Run yesterday in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Guest Columnist: The political economy of cowardice and the Russian connection
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
So said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 first inaugural address, in the depths of the Great Depression that American greed and excess had done so much to inflict upon the world. Lately, some pundits have taken to claiming that now the only thing we have to fear is lack of fear.
Wrong. For beneath the surface calm — or passivity — lies worse than fear. There is the habit of fear, nurtured over many years. But if fear is natural, the habit of fear, the habitual surrender to fear, is cowardice. And we have, as a nation, come to depend upon it, perhaps even cherish it.
Since 1945, the American economy has been founded on two fantasies, delusions that were once understandable, even useful and laudable. No one could reasonably expect the generation that had endured a decade of privation and then fought a world war, to look too closely at the nature of our long-term prosperity. Across the decades, some dissidents did. They were ignored, vilified, scorned. But now that their jeremiads ring true and their prophecies are coming true, as a Republic, we would do well to summon the courage to understand what they tried for so many decades to tell us.
The first fantasy is that a nation can keep its moral soul while making consumption the centerpiece of its existence. The second is that a nation can keep its economic body while pretending that all it has to do is consume.
These are the cowardly fantasies of the president who told the nation to go shopping after 9/11–and the fantastic cowardice of the nation that did.
In 1945, the United States was blessed with half the world’s industrial capacity. Fears of a postwar depression quickly yielded to astonishment at an economic miracle. Billions of dollars in pent-up wartime purchasing power; the GI Bill; the rise of the suburbs; cars and highways for all; the Baby Boom and its ever-expanding needs: the factors all came together as though by divine intent. Then astonishment segued into complacency. Such prosperity was our God-given right, eternal and immutable.
It wasn’t. Rebuilding Europe was not only decent, it was necessary. But the Europeans didn’t replace their car factories and steel mills with prewar technology or their infrastructure with antiquated roads and trains. We thought the best way to keep the Japanese peaceful was to let them sell to us. Once it was only matchbooks and postcards. Then it became watches and cameras. But hey, they couldn’t really make TVs and stereos. Then it was TVs and stereos, but hey, they couldn’t make computers or really fancy stuff. Once it was little cars. But hey, they couldn’t make luxury cars. As for construction equipment or machine tools: nobody beats America.
As for China and India — poor, benighted and destined to stay that way.
And then we discovered that those poor benighted Chinese and Indians would be more than happy to do our work for us.
Which is to say: to take our jobs from us, by the millions, first in manufacturing, then in services, now R&D.
And so it came to be that the United States hasn’t run a trade surplus since 1975. We have exported so many jobs that government now employs more people than manufacturing. And we import legal and illegal aliens by the millions to do the jobs that remain at both ends of our economy: cleaning ladies and cardiologists, construction workers and computer engineers. And we hide behind all kinds of economic theories and political and cultural cant to avoid admitting to ourselves that we are no longer a nation that produces what it needs or understands, as FDR put it, that “happiness lies … in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
Since 1975, the world has witnessed an astonishing transfer of wealth from those who don’t produce to those who do.
And at home, we’ve had an equally astonishing transfer of wealth: from individuals who work to corporations (and their senior executives) who don’t. The cause of this transfer: the belief that we could consume forever on usurious and predatory credit, provided not by the Mafia but by the “financial industry.” It didn’t work, and today the moral nexus between institutional lenders and individual borrowers has been shattered. If you doubt this, consider these institutions’ behavior these last few months. They resemble nothing so much as Jesus’ parable of the man who, having been forgiven his enormous debts, self-righteously demands of his small debtors: “Pay what thou owest.”
In 1933, FDR declared it time to “speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” That’s hard in a country that’s been taught to believe words have no meaning, that everything is only somebody’s opinion and spin makes the world go round. But if we’re not yet brave or desperate enough to shed cowardice for truth, we can at least consider how others are coping. One country in particular. Russia.
Russia was devastated by the breakup of the union and an enormous amount of national wealth disappeared into private hands. Some were former Communist apparatchiks, some were criminals. We told them that “privatization” was good. The Russians feel somewhat differently about the whole matter.
Perhaps Vladimir Putin, though he be no saint, can instruct us here.
For nearly a decade, he has worked to undo the catastrophic economics of the Yeltsin years: slowly curbing organized crime, attempting to reduce corruption and return national assets, such as oil, gas and mineral wealth, to the nominal control of the state in order to benefit Russia as a whole. Before the present global collapse, results included a six-fold increase in gross domestic product, poverty cut by more than half, and the increase of average monthly salaries by 150 percent in real terms. Some of the methods used have been unsavory, sometimes needlessly so. But anyone who knows how unsavory Russian and Soviet methods have been in the past also knows how much less unsavory they have also become.
And no nation, such as America, that has sold its manufacturing base for “Made in China” junk and permitted the transformation of remaining industries from the domain of skilled, well-paid, organized labor to the province of savagely exploited and powerless illegal immigrants, should lecture others on economics.
Communism belonged on the ash-heap of history. But so does the suicidally predatory and greedy thing we have come to call a consumer economy.
Time we faced that and moved on to the creation of an economy based upon the fact that the central point of human existence is no more corporate profit than it is state control, but the pleasure and dignity of a whole life — including meaningful, dignified work under humane conditions and at a living wage for every citizen — lived fully.
And that’s where Russia comes in. Faced with anarchy and collapse, they knew from their own history that these were possible. We still haven’t accepted that fact. Under Putin, Russia chose to discard all economic orthodoxies (theirs and ours) and begin the hard work of creating a human economy that works for them and upon which, in time and in their own way, they might establish a democracy that works for them.
Is it possible that they’ll get there while we continue to squander our existence?