NEITHER A BORROWER NOR A LENDER BE
giving that advice today would be seen as deranged; but, as some oldies will
remember, such was once the received truth, as proclaimed by Founding Father Ben
Franklin (along with "Waste not, want not" and "A penny saved is
a penny earned").
The USA leads the world in its consumer and business borrowing and all kinds and
amounts of waste, damaging society and dangerous to human beings and other
creatures and the planet itself; and our savings rate is negative. Part of
that same unholy family is that among industrial countries we take first prize
for the numbers of children living in poverty and without health care.
course we also lead the world's nations in production, productivity, and
financial dazzle. How does that connect to the elements of the preceding
paragraph? As the thighbone is connected to the hipbone, and the hipbone
is connected to the backbone, and the backbone is connected to the headbone....
Put differently, the economy's "high" all too closely resembles that
of the coke addict: our economic "wellbeing" is squarely
dependent upon ever-rising and always more dangerous indebtedness and waste; but
in the absence of a much changed socioeconomy, not getting that "fix"
would send the U.S. economy reeling, and take the world down with it.
any addiction, this one becomes always more demanding: for its demands to
be met, more and more of its victim's world must be fed into its maw: in
the case of drugs, that means job, family, character, health; in the case of the
economy, it means the need for all sectors of social existence to be bent to the
needs of MORE! -- more production and consumption of junk, and more borrowing to
finance it -- borrowing by consumers and businesses at home, borrowing by the
U.S.A. at home and in the world economy.
quick look at developments since 1980:
In 1980, the year Reagan entered the White House, the national debt was just
over $900 billion; when he left it in 1989 it had tripled to $2.8 trillion; in
Bush's years it rose to just under $5 trillion.
In 1980, ours was the largest creditor country in the world economy's history;
by 1989 we had become history's largest debtor, a debt now about $2 trillion.
In 1978 household debt as a percentage of consumers' after-tax income was 62
percent; now it is over 100 percent.
Recently, corporations have been borrowing heavily to buy back their own stock
to provide all those fabulous stock options to CEOs and others and to finance
mergers and acquisitions, and, most interesting of all, to finance buybacks
which, by reducing the number of their shares outstanding, inflate earnings per
share (e.g., $14.2 billion of such buybacks by IBM in the past two years /NYT
6/4/00, "What's Hiding in Big Blue's Small Print"/). Moreover,
financial companies are accelerating their "repackaging" of loans in
order to "resell" them as bonds and notes -- that is, borrowing on
outstanding debt so they can lend and spend more -- a process whose magnitude
has risen from $2.4 trillion in 1989 to $7 trillion in 1999. In sum, as
between government, consumers, and business, biz takes the prize for financial
recklessness. And why not? When (not if) it all turns sour it's not
the wise guys who made those decisions who'll get the stomach aches, but
shareholders and workers, with ripples out to economy. No problem.
waste? We have to turn Franklin around: Waste, and want not.
Waste is the opposite of efficiency; and both terms beg to be defined. In
doing so, it is essential to begin by understanding that there is no
"scientific" definition. To set the stage, an assertion:
"Capitalism has been simultaneously the most efficient AND the most
wasteful productive system in history." How so? As so
often for social analysis, it depends on the focus, on the questions being
mainstream economists speak of "efficiency" -- put forth as the prime
virtue of the "free market economy" -- they have reference to
"input-output" relationships in a particular plant. In doing so
in our vastly wasteful economy, they are (in the words of Matthew, 23:24)
"straining at a gnat, and swallow/ing/ a camel."
the focus shifts, say, from a particular automobile plant which is marvelously
efficient, to the economic (and other) consequences of the marketing and uses of
the automobile, what we find are immense amounts of wasted labor, capital
equipment and natural resources -- and time, the time wasted in congested
traffic -- and an equally immense contribution to air pollution (and its
associated costs). In varying forms, such waste is found throughout the
economy: the planned obsolescence of autos is joined by that of many
consumer durables (the new champion now the computer), as is their massive
advertising and packaging (98 percent of the cost of toothpaste, for example,
goes to packaging, advertising, and profits); and agriculture sustains itself by
restricting production, as does much of manufacturing and mining. And then
there is the obscene waste of the military-industrial complex (now spending more
/inflation adjusted/ than in the Reagan years), whose sustenance requires the
sustenance of the cold war mentality, with all of its sociopolitical
most tragic of all that is wasted is labor -- that which is unemployed,
under-employed and, not least, stupidly employed. It is not as though
those affected will have another life in which to find their capabilities, and
use them. And here we refer only to those in the rich countries; ponder a
moment on what has been taken from, done to, and disallowed for most of the
people on the planet since the advent of "capitalist efficiency,"
in the foregoing is a definition of waste: that which serves no meaningful
human or social purpose. Such a definition -- any definition -- raises as
many questions as it answers. Who defines "meaningful," or
"purpose"? It is defined for us, in our economy, by those who
control it. That means, mostly, the largest companies, domestic and
transnational, whose political power is roughly proportionate to their economic
power: naturally, which extends their control beyond the
economy. Their definition of "meaningful human or social
purpose" is simple: that which feeds their profits and their
power. Take it or leave it.
then there is destructive waste, its prime movers and beneficiaries, and its
victims. Most who read these words know most or all -- or more -- of
what has been and now will be said here. It's important enough to repeat,
to carve in stone beads, and to say those beads over and over again -- as we
organize and fight -- until we have rid ourselves and the earth of ongoing and
lamentations about the air, the water, the soil, the forests, the disappearance
or threat to flora and fauna in general, the damages done to workers and
consumers and unlucky residents by toxic emissions, the constant threat from
nuclear wastes -- what a filthy laundry list! -- if all those lamentations had
just begun, say, in the 1990s, that would be sufficent cause for alarm.
Rachel Carson, by no means the first to sound the alarm, wrote Silent Spring in
1962; William Kapp wrote his Social Costs of Private Enterprise in 1950.
Those who developed nuclear energy (and weapons) knew from the first the dangers
entailed (many even worried that the first bomb test in 1945 might go all the
way; but went ahead). And asbestos companies long knew the dangers of
their production to their workers and consumers. And cigarette
manufacturers? Don't esk.
short, those rule us didn't get there by their wisdom but by their ceaseless and
heedless search for profits and power, come what may. The time has come --
once more! as always! -- for ordinary people not just to take thought about what
this ongoing system has meant and means to peoples all over the earth, whether
in rich or poor countries, but also to stop wasting time and get more political,
stop borrowing in order to buy "what we have been taught to want" and
start getting our country to provide what it and we and the rest of the world's
time has come, as Lincoln put it in his day, "to disenthrall
ourselves" -- which, translated for our day, to get off our asses, stop
wasting time, and build a movement that shoves those at the top off to the
side. Or what are we?