Lessons in Perspective

You know how there are some crystal clear moments from your past that don’t seem to be particularly important, but nevertheless they come to mind at odd times and seemingly from nowhere?

I remember hearing that at some point in our lives each of us will breathe an atom of oxygen that was breathed by Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t that da Vinci breathed more oxygen than others, it was that there is a finite number of molecules of oxygen, we breathe in so many during our lifetimes, and air movements over time (as well as the life cycles of oxygen) that the odds are we have breathed at least one molecule of oxygen that was breathed by almost everyone before us.

Whoa! Pretty amazing. To think that each if us has shared atoms with virtually everone who has lived before us. And with the plants, too, because of course they are part of the cycles of life and death.

A simplification, of course, but later in my life it led me to think about the implications of finite amounts, and of limits, and it led me to a perspective I was never taught in school.

There are limits to the Earth’s resources. It does not take a great mind to understand that. And yet we act as if there were no limits.

We pollute the air. We poison the land. We contaminate the water. We destroy the forests. We have developed a species that lusts for more, more, more.

We have lost our understanding of enough.

A very smart sales manager once told me that in the course of my work in estate planning I would meet two kinds of people: those who worked for a living, and those who already had all the money they would ever spend. Most of us are in the first group. For the second group, money is not about paying the bills, or even about being extravagant – it is about power and control.

As I have written many times before in this space, money is not wealth. It is a tool to manipulate wealth. Wealth is access to clean air, pure water, and nutritious food. Wealth is having adequate clothing, safe shelter, reasonable health, satisfying companionship and meaningful occupation.

So long as money aids in the transfer of wealth between those who have access to wealth or who produce wealth, money is an effective tool, and worthwhile.

But when those who make bread no longer accept money for the bread, money becomes valueless in relationship to bread. Money only works as a tool to manipulate wealth when money can be traded for wealth.

And yet we live in a culture that worships money, and the possession of money.

And it is killing us.

Polluted air is killing us. Poisoned land is killing us. Contaminated water is killing us. Deforestation is killing us. Our lust for more, more, more is killing us.

The United States has the most overfed and undernourished population in the world, with the most expensive health care and the worst health of any “developed” nation.

We are a dying culture, and we are rushing into our death with open arms and cries of “More! More!” on our lips. Our vaunted knowledge and technology cannot “save” us. They not only do not offer us solutions, in pursuit of ever more stuff they are the core of the problem.

Isn’t it time to re-learn the lessons of history, and live within our means? Isn’t it time to learn to live in balance with the rest of the Earth: the air, the water, the land, the flora and fauna?

Isn’t it time we regained our perspective? Isn’t it time to look at the reality of our self-destruction and say, “Enough!”

What do you think?

A Jobless Recovery

Our economy is in tatters, in the United States in general, and in Oregon specificlly.

What is an economy? The word economy comes from the Greek oikos – house, and nemein – to manage. At its most basic, economy means managing the house. “Keeping your house in order”, if you will – making sure that the needs and obligations of you and your household are met: clean air, pure water, nutritious food, adequate clothing, reasonable health, safe shelter, rewarding companionship and meaningful occupation.

These are true wealth – not money. Money is only worthwhile to the extent that it can provide true wealth – a handy tool to make barter easier, but not wealth in and of itself.

But except for some aspects of food costs, home sales and unemployment numbers, “economic reports” rarely deal with these matters. Economic reports focus on “the financial markets” i.e. investments in stocks, bonds, derivatives, etc., import and export numbers, and foreign affairs to the extent that they impact investors.

Economists focus on investments, not people: on earning money without producing anything, without actually producing wealth. In fact, protecting or producing real wealth, in particular clean air, pure water, nutritious food, and reasonable health, are considered drags on the economy.

Rewarding companionship and meaningful occupation aren’t even on the radar.

Even a casual observer can see that “The Economy” as we measure it, discuss it, theorize about and manage it, has little relationship to most people’s households.

Hence, it is possible to have “a jobless recovery.” We have an economic “recovery” despite about a fifth of the population’s inability to earn a living. We have an economic “recovery” where we do not produce goods, but must continue to consume them, and our ability to do even that is shrinking.

Our economic gurus declare an economic recovery based not on how well we “keep our house in order”, but on how securities prices reflect the wealthy’s ability to run up the prices of investment instruments. The reality of most people’s lives is just clutter to the experts, and so it is left out of the equation.

These same experts are the ones who say we are experiencing a “jobless recovery.” An economic recovery without jobs is a concept only those so wealthy they do not produce any wealth could even imagine. This explains why the only people who think things are fine are the very wealthy, for whom things actually are fine, for the moment, because the citizenry has been stuck with the bill for the wealthy’s failed gamble on the imaginary.

How’s that jobless recovery working for you?

What do you think?

“Corporations are Selfish, Greedy Bastards”

A month or two ago I had a conversation with Susan W, Clark concerning the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political speech. We were watching PBS Newshour at the time.

The two commentators (Mark Shields and David Brooks) were in disagreement about whether corporations would use their now legally clear ability to spend all the money they wanted to influence elections and legislative issues.

David Brooks said that corporations are interested in the welfare of people generally because, after all, they wanted to sell to them. Mark Shields mentioned that he did not see corporations pushing for the Equal Rights Act, or supporting the Voting Rights Act.

Sue’s response was, “Of course not. Corporations are selfish, greedy bastards!”

While her remarks can be taken as somewhat cynical, and may well be offensive to those who disagree, there is unquestionably some truth in her statement.

After all, law and precedent have repeatedly clarified that the primary responsibility of corporations in the United States is to maximize return on investment for their stockholders. This imperative is so overwhelming that it actually overrides the corporations’ responsibility to obey the law.

History holds many examples of corporations selling defective products that injure or kill people, even when the corporations had full knowledge that their products would do so. A review of the records shows that they often continued to manufacture and sell those products because it was more profitable than redesign, repair, or discontinuing them.

It is hard to disagree with the “selfish, greedy” part. The “bastard” part should probably be considered artistic license.

What do you think?

Let’s Run Government Like a Business

For years, those running for political office, particularly conservatives, used the phrase “Government should be run like a business.”

Let’s take a look at that.

On the surface, it sounds good: business has to be very realistic about costs, minimizing the cost of producing and distributing the product or service it provides, while reaching the broadest possible customer base.

So what could be bad about that?

Virtually all businesses in the United States are corporations. The main benefit of forming a corporation is to reduce liability. That is, to avoid being responsible for things when they go wrong. The primary legal responsibility of a corporation is to maximize the return on investment of the stockholders. This outweighs any other objective, in law as well as in action.

This is so deeply ingrained in our legal and social system, that so long as the corporation (by the decisions of the board, directors, managers, etc.) acts to maximize return on investment it is effectively immune from criminal prosecution. They may be subject to civil penalties, but not criminal.

Case law is replete with instances of corporate decisions that were known to cause multiple deaths, and yet no person or corporation has been called to criminal court to answer. Perhaps the first well-known case is the Chevrolet Corvair, as described in the 1965 book “Unsafe at any speed” by Ralph Nader. So, one characteristic of “business” in the United States is that they can make products that injure or even kill people, knowing they will injure or kill people, but the businesses are not held criminally liable.

It will be interesting to see if anyone (corporation of person) is held criminally responsible for the deaths of those who were lost in the gulf “oil spill”.

Instances where service or product quality or safety has decreased over the last few years are so common that we have all had our own experiences with them. It is clear that service and quality are not important, so long as sales are adequate to keep up profits. In fact, lowering costs (the usual result of which is lower quality) is a sure way to increase profits. Of course, lower quality and poor service tend to drive customers away, so what can a business do to maintain and increase the customer base?

Perhaps the most astounding example of efforts by corporations to insure customers is the recent Federal “health care reform” resulting in a legal requirement that virtually everyone buy heath insurance from a commercial insurance company regardless of quality of product or service.

Again, case law is replete with instances of corporate decisions in the health insurance industry that resulted directly in the death of individuals, commonly by denying coverage that was in fact included in the contract of insurance, or delaying it so long that the insured person died, and yet no health insurance corporation, or individual, has been tried in criminal court for murder, or even manslaughter.

So, to review: Businesses in the United States are geared to maximize benefit for those who have invested the most money in them, ignoring laws, product quality, and even product safety, manipulating the Federal Government into forcing “free citizens” to become customers.

If we expect the government to be run like a business, does that mean that government bureaus will become geared to maximize benefit for those who have invested the most money in them (by buying politicians and bribing officials), ignoring laws, product quality (i.e. public service), and even product safety (e.g. safety regulations), manipulating the laws to force “free citizens” to become customers?

Oh, wait, we already do that.

Maybe that’s why we so rarely hear the phrase “Government should be run like a business” anymore. It already is.

What do you think?