Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let's Not Waste Another Crisis

Over at TPMcafe, they have assembled a group of progressive economic heavy-weights including Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Robert Reich to talk about what needs to be done to get the economy going again. All those posting seem to agree that we are going to need a massive stimulus package to get us out of the deepening recession. But I was particularly interested by these comments by Robert Reich:
I can't help wondering, though, if we'll need something more. Keynesianism is based on two highly-questionable assumptions in today's world. The first is that American consumers will eventually regain the purchasing power needed to keep the economy going full tilt. That seems doubtful. Median incomes dropped during the last recovery, adjusted for inflation, and even at the start weren't much higher than they were in the 1970s. Consumers kept spending by borrowing against their homes. But that's over. The second assumption seems even more doubtful: that, even if middle-class Americans had the money to continue the old pattern of spending, they could do so forever. Yet the social and environmental costs would soon overwhelm us. Even if climate change were not an imminent threat to the planet, the rest of the world will not allow American consumers to continue to use up a quarter of the planet's natural resources and generate an even larger share of its toxic wastes and pollutants.

The current deep recession is a nightmare for people who have lost their jobs, homes, and savings; and it's part of a continuing nightmare for the very poor. That's why we have to do all we can to get the economy back on track. But many other Americans are discovering they can exist surprisingly well buying fewer of the things they never really needed to begin with. What we most lack, or are in danger of losing, are the things we use in common -- clean air, clean water, public parks, good schools, and public transportation, as well as social safety nets to catch those of us who fall.

You don't often hear economists, even progressive ones, talk about the virtues of consuming less. But I think this is the kind of conversation we need to be having in our homes, our houses of worship, as well as in the places where political decisions are being made. We can't continue to spend and consume at the rate we have been since at least WWII. As Reich says, the world won't have it and the earth can't take it.

I think, though, that we need to be careful not to adopt a tone that suggests that this economic downturn is good for us because it is forcing us to re-think our priorities. There is nothing good about people losing their jobs and homes. There is nothing good about the growing crisis in healthcare and the deepening numbers mired in poverty. There are growing numbers of hungry, frightened, and desperate people. It isn't "good" for us. I have already heard this said by too many people, and not surprisingly these people all still have jobs.

There may come a time in the future when we will look back and we will be able to say that something good came out of this very bad situation. If we don't "waste" this crisis. If we don't do what the Bush Administration did with 9/11 when it took that tragic moment that briefly united the country and the world and instead of using it to end our dependence on foreign oil and forge peace in the Middle East, actions that would have strengthened the country and made the world more peaceful, used it instead as an excuse to act out some deranged neo-con fantasies about American imperial hegemony in the world.

Once again we are being presented with one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities to effect significant positive change in the country and the world. We can give meaning to the suffering that millions are experiencing in this downturn if we move our economy onto a more solid green footing and if we invest significantly more money in those things that Reich says we have in common. These actions would significantly improve the quality of our lives and put lots of people to work in productive jobs.

Our spiritual communities have an important role to play here. This kind of conversation is right up our alley. Reich is right; it is possible to live "surprising well" with less. Not nothing, mind you. Let's not try to make a virtue of poverty. But we don't need all the toys to be happy. We can find joy in crafting and gardening and cooking and reading and listening to music, etc., and doing it all in the company of friends and family. We can multiply the joy by finding ways to share our abundance with those who are less fortunate. We are not consumers; we are earthy, spiritual people; we know what is important and what is not.

So let's not waste another crisis. Let's give our children a more simple, green, and meaningful world to live in.

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...