Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of Economic Progress

As we come to the end of 2011, I begin to think about 2012.  I like changing over from one year to the next:  I get a new calendar (I still use a paper calendar), I throw away or delete all the articles, newsletters and reports I was sent all year and thought I “should” read, but never did.  I clean out my closet and give away clothes I didn’t wear and donate books I didn’t read.  Anything that the word “should” is attached to (should read, should respond, should call, should look into) gets pitched. I make resolutions, but first I evaluate how well I did on the ones I made for the present year.  Then I contemplate all that has changed before resolving how the next year will be different. Each new year is a chance to reinvent my life, a least a little. 

This year I will use my process to create some commons resolutions.   The information I need to consider can, for the most part, be found in the research of Pickett and Wilkinson, particularly in their stunning conclusion: 

“Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Further improvements in the quality of life now depend on community and how we relate to each other.” The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Pickett and Wilkinson looked at a number of serious social problems and asked why these problems were so much worse in some developed countries and not in others?  Put more directly:  why is the United States the leader in infant mortality, homicide, prison rates, teen pregnancy, obesity, substance abuse?  And the answer:  Because we are also the leader in income inequality.  (See Blog Post on Equality Trust for more details on their study). 

A recent Christian Science Monitor reports, “The standard of living for American has fallen longer and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the US government began recording it five decades ago.”  They go on to say that real median income is down almost 10% since the start of the recession and inflation has eroded peoples’ buying power by 3.25% since mid 2008. 

To truly take in that economic progress has done its work requires sitting quietly for awhile and watching my thoughts swirl around.  This is not a small insight and acting on it will require retooling how I think.  For example, there is no real need for me to argue against capitalism—all the bad and all the good that it could produce, it has.  In the developed world, capitalism is largely over.  What this means is that there is no point for a wealthy person in the United States to become wealthier—she will not live longer, nor be less likely to be shot or die of a stress related illness or get divorced or suffer from alcoholism. The quality of life for everyone in the United States is going down and will continue to do so.  For poor people (which we have more of every day) a drop in the “quality of life” is disastrous or even fatal. 

As a person who makes her living in the nonprofit sector, I must ponder and discuss with others what programs we will create to promote rough social equity that are not about economic growth, what kind of wealth will we need to create in a post capitalist society, and how exactly will we pursue “a quality of life that depends on community and how we relate to each other.”

I intend to ponder this through the Winter Solstice and as the days begin (however incrementally) to grow longer, I will incrementally begin to think of resolutions that allow 2012 to make exponential changes in the direction of rough social equity.  The gap between rich and poor is so deep and profound that we must adopt the motto of the 1960’s Apollo 13 mission in our work to change it:  “Failure is not an option.”

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