The Stupid Economy
Column by George Sibley
Economy – April 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine
“It’s the economy, stupid!” James Carville hung that statement in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign headquarters to remind everyone what the election was all about, and it’s now emerging again as the message from us voters to those competing to be leaders of the flock. But today, I think I would use a variation on Carville’s statement:
It’s the stupid economy!
Isn’t that fundamentally true? The United States economy seems to be predicated on perpetrating inefficiency, bankrupt ideology, and denial of imminent realities. Ours is an economy that could summarily be described as “stupid,” and the candidates just aren’t addressing the whole picture. Look at the generalized evidence:
We don’t really make much at this point that the rest of the world needs except for food that is being grown in environmentally unsustainable, petroleum-intensive, soil-depleting ways.
We have highgraded our own vast natural resources, and our basic manufacturing capacity — once the marvel of the world — has gone elsewhere in search of cheap resources and cheap labor.
We have become a nation of consumers rather than producers — but are only able to sustain our consumption by borrowing a billion dollars a day from China so we’ll have the wherewithal to buy what they make, undoubtedly one of the weirdest and most unsustainable economic relationships ever.
We have the most expensive and most inefficient health-care system in the modern world — just the most egregious manifestation among many, of a bankrupt faith in “free markets” as the only ideologically correct organizer of economic activity.
Our national infrastructure, so foundational to all economic activity, is falling apart from decades of tax-cutting and inattention.
Into the sands of the Middle East we’ve poured enough of our diminished commonwealth to fix most of our problems at home, and have nothing to show for it, even in the form of “freedom spread” (a Bush product I imagine as something like peanut butter heavy on nuts).
And finally, the whole economy is built on an increasingly fragile foundation of petroleum and other finite fossil fuels, with most of the gurus within the petroleum industry agreeing that, in less than a decade, global petroleum production — already barely able to keep up with growing global demand — will slide into its inevitable terminal decline; yet this imminent eventuality, so fundamentally vital to all aspects of our lives, is barely being considered in the presidential contest.
Is there anything about all this that is not stupid?
But why should we think that any of that will change significantly because we elect one senator over another senator to the presidency? By the time anyone gets to the U.S. Senate, he or she is more likely to be part of the stupid-economy problem rather than part of the solution. To one degree or another, he or she has taken on a sacred duty (conveyed in cash) to perpetrate the stupid processes that increasingly dominate the moving parts of The Way We Do Things.
The senatorial commitment to stupidity at the national level is most recently reflected in the “stimulus” plan Congress and the Current Occupant have concocted to fend off a recession: a little spending spree for Americans. How is this not like giving a heroin addict a little booster dose to fend off his crash back into reality? We’ll be borrowing the money for the spending spree from China, which is making the stuff we’ll be spreeing on. Shipping that stuff halfway around the world, plus our trip to the mall for our spree, further perpetuates stupid resource consumption and further increases the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We’re only redeemed from this stupidity to the extent that it might not work: a lot of people will probably not go on a spree at all, but will use their “stimulus” (if they aren’t too poor to get one) to fend off their creditors with partial payments. Meanwhile, once we’ve had our little spree — what about the month after that?
At any rate, seeing no seriously intelligent behavior at those rarified levels, I am as convinced as ever that overcoming stupid economics might have to start here at home where we live — where we would mostly be too embarrassed to try to pull such scams on each other in the name of problem-solving.
SO — WHAT CAN WE CAN DO, down on the ground here in Central Colorado, to begin to commence to proceed to start undoing the consequences of thirty years of bankrupt economic ideology and a century and a half of bad resource economics? Three thoughts:
First, we’re going to have to start doing a whole lot of what economists call “import-replacing” for most of our energy resources, including the most fundamental “energy resource” of all: our food. We’re already seeing what happens when petroleum and natural gas products begin to move toward their real price, against all governmental efforts to keep those prices down: everything gets more expensive, especially food, which today is essentially a petroleum product. And tourism analysts say that gas prices above $3.50 will begin to affect tourism; the predictions at this writing are for gas prices to whiz past that sometime this summer.
So everything coming into our communities — which is basically everything we need to live here — will be more expensive, and we will have less money coming in to send right back out for those things in our usual hemorrhaging manner. The only economically intelligent thing to do about that is to need less from “out there.” So how much of our own food can we begin to raise over the next couple of decades? Where can we recover the lost knowledge about how to do a good kitchen garden and “put up” food? How much of that imported natural gas and heating oil can we replace with local “biomass” and the democratically decentralized energy from the sun and wind? And wouldn’t it be better to be starting on this kind of thing, phasing into it, when gas is only $4 a gallon rather than the $10 a gallon it’s likely to be within a decade?
Second, we need to stop thinking of “taxes” as a four-letter word (it’s five). There are bad taxes — the ones we are paying to help the Iraqis finish destroying the once-fertile crescent are bad taxes. But most of the taxes we pay — especially the local ones — are more intelligently considered “public investments.” A decade ago, when gas was still usually under $2 a gallon, we passed a 0.6 percent sales tax in Gunnison County for a “Rural Transportation Authority.” It was, at that time, mostly to subsidize an airline or two to fly into the valley, but it also had a “ground transportation” component. This year, with gas heading toward $4, the RTA leveraged that tax money into three new buses that are now providing free transportation up and down the valley for the local workforce — a service that is going to be essential when gas gets up to $10. This isn’t “tax and spend” ; it’s investment in the public infrastructure that underlies all wealth. Most of our public infrastructure is falling apart largely because of the misbegotten ideology that all taxes are evil.
Third, we’ve got to stop doffing our caps to those who are rich but have no sense of true wealth. In the only nearly sustainable societies humans have ever known, the hunter-gatherer bands survived for millennia in places where great civilizations perished in centuries. Their “Big Man” leaders were the alphas culturally indoctrinated to be generous — to base their leadership and power on “giving back” rather than accumulating and sitting on their gains. When there are only 50 or 75 people in a human community, with everyone pitching in in a coordinated way, it becomes clear that all real wealth is “commonwealth,” or it isn’t really wealth at all; and idolizing those who take the commonwealth as their own private wealth is just more stupid economics.
I know, I know — that’s all just liberal pinko commie economics. But after the name-calling — I just wish someone would take on the challenge of pointing out the errors of my ways, so we can at least get a good down-on-the-ground dialogue going about America’s stupid economy. I think our future depends on it.
“People who rely on external forces to determine their future are going to find a bad future.”
George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he’s recently enjoyed some days when the high temperature soared above freezing.
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