By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Practically everybody would like our nation’s economic growth to be larger, a larger Gross National Product (GNP). A growing GNP is good, right? Business owners, managers, and investors love it, for it makes them richer. Workers want economic growth, for it means more jobs, higher pay, more benefits to enjoy. Government officials and politicians think growth is great, for it fills the treasury with cash for their programs. Even the arts and charities receive larger donations when everybody is making plenty of money. Yet, economic growth is a bitch goddess, not deserving our worship and adoration, because it’s leading inevitably to the destruction of the planet and the end of humanity.
Recession and depression
Still, economists stress that recessions and depressions are terrible for people and their societies, leading to widespread business failures, bancrupties, deaths of ruined investors jumping out of upper story windows, layoffs of workers, homicides and suicides of desperate fathers, widespread poverty and civil unrest, even revolutions and dictatorships. I agree that recessions should be avoided; but the best way to do that is to avoid economic growth. Each cycle of economic growth sows the seeds of the next recession by encouraging over-spending by consumers and businesses, fostering inefficiencies in production, and fueling inflation.
No growth is best
Monetary inflation from economic growth damages the health of commercial life. Companies make money even with expensive and shoddy products, because prices go up from the time they pay for materials to the time the sell their products. Negligent property owners enrich themselves simply by holding on to assets, paying off loans with depreciated dollars. Worse, well fed people inflate their waists with food or childbearing, which leads to an unhealthy society needing more expensive medical care and more jobs to feed more mouths and to employ new workers. Inflation, if allowed, tends to fluctuate randomly up or down, sometimes becoming uncontrollably high, making it difficult to estimate costs and causing investors to pour their money into unproductive things like gold, silver, or precious stones.
Furthermore, inflation and growth cause the population to increase and pollute the environment more; recession shrinks populations and decreases threats to the planet, but causes suffering and hunger. The best situation to achieve is no growth and no recession, allowing population sizes to reach stable numbers and preserving healthy habitats for humanity and other living things.
A no-growth policy for the GNP and the population is best for our future. The simple life, with few luxuries in food, clothing, shelter and transportation will bring us better health. I try to follow this program in my life, and I recommend this to you and your community. Rich, high-calorie, high-fat foods cause individuals to get diabetes, heart-disease, and stroke. People then go to medicines, surgery, and forced idleness from disabilities, while the GNP increases in health care production to take care of them. Easy mechanical transportation weakens our bodies and deprives us of vital sources of exercise, while giant companies keep producing more automobiles, including gas guzzling SUVs. The GNP gets another boost. Instead of bicycling and walking, we go to gyms and spas to lose fat—more GNP. The Chinese had it right a few decades ago when their streets were like rivers of bicycles, with only a few cars moving slowly in the streams.
A simpler life
Am I proposing a return to the simple life of Jean Jacque Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau? Shall we go back to being noble savages, like the Last of the Mohicans, living the tribal life on the open land or in villages, recapturing our ancient communal life? Yes, to both questions with some exceptions.
I don’t want to give up on civilization which flourishes in larger cities only, or throw away scientific and technical progress, including space exploration, progress that has opened many new vistas that enrich and genuinely bettering our daily lives. Knowledge from scientific investigations is always good to have, and technical inventions can provide us with many tools for the good life in harmony with nature, tools such as solar power, genetics from DNA, and computers–storing, processing, displaying, and communicating vast amounts of information.
I object, however, to the extensive use of medicines and surgeries for diseases which are preventable. Take the simple case of laxatives for constipation filling shelves in our drugstores, constipation easily preventable with more fiber in our foods. How about all the heart and blood vessel surgeries, adding significantly to our GNP, that would be rendered unnecessary with more exercise, less food, and better relaxation methods, such a yoga and tai chi? The best way to control our mounting health care costs is the prevention of disease. Prevention would cause a reduction in the GNP and unemployement among medical workers, until they switched to health services.
Our doctors and hospitals are often erroneously named health workers and health centers. As a rule, they are nothing of the sort. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and hospital staff workers are not trained to disseminate health, but to treat disease, and that is what they practice; they are disease workers. As a result they make high incomes, and contribute much to GNP, but people suffer from unnecessary treatments and surgeries from diseases that could have been prevented by genuine health professionals.
With the exceptions of some infections and accidents damaging our tissues, medical treatments are a waste of money and other resources. Medicine doesn’t have a treatment for the common cold, although again our drustore shelves are stacked with palliatives for it; but nature does. Nature fights colds, flues and many other infections with a strong immune system, which we acquire eating small amounts of good foods, exercising, being cheerful, and getting enough rest. Such disease prevention would not add much to our vaunted GNP.
Best of all ways to improve the health of the population is to encourage births of healthy babies, with thorough prenatal care and selection of fit parents. Such selection is readily feasible in totalitarian regines, as it was in Nazi Germany or today’s China. In democratic societies voters may agree to give more tax deductions and other aid for child bearing and rearing to the physically and mentally fit couples, rather than to the unfit, fitness determined by standardized tests without regard to race, religion, or roots. We breed animals and plants for those merits useful to humans: cows for milk, race horses for speed, corn for larger cobs. For merits in people we don’t own as slaves, we can go further than superficial characteristics: hair or eye color; bodily size; shape of lips, ears, or nose. With teachings and customs, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and a few other religious or ethnic groups encourage large families for their members, without regard to any merits of the parents other than their reproductive abilities.
If you learn from statistics that congenital diseases and defects are increasing with each generation in spite of better nutrition, education, training, and medical care, you know we are having problems with the genes in our population.
In the long run, nothing will improve our society more than continuously improving the gene pool with respect to intelligence, character, and health of individuals in the population; otherwise, no charity, no welfare, no safety net, no social security, no government health insurance, no freedom, no justice, no equality, no employment, no compassion for the unfortunate among us, none of the above will do much to stop the decline in the quality of our people. The Earth doesn’t need more people; it needs better people.
Hard times make us stronger
We’ll have better, healthier, stronger, wiser people, not only with genetics, but also, as I have stated earlier, with disciplines such as those imposed on us by deep recessions. Hard times, in moderation, produce strong people; easy times allow butter-soft, weak individuals to float up.
Let’s begin with you and me. If we lie down on our favorite couch or armchair many hours a day watching television or passing the time idly otherwise, our bodies and our brains soon become lethargic, weak, and fragile. We get strong and energetic again when we get up and work our muscles and brains hard enough.
Next, what is best for our children, grandchildren, students, and other charges, is raising them up, not to a life of ease and comfort, but to the strenuous life, as Theodore Roosevelt called it. You want your charges to be tough, confident, successful, independent, and free? Then give them enough challenges to overcome, suitable to their level of growth. You may appear to be cruel and heartless to them; You need to explain the reasons for your behaviour to them. You can still be there to comfort, encourage, and give them a helping hand when they crash; cheer them on when they fly high in the face of steep difficulties and stiff competition. The steel of heart, mind, and spirit is forged in the searing heat of battle.
As it goes for individuals so it is for societies. Even if elected to office, good leaders don’t coddle but challenge the people, applying discipline. If a community enjoys riches, luxuries, and ease, civilization may emerge and fine arts, but soon, grown strong in hardship, barbarians break down the gates of the city, torch great buildings, steal or trample priceless treasures, put the defeated people to the sword and ravish young virgins.
Recession, deprivation, pain–bring them on. When competitive pressure eases up, we become slack in our ways. With economic growth, we build more houses and shopping centers, cutting down trees, denuding the land of its vital green essence, wasting the soils, the waters, the very breath of life. We waste more, we pollute more, we despoil more of the Earth’s purity.
Again in hard times, when jobs are scarce, family members are brought close together as of old, extending the reach of love to all in need, supporting each other. In poor Bali, Indonesia, extended families build compounds for children, brothers, sisters, and their children, with a communal kitchen in the center to share whatever food is available. The country is clean, unspoiled, and peaceful, no structure rising above the level of the trees. That’s not such a bad life; at least it’s free of loneliness.
Consumerism is back
In America, back in the sixties we had a movement away from consumerism. Young people resisted the siren song of Madison Avenue for more goods, luxuries, cars, and perfumes. In Berkeley, California, students buried automobiles in the dirt. Elsewhere, youngsters built domes with old cartops, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesics. A counter culture of communes, anti-war sentiment, and anti-materialism arose, giving me hope for the greening of America. The Beetles sang, “All You Need Is Love,” and young people turned on to flowers, romance, and high hope, dropping out of the rat race of the consumer society. What happened to the greening of America? Where did we drown our aspirations for an ecological society? When did we forget our vision of a green Earth, and learned to love the SUV?
In 1973, after a waging war on Israel that we supported, Arab countries imposed an oil embargo on the West. Richard Milhouse Nixon fell from power after the antics of his minions at Watergate, and in 1976, Jimmy Carter, the successor in the presidency, began a program of energy independence for America, and a move away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, launching a vigorous program of tax cuts, de-regulation, and a defense build up against the Soviet Union in the midst of a severe recession. Oil producing states and companies started playing a different game, providing cheap energy, and getting us hooked again on gasoline. The economy boomed. Detroit flourished anew, providing us with muscle cars, huge gas guzzlers, culminating in the obscenely wasteful Hummer SUV. These days the Detroit culture of waste and pollution is sinking. Should we not be cheering this event, instead of throwing lifesavers of our tax money to Detroit?
Learn to love the recession
Cheer the recession on, love it and profit from the opportunities. House prices collapse, so housing for those who are employed becomes affordable again. Unemployed professionals start new enterpises, as they have always done in a recession, some of which enterprises will become the new Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Xerox, Microsoft, Google, of the new economic re-birth. But let us not forget to stop the growth in the economy before it begins to wreck our hard-won disciplines of thrift and efficiency, before it resumes the wrecking of our human habitat.
Growth for military strength
I have shown in what ways economic growth is a bitch and recession good for our people. I now come to the argument for growth based on the ability it gives us to be strong militarily and diplomatically, in the sense of giving other nations money to make them our friends. True, a military establishment is costly, but some nations do fine without one or a small one, like Costa Rica, Sweden, and Malaysa. We can manage with a much smaller defense apparatus, if we are willing to forego a dominant position in the world. We can then defend ourselves with worthy alliances and the promotion of an effective world government.
Moreover, safety comes not only from strength but from being clever also. We don’t need to possess massive weapons which cost a lot, but advanced weapons in the hands of small but highly skilled and motivated defense forces. Instead of placing large, expensive armies in harms way as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can strike enemies from the air or from space when the situation warrants that we punish them.
We should not keep forgetting the lessons we learned about the limits of our military power from Viet Nam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. When facing determined enemies who have no regard for human life, we would do better to keep our distance and fight them with unconventional weapons.
Recessions are not necessary
So much said is enough for what I am against in economic growth and for what I am in favor in recessions. I am not against all growth, progress, and technology. I don’t believe we have to have recessions to profit from self discipline and challenges. If the economy and the nation are going smoothly, that is the time to choose new challenges for ourselves from an inner need to achieve, such as our goal to land atronauts on the moon, set up by the Kennedy administration. That was a glorious period in our history when our rockets went higher and higher into space, finally landing our people on Earth’s satellite. We have not followed up that great achievement well enough.
I just don’t admire economic growth based on expensive cosmetic or other unnecessary surgeries, gambling casinos, liquor, cigarettes, pornography, cruise ships with no practical destination, fancy clothing, fattening foods, diet centers, expensive drugs for otherwise manageable conditions, new cars every three or four years, wasting of fuel and other energy sources, water wasting lawns, bigger houses filled with more stuff, idiotic entertainments, and expensive perfumes. I liked the lifestyles promoted by the Mother Earth Catalog with inexpensive products and techniques for sustainable agriculture, housing, and transportation. Why did Mother Earth Catalog close down? Who bought the operation? Who bought the electric trolley cars in our cities, ripped up the rail, and built freeways?
The failure of capitalism
We’ve seen the failure of fascism and nazism, the failure of socialism and communism, thank God; and now we’ve seen the failure of capitalism, in an orgy of greed, in the concentration of money, power, and influence in just a few hands around the world. What social system shall we now institute?
We will not find the best social system in authoritarian ways, or in communal attempts, or capitalistic greed. I was once carried forward by the greed for money, which took me beyond need. I was in such a period in my life where I had achieved financial independence by means of hard work and shrewd investments. I had financial independence, income for all my reasonable needs with a simple lifestyle.
Uncontrolled ambition and greed caused me to lose everything I had achieved financially in the Reagan recession of 1981. I resolved then that if ever again I acquired enough wealth for my family’s needs, I would never be seduced by consumerism, the lust for more money, more power, more fame. Enough would be enough then; and so it happened. Now I seek and try to practice the simple life with my modest but safe financial resources. I wouldn’t go as far as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but simple enough.
My brother and I cultivate an orchard and vegetable garden on a small piece of land for our own use and enjoyment. We live in modest houses without mortgages or expensive furniture. We drive old cars in good repair. Our produce is not enough to live on, but it saves us some money, and it’s fresh, organic, and delicious. Our entire nation would do well to follow a simple way of living, instead of mortgaging its future for expensive cars and houses, fancy foods and clothing, trips abroad, and silly luxuries. Bank the income you save thus and invest it in solid companies. You will profit, your family will get ahead, and the country will be solvent and prosperous.