Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Leave your fields for the poor to glean"

Discussions of economics I hear on On Point, Market Place, and public radio generally, circle round and round and never hit on the fundamental issue: Carrying Capacity, and the question: Which is more important, The right of some to get richer, or the right of the many to do more than survive?

Although creativity and human energy may be infinite, and wealth can be accumulated ad-perpetuum, the Earth is not, and possesses only so much capacity to generate the material goods (water, housing, food) that people need. As the number of us goes up, the share available declines. So the inherent limitations of a finite planet sets long-term limits that no amount of economic jerry-mandering can alter.

Meanwhile, as we give priority to the right to get rich, the automatic drive of employers to limit labor costs and the vaunted productivity increases which have been seen during the computer revolution funnels more wealth to the already wealthy, while the number of jobs declines (“jobless recovery”), the incomes of available jobs decline in their value, and making a decent living becomes ever more difficult or impossible. Even survival is often impossible, when the right to accumulate wealth is more important than the right to a decent living.

Then, as the wealth and privilege of the few accumulates, they look for further investments to hold the value, so they buy rights to those things the rest of us need - land, water, energy, commodities. As more is held, and more is demanded to carry accumulated wealth, the share available for consumption declines, and the corporations which control the resources, in the name of those investors, demand ever more exhorbitant profits, squeezing those who just want to make a living. So wealth, and the problem of how to store it, causes short-term false-scarcities.

These false scarcities and the priority placed on the right to get rich* combine in a toxic brew, causing hatred, alienation and violence, as witnessed in the ever deepening crises over terrorism, and the anger of many Americans toward the banking system since the collapse of 2008. People who are poor, starving and feeling under assault are necessarily attracted to ideologies which vow to destroy that political and economic order, or are inclined to raid neighboring tribes. Americans who feel their lifestyle at risk, today, are turning to “tea parties” or violent anarchist groups such as white supremisists.

People who hold wealth are equally terrified by the disorder brewing in the world economy, as their survival, in a manner familiar to them, is at risk.

We are all victims of the priority given to "the right to get rich" because it breeds chaos. When wealth is distributed more evenly, such that the people who have the least, have enough, and such that people with wealth are seen as sharing it out of concern for the well being of others, not only are the disenfranchised then invested in the current order, but the current order itself becomes more stable, survival is more predictable, and people are satisfied with less, thus easing the burden on Earth's resources.

This is the population-resource paradox discussed by demographers: as people get what they need and feel more secure in their living, they do not increase the number of children they have. Tragically, it is only poor people in insecure, unpredictable economies who really want many children. (Ecologists are familiar with this as the “r” strategy.) Hence, it is economic development, spurred by wealth shared by those who possess it, which holds the most promise to limit war and terror as carrying capacity bears down on us. It is when we give priority to the right to a decent living that we are all – even rich people – most safe, secure, and have the best chances for happiness.

*The “right to get rich” as we practice it is often attributed to Adam Smith's imperative to create wealth, but this imperative according to Adam Smith is located in a moral system which levels the distribution of wealth. The “right to get rich” as practiced today is the form of capitalist enterprise that Adam Smith despised and saught to limit. Wealth is created when the goods and services that people need are produced and distributed, so when profits are accumulated and hoarded, some people are richer, but the society is no more wealthy.