Apocalypse Now

June 7, 2010

“Apocalypse Now” the cartoon jeers, satirizing the cuts in local government services. If only it were funny. But can we afford to laugh as we are forced to make dramatic cuts in the school budget, even as we fail to educate all of our children? We must drastically reduce library hours, cutting job-hunters off from the computers they need to search for jobs in a stubbornly sluggish economy. If you play tennis in a public park rather than at a country club, who will maintain your tennis court when the Park and Rec budget is cut? When the new budget year starts the first day of sizzling hot July, will the children who rely on public swimming pools to escape the heat be disappointed?

Listening to public radio in my car, I learn that AIDS activists in poor countries are angry that America is reneging on pledges for treatment of people who will die without our help. Americans are angry too, and are throwing tea parties to protest…what? That their taxes are too high, even as governments around the country are unable to provide even the most basic of services?

Forgive me if I seem confused. Because in truth I am not perplexed at all. An economics major in college, I have feared this meltdown for a long time, although I confess that I am stunned at the reality of my wealthy and beloved country faltering in such apparent disarray.

Economics, you see, is all about resource allocation. Where did all of our wealth go? You might start by looking inside the oversized houses located far from workplaces that no longer exist, houses that no one can now afford to heat or cool. Check out the kitchens where families eat their McDonalds take-out on granite countertops amid state-of-the-art appliances. Look in closets and consignment shops and yard sales and even in landfills for the purchases we made when 70% of our country’s annual spending went for consumer goods and services. Purchases of goods and services that were not necessary, and that I knew would be easy to forego when times got tough. But then, where would such belt-tightening leave our economy?

It left us right here, with bridges in our highway system no longer safe due to our failure to fund infrastructure maintenance. With a health care system capable of the greatest medical miracles on earth, yet unable to efficiently deliver basic care to tens of millions of uninsured citizens. With a government no longer able of to govern because its participants are incapable of compromise, the underlying principle on which this country was founded. With an oil well spewing millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the environment, while the people we trusted with our vital natural resources scramble about helplessly.

We have let each other down. We have let the world down, as we have allowed ourselves to squander our resources, exploiting one another in the process. We have even failed to take care of the planet that sustains us. We are indeed the “foolish school of fish on wheels” that James Taylor dubbed us in his elegy for the earth “Gaia.”

I am nonetheless optimistic. Technology has brought us a new world order, one in which the individual is empowered as never before. And some of those individuals, people who seem motivated by a different ethic than the ethic of greed that has for so long been condoned in this country, are creating enterprises that I believe will take us in a new direction.

I see this trend at the Apple computer store, abuzz with customers who paid only $100 for a vast array of resources to help them learn to use their computers, customer-friendly resources hard to imagine coming from any PC vendor. “We want our customers to know how to get the most out of our products,” an Apple trainer said sincerely. I see it in the human services organization Common Ground, started in 1990 by one woman in her twenties, now mobilizing resources worldwide to end homelessness. I see it in the revolutionary use of technology that helped to elect our current president.

It may look like an apocalypse now, but economics calls this a “dislocation.” Like a dislocated joint, this is a painful experience, confirmed by the yelling and screaming of those most fearful of the new day coming.  But from among the ruins, I expect to see new leaders with a new morality arise to mobilize the vast human capital now lying fallow. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways.” May this fulfillment be a world in which we take care of our planet and of one another. Or we will be destined for Apocalypse Anew.

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Why “free for all?”

April 27, 2010

Why did I name my blog “free for all?” Because I believe that it was destiny that led to the unfurling of individual freedom, starting in America. Going forward, people are destined to consciously, explicitly, and freely choose to live in ways that will benefit the good of all people.

Here’s the back story. Aboriginal people nurtured our continent in pristine condition for millenia, no doubt awaiting our arrival. Western civilization stumbled upon these shores, claiming to have discovered them, and soon appropriated a wide swath of the land. In time, our country gained political independence, and our Founding Fathers devised a brilliant new political system that allowed unprecedented freedom for the individual in this “new” land.

It has taken a few centuries, but we have now largely succeeded in extending basic human rights to all subsets of people in our country. The question now becomes “what are we to use this freedom for?”

Many people seem to believe that America was founded in order that the world might have “capitalism.” Was it not destiny that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year that America became an independent nation?

Smith’s work, in fact, referred to a free market economy–the term “capitalism” was not used until the 1850s. Smith believed that when individuals independently pursue their own selfish good, it is as if an “invisible hand” operates to bring about the greatest common good.

Undeniably, the partnership of free people and free markets has led to unprecedented innovation and wealth creation. But our country’s history is also a tale of exploitation of both human beings and natural resources. Repeatedly, the American people have chosen to limit the exercise of free markets by law in order to achieve what they perceived as a greater common good.

For better or for worse, the “invisible hand” has caused wealth to accrue disproportionately to the United States, and Americans consume a highly disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources. But as people and markets are freed around the world, other countries’ demands for their share of natural resources will increase. As predicted decades ago, the world now faces the limits of sustainable growth on our planet. Now that we have reached this barrier,  I don’t think we can expect the unguided “invisible hand” to automatically deliver the greatest “common good.”

Where do we go from here? I do not claim to know.

But what I believe, and what I plan to write about, is that history is the tapestry of the evolution of the human spirit. The circuitous path of history inevitably led to a world where an increasing number of individuals are free to live as they choose. Freedom allows the human spirit to grow and to soar. But freedom entails a requirement for self-management and self-control. Just as inevitably, destiny will allow the human spirit to continue its upward spiral, and free people around the world will learn to cooperatively manage market power to achieve the common good.

The alternatives are self-annihilation with the weapons humans have devised in the last century, as the world’s people continue the eternal battle over natural resources. Or the planet itself could bring a cataclysmic end to human existence.

What is the evidence supporting my faith in humanity’s future?

Visit my blog often to explore this question with me.