[Note: This piece is Part II of The Sustainability of Shangri-La]
“We need a balanced approach,” to fixing our economic problems we heard the President saying time and again in the debates over the deficit ceiling. It was, of course, more a rhetorical appeasement to his Republican opponents, who always seem to rule the linguistics in these confrontations. This was politics, not economic. This was taking the safe, middle ground, although the “middle” has come to be well into the right side of the political spectrum. Boldness, not balance, is what is called for in our economic malaise, but we are not going to see it from this president. He is, as cartoonist Tom Tomorrow [www.thismodernworld.com] portrays him, “Middle Man.” But enough about Obama for now.
Balance has a nice intuitive ring to it. Balanced diet, balanced checkbook, balancing on your bike, balance this, balance that. Things out of balance seem to be headed for something bad; they could tip over. Economists used a related term for balance: equilibrium, a point where things are in a state of balance, although it has other meanngs. Supply equals demand, for example. That has a nice providential ring of balance to it, too.
But equilibrium is just a point, just a snapshot of reality and, as quick as you can say it, or write it, it has moved on, somewhat gyroscopically tending to retain its balance (but sometimes not). You might be, as has become cliché, “in the moment,” but it’s only a moment. The reality is the dictum of Heraclitus that “all things change, nothing remains the same,” or more poetically, “you can’t step into the same river twice.” When you are riding your bike you are in a state of dynamic (changing) equilibrium. The road slopes slightly to the right and you counter its influence by steering slightly to the left, etc. It’s a state of balance, of equilibrium maintained by constant dynamic maintenance.
So balance, equilibrium is a bit of an illusion, especially if we think of it as something in stasis. Static equilibrium is when the sum of all forces acting upon an entity is zero, when things are at rest, stable, inert, when your bike is parked. That lamp sitting on your table is in static equilibrium, the vase of flowers is not. But, of course, both are subject to the (external) forces measured on the Richter Scale. Heraclitus’s dictum applies as much to physics as to politics.
In fact, capitalist economics is always pushing things out of balance; it deliberately creates new demand with innovation—the next iPhone, the next reality show, “ask your doctor.” Novelty, innovation, these are what bring new consumption and new profits and new obsolescence and waste. Supply and demand dance incessantly toward equilibrium on like microeconomic curves. Environmentalists might hanker for something like static equilibrium (sustainability), but it may be impossible to achieve.
Alfred North Whitehead asserted that “Time is in Nature; Nature is not in Time.” We can only ascertain the passage of time by the change in nature. Whitehead ascribed to “process philosophy,” holding that what exists in nature is not just originated and sustained by processesbut is in fact constantly and inexorably characterized by them. On such a view, process is both pervasive in nature and fundamental for its understanding.
It’s a bit of a paradox of life: to live it we have to keep going, re-balancing our existential bikes against the external forces that deny us a static equilibrium (although a large truck could change all that). We never ride down the same road twice, because it is not the same road, but also because we are not the same “we.”
So, you are asking (if you are still reading), “what the hell does this all have to do with the state of our cities, the fate of the economy, with the second coming of Christ? “ (OK, I was just testing you). Well, everything . . . and nothing.
To return to the present state of the economy it is painfully evident that what drives economic policy is the retention of political power of those who are in position to rectify the current dilemma. It is painfully to anyone with an Econ 101 course behind them that the political right is bent on the economic equivalent of treating an anemic patient with leeches. Since the 1930’s the application of Keynesian economics has kept the economic bike fairly upright (indeed, the data for the past half-century show that GDP has grown faster under Democratic administrations). This is where, judiciously governmental spending with high multipliers has been applied by Republicans as well.
Then, as we have addressed elsewhere in these pages [69.4: The Great Shifter 2.19.201], along came Reagan, and with it not only the bogus “supply side” trickle-down economics, but also the insidious destruction of regulative protections against perfidious capitalist greed. Fast forward to where we are today; the top one percent owns nearly half the wealth and with comes the political access and influence to add to it.
The major economists told Obama that he had to be a bold Keynsian to address Bush’s gift to him. But that chance was squandered (and $800billion surge excepted by woefully insufficient) with his obsession with make nice with racist Republicans and along came the obstructionist mid-term Congress. None of this negates the fact that this economy needs spending, not cutting. The main problem is there is no demand because its been killed off with the middle class. Cutting Social Security and Medicare just pisses on their graves. This is where the administration seems to be heading is dangerously wrong. The economy is grossly out of balance. Look at the numbers. That is why it is in danger of tipping over into another recession, or worse. It’s a dangerous game of political economy Obama is playing, playing by middling halves and letting his adversaries distract him with Chicken Little debt default ploys.
So my exercise in ontology does have some relationship to our immediate economic dilemma. The political conservative (depending upon the degree of extremity) is always wedded to some notion of the status quo ante, some “morning in America,” some strict construction of the Constitution, some times that was. They are like those damn superannuated fools who circulate nostalgia on the Internet about how great things were in the “old days” filtering the past with gauze over the lens, hankering to recreate the impossibility of lost moments, and dreaming of a form of capitalism that has existed only in theory. So they are still running around wanting to give the rich more money in false hopes that some will trickle out in investment (rather than offshore banks and foreign industries).
How do you re-balance an unbalanced economy? Well not by policies which attempt to ”balance” policy with the same poison that sickened it. The inertia of static equilibrium has to be broken when the ship of state is dead in the water. Remember that it was Keynes who said that, “in the long run we are all dead.” True, but the long run will be shortened considerably if we are governed by the likes of Perry, Bachmann or Paul.
Balance is but a moment and, sometimes, . . .
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. [W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1921]
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.20.2011)