Monday, November 8, 2010

Pitting Life Against Money - Who Wins?

Lately the public conversation has revolved almost entirely around what we can afford to do versus what we cannot afford to do as a species. Conservatives attempt to help individuals by directing wealth toward business enterprise, while liberals attempt to offer direct financial aid to those in need. On the surface it appears to be the ideological equivalent of teaching a man to fish versus feeding him daily fish; except what we're coming to understand is that the conservative approach does not teach men to fish for themselves at all. Instead, it reduces them to the equivalent of tying countless fishhooks onto endless lines to catch millions of fish for the benefit of the captain, so they can go home with half a fish to feed their entire family. This approach is no more helpful in the long run than is offering people abundant free fish and encouraging them to give nothing in return. One creates a slave-like dependency that benefits a wealthy few; the other creates a child-like dependency that burdens a working few.

What makes it tough to balance wealth and human need is that we've chartered our economic institutions to profit monetarily, and have made that their primary reason to exist. We've ASSUMED, without much evidence to support the assumption, that businesses will only profit if they're creating and providing real, tangible benefits for living human beings.

What's become apparent, particularly over the past hundred or so years, is that any connection between what benefits human (and natural) life and what's profitable for business is far more tenuous than we've traditionally believed it to be.

There is often a HUGE difference between what's good for business in the short term and what's good and healthy for life (and our planet) in the long run. There's also a huge difference between the productive life span of a corporation (granting it the power to overwhelm and outlast the needs and desires of individuals) and the productive life span of a human being.

Then there's the problem of externalized business costs. It behooves business to externalize their costs (to not pay for certain things and to not price those costs into their goods and services) as much as possible to maximize their declared profits. However, it harms society to have to absorb all the externalized costs of doing business. Externalized costs are items like the costs of building and enhancing private business roads and infrastructure, which often gets picked up by the towns and states that are soliciting corporate investment and hoping for new jobs to support their communities. They also include the costs of cleaning up industrial waste, the costs of replenishing or restoring depleted natural resources, the costs of artificially low wages that don't enable people to survive without public assistance, and so forth. Externalized costs are borne by all citizens and taxpayers, and they amount to some $2.4 TRILLION dollars per year in the United States alone - enough to balance the federal budget if we eliminated them and placed those costs squarely where they belonged - on the shoulders of the private business community. Instead we allow our governments to go broke so our companies can continue to report solid "earnings" and maintain the illusion that all is well with how we're managing industry.

There's also an emergent global corporatism with which we must contend, in which the corporations and their owners no longer reside in the towns (or even the nations) where their harmful policies damage local environments and indigenous populations. Under Adam Smith's capitalistic paradigm, we embraced the assumption that businesses would behave well and concern themselves with caring for the public commons and supporting the well being of the local population, because any damage a business caused would lead to direct harm for the owners' families.

Capitalism - which pools money to invest in those businesses that look potentially profitable or have existing profits - also punishes corporations for being honest about their mistakes and missteps, instead of rewarding them for coming clean about the potential harms their products or policies may be causing. This leads to extended cover-ups that damage the health and welfare of untold millions.

Last but not least, the endless growth model that demands continual profitability as a measure of success does not reward businesses for providing higher quality products for less money - OR for finding ways to reduce the financial burdens being placed on individuals. Businesses are instead rewarded for commoditizing and monetizing every conceivable human need and desire, then turning those needs into consistent cash flow streams for themselves rather than designing their products as one-time investments that will free individuals from ongoing expenses. This creates a continued (and ever-expanding) human dependency on money for survival, and since our primary way to attain money is to work for corporations, we're becoming ever more deeply enslaved to our own economic paradigm. Meanwhile corporations do better when they ruthlessly reduce their labor force and cut human wages to the bone. The result is increased human stress and the constant fear of lack and loss of livelihood. We've all become beholden to and MUST SERVE our corporations - no matter how poorly they opt to serve us - if we hope to survive, instead of having it the other way around.

The capacity to determine the future direction of humanity, to promote the shared values we espouse and to pursue our highest and greatest dreams as a species has shifted AWAY from we the people and our vision of what constitutes a beautiful, moral and worthwhile life; ONTO corporations, who make their decisions based upon what will maximize their short-term profitability regardless of how harmful those decisions may be to life.

This is ultimately an anti-life paradigm. We need to notice and accept the truth of that, unless we wish to collapse beneath the ongoing destruction and impoverishment of life in favor of money.

What needs to happen now is that the CONTEXT of our national diologue must expand WAY beyond simply discussing whether our governmental and economic policies are financially profitable. We need to - first and foremost - discuss whether what we are doing is harmful, and cease doing that. Second, we need to institute a global discussion around what work needs doing to benefit all of humanity and our living planet (instead of focusing on what make-work jobs we can create so people can get paid to survive) and DO that work. Last but not least, we must begin to envision a new future for ourselves. We must look to a world in which our corporations serve and honor the needs of living people, and in which their primary charter is to FREE humanity from the burden of the 40 hour work week and the steady onslaught of bills and stress and need. Freeing the individual from enslavement to a make-work job for the sake of wages and profits will allow us to instead maximize our capacity to learn, to grow in wisdom, to explore and unveil the secrets of our cosmos, to express our artistic creativity and to BECOME the best we can be - both as individuals and as a species.

Anything less than that is running in place, spinning the hamster wheel to try and survive. Why settle for that?