaps 5 to 1, speaking optimistically. So is this economy worth fixing?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: