by Lindy Davies
These days many people view "Economic growth" as an obscenity -- for lots of good reasons. The United States seems besotted, as a culture, with a crippling addiction to more, bigger, louder and grander "stuff", no matter what the consequences, even if we have to go to war to keep fueling it, no matter: we gotta have more stuff. Many of us recoil from the long-standing mottoes of capitalism, such as "The business of America is business" or "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA" (what's good for the USA also being good, one would guess, for the holders of trickle-down pans in the Third World). "NO!" shouts a growing movement of Greens, antiglobalizers, workers for peace, "No. We cannot afford any more "growth"; it is destroying our planet, and our culture. We must learn to live simply, to do with less."
More and more these days, "the economy" is seen as some sort of malignancy. I think, however, that this notion stems from a misunderstanding of what "the economy" is and what it can and cannot do. Your Econ 101 text will introduce the "problem of scarcity" as the discipline's primary concern. Economics, we are told, is the study of how people make choices to employ scarce resources, in order to satisfy unlimited desires. There will never be enough for everyone; scarcity (and the poor) ye have always with you. The fallacy in that is, of course, that while human desires are indeed unlimited, human material needs are actually quite modest; their full and ample satisfaction is well within the reach of modern technology. Therefore, if we could all learn to live more simply and harmoniously, we could learn to beat our SUVs into ten-speeds, and there would be plenty to go around.
From a practical point of view, however, this strategy raises questions. Sooner or later one must consider how such an enlightened human future could be achieved. By self-sufficiency? Protectionism? Organic farming? Transcendental Meditation? Alas, it is (fortunately? unfortunately?) true, at any rate, that the question of who must give up what, to whom, on whose say-so, is quite difficult to sort out. And until such issues are resolved, to general popular satisfaction, we will have to recognize that a shrinking economy will tend to bring about a greater net amount of human misery than a growing one.
Exactly what do we mean by "economic growth" anyway? Is economic growth merely the endless piling up of stuff, with the attendant pollution? That is how it is widely thought of -- and that is, to a large extent, how it is incorrectly measured by the much-criticized yardstick of the Gross Domestic Product. But that's not what it is. People do not engage in economic activity in order to pile up stuff; people engage in economic activity in order to satisfy their desires. Economic growth, therefore, is the provision of increased levels of human satisfaction. Some human desires that the economy seeks to satisfy are our desires for breathable air, for clean water and for natural diversity. In order to satisfy those desires, while continuing to feed and house the world's people, the economy must grow.
But -- if we allow the economy to grow, then will it not just go ahead and supply people with more of what they want? And, for crying out loud, they want grotesque gas-guzzling roadhogs! GI-Joe dolls with antiterrorist weapons! Reality supermodels on huge-screen digital surround sound! Slab o'Grease Happy Value Meal #5, with large Saccharine Slurpie! Don't people want precisely all those things that make our material culture unsustainable? Shouldn't people be protected from what they want? Shouldn't they be trained to want better things?
Well, it would be nice, I grant, if more people wanted better things. I for one would be just as happy to never consume another Slab o'Grease Sloppy Value Meal, but I probably will. I get in a hurry sometimes. We're all doing our best. But there is a way -- come to think of it -- to influence people toward simpler, healthier, greener purchasing patterns. And we need not rely on the imposition of an official commissary. All we would have to do is to substantially increase the wages of all the lowest-paid workers in society.
What? Wouldn't that just enable people to scarf up more Roadhogs and Slurpies? No doubt they would -- at first. But subtle changes take place as a community slouches toward affluence. Let's take a quick look at the markets for a few of our society's ugliest products:
It's a funny thing about the economics of free-range chickens. It takes a considerable amount more land to raise them than concentration-camp chickens. But we have plenty of land. In the USA, we pay thousands of farmers not to use their land, year after year, so they won't grow too much of some commodity whose price we want to keep high -- but what about a commodity like free-range chickens, whose price we'd dearly like to see get lower? Wouldn't it be cool to use some of that surplus land to raise them?
- Tobacco, and lottery tickets. A no-brainer. These items are frequently bought simultaneously at the convenience-store counter. They are harmful. The vast majority of their consumers are lower-income people. When people are a bit more comfortable financially, they are far more likely not to smoke, and not to play the stupid lottery. That also correlates with higher educational levels, better self-esteem, and nicer teeth.
- SUVs. The marketing of sport-utility vehicles is a fascinating -- and rather macabre -- study in mass neurosis. SUVs are not hyped as being fast (they're not), fun to drive (they're trucks), useful for rugged terrain (most ads show them in urban or suburban settings; when they are shown off-road, the passengers rarely set foot outside their chillin' cockpits). No, SUVs are marketed as giving you Protection. They put a big, thick, steel barrier between you and them. They are civilian tanks. They reveal, I believe, a profound level of insecurity, of barely-suppressed panic, at the tenuous state of our civilization, and the unimaginable dangers that lurk behind everything. No wonder they offer 'em for Zero per cent financing.
- The Network News. The pitiful quality of the US public's main source of information about what's going on in the world has long been an easy target for pundits. But the broadcasts don't get any better. It bothers people, on some level, that news of the latest bombing of Iraq is reported with exactly the same intensity, in exactly the same number of minutes, as the latest Buttafuoco/Lewinsky steamer. But we don't have time -- do we? -- to delve deeper into the facts. The Network Anchor has paid dues, come up in ranks, seen things, and knows how to tell us what's important, whatever that is. And when the Anchor gets in over his head, he calls in Credentialed Experts. What choice do we have but to trust him, and them?
- The Big Box Superstore. Civic-minded and green-thinking folks across the nation are organized and motivated to stop this juggernaut. Proprietors of high-end retail stores on rejuvenated Main Streets, touted by New Urbanists, scream bloody murder about the competition (are we not capitalists?). Yet, regular working people in towns are ambivalent. They notice that Wal-Mart does, actually, sell for less, and with what we're making, we can't afford not to notice that. Furthermore, while the Big Box only hires part-time for paltry wages, it is, at least, hiring -- which in many communities is a big plus. So, the zoning decrees that prohibit our Home Depots and Mega-Marts are seldom a foregone conclusion. Go figure.
- Disposable Diapers. I hate to admit this, but young parents (who are, after all, really quite heavily invested in the future of our planet) cringe a little every time they have to throw one of those awful things away. I mean, their volume actually increases (due to some bizarre petroleum-based technology) when they get wet. But what are the alternatives? We could -- if we live in a hip urban area -- hire a diaper service, but that would stress the Earth even more than the disposables. We could use cloth diapers and wash them ourselves in conventional washers and dryers -- also quite expensive, both ecologically and on our MasterCard bills. So we're left with either handwashing the diapers in natural streams with organic soaps, or potty-training our children from birth. Or -- I almost forgot -- ordering biodegradable disposables on the Web, at triple the cost.
- Chicken. All right, admit it: if you eat animals at all, then you probably consume a fair amount of chicken. It is a very versatile and affordable source of protein. But you know as well as I do that the current crop of concentration-camp raised, salmonella-laced supermarket chicken is, pardon my bluntness, ganky. It doesn't smell right, and unless you cook it Quite Well, it keeps you awake wondering whether it tasted right. It probably won't kill you, and it's (debatably) better than no chicken at all, but on balance, one feels in one's heart of hearts that as a culture, we ought to be able to do better. And indeed, we can. Free-range birds taste a whole hell of a lot better. But they are, alas, a whole hell of a lot more expensive.
Raising free-range chickens also takes more labor than raising the ganky kind, but it's not like we're running out of labor. In fact, our political economy is chronically fidgeting over the question of that to do with all the extra labor -- our huddled masses who can't seem to find anything gainful to do. I can't help but wonder whether if some of them were given land on which to raise free-range chickens, they'd have a fighting chance of figuring it out. I can go to my local Hip and Groovy farmers' market and pay three dollars a pound for free-range chicken -- or I can go to my supermarket and pay eighty-nine cents. If the Economy could close that gap by some appreciable amount, I'd be buying the free-range stuff -- because it tastes a whole hell of a lot better, as we all know. And if that came to pass, farmers' markets would become a force in the local (and -- dare we imagine -- national) economy! A wonderful fantasy. Any chance of it actually happening, anytime soon?
None at all, absolutely Zero -- unless we use the Secret, Magic Formula: substantially increasing the wages of all the lowest-paid workers in society. That's the only way to enable significant numbers of people to quit smoking, ignore the ridiculous lottery, use the eco-friendly diapering option, patronize the high-quality Main-Street emporia and feed their families wholesome food. And a zillion other earth-friendly, high-quality lifestyle options that we can only begin to imagine now. Our daily lives are so loaded with the burden of making a living that we are barely able to pay attention to the vital questions surrounding our childrens' education -- much less our duties as sovereign citizens in a democracy. We -- the working people of the so-called middle class of this so-called greatest nation in history -- are having far too hard a time finding time to do anything that might make us recognize ourselves as human beings, and not just automata, or livestock.
We must raise wages, without sacrificing freedom. Would it shock you to find out that we already know how to do that? That as a society, we could choose to do that, anytime we wanted?
July 14, 2002
What Folks Have Been Saying
Isn't there a finite amount of money to be made in the world? If you raise wages, where does that money come from -- and how do you convince those who posess it to hand it over so the we all can live better? Isn't it a little more complicated than that?
- Tuesday, July 16, 2002 at 07:54:02 (EDT)
Well, no, there isn't a finite amount of money -- but it isn't the money that we really want, anyway. It's the satisfaction of desires. Money is simply a useful tool in helping more people do more of that, but money itself doesn't satisfy anything. We want what the money will buy.
In the Georgist conception of things, economic justice is not simply a matter of taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots. Economic justice is about shaping a society in which all people receive the wealth that they rightfully produce, and nobody steals. I'd further contend that in order to reach such a state of society, we need not wait for everyone to become scrupulous and public-spirited. What we need to do is to recognize that there is such a thing as a moral basis of ownership -- and to use that as the foundation of our economic policy.
- Tuesday, July 16, 2002 at 13:45:18 (EDT)
You've made some good points, but one can be in favor of Georgist tax reform without thinking it will solve all problems. I suspect that people don't so much buy tobaco and lottery tickets because they're poor, as because they're poorly educated and just plain dumb, factors which also tend to make them poor. (I'm speaking statistically , of course; I'm aware that there are intelligent people who choose to smoke, and occasionally buy lottery tickets.) As to SUV's, they're officially trucks, and thus escape the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards applied to cars. So instead of people with large families buying station wagons (remember them?), they have to buy SUV's, which burn even more gas. Talk about perverse consequences; I think we should abolish CAFE, and let people buy the vehicles they think will best suit their needs. Meanwhile, higher wages would let more people buy SUV's, which do come in handy for some purposes. As to network news, most people with time and interest rely on newspapers and the Internet. It isn't clear that fiscal reform would lead people to demand more intelligant reporting on TV, although one can always hope.
Nicholas D. Rosen <email@example.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Wednesday, July 17, 2002 at 22:24:49 (EDT)
No, Nicholas, I think you've underestimated the panacea! I really don't think that people are poor because they're stupid; I don't think people are rich because they're intelligent. However, higher educational levels do correlate with being better off, and being less well-off does correlate with smoking and lottery-playing, which is all I said.
I most certainly do think that "fiscal reform" as you call it, in the form of the Single Tax, could indeed lead to better news reporting and a more engaged political culture. That's because it would give people more time to pursue their interests in this area.
Your points about SUVs and CAFE standards are perfectly correct, and that does create a strong incentive. However, I still believe that higher wages at the margin, which is the important point at which wages must be raised, would have net effects of more people being empowered to choose, and therefore more people choosing, green-friendly lifestyle options. Call me a cockeyed optimist.
- Thursday, July 18, 2002 at 10:37:09 (EDT)
Very salient points, Herr Lindymeister. Your rant follows an eclectic stream of thought...Check-out Wednesday's edition (July 17th, 2002) of the FINANCIAL TIMES (ON-LINE at:WWW.FT.COM). There's an article about Greed (corporate, and other types) and Darwinism. I don't agree with it all, but it makes some interesting points. Also, I'm teaching an accelerated (10 lessons in 6 weeks) section of Fundamental Economics (a.k.a.: PROGRESS and POVERTY), and we just kicked Tommy Malthus, and ZERO (0) population growth "...to the curb...".
Pia Francesca DeSilva <Acts93642@HOTMAIL.COM>
JERSEY, NJ the U.S. of A. (Heaven help us) - Thursday, July 18, 2002 at 18:35:20 (EDT)
Yes, quite. As Julie Burchill said about the comparatively low paid public sector workers in the UK who want more, we have somehow found money for the people in suits. You would also get less hassle with debt for necessities (I suspect people who got into debt for luxuries while poor would go on doing it.) Fewer kids taken into care, less stress related illness. Less admin for in-work benefits. Great!
Diana E Forrest <firstname.lastname@example.org>
TODMORDEN UK, Yorkshire UK - Saturday, July 27, 2002 at 19:27:22 (EDT)
What is more, raising low wages would reduce prostitution, which is driven by inequality - and hence reduce AIDS.
Diana E Forrest <email@example.com>
TODMORDEN UK, Yorkshire UK - Monday, July 29, 2002 at 17:17:34 (EDT)
Great idea! Should we increase the wages of the poor just in our country or in the whole world?
Cliff Turner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gabriola Island, Canada - Tuesday, August 06, 2002 at 16:36:04 (EDT)
I'd certainly be in favor of raising wages worldwide, Cliff -- but unfortunately I see no jurisdiction with the authority to enact the policies needed. So I guess we would have to start with one nation. But there would be a domino effect, don't you think?
- Wednesday, August 07, 2002 at 11:18:07 (EDT)
Among so many first class commentaries, this is as good as it's possible to get.
Harry Pollard <email@example.com>
Tujunga, CA USA - Friday, August 09, 2002 at 13:20:14 (EDT)
NAdi, Fiji - Sunday, August 11, 2002 at 22:08:27 (EDT)
very odd that we must cripple the upper class and reward the lower class. no wonder this guy has passed into obscurity.
the fundamental principal is when you reward production and penalize non-production, you get production. and when you penalize production(taxes) and reward non-production(welfare) you get NON-PRODUCTION.
- Friday, August 16, 2002 at 07:25:13 (EDT)
You're not listening, Dave! Please read the article.
- Friday, August 16, 2002 at 10:07:41 (EDT)
Hello Lindy & folks,
First - nicely written!
What you and most focused academics miss, is the simple fact that the primary drive of all physically functioning people is ........ sexual.
Any form of power sought is based in the sex drive. Because it is ( until the synthetic hormones fully kick in ) basically a male-dominated world as far as external activity is concerned.
The Macho vehicle isn't about "family needs" - hey, the population is rapidly diminishing to negative growth except for the poor - it is about Warrior Needs. They are an aggro macho display.
The poor aren't necessarily stupid, they have the same percentage of smart and dumb as the Upper Class. They just don't have the "kick-start" potential of the "better" class social networks.
The same percentage of them would suck up better class drugs if they could afford them, as do the "better" class. Why doesn't anyone EVER look at the comparative numbers?
Power/Status/Pecking Order. All the same thing. Even today, Warriors get first pick of the women. But being Rich is even better. Power has always been the ultimate aphrodisiac. Ask anyone who has been there AND LOST IT.
Ask anyone who has been seriously active in the "3rd World" what the Power Kick is like as you KNOW you can lord it over those people. All it takes is money.
There is no point in pontificating on what may be MORALLY right, or even the sane course of action.
What is needed is an alternative to the current potentially whole-planet-destructive vanity plays and ploys that have now expanded to financial absurdity.
The catch here is that it is like coming up with a way to make the astronomical profits of say, the Public Medical Welfare Industry, as an alternative to what they are currently doing.
There is only one faint hope of altering the system and that would be to create a serious campaign that conditioned us to believe that REAL sexiness came from scoring public benefit points.....
But it could be possible to convince those on top that you don't need immigration, that the days of physical labour having any real value, even as a pool to control labour demands, are gone forever.
THIS is one area where the new, young, unpolluted Academics could do an excellent fifth column job. Those people on top aren't that smart, most of them are only there because of the "3rd Generation Effect".
Convince them of the simple fact that the poor don't save - that's proven! ( Just don't mention that they don't get enough to do it) So, whatever increase of income they are given will be rapidly spent - a whole new class of accessible consumers could be created right here at home. With a side benefit of no extra language/culture problems!
Boy! Imagine what it would do for sales if all those dummies had an extra couple a hundred bucks to blow per week!
Final Note: Poor people buy junk food because it is cheap. Middle Class do it because they don't have time to prepare and eat real food any more. Desperate people from all classes buy Lottery tickets from despair.
John Rigby <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Caloundra, Q australia - Thursday, August 22, 2002 at 06:03:37 (EDT)
The work on Understanding Economics presupposes an almost perfect market economy where the forces of buyers and supplierr freely interact. Also, it ignores totally the role of money and credits in modern societies. The cause of inflation was not properly understood and pinpointed, only the inflation's effects which are higher prices of goods and services. In short, without proper understanding of a good monetary/banking system, no economy will be beneficial to the people of any society.
Hong-Anh Ma <email@example.com>
Dallas, TX USA - Friday, August 23, 2002 at 19:23:15 (EDT)
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