Chapter 3: I said Trouble, right here in [name your place]; Poking and Acquiring
Economics is ruining everything.
E.O. Wilson, 2009
The big-picture problematic context
If you think too much about financial crashes and the needless, wholly avoidable misery and mayhem they’ve caused, it can get you down – especially coming, as it does, amidst so much other mayhem. You’d have to be comatose to not notice the worrisome trends.
We’re seriously overpopulated, yet making more and more new hungry mouths than the earth can feed at the same time that we’re eroding and depleting the earth’s soils needed to grow food and overfishing to functional extinction all types of edible fish in all the world’s oceans. Our increasing tonnage of carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere is causing continuous rise of land and sea average temperatures worldwide, in turn causing unprecedented floods, massive droughts and new deserts, loss of glaciers and aquifers that billions depend on for water, melting of sea ice and permafrost throughout the Arctic, and collapse of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The resulting rise in sea levels, juxtaposed with fiercer hurricanes and massively larger storm surges, increasingly threatens hundreds of coastal cities including New York, Washington and New Orleans plus half the world’s peoples who happen to live within a hundred miles of a coastline.
While noxious wastes accumulate virtually everywhere, deforestation, urban sprawl and lung-choking smog are but three among a thousand ways we’re degrading our living environment because there’s too many of us. We’re fast running out of nonrenewable natural mineral resources and ores on which our modern civilization – the only way of life most alive today have ever known – is bedrock dependent. And biodiversity on which we humans specifically are bedrock dependent – though most don’t even know it – is shrinking while extinctions among all other species are accelerating. There is hardly a place left on the planet where religious bigotry, ethnic intolerance, sociopolitical instability, violence and petty wars are not increasing. “Failed state” is the new descriptor of large geographic areas where all semblance of law, order and organized government have given way to anarchy and gross primitivism. No other species behaves this way.
These trends are bad enough, but our economic trends are the most worrisome – and they are fully upon us more troublesomely even than the advancing climate troubles which are still far from fully upon us. But whether you even notice such trends rather depends on how long you’ve lived. If you were born in 1995, you likely won’t be aware that people didn’t always take pictures with their telephones, and the sight of an LP may have you exclaiming about a “biggest doggone CD I ever saw!” Long Playing record? Kodak? – what’s that? If you were born in 1975 you won’t remember hippies as something new, they’ll be way before your time, easily confused with those old beatniks you’ve heard of – same thing, right? If you didn’t personally live through 1940s wartime rationing and GI bill or go to college with help from the 1950s National Defense Education Act, if you didn’t know the 1930s New Deal or the 1960s Great Society, those things will seem about as real and current to you, personally, as the 1860s Civil War and 1930s Great Depression. Historical stuff – meaningless in your personal memory and context.
Unless you’re old enough, you will not viscerally understand the rising chorus of complaint that we as a society are changing for the worse – caused by a great new divide between rich and poor, something very different than The Way We Were. You probably will not realize, in any personally-felt way, that the rich are getting much, much richer and the fast-growing underclass of poor are getting a great deal poorer. Unless you’re old enough to remember the United States of 1880 to 1929… ah, but their memories are mostly all dead, their perspectives on our society’s changes lost to us, we’re on our own now to notice – or not – contemporary trends pretty much repeating the bad old days of 1880 to 1929. The “trends” of whole national economies are noticed, mainly, only by those old enough to notice them, who remember how America was when most of us were middle class, and the poor were getting by okay, did not think themselves “poor.”
Seldom noticed by a growing majority of Americans are the enormous increases of ragtag younger poor, whose numbers grow, year after year. They were simply not there to be noticed before the effects of an odd new economic theory began changing America. Everywhere now you see them driving their old clunkers, or walking to work at their fast-food and low-end jobs, or hanging out with their peers at that new symbol of entertainment the shopping mall, their mugshots constantly in the newspapers after arrest for using and/or selling marijuana, or whatever it was they used or sold.
Seldom noticed are the working indigent poor trying to hold down two or even three jobs at gas marts, bigbox stores, wherever, seldom earning much more than minimum wage, rarely getting forty hours a week, any benefits at all, security or even a consistent work schedule that might allow these fellow citizens to plan and improve their subsistence lives, here in America the land of endless opportunity for all willing to work – just like Horatio Alger, right? Many pay more than half their small monthly income for housing. Not so long ago the wise rule of thumb held twenty-five percent an absolute upper limit to pay for rent or mortgage. And then there is the unremitting stress they deal with…
Also seldom noticed is how this slow-motion societal impoverishment creeps its way upward, deeply into the lower-middle class, steadily reducing their income too. Employers call more and more of them “contractors” instead of employees, cutting their costs of fringe benefits by lying subterfuge. Then creeping higher, into the beleaguered middle-middle class where degrading of the American way of life is slow but steady.
Here too work schedules are “on-call,” unlike 1946 through 1979 when corporations still had integrity that wouldn’t terminate employees a mere year or two from reaching their promised retirement. No more – Wall Street’s merger and buyout bright boys care nothing for the imminence of your retirement, or how through an entire career you gave your all to the taken-over corporation that is now having its factories and jobs “outsourced” to China, or Malaysia, or Bolivia – wherever the new owners can get the cheapest labor cost deal, this year – until they bring on a new round of cost cutting, calculated to sustain quarterly increases and assure ample dividends to stockholders, all the while demanding ever-increasing productivity by their employee/subcontractors.
Barely noticed by anyone at all – certainly not by those on the lower wage scale – is the new diminution of the upper-middle class. No more leaving for home punctually at 5:00 pm. Supply side economics expects these salaried “human resources” to work overtime without claiming overtime pay, to work weekends when duty calls as it incessantly does, to be on call at any hour of the day or night, to subordinate home and family to loyalty to the corporation which expects no less – and which will, if you object to such treatment, remember come the next round of bonuses or layoffs.
And woe to any troublemaker who tries to call in a labor union hoping to regain some fraction of what has been lost. The pleasing salary increases that used to come every year are now downgraded to occasional very small increases – or, in many cases nowadays, reversals which actually make your paycheck smaller, not counting the constant income losses hidden by slow inflation.
No, such changes go barely noticed or completely unnoticed. They seem like that’s just the way things are – unless you’re old enough to remember that this most certainly is not how things were just a few short years ago. Such a short time ago – before 1980, before supply-side trickle-down economic ideology gained ascendancy, before corporations grew bigger than whole governments, too big to fail, before they could buy and re-elect politicians, before their wage-and-cost policies began eating the middle class, causing the low-income population to grow bigger each year.
The gigantic American economic pie grows bigger in its increase every year but, for all of these, their share of that increase diminishes every year. The biggest share of the increase goes to those few at the top…and so the divide between rich and poor also grows wider every year – barely noticed in the aging memories of the silent well-off middle class majority who lived in the years 1940 through 1980, and often not noticed at all by those born after that landmark date. Such enormous changes – such grievous losses in the American way of life, when we gained smart phones and hundreds of TV channels but our comfortable annual income increases changed to net decreases.
Today, economic considerations overwhelm other values to such an extent they now have the power to decide how and if humankind’s greatest threats will be solved.
Rebecca Costa, The Watchman’s Rattle
Elmore on poking, acquiring, and solutions
Thinking about all this – all the harm and trouble needlessly brought about where there was no harm and trouble – just seemed too much. Feeling overwhelmed and blue, I consulted my geeky friend Elmore Bland who thinks too much. Not to my surprise, I found that Elmore had already considered the whole problematic ball of wax in depth and had devised what he deemed appropriate solutions. Near the top were two he called Poverty School and Gambling School. Here’s how he explained it.
“All our problems come down to two basic causes. One is economics, which broadly encompasses ancillary causes such as politics and religion. The other is animal instinct to breed. Taking the last first because it’s more interesting, simple coupling of human males and females over recent millennia has, for exponential reasons, led to human overpopulation. This bald fact of overpopulation is, in turn, the root cause of virtually all our other contemporary problems. However, most unfortunately, people are exceedingly averse to talking about this root-cause problem, or even acknowledging that overbreeding and overpopulation exist. That’s probably because they so like to do it, I suppose, and don’t want to take any chance that talking about overbreeding might somehow inhibit their own freedom to breed – and whenever they please at that.
“So you really can’t do much about animal instinct to breed. It’s going to happen,” said Elmore in that knowing way of his. “Foundation knowledge,” he said, peering at me, oddly I thought, “you’ve got to have it. In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know.
“Biology drives the primal – let’s call it irresistible – hormonal drive to poke. It seems to be mainly male driven, since many females seem indifferent. It begins with a mounting urge for sexual possession and ends with orgasmic ecstasy. Only it never really ends, see. The human animal, remembering the ending part – remembering it quite well in fact –experiences compelling urges to do it again, and again. Sex thus automatically becomes cyclic.” Elmore stared piercingly at me: “How many exceptions do you know of?”
“At the same time, and in close parallel,” he continued, “group psychology drives the primal – practically irresistible – drive to acquire. To go shopping – to own things – Mine. It typically begins with need and leads to greed. There’s a spectrum to this need-greed which may be thought of as, on the left, universal subsistence needs for food, clothing and shelter, and, on the right, “by-birth rights” to eat haute cuisine, be seen in elegant couture and live sumptuously in your very own McMansion. No natural upper limit exists, though exceptional individuals here and there seem content to live with mere adequacy. Nobody has figured out how they do it.
“So there you have it: poke and acquire. This interlocking pair are the reasons why human overpopulation must consume ever more resources, on the one hand, and, on the other, create ever increasing hyperpopulation that must consume still more of the diminishing (running out of) natural resources. The by-products of our steadily increasing consumption thereby increase carbon pollution and global warming to such extremes that natural disasters, proceeding from serious through disastrous to cataclysmic, will eventually, inevitably, collapse the hyperpopulated civilization which precipitated this Grand Fall by unthinkingly acceding to its primal urges to poke and acquire.
“Anybody,” declared Elmore, “with at least half a brain must conclude the truth of this if they have the wits to think at all. There-fore,” he declared again, narrowing his left eye at me, “you must also conclude that reducing consumption is a scosh more likely of being accomplished than getting people to reduce their poking rate. But only a scosh.
“Thus, if you want to try to influence things for the better – or slow their decline – you must focus on the only part you have a nickel’s chance of influencing – the economic drive, not the sex drive. The latter,” declared Elmore, “only produces ever increasing numbers of resource-consuming people – and that, when they fill up every square foot of the earth, is a self-resolving problem. It won’t be fun, but it will fix itself.
Economics, by contrast, won’t. Forever and always, time without end, economics produces trouble where there was no trouble.”
Of the daily sucking of the blood of the poor by the great corporations of this country we rarely hear, for the very poor are inarticulate. Their whole energy is consumed in the struggle merely to maintain existence.
Madeline McDowell Breckenridge,
Kentucky advocate for womens’ suffrage, 1904
* * *
The direct way to address the problem of people who make economic trouble where there was no economic trouble is through re-education. “Send them back to school,” said Elmore, “to learn what they missed the first time.”
Elmore’s formula, based on cause and effect, started with the two simple purposes for human existence: 1) help others and 2) attain knowledge (which sometimes leads to improved understanding, which might lead to a bit of wisdom, which might beneficially influence 1) helping others which is always the first priority). People get sidetracked, he said, by letting their less-evolved gross animal nature take precedence over growth of their more-evolved and emergent spiritual nature. As a regrettable result they do just the opposite: 1) harm others and 2) stay dumb, thereby retarding and harming their own spiritual advancement without even knowing they’re doing it. “It’s just amazing,” Elmore told me, “how many other people, innocents as it were, they manage to take down with them – often (but not always) oblivious that they’ve harmed themselves or anyone else.
“For example: Persons controlling the highest levels of banking and finance, and their aspiring acolytes, invariably take on mindsets which reflect an assumption that their learned version of exceedingly unregulated capitalistic hard line free market ideology ‘will create more wealth for everybody’ – including a pittance that somehow may trickle down to those below them, eventually even all the way down to the poor – maybe (remember, maybe also means maybe not) – whilst they themselves get filthy rich. Think of that theory this way:” said Elmore, “so-called ‘trickle down’ is the droppings of the super rich, like spatter on a chicken house floor.
“This economistic brainstorm, called ‘supply side economics,’ was based by lesser minds on the small ideas of one Arthur Laffer – an economist naturally – inventor of the Laffer Curve, who expostulated that 1) if you deeply cut the taxes of rich people those rich people can 2) absolutely be counted on to respond by investing their freed-up money in new capitalistic ventures and business startups (instead of yachts, mansions and suchlike fripperies), thereby 3) stimulating economic growth in useful things like new jobs, 4) into which ever more happy workers will be hired and happily produce valuable objects which joyful consumers will joyfully buy, all of which will 5) generate more tax revenue and happiness than if you hadn’t cut rich peoples’ taxes in the first place…
“…maybe (which also means maybe not). Of course Laffer’s little big idea never has worked since Ronald Reagan had his crew enthusiastically try it out on the U.S. economy starting in 1980, mainly because he could really get his mind around the concept. In fact, Laffer’s theory works just the reverse – for everybody except the rich, things get worse. But that makes no difference, because all corporate chiefs and about three-fourths of all politicians have faith that it might work if they keep on trying for enough decades. Supply side economics has today pretty much taken over our nation’s economic functioning, while for middle and low income people the promised land slips yearly farther away.
How could Laffer have known the corporations would send all the good jobs overseas, convert conventional employees into low paid ‘contractors’ with no fringe benefits, and add all those new minimum wage jobs in fast food restaurants and warehousing? In this, Laffer’s little big idea was laffably wrong, though he probably was well intentioned.
“Witness: Since the percentage of people in poverty obviously keeps getting larger, and the middle class obviously keeps getting smaller, while ever more obscene levels of megawealth obviously keep winding up in possession of the top few percent of the doubly filthy rich, and since all this is perfectly measurable and is in fact measured quite well and quite often and widely published in newspapers and magazines, it therefore is equally obvious that 1) the trickle-down presumption of top-tier bankers, financiers and other Reaganites has to be flat wrong, ergo 2) they’re not attaining enough knowledge, or the right kind of knowledge, because 3) they keep on doing the same wrongful things the same wrongful way, decade after decade, causing these incessant recessions, Wall Street crashes and other economic “downturns” by any name. Therefore, 4) they obviously all need to go back to school and attain more relevant Knowledge because,” exclaimed Elmore, “they clearly are deficient in Understanding, not to mention Wisdom, and they apparently have no empathy at all.
“Consequently there arises, yet again, trouble where there was no trouble. I rest my case.”
Deregulation of the banking industry after 1980 abrogated the longstanding good sense that banking, just like water and sewer systems, is in fact a public utility, a trust that is deeply responsible to the public interest of all the people – which means the common good of the nation as a whole and all its communities individually. Further, this fundamentally misguided deregulation relied on a hare-brained idea called “market discipline” to keep the banks honest. You can turn your head in any direction and see how that turned out. Let us be clear: there is no such thing as market discipline for banks. Left to themselves in their single minded pursuit of ever-increasing profit, banks will behave like dogs eating dogs.
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