Steady As She Goes

The shrinking of the global economy has a lot of people feeling gloomy. Today we learned that auto sales are down worldwide by 20%.

But you know what? That’s not bad news; that’s good news. Automobiles are a dreadful waste of natural resources. They foul our air with particulates, they spew out greenhouse gases, they use up metals, they’re manufactured with all sorts of toxic plastics — hell, we should be going for an 80% reduction!

Thirty years ago, my father was a fan of public transit. After he retired, he used to ride BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit trains, from Livermore into San Francisco — not just because he loved San Francisco but to make a point that you didn’t need a car to get there. Public transit was healthy for everybody, more convenient in that you didn’t have to find a parking place when you got there, and profoundly egalitarian at the same time.

He also introduced me to the little-discussed idea of the steady-state economy. The thing is, economic growth is by definition unsustainable. The planet is finite. Resources are finite. Okay, we can get a little growth by boosting the service sector. More therapists, more musicians — let’s go for it. But ideally, there should be zero economic growth per capita in terms of hard goods. If we can also rein in the birth rate (another stupidly good idea), we’ll have zero economic growth overall. And that would be a healthy, sustainable economy.

The mantra “growth is good” originates, you’ll observe, in the mouths of rich members of the pundit class. The reason is not hard to see: In a steady-state economy, the only way poor people could be any better off than they are today would be if the rich people had less money than before. If we had a steady-state economy and the rich stayed rich … can you spell “revolution”?

So the fond fantasy, or at least the pretense, is that a rising tide floats all boats. As the economy continues to grow, eventually the poor people will benefit too, and poverty will be banished. But it hasn’t worked out that way, has it? Even before the real estate meltdown started two years ago, the rich were getting richer while the poor fell further behind. The ideology of universal greed, like a bridge built with inferior concrete, is now showing a pattern of spreading cracks.

If we all spend less, the recession will last a long time. And if that happens, a lot of poor people, the ones at the bottom of the economic pyramid, are going to suffer. But the way to ease their suffering isn’t to keep pumping up the economy. The way to ease their suffering is to take about 75% of the rich people’s ill-gotten gains away from them.

If Bill Gates has only one billion dollars instead of five billion, ask me if I care. I hear the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation mentioned a lot on NPR. Their slogan is, “All Lives Have Equal Value.” That’s touching, and I’m sure the Foundation does a lot of good work. But last week when I pulled out of the parking lot at Safeway I saw a young black man with a hand-lettered cardboard sign asking for money so he could go home to Seattle for Christmas. It was bitterly cold that afternoon, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting out there just because he thought it was a nifty scam for picking up a little pocket change. He was sitting out there in the cold, shivering and humiliating himself, because he damn well needed the money.

I rolled down the window and gave him $20. I don’t imagine Bill Gates or Warren Buffett matched my contribution.

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