Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 12, 2010
It was amazing to see at the Aspen Historical Society’s recent book sale and cookie exchange how many homegrown authors are here. It’s not because writing is easy and lucrative; it’s because there’s plenty to write about here. If the number of authors is any measure of intellectual activity, then Aspen is living up to its legacy as a culturstaat.
During the book event, I talked with an affluent architect whose profession, I suggested, has been crippled by the Great Recession. No, I was assured, there is still work for architects who cater to Aspen’s richest clientele. I cringed, knowing the eco-ugly footprint of gargantuan architecture for Aspen’s 1 percent, those wealthiest Americans who are guaranteed beneficiaries of Bush-era tax cuts.
In Aspen, tax cuts for the rich could mean a resurgence of luxury building and conspicuous consumption. The trickle down could spread a blanket of affluence over our little kingdom, even as the last semblance of egalitarian virtue championed by beleaguered Democrats is banished.
To liberals like me, the tax break for the rich and Obama’s capitulation to the bombastic Right are yet another sign of moral bankruptcy on Capitol Hill (read: “Capital” Hill), for which there is no bailout other than radical social and political reform.
Perhaps now that the upper crust is empowered to reignite the U.S. economy, we can anticipate a gush of holiday spending. Christmas could be brighter for Tiny Tim as Bob Cratchett loads his Costco mega cart with goodies, then sweeps through Wal-Mart’s toy section. Tiny Tim can rejoice to find the newest video death games wrapped beneath the tree.
Since the rich just got richer on the debt load of future generations, it is appropriate to wonder just how their windfall will be spent. The stockings that are hung by the chimney with care will be bulging with the GNP of various nations that still manufacture things. But there is an alternative.
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As America’s scholastic standing in the world falters, the lucre of tax breaks should be invested in education. Here is an appropriate goal for the richest few, and not just for our youth. Education is critical for the rich themselves because, since they are imbued with untold spending power, the rich need education most of all – education of a new and different kind.
Environmental educator David Orr points out that standards for education must change since much of the ecological damage done to the Earth’s biosphere has been done by its most educated, wealthiest citizens. The ivory towers of many of America’s top universities have routinely turned out short-sighted business executives who plunder the commons and are rewarded with riches, and now with tax cuts. Author Wendell Berry labels the ruling American business class in their ecologically destructive roles as “itinerant professional vandals.”
If we think that our scholastic standing with China is a national embarrassment, our ignorance of the natural world is the greatest failing of our education system. What’s needed today is not a trickle down of spending from rich consumers, but a trickle up of awareness from grassroots ecologists about stewardship of the natural world.
“We routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology,” writes Orr. “This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.”
Such is the shell game we call economics. The Treasury shuffles money around like fertilizer, hoping to produce another crop of wealth. The Interior Dept. apportions natural resources to accelerate short-term growth. Advertisers and media icons promote shopping, spending and personal debt so that Americans may wallow in luxury. The whole of popular culture perpetuates the myth that excessive consumption is a laudable, lifetime goal.
Meanwhile, the integrated unity of all living things is left to a handful of scientists and philosophers whose teachings are ignored by government and business. Reckless consumerism overshadows the most pressing challenge we have – educating the richest, most privileged, Americans on how to live sustainably on Planet Earth.
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