John Colson: Hit and Run
November 28, 2009
The U.S. economy is growing again, and that is the good news, right?
But at the same time, economists are worrying about something called the “jobless recovery,” which means that while Wall Street brokers and bankers are pulling in record bonuses yet again, the rest of us are struggling along with stagnant wages at best, and all the resulting hardships.
The signs are everywhere. Retailers and manufacturers are not hiring, consumers are unable to buy, and the whole house of cards known as the “global economy” is teetering on the edge of collapse.
And this gloomy picture is not just what we here in the U.S. are facing. It’s the same the world over. The growth-driven bubble that burst in 2008, sending the global economy into a tailspin, has not regained its buoyancy, and even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders admit that it’s not likely to do so any time soon.
The question is, why? Bubble-headed economists are wracking their brains to find the words of comfort and wisdom that will calm the fears and reboot the optimism that once was taken as gospel in the debate over how our world should be run in an economic sense.
But the difficulty encountered by these bubble-heads is that they are starting from a basic faith in the formula that has driven the world’s economy for the last couple of centuries – the formula that begins with the flat statement that “growth is always better than non-growth.”
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The problem is that this formula is a self-perpetuating urge toward an unsustainable way of thinking – by assuming that “more” is always “better,” instead of asking first whether “better” is actually achieved for all humanity by the pursuit of “more.”
I’ve been thinking along these lines for years, ever since I first detected the basic incongruities of capitalism as has been practiced since the invention of the steam engine.
It was the steam engine, first turned to industrial uses in the late 1700s, that made it possible to begin the trend toward mechanization, and which laid the foundations for three centuries of the “more is better” mindset that has led us to this point.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.
I’ve started reading a book my sainted Mom sent me for my birthday, called “Deep Economy” and written by a guy named Bill McKibben.
McKibben open his book with a metaphor to describe the economic crossroad we currently occupy, about two birds named More and Better that have been perched on the same branch of our tree of knowledge for centuries now.
“You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both,” is McKibben’s way of noting that the reigning faith in growth, in ever-increasing production, was the stone being held by the ruling hands of the world.
But, McKibben continues, Better has moved to a different branch on the tree, and is no longer sitting right next to More.
“Now, if you’ve got the stone of your life … gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better,” rather than More AND better.
And that’s where we’re at. The strident call for ever increasing production has led to the enrichment of a tiny minority of our planet’s population, and the concurrent impoverishment of the rest of us. Per capita wages have dropped in recent decades; unalloyed growth has led to massive pollution of the environment; and the spectacle that brought down Rome, the delivery of society’s wealth into the hands of a few at the expense of the many, has given us rampant and rising social inequality in every nation on earth, the U.S. included.
Plus, this supposed bounty produced by our growth is not making us happier. Instead, we are more harried, less content; more frightened, less secure.
More, in sum, is the problem, not the solution, at least as things are now.
Now, the thing to do is figure out how to focus our considerable human ingenuity on Better, which may mean the end of More At Any Cost.
Think about it.