I spent a fair amount of my Christmas break thinking about transitions. The large, messy kind. I’m not entirely satisfied I’ve discovered anything that can help me, but before I can get on with 2014, I want to share some of the thoughts that consumed me as the year ended.
Thank you for your patience as I took some time off at the end of 2013. For me it is really important to take some deep time off each year and allow my mind to recharge, refresh and stretch a little. If you’ve emailed or messaged me over the past 2+ weeks and have not heard back yet, I’m going to try to dig out of my inbox this week. I’m really excited for what we have planned here in 2014, especially for those of you that are members. This is going to be a great year.
At the end of last November, Pope Francis released an Apostolic Exhortation (a fancy way to say a letter) to Catholics worldwide. While I’m a Catholic and a voracious reader, I will admit that I’ve not been a frequent reader of papal exhortations in the past. This one caught my attention, however, because of some tough language Il Papa used to describe the current global economic system.
Tough language, but I totally agree with it.
I make no allusions about my economic beliefs. I believe in markets. I dislike federal government intervention in most things, particularly markets (I have more tolerance for state and local initiatives). I think the policy of the Federal Reserve to artificially set the price of money by tinkering with interest rates and printing dollars is immoral, and only because I have no hard evidence to call it corrupt. I think we are living in the most distorted, deformed, illusionary economy that has ever existed in human history.
And I think a lot of people are being hurt by it.
In his letter, Pope Francis calls for an end to an economy of exclusion, an end to the idolatry of money and an end to a financial system which rules rather than serves. Understanding that we in the United States have life better and easier than anywhere else on earth, how many of you looking for real jobs right now – something in your vocation, where your passions lie – relate to being an “outcast” or a “leftover” as the Pope describes it?
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
I went to Wal-Mart once during December – it was a late, late night run for something we needed – and I was just overwhelmed with the sense of depression. Not from the shoppers, although I got that vibe there too, but from the workers. It was a relief for me to be able to go through the self-checkout where I didn’t have to look into the eye of one of these “workers”.
I thought about the teller at the old Five and Dime type of store. Not a glorious way to make a living, but at least there was more dignity in a place where you knew your employer and they knew you. And your family.
The Pope signaled out “trickle-down theories” and while the U.S. media quickly equated that with Reagonomics and its subsequent Republican derivations, I latched on to the fact that he used a plural. Trickle-down clearly also applies to an economic system where we take from the pensioner, the frugal saver and the poor through money printing and give to big banks and those who own the disproportionate share of stocks (not to mention devastating poor countries around the world).
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
So it is with this backdrop that I consumed two other types of (totally unrelated) media. Warning: you are either going to be amazed or appalled at what my mind strings together given enough down time to sit and think about things.
Between Christmas and New Year’s I decided to read the Hunger Games trilogy. I had seen the first two movies and thought they were good enough where I wanted to know what happened. Interestingly, the general consensus among my Facebook friends, which was confirmed by The Final Edit, was that the first book was great but the second two were real disappointments.
After reading them, I totally disagree, but I was in the mood for what the second and third books had to offer.
The first book is a gripping tale of this dysfunctional world where kids from twelve dispersed districts are brought to the nation’s capital to compete in a battle to the death. It is told from the perspective of the books hero who – spoiler alert – survives the games and, in the process, becomes a somewhat revolutionary icon (not by her will or design).
The second and third books detail the fallout, again from her perspective. I think what disappointed my peeps, though, was how much her internal anguish, guilt and delusion clouded the action and the story going on around her. Her somewhat hysterical and irrational internal dialog dominated those books. There was clearly good and bad sides represented, lots of action, but books two and three were not about resolving the conflict between good and bad. They were about how she struggled to deal with the terrible pain of the transition.
You had an incredibly unjust system where the people in these twelve districts were exploited – they were the excluded – while those in the capital lived in the throw away culture. One enduring image is a party in the capital where people would consume a drink that would make them vomit so they could go on eating more of the great tasting food, all while those in the twelve districts starved.
The parallels with that world and our world are strong, and the words of Pope Francis highlight that, but to me that is the easy thing to identify. What is more difficult – far, far more difficult – is to come to grips with the pain of the transition.
In the Hunger Games – spoiler alert – one of the twelve districts is entirely destroyed, most everyone wiped out. Dead. Most people in the book seemed to see the struggle as good versus evil, and the destroying of the district was an unfortunate part of the evil. The main character, however, felt all the suffering. She felt those deaths – her friends and neighbors – were her fault. If she hadn’t prevailed in the games as she did, none of this would have happened. People would not be dead, the nation in a bloody civil war. She was the spark that lit the fire, but she felt all the guilt for everything that was burned.
This is disturbing to the rational mind. Life was bad – really bad – before the conflict. Without change, life was going to continue to be really bad. She didn’t make it bad and she wasn’t trying to make it worse. And anyway, if a better life is desired, it is going to come at a cost.
Read that again: If a better life is desired, it is going to come at a cost.
Back to Pope Francis. The economic system today is unjust. We need to transition to a system that is just. How does that happen?
Well, I don’t know exactly, but there will be a cost. A very high cost.
Let’s go back to those Wal-Mart workers. In a just world, people who were working – who agreed to show up every day and do a productive job in the marketplace -- would be paid a fair wage, one that allowed them to care for themselves and their family. By means of their productive employment, they would have the resources they needed to provide themselves food, shelter, medical care and whatever else was necessary to participate in society. They would be able to save and provide themselves with at least a modest level of security.
That’s clearly not happening, not just for those that work at a national retail chain but for people in all types of employment, not to mention those that can work but can’t find a job. Here’s the catch: I don’t see how we get to a just world without some painful changes.
Now, a lot of you agree with that but will come back to me with the litany of things you would do with a company like Wal-Mart. The Affordable Care Act to start with. A higher minimum wage for a second. Perhaps a cap on CEO pay or some other centralized decision to micromanage the corporate affairs of Wal-Mart. What makes anyone really believe this would work today? How is this substantively different than anything else we’ve been doing over the last sixty years? Why would Wal-Mart – who has infinitely more clout in Washington D.C. than anyone reading this post – allow this to happen without the typical loopholes and exceptions that allow them to maintain their position?
The reality is that Wal-Mart – and businesses like it -- need to go out of business, not because government drives it out of business, but because they have a bad business model that would naturally fail if it wasn’t being propped up. Companies like this rely on artificially low energy prices, artificially low transportation prices, artificially low cost of money for large players, regulations that disproportionately impact small competitors, a tax system that disproportionately impacts small businesses, and on and on and on.
Here’s the problem: How many of you also rely on artificially low energy prices? Artificially low transportation prices? Artificially low cost of money? If those things changed for Wal-Mart, they will change for you at the same time. How devastating would that be?
If we believe this world is unjust and we want change, we can have it, but it is going to be painful. All those Wal-Mart workers will lose their jobs. The cost of everything will rise. We will all consume a lot less and live what modern economists would classify as a “lower quality of life”.
And for those of you – like me – who believe such a transition is necessary and thus are prone to discount the pain and suffering associated with it, read the Hunger Games trilogy and allow author Suzanne Collins to bombard you with what it means to own the suffering of your time. I’m with Pope Francis, but to be truly with him, we can’t just focus on the goal but the human cost of the transition as well.
One of my favorite end-of-year media reports is David Collum’s annual appearance on Chris Martenson’s podcast. This year he provided some astute insights on a functioning market.
It’s not about redistributing wealth….I think a healthy economy naturally distributes wealth in a rational way. I can’t say it’s a simple way and I can’t say I even know what it is but my sense is when an economy is really chugging along efficiently that wealth will spread out in various ways. The rich will get richer….but everyone else will get their share of the pie.
We need a healthy economy. A just economy. My hope for 2014 is that we will move in that direction, cognizant of the fact that the hard work of building a strong town must take place on our blocks and in our neighborhoods as part of communities where nobody is a leftover.
Today on the Strong Towns Network I will be releasing -- by popular request -- a list of the books I read in 2013 with my favorites and recommendations. I got a new Kindle for Christmas and LOVE it, even better than the feel of a book, so that's going to be dangerous.
While I unplugged email/social media over the break, I wasn't totally shut down. I spent some of my time writing a new book which I hope to release here in the coming weeks/months depending on whether I self publish or not. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if you haven't got a copy of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume 1, what are you waiting for?