Archive for November 3rd, 2008

Equity, Equity, Equity

Sharon November 3rd, 2008

The day before the election, I suppose I should write a post about who I think you should vote for for president.   Yawn. The thing is, is it really going to shock anyone that a New York leftist prefers Obama?  Did you really need me to say it?  I’ll probably actually vote for a third party candidate, since my vote here in New York is worth jack, but if I voted where my vote counted, I’d vote Obama. 

Now that we’ve dispensed with that, let’s get down to the real issues, the real questions that are going to face our country.  We haven’t been able to do that, since this election has been taking over the public discourse since G-d gave the Torah to Moses, but it is time to get over that.  The single biggest issue facing the next president – and he’s going to have to deal with it one way or another – is going to be the question of Equity.  That’s a subject that hasn’t made it to the national table in a very, very long time. 

Why equity?  Well, first of all, we’re entering a major Depression, not a little tiny economic downturn, but a crisis.  And what happens in major economic crises is that people get very poor, often hungry, cold and scared, and they get angry.  And there’s a lot to be angry about.  Over the last thirty years, real wages have fallen and wealth has concentrated – and it is being rapidly concentrated further by the massive reallocation of what remains of our wealth into already wealthy hands.   One of the reasons I think that McCain/Palin’s “Obama will share the wealth” narrative has failed to put them in the lead is simply this – more and more Americans are suddenly realizing that they may soon have more in common with the people who need to be shared with than with the ones who lose.

Now I should take this moment to demand government action – to begin programs and tax relief that allocates wealth around. And such may happen.  But I’ll tell you a secret – I think it would be great if the government led the way on this subject – it would alleviate a lot of suffering.  But in the end, I think the result will be the same whether they lead or whether they follow.  Because if they wait for Americans to take up pitchforks and torches, the shifts will be even more radical – and that’s not a bad thing either.  As historian Sheldon Wolin observes, almost all the major shifts to greater sharing of wealth and power have come in response to the anger of the people.  Howard Zinn argues that FDR’s Great Society came about simply because people, acting in response to the exigencies of the Depression discovered their remarkable power – and the government responded to ensure that no one noticed that the ruling class might not be needed at all.  One way or another, hard times mean that equity issues are coming to the table.

The truth is that most research about hard times shows that most people are willing to do what is necessary to deal with a situation – but their primary concern is equity – justice and fairness.  That is, people will make do with rationing, with great burdens and difficult times - they will even find coping mechanisms and what historian Timothy Breen calls “rituals of non-consumption” that compensate them for the consumption they used to engage in.  What they won’t tolerate is injustice and unfairness.  This is the conclusion of a recent book about Britain during and after WWII, reviewed here:

Two fundamental, timeless lessons emerge from the whole experience. First, that most people will broadly accept straitened times if they are genuinely convinced of their necessity and that there is no alternative. Second, that social cohesiveness during such an unwelcome turn of events will rest to a large degree on the extent to which the pain is administered on an equitable, transparent basis. Even so, should the economic downturn prove severe, it is still likely to be a psychic shock for anyone under, say, the age of 40, for whom the austerity years are not even a folk memory. The process will be a huge challenge to the legitimacy of our democratic political system, though not inconceivably may do wonders to strengthen and reaffirm that rather frayed legitimacy.”

 I found the same thing when I researched the question of whether some kind of rationing system could ever be brought to the general public – in fact, historically people have even liked rationing, when they felt its primary role was to make sure that pretty much everyone labored under the same constraints – and their fury knew no bounds when those constraints were violated. 

But there are other reasons equity is going to have to come to the table.  The first is climate change.  Over the last year, most of the major nations of the Global South that contribute most to global warming have simply declined to make major cuts in their emissions.  Why?  Because without equity, they are being asked to impoverish their citizens while we are being asked to turn the thermostat down – unless the question of a fair share comes to the table.  The truth is that we will not address climate change until we address the question of equity at an international level.  Nearly everyone would rather not discuss this – but it will come to the table, sooner or later, simply because we have no choice. I hope it will be sooner not later, but climate change will push itself onto the world agenda – and into our daily lives.  And at the root of climate change is the recognition we cannot go on as we are.

Then there’s the food issue – Aaron Newton and I have just completed editing a book about the question of whether and how the world and this country can feed themselves in a warming world, in the face of rising energy costs.  And what we’ve concluded is simply this – the issue comes down to equity.  In the end, the central question of our times is going to be food allocation – as I put it the other day “Is there dinner?  Do I get any?”  And the only way to address the food crisis - a crisis that is only going to get bigger as time goes on – is this.  To make sure we deal with the question of what constitutes a fair share – that we divide the work and the food more justly than we have, not in the perfection of human nature, not in an ideal world, but in this one.   And this problem isn’t just going to play out on the world level – although it will do that too as very angry people who recognize that the deaths of their kids and their lives of poverty were created, in part, by the actions of those who fed food to their cars and were willing to see them die so they could keep on the road.

One of the remarkable things we’ve found in our research into food systems is this – in any place that has had to or wanted to radically reduce its use of petrochemicals in agriculture, what is really rapidly discovered is that you can do that – but not on a massive scale.  In Cuba, in the Soviet Union, in shifts to organic production in the US and UK, generally speaking what shows pretty clearly in the research is this – you can farm with few or no chemical inputs, whether you do it because you want to or because you have to (and we suspect many of us will have to) – but not rapidly on massive farms of thousands of acres – period.  Huge scale agriculture is simply not amenable to rapid shifts away from fossil fuels – so if we are to deal with our current crises, and keep food coming in, we’re going to have to make sure that land is in the hands of people who can grow food on it on a reasonable scale.  That means one of the great questions of the coming decade is this – how will the people get access to land to grow food on.  And that, fundamentally, is an equity question too – particularly as foreclosure pushes more and more people out of the pieces of land they could be growing on.

The word socialist has been thrown around a lot during this campaign, mostly because people really do think that the only choices in figuring out how to live are capitalist and communist/socialist.  I think that’s a fundamentally false way of thinking about this – first of all, we all know that all economic systems are hybrids (lord knows, I’m not sure you can even call our economic system capitalism anymore) – there is no pure socialism, no pure capitalism in practical reality.  Those nuances we ignore matter.  For example, greater equity could be achieved by removing some of the private from private hands, or it could be achieved through a capitalist distributist model, in which who gets to hold the private is limited.

But in some ways, I think that the capitalist/socialist discussion misses the point.  In the interview we did with her for our book, Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of _Ancient Futures_ and _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ made what I think is the essential point -  that scale matters as much as economic system:

“…I think it’s very important that we realize that communism or capitalism or even socialism are all large-scale, centralized systems and therefore I prefer not to talk about the problem as being capitalism.  The reason why I don’t is that it in many minds conjures up the notion that socialism or communism are better and I personally believe that the intentions behind communism and socialism are broader and in a certain way more noble, but I don’t think it’s just that the centralized power they entail, in both socialism and communism, was the problem socially, but I also see them as fundamentally anti-ecological, because they were top-down, centralized systems that also then foisted monoculture in terms of agricultural production, but when we talk about agricultural production, we’re basically talking about all the activities from which we derive our basic needs: forestry, for building, fiber, building materials.”

Norberg-Hodge’s argument, which I entirely agree with, is that the whole discussion finally misses the point.  What is needed will be a hybrid again of private and public resources, of things we call “socialist” and those we call “capitalist” but the salient point is this – that power, and autonomy and what really matters have to be more widely distributed, the scale of management radically reduced and that equity, in the end, is more about the right to self-governance than whether we reduce taxes or reallocate wealth that way.  The central problem will be how to get the tools of self-sufficiency – the ability to feed and clothe and care for yourself into ordinary people’s hands again. 

And that provides a measure of an answer to the problem of how we will deal with equity on a world scale as well – because in the end, I think the truth is that there’s no real way to deal with the question of equity without changing the typical American lifestyle.  The good news is that a lot of us are vaguely (or more than vaguely)  uneasy about the changes that our lifestyle has wrought in our lives anyway – it is an oversimplification to say they haven’t made us happier, because it is more than that – they not only haven’t made us happier, they haven’t made us better.  And that may be the really salient point – that one of the things that would make us happier is the sense that we’re living a more ethical, more just, more natural life, and that we have more power of over our own destinies.  And that’s not possible without dealing with the equity question.

The really good news is that dealing with equity isn’t a one directional loss – it isn’t that if Americans start living a more equitable life they simply lower their standard of living.  They raise our access to power, to self-sufficiency and the confidence in engenders.  Greater equity gives us institutions on a scale we can comprehend and a richness in connection to the world around us.  It is truly a little bit about using less – but even more about being richer.

I hope, personally, that Obama wins the election.  But even if you don’t share my hope, the thing that I’m really hopeful about is this – that in some senses, it doesn’t matter who wins, because we’re going to require whoever “leads” to follow our lead, to address the equity issue.  Presidents come, and thankfully, this president is going.  But presidents are only presidents – the people, well, that’s something else.