Letter to Barack #20: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Dear President Obama,

Now we have celebrated yet another Christmas with millions on the outside looking in. They are outsiders excluded from our annual fête de la prosperité. They are selling knick-knacks on the sidewalks, washing the windshields of cars stopped at intersections hoping for a tip, panhandling, stealing, cooling their heals in prisons, surviving on pittances in dilapidated apartments, working long hours for pay so low that they are poor in spite of being employed, telling complicated lies to con somebody out of a few simple dollars, and so on and so forth.Meanwhile hundreds of think tanks and university departments and international organizations are grinding out more professional literature than anybody has time to read about how to end poverty. At a world level it is about how to achieve “development.”

It is the New Year, the first day of the new decade. It is a time to renew our minds.

“Be not conformed to this world, but be renewed by the transformation of your mind,” wrote Christianity’s first intellectual in his letter to the Romans.

What Saint Paul called “transformation” we epigones of Thomas Kuhn today call “paradigm shift.” (Read shifts, the singular always including the plural.)

You may remember President Obama that a year ago I predicted in a letter to you that your own experience would demonstrate the need for a paradigm shift. If you as a very popular president, advised by the leading lights of the mainstream economics profession, supported by majorities in the House and the Senate, could not get the economy humming along smoothly and successfully within a year, your frustration would demonstrate that there is something wrong with mainstream thinking. The year is up. The demonstration is, however, redundant. Even without current frustrations there are many anomalies that demonstrate the need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Bucky Fuller wrote, “What they do not want you to know is that there is enough for everybody. There is enough to meet the needs of 100% of humanity without ecological damage.” Bucky spoke as a scientist, as one of the many scientists who know that appropriate technologies equitably applied could meet the needs of all the world’s people, although probably not the needs of the larger populations that would result from unchecked population growth.

Unfortunately, what Bucky Fuller attests is physically possible is not at this point in time socially possible. Accumulated anomalies that call for a paradigm shift are embedded in the curricula of the universities, in the minds of the experts, in the minds of the general public, and in our institutions.

Except for a few pioneers such as Genevieve Vaughan (none of whom were invited to your Jobs Summit) minds are not moving. Nevertheless reality is moving. Without consciously intending to do so, society is slouching toward a paradigm shift.

Evidence to prove my point: Millions of Americans are now newly on the government payroll, living from check to check as Congress passes successive extensions of unemployment benefits. The benefits are extended not because the reigning economic paradigm calls for them but because reality calls for them.

Crime rates have fallen in the USA as millions are less tempted to steal because the government gives them money, because houses formerly vacant during the day are now occupied by their unemployed owners, and probably also because law enforcement authorities have improved their techniques.

I believe we are slouching toward the realizations that unemployment is permanent; that millions more would be unemployed if they were not warehoused in jails, schools, and barracks; and that other millions more would be unemployed were they not employed in the security business keeping down the unrest partly caused by unemployment in the inner cities and in the outer periphery. Unemployment patent and disguised is structural. (Not just “structural” in the narrow sense of the economists, but also in the broader sense of the sociologists.)
Every day we realize more and more that for-profit employers will offer the millions just mentioned jobs only when the fifth derivative intersects the sixth integral in n-space. In other words, never. Every day we realize more and more that those millions should be doing something useful while waiting for that non-event to un-happen. And …

….for example, they could be planting trees. Here I have to congratulate you President Obama because you are taking a step in the right direction putting many people to work installing green technologies …

…and, to finish my thought with questions: Are we getting to the point where we will put our money where our mouth is by treating human beings as ends not as means? As the very purpose of the economic apparatus? Not just as human resources? If so, then all those millions could be supported not just to be useful, but to develop their own personalities. They could, for example, be in school studying massage or poetry or bass guitar or pole vaulting or astronomy or religion, or philosophy, or the history of algebra, or organic gardening, or whatever fulfills their dreams. We would always factor in also going back to school periodically to keep up with the skills required by the job market. Retooling is part but not all of lifelong learning.

Signs already point toward a silent transformation and paradigm shift in education. Throughout the world enrollments in tertiary education and in adult education mushroom. Public policy in every nation endorses the UNESCO goal of lifelong learning for all.

Another question: Are we backing our way into fulfilling the prophecy of Karl Marx that at some point in time pre-history (the epoch of domination of human beings by the economy) would end, and the history of humanity (the epoch of the full and free development of all) would begin ?

In practice if not in theory we are breaking the sales barrier. Even though if you listen to people talk, or if you listen to the justifications for micro-lending programs or for job training programs, you will hear that most people still believe the fish story (“Give a man a fish, and …”), in practice more and more people are able to achieve a livelihood without producing anything for sale. The market is losing its grip, becoming more docile, acting more like a servant and less like a master.

There is a catch.We are funding the greening of America; the groceries of the unemployed; ever greater military, police, and private security expenditures; and highly subsidized education for more and more students of all ages by borrowing ever more astronomical sums of money. The national debt, state and local debt, corporate debt, family debt, and individual debt are tending on the whole to go higher and higher without limit. World society is ever more polarized into a rentier class of lenders and a déclassé multitude of borrowers. The masses and the taxpayers owe the rentier class periodic payments from now to eternity.

Laboring under a steadily-mounting burden of public and private debt, with employment opportunities scarce and often low-paying, the majority somehow gets by. The majority works some of the time, goes to school some of the time, sometimes neither works nor goes to school, and sometimes manages to get by while simultaneously both working and studying. Living from check to check, bill to bill, stress to stress, in their ripe old age the majority finally finds economic security as the government picks up the tab for elder care. Life for the rentiers is sweet, while life for the majority is stressful but tolerable. But can a system based on steadily-mounting debt last?

There are ways to continue the present positive trends toward a society that is ever greener, ever more inclusive, and ever more highly educated. I will not list the negative trends that must be discontinued since I have already mentioned some of them and everybody knows what the others are. I will assert, echoing Bucky Fuller, that in principle they can be discontinued.

It can be done. We and our descendants can enjoy future Christmases without millions selling knick-knacks on the sidewalks, washing the windshields of cars stopped at intersections hoping for a tip, panhandling, stealing, cooling their heals in prisons, surviving on pittances in dilapidated apartments, working long hours for pay so low that they are poor in spite of being employed, and telling complicated lies to con somebody out of a few simple dollars, and so on and so forth. Christmases in the future can be fêtes de la liberté, de l´égalité, et de la fraternité.

Obviously the paradigm shift needed to keep the good trends going and erase the bad ones does not consist of prolonging indefinitely the present practice of going ever more deeply into greater and greater debt until finally the creditors realize that they will never be paid and the bubbles burst.

I will not give details of the needed theoretical and practical transformations here. Anybody who wants them can easily find my other writings, those of Pierre Calame, those of Charles K. Wilber, those of José Luis Coraggio, those of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi, and those of feminist economists.

Peace and all good,

Howard R.

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