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Asking the Economy's Most Basic Question

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Message Dave Wheelock

In October 1974 a Business Week magazine story stated "It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow - the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing that this nation or any other nation has done in modern history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality."- The article appeared as the United States embarked on a thirty year alteration of the social contract, one that would prioritize boosting Gross Domestic Product at the cost of a former vision, that of citizens sharing equitably in the fruits of their labors. Today, as other industrialized nations have overtaken us in terms of public health and retirement security, individual savings, ecological sustainability, literacy, low crime and incarceration rates, and even access to information technologies, isn't it time for another selling job? How about: Less for big business and more for people,


For too long we Americans have bought into the self-destructive notion that wealth, in the form of money, land, possessions, or power, is the goal and measure of our lives. As a people we've sacrificed our waking hours, our family values and social connections, our creative energies, our ethics, and even our sanity, on the altar of Survival of the Fittest. We have chosen--or more accurately, allowed others to choose--to pursue a higher standard of life at the expense of an enhanced quality of living. Our reward is perfectly symbolized in the spectacle of banking and finance corporations handing out multi-million dollar bonuses and purchasing new company jets with one hand while extorting taxpayer funds with the other.


On a global level the mantra of "more is better"- has fit all too easily with "might is right,"- creating a worldview that could only be consummated by the degradation of nature and attacks on civilizations across the planet. Through the miracles of technology and the machinations of corporate logic, capitalism was put on steroids. To the basic recipe of privatization--the transferral into private ownership of things once commonly held; plus commodification--creating markets by setting a price on what was formerly free; was added monopolization--the elimination of competition within markets. A final ingredient of pro-big business laws, tax policies, and court rulings was added to cement the system. The product of such an economic system is a society comprised of a tiny but increasingly wealthy elite class, fearfully walled off from a massively expanding majority rapidly sinking into debt.


            Still, it is with difficulty that we unload the bill of goods that has been sold to us: Unregulated markets are the arbiters of justice. Government is the problem. Everything (and everybody) has a price. Labor unions are a threat to freedom. $15 million per year is a reasonable salary. Accepting government assistance is a disgrace (except for big business). Wealth will buy happiness and you, too, can be a millionaire (but until you are, please move to the back). And perhaps the biggest myth of all: A society in which (as an example) the top one percent owns more than two-thirds of the wealth can long endure.


The benefits of the booms of recent decades never "trickled down"- to the middle and lower classes because they were not designed to. The growing gap between the very rich and everyone else was a signal that a different kind of economy was now in place, but the big picture was ignored by self-serving Wall Street interests and a complicit news "industry."- The true outlook for the economy was only gradually leaked to the commoners, cloaked in the passive tense to preclude questions of justice or responsibility: "The numbers this month were worse than expected."- Nowhere was the most fundamental question asked: "What is an economy for?"-


History shows that fundamental change comes in times of great upheavals. The economic and moral tensions that have produced wars, riots, recessions, and depression have all resulted in new directions taken. The social, economic, and ecological challenges we now face are already producing cracks in familiar systems that are proving inflexible to change. As populations formerly divided from one another--ethnic and cultural groups, women, workers, senior citizens, environmentalists, even liberals and conservatives--recognize their common need for new approaches, the stage will be set for great changes to occur. The lifting of the suffocating pessimism that has shrouded the country these past eight years indicates that the time is now.


The wealth of the nation can and should be more evenly and equitably shared. The ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy can yet be reinvigorated. But first we must determine, together, the answer to the question: What is an economy for? For starters, your answer goes here:

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Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a professional university rugby coach in Socorro, New Mexico. He holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico. His Pencil Warrior column appears in the Socorro Mountain Mail (more...)
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