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Are Geezers Robbing the Young?

Growth and the Luddites

The Growth Dogma. Have you, like the Radical Bleeding Heart, ever wondered why it is economic dogma that economic health requires perpetual economic growth? Why is economic stability assumed impossible? And why is anyone who suggests that there are limits to growth condemned for committing the wicked heresy of the Malthusian Fallacy (economists love to dismiss ideas they do not like as Fallacies, with a capital “F”)? That last one is especially puzzling as there clearly must be some limits to growth; this is a finite planet. I am sorry, but space colonization is not possible in the remotely foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever. Warp drives and worm holes are no more real than Harry Potter's wand.

It is true that capitalism is inherently unstable, for reasons that we need not go into here, but it is possible, albeit politically difficult, to create measures that would stabilize it. But the demand for growth appears unrelated to any such instability. Growth is regarded by the economic gurus as an absolute and fundamental necessity.

The Growth Dogma Supports the Luddite Dogma. Now we know the answer: growth is necessary in order to keep the Luddite Fallacy false. It keeps jobs from disappearing, and, more importantly from the point of view of the powerful, it keeps the profits pouring in. From the point of view of society at large, of course, the jobs are what is important. One of the principal points made in Thomas Piketty's remarkable book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is that because the rate of return on capital is normally greater than growth, growing wealth and income inequality is inevitable. The well-being of workers in our present system thus depends on growth.

So is this good? Some growth, especially in the past, has resulted in better living, but much or most of it is destructive and wasteful. If you are not familiar with The Story of Stuff Project, you owe it to yourself to become acquainted. Check out the website, and watch the twenty-minute movie that started it. It is a must-view. Watch the other movies they produced as well.

What you will not learn from The Story of Stuff Project is how our economy, our jobs, our futures, and our well-being has been made to seem dependant on this destructive, wasteful, and poisonous system. We are being made to believe that if we dare to end the madness we will return to the stone age.

The System Comes Unglued. It need not be true. It is true only to the extent that a sick and unnecessary system makes it true. What is more, the system is beginning to unravel. The growth chain through which the economies of production that caused job loss produce new products and new jobs in turn is being broken. In truth, it has been under great strain for a long time. If it once seemed true that job loss always led to job creation, it is in part because for a brief period workers actually were sharing in the benefits of productivity. That period was roughly from the end of World War II to the early nineteen-seventies. It has not happened before or since. Since the seventies the spending necessary to sustain growth was maintained in a variety of ways: e.g., more hours worked, more women in the workforce, and finally massive borrowing. Now there is little left to augment the declining wages of workers but the social welfare programs that conservatives lust to destroy.

Programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Summing up: We have an economic system in which goods and services are being produced with ever increasingly less labor. Since that system operates for the benefit of owners that means fewer jobs unless it also means an equal increase in the amount of goods and services produced. Only then can the system create new jobs to replace lost jobs. To a large extent that has been done through the creation of an economy of waste and inefficiency, a throw-away society of consumers in which products are deliberately built not to last, demand is artificially raised through planned obsolescence, perceived obsolescence, and an unrelenting campaign to make us feel that we are inferior beings unless we buy more, have more, spend more, and waste more. All the while that millions of children in America go to bed hungry. And it is all unnecessary. All we have to do is change the system.

An Economy For All Of Us. So now, after a long detour, we are back where we started. The solution is simple in principle, but complex in practice: Create a society that privileges workers over owners rather than the reverse, a society in which all benefit directly from increased productivity. We discuss elsewhere some of the ways to do this. Briefly:

So, finally: Yes, we need to help the young, but not by hurting the old. Retirees are not the source of the problem. There is enough to go around; we live in a land of plenty, but we do not use it sanely or justly. We need a system in which everyone contributes and everyone is rewarded, but in which no one gets a free ride. We need to substitute a “sacred right to a decent job” for the “sacred right of private property,” which is the source of many a free ride today. And perhaps we ought to question a value system which declares that he who spends, consumes, and wastes the most is the most to be admired. Just maybe.

[Back to Second Fundamental Economic Fact.]