Saturday, August 22, 2015

Depleted Soil Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

A strong middle class is like a vegetable garden, requiring a rich economic environment in the same manner that a garden needs fertile soil. We do not say to seeds, “It’s all up to you. Don’t worry about the PH factor or the nitrogen or the potassium in the soil. Just do your thing, seeds.” But this is precisely the economic policy that many people advocate.

Vegetable gardens require constant care. If their soil is depleted, testing may be necessary to ensure the right ratio of nutrients. An economy for human beings is infinitely more complicated than a garden, but vital ingredients like education, living wages, and hard and soft infrastructure, which are essential for growing and sustaining a society, are often the first areas that trickle-down proponents suggest for cost cutting. Rather than testing the soil, they accuse the seeds of lacking the motivation to grow.

Now let’s move metaphorically from the garden into the garage where the car is parked. If the car battery is dead, we don’t drain more voltage, we jump-start it with a powerful charge. If the car idles briefly but runs out of gas, we have to get fuel from another vehicle before we can drive. To do this, we prime a syphon hose with a rush of liquid to get the fuel moving from one tank to the other. Merely getting rid of the fumes does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Far too often in our political disputes we lose sight of the fundamental purpose of our efforts to thrive.

By all existential measures of human decency, an economy is not more important than its reason for existence. Its engines need adequate fuel, and our metaphorical garden has to be sustainable. This means that its long-term viability is more important than any single harvest or any individual or group.

Thus, the constant political cry to elect business executives to run the country often misses the point. The economy is far, far more important than business, although running the government in a businesslike manner is desirable. To reify capitalism, as if it is more essential than its reason for being or the people it is supposed to serve, is a recipe for dysfunction at best and oppression at worst. Sadly, this misguided ethos lies at the core of our inability to achieve political equilibrium.          

The whole methodology of reengineering, rightsizing, downsizing, and creating a workforce of temporary employees was a legal strategy to avoid paying employee benefits. In our garden analogy this might appear to be efficient, except the result over time has been extreme soil depletion. Not enough of the profits excised at harvest are getting back into the ground.

Our garden is not working for all of us, and the abundance at harvest time is unjustly distributed. Political power trumps the labor of those whose efforts made the bounty possible. Claims that unskilled labor is not worthy of a living wage reflect the smoldering arrogance and contempt of tribalism: Our garden, not theirs. We are deserving; they aren’t. We have the power to legislate; they don’t.

The U.S. Tax Code is a finely tuned political instrument shaped with unrelenting influence by moneyed interests. Slowly but surely, over a period of decades, the tax burden has shifted to those less able to pay. Fortunes are made via insider trading. Supercomputers skim the cream off the stock market.

Financial institutions bleed 401K retirement plans with nickel-and-dime fees that amount to huge sums of money by the time the funds are actually used for retirement. The banking industry applies new rules to customer accounts with whack-a-mole frequency by dreaming up new service charges and hidden fees. Banks can legally charge eighty dollars for a five-dollar overdraft.

Government subsidies for big business increase every year. Big Pharma’s lobbying efforts have succeeded in making it illegal in some cases for the government to negotiate drug prices. Student loans are guaranteed profit centers that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, but corporations routinely use Chapter 11 as a trustworthy way of shedding debt.

The promise inherent in the American spirit of self-reliance and faith in hard work obscures the reality of a system meticulously rigged with carrot-and-stick hype in which the waving of the stick hides the fact that the carrot is more apparent than real.

Consider the European experiment with austerity or the state of Kansas, where the governor’s tax cutting has nearly bankrupted the state. Nothing like the ideology of low, low taxes and small, small government exists anywhere in the world with a sustained middle class because it’s analogous to planting a garden in sand.

Our history offers an indisputable record of how the financial sector has effectively severed the reward connection between productivity and compensation for work performed. Our technological future promises a steady increase in the numbers of white-collar and professional jobs being replaced by software and robotics. 

Simply put, if an individual’s duties can be reduced to an algorithm, they can be replaced with an app. Moreover, there is nothing on the horizon, save the power of organized labor and an informed and activist public, to keep the middle class from perpetual, if not exponential, decline.

Following admirable instincts emphasizing individual responsibility, lots of people believe in trickle-down economics. They are not entirely wrong. Individual responsibility is very important. But over-focusing on the virtue of individuals is inadequate for our garden economy. Most of us have little difficulty in determining that our own families are more important than the business of business, and yet there are many who have great difficulty in applying the same standard to others. This bias serves as a tool for political manipulation.

The historical economic record and current state of the economy are proof that trickle down leads to a disproportionate rate of trickle up. In today’s world, small government is a euphemism for big corporations with the power to do as they please.

The garden analogy for our fiscal policy is a reminder of how our social and ecological interconnectedness is critical for our long-term sustainability. Our growing rate of inequality demonstrates that we need to plow deep and rethink our garden economy.
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