There are those who can afford airline tickets and laptops, and those who can’t. I’m talking about the 1% vs. the 99% — the global 1%, that is. The funny thing is, the global 1% includes just about everyone in the U.S. who’s protesting against our own national “1%.”
Concerned members of the global 1% think about the world’s problems in a radically different way from the 99%. Conscious one-percenters believe the whole problem is simple: Too Much Stuff. This is not new. The anti-stuff religion of the global 1% in America can be traced back through the environmentalism of Schumacher, transcendentalism of Thoreau, hypocritical anti-commercialism of the Puritans all the way back to the asceticism of medieval Christianity. In the Internet Era, it is represented by a YouTube video: Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff.”
The 99%, on the other hand, do not subscribe to the the anti-Stuff religion (or YouTube channel). They want more stuff. They want what we, the global 1%, already take for granted: laptops to access Internet; plane tickets to see the world; air conditioners for when it’s 115 degrees in the shade; heaters for winter; roofs for rain; and, at the very least, clean water, proper sanitation and antibiotics so their babies stop dying.
Though I’m a member of the global 1%, I side with the 99%. I want the 99% to get its stuff. I know it’s scandalous, but I want there to be MORE STUFF in the world. And that means more industry to make it, ships and railroads to ship it, and big giant stores to distribute it!
A formative experience for me was living in a village where mothers expected to lose half the children they gave birth to. The primary killer: creek water. Now, if you’re a member of the global 1%, you probably know how humanity got access to clean water in the first place: Matt Damon brought it. Right? Well no, the answer is actually a lot less…handsome?
What happened was, governments went around and built water systems. But before they did that, they had to build the industries and infrastructure to make that possible. And, yes, in most countries it was the government — simply because, just like in poor countries today, business did not see a profit in doing it.
To simplify: How did we get clean water? Factories. Steel mills. Railroads. Industry — big, giant industrial industry! To the global 1%, however, that all sounds icky.
Recently, a friend broke out in unrestrained laughter when I said the world needs more factories. To her, factories are right up there with land mines and child molesters on the list of things humanity has too many of. She said, “Convert the factories into some kind of community spaces — art spaces!” This is in fact the consensus attitude toward factories among my friends in the global 1%.
Yet almost everything she, you and I wear, eat, ride, fly, use and live in was made in factories. As she laughed at me, her face was illuminated by the glow of her top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, produced across hundreds of global factories. The lid of the MacBook was adorned with political stickers, produced in factories. The wine we were drinking too: made in factories. As were our wine glasses, chairs, table and the building that was suspending us several stories above the streets of the poor country where we were having the conversation.
The global 1% consumes ridiculously more stuff per capita than the global 99%. And it is true: if everyone consumed like the 1% using today’s technology, the planet would be toast. This leaves us two options:
1) The global 1% can scale its consumption back to the level of, say, a poor Bangladeshi farmer; or,
2) We can revamp the world’s means of production to make it clean and efficient enough so that everyone can have laptops, plane tickets, health care, food, drinking water and the rest, without trashing the planet and boiling the oceans.
Among the one-percetner preachers of the anti-stuff religion, I’ve yet to meet any willing to live like the 99%. Once, I sat next to the <i>Story of Stuff’s</i> Annie Leonard on a panel. In her video she throws away her iPod. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that she was carrying and iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro with her. (Maybe they were loaners — I didn’t have the nerve to ask.)
We, the global 1%, ain’t going back. Therefore, unless you’re some kind of fascist who believes in permanently blocking the rest of the world from getting the same stuff that you enjoy — then you will agree that it is time to get to work on Option #2: Remaking and expanding global industry from top to bottom.
Here’s some great news: every single rich country in the world — of which there are now dozens — has already radically remade its economy — most of them several times over. Thus, it has been proven the industrial makeovers are possible, even if the purpose in the past was usually not environmental (though here and there recently it has been), there’s no reason that can’t be the aim of future make-overs.
The U.S. completely rebuilt and expanded its industry for World War II. Western Europe, China and Japan did it right after WWII. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and several other countries did it even more recently. China and a few other countries are doing it right now. But this phenomenon goes way back — in the modern era all the way to Henry VII who arguably kick-started capitalism by ordering the creation of Britain’s textile industry to compete against Holland’s.
In other words, intentionally rebuilding your economy is normal. Countries do it all the time. Even America! It’s time to do it again.
The only problem is that over the past few generations, every thought that would make it possible to think about how to intentionally rebuild our economy has been hunted down and killed — by hunters like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, F.A. Hayek, Margaret Thatcher, Frederik Mises, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman. The right wing of that group fight against intentional rebuilding with great care and concern, because they see that as their historic mission. The left of the group, however, will just laugh at you if you suggest rebuilding — a much more effective attack.
Even way back in the New Deal, most of these thoughts had already been killed off. Most of FDR’s kitchen cabinet was already against stuff and factories. They believed in building infrastructure (like electrification), but understood the cause of the Depression to be overproduction, and thus did not expect or work to see industry expand. It all became moot when WWII saved the American economy by forcing us to totally rebuild and massively expand industry.
Truth is, the neo-liberal genocide of economic ideas was just another turn of the wheel. Reasonable economic thoughts grow like weeds and must be mowed down every few generations.
Reasonable economic thinking is about to sprout again — simply because real wages in the U.S. have been consistently falling for 40 years. This has never happened before here. In the past, over a decade or two most poor people saw more of their neighbors getting swept up into prosperity than getting spit back out into poverty. For the past generation and a half, the reverse has been true.
We have come to the breaking point. But our ability to think our way to a solution is impaired thanks to the utterly devastating genocide of reasonable economic ideas by the neo-liberal revolution.
Tune in next time, and we’ll start resurrecting some of those lost ideas.