Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

IT'S THE STUPID ECONOMY

We don't have Dubya to kick around anymore. That red, white and blue SUV of State may be high-centered down a swampy road marked “Danger! Do not enter!,” but it has a new hand on the wheel: one that, upon first inspection, appears to be a smarter, more thoughtful one than we've seen in a while. The accuracy of this impression remains to be seen, but it's sure nice to hear a president calling on us to take more civic responsibility than simply to go shopping and to “Get down to Disney World in Florida.” So as we climb down and look for an open spot on the bumper to shoulder, let's try to figure out just where we are.

Our nation faces a lot of daunting problems, but all eyes seem focused for now on the economy, which makes sense, since it affects the other problems. Our economic woes are many and varied, and blame can be aimed in many directions, but one factor can't be ignored: We've been working within a flawed paradigm for years.

I've always thought of economics as a sort of branch of ecology. Where ecologists study how energy is circulated around communities of organisms, economists study how capital is circulated around communities of humans. It's the same thing, really, and (as far as I can see) the same rules apply to both. I have nothing against economic growth--in fact I'm all for it, when discussing Chad or Bangladesh. But as standards of living rise in a nation, there comes a point of diminishing returns, and at this point America's obsession with an ever-bloating economy is to our detriment, not to mention downright unseemly. Equilibrium is sought by any system, but in our economy it's been anathema. Here, recession is enemy number one, and whenever we've caught a whiff of it, we've employed artificial props, postponing the inevitable collapse while feeding it. A nation as wealthy as ours can easily afford to weather natural downward adjustments in the economy and to protect those who are hurt by them. We like to think of ours as a true “free market” economy, but that's something the industrialized world has never known. Modern economies differ only in how, and to whose benefit, they are manipulated.

Over the past three decades, the entire conversation has been hijacked by the supply-side philosophy. Reagan got the ball rolling and Clinton picked it up and ran like hell. Since it's the wealthy individuals who create companies, jobs and livings--the thinking goes--just keep the troughs of the fattest pigs full enough and plenty will spill over for the rest. We average Americans have sat by happily and watched this process, secretly expecting to gain a place at that trough, however unlikely it may be. There's some truth to the supply-side argument, but once again, we're faced with the law of diminishing returns. Before long, the harm of the super-rich outweighs their benefit.


So what can we do as individuals? For starters, we can think about shifting our own attitudes about capital and our relationship with it. Our collective worship of money has been the ultimate root of our current state. It's caused companies to stop seeing themselves as providers of goods or services, but as generators of wealth, and caused government, industry and individuals to blindly throw cash at problems whether the solutions are financial or not. It's left many of us living frenetic, unpleasant lives trying to hang on to houses that cost four times their real value. Let's stop calling ourselves consumers and start calling ourselves citizens again. In recent weeks it's become obvious just how well the supply-side-fed fat cats have allowed their advantage to trickle down. It's been refreshing to see the widespread popularity of the recently applied ½ million-dollar pay cap for executive beneficiaries of federal bailouts. I'm hopeful that it's a step toward public repudiation of the cartoonish application of capitalism that's brought us to the position we presently enjoy, possibly even toward an embrace of such “un-American” ideas as a maximum wage, a notion I've championed for years.

In their frenzy to find a solution, our political leaders look a bit like the Keystone Cops, and the ultimate effect of their antics is anybody's guess. I hope, though, that in crafting their plan they'll think of it less as a stimulus and more as a parachute, intended to guide us safely into a healthier paradigm, where a sane standard of living (with a bit of cushion) represents a long-term line of equilibrium.
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upper: SILKY ANTEATER (1997) acrylic 17" x 10.5"
lower: SELF PORTRAIT WITH SOAPBOX (2008) watercolor/ink 8" x 4"