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Return to
June 2012
front page


Is it the Economy? Or more than
the Pharaohs Might Embrace?

On the one hand, the politics of today are viewed as pretty petty and leave many of us disgusted with it all. On the underhand, others wonder how grand larceny and a money grab can be petty. Overall there is not a lot of excitement seeing how entrenched many Congressmen are about getting their way no matter how it affects others.

This can be, however, an exciting and rare time of evaluation, if we can redefine who we want to be as a society. For instance, should our representatives represent most of us, or a few of us? Essentially the debate often comes down to our ethics.

One of the interesting things about how our economic system has evolved is that most of the challenges we talk about now are not new. The issues come with having capitalism or a free market economic system and have been there since the beginning.

Whether it was switching from the ox to the plow horse, which made plowing about 30% more efficient, or switching from craftsmen to manufacturing, there’s always been the process of adjusting to greater efficiency.

Moving in the direction of finding easier, more efficient ways to do things that saves labor has been an ongoing process. None of us want to go back to hauling buckets of water —but efficiency always has consequences too. Oxen, bucket makers and those who carry buckets aren’t in big demand these days.

Imagine how it was before capitalism. People were slaves and did what they did because of tradition. You were a baker because your father and grandfather were bakers and people probably called you Baker.

There was job security, such as it was. In good times and bad, serfs received food and board from their lords. The idea of land ownership or hiring yourself out for wages hadn’t come in yet. It was interesting too that wealth came from having power, not the other way around. Now we consider that those with money to be powerful, smart, and give them all kinds of traits they may not really embody.

When changes started happening in the 16th Century it must have been chaotic. Sometimes it was gradual and other times quick and dramatic. For a while many feudal lords simply evicted the serfs when they found it more profitable to raise sheep. In one case, 15,000 tenants were evicted from one estate and replaced with 130,000 sheep.

The process and reasons varied. Maybe it was simply that the sheep were less trouble. Maybe the serfs were demanding doctors, i.e., a new health care system. Given the times, maybe the sheep simply smelled better.

Eventually systems of land ownership, the ability to hire your labor and skills out for wages, to change jobs, to form contracts and monetary systems evolved. This took place in the region of the old Roman Empire after its collapse, not the rest of the world.

Ironically the not-so-godly lords who evicted the serfs were the next in line for a big change. With monetary wealth becoming more of a determinant of power, a new class of merchants emerged that had money to buy the castles that the lords could no longer afford.

In those days money was frowned upon, so these lords had titles and power, but no need for money. This new wealthy merchant class was not well thought of. Usury, frowned on by every religion, was even punishable by death. Now as we debate and redefine the role of the economy and the government, some have suggested we look at that one again.

What a time of upheaval that must have been. Laws, attitudes and social relationships changed as serfs and journeymen moved from the security of lifelong employment for the uncertainties of the free market.

What they gained was freedom and opportunity—and the challenge to survive insecurity and individual suffering. In other words, the market system, then and now, comes with costs as well as benefits.

As different as those times may seem, what’s been consistent right up to today are the issues, such as adjusting to new technology, security and freedom mentioned above, and the big one—how much the government should be involved. Should we have a hands-off laissez-faire system or one that includes government intervention? That debate has always been with us.

An early example of intervention came in the form of the English Factory Act of 1833 that established a system of inspectors to prevent child and female labor from being abused. Does the fact that it was needed tell us that some intervention is required? People have different standards and levels of compassion. At its best, government struck a balance that better reflected the day’s standards.

The world’s experience with total government intervention—fascism and communism—should tell us that economic systems should not become or be confused with governments. Don’t they have different functions? Can governments balance the human inequities that result from a free market system if they are there to promote the system too? Some on both sides think not.

Taking the long-term view, power has shifted back and forth almost from the beginning. One of the differences today is that those who you would think would be most comfortable operating in the business arena now want to run government as a business—for the benefit of corporations, aka the new people on the block. We’ve gone through cycles before, but haven’t times changed?

Safeguards protecting us from the predictable down cycles in the market system were put in place to protect people from capitalism itself and its inherent problems. Systems such as social security, unemployment insurance and Medicare sought to balance the cycles of the free market.

The choices we have now are not really new, but the global stage and consequences of the mistakes of a few are greatly magnified. Lessening restraints on business has always been the solution of business, but should it be government’s response? Or do we want balance? Can we allow businesses such as banks to take greater and greater risks without regard to the consequences on society? Look what happened about the time we last changed presidents. Do we return to the chaos of the Middle Ages?

Generally this has been worked out, ebbed and flowed, and the extremes balanced in time. The desires and morals of a society and world events play no small part in this. World trade and manufacturing products in foreign countries all have shifted this labor-capital relationship in ways that haven’t been fully addressed.

What confuses the issue is SuperPacs. Instead of a debate or conversation about the issues we hear relentless pitches for one side of the issue. Money does talk.

Ron Paul’s Revolution Pac has devoted itself, among other things, to making sure everyone knows that the Social Security system will fail any day now. While there are knowledgeable people who disagree, Paul’s Pac and others have so dominated the debate that even the Democrats are coming up with plans to fix it.

A more balanced view is offered at Search “social security” on their site to hear views that might lead you to a different conclusion.

Listening to those who argue that no government involvement is the solution advocates a system that a pharaoh would love. But they forget that Egypt’s pharaohs and the lords of the Middle Ages always fed and housed their slaves—all of them. Consider it early government intervention.

Laissez-faire advocates today seem to forget that all systems and isms come with good news and bad news. Some might disagree, but heaven on earth they are not.

Where we are today—and maybe what the purists really fear is this idea—is knowing that there is more to life than what stockholders and businesses want.

Philosopher Simon Black-burn, whom we interviewed in TLC after he published his book Being Good, wrote that life often looks like “raising more hogs, to buy more land, so we can raise more hogs, so that we can buy more land.”

Isn’t that our economic system? A business may fit a community perfectly well and be profitable, but if the profits don’t rise every single year, something is considered wrong. Could it be that was a year to emulate?

Blackburn followed by saying, “The time we take out…is the time to be cherished.” We all have our favorite ways to take time out, and it makes all the difference, he says, in our physical and mental health.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge those as an essential parts of living?

Imagine how less stressful it might be for society with a better balance between our economy and government. Who is representing our well-being? Maybe it’s time to tell some of the leaders we hear today that they are talking and walking like the Egyptians.

Have a great month,