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.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Irrational Thoughts

POP QUIZ:  Who said each of the following?: 

The USA is in serious danger of becoming "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists."

“Corporations are people, my friend.” 

“What I'm talking about is the order of deportation, the sequence of deportation. It is almost impossible to move 11 million illegal immigrants overnight. You do it in steps."

If you guessed, in this order:  Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman, you are right.   (From MoveOn.Org, YouTube, the Nation, and the Washington Post.) 

I could have put equally crazy quotes in for all the Republicans running for office, most of whom have endorsed adding 2000 miles to the wall between the US and Mexico to the tune of $25 billion, some form of flat tax, and war with Iran.

Gingrich’s quote is the probably the least serious in terms of policy and law, but is the most indicative to me of a dangerous trend in our country, which is to say things in a serious tone of voice that make no sense.  He has put together two ridiculous, but also self-cancelling ideas and made them into one thought.

I know that it is possible to have contradictory or nonsensical thoughts—I do it all the time.  Just yesterday, I ate a bag of potato chips even though I am trying to lose weight.  I read the nutrition label and saw that these chips had 20% of my daily potassium and so told myself they were good for me.  I also think my cat understands me and that my dog does not.  Or, just last week I said I wanted to read more, but then spent a free evening watching sitcoms. 

The difference between me and the Republican front runners is that I don’t believe my irrational thoughts and behavior should be codified into public policy and I am not going to run for office on a Potato Chip platform. 

A commons frame calls for rational and respectful conversation amongst people who see each other as valuable and equal members of the human race.  To figure out what policies, laws, behaviors and customs will most promote the common good while insuring individual rights requires a lot of discussion.  A society based on a commons frame has many gray areas that must be worked out, and probably will have to be worked on for quite a long time. 

The current trend toward saying things that make no sense serves a very rational, if evil, purpose:  to stop discussion.  Who can enter a discussion with someone who thinks a corporation is a person?  Who can really talk with someone who thinks that the border between the US and Mexico should be electrified and have a sign on it that says, “This can kill you” as Herman Cain said recently?  Or that “compassionate conservatism” is a form of big government, as Rick Perry noted in one of his earliest interviews? 

So regular people cease to discuss politics, stop voting, and do not enter into the commons.  We must fight this trend by having as many conversations with as many people as we possibly can, and watching in ourselves for those times when we say or do things that are irrational.   It is through sharing our feelings, our history, our facts, that we together can create the policies, laws, structures and procedures that protect and promote everyone’s health and well being.  Promoting this kind of conversation is the best way to continue to work for the 99%.