Friday, November 27, 2009

Not in Kansas Anymore

Why are we surprised that unemployment continues to rise? Why do we expect the GOVERNMENT to do something about it?

We've spent the last 200 years mechanizing and automating everything possible. Substituting fossil fuels for human labor and computer circuits for cogitation. "Labor-saving" has become "labor-destroying". Yet it never occurs to us that there could be such a thing as too much productivity.

As James Howard Kunstler says, “It’s all good”…as long as the economy keeps growing every year. But planet Earth ain’t getting any bigger. The highest-quality, most easily extracted resources are gone, and now we’re strip-mining an Arizona-sized chunk of Canadian forest for tarry goo, and even thinking about scraping the barrel at 25,000 feet below sea level. How do you spell “desperation”?

Plus there are limits to how much credit you can vacuum out of the future to jack up present consumption. So when people get frugal, when hundreds of millions of Americans wake up and realize that we don’t really need all the junk we’re buying, unemployment skyrockets. People are terrified that no one else needs them. With good reason. Decade after decade, our economy has “decided” that more and more of the essential jobs should be done by machines.

As citizens, we sure as the devil don’t ACT like we want other Americans to have jobs. Except we’re not citizens anymore – we’re cogs in the economy. As consumers our fidelity is to the lowest prices – getting as much as possible for as little as possible – flaunting our wealth – dying with the most toys. As investors we want the highest rate of return. If these things are incompatible with living wages, health care, honoring pension obligations, supporting local communities…well to hell with them. We’re rational, after all.

But what about good-old-fashioned self-reliance? Right. These days we don’t even want to employ our own legs to get from “a” to “b”. Of course it doesn’t help that 50+ years of Happy Motoring has destroyed pedestrian-oriented, transit-supportive communities.

Yes, Greenspan and his disciples are clueless. But so are people who think that with a dose of hard reality – and if only the government stops “interfering” – the economy will eventually turn around and grow and everything will be OK again.

Sorry, we ain’t in Kansas anymore.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Willful Ignorance

Ask yourself why so many of us expect "the government" to compensate for jobs lost to increases in labor productivity (i.e. output of a good or service per unit input of labor.) Ask how it is possible we CELEBRATE increases in labor productivity even as we cringe at rising unemployment. Just how stupid are we?

And what about those of us who believe the biophysical limitations of Earth all but guarantee that Mankind's consumption of resources will soon shrink, and shrink dramatically? Who have concluded from the recent financial crisis that we have substantially exceeded our powers to vacuum ever-more credit from the future in order to stimulate ever-higher consumption in the present? Who recognize that marginal increases in material consumption throughout much of the industrialized world often have a NEGATIVE correlation with human well-being?

Is there any chance that we-the-consumers and we-the-investors will be willing to shift our fidelities from the lowest prices and highest rates of return to intentional, meaningful, fulfilling employment for one-another…and for ourselves? Doesn't our love affair with the automobile prove that we don't even want to employ our own legs?

What shall become of human employment in a future of limits? If the means of production are not widely held, what will be the fate of those who own little or none of it? Is a Darwinian economic religion compatible with love for one another? And even if all these other factors could be overcome, are our human natures suited for life without needful labor?