(or the endless confusion of apples and oranges: PART 1)
People constantly confuse economics and politics. If they pause to think about them at all—which most don’t—they fail to distinguish between the two. They mush them together like potatoes and gravy. They don’t realize how important this confusion is, or the consequences of it. This ignorance is placing at great risk the future of the USA, and especially the ideals our nation represents—the greatest ideals in the history of the world.
Imagine a yardstick. Three feet long, cheap wood. Like all yardsticks it has two sides. On this unique yardstick, the front side is economics. Turn it over—the back side is politics.
They always go together, these two human institutions, they are opposite sides of the same…yardstick. Here is a fact: you will never find one without the other. They are inseparable, economics and politics. The one involves human needs, i.e., the things we must have just to eat and stay alive. The other involves how we behave in obtaining those needs, i.e., a constant study in human behavior—predominantly bad, some would say.
Economics is of course the needs side of the yardstick. It‘s a simple thing really, though economists have done their level best to obscure the simplicity and make economics incomprehensible to the ordinary people who bring it alive, which is all the rest of us. Simply stated, economics concerns what you need to stay alive – and, while you’re at it, to live life as meaningfully as possible. It ain’t rocket science, as they say.
Thus: to merely stay alive you need the basic essentials: food, clothing and shelter for starters, each in adequate measure respectively. Beyond these bare necessities, and in order to enjoy at least the potential for a meaningful life, you also need a few complementary essentials like transportation, health care, and insurance—particularly auto insurance the state makes you buy regardless whether you can afford it, rich or poor. You must have “health care,” both prevention and curative treatment, as well as a dab of recreation and entertainment to support your mental health. You need these things all your life, including after you’ve retired from working. During young adult years you also need some savings or the price of higher education, though not both at the same time.
These human economic needs can be well understood as a hierarchy of needs, and a gent named Abraham Maslow gave us a good model for understanding them. Maslow’s hierarchy has five levels, stacked atop each other and shaped like a pyramid. The two bottom levels include all our basic economic needs as just cited above. In contrast, the top three levels address life’s other needs. These go beyond the merely economic, and include things such as loving and being loved, self esteem, and—at the very top—the really good stuff such as being creative and feeling that life is just really fun and I’m so glad to be living it!
Coming back down for the present economic discussion, our only concern here is with Maslow’s bottom two levels where you find food, clothing and shelter—the necessities of merely staying alive, plus a few niceties to make life worth living such as health care, retirement income, transportation, maybe auto, life and flood insurance—and suchlike.
So that’s one side of the yardstick, “economic needs.” These are sometimes called economic “rights.” This term—economic rights—is controversial among people who 1) lack empathy or 2) are quite wealthy. The idea of economic “rights” is better understood and appreciated by anyone who ever experienced being poor, struggling to pay the bills.
The other side of the yardstick is politics, i.e., how we behave in meeting our economic needs. It’s also fairly simple, though it may not seem that way when you’re reading the newspaper. In meeting their needs, people follow two basic modes of political behavior:
1) Help others
2) Serve self.
Let’s repeat that. Your political choices, always, are to help others or serve yourself. I might just mention, coincidentally, that these are also moral choices, but never mind that.
These two potential modes of behavior stand in stark opposition. We choose between them in every hour of every day of our lives. The choice never goes away—it comes up constantly. Of course a third option idea applies here too: nobody chooses all one way or the other all the time. We all serve our own economic needs to some extent, as we must—and in some measure, some of the time, most of us also help at least some others meet some of their needs. Do you know anybody who’s totally at one end all the time?
But what, in each of us, is the ratio? It’s never fifty-fifty. What is your personal political divide between serving yourself and helping others? Forty-sixty? Or sixty-forty? Maybe even ninety-ten? Obviously you can’t help others unless you’ve first served yourself sufficiently to become financially, intellectually, emotionally stable and able to help others. But as to meeting your own economic needs, how much is enough? How many people do you know who settle for “mere” adequacy?
More to the point, why—at our economic extremes—do dire poverty and gross excess of wealth even exist side by side in the USA? Why are there Americans at the economic bottom who can barely afford even the basic three of those economic life needs while Americans at the top buy whatever their whimsy wants to buy, unconcerned with price?
If you want an indelible lesson in how the political choice to 1) help others or 2) serve self plays out, sit in on a few sessions of Congress. The flurry around all those purely economic questions is called politics, though it could be called alternatives to moral behavior. This is not to say that politicians, like the rest of us, don’t also spend some time arguing over “apparently” non-economic matters, such as foreign policy or how voting districts will be gerrymandered. But the real goings-on, ever and always, are behind-the-scenes machinations of those who use politics (i.e., political behavior) to influence economics—too often to serve self and Get More Money.
At the foundation of things, most politics is a tension over how the common wealth we mutually generate, each in our own ways, will be distributed—i.e., who will get how much of the economic pie. That and that only, never forget, no matter what else they may allege to be talking about, is politics.
Economics and politics are two sides of the same yardstick. Everyone needs to understand this—though sadly most don’t—for reasons that are about to be explained.
The two-option model
There’s another way of looking at our two-sided yardstick. It also has two ends—call it the two-option model. Politically speaking, people who would prefer government to totally control economics—and perhaps everything else—are at the far left end of the yardstick, while those who fundamentally don’t like government controlling anything, anything at all, are at the far right end. Opposite extremes. Extremists, one might say.
The yardstick also has a broad middle section. Most sensible people—a majority of them in fact—are clustered all over this broad center. But ignoring this very large majority, as is customary, let’s focus first on the extremes so we may perhaps understand them better.
On the far left: Communism is a term used as an expletive in the United States, as politically incorrect as shouting shit in church. Under the extreme of communism the government owns virtually everything of value—all factories, all natural resources, all distribution systems, and anything else that can produce wealth. The government may also control everything, such as employees’ job assignments and where they may live or travel, though these extremes are not required by communist theory. In fact Marxism rather inanely assumes that the controlling state will somehow “wither away.” Incredibly naïve that, but Karl Marx was a real strong-minded fuzzy thinker who got all his best fuzzy ideas while observing the worst that was in fact going on in early-industrial-revolution England. Be assured, the worst goings on in England in those days were bad. It would be reasonable to not judge the good intentions of the economist-philosopher Karl Marx by the insanely cruel behaviors of the Russian Bolshevic extremists who claimed they were implementing Marx’s ideas, lest you reveal your ignorance of history.
Communism professes the ideological belief that all people can be relatively equal in what they contribute to, and receive from, the Common Wealth. This pseudo-religious belief is of course an obvious fallacy to anyone with half a brain. Every version of the communist model that has existed so far—and quite a few versions have been tried—is so exquisitely unnatural to acquisitive human nature that it can only be politically imposed by military force—from the barrel of a gun, as they say. Real communism—which is to say, a democratic version of it—has never been tried. Realistically, it would probably be impossible to try the pure theoretical form Marx envisioned, much less to make it work.
Ancient versions of communism have been propounded by Jesus of Nazareth and others. The modern version that has caused so much trouble in the world was penned by Marx in 1847—the worst year of the great potato famine when starvation stalked the Irish people. Between 1846 and 1850, a million Irish men, women and children died of starvation or diseases associated with the famine, while another million survived only by emigrating—one-fourth of Ireland’s population in all. For several centuries preceding this event Ireland had been the worldwide British empire’s first colony. In London, the birthplace of capitalism, well fed businessmen argued that if the Irish could not be innovative in the matter of survival, then they deserved to fall by the wayside—even as well fed British capitalists continued exporting food crops out of Ireland, for the profit of course. Free trade in 1847 meant survival of the fittest. Has this changed?—what is your opinion?
Marx was a lousy economist-philosopher, history showing that his biggest predictions turned out as fantasy. Government got much bigger instead of withering away, and his dictatorship of the proletariat turned out to be the dictatorships of Lenin and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and a zoo of lesser dominating little tyrants. But as a critic of the British economics and politics of his day (he never considered Russia, of all places), the reforms Marx called for describe much that modern western societies consider normal and essential for democratic states that want to continue being democratic:
Complete separation of church and state; universal suffrage for everyone over the age of twenty-one; payment to the representatives of the people so that the working classes can participate in government; universal free education; prohibition of child labor; maximum working hours; minimum wages; a living wage for all workers; social welfare; a graduated income tax; curtailment of the rights of inheritance; creation of a state bank to control usurious forms of credit; and finally, state regulation of the modes of communication to prevent the billionaire class from having a monopoly over the newspapers and other means of communication, allowing them to spread the self-serving ideologies that kept the masses in their thrall.
Shadia B. Drury (in Free Inquiry, December 2015)
On the far right: At the yardstick’s other end—at the opposite extreme from communism—is an economic system called Free Market Capitalism. As contemporaneously practiced in modern America by mostly unregulated corporations, this system has attained the undeserved status of an Eleventh Commandment. Under extreme capitalism the government owns almost nothing—except the armed forces, of course, which always gives government the last word. The private sector—which is to say corporations operating as capitalism’s delivery vehicles, the bigger the better—conducts virtually all the commercial activity required to supply the public’s demand.
Free market capitalism could and willingly would—for a hefty price—take over and run the post office, welfare, and most other functions of government including infrastructure construction and maintenance from bridges to potholes. Capitalist believers believe, with religious intensity, that if capitalism did so it could make a far better go of it than all those bean-counting bureaucrats could possibly be capable of, rigorous Civil Service merit exams notwithstanding (many try it and fall short; if you haven’t, give it a look).