Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Poverty seems to be an economic phenomenon, and we notice it by its hallmark of material want.  But this is an illusion.  

Consider:  Henry VII of England could afford neither an air condition for hot days nor oil-furnace central heating for cold days;  He could not afford a CD player for his favorite music, nor a TV.  Most Americans can afford this much, and more.  So:  Was he poor?  Of course not.  

Less dramatically, when I was traveling in India a couple of decades ago, it occurred to me that if the poor of America could move to India with their incomes, they would be modestly well off.  But of course that could not happen, and it does not work that way.  Instead they have to live in America and be subject, because of material want, to daily contempt.  The expressing and receiving of contempt is the whole point.  

Poverty is the natural compliment to wealth.  When some members of a society manage to have assigned to themselves special value in that society, greater than other members, and then arrange to have that status marked by the accumulation of material goods and the material deprivation of others, then we have wealth and poverty.  

Wealth/poverty is a single thing, and America we have a very, very great wealth/poverty.  

The opposite of wealth/poverty is prosperity, where no member of society is greatly valued above another, and where there is no great material accumulation and deprivation.  Whereas wealth/poverty focuses on accumulation/deprivation, prosperity focuses on maintaining a material flow.  

Are many Americans in material distress?  Sure, as the recent events in New Orleans makes vivid.  I don't mean the hurricane damage, per se, though that was one thing.  Rather, Katrina pulled back the veil.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 09:55:17 PM EST
And I would add to material distress, physical distress.  Many people do die here for want of food, want of shelter, want of medical care.  Many, many more are involved in a daily struggle for survival -- to keep their shelter or their kids fed.  This struggle is no less desperate because they happened to acquire a tv along the way.

But I find your point about wealth/poverty being a single thing to be interesting.  What is the road from this to prosperity?  Because it seems we did do it quite well at one point.

I've often argued that from where we are now, we cannot "fix" the bottom without making some changes at the top.  Things are too unbalanced.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 10:57:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What is the road from this to prosperity?  

A hard question.  At this point Americans frankly prefer wealth/poverty.  Long ago we were sold on the idea that if everyone was getting more goodies (or enough people, or the right people) then ever-increasing disparities didn't matter.  But this is not true, and is the greatest underlying cause of the destruction of American democracy now.  

And the pallative of goodies has run to its end.  Our civilization simply cannot keep producing more goodies.  We have hit the end of the road, and people have gone into the bland--and blind--denial that precedes panic.  Our near future includes a period of chaos and what might be described as collapse.  The only analogy I can find is the Great Depression, but this will surely be worse, as the Great Depression was a breakdown of the banking system solely.  There were no real shortages, only obstacles to distribution.  This time shortages will be real.  People will feel poorer, worse, there will be real distress as panic leads to hording and all manner of unhelpful behaviors.  What lies beyond is fairly opaque, except for some obvious constraints:  It will have to be sustainable.  

Sustainability has already been consistently rejected by Americans in favor of accelerated consumption.  Right now there are still plenty of SUVs on the road, and even humvees.  From one perspective, it does not matter much--making cars more efficient (for example, switching to hybrids) will not bring us to a sustainable economy.  But on the other hand, it is a clear expression of mood:  Many Americans don't want a balanced way of life and are willing to go the route of self-destruction.  Americans are like addicts.  This is the basic problem.  

Twelve-step programs often work for addicts who want to recover.  The idea of an entire nation undertaking such a spiritual recovery is daunting.  

It is seeming to me that the powers that be--a tiny wealthy subclass of Americans that actually runs this country--is either monumentally stupid or is looking forward to a scenerio that involves massive population die-off.  The looting of the public infrastructure (de-funding of schools, public health, &c) is a clear sign that the nation is to be destroyed, and more recently the responses to hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the (grossly useless) preparations for the looming bird flu, dispel any doubt--Americans can expect constructive actions from neither national government nor the corporate world.  The model that I hold with right now is that the powers-that-be are looking forward to a depopulated, feudalized North America with themselves in control and enjoying such material amenities as still exist.  

Watching the Democratic Party this summer has led me to the conclusion that there are no political means for altering America's course.  Their is no organized political opposition to the course of destruction.  There are rearguard battles to be fought, but they are that--rear guard.  The environment will deteriorate, the economy will decline until some point is reached when the whole charade can not be maintained.  After that, the future is just opaque.  

Eventually, Americans will come around to a sustainable way of life.  That entails accepting a new, sustainable way of thinking.  Capitalist economics is not such a way, and it will go before recovery can begin.  The big open question is how long it will take to come around to a new state of mind, and how many people will die, and how much suffering there will have to be before Americans are willing to change.  I suspect a lot.  

Will all this lead to the choice of prosperity?  I hope so, but I can think of no solid theoretical reason why it has to.  It is possible that the population of North America will fall to within the continent's carrying capacity without any change in the desire to create wealth/poverty.  This is one of the worse scenerios.  

Still, prosperity might be chosen.  What would help bring it about?  Some local regions seem suited right now to beginning the change to sustainability, through the activities of community non-government/ non-business groups.  The building of local infra-structure around energy, food, and water seems to be the key.  We are going to need solidly practical efforts.  Right now we are working on the dissemination of concepts that will make this possible later.  

Learning how to be a community is a necessity, and an obstacle.  Consumerism is a mental disease that isolates people and degrades constructive thought.  So many people I know, including friends, are simply asleep.  They do what the television tells them, if that.  They make very poor survival prospects.  

The archaeology of past civilizations tells me not to be optimistic.  By the mid 1970's Americans knew it was time to change the materialism of their way of life, to think about how to be more efficient and less wasteful.  They refused.  Reagan's "morning in America" campaign was the embracing of fantasy and the embodiment of refusal.  That likely was the point at which a "soft-landing" for our civilization was precluded.  If there was room for doubt then, by 2000 the matter was settled.  We are going down hard.  I doubt prosperity can occur in my lifetime, though in a sense, there is nothing else to do but try for it.  And anyway, concrete attempts that succeed will be the basis for survival in the near and mid-range future.  

This post is much too long.  One basic change that is easy to state:  Capitalism quite literally concerns itself with the needs of money, not of the people who inhabit the economy.  A humane economy for a nation must value all of its members and explicitly seek ways for them to get what they need.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 04:28:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is, quite simply, one of the most cogent and illuminating comments I've ever read on any blog. Thank you for explaining in such direct and simple terms the fundamental condundrum facing not just the USA, but the entire capitalist world right now. And no, I'm not a commie. But this is why I am a Green - they are the only party in my country (Aus) that gets this.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow
by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 06:20:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When do you expect this downturn to occur?  Will we see this in measurements such as the GDP?
by wchurchill on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 07:18:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The timetable of the down-turn is, of course, a very intense question.  

Most bloggers, I mean the ones who actually look at the numbers, think we have two to five years.  But Ian Welsh, who posts on the main page at The Blogging of the President 2004, wrote last summer that the economic crash for the US would come in about a year and a half or so.  

From The Wilderness does not venture a timeline, but keeps a running track of clues and signposts--mostly news items relating to peak oil.  There are plenty of those.  

Jim Kuntsler recently blogged on an article in the New York Times about a developer named Toll and the unlimited market for homes in New Jersey.  The telling point, not mentioned in the NYT article, is that Toll himself is cashing out.  This suggests that although the housing bubble is peaking right now, the pop won't come for some months, as the last of the sucker trade is still to be sold their new homes.  After the pop, the general down-turn cannot be many months away, as people get trapped in their mortgages and enter financial distress.  

A year ago my dreams were telling me it would come early next summer.  This seemed awfully soon, but since Katrina and Rita I no longer really doubt it.  

Or again, it could happen tomorrow, for reasons nobody forsees.  

The main thing is not to count on a timeline, but to make preparations that do no depend strongly on when it happens, but that deal with the what of it.  Chavez has moved his assets out of dollars--for his own reasons--and so should you, at least partly, as a safety net, and certainly before the housing pop.  Into what?  That gets a bit murky.  FTW likes gold.  Many people are guessing euros.  I have not decided what I think will have value when the dollar turns to trash.  Food, water, tobacco, and whiskey, I suppose, but how much wealth can you store that way (assuming you have any)?  Drugs, for sure, if you are willing to go that route.  

A warning:  If you live in the US an executive order has already been signed allowing for seizure of your gold, food, water, and valuables.  Yes it is illegal, but that won't matter a bit--even without the new Supreme Court judges.  It does show, though, that they have been thinking ahead, despite their bumbling (some of which is intentional).  

Nobody will be worrying about the GDP.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Thu Oct 20th, 2005 at 09:54:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]


Top Diaries

Impeachment gets real

by ARGeezer - Jan 17

A Final Warning

by Oui - Jan 10

Environment Anarchists

by Oui - Jan 13

Occasional Series