Geodesic Dome (Buckminster Fuller)

The other day I went for my annual physical. A few days later the doctor called me to tell me that all my tests looked good, and that in fact my cholesterol and blood pressure had gone down. As the doctor knew, for the past several months I had been struggling with asthma, andeven the day I saw him I was experiencing shortness of breath. So I said to him: “Well, if my tests are so great, why do I feel so lousy?” I thought to myself, my health can’t be found in the numbers indicated by blood tests; he is looking at the wrong indicators.

It seems to me the same thing could be said about how we look at our economic health as a nation: we are looking at the wrong indicators.

Like many concerned persons I have been paying close attention to the debates taking place at both the federal and state (in my case, PA) level regarding government budgets. I have taken time to read perspectives on all sides of the debate. I’ve also written all my representatives and the governor about my concern that balancing budgets by reducing essential services to low income people and students while not raising taxes on corporations and  wealthy persons was fundamentally unjust. In two cases I received full letters back: from Rep. Bill Adolph, ranking Republican on the PA State House appropriations Committee; and Sen. Pat Toomey, U.S. Senator, also a Republican. In both cases it is as if we were talking past one another; I was saying we can’t take money from the poor and the young, they were saying we don’t have enough money so we have to make cuts.

In response to my suggestion to raise taxes on the wealthy, Rep. Adolph said it was unconstitutional in PA, which I found interesting – by law we can’t tax the wealthy more. I wonder who pushed for that law. Hmmm!

Senator Toomey wrote:

“I understand your support for government assistance to those in need. Such assistance programs can be very important for lower income Pennsylvanians, and I value your input. Assistance programs aside, I believe that Congress also must advance policies that help spur economic growth, put more people to work, and generate prosperity for all Americans.” [Reading between the lines Toomey is giving justification for why he opposes any new taxes on the wealthy and corporations, a position on which he has taken a strong public stand.]

These two responses indicate that the game is rigged to protect the interests of the wealthy by “law” and by an imperative called “creating jobs.” Moreover, both are justifications are based on catch phrases like economic necessity, putting people back to work, and balancing the budget. Now I don’t mean to suggest that those phrases have no meaning, but they are not getting to the root issue. At best they are a smoke screen.

Ever since Ronald Reagan was president, political decision-makers both Democrat and Republican have operated under the assumption that as business goes, so goes the nation. In that 30-year period manufacturing jobs have left the country in droves as businesses took them elsewhere. The businesses have flourished, and their shareholders (until 2008) made a bundle, but workers were left scrambling. Moreover, the Congress passed laws like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that made it easier for companies to move their operations outside the U.S. where labor, environmental and safety standards are less stringent. Meanwhile a relatively small elite (1-2%) have gotten incredibly wealthy, even getting the government to bail out their banks and companies while millions of people lost their pensions, savings and homes.

What we need is a new way of thinking of economics, in the words of Fritz Schumacher “economics as if people really mattered.” Thirty years of top down, supply side economics that assumes that the wealthy will create jobs when we take less of their money has only gotten us is greater disparity.

Now I am not saying that we necessarily should tax the rich, what I am saying is that we are looking at the wrong measures. If you want to build a secure future, why not invest in the best public education system you can and provide access to college to as many students as possible, so that new ideas and new energies can create new opportunities? Why not make sure there is adequate health care, and that drug companies and HMOs can’t gouge customers even as they deny the most needy the care they deserve? Why not create housing options and public transportation that provides social and economic access to people regardless of their station in life? Why not develop an energy policy that funds and encourages renewable energy resources, while at the same time encouraign us and enabling us to simplify our lifestyles? What if our “bottom line” was the true indicators of social health rather some arbitrary number like an unemployment rate or a Dow Jones number?

It might mean we make different choices based on different values. We might have to cut back on our war efforts around the world, and tell the Lockheeds, Boeings, Halliburtons and the like that make their living on instruments of war that they need to get into a more life-giving business. Maybe it means we don’t give the oil companies tax breaks and kick backs, but instead say that your product, while presently necessary, is toxic and you need to come up with carbon-neutral ways to create energy if you are going to stay in business. Maybe we say to U.S. companies that after a certain point there is no foreign tax credit, and that in fact your abiity to sell products will be limited by the number of jobs you have removed from the country. Maybe will also say to the shareholders of those companies that your “bottom line” can no longer be solely the share price, but also  must include the degree to which both employees and local communities  are treated with justice.

Stephen Covey says “the way we see the problem is the problem.” My contention is that we are not looking at the problem correctly; we need new ways of thinking. Buckminister Fuller wrote: “You never change anything by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We have entered a new era; our ways of thinking are not working and we need to build a new model.”

The new ideas are already here. Economists are beginning to leave the old capitalism-socialism polarity and think in terms of “new economics.” Urban planners are developing more humane ways to build cities that are sustainable and livable. Urban farmers are growing crops on vacant lots, and rural farmers are using irrigation, composting and organic methods that produce food without destroying the earth. Engineers have developed ways to create, store and distribute energy at a fraction of the current cost financially and environmentally. The ideas are there, but the will is not because the special interests are protecting their fortunes in the name of “economic necessity” and “balancing the budget.” All one has to do is to think about how quickly money was found to bail out the “banks too big to fail” and how freely the money flows when the patriotic winds of war get stirred up. Then think about how these same decision-makers just can’t figure out how to find enough resources to adequately fund public schools, provide adequate health care, and work for a safe and clean environment.

The problem is not in the lack of funds; rather it is in our way of thinking – that is what has to change.