The economy is making rumbling noises again. Its engine is sputtering, and that has lots of folks nervous (again). What’s happened to our recovery? Umair Haque (“The New Capitalist Manifesto“) argues that it’s not a recovery, because we’ve not been in a recession. He believes that we’re in the beginning of a great “resetting” of the economy. The new version of capitalism, he writes, will run on different rules. I certainly hope so, because the one we have has always been perplexing to me.
Let’s begin with my admission that I’m not an economist, which is probably why I ask these kinds of questions anyway. As George Carlin used to say, “These are the kinds of questions that kept me out of the good schools,” the implication being they were too obvious. So here’s one for today:
What person truly believes that economic growth can be sustained in perpetuity?
I’m serious, for this is the basis of the economy of the West. Making money or earning money isn’t the foundation of capitalism; it’s that such a capacity must be growing, at least in the wealth capital of Wall Street. After all, expenses increase, therefore earnings must increase. Gosh, it just seems to make such sense.
But I look around and ask, “Does anything grow forever?” The answer is no. You might make the case that deserts are always expanding, but we could stop that if we wanted. Besides, a desert is a form of death, not Life, and Life is in a constant state of renewal. To everything is a season. Everything. The biggest and oldest trees of the forest eventually fall victim to age, and when they go, their progeny assumes their former role, and, in death, they provide sustenance for many different forms of Life. Henry Adams wrote in The Education of Henry Adams, “The law of nature is change (chaos), while the dream of man is order.” He added that “Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit.”
Certainly, the dream of our economy is order, but it competes with the law of nature. I wonder which will win?
The problem is that human beings run the “order” side of things, and we’re all in it for ourselves. Why else, for example, would “God’s law” for the economy — profit for 49 years, but then everything gets reset in a “Year of Jubilee” — not be followed by a culture that claims roots in that very thing? We don’t, because that would mean letting go of everything every 50 years, as if anybody would actually have to go through that twice. We like the “teach us to profit” promises of the Book, but we don’t go along with the resetting. Why? Don’t be an idiot, Terry.
In 1923, Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev published his theory of cycles or “waves” in the economy of the West. He’s a fascinating character in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, and his theories are largely unaccepted by Western economists. His research, however, revealed that these waves were each roughly 50 years of prosperity, followed by a depression. I’ve always felt this a remarkable coincidence, and again, the idea that buying and selling is beyond our control flies in the face of contemporary intellectual thinking. I would remind us, however, that such thinking is ultimately self-serving.
So I look at what’s taking place today and wonder why anybody honestly thinks perpetual economic growth stands a chance. The human beings whose greed and avarice are rewarded through controlling this monstrosity are the least likely candidates for such a position, yet the political and economic power they wield keeps everybody else beneath the crushing weight of their boots. These are the first people to scream for their “rights” and liberties to do as they please, while we must suffer the consequences — unintended or otherwise — of their actions. We bailed them out, didn’t we? One thing’s for certain: they will not suffer, not one bit.
As John Milton wrote, “License they mean when they cry liberty, for those who love that must first be wise and good.” That slogan was used in the fight against slavery, and it should be our clarion call for the 21st Century economy. “Wise and good” are not attributes I’d give to the upper echelon economic status quo.
I’m with Umair Haque. Let’s blow this thing apart and start over.