Today, I want to share an idea that keeps coming to me when I reflect on how the American economy, like the American people, is working--or rather NOT working--these days. How often have you heard journalists and so-called experts tell us that the economy is improving, the stock market is looking healthier, but unfortunately, the job market just isn't getting better as there are still so many unemployed people? It seems to me that there is a fundamental problem in how our nation's economic health is perceived and discussed. In a nutshell, I see the problem as this: there is too much emphasis on how the stock market is doing, not enough on how the labor market is functioning. I think the order of things here should be exactly reversed. The priority should be on jobs, which PEOPLE need, not on the ups and downs and whims of the stock market.
For too long, we have accepted a schizophrenic and unsustainable idea of what constitutes a healthy economy. We have accepted, largely because it is constantly drummed into our heads every time we turn on the television or open a newspaper, that the well-being of the stock market is more important than the state of the working people. We are told that if the stock market index goes drastically down, that is Armageddon, which requires immediate full-throttle attention, but if the unemployment rate is high and people are being crushed by joblessness or underemployment or having to work multiple jobs to reach the standard of living that one job used to make possible, that is sad, but something that we will just have to bear with until things somehow someday get better; that is to say, acceptable collateral damage.
To put it another way, we all been brainwashed to believe that the needs of those who make or lose fortunes from investing in the stock market are more important than the needs of lower-class people to have steady employment and living wages. That is to say, the needs of Finance, of Capital, are always put ahead of People.
Now, however, this equation is breaking down. To look at the economy right now is to behold the collapse of a house of cards, an illusion of prosperity for all built up by the wizards of high finance and their government enablers over the last 30 years, ever since the Great Prophet Reagan led us to the Promised Land where tax cuts are sacred, the rich are worshipped and the idea of a public good that transcends personal gain and corporate profit is viewed as laughable. From late 2008 to the present, we have seen the national government first under Bush then Obama make far more effort to assist and support the Lords and Ladies of High Finance, the large investment houses and multinational banks in their hour of crisis, than to provide aid and comfort to the unemployed, the poor and those in the middle class who now realize that they are far more likely to join the ranks of the poor than to ever enter the posh private clubs of the wealthy.
However, the policy of propping up the financial nobility and hoping that the economy in general would revive along with the fortunes of the super-wealthy is proving a failure. Furthermore, the more recently fashionable policy of focusing on balancing the budget through austerity measures is also not working. It turns out that if you have an economy with massive unemployment and then slash at government jobs, you actually --and of course no one could have possibly foreseen this!-- create more unemployment and further drag the economy down, so that you have even more unemployed people competing for jobs that do not exist. Cutting government services also does not improve the economy; it just damages our society by removing forms of assistance and support that would have otherwise helped to make people's lives more bearable and the society more secure, and laid the foundations for long-term social and economic development and thus future prosperity.
The austerity policy, the budget cutting fever and deficit fixation that seems to be taking hold worldwide will also make it impossible to do things like repair public works and invest in things that the private sector either has no interest in or feels no responsibility towards, like public transportation, including roads and highways, public parks, clean air, water, and energy, and decent health care and education for the unwealthy. No terrorist or foreign power will need to drop a bomb on us to bring about mass destruction if we are willing to destroy our society through inertia and decay and a refusal to redirect resources for the public good, out of a tragically flawed belief that all that matters is private and corporate profit. We simply decay and implode. Considering our level of military spending, our military will probably remain strong and able to inflict damage on enemies abroad, but it won't do us much good at home.
What is my counter-proposal? Take the focus away from the stock market and make the state of the workforce the priority. Make providing jobs the priority. When people have money in their pockets, they can actually go out and buy things. They will eat out more, supporting restaurants. They will shop more for both small and large things, making it more attractive to employers to hire more workers, and also more appealing to manufacturers to produce more things. To put it another way, it is a matter of supply and demand. When people have jobs and money, they can fire up the engine of demand, and then spur the overall economy into greater motion to create more goods, more supply, to meet the rising demand. In contrast, the austerity policy will only lead us to further contraction of employment, consumption and production. Not a good outlook.
Instead of a Dow Jones index, we should have a Workers' Well-Being index. When the workers have jobs and money, the positive numbers on the workers' index will also lead to profits for the Lords and Ladies too, though maybe not the kind of fast and crazy profits that they used to get through mass lay-offs, slashing wages and benefits, and tricky high-finance deals. They'll just have to be patient and wait like the rest of us for a brighter tomorrow that comes slowly through hard work, not razzle-dazzle financial wizardry devoid of human caring. But first, we have to stop believing that all that REALLY matters is the stock market and the state of the Down Jones. We first have to believe that the general welfare really is more important than high finance.
Many ancient religions teach that there is an underlying order to the world that includes a regard for human welfare. I think the collapse of the current economic system is the cosmic order reasserting itself. There has been too much greed and social inequality for too long. After the financial Ragnarok that the world is now suffering through, let us hope for rebirth and a restoration of a more humane and sharing world, one less focused on private and corporate selfishness. If all we do is continue to prop up corrupt financial institutions and do the bidding of the stock market, there will be no end to the misery produced by greed and inequality.
Our civilization will continue to implode, and it will deserve to do so.