But Can We Afford It?

As the national debate on infrastructure rages on, this post has risen to the top of the queue.  Not the least of our questions is what this means and what it includes, for infrastructure has become more than roads and bridges.  It is now so nebulous that I feel it is best described in other ways, which I will attempt to do.  The discussion is nothing new.  There are those who have provided far more thought and insight that I.  Their insights will be included.  The result, I hope, will be a clearer definition aiming at a solution.

I was first drawn to the problem many years ago while reading my father’s American History textbook, dating from the time after World War II when he was continuing his education under the G.I. Bill (more about that later).  Accounts of history vary, as I am sure you know, and are colored by the times and socio-economic environments in which the writers live(d).  This particular textbook came out of the crucible of the Great Depression and World War II, one we shall most likely not see again.   In it is contained a chapter on the origins of the Great Depression, many of which we share in our time (whether we choose to admit it or not).  A telling diagram depicts the ownership of corporate stock prior to the Crash of 1928.  Very little corporate stock was owned by the working class.  As a result, economic power became more and more concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.  Since they were, for the most part, removed from the day-to-day realities of the companies they led, they often used the money to make contributions to politicians who would vote against regulation of their activities.  This led to a great difference in the incomes of workers compared to that of the owners and board directors.  Does this sound familiar?  We all know what followed: the collapse of these companies wiped out the savings of small investors.  Many doubted that democracy could survive this challenge, but it did, largely due to the innovations of the New Deal.  Franklin Roosevelt, in an introduction to the bold and necessary actions he was about to take, told Congress, “If democracy is really to survive, then all organizations through which man operates—industrial, social, and political—must be democratic.  Political freedom cannot survive if economic freedom is lost.”   

A second book, dating from 1969, is Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Guide for Spaceship Earth. (He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.)  What amazes me is that so few of his cogent arguments for progress and prosperity have been acted upon. 

“…more than half of humanity as yet exists in miserable poverty, prematurely doomed, unless we alter our comprehensive physical circumstances.  It is certainly no solution to evict the poor, replacing their squalid housing with much more expensive buildings which the original tenants can’t afford to reoccupy.  Our society adopts many such superficial palliatives.  Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved.  I feel that one of the reasons why we are struggling inadequately today is that we reckon our costs on too shortsighted a basis and are later overwhelmed with the unexpected costs brought about by our shortsightedness.”

He goes on to discuss those he calls the Great Pirates (actual pirates with ships, by the way), those leaders of “high proficiency in dealing with celestial navigation, the storms, the sea, the men, the ship, economics, biology, geography, history, and science.  The wider and more long distanced their anticipatory strategy, the more successful they became.”  To maintain control without being overtaken by someone of equal skill, these pirates employed bright young specialists to carry on the work in their assigned areas, warning them that they had better mind their own business with the admonition, “I’m the only one who minds everybody’s business.”  This was the beginning of schools of intellectual specialization.  He continues, “Though the pirates are extinct, all of our international trade balancing  and money ratings, as well as all economic accounting, in both the capitalistic and communistic countries, hold strictly to the rules, value systems, terminology, and concepts established by those Great Pirates.” Owing to the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest, both the Capitalists and the Marxists operated on the hypothesis that there was not enough to go around.  But “science now finds that there can be ample for all, but only if the sovereign fences are completely removed.  The basic you-or-me-not-enough-for-both—ergo, someone must die—tenants of the class warfaring are extinct.”

Fast forward to World War I.  The industrial and economic leadership was so fixed on wealth harvesting that they “inadvertently abandoned their own comprehensivity [Fuller’s term] and they, too, became severe specialists as industrial production money makers, and thus they compounded their own acceleration to extinction in the world-paralyzing economic crash of 1929.”  This was compounded by the politicians who went along with the old rivalries and defended their own side.  What prevented Armageddon?  The computer, serving as superspecialist, can persevere both day and night.  As a result, man has had his own survival potential increased markedly, but only if he takes advantage of this newly found capability.  Fuller writes, “We don’t seem to be able to afford to do peacefully the logical things we say we ought to be ding to forestall warring—by producing enough to satisfy the world’s needs.”  Those in power seem always to accede to the argument that it would cost too much.  They have not articulated, and, consequently, realized “productive wealth capabilities work many times the amounts of monetary units they had known themselves to possess and, far more importantly, many times what it would have cost to give adequate economic support to the particular have-nots’ involved in the warring and, in fact, to all the world’s ‘have-nots’.”   As you might imagine, this applies on the domestic scale as well, and the one which is the driver of today’s struggle.  Here is one example culled from many in which the prevailing logic of unaffordability was not only overridden, but proven to be incorrect. 

The conceptual basis behind this is that, under the old paradigm, entropy [lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder]reigned, that is, everything was winding down, “evoked by the dispersion of energy.”  This was true of the old pre-Einsteinian physics, and of economics as well. The order of the day, the new reality, the only reality, is that of increase.  Here is Fuller’s diagnosis: “Because our wealth is continually multiplying in vast degree unbeknownst and unacknowledged formally by human society, our economic accounting systems are unrealistically identifying wealth only as matter and are entering know-how on the books only as salary liabilities; therefore, all that we are discovering mutually have regarding the true nature of wealth comes as a complete surprise to world society—to both communism and to capitalism alike.  Both social co-operation and individual enterprise interact to produce increasing wealth, all unrecognized….”

All of Fuller’s observations and the examples he gives point to sources of potential increase, but only if the old paradigm vanishes.  Here is another example of tapping that potential increase, taken from my father’s generation.  He writes, “After World War II several million of our well-trained, healthiest young people came suddenly out of the military service.  Because we had automated during the war to a very considerable degree to meet the ‘war challenges’ there were but few jobs to offer them.  Our society could not say realistically that the millions of their healthiest, best informed young were unfit because they couldn’t get a job, which had until that historical moment been the criteria of demonstrated fitness in Darwin’s ‘survival only of the fittest’ struggle.  In that emergency we legislated the GI Bill and sent them all to schools, colleges, and universities.  This act was politically rationalized as a humanly dignified fellowship reward of their war service and not as a ‘hand out.’  It produced billions of dollars of new wealth through the increased know-how and intelligency thus released, which synergetically augmented the spontaneous initiative of that younger generation.  In legislating this ‘reckless spending’ of wealth we didn’t know that we had produced a synergetic condition that would and did open the greatest prosperity humanity has ever known.”  Could we afford to do it?  The answer becomes obvious: could we afford not to do it?

Other observations Fuller has made include:

  • The total inadequacy of gold as a measurement of wealth.  Since banks have no real money of their own, the source of wealth lies in the interest gained from the returns from interest income.  Based on worldwide industrial production, this amounts to far in excess of a quadrillion dollars annually (this was in 1969 figures), making the gold measurement pale by comparison.
  • The highest priority need of world society for a realistic accounting system which will rectify, for example, the value of a worker in India performing the same task as one in the U.S., yet assessed at a much lower figure. 
  • The fallacy that there is not enough to go around [the zero sum game], perpetuated by the myth that we cannot afford to take care of the world’s poor.  
  • Mass production and the generation of industrial wealth requires mass consumption.  This has been achieved so far by the great struggle of the labor movement to increase wages and spread benefits, another thing that the bankers and their capitalist cohorts said they couldn’t afford.

And so the fallacy is the totally inadequate measurement of the wealth potential by interpreting it in unnecessarily limited means.  The new reality, the correct measurement, is  growth potential: what its sources are, what produces maximum effects, how it is measured.  The economy, like a living entity, expands and contracts under the stimuli of a multitude of influences.  The wealth of tomorrow be predicted by the economic resources of today.  Seemingly innocuous developments open wide channels of potential.  Few could have forseen the multi-faceted benefits of the digital revolution, biotechnology, renewable energy, and much more.  These and discoveries yet to be made continue to unfold to enrich our world and its people if we will only let them.  Their effect, however, only occurs if their benefits are broadly spread.  To sequester their fruits in the hands of the few leads to a societal downturn, even to the point of destruction.  At this point, the desperation of the masses has no other channel of opportunity but revolution, war, and violence until a new order is established, and not always for the better.  We have many negative examples: the Bolshevik Revolution, the post-World War I Nazi conversion of Germany, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Myanmar insurrection.  The warning signs of societal collapse came closer to home on January 6, 2021, as witnessed by the shameful events in our own Capitol.  There was real anger here.  It makes no difference that it was led by falsehood—the attitudes  which produced anger were real.  Like other historical revolutions, those who participated felt that they were denied a voice and a sense of opportunity and equity. 

Growth potential (though in socio-psychological rather than economic terms) is addressed in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that pyramid of ascending needs common to all human beings, which, once they are satisfied, unlocks higher levels of self-actualization (thus freeing up the wealth potential).  While some views may differ on the theory, it is clear to me that the lack of satisfaction at one level impedes entry to the next, as experience and observation reveal.  How, it should be asked, could large groups of people wallowing in the misery of poverty and deprivation, ever develop the resources and the ability to generate more than is absolutely necessary for their survival (and frequently even failing at that).  The fulfillment of basic needs frees the individual to move up the pyramid to increasingly fulfilling and productive activities.  These, it should be noted, benefit not only the individual and his/her immediate family but are transferred to his social group as well.  Fuller has noted the relationship of mass production and mass consumption: increased wages and disposable income becomes a stimulus to purchases from others and, in turn, to stimulate their production.  It is not only a benefit to one person or family; it fuels the economic engine of the society in which these individuals and families live.  This is the way a good economy should work, both that of a nation and that of the world.  Far better to build a world of prosperity than to spend money for defenses to ward off the violence which is sure to occur when the downtrodden of the world rise up in desperation and seek to destroy the existing regime.  Without an equitable infusion of economic life blood, that will be the inevitable result.  It is all about growth potential, both in psychological and economic terms.  Imagine the results had the programs New Deal not been enacted, had the G.I. Bill been voted down, and, most recently, had the 2008 and more recent Economic Recovery Act packages had not infused income which was spent to benefit the economy as a whole.  In 2008, you may recall, so-called pro-business conservatives were willing to let the major auto companies go bankrupt, a ludicrous proposition considering the wealth they have generated since that time. To “hold the line” would have been at our peril, a false economy indeed.

Our history resonates with the pathetic whine of the things that the power- and wealth-hungry said they could not afford.  They couldn’t afford, they told us, to tolerate unionization of workers (and legislated to make unions illegal), yet the increasing purchase power of the newly-ascendent middle class was perpetrated by the union movement which gave purchasing power to those who never before had it and allowed the economy to grow.  They said they couldn’t afford anything less than the 10 hour, 6 day per week work schedule.  But the unions, “the people who brought you the weekend”, unleashed, along with negotiated wage increases, the leisure time to spend it, again producing national wealth unimagined at that time. It continues today.  Many of our national business leaders and their hapless stooges in Congress say they can’t afford programs to aid families who now line up for food distribution and the upward of 14 million U.S. children who are currently experiencing food insecurity.  They say they can’t afford private or public health insurance, but how productive are people who can’t see a doctor when they are ill as preventable diseases mushroom into far more serious and even fatal ones?  How productive are individual families who must declare bankruptcy due to medical expenses that they can’t pay? Wisely, our Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act after more than 70 challenges.  Imagine the results if this were not so. Despite this victory, our national policy has defied logic and experience, continuing to reward the rich in the vain hope that somehow, in some way, the working poor will benefit.  Trickle Down economics has never and will never work—the rules under which super-rich individuals and corporations work have made that impossible.  The money just doesn’t flow, or at least not well enough.  Call it socialism if you will, but socialism is the price which must be paid if private enterprise does not exercise economic responsibility.  As with Roosevelt’s New Deal and the post-WWII G.I. Bill from which we still benefit today, we must not only fund an Economic Recovery Act but change our ways of thinking.  The answer is not in government action alone, but a cooperative effort of the entire public-private structure.

Here is a case in point: Former Carls Jr./Hardees/Green Burrito CEO Andy Puzder, nominated by President Trump to be Labor secretary, withdrew his name in the face of stiff opposition from congressional members, unions and workers’ rights advocates.  Not only was his corporation cited for violations of the minimum wage act in California, he also was criticized for comments opposing a minimum-wage hike, saying it would curb employment opportunities  [add this to the pathetic whine].  Indicating his attitude toward the insignificant and disposable nature of his employees, he extolled restaurant automation, saying that machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

Our society has fallen far from the promise of an earlier time in so many ways:

  • Large corporations not only underpay their workers but refer them to public aid such as health care programs funded by taxpayers while at the same time avoiding their own tax liabilities.
  • Affordable college education and programs such as the long-vanished California master plan for tuition-free higher education have been replaced by student loans that keep their recipients on the long treadmill of repayments, suppressing their ability to provide for themselves and their families, limiting their economic mobility, and unjustly enriching those who have no business claiming a benefit from it.
  • Educational resources which could be applied to technical training are misapplied to driving students into four year college programs which have little relationship to vocational skills which could both benefit the recipient and the society in which he or she lives.  Overqualified (or inappropriately qualified) workers fill jobs with little need for their academic qualifications while jobs requiring technical training go begging and the technical training programs which prepare them are underfunded.  Occupational mismatching such as this is damaging to the social order as witnessed by its economic, political, and personal effects.
  • Affordable housing is racing up the list as one of the most pressing issues of our time.  And the solution is not rent control—it is more housing and a willingness of city planners and urban residents to think beyond narrow concepts.  Fortunately, socio-economic necessity is causing what economist Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” to make its appearance—homes in unused shopping centers and office buildings, homes made from such unconventional things as shipping containers and storage sheds, little houses, domes, pre-fabricated homes, mobile home and campground facilities for those with no other place to live—along with the zoning and permitting necessary to make it happen. 
  • Homelessness (and the homeless) cannot simply be legislated out of existence. In numerous cities and towns in the U.S., there are not enough beds available in shelters for all the people who are homeless, and some shelters close during the day. As a result, many homeless people are forced to live outside in public places like parks, bridges, and sidewalks.  Actions against the homeless have been called cruel and unusual punishment by the Ninth Circuit, citing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.  Many communities have laws that criminalize activities homeless people need to do in public to survive including: sitting or lying down, loitering or loafing eating or sharing food, asking for money or panhandling, sleeping in cars and outside or camping.  The cost of criminalizing homelessness is high. Anti-homeless legislation results in homeless people being arrested or fined, which makes it harder to find housing and jobs and access social services. Criminalizing homelessness does not solve homelessness and violates human rights. (Thanks to the website invisiblepeople.tv  for these examples.)

There is a real danger in not rising to these challenges.  Whether we choose to admit it or not, the dire financial emergency of the late 1920s and early 1930s brought us close to a revolution if the provisions of the New Deal had not been enacted.  The desperation of the great number of people with their resources vanished was a powder keg, and the principal reason behind it was concentration of capital.  Other periods in our recent history could have produced similar results.  We are not out of the woods yet.  If the disturbing and ever-increasing trend towards concentration of capital continues, the super-rich—and the rest of us along with them—will fall off the edge.  Adam Smith’s invisible hand will see to that.  And then what will we do?

We can’t afford to:

  • Tolerate a socio-economic order which increasingly rewards the rich and allows the poor to suffer.  Efforts toward balance and equity come from sources other than the public  initiative of the New Deal, G.I. Bill, and Economic Recovery Acts. 
  • Participate in a world trade system which has become a race to the bottom as the poor are exploited in the manufacture of cheaply produced consumer goods.  Progress has come  from enlightened business interests as well as the growing “third stream” of benevolent social organizations such as the World Council of Credit Unions, OXFAM, World Vision, Food for the Poor, and agencies of the United Nations, to name a few.
  • Allow vast swathes of the corporate structure to avoid or pay greatly reduced taxes.  The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 changed the corporate tax rate from the traditional and accepted 35% to a flat 21%, yet many do not even pay that.
  • Continue to delay and obstruct renewable energy development, not only for the reduction of global warming, but to spur progress toward the new technology which always results in employment opportunity and prosperity.
  • Allow a poorly educated society with little opportunity to become a poor, violent, angry society.
  • Tolerate the highest prison population in the world (often enriching private operators) without addressing the root causes and providing a means where the colossal waste of human potential leads to dead-end lives and denies their families and our society the benefits of what they could produce.
  • Perpetuate a broken mental health system which fails to re-route people into productive lives before they become homeless, imprisoned, or irreparably damaged.
  • Remove both the “safety net” of wage, unemployment, medical, and retirement guarantees (among others) which produce a secure society, free to achieve their potential and to live free from illness and poverty.  Here we can learn from the example of other developed countries, rather than thinking that we have all the answers.  This, it should be noted, is possible by both public and private means and includes support for business (especially small business) as well as for employee groups and individuals.   

In our hands are both growth and death for us to choose, and the question for us to answer is what can we afford not to do?

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