A few years back some Chinese businessmen were given the death penalty for a business decision they made. This was a highly unusual practice, but in fairness it was a highly unusual business decision they were being punished for. They put industrial poison into baby formula to fool those who were chemically testing the formula into believing that it had a higher protein content than it actually did. (The chemical protein check in turn was in place because the watering down of baby formula had been putting certain Chinese infants at risk of starvation.)
I remember this story every time I hear about efforts to boost GDPs, productivity levels, consumer spending levels, employment statistics and other indicators of the health of our economies. If the economic powers that be can make those sorts of numbers look better by pumping more poisons into our societies, is anyone going to stop them?
Five years ago General Motors was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, together with a number of other concerns that were considered “too big to fail”, but GM was a particularly poignant case. For years they had operated on the basis of an assumption that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Well, what was good for GM for a long time was to make lots of luxury cars and muscle cars that burned roughly 3 times as much fuel as necessary for their functional purposes (even with the technology available in the 1950s and 60s), and to convince Americans that they were more “successful” and “prestigious” if they drove such machines. That in turn created many jobs: making larger highways, bigger parking lots and plenty more tires and spare parts for these symbols of success. But this major component of American economic growth was consequentially forcing people to work harder for things they didn’t need, in order to enable those at the top to get conspicuously richer; justifying the process by making the economy look much better for on paper. The fact that this created industrial pollution problems, a dependence on imported oil and millions of unnecessary deaths in car accidents was… just part of the price of success for the US.
In many ways that’s like saying that the deaths of 6 children and the serious illness of 300,000 others was just an inevitable side effect of efforts to set up a program to nourish millions of babies as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.
Capitalist profit motives and open product competition –– even image based product marketing –– can be useful means of providing us with access to many life-enhancing and satisfaction providing tools and toys, but it doesn’t follow from there to say that the more profitable such systems are, the happier everyone will be. There needs to be a means of enforcing responsibility on those who endanger and callously destroy the lives of others in order to increase their own power and prestige. There also needs to be a more serious conversation about what added economic activity leads to a genuinely higher quality of life for all, and what amounts to corporate interests manipulating people into destroy themselves and each other for purposes of improving the corporate bottom line. I won’t bother to catalog them, but when we stop to soberly examine the situation there are in fact clear cases of both.
This comes to mind whenever I see sound bite-sized opinion posts like the one by Robert Reich which I saw this week, stating that “it’s vitally important that our politicians in Washington not lose sight of the single most important issue: jobs and the economy.” On some levels I agree, but on others it is just begging for someone to dump more “Chinese protein powder” into the economy: to give people tasks to do for the sake of giving them tasks to do, actually harming them rather than providing them with opportunities for growth and advancement in the process.
When we’re talking about economic problems and a risk of meltdown in the global economy, what are we really worried about? More of the poorest of the poor starving and dying than is currently the case? Not really. In fact many forms of economic growth that could create jobs and provide more tools and toys for western consumers may do so at the expense of the environment in ways that could lead to even more vulnerable populations facing mass starvation as a result. And selling our “lifestyle” crap to developing countries is likely to be good for western businesses, but not particularly helpful for the consumers themselves. Not that anyone in corporate America is losing much sleep over that.
Are we worried about more people dying on American streets for lack of access to food, shelter or medical care? Or is our concern for the mentally ill running around untreated, endangering their own lives and those around them? Actually, I doubt it. I believe the US has come pretty close to bottoming out on that one already. I don’t see how, short of a revolution engineered by the “Citizens United” crowd that eliminates any pretense of a representative democracy, the ultra-wealthy can become any further insulated against problems around them, protected by a government operating strictly in their interest, while the poorest within the nation increasingly starve and die of preventable problems. We look back now at the human rights abuses that occurred in the early phases of the industrial revolution and we shudder to see how disposable children were considered to be within western societies. I can’t see us going back to those sorts of values. Thus the role of government in caring for the disadvantaged and vulnerable really can’t get much smaller, and if it doesn’t the physical risks for the poor within the US can’t really get much greater than it already is. Call me naïve, but I really think that going back to the bad old days on that one is now off the table.
So are we worried about running out of the most basic material resources needed to feed, house and care for our population? Not so much that either. There is plenty of food being produced to keep everyone fed, and there is plenty of plastic available to construct the various physical items needed to make clothing, shelter, transport equipment, etc. We’re really not at risk of running out of stuff. The risk is more in terms of our systems for determining who is entitled to which stuff becoming even less functional. That could lead to some nasty power struggles in which everyone makes sure that everyone else suffers.
If there’s a significant issue with employment statistics themselves, it has to do with the long-term stability of a system which keeps the current de facto wage slaves in their slavery voluntarily, with hopes that someday they too will become masters. If they give up on that, seeing that no matter what they do they will never get ahead, the system which enables the rich to perpetually keep getting richer starts to break down.
At this point then Marxists will say, “Fine. Let it.” But if it does there is a certain risk that all of our surplus stuff might cease to exist –– not such an immediate risk, but a risk none the less. The greater risk is that it will bring our technological advancement to a halt: the future will contain far fewer technological marvels for us to play with if we don’t maintain a system that helps people dream of getting rich by making such things.
But let’s assume Marxists don’t get their way on this one. This leaves us with two dangerous factors that we need to stop and think about, that we can’t keep ignoring forever. First there is the question of the size of our ecological footprint: Will the process of wasting resources on silly amusements and otherwise useless status symbol stuff eventually prevent us from meeting our most basic long term survival needs? Second, there is the risk of the gap between the wealthy and the disadvantaged becoming so great that any remaining solidarity and empathy between them fades away and open conflict becomes almost inevitable. Continuing on with greater expansion of our technological wonder world actually increases both risks. We can’t keep ignoring these risks just to boost our economic indicators.
All in all economic indicators are 1) a way of saying how likely the current system is to keep serving the interests of those at the top on a long term basis, and 2) a way of giving us a better guess at how well the desires and needs of the population as a whole are being met. It would be fair to say that they serve the former purpose far more reliably than the latter.
So rather than boosting the numbers for the numbers’ sake, let’s focus on seeing what factors actually enable people within a society, top to bottom, to thrive and experience a sense of purpose in life. That will include having a sense of security that their basic needs will continue to be met –– that their kids are not going to die because they can’t afford to feed them or take them to the doctor when they’re sick. And it will also include giving people a sense of being able to make a difference in their societies, preferably a positive difference, in part by way of gainful employment. If those two factors can be linked to each other for the great majority of the population, so much the better, but that doesn’t actually make employment as such an absolute necessity in and of itself.
Take this example: One economic alternative is to have thriving businesses making cigarettes, raw explosives for weapons use and some form of recreational drugs. Everyone can find full-time employment in one or another of these factories, but the salary that they earn is insufficient to meet their family’s basic needs. Another alternative gives you with none of those businesses, none of those products available to the public, and the equivalent to what would have been spent on such products being charged in higher taxes. You would have far higher unemployment, but enough money in government coffers to more reliably meet the basic needs of those who would have been employed in those “vice industries” than if they would be so employed. They could be given a series of multiple choice options of how they could contribute in turn to society until they could find employment in a business that actually enriches the life of the community. Which economy would be “healthier”? I’d pick the latter. I’d consider the sort of “job creators” in the first alternative to be the economic equivalent of “Chinese protein powder”: they make the system look good on paper, according to some standard indicators, but they end up decreasing the quality of life for everyone involved without providing any actual benefit to either worker or consumer.
So rather than trying to make sure that there are lots of private sector jobs that make the economy look good on paper, I say there should be high enough taxes and an active enough public sector to prevent unnecessary human suffering on the most basic level, and then government efforts to help establish businesses which actually reduce the damage we are doing to the environment and genuinely increase the quality of life they offer to their customers. This level of “socialism” might reduce the hope of getting filthy rich for some, reducing in turn our number of alternative ways of amusing ourselves to death, but as a whole that might not be such a bad thing. It would certainly be better for all involved than an open revolution a few years further down the road.
So in summary, on this one I think the Chinese actually got it right, and there are a few things we can learn from them. When business management psychopaths put their own prestige and success ahead of the lives of others, heads should roll, at least figuratively. Protecting business interests and power structures should be secondary to protecting human lives, especially those of the innocent. Statistical measurements of products and systems cannot be allowed to become an end unto themselves; the must always serve as means of better meeting the needs of actual human beings. And established power interests should not be allowed to prevent these principles from being followed. If the US cannot live up to that standard, it has lost its moral right as a nation to complain about China’s human rights record, and that would be a sad thing indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not recommending a Marxist command economy of the Soviet style or anything like it. But I am recommending a thorough rethinking of the premise that getting good economic indicators according to accepted standards of laissez faire capitalism should be an end unto itself. These indicators should only serve as a rough guide as to how well the status quo economic system is meeting people’s basic needs and desires. If our national or global economic systems aren’t working properly then we shouldn’t be shy about adjusting, regulating, replacing and/or thoroughly rebuilding less functional parts of them. If we can get to where we want to go in terms of building just and stable societies by protecting banks and other businesses from their own stupidity and pumping up the capitalist system despite its moral short-comings, I’m ready to keep trying with it. But if protecting the system becomes more important than protecting the people which the system is meant to serve, it’s time to do something radical to fix the situation.