We’re living in strange times. On the one hand, the trend toward equality, acceptance, and accountability that can be traced from abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage through the civil rights movement, same-sex marriage equality, transgender equality, and #MeToo is continuing, weakening age-old patriarchal structures and giving me cause for hope.
On the other hand, we are living in a nation increasingly divided by hatred and fear, where ideologies and stereotypes metastasize in online echo chambers and dissenting voices are silenced. We can no longer even agree on simple facts, let alone compromise on questions of values. Our political systems are gridlocked, our infrastructure is decaying, and our collective response to looming crises such as climate change, dwindling fossil fuels, and topsoil loss has entered a pattern of public denial and blissful ignorance.
What is Going On?
In a phrase: systemic financial insecurity.
Roughly 50% of Americans cannot afford an unexpected $500 expense without incurring debt. This in a time when car repairs frequently cost $2000, an unexpected broken bone can cost $10,000, raising a child to adulthood costs around $200,000, and a comfortable retirement savings – with enough to cover assisted living and long-term care – approaches $1 million. We are a nation on the edge, surviving day to day with uncertainty filling both short-term and long-term horizons with anxiety. In this state we can’t bear to think about larger challenges like climate change, so we simply ignore them.
When we are feeling afraid, we have a tendency to protect ourselves, to put our family first, our self-identified communities first, our nation first. Fear is divisive; it is not at all coincidence that pre-war Syria, pre-war Germany, and perhaps a majority of pre-war states were marked by a high level of economic insecurity. We become suspicious of anyone who appears to be competing for our resources and vulnerable to propaganda that would blame immigrants, minorities, religions, or other nations for our woes. And there is plenty of such propaganda, released and encouraged by those who control the wealth (and the media), and who have much to lose should their prominent role in creating this situation come to light.
We have gone so far in our fear as to elect a master propagandist to lead our nation; one who is the very emblem of profligate wealth and who gives control of government to the richest of the rich while convincing those who are most insecure that he is their champion.
How Did We Get Here?
There have been books written on this subject; in being brief I will inevitably be incomplete, but I believe that the pattern is quite simple. In short:
- Commodification. With industrialization and improved transportation came economies of scale. The local blacksmith who made plowshares now had to compete with The American Plow Company, which cast uniform plowshares by the millions. Products that were previously custom-built or raised by craftspeople – from meat and vegetables to tools to furniture to garments – were mass-produced in assembly lines. The craftsfolk could no longer compete, and were forced to “get big or get out.” The commodification process has been happening for a long time – since our great-grandparents’ generation and before. By and large Americans survived the earlier phases of this transition in good financial shape, because the United States dominated global manufacturing and employed workers to build goods for the world.
- Globalization. More recently, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s with various free trade agreements, national commodities have become international commodities. This presents a problem because, for reasons of financial imbalance among nations and varying regulatory environments, farming and manufacturing in some nations is substantially cheaper than in others. In effect, the United States and Western Europe economically colonized much of the rest of the world, at huge cost to the citizens and cultures of the colonized countries. I’ll gloss over that for now because my focus is on United States citizens. The effect of globalization here was both to eliminate jobs as production moved overseas and to drive down wages in order to compete on a global playing field.
- Consumerism. We have been sold on the idea that we ought to buy as much stuff as we can afford, and that the only worthwhile criterion for differentiating otherwise-similar stuff is price. Thus we are in favor of commodification and globalization, even as we suffer for it.
- Wealth extraction. As more Americans cannot afford to buy homes and vehicles and to cover emergency expenses, we acquire debt. Debt that must be paid with interest. We pay rent to landlords for the privilege of having shelter. The interest and rent is, of course, collected by those who had extra money to invest. As economic growth stagnates (which is inevitable as we reach the carrying capacity of a finite planet), wealthy Americans are transitioning from investing in the stock market (which reflects to the economy as a whole) to investing in loans and real estate that extract wealth directly from those who are already economically insecure.
In one sense, we are all complicit in getting where we are, in that we are a democracy and we have allowed money to buy power. We have believed in “trickle-down” promises. We have often accepted our plight while idolizing the wealthy. We have looked up, toward those better-off, and aimed to get there ourselves without considering how our lives are already disadvantaging others. I feel this myself as a duplex owner; extracting money from poorer student renters in order to pay interest to the wealthy investors who own our home loan. We have accepted a tacit assumption that everybody could be as well-off as we are, and that if they are not then they have failed somehow, or they will get there someday. We have focused primarily on individual access to opportunity, while ignoring the systemic problem that a majority of the job/career opportunities now available do not pay enough to provide any semblance of financial security.
What Can We Do About It?
There is much that we can do locally, if we have the resources. We can choose to buy from local farmers, artists, and producers, even when cost is substantially higher. We can buy through local retailers rather than big box stores or online outlets. If we sell a good or service, we can offer a sliding scale to increase accessibility, or we can accept trades of goods or services in return for our own. In wealthier communities, with enough commitment, we can create thriving local economies and fairer compensation in the face of a broken national and global system.
However, to really effect change – and to help impoverished communities where few have enough wealth to vote with their wallets – we must change legislation at local, state, and national levels. There is much we can do; here are a few ideas:
- Universal Health Care. This one is a no-brainer, and is finally gathering enough political steam that it stands a chance at success. Every other developed country has some form of universal health care, while we in the United States pay three times more for care that is not functionally or qualitatively better, and in many cases we are forced to declare personal bankruptcy or to forego potentially life-saving treatments for lack of financial resources. Nearly every analysis agrees that we would pay less overall in a single-payer system, which would cut out a substantial amount of bureaucracy (i.e. administrative jobs that do not contribute to better health outcomes) while allowing elected officials to negotiate rates with providers in a transparent manner. Health care expenses (both skyrocketing premiums and unexpected injury/illness) are a leading cause of financial insecurity, and solving this would go a long way.
- Living Wage. It used to be that dirty and dangerous jobs in mines and factories paid enough to support a family. Now they barely pay enough to pay rent for one person. Rather than a federal minimum wage, we need a locally-variable minimum wage based on a minimum standard of living. I might propose enough to raise a child as a single parent while owning a vehicle and paying a mortgage on a modest house/rent on a modest apartment and not relying on any federal assistance programs. In places that might be double or more the current minimum wage. Such increases would shock the economy and drive inflation so would need to be implemented gradually, but any job that requires a full-time commitment ought to compensate workers sufficiently to live comfortably.
- Price Floors. Along with living wages, and especially in areas such as farming where many are self-employed and not earning a wage, price floors could be calculated as the lowest value for a product that allows its producers to earn a living wage. Price floors must be accompanied by a mechanism to manage overproduction; I won’t go into it here but Wendell Berry has some excellent examples of how that has been and could be done in an agricultural setting. Tariffs on imported goods become essential so that these do not undermine price floors and living wages for domestic producers. This may be the lone concept on which I agree with Mr. Trump, though I suspect he is only thinking about benefits for corporate leadership and privileging some industries at the expense of others. In the absence of legal price floors, voluntary ones could be established and marketed in much the same was as “fair trade” coffee and chocolate. Some consumers would willingly pay more to ensure that all workers in the chain of production are fairly compensated.
- Maximum Wage. A much more controversial idea; I believe strongly that no one person’s hour of work is worth indefinitely more than another’s. As a start, I would envision a maximum wage set at roughly ten times the minimum living wage, though the exact ratio could be adjusted. Trimming high wages and equivalent compensation (e.g. stock options) would make room for a rise in low-end wages without a proportional increase in product cost to the consumer.
- Flexible Working Hours. There is no divine rule that says every able adult needs to work 40 hours a week in order for society’s needs to be met. As jobs are lost to automation, we keep creating jobs – often fairly meaningless or unnecessary ones – in order to maintain full employment. Perhaps we will reach a state of automation in which we only need to work 25 hours a week on average. Would that be a problem? I envision pinning the federal work week to the unemployment rate such that when unemployment rises, working hours decrease until the unemployed workers are hired. When unemployment drops below a threshold, working hours could increase back to a cap at the current 40-hour week.
- Debt Forgiveness. There may come a time, in economic recession, when a large number of financially-insecure Americans are facing bankruptcy due to unpayable debts. Rather than allowing bankruptcy on an individual basis, it may be preferable (and much better for those indebted) to declare a partial debt jubilee, in which a percentage of all debt is simply wiped away. This represents a wealth redistribution from debt holders to debt owers (i.e. from the financially secure to the financially insecure), and it has historical precedent in a number of societies.
So…where to start? Bernie Sanders had the right idea in many ways, though he is too old to really lead a movement. I’m a personal fan of Tulsi Gabbard or Tammy Duckworth as presidential options. But it’s not only about a president, and we can’t invest too much hope in a political savior. We need to build a movement on all political levels. We can’t ignore the atrocities of the Trump administration, but we also can’t let his wham-bang shock doctrine tweetstorm distract us from building a coherent strategy in time for the next election cycle. We don’t need to allow the current government to set the terms and acceptable limits of debate; we can elect a new Congress that will change the terms entirely.
Women are wise in many ways, less willing to accept the winner-take-all, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, “individual responsibility” story that is parroted as an excuse for the status quo. I’m hopeful that the rise of women with #MeToo and #TimesUp will bring about a corresponding influx of feminine wisdom into political discourse.
The news – in the various national media sources – is not fake, no matter how much some would like to believe it. We have not stooped to that level, and I hope that we don’t. The news is, however, selective. Advertisers and media moguls alike belong to the privileged classes, and we can expect that movements to reclaim wealth and power for the masses will receive biased coverage or no coverage at all. For that reason we need to create unbiased media outlets, carefully moderated and purged of conspiracy-type or speculation-based stories but also not beholden to corporate money.
Things seem to be getting worse at present, but as long as we maintain our democracy – one person, one vote – then we stand a chance of driving change for the better. I haven’t been especially politically active to date, but I’m thinking it might be time to change that, to raise my voice and help to build a chorus demanding a nation in which Americans are truly free. Not just free from foreign invasion and government incursion into daily lives, but free from the anxiety of not knowing where the next rent payment will come from, free from choosing between food and essential medical care, free from living from paycheck to paycheck at age 60 and doubting if retirement will ever be a possibility.