Memorial Day 2012

signposts

I am finally settled in Maine for the Summer and only beginning to get the peacefulness into my body. So peaceful that I skipped a few days, failing to post blogs. Thanks to the faithful who kept coming, looking for the next one. I am writing on the Memorial Day Weekend, a time when we honor those who have sacrificed their lives in wars fought for Country. I am deeply respectful to them, but feel more inclined to honor the memory of everyone who has lost their Being, not their lives, to the inexorable and superpowerful economic order of the market and its companion, growth. This group includes just about everybody alive today and those in the past many generations.

There is a strange and unsettling similarity between the superpower status of the US in both military and economic terms. We are expected to police the world and also keep the economic machine running at full tilt. If we renege in the foreign policy realm, we become subject to terror attacks and aggressive actions by those whose interests run counter to ours. We intervene in places where democracy is attempting to burst out of a cage. If we fail to keep our growth machine going, we become the cause of slowdowns and social strife all over the world.

On this day of memory, both of these roles needs to be questioned. I fully believe that democracy is preferable to almost all forms of governing. Churchill said it well: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It promises more access to Being than most, but this promise is only partially and poorly kept. The voice of the people has rarely, if ever, been fully expressed. The vox populi has been limited in both a de jure and de facto sense. Slaves have been excluded since the Greeks invented the idea. Right now, many people in the US are being systematically kept from the polling booth as part of a crass political strategy.

What really matters to me is what qualities are present in the polity. Is it one that practices justice and equality, where power is restricted to getting the right things done? Or is it more like the one in my country today where power is more like a force of domination over humans and nature? I would like this Holiday occasion to raise this question beyond all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional parades held every year.

I also hold in memory the kind of economic system that was run for the people, the same ones as above. Adam Smith had in mind an economy that took care of people’s needs, where much was delivered through relationships between buyer and seller. He saw competition as driving the “market” to maximize wealth, but I believe he saw wealth as more than monetary. His earlier work on moral sentiments suggests that he held humans as quite different from the economic maximizer central to current economics He thought people were fundamentally empathetic, caring for others. Although much of what he wrote has become outmoded by the passage of time, I think he was right on in this sentiment. But that is only a memory.

Erich Fromm writes about the dichotomy betwen Being and Having, arguing strongly that Being is the place where human beings will find themselves and be able to flourish. We have gone over to the dark side, having, where we can see ourselves only in terms of what we own. Tim Jackson writes today in the NYTimes in a different style, but with the same message. I use Tim’s books in a couple of the courses I teach at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability.

What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or rising prices for resources like oil. Or the need to rein in growth for the damage it’s inflicting on the planet: climate change, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity. Maybe it’s any of the reasons growth can no longer be safely and easily assumed in any of today’s economies. The result is the same. Increasing productivity threatens full employment.

Today, he is criticizing the relentless striving for labor productivity in our economies. Increased productivity plus innovation are the engines of economic growth. But increased productivity inevitably creates unemployment that persists unless growth can absorb more and more workers. Even if it can, there is always a delay between the rise of unemployment and new jobs. The length of the current recession shows that this delay can be long and debilitating to those out of work.

Jackson mentions a couple of solutions. One is to shorten the work week so that it takes more people to do the same work. This means that income will be more equally shared, but those working full time will take a hit. Tough, but consistent with the social goal of equality. Then he switches gears and suggests that efficiency and its result in increased productivity may not be desirable for another reason.

But there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates. Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity. By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.

At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

I have been arguing this in other words. Just recently I wrote about the intrusion of the market into domains that should be served by relational activities, not mere transactions. Jackson picks on the”caring’ professions, but then add crafts, arts.

In short, avoiding the scourge of unemployment may have less to do with chasing after growth and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture. And in doing so, restoring the value of decent work to its rightful place at the heart of society.

I call all of them caring, using a different meaning for care. Care in my dictionary means addressing everything that matters to being human, not just one kind of care based on our needs due to some physical or mental incapacity. We should be care-givers all the time in every domain we move through in the course of a day or a life. The market needs to be carefully [interesting use of care] divided in two; one sector producing, in the most efficient manner, impersonal commodities that we use in our own care-given. The pots and pans we use to feed our families would fit here, although cooks that see themselves as craftspeople might want something more individually tailored to their idiosyncrasies.

The other sector would operate where relationships matter more than low cost and efficient delivery. WalMart is the epitome of the efficient giant delivering commodified goods and services. I went to our local weekly farmers market yesterday for the first time this summer. It was most pleasurable to greet my friends in the stalls and see that they had returned. The goods are hand-crafted with the utmost care. The eggs come from pastured hens and are so good that I sometimes think they must care about me. Even in my own lifetime, now stretching over 80 years, I have seen this kind of market where care is still present largely disappear. For me Memorial Day conflates this loss with that of all the dead heroes.

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1 Comments

Peter Crowell said:

John,

Thanks for some of the best thoughts of the weekend. Welcome back to Maine (can I say that from NH?).

I spent my entire career in Information Technology trying to make it all move faster, better and cheaper. Now look at me; listening to and agreeing with you trying slow it all down.

Looking forward to the Slow Living Summit this week in Brattleboro.

God bless and be well,
Peter