The votes that matter

I’m writing this on the morning after Thanksgiving.   Before the mood fades, I’ll murmur a quick word of thanks for The New York Times.  In an era of dying print dailies, the Times continues offering excellent national and international news; extensive reportage on the arts, entertainment, and books; great sports coverage (including hometown coverage of the lamentable Jets); and the best op-ed page in print.  

One factual item in this piece comes by way of Nicholas Kristof, a Times columnist with far more time and access to research than a full-time grad student writing for a county weekly.   The argument of this piece, however, is my own.  Complaints should be addressed care of the Village News.

A week before Election Day, the irrelevance of American politics came home with a vengeance.  By hitting America’s media center – Manhattan – SuperStorm Sandy declared, in terms impossible to ignore, the clear and present danger presented  by our rapidly changing climate.  An issue which never arose during the presidential campaign forcibly established its priority on the nation’s agenda.

Of  course, not everyone – not even everyone in the devastated areas of New Jersey and New York – will concede the “inconvenient truth” of what the scientific community has been telling us for decades.  But then, there were people in Britain and America arguing  that Hitler was “just another politician” as his armies captured Paris.

So long as this planet has humans living on it, we will always have our deniers and our cranks.

The rest of us have serious work to do.  

Global climate change is one of several enormous challenges already reshaping the world in which we live.

Peak energy is another such challenge.  Despite the discovery of new deposits of oil and natural gas – and the deployment of radical and reckless technologies to extract petrochemicals from tar sands and deep rock – the rapid rise of demand in East and South Asia guarantees that demand will outstrip supply, resulting in rapidly rising prices for conventional forms of energy.

In our own country, there’s a worrying increase in the disparity of wealth.  In a recent column, Kristof  cited statistics indicating that the top one percent of Americans now control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Think about that because, like me, you’re very likely in that “bottom” 90 percent.

The prosperous and growing middle class – which propelled America’s rise to global power in the mid-20th century – is seriously at risk.  If the rich and powerful maintain control of our political system – and continue using that control to change the rules to benefit themselves and their heirs – we’re at real risk of losing the America we have known.

And then, of course, there’s the rise of China as our global economic, political and military rival.

None of these trends – climate change, peak energy, the endangered middle class or the rivalry of China – was inevitable.  Even now, none is absolutely irreversible.  But the way forward will require us to re-examine many of the assumptions we grew up with – whether we grew up in the 1950s or the 1990s.

We could start by recognizing the need to redefine the way we think about economics.

Almost without exception, Americans identify with capitalism, broadly defined.  But capitalism has not always meant what it means today.  When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he described capitalism in terms of “free markets” – which, by definition, meant a system in which many small enterprises competed for customers and dollars (or, for Smith, shillings, pounds and guineas).

Published in 1776, Smith’s magnum opus described an emerging system which could increase wealth and improve society’s ability to provide necessities and basic comforts to people still living in agrarian poverty.

In 2012, capitalism has evolved into a system – not for providing people with necessities and basic comforts – but for marketing to consumers  an endless stream of new, “improved” and essentially unnecessary stuff, most of which will shortly end up in closets, attics, storage units and landfills.  

The creation and transport of this stuff – mostly from Asia – enriches a few large corporations, while funneling increasing numbers of Americans into part-time retail jobs without benefits.  

Under modern capitalism – “consumer capitalism” – America no longer makes things and grows rich.  It borrows in order to buy things, and grows poor – while enriching our global rivals.

In the process consuming vast amounts of energy, thus contributing to global climate change.

The challenge facing us is to develop a new capitalism based on thrift and sustainability.  Our politicians gave us no opportunity to vote for this change at the polls, but between now and Christmas, we have an opportunity to vote with our dollars.  

Think about that before you go online or rush off to the mall.  

Every dollar we spend is a vote for a certain kind of future.  What sort of future are you voting for?


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