A couple months of staying at home, and our economy went from great to awful. It doesn’t really surprise any of us Americans, does it? We all know the economy must keep moving to stay strong. If it isn’t growing, we call it a recession.
Our Fragile Economy
Capitalism is as American as apple pie and baseball. We all learned in school how the market works itself out; how, if you charge too much for something, people won’t buy as much, and if you don’t pay your workers enough, they’ll find other jobs. Yet, a few months ago, when according to the stock market, our economy was booming, and unemployment was at an all-time low, lots of American double-income families were having trouble paying their bills, and now with two months of this COVID-19 pandemic behind us, many of us Americans are in dire straits. The stock market AND the richest Americans seem to be doing just fine. Forbes reports (5/23/2020), “The World’s 25 Richest Billionaires Have Gained Nearly $255 Billion In Just Two Months”. Doesn’t it make you wonder… is this the best we can do?
OK, so what are the alternatives to our current system of economics and politics? People talk about Socialism, and oh boy, does that create divisions! We all seem to have our preconceived notions of what that means, from some sort of Nirvana all the way to no-freedom dictatorships like North Korea and Russia. Maybe you yourself are, as you read these words, defending or defaming Socialism! OK- so first off, Karl Marx was a thinker, and had some modern thoughts for his era… before he died in 1843. Some of his ideas didn’t end up working in practice, and some of his ideas do. We have collectively experienced much since then, here in the U.S, and in other countries too.
We are an evolving species, and beyond the Darwinian type of evolution, we are evolving our society with politics and economics. These are human inventions, and like machines, manufactured materials, and the internet, they keep evolving. We have done amazing things and will continue to do amazing things. We humans are resourceful and smart, and we can and will do better than this economic and political system that we currently have.
Let’s take a quick detour into plastics. There is a fairly famous quote from the 1967 movie, ‘The Graduate’, in which Mr. Maguire is telling Benjamin about what options he has for a job now that he has graduated from college. “There is a great future in plastics.” This quote got it’s fame because in 1967 (a year after I was born… and I’m not that old!) plastics weren’t really much of a thing, and if only we’d have paid attention to Mr. Maguire, we’d have invested in plastic, and be loaded now. It really is an amazing material; cheap, versatile, and has allowed us to create so many things that wouldn’t be possible without it. But here we are in 2020, and plastic waste is everywhere. It’s in our drinking water, there are huge islands in the middle of the oceans made of plastic waste, our landfills are full of it, we see it along the highways, river beds, and we see plastic bags blown into trees when we’re hiking way out in the woods. And it lasts a long time, without rusting or rotting. Though plastics are still a valuable material to us, it is also a great health risk to us and the natural world all around us, and we need to rethink how we use this manufactured material.
Capitalism has it’s value, but it too has become a great health risk to our society. It has given us some great efficiencies, and amazing technologies that might not have come about without it… or at least not as quickly. We have lots of modern comforts, and many time saving inventions. But despite all our modern time saving efficiencies, we are working longer for less. And there is a much bigger divide in our wealth. Our priorities have skewed, living in this system of ours. It may be time we re-think about our government, and our economy.
Maybe the idealists of the world will say plastic and capitalism should be tossed, and let’s start from scratch. Well, we know that ain’t gonna happen. And most of us think that’s not the answer anyway! Plastics and capitalism have given us great things, even if at a great cost. Do you really think if we started again from scratch, we wouldn’t make other huge and painful mistakes?
Or maybe a better path is Social Evolution. There are modern societies whose politics and economic policies are considering things like happiness and poverty over GDP. Finland, Germany, France, for instance. An economist from Japan a few years ago came up with a new economic measure of Gross Domestic Happiness. The new Prime Minister of New Zealand released their new budget that is focused on the wellbeing of their citizens rather than GDP (article), so we aren’t venturing into completely uncharted waters here. And if you’re thinking I’m spouting hippie tree-hugger B.S., do me a favor, and write down a list of reasons why focusing on our citizens’ wellbeing before GDP is no way to run a country.
Finding Optimism in the Time of COVID 19
This is a painful time, with a whole lot of loss, and the numbers of infections and deaths keep getting bigger. As I write this, the official number of deaths in the U.S. is nearing 100,000, and though we are reopening some states, the end is not yet in sight. Our economic figures are awful too, looking like bigger economic losses than during the great depression, and higher unemployment. It feels important to watch the news, as there is always breaking news (I think the ‘BREAKING NEWS’ bars are now just fixtures on all news channels) and the news outlets seem to be asking us to pick sides– especially if you are looking at social media.
I miss being out in the world. I miss going out for a bite to eat or a beer and striking up a conversation with someone I don’t know. I miss hugging my friends and family, and sharing a laugh with people I work with.
I have also talked to some friends and family who are finding positive effects from the pandemic. One friend of mine told me in late March how, he was embarrassed that he was enjoying himself so much. He is away from home much of the time for work, and now he is home with his wife and step-kids, and his older kids are home from college and staying with them too. They’ve dusted off their pottery wheel, working in the yard, playing card games… they all are getting to know each other again. They are re-discovering what is really important to them.
Our Values and Business
I am also finding opportunities I don’t usually have. For one, I am re-working a sales strategy for my little business. And I have had some quiet moments to reflect on why I wanted to go into business for myself, and give up my salary and benefits package. I am remembering wanting to do my little part in making the world a better place for my kids and future generations- I want to feel good about what I do every day. Now more than ever, it is important to me to foster relationships with other small businesses, while paying less attention to the big guys who seem to make all the rules. Enough. I feel jaded by corporate America. As businesses grow, they often seem to lose what made them great in the first place. As they grow, employees often transform from people into numbers that drive efficiency metrics.
Corporations are only beholden to their stock holders’ bottom line. People created corporations, but they seem to have evolved on their own, and are now controlling our political system, and are setting our economic policy. Jimmy Carter said a few years ago “…when I ran against incumbent President Gerald Ford, you know how much money we raised? None.” (CNN interview with Piers Morgan, 2/21/2013). Now corporate sponsored lobby groups fund political campaigns that can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Corporations were not created to run the country, so let’s take back control. And while we’re at it, maybe we can teach them how to have a moral compass. Corporations aren’t going anywhere, so through policy changes, if we choose, we can regulate morals right into corporations by creating incentives that reward ethical behavior. Right now, with big business, money motivates… Maybe us small businesses can remind the big guys why we keep popping up. If small business is the backbone of America, we need to do some core strengthening!
Who Does Our Country Serve?
There is a trap that we all can fall into, and that is believing that political and economic policies are bigger than us… or have different goals than we do. They don’t– political goals need to align with our own, and economic policy should benefit each of us. Some of us were even fooled into thinking trickle-down economics is a good policy for folks other than the most affluent! Remember that these SOCIAL STRUCTURES are there BY US and FOR US. Economics and Politics are Social Sciences, because they are there to benefit society. Bearing that in mind, what do we want for ourselves? What do YOU want for your friends and families? What do YOU want for YOUR country?
Opportunity Shows Up in the Strangest Ways
We are in a pandemic of historical scope. Our world has been turned upside down. Our normal is being shattered. It is impossible for the people of the U.S. to ignore what’s happening, and so let’s keep our eyes open, because we are never going backward, to that normal we had all gotten used to. Drastic change in our whole world is inevitable.
One option: we can, collectively, take back control of our America. Take this opportunity to think about what is important to you, and not just what’s important to your tribe (your social group/political party/trade organization/etc.). And imagine what an ideal society would look like to YOU. Forget about our deep divisions for this important moment. It doesn’t matter that society will never meet your ideal. Your ideal society looks different than my ideal society because we are all (thankfully) different. Our ideal societies may be more similar than you think, especially if we are honest with ourselves about what our ideals really are- as individuals, not tribes.
What do you miss the most? Those are the things that are important. Is it just money? Power? Or is it those connections you make with other Americans? As we re-shape our society, and go into election season, PLEASE, don’t forget what is most important to you. Remember what kind of society YOU want to live in. What are YOUR values? Change can be painful, but in the long run, it isn’t as painful as apathy. We have the power, as a society, and as individual members of our society, to direct change, starting right now.
A Call to Action