Archive for June, 2011


Monday, June 27th, 2011

This term refers to the difference between what members of the Tea Party say and what they do. I’m not pointing this out, by the way, to suggest that Tea Party members are the only hypocrites in our society. We are all guilty of failing to live up to our highest standards.

The difference in this case, however, is that much of the political momentum on the conservative right is based on the narrative that there is a significant and vocal portion of the population that wants smaller government. So we’re seeing radical shifts in state funding.  States are reducing support for public education, renegotiating union benefits, taxing retiree income, and using that money to slash business taxes. We are seeing similar dramatic cuts in entitlement and social safety net spending at the federal level being demanded by conservative Republicans in return for their willingness to support fiscally responsible behavior like raising the debt limit.

But when you dig down into the nature of the grass roots support for these sorts of actions, you find something very different.

A Time/CBS Poll found that most Tea Party members felt their personal taxes were fair. Most sent their children to public schools. Most felt both Social Security and Medicare were worth being funded by tax payers.

They were not unhappy about the various government benefits that they and their family and friends might be receiving.  In fact they felt quite justified in taking those benefits because they met their needs.  They were, however, not only convinced, but angry that there were other people who “were not like them” who were receiving undeserved government benefits. They are deeply pessimistic about President Obama whom they see as disproportionately concerned about the poor to the detriment of the middle class and the rich. In fact 25% of those polled think that the current administration favors blacks over whites compared to 11% of the general public.

Their anger at the President in particular and liberals in general seems to mask their own responsibility for the current size of the deficit as a result of the benefits they receive.

Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone interviewed Janice and David Wheelock after a Kentucky Palin rally.

“I’m anti-spending and anti-government,” crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. “The welfare state is out of control.”

“OK,” I say. “And what do you do for a living?”

“Me?” he says proudly. “Oh, I’m a property appraiser. Have been my whole life.”

I frown. “Are either of you on Medicare?”

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

“Let me get this straight,” I say to David. “You’ve been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?”

“Well,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it. Too many people are living off the government.”

“But,” I protest, “you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”

“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t make very much.”

Or Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, CA who feels that since she has been paying into Social Security, she deserves its benefits.

That’s a conundrum, isn’t it? I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

If anything, the cognitive dissonance on display is even more impressive than the hypocrisy. The key to understanding this conundrum appears to be who is benefiting from government generosity:

Medicare? Well, that’s for people like David and Janice, and their friends, so that’s good.

Welfare? Well that’s for shiftless, undeserving people — not people like David and Janice.

Chances are that most Tea Partiers have no idea how the government spends its money.  Given their preconceptions about Barack Obama, their thinly veiled racism, and their bias against the poor; the Tea Party faithful are pretty sure the government is spending too much money on people who don’t deserve it — people who are not like them. The thought makes them angry and that anger has been used to justify an attempt to remake government in a way that if successful will cost David and his peers their jobs and Janice her peers their subsidized healthcare.

Life has an interesting way of working things out.

The End of the Wealth-Driven Economy

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

First a definition:  What I mean by the wealth-driven economy is classic capitalism.  In a capitalist economic system, production is carried out to maximize private profit, decisions regarding investment and the use of the means of production are determined by competing business owners in the marketplace; production is based on the process of capital accumulation. The means of production are owned primarily by private enterprises and decisions regarding production and investment determined by private owners in capital markets.

Capitalism and the free market system have been at the foundation of most successful modern economies.   There are certainly problems with this system as evidenced by the bubbles that tend to form which leads to boom and bust cycles.  But that isn’t the purpose of this particular post.

I’m interested in something far more fundamental.  What if capitalism stopped working on a global scale? Or perhaps more accurately, what if we discovered that capitalism was not only bad for the planet, but affected our ability as a species to survive?  What would we do?

Would we continue to cling to this model as resource shortages drove countries to war?  If we grew sick and died from polluted air, contaminated water, or tainted food would we change the way that we live?

Capitalism at its base is about expansion and consumption.  That works as long as you have sufficient resources to support that expansion and demand for increased production.  But what happens when you cut down all of the trees?  What happens when you extract all of the oil?  What happens when you use up all of the fresh water?  What happens when you can no longer breathe the air?  In other words, what happens if we determine that capitalism and the drive for individual wealth is making it harder rather than easier to live on this planet?

I would hope that we would change.  Maslow certainly suggests that survival is our most powerful drive.  So the next question is how?  What would replace greed and self-interest as the basic economic motivation?

Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, has looked at this question and suggests that we could switch to a happiness economy rather than one driven by consumerism and the accumulation of wealth.  We would work less, own less, consume less and focus more of our time on being happy rather than being wealthy.  In other words, we skip right over dollars as a measure of happiness, and determine how to measure happiness directly.  With a clearer understanding of what constitutes happiness, we’ll also gain a better understanding of what we need to do to increase our particular share.

All of this may sound hopelessly utopian at this point where the existential crisis aren’t obvious, but it is also consistent with what Jesus suggested his followers do if they wanted to experience eternal life.  They had to leave their past life, give away all that they had, and follow Him.

The facts, however, point to a time in the fairly near future when capitalism will be a threat to our civilization and even our species.

The Global Footprint Network, for example, calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rate.  According to their studies, we have already passed the point where the Earth can replenish the resources we are consuming with a growth rate of about 1.5 Earths.

Tom Friedman recently wrote in a column entitled The Earth is Full, “We’re currently caught in two loops: One is that more population growth and more global warming together are pushing up food prices; rising food prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, which leads to more instability. At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed in every factory to produce more stuff. So if we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet.”

So will we change?

The prospect is intriguing – civilization moving closer to a spiritual measure of fulfillment (happiness) rather than a material measure (wealth).  God does work in mysterious ways.