Sunday, October 16, 2011

Changing the Economic Game

I’ve heard that the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to hundreds of cities around the world. Not long ago it was the Tea Party that was taking to the streets and influencing our political process. People are angry, afraid, and fed up.

But with what, precisely? We know things are not going well, but why? Who or what is to blame? And, more importantly, what’s the right way forward? What needs to change?
Religious people think we need more religion — specifically, their particular brand of religion. Politically ideological people think we need more right or left wing ideology. We could break it down further but in the end it comes down to this: Various forces are trying to get us to play the game by a different set of rules, each faction believing its rules are best.

I don’t think we need to change the rules. We need to change the game. I’m talking about the whole materialist, consumption/acquisition life style that the American Dream has mutated into.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, restructuring our value system.
The ugly truth is that our value system, instead of being life- or people-centered has become money- and power-centered. Consider the concept of perpetual economic expansion. We not only value it, we worship it unquestioningly. If I can make a convincing argument that something will “stimulate growth” it will immediately be accepted as a virtue. Reagan did it with greed. For centuries Western culture had considered greed a vice — it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins — but the simple claim that it serves economic growth turned it into a virtue.

This isn’t just a right-wing thing. The left worships at the very same altar of endless expansion. The only difference between the two is over how — not whether — to pursue it.

Yet our mindless pursuit of this notion has driven the massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to a small minority at the top. We were told it would produce growth. Ditto with free trade and globalization and the corresponding transfer of economic power from local communities to unseen and all-powerful corporations. Ditto through a long list of changes in our society that have come about by asking, “Will it serve economic growth?” and nothing more.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Wholeness ethics offers an entirely different game. By putting wholeness and right relationship at the top of our value scale then reasoning back from there to ask what kind of economics serve these goods, we find the concept of endless expansion replaced by the concept of wholistic sustainability. What is a wholistically sustainable economics?

First, it is an economics that promotes local community. This one word banishes forever the god of efficiency. Community isn’t economically efficient. But who cares? Efficiency is only a virtue up to the point that it begins to degrade community. When we consider it a virtue after that point, as we do in perpetual growth economics, it becomes a god. Why should I buy a tool from a local hardware supplier when Walmart can have it shipped in from China and sold to me for half the price? Why should I hire Julie, who has a disability, when I could maximize efficiency and profits by hiring Debbi, who has no disabilities? In fact, using this same logic, why shouldn’t I then get rid of my American employee completely and hire someone in India to do the job for pennies?

Why? Because (and I’m going to commit blasphemy here so you may want to get the kids out of earshot) people and community are more important than profits.

Wholistic and sustainable economics isn’t opposed to global trade. It simply uses a different standard to determine whether something is good or not. Instead of asking whether something maximizes profits to determine if it’s good or not, wholism asks whether it maximizes right human relations.

We are so immersed in the current system that we don’t even notice the insanity of it anymore. But we have created a way of living that tells us that chasing money is more important than being in right relationship with our world, our neighbors, even our families. This is insane, yet it shows up again and again in our culture. Many of our current problems and sufferings can be traced back to it.

What can we do about it? The first and most obvious thing is, as I said earlier, to change our value system, to make a conscious decision to put people, right relationship, and community above economic issues. The desperately poor can be excused for thinking of nothing but money, but anyone who has reached a level of economic comfort ought to ask why we continue to define ourselves and create lives that are defined by money. We can think ethically rather than economically. We can embrace the principle of “enough-ness” in our lives and start using our money —wherever possible — to say no to the gluttony of over-consumption that is supposedly the point of life in our time. This is simply a matter of asking about any discretionary spending: Will spending my money this way support human relationships, local community, and wholeness?

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