Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Manifesto for a Sane Economy:

Okay, in order to write a manifesto for a sane economy, we must agree that the economy we currently have is insane.

Whether you are Republican or Democrat, or Independent, or Progressive or Conservative, I think we can all agree that a 15% rate of poverty among Americans living in the wealthiest country in the history of the world is ‘abnormal’.

Houston, we have a problem...

Rather than focus on the nuts and bolts of this issue – the very familiar stats and graphs pointing to an historic wealth gap between the rich and the poor -- I’d like to focus on something I have experienced myself that I feel is one of the underlying causes of this situation; its pathology, if you will.The factor that again and again deters us from coming up with a rational and practical solution to the problem; and that causes many of us to spin out into a myriad  of basically irrational -- cultural, religious, political, racial  -- conjectures for an explanation of the problem.

Four years ago, I became homeless and destitute after taking care of a terminally ill parent for a number of years. I then had to rely on social services and for the first time in my life, I learned what is like to be poor in America.

Outside of the physical hardships that go along with being in a situation like this – mainly, how to secure housing without any financial resources – the thing that struck me most was the existential challenge brought on by society's attitudes towards people in temporary or permanent poverty. (Your particular circumstance doesn’t mater; everyone gets lumped into the same generic group: poor people.)

Where this becomes problematic and counter-productive to bringing people back into the economy, is when poor people, specifically, are singled out and blamed for being the central cause for the social pathology that creates this wealth gap and hardship for so many.

It is as if people in financial difficulty are either choosing to be that way (because they are too lazy to find work) or else they are chronically poor because they are too degenerate in their ways of living to overcome personal weaknesses and become productive members of society.

True as this may be in some cases, it is also true that there are lazy and degenerate people occupying all strata of  society. Some are taken care of for life by family trust funds, or other forms of private largesse, and others get by via social services. Most families of any size has one or more members who, for whatever reason, are incapable of ‘making it in this world’.

Fine. Do we shoot them?  Let them roam the streets like feral animals looking for scraps of food? Or do we simply ignore them so that they resort to criminal activities and become the ultimate drags on society -- expensive lifetime  incarcerated wards of the state. No, whether it’s in a family or a nation, we try to provide them with some form of a safety net.

Good.  So now we’ve gotten that out of the way: not all of the poor, nor all of the wealthy, are saintly or inveterate sinners.

But that’s not how you are made to feel when you are in financial difficulty. The first questions, or attitudes, that society puts upon you are: What did you do wrong? And/or, What is wrong with you?

A Hobson’s Choice if there ever was one.
Say you are one of the many thousands of people in the last decade who lost their employment and incomes, and then their homes. You were okay financially one day, and then not okay the next. Is your changed situation due to some lack of work ethic, or bad lifestyle choices? In the overwhelming majority of cases: no.

But our society will make you feel that – in addition to all the rest of the tangible difficulties you need to overcome, you must also deal with the existential claims against your worthiness as a human being and citizen. It’s one weight too many and therefore becomes counter-productive to the shared goal of getting people back into improving society and strengthening the economy.

Now I understand and appreciate the need for people to have a strong work ethic, and the importance of cultivating that as a bedrock for maintaining a solid social fabric and viable national economy. But the work ethic was memorialized in an era when America was an agriculture-based economy. Damn right, you better be able to get up early and work hard to feed your family and make some money for essentials. 

But we are no longer that economy, nor can people be that autonomous and self- sufficient. Hell, you can’t even find a menial job these days without a computer that can connect you to countless resources that you depend on.

We are more inter-dependent now than at any time in history; we all depend on one another for our survival and economy.

Never the less, the old attitudes persist, and that’s understandable; peoples’ attitudes change slowly, it takes time.

But the point of my argument is that there is a proportion of our population – with enormous financial and political power -- who are knowingly and purposefully (and perhaps for their own amusement) exploiting these dated attitudes and negative projections about the poor for personal, economic and political gain. They pit the 'righteous' poor against those they characterize as unworthy and undeserving. I liken these ‘1%ers’ to the elites in ancient Roman times who derived great pleasure from watching their captive slaves fight against one another to death in gladiator pits. It was pathologically anti-social then, and still is.

Our world economy is not going to improve – be better for more – until these attitudes change and the rich and powerful stop proselytizing lies about one segment of the population at the expense of everyone.