Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bush Nightmare Almost Over

Though his misunderestimated legacy will live on to haunt the American polity for a painfully long time and we’ll no longer find grim humor in his stupendous ineptitude and mendacity, his Reign of Error is thankfully nearly over.

Our man Obama has triumphed. The popular vote was closer than I expected but the electoral vote was so lopsided no amount of Repug voter suppression or thievery could’ve changed the outcome.

And history was made with America electing its first multi-racial president. I phrased it that way since in fact, he’s not really black anymore than he’s white. Being any part black is considered a taint, which goes to show how far there still is to go regarding race. If you contrast American blacks with Africans, it’s clear that the vast majority of African-Americans have a good deal of white, or other races, mixed in.

As someone who picketed Woolworth’s in 1960 because of its segregated southern lunch counters, to see a person of color in the White House is breathtaking. Maybe it should now be painted a nice shade of tan and called the Off White House.

Interestingly, in Thailand, which is about 15% Chinese, people of mixed heritage refer to themselves as Chinese as a matter of preference.

At any rate, our man of the moment will have his work cut out for him. His biggest challenge will be to keep people from losing their faith when things don’t magically turn around overnight. FDR brought hope to America, not to mention make-work jobs and food on the table, but the economy remained in the doldrums for years.

A president with heart can keep people going through extremely difficult times, hopefully transformational times, but will not be able to resurrect the endless growth paradigm. No amount of fiscal stimulus, whether in tax cuts, infrastructure investment or corporate welfare, is going to bring back the old free wheeling economy. (By the time it might be theoretically possible again, four or five years down the line, the world will be entering resource scarcity mode.)

Nor should it. Starting back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s when mechanization of industry – then called automation – was allowing businesses to increase production with fewer workers, there was talk of people working less and having more time for family, community, life. That did not sit well with the business community since it meant workers would also have less income and reduced ability to consume.

Instead of a more social world where people worked less and had more time for leisure, working hours lengthened to the point where Americans recently were working 200 more hours per year than back in the ‘70’s. This movement came partly as a result of trickle down economic policy. As mentioned recently, putting a lot of money in the hands of the wealthy results in the bidding up of prices for many necessities, especially housing. As costs rise, average Joe’s are forced to work more to get by. In the midst of all the recent booms, large numbers of people were forced to work more than one job just to survive and most families had to have multiple wage earners.

Of course, it wasn’t just survival; we also entered consumption mode, later to intensify into hyper-consumption. Much of the extra work went for four dollar lattes, 60 inch TV’s and the many other accouterments of the ‘good life’. If you didn’t have the ready cash for all those good things, you could always borrow it on your credit card (at very high interest rates). With the people at the top having so much surplus money to ‘invest’, they made it easy for people to get into debt.

Rather than engaging in frantic and futile efforts to resuscitate the old economy - and engendering huge amounts of new debt in the process - we need to create a new economy. We will need to spend heavily to insure that necessities are provided for - homes to live in, food to eat - but well-being needs to replace consumption as the primary goal. To that end, the work week needs to be shortened to spread scarce jobs, as well as provide the leisure time that Americans have been so sorely lacking. Europeans, in contrast, are guaranteed four weeks paid vacation per year with many countries mandating more.

That change would be impossible without universal health care that is provided outside the current employer-based system. The current system encourages the opposite - fewer employees working increased hours. With the government taking health care costs out of the equation, people and jobs would both be more flexible. Americans could go on about working to live rather than living to work.

Of course, I’m being unbelievably, unrealistically utopian. Have you ever heard a Dem, let alone a Repug, speak of building a stable, sustainable, light-on-the-earth economy? Of shrinking the economic sphere so people could work less and enjoy life more? Unthinkable. Yet, it’s the only way that makes sense.

One of the greatest times of my life came when I had the least money. I did the authentic hippie commune thing back in the early ‘70’s. At one point I calculated that 35 of us were living on about $600 per month, in total. We had no electricity or flush toilets, very limited piped water, all cooking and heating was from wood we had gathered. We bought 50 lb. sacks of rice, kerosene by the barrel for our lamps: We lived simply.

Yet it was also one of the healthiest, happiest, easiest and most enriching times of my life. We never went hungry, though often didn’t have all the variety we would’ve wanted. Meanwhile, our diet was probably a lot healthier than one we would’ve preferred: you know, brown rice and veggies most of the time.

We had no electricity for stereos or TV’s so we had to make our own music. We conversed, meditated, communed with nature to fill our time. I was apprehensive about living without modern conveniences before going to live there. The realization of how unimportant those things are was almost instantaneous upon arrival.

We lived in a beautiful spot. It wasn’t special compared to a lot of places, but we did have forests, gardens, clean fresh air, a mountain view, a swimming hole with clear, clean mountain water for those hot summer days; really, all one could ask for.

We had work to do - but not jobs, except for occasional off site work like fire fighting and brush clearing - and lots of leisure time. It took very little actual work to keep the community going, no more than 10 or 15 hours per week per adult.

I’m not saying everyone should go primitive as we did. Only that living on a lot less doesn’t necessarily mean living less. Truly, no amount of money could’ve bought a healthier, more enlightened lifestyle.

Our goal needs to be well-being, not to get the economy back on track. Growth is not what we want unless it’s intellectual, social, spiritual. The more money spent trying to prime the old economy for a renewed growth cycle, the harder and longer the transition will be to the new way of life.

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