Wednesday, December 28, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

“What am I going to do with a horse?” Anselmo says.

His comrades in arms are trying to get him up the hill to a horse that could take him to safety. He knows he’s too badly wounded. He will surely die, and he would only slow them down as they retreat. They leave him a bottle of whiskey and a gun. He promises to kill the enemy, but we and he know the last bullet will be for him.

So it goes in war. Some make it, some don’t.

We are in a new kind of war now, one no less devastating than the epic battles of the Spanish Civil War of which Hemingway wrote and the world wars of that century. Ours is an economic war that here in the US will leave many to die in the pocked landscapes of abandoned coal mines and rusting assembly lines. Elsewhere, it will leave many more to die in the steaming jungles of Africa and the harsh deserts of the Middle East. The idled coal miners and factory workers will die of despair. Around the world, millions dispossessed by global warming and nationalistic strife will die of hunger and thirst, and worse.

But take heart: to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of economic development is long, but it bends toward prosperity.

On the whole, the world is better off today than it has ever been. There is great economic inequality, but the lowest on the ladder have better lives than those before them. The economic wild kingdom is not fair, but it favors survival of the species. Predators kill and others feed off the leftovers. From an economic standpoint, there is more killing and more leftovers than ever.

We no longer live in Feudal times, though. We have awakened to our humanity, and our inhumanity. Survival of the fittest is no longer a sufficient guiding principle. We want to take care of those left behind, or at least give them a better chance to make something good out of what they have, even if that doesn’t include stock options.

Full employment has been the way we meant to create opportunity for all in the U.S. As technology advances, though, robots are taking more U.S. jobs than the Chinese. Robots are taking Chinese jobs too. No less an authority than economics Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton said recently that he doesn't think “globalization is anywhere near the threat that robots are.”

Worldwide, free trade has lifted millions from ignorance and paucity. But nationalism gets in the way of free trade from time to time. And trade alone is not enough to help the millions of refugees from Syria and other devastated countries. Trade alone will not topple despots.

We need to start by taking care of business at home. But we need to be sensible about it. Protectionism won’t keep out the robots. The coal mines and the steel mills aren't coming back. And the people who worked them aren’t likely to be retained as software engineers. No matter how prosperous we get, we probably aren’t going to be able to find jobs for those who are rotated out of employment by immutable changes in their industries. We need to help them the old fashioned way: the equivalent of a sandwich at the back door, a place to stay in the garage. We need to give them the money they need to live. They can’t earn it. We might as well face that.

As to the world, there is less we can do. But we must not look away. We must not say to ourselves that their problems are not ours. Even if we didn’t think it was immoral to ignore their suffering, from a practical standpoint it is unwise. They will hate us. They will attack us. They already do. They already are.

How to help them is not clear. We can’t offer them a minimum income, as we can our own citizens. The best we can do, I think, is to engage with their leaders to encourage democratic governance and equal rights. Those conditions are not sufficient for economic opportunity, but they are necessary. We and they will have to rely on human ingenuity and ambition for the rest.

The old model of liberal economics called for the free flow of goods and services in a capitalistic economy to provide the greatest overall prosperity possible. I don’t think we have come up with a better model. But we have begun to realize that there will always be losers in that system. As the distance between us shrinks, both at home and in the world, we can see our neighbors more clearly than ever. We can see the want on their faces. We can see their sorrow and desperation. And we can see that their circumstances are most often not their fault. It has gotten too hard to keep looking the other way.

A bottle of whiskey and a gun may have been what was needed for poor old Anselmo, but we owe more to those among us who have been left wounded and crippled by the very economic system that has made the rest of us wealthy.

1 comment:

  1. Capitalism and compassion are not mutually exclusive; and together, are the answer to a good life.