We Do Not Have to Live Like Rats Fighting for Scraps

When I started this blog, I imagined it as a place where I might gather and repost—when timely and appropriate—some of my earlier pieces that are “blog-friendly” in form, but scattered to the winds.

I happened across one of these today, when I sent one of my students to a special issue of Dharma World for which this article was invited.

I’m happy with this whole essay—in fact more proud of it, despite the slim-to-negative respect it garnered as “assessed scholarly productivity,” than I am of most other things I’ve written. Yet whether it found its audience when it appeared—or will do so now—is unclear to me. Nevertheless Dharma World asked me if I had anything worthwhile to say, and I thought I did. So I decided to sow that seed for whatever it may be worth…

Now I’m doing it again. Sadly the catalyst for the article is as relevant for today as it was then, for reasons I will not belabor.

Here’s a teaser.

A few months ago, driving across the country, I became fed up with radio news reports about Republican politicians who were blocking basic social priorities such as education and health care. They even refused to pay the interest on the debt from wars they had enthusiastically started! And all for a primary goal of reducing taxes on wealthy people. I wanted to respond, but how?

Of course, I realized that these politicians’ ostensible goal was “freedom” and reducing deficits. They presupposed a variant of trickle-down theory in which growth produced by unregulated capitalism supposedly benefits everyone in the long run, no matter how much it skews wealth and undermines the social and ecological matrix on which it depends.

Nevertheless, it seemed unlikely that their future vision would prove true, and it is reasonably clear that it severely disadvantages a majority of people – perhaps not every single person in what the Occupy Movement calls the 99 percent, but close enough to make this shorthand serviceable. It also seemed clear that the priorities of these Republicans (and, to be fair, also of many Democrats negotiating with them) – priorities such as wars, prisons, and agricultural subsidies for senators’ home states – were neither being demonized as “government spending” nor put on the chopping block. That designation was reserved for benefits important to ordinary people, such as education and health care, which were targeted for privatizing or downsizing to the maximum degree that these politicians could manage. In their vision, people in future generations would be worthy to have quality education only if they could afford private schools, to live without fear of bankruptcy only if they could afford health insurance and had no preexisting conditions, to live in safe neighborhoods only if they could afford a house in a gated community, and so on. They could achieve these things if they worked hard in a worthy career – and if they failed, it was their own fault.

Moreover, the strategy to pay for any remaining public investments was some combination of passing the debt to our children and shifting the burden to the most regressive attainable options, such as payroll and sales taxes, as well as building for-profit prisons, charging fees for government services, privatizing resources such as universities and parklands, and ending deductions for mortgage interest. Such policies would channel more money toward deserving investors to maximize growth.

Thus the ability to take pride in a common good, to imagine collective efforts to address social problems, or to notice a range of experiences that are not reducible to pursuing material advantage – even the ability to conceptualize “need” or “success” as something other than maximizing individual profit – all disappeared into a logic of individuals’ acting out “human nature” and “economic law” by pursuing their self-interest.

In short: human nature is greed, and greed is good.

Trapped in my car listening to news reports in this vein, I wished that I had enough access to airtime, coupled with enough specialized expertise, to prove something I will state as a hypothesis: If the United States had spent half the resources on conservation and sustainable energy as it did on its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, the energy it could have saved or produced would have exceeded that of the access to oil it seized through so much money and blood.

The article continues, not too much longer. If you want to read on, click here.

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