Monday, August 09, 2010

Ignore Wall Street

Wall Street jittery. The stock market nervous. Prices tumbled for no apparent reason. Wall Street rallied in the morning and plunged in the afternoon.

What kind of culture pins its basics, its economic foundationals, on such flaky behavior? Who cares? Humankind evolved for its entire history without a financial gambling parlor to serve as the nominal barometer of its economy. There have been many economic systems tried and flopped on Earth, many for much longer successful and sensible runs than the stock market.

As a working person who has been on the job from 1966-2010, just like so many other millions, I'm far more interested in the unemployment statistics. I'm listening when they finally get around to talking about foreclosures, to amounts of personal debt, and other indices that have value to me and others who simply work hard and make an average income.

Certainly, say the corporations and their political appointees from the Republican Party--and most of them from the Ds as well. Where do you think jobs come from? Of course we are hard-wired to the way that the stock market is going, since it is the root of our economic power and health.

Let it go. Focus on creating public sector work--we need full employment, a job of some sort for everyone who wants to work. It is quite possible. Government could end unemployment in a few months if there were the political will to simply say, drain the military budget of all capital intensive programs and use the enormous savings to create low-paying, high-benefit government jobs doing the things we need done to stay healthy.

We need millions of workers tightening up our dwellings to make them more energy efficient with low cost materials. We need millions of workers to create and maintain bike paths, bicycles and walking paths. We need millions of workers to grow and distribute food. We need millions trained in nonviolent de-escalation and civil society protection. There should be zero unemployment except for those who choose to live off their savings, live off the land, or otherwise not seek paid work. Zero.

As it is, we devote massive amounts of the fruits of our labor to both bailing out the corporations whose short-sighted greed created our economic recession and to building and deploying the largest and most expensive and expansive war machine in history. Neither of these are ethical nor practical uses for the resources that we earn.

It is true that wealth is generated by predatory capitalism, by which I mean the global search for cheap human and natural resources, which are cheap because we take them at gunpoint. Yes, of course. How do we get cheap oil? We have a pipeline of military aid to Saudi Arabia and that deal was launched during World War II by FDR. We give their royals enough military aid to keep them in power and the average Saudi makes very little, even though what Americans are told is that the royals live fat. It's true, they do, and that is The Deal. Keep the elites living large and keep them in power and they provide the cheap resources. It was the secret of the British Raj and it's the same formula used by multinationals today. China learned it from us and they have less than five percent unemployment. Looking through the list, it is apparent that some patterns exist and that we have some choices.

No, we cannot have full employment and high paying jobs and good benefits. We have to make some serious choices. Cuba, Cambodia, Singapore, Switzerland, Malaysia, Norway--these and other countries have very low unemployment. Even Vietnam has just about everyone working. What can we learn from others?

If we would grow up and settle for far fewer consumer silliness and focus on well made durable goods that last, if we were far more involved in muscle power and human scale transportation, if we draw down our military drastically, if we create far stronger and tighter safety nets instead of high-flying acts without a net--there are so many intelligent choices that we could make that would make the corporate casino less relevant. I don't pretend to be an economist, but I will assert that we take the Dow Jones far too seriously and our people's well being far too lightly. The markets are structural violence when they dictate unemployment and preserve obscenely rich status for a handful.

This is not a call to punish the rich. I've known some remarkable, altruistic rich people (OK, not all that well, since it's never been my world, but some have impressed me quite favorably). Bill Gates and Warren Buffet's recent initiative to garner commitments from dozens of fabulously wealthy people to give away at least half their fortunes is a welcome and real gesture. But if we want to reduce and someday eliminate structural violence we will flatten the economic hierarchy and demilitarize. The two could logically produce a far more stable and mature economy, one in which a young family could feel secure instead of the rampant insecurity we see now, ironically in a land obsessed with security.


Jean said...

Tom, my CR301 paper will have a much longer response to your post, written by my idealistic inner (libertarian) child. For now, I just want to say a simple thank you for the post and for clearly defining your terms. By doing so, you have made possible a search for common ground. Capitalism as you have described it would not be possible were it not for its adherents' ability to use the force of government to impose their will on others. Society has given government permission to use violence and force on those who disagree with it; as long as that is so, government will be commandeered by the powerful. So there are two actors here: government and powerful interests who wish to use it for their own purposes. One strategy is to take away the power of the latter group. Another option, however, is the call for smaller government. This is not a barbaric desire for survival of the fittest but a desire to take away government's coercive and violent power. I agree completely with your assessment of Wall Street and our banal consumer culture, both of which are based on the self-destructing Keynesian vision of debt as salvation. I have a different definition of capitalism, that's all. My definition is peaceful economic exchange that is voluntary and mutually beneficial to all. It is the foundation of a civil society. Replacing it with central planning conducted by people who have the hubris to think they can manage trillions of tiny individual economic decisions requires a great deal of violence at all levels.

After the 2008 election, I think many folks thought we were headed in the direction you described that would entail gainful full employment to take care of necessary infrastructure needs, but it seems we have been hoodwinked, again. The bailouts and stimulus were directed to the usual suspects. Reforms, as has been the case for 100 years, were tailor made to benefit the powerful. However, I see a lot of hope in a coalition of the far "right" and the far "left" among those who will embrace anti-authoritarianism and nonviolence. Thanks again for your post and the chance to get a start on my paper's outline!

Tom H. Hastings said...

Great comments, Jean. I agree with you and I'd only add that, being reductionist for a minute, the two values that would corral and improve capitalism are, 1. zero violence in defense of private property (this does not imply no defense, just a nonviolent defense) and, 2. internalizing all costs. With those two provisos, I believe capitalism could be a helpful subsystem in any economy. The lack of it in the Soviet and Chinese and Cuban experiments didn't last all that long, at least on a tiny scale, but no culture since the onslaught of the industrial revolution has really stepped up to properly internalize costs so that the profiteers pay all the costs and then only profit after than. Of course, both of these idealized conditions take lots of struggle to reach.

Andy said...

Thanks for the steady stream of thoughtful and interesting posts.

The daily report on NPR describing what happened on Wall Street on an hourly basis, and why, is the most laughably silly thing they do. I also encourage people to think about the bigger picture, and things that really matter.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Andy. The investor flutters and trader vapors are just as you say, laughable. Then when the R leadership, Mitch McConnel in this case, says that he will vote against a bill that will finally create some jobs because "We've spent billions on the public sector in the last 18 months" it's enough to make a grown person hurl. The public sector? AIG bonuses and GM bailouts are the public sector? Geez, Goebbels lives.

jess said...

There is a book by Marvin Harris titled Cannibals and Kings that touches on the relationship between human work and the labor demand that has been replaced with fossil fuels. It touches on your interest in seeing that all humans that desire work can find it and also highlights an alternative to the fossil fuel economy we currently endure.

jess said...

There is a book by Marvin Harris called Cannibals and Kings that details the relationship between the downfall of an economy built on human labor and the rise of the economy built on fossil fuel 'labor' or work.

It's an interesting relationship, and one that, if it one day shifts back to human based labor, we may see solve many of the economical problems we currently have.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Jess. I haven't read that book, so thanks for the reference. Fossil fuel is great for very limited uses and is simply squandered while we loaf about getting fat and dying of heart attacks. I think the best balance is Gandhian education, which I wish could make it to the US, which is basically divided between work and learning. Study part of the day and garden, or build, or sew, or do childcare, or tend to the goats, and learn these skills well too. I am grateful for oil-based medicines and med tech, and I am aghast that we see so many people driving thousands of pounds of vehicles around to carry themselves and a bag or two. We really need to work for balance.

Gina said...

Tom, Thanks for such well written, easy to understand post. I think you should be heard on a much larger scale. I think that high schools and even younger should be privy to this information, before the real brainwashing gets going in the adult world.You have a way of explanation that is alluring and I think that any audience would dig it, but the young ones need to know it so the word gets spread.-Gina Rooney CR 301U

Tom H. Hastings said...

I read so many excellent papers by such smart and seasoned young people--I dream of them mentoring the next generation. I hope you do! Thanks for being one of those. The struggle for the hearts and minds of the next generation is always on. How I wish my own generation had lived up to its professed ideals. The sincerity of my fellow baby boomers seemed to simply wash out over the decades until all we have left are vague memories of saying no to war and inequality while allowing for more of it. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: do much better than we did.