29 April 2010

stimulate the economy: get sick. get divorced. eat junk food

This is just the first part of a speech described below as it appeared in Harper's magazine. Just to get you started. Crawford will probably have you read the whole thing--and ask lots of questions about it--when you get to work on the ciTy oF drEaMs unit in his class. What do those people on TV mean when they say "the economy grew" by x or y percent? What is the economy? Is it a means or an end?

Our phony economy
By Jonathan Rowe

From testimony delivered March 12 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce. Rowe is codirector of West Marin Commons, a community-organizing group, in California.

Suppose that the head of a federal agency came before this committee and reported with pride that agency employees had burned 10 percent more calories at work last year than they did the year before. Not only that–they had spent 10 percent more money too. I have a feeling you would want to know more. What were these employees doing when they burned those calories? What did they spend that money on? Most important, what were the results? Expenditure is a means, not an end, and to assess the health of an agency, or system, you need to know what it has accomplished, not just how much motion it has generated and money it has spent. The point seems obvious, yet Congress ignores it every day when it talks about “the economy.” The administration and the media do it, too. Every time you say that “the economy” is up, or that you want to “stimulate” it, you are urging more expenditure and motion without regard to what that expenditure is and what it might accomplish, and without regard to what it might crowd out or displace in the process.

That term “the economy”: what it means, in practice, is the Gross Domestic Product–a big statistical pot that includes all the money spent in a given period of time. If the pot is bigger than it was the previous quarter, or year, then you cheer. If it isn’t bigger, or bigger enough, then you call Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke up here and ask him to do some explaining. The what of the economy makes no difference in these councils. It never seems to come up. The money in the big pot could be going to cancer treatments or casinos, violent video games or usurious credit-card rates. It could go toward the $9 billion or so that Americans spend on gas they burn while they sit in traffic, or the billion plus that goes to such drugs as Ritalin and Prozac that schools are stuffing into kids to keep them quiet in class. The money could be the $20 billion or so that Americans spend on divorce lawyers each year, or the $41 billion on pets, or the $5 billion on identity theft, or the billions more spent to repair property damage caused by environmental pollution. The money in the pot could betoken social and environmental breakdown–misery and distress of all kinds. It makes no difference. You don’t ask. All you want to know is the total amount, which is the GDP. So long as it is growing then everything is fine.

I am not talking about an obscure technical measure. This is not stuff for the folks in the back room. I am talking about what you mean when you use that term “the economy.” Few words induce such a reverential hush in these halls. Few words are so laden with authority and portent. When you say “the economy” is up, no news is better. When you argue that a proposal will help the economy or hurt it, then you have played the ultimate trump card in your polemical deck, bin Laden possibly excepted.

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