Friday, June 10, 2011

Toys for The Road

Nick's nineteenth birthday was May 15. He was on a tour with his college men’s glee club at the time. One of their stops was Cuba. What fun. I told him to buy me a 55 Chevy while he was there, so I could relive my youth. When he got home, Meg made him a coconut crème cake and we asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He said he didn’t know. He said he would think about it.
Here we are almost a month later and I still can’t get him to say he wants anything. It’s quite frustrating---not for him, for me. I love to shop for tech toys, which is what, as a computer science major, he usually likes. I like to look online for them and read the reviews and, when they come, see them all shiny and new. Sometimes it seems that I want Nick to have a birthday present more than he does. Maybe it’s generational. Perhaps he instinctively realizes something I am only slowly waking up to.

Back when General Motors made that 1955 Chevy I remember so fondly, when the promise of our future was as bright as new paint, John Kenneth Galbraith began writing about the changes that occur in nations as they become more affluent, as they move from an agrarian economy to one based on manufacturing production. After they have satisfied their most basic needs---food, shelter, clothing---they begin producing things they don’t absolutely need but merely want. This is how they keep the economy growing.

Our ability to imagine new things to want might have failed us, leaving too little demand for goods, had not advertising rushed to the rescue, creating an appetite for things we had never dreamed we wanted. Throw in a dose of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, and you have the basis for our modern consumer-based economy.

In this context, it’s pretty easy to see that Nick is a problem. Wanting as little as he does is positively unpatriotic. Old Joe McCarthy, were he still alive, would want to reopen the HUAC hearings.

Ever since Nick’s older brother Chris gave me Galbraith’s book last year, I’ve been wondering whether an economy based on demand synthesized by advertising is sustainable. Despite Nick’s relative monkishness, I think I have been worrying in vain. For one thing, the rest of the developing world has followed our example with fervor. Thousands of eager new consumers are being created every day in China and India. And they are still at the stage of wanting some pretty basic things; that demand isn’t going to let up anytime soon. No, the problem isn’t that consumerism isn’t sustainable, for it may well be, it is that the raw materials that feed the beast, the very Earth itself, is not.

Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times recently that we are outgrowing our planet. Citing Paul Gilding of the Global Footprint Network, Friedman says we are rapidly depleting Earth’s resources. “Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. The consumer driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness driven model, based on people earning less and owning less.” More walks with the kids and fewer trips to the mall.

It’s a lovely notion, really, but it suggests a couple of problems. First, what about those folks, both here and in other countries, who already own less, even less than it takes to live? The walks they take are not around Walden Pond but to search for food or water or medical care for their starving children.

Second, how is living Thoreau’s ideal life going to put bread on the table, individually or collectively? At least consumerism gives us something to do: jobs producing things, money to spend, things to buy, more things to produce, more jobs. What will replace the consumer economy?

In The Affluent Society Galbraith pointed out that the production of private goods requires an increase in related public services: roads for cars, trash collection for packaging, hospitals for smokers and drinkers. These public services always lag behind the need for them created by private production. And in most cases the private producer does not have to pay to clean up the mess it has made. This is left to government, which must collect taxes to pay the trash men.

Private production has fueled our growth as a nation.  It has raised the living standard of most of us and is beginning to do the same in developing countries. But it is wreaking havoc on our habitat. As Paul Gilding said in the Friedman column: “We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model.”

What might that new model be? Production has been the means of expression of capitalism, and capitalism has been the driving force behind American economic success. If we moved away from private production, would we be giving up the secret of our success?

So far at least, the capitalism genie has served private production almost exclusively, offering little of its magic to public services. Presumably because of this, private production is flourishing, while social services lag. Too many American businesses are living like over-indulged teenagers, consuming and leaving their trash wherever they (or we) drop it, assuming mom and dad (working for the government) will pick it up, sometimes not seeming to care whether it gets picked up or not.

Can our teenaged alter egos ever be taught to be more responsible? Perhaps. If the object of their adolescent lust, capitalism, is yoked to public service.

A good place to start would be to insist that private production be responsible for the true costs of its products. People don’t mind paying for products, but we don’t much like paying the taxes that are levied to accommodate or clean up after them. If the full societal cost of the product were included in its price, consumers would have a truer choice about whether what they wanted to buy was really worth it to them. As it now stands, private production is heavily subsidized by taxes. A significant percentage of our tax bill goes to pay for the needs created by, or the negative consequences of, the production of goods, including products we ourselves, individually, may not have chosen to consume.

Big levies on products like cigarettes, sodas and gasoline would generate funds to deal with the damage these products cause. Oil companies could be required not only to clean up pollution but also to develop alternative energy sources. Cigarette companies could be required to build clinics and contribute to medical research. Soda companies would develop programs to teach kids healthy eating habits, build playgrounds and gymnasiums. Newsprint suppliers and cardboard box makers would build re-cycling plants and manage sustainable forests.

If products had to pay their own way, consumption of those with high negative externalities would likely decrease. Businesses would look for less troublesome substitutes. The free market would work its magic.

You wouldn’t have to have a boatload of government bureaucrats to administer this kind of thing. All you would need would be a few smart men and women with the power to shut down any business that wasn’t cleaning up after itself. The survival instincts of the market would do the rest.

And isn’t this what it’s all about at this point: survival? Not just of a particular business, but of our way of life, our planet? Is it too much to ask that those who want to do business on Earth not contribute to its demise?

Of course, this isn’t the nineteenth century. Here in America we no longer operate in relative isolation. If we impose high costs on our products to pay for their social costs, our products will be at a price disadvantage in world markets. Our exports will go down. Meanwhile, fast growing countries like China and India will be able to continue to crank out low-cost products to fuel their own growth, and they will want to sell them to us.

They will, in the case of China, even artificially keep the value of their currency low to reduce the cost of their products to us. They will use our consumerism, in other words, to build themselves up, no matter the cost to us and to the global environment. They will do this because they are desperate for growth to raise their people out of abject poverty. Who can blame them?

Understanding their motivation, though, even sympathizing with it, doesn’t mean we have to go along. A big part of me loves free trade (the same part that loves unfettered capitalism), but like capitalism, trade must be constrained sometimes. We will have to impose import tariffs to keep our products from being uncompetitive to American buyers. It is unlikely that those tariffs will be reciprocated (or need be), because our products will already be over-priced in foreign markets.

This will isolate us somewhat, at least until the rest of the world sees the necessity for what we are doing. And that may not be for a while yet. Another of Galbraith's observations was that the Conventional Wisdom holds sway until confronted with an irrefutable crisis. Not this year, not next, but eventually, likely within decades, over-consumption and climate change will give the world those crises: national water wars caused by drought; massive food shortages and human migration, like wildebeest on the African veldt, caused by both drought and flooding.

When finally shocked into action, the rest of the world will be looking for a model of how to respond. If we have acted wisely, they can follow our lead, just as they did in moving to consumerism and production. They learned the habits we had when we were young, and later they will gain the wisdom we must now acquire.

And if they don’t? Well, there are limits to how much influence we can have on others. We can talk to them. We can try to persuade them. But their interests are different than ours, more fundamentally desperate. They may not listen.

Should it come to that, in a world that looks more like The Road than Walden, we here in the United States have most of the essential resources needed for survival, especially water. Many developing countries are not as fortunate. If climate change causes prolonged droughts, they will be in trouble. But as broken as our hearts would be at their misery, if they will not act now to save themselves, we need not follow them off the cliff.

Paul Gilding and his colleagues at the Global Footprint Network are not alone. Many who study population growth and climate change believe we are already past the tipping point. In their view, the only alternative now is adaptation. If we want to be among the survivors, we had better get on about it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Judgment Day at the Flat Character Society

A Jew, a Catholic and a Protestant walk into a bar…

I confess, I used to laugh at those jokes. Substitute nationality, skin color, whatever, and where I grew up in the South there were a lot of guffaws and affirming glances. The jokes are not funny (even though, horribly, they kind of are). I understand that now.
The flattest of them all (sorry, Silas)
Fear of differences is deep in our DNA. We still respond to those we do not know the same way our ancestors responded to the tribe in the cave on the far mountainside. We shake our fists at them to keep them away; over campfires at night, we make fun of them as a way of keeping up our fighting spirit: those bastards aren’t going to catch us napping.

We don’t live in caves anymore, but our cities and suburbs offer the same refuge, the same opportunity to hang out with people like ourselves and make fun of the rest. We judge others reflexively, as we have been taught to do (lest hesitation prove fatal), and we teach our children to do the same.

I’m not saying we have dinner-table lectures on how to be a good bigot. These days our opprobrium is (generally) conveyed more subtly: Hey, it was just a joke, lighten up. But perhaps because of that subtlety, it is even more insidious. When we learn to mock others, we learn more than that it is okay not to respect one group or another, we learn that it is okay to pass final judgment on them.

The effect is pervasive. The habit of being judgmental becomes the way we evaluate the world around us. Caricature substitutes for understanding. We see others from far away, the way ancient travelers saw distant mountains, with no grasp of their depth.

The best fiction writers give us “round” characters. Stereotypes can be briefly entertaining, but they are not interesting for long. Flat characters can never play against type. They can never surprise. If they did, the reader would say, Whoa, where did that come from, what was the motivation for that? We won’t believe complex behavior from a character in a novel unless we know more about him than that he has very pale skin and likes to mortify his flesh.

Which makes me wonder why it sometimes seems that we insist upon knowing more about fictional characters than about our neighbors. How engaging, after all, is a story line that paints all Muslim jihadists as pathological fanatics? Hemingway would say such one-dimensional characters are not “true.” There is desperation at work here. What is the source of it? What is our role in it? These are the questions we would want a novelist to explore. We should ask no less of ourselves.