For what it’s worth…

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ‘reopening’ or ‘restarting’ the economy. A lot of this talk comes from politicians and media pundits. Most are for it, with varying degrees of caution, and very few against it. Almost no one questions who will benefit most from reopening or restarting.

Usually, the argument is framed in terms of being able to get haircuts or sit in restaurants or watch sports. Everyday people kind of stuff. Occasionally there is some acknowledgment that some everyday people – hair stylists, cashiers, childcare workers – might face more risk than others as a result. Many already do. But we can’t be afraid, we’re told. We are warriors. (That last part from a coward who lied his way out of going to war multiple times.)

Even before the current pandemic closed so much down, the economy we are currently told we should be willing to – literally – sacrifice lives for was not working for the majority of people. This is, in part, what has allowed populist movements to take hold in the U.S., Europe and parts of Latin America and Asia. Why would the poor vote for someone like Trump, who clearly does not have their interests in mind? Because the alternative didn’t care about them, either.

The economic system we are all so keen to restart – as soon as it is safe to do so, however we define that – really only ever worked for a very few. The gap between those who have much and those who have little has only increased since 1980. The number of those between those two polls has only diminished – and the majority of them retreated to the latter camp. As corporate profits increased, their payrolls shrank. As the stock markets surged, the real economy of everyday people became ever more tenuous.

Now, I need to be clear: I’m neither an economist, nor a historian, nor a political scientist. I have, however, read the works of economists, historians and political scientists, and not just those with whom I’m likely to agree. I live in this world that we’ve created, and I pay attention to what I see happening around me, and I think about what I observe. I consume facts, and modify my opinions accordingly. These are my opinions.

There are facts here, too. The current pandemic will eventually end, and economic activity of some kind does need to begin again at some point. Those are facts. But, in my opinion, it is time now not to simply ‘reopen’ or ‘restart’ our economies, however tentatively or rashly, but to reimagine them in a way that will benefit more people and harm fewer, and lead to greater freedom and equality for everyone.

 

Accounting

Who profits if you spend less than you save?
Sometimes survival’s as good as it gets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

Working day after day only to stave
Off risk of want means a life of regrets.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s the consonance between live and love
The banality of our daily life forgets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

The free man dies as surely as the slave.
Death is the final payment of our debts.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s a lie that fortune favours the brave.
Blind luck decides the outcomes of our bets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

You can live to work or work to live.
Whatever the balance, time always collects.
You might as well spend it all and not save.
What you do matters more than what you have.

 

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

What is the business of business?

Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on business. I’ve never owned a business. I have managed one, and worked for several, and even been a business analyst – but none of that makes me an expert. I’m also not an economist or a political scientist. So, take the following with as large a grain of salt as you feel appropriate. (My apologies if you already suffer from hypertension.)

When most of us think of the purpose of businesses – to the extent that we think of such things at all – I expect we imagine that said purpose is to produce goods or provide services. These goods and services are priced so that the business owners can recover their costs, and hopefully make some money over and above that. That additional money – a.k.a., profit – provides the business owner with an income, and perhaps allows them to expand their business, and so produce or provide more goods and services. This expansion may require them to employ helpers. This is a pretty simple, perhaps overly simple, description of what the business of businesses is. It’s likely an apt enough description of the business of many very small businesses. Piano tuners, bobcat operators, bakers, and so forth.

Of course, not all businesses are small, and the business of many businesses has become the generation of profit pure and simple, and any production or provision of goods and services is really incidental to that. When you think of very large companies, they tend to have many diverse ‘lines of business’. These may include everything from breakfast cereals to herbicides to life insurance, or the transportation or sale of such. The ownership of such large enterprises tends to be very diverse, such that some of the owners are also companies – hedge funds, pensions, etc.

Neither of these types of business has any necessary relationship to or dependence on political or economic systems, such as democracy or capitalism. Businesses existed before either of those were formalized. They can exist in fascist or communist countries just as easily as democratic or capitalist ones. Democracy and capitalism may or may not be good things, but they have little bearing on the success or failure of businesses.

Even profit does not have much to do with politics or economics. People made a profit centuries before capitalism or democracy, or any of their modern alternatives, existed. I’m fairly certain they will continue to make money, or whatever signifies wealth, in whatever systems come afterwards. I’m not even sure that profit for profit’s sake is really all that new. There have always been frauds, conmen, forgers and hucksters – and others – whose motives had more to do with greed than anything else.

 

There is nothing necessarily right wing, conservative, reactionary – or whatever term you prefer – about business and profit. They are not incompatible with progressive, left wing, or even socialist regimes. (The same thing goes for taxation and government spending, but I’ll leave that for another time.) You can be right wing and an enemy of business, for example, by implementing immigration policies that make it difficult for companies to hire workers, or by taxing necessary imports. In the same way, you can be left wing and supportive of universal health care or child care programs that may contribute to increased productivity. There is nothing necessarily progressive about making it difficult for businesses to succeed, just as there is nothing necessarily conservative about keeping wages low.

But all of this begs the question, what is the business of businesses? Is it just about profit, and the maximization of profit? Or is it about producing goods – bread, say, or books – or providing services – music lessons, or project management? My personal preference, of course, is for the latter. For true entrepreneurialism – or what I like to think of as the real deal – and enterprises with a human scale, and a human purpose. Am I wrong? Is bigger really better?

If there are any experts who read this, maybe you can let me know.

…shall inherit the earth

I am a relatively lucky man. I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but I do have more than a lot of people. I have more people in my life who I love than I can count on both hands, to borrow a line from Pearl Jam. I’ve even managed to keep a number of those relationships alive for more than two decades. My health isn’t perfect, but my end date is an open question, not something I can see rushing toward me at a defined pace.

Not everyone can say these things, and despite the conventional wisdom that everything is about choices and attitudes, it’s often not their fault. For some people, none of the options available to them are good, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.

We don’t like to think about ‘the poor’ in our society, and when we do, we prefer to assume their fate was a result of their own character flaws or poor choices than the inevitable outcome of our social structures. We like to dismiss the homeless and the poor as lazy and/or stupid, because it absolves us of any responsibility.

This is a strange position to take for a society that likes to think of itself as Christian. When you consider how wealth and poverty are discussed in the Gospels – that the poor get to inherit the earth, that the rich have less chance of entering heaven than a camel does of passing the eye of a needle, and so on – it’s difficult to fathom how we can be so blasé about the misery of others. Of course, someone will point out that ‘the poor shall always be with you,’ but I don’t think that statement was meant to excuse the rest of us from trying to make their lot better.

Now, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a Christian (or an anything, for that matter), and further, I’d prefer our society – or at least our institutions – to be secular. But whatever your religious persuasion (or, if you’re like me, unpersuasion), it seems socially important that we try to do a better job of looking after each other.

Currently, our western societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction. (No eastern societies are doing any better in that regard, as far as I’m aware.) We retreat into looking after ourselves, and maybe the small cluster of people we surround ourselves with. The Ayn Rand Virtue of Selfishness crowd seems to have largely won the day, at least for now.

There are some, of course – of many religious and non-religious stripes – who do try to help those whose boats have been swamped by the ebb and flow of economic tides. They volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. They collect and hand out blankets and socks. They do so much, but it is never enough. Can never be enough.

Poverty is the cancer caused not just by our economic systems, but the way we have structured our societies. It grows and spreads. Charity is like chemotherapy trying to keep some of the tumors at bay, at best, like an opioid to dull the pain at worst. Charity cannot prevent poverty, or make the pain of it slightly less intolerable.

Is there a way to change this? To prevent poverty, rather than ‘treating’ it? I don’t know. I like to think there is, even if I can’t describe it myself. I’m pretty certain, though, that it won’t come from more Randian selfishness, or from any amount of charity. Marx thought he’d found a solution, and I think he was right in assuming it required democratization of economics, but his method – at least as it’s been executed historically – hasn’t worked out any better than Christianity.

If anyone’s got some serious ideas how to go about this, please speak up.

Playing the Trump card

Many years ago, an American rabbi published what would become a self-help bestseller called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book was intended to help people get past unfortunate events in their lives, and not become defined by those events. Right now, I think what is needed is a book called When Good People Do Bad Things. The purpose of this book would be to explain how ordinarily good people brought themselves to vote for Donald Trump.

The inauguration of that lumpen orange narcissist is only a little over a week away. All over the world (with the possible exception of Russia), people are asking how this could happen. How could any sane, halfway moral person justify to himorherself the notion of ‘President Trump.’

Now, I will grant you, Hillary was hardly the best choice of candidate for the democrats, or any other party for that matter. I would much rather have seen Bernie or Biden, myself. Or any number of women. Gender is not the reason I didn’t particularly like Hillary. Neither were emails or Benghazi, or any of the muck the republicans tried to throw at her. I didn’t like Bill that much, either, although it had nothing to do with Monica, and everything to do with economic policy. And it was, again, economics, and the sense that both the DNC and Hillary herself thought ‘it was her turn’, that made me prefer other options to the former Secretary of State.

Having said that, I would have preferred the election of nearly anyone – even the return of George W. Bush, never mind little Jeb – to the smirking misogynist about to occupy the Oval Office. (And I definitely would have preferred Hillary to either Bush.) The only person in the running who may have been as unfit for office as Trump was Ted Cruz, thankfully now a political has-been.

So how did they do it? Ordinary middle Americans. Salt of the earth types. Church and BBQ types. People who I wouldn’t have expected to cros the street to spit on a New York billionaire. How did they bring themselves to vote for such a creep? Such an obviously crazy, frequently bankrupt, don’t leave him alone with your daughter or your savings account creep.

A lot of people say it was racism, and I don’t doubt there was some of that. Too many confederate flags at Trump rallies, too many swastikas painted on walls since the election, to think otherwise. But I don’t think racism could possibly have motivated that many voters.

Some others say it was about economics. Not that anyone, including Trump voters, believe he has an economic plan at all, never mind a good one. But that the economy that has been foisted on Americans, and that has taken their jobs, their homes and, worse, their dignity over the past 37 years, if not longer, had finally made them stand up and say, ‘no more.’ There may be something to that.

The so-called ‘left’ in America bailed out banks while they foreclosed on families. They bragged about economic recovery, even as the divide between rich and poor grew, and careers you could support a family with were replace with jobs with low pay and no security. Or with no jobs at all.

Anyway, I look forward to an explanation that isn’t too easy, or too comfortable for those who lost. I hope America – and France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain, too – gets its act together before it’s too late.