Monday, February 13, 2012

Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?

Rethinking the way we live in a finite world

One of Jay's Murals
How ironic that the very virtues which made us wealthy as individuals and societies – hard work, ever expanding productivity and turnover -are the very ones which are likely to bring us undone as a species.
I had a lecturer at university who had originally trained as a leisure consultant because in the 80’s it was feared that with increasing automation, untold numbers of people would be left idle with no idea as to what to do with themselves.  It could have been the Golden Age. People could have pursued the Arts, new music, new forms of creativity and entertainment, new Knowledge upon which to create new industries and new forms of finding value and satisfaction from doing the work in society which needed doing, especially as the advent of the personal computer could have made all knowledge available to all. Indeed, there was a brief Utopian flowering as people experimented with other ways of living, then something horrible happened.
First came the oil shocks, then Margaret Thatcher and the economic rationalists and then the Decade of Greed. After that we had globalisation, downsizing and ‘offshoring.” As the old systems of enslavement were reinforced with renewed vigour, only a few benefitted from the great wealth generated thereby. Was it deliberate? I lean towards a conspiracy of greed but I am also reminded of Hanlon’s Razor. “Never attribute to conspiracy that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.”   

Whatever the reasons, instead of a Golden Age where all prospered, we all had to run even faster on the treadmill so as not to be left to rot on the sidelines. Our relationships suffered. Our families suffered. Our community lives declined. No one was happier, except perhaps the 1% who profited from all that extra work. Now we have more people who are poor and more people who are homeless and many more who cannot afford reasonable standards of medical care or education. How can this benefit society in general? As we use our remaining resources faster and faster, can we think of some ways to stop the race? Or at least slow down so that we can stop and think? Should we really be having some people working twelve hour shifts when others cannot obtain employment at all?

Our present lifestyles are not an accident or a generous gift handed down by benevolent employers. They had to be fought for and won at law by people uniting and forming unions, often at great personal sacrifice. All businesses endeavour to reduce costs and to externalise the negative effects they cause such as pollution, noise, environmental degradation and occupational diseases and more recently their impact on climate and social life.  Since we all suffer the consequences to varying degrees, those industries which engage in material throughput should be heavily taxed especially those involving the extraction of non -renewable resources.  If this makes such goods more expensive and less affordable, so much the better, since they will then last considerably longer. Those industries which contribute to environmental improvement – solar power, wind generation etc. and socially necessary work – clean water, health education, care of children and the elderly etc. should enjoy heavy subsidies, while neutral industries such as services, which do not have an environmental impact, should be neither restrained nor advanced.  

Had we not had taxation we would not have the quality of life which we do now – hospitals, roads, age pensions, education, sanitation, protection at law, green space. We should not be emulating those countries which have none of those things, but the other way around. Nor should we trade with them, since the playing field will always be uneven. Nor did the 'goodies' magically trickle down  because of the 'invisible hand' or the benevolence of  employers. They only trickled down because of the threat of revolution (and reality in France, Russia and China)  on the one hand, and the force of law on the other. Had we not had the International Harvester Decision in Australia in 1907, we would still all be working for slave wages too.
Any shortfall in public money should come from a tax on Capital flows – The Tobin Tax, the Robin Hood Tax or whatever you want to call it and from other forms of unearned income. The already wealthy should be proud to be able to contribute to a saner and more secure society. To work for its own sake should no longer be regarded as a virtue, but as a form of psychosis in need of treatment and remedial therapy. We must find new ways for people to find validation as human beings.
Certainly, the power and authority given to economics in its dominant form must be re-examined and exposed for the false premises it contains. War, crime, accidents, disasters and social breakdown should never count as a plus in any nation’s balance sheet and we must find more enlightened ways to balance it.
I just found an aritcle by Ross Gittins in the National Times that agrees with me - always nice and there are signs that at least in some places, the peasants are revolting. 

The Germans at Volkswagen are banning work related emails outside working hours (Sorry, this link no longer works [http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/business-it/vw-agrees-to-kick-the-crackberry-habit-20111227-1pb39.html]). The Brazilians have sensibly decided that they should at least be paid overtime for answering them after hours. In Australia, the Greens are pushing for more flexible working hours. Meanwhile Norway currently leads the world on the Human Development Index and is keeping partial control of its oil industry so it can retain the capital from its windfall profits for the future. In terms of social welfare and foresight it is a far better role model (especially for smaller countries), than the USA. Incidentally, it also treats its prison population far more humanely.
Others are speaking out.  Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security, University of Bath has just written a  book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) in which he describes an emergent class consisting “…of millions of people who live in chronic insecurity, feeling underemployed yet overwhelmed by pressures on their time and resources.” The “… victims of the class fragmentation globalisation has produced, with the growth of an elite of absurdly rich individuals.”

So what alternatives are there? The Venus Project ponders what the future could be like, if the resources and scientific knowledge we possess today were applied directly to the problems of the world and society, rather than the relentless pursuit of profit.
Although this challenges some of our most cherished assumptions and I can see problems in implementation and of the 'Animal Farm'* kind , I have signed the petition .The-future-that-Humanity-Deserves/ because it is definitely an idea worth considering in the interests of having any kind of future at all.



* For you Gen xs and Ys, "Animal Farm," written in 1946 by George Orwell (of 1984 fame)  foresaw that the idealism of the Russian Revolution would turn into the totalitarian regime that it became where the new masters were just as evil  and power hungry as the ones they had overthrown.

See also the interesting interview with Huxley in 1958. His  concerns about threats to freedom, including overpopulation, are just as valid today and, although he talks about television, he could just as well have been talking about the internet.

More bank bashing. Profits are up, interest rates are up but 900 more workers are out of a job
http://www.smh.com.au/business/anz-to-cut-1000-jobs-20120213-1t0uc.html
and what people are doing about it:
http://www.smh.com.au/business/social-media-may-open-new-antibank-front-20120213-1t18i.html
See petitions do have an effect!

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