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December 1996, Volume 4 Nr 4, Issue 40

Economics

Gene Rodenberry's creation Star Trek is testament to what human beings may some day become. The ever-evolving crew of the Starship Enterprise, over the past thirty years has largely eliminated the racial, sexual, social and religious tension that plague life on our planet today. Often ignored by non-trekkers, the Star Trek television series, along with the expanding universe of Star Trek movies, have created a social entity called the Federation, where the best of human (and other) potential is realized. The Paramount Internet site states, "Part of Star Trek's cultural phenomena has always been its accurate reflection of human social concerns."

Our family recently saw the newest movie, Star Trek: First Contact. The Enterprise and her crew time travel back to the year 2063, where planet Earth is about to establish first contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life. This intelligence has been drawn to Earth through the warp signature of a space vehicle of human design and construction. In other words, humanity has been noticed when it has technologically evolved to the point of achieving faster than light space travel.

A significant portion of the movie's plot revolves around a twenty-first century human, Lily, who finds her way aboard the Enterprise where she inevitably engages Captain Jean Luc Picard in a conversation. What struck me about the exchange was Jean Luc Picard explaining to Lily that twenty-fourth century human beings no longer place emphasis on the accumulation of wealth. Picard goes on to say, humans now choose to "better themselves" instead.

I feel with more intensity than ever before that economics has invaded our lives to such an extent that it is more and more in control. It seems that everything we do, how we relate to each other, what we see as our future, and how we view ourselves, is tied to economics. Karl Marx wrote,

Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals.

Money is an object and money is external to people. I not only suspect that money is by its very nature alienable to people, but that it is the root by which we alienate ourselves from each other.

The Celestine Prophecy, a wildly popular (and poorly written) novel, speaks of metaphysical insights including an energy economy. The fourth of author James Redfield's nine insights as summarized by Alan Atkisson in New Age Journal, August, 1994 states,

An unconscious competition for energy underlies all conflicts. By dominating or manipulating others, we get the extra energy we think we need. Sure, it feels good - but both parties are damaged in the conflict.

So many people experience all relationships in terms of economics.

Diminishing Value of Work

I am the son, the only child, of immigrant Polish parents. Like them, I too am an immigrant, being born in England. I distinctly recall the hours that my father and mother spent working to support the family in a land that then, like now, has a prejudice against foreigners. That prejudice has shifted from nationality to nationality, as if one group, upon acquiring acceptance and buying into the promise of the American dream, has to pass on a necessary hardship to newer newcomers, similar to freshman pledging for a fraternity. The misgivings of such a system are obvious. There are always groups, based upon external differences, that don't quite blend in well enough to be accepted as part of the whole.

My father Jan worked for thirty-five years in a bakery. He was a loafer, pulling a dozen loaves of enriched bromated white bread out of the oven at one time. He stood on his feet, twelve to sixteen hours per day, in front of a hot oven that never stopped circulating thousands of loaves of baking bread. Jan never declined working overtime for two reasons. First, the family benefited from the extra income, and second, he was afraid that refusing overtime might lose him his job.

I didn't see my father very much because he left for work before I arrived home from school. My mother, Stanislawa, left on the subway for Manhattan soon after I came home. She was a cleanfill, working for a financial center on Wall Street. She cleaned banks and stock brokerage offices as well as adjoining bathrooms, stocking them with amenities such as toilet paper, paper towels and hand soap. I did not see her much either.

I remember my father once saying that, "We should kiss the ground. America is the sweetest soil on Earth - as long as you have your health and you can work." My father and mother's relationship with each other, me and the community was dictated by the economics of the times.

I often wonder what thirty-five years working for the Company meant to my parents. They seldom had time for themselves. They never enjoyed a vacation and rarely traveled. They felt that illness could come at any time, ending a productive working life. For them, America was Jersey City NJ, a melting pot of people, work, sleep, crime and uncertainty.

For all the uncertainty, they managed to save money for the future. Food was plentiful. The bills were always paid in full. Interestingly, neither of my parents ever used a credit card, a checkbook, nor had they ever applied for a loan, not even for the house they owned.

By the time baby boomers had children of their own, the economic situation had changed dramatically. As family income inched forward, it became more and more difficult for them to make ends meet. Today, unlike their parents, baby boomers have not been able to save very much. Quite the contrary, their debt inches forward until one day they are shocked to discover the extent of what they owe.

The problem is simple. The minimum wage is worth less than it used to be. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the value of the minimum wage has fallen by nearly 50 cents since 1991. This is equivalent to 12% off every pay check. More importantly, it is money denied to those who need it most - minimum wage earners. The result is even greater income polarization."

Thirty years ago, the top execs at the 30 largest companies made 44 times what the average worker got...A minimum-wage worker would have to work for 419 years to earn what the average chief of a big company got last year."

Growing Disparity

The rate of inflation and the cost of living have outpaced the increase in wages. Although the productivity of the American worker has increased dramatically in the past decade, factory worker pay has gone up sixteen percent while chief executive pay has gone up ninety-two percent (in the past six years).

The United Auto Workers, many of whose members cannot afford the automobiles that they help manufacture, maintains a homepage on the Internet where a comparison can be made between a working class wage, minimum wage and CEO compensation. I entered my teaching salary and the system returned the following results:

It would take you 82 years to earn what the average chief at a big company made last year. On the other hand, in just 10 weeks you make what it takes a minimum wage worker a year to earn.

Lawrence Coss is the Chief Executive Officer of Green Tree Financial Group. Green Tree loans money to people for them to purchase the usual things: homes, cars, motorcycles, trailers, construction improvements, etc.

In 1995, Lawrence Coss was paid, $31,528 an hour, $252,230 a day, and $1,261,153 a week. That adds up to $65.6 million in salary and bonus for the year.

What has happened since the time my parents were part of the productive work force is that worker productivity has increased to point where the US worker is the most productive in the world at the same time that the purchasing price of the dollar has fallen. Inflation has outpaced salary increases. Those who own the means of production however, have seen their salaries skyrocket to the point where their incomes for one year are higher than the lifetime income of the average United States worker.

If, as Marx said, "Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him", then the ultrawealth of the top one-percent who possess most of everything is the ultimate in alienation. Not only does it alienate the poor from the rich, it alienates all of us from each other since all our systems - political, economic, social, etc. - are designed to separate rather to join. That way, we continue to argue amongst ourselves over issues such as a twenty-five cent increase in minimum wage rather than address one real source of our malaise - widening income disparity

In the presidential election of 1996, much has been said about labor's multimillion contribution to the Democratic Party and the reelection of President Bill Clinton. Little however, has been said about corporate contributions to politicians, typically to the Republican Party. These corporate contributions outpaced labor by at least four-to-one. While laborers struggle to raise their wages to keep in line with the increasing cost of living, the Corporations, through the mechanism of downsizing and the insatiable need for increasing the increases in profits, alter policy through political paybacks purchased in the form of political contributions.

While the corporations attempt to disparage the labor movement, claiming them to be too powerful, it is they, the corporations that are exactly so. In the Sunday Rutland Times Argus of November 24, 1996, it was reported that:

The combined sales of the top 200 [corporations] last year were $7.1 trillion, bigger than the American GDP [Gross Domestic Product] and bigger than the combine GDP of 182 nations - all the world's nations except the nine biggest.

Who Benefits?

What does humanity get with the concentration of wealth in the hands of so few? If we are to believe the trickle-down economists, we might accept the megamultinational corporations as benevolent enterprises, providers of employment for the masses. If the corporate operating philosophy were truly such, then it would be self-evident that people come before profits. Livable wages with meaningful employment would be the rule, distributing profits equitably throughout society, especially to those who produce the goods that make the corporation viable and successful. Precisely, the opposite happens.

Overall, the top 200 [corporations], with 28 percent of the world's economy, employ barely one-third of 1 percent of the world's workers.

The population of Planet Earth is rapidly growing. The richest country in terms of human resources, China, is in the midst of an economic and industrial growth not seen since the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. Imagine, a half-billion or more people embracing the capitalist model. The combined population of the so-called developing countries, all vying for the lifestyle of the West, will at some time undevelop the first world. As jobs head toward China, India and the Pacific Rim, where a wage earner makes as low as thirty-five cents per hour, jobs in the United States will continue to disappear. As this happens, more and more people will be treated globally as commodities, they and their labor sold as goods to the lowest bidder, useful, as my father said, so long as they have their health and are capable of work; especially useful, if they hunger for work, competing with each other for the limited jobs at subsistence wages and less.

The entire discussion thus far has centered on the underlying apparatus at the heart of global capitalism. Yet, how can any global economic system be considered successful when starvation is so common? Eight-hundred-million people around the world face starvation daily. I think it obscene that economic systems exist which allow millions of people to live in hunger while accommodating one individual in earning $252,230 a day.

Crisis

Nations, just like corporations, are equally active participants in contributing to the problem. Nations, are in fact, corporations. Their borders separate, creating varying economic systems leading to disparity between people both within and without those borders. One would think, if one were hopeful, that the twenty-first century could witness a transformation in global thinking, transforming world reality a step closer to the science fiction of Star Trek.. That transformation, I believe, will come out of necessity as the "developing countries" approach the status of the "developed" nations and the distinctions between us begin to fade. We will then all be a part of the Third World with nowhere to go but to place people, humanity, before profits on a global scale.

Baseball Cards

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is the master of the Japanese poetry form called Haiku. Basho traveled throughout Japan composing haiku which, in Japan, classically consists of seventeen syllables in three lines, which relate to when, where, why. The haiku is meant to elicit strong emotion. Here is Basho's most famous haiku:

furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

old pond;
a frog leaps in
water's sound

WJH

Recently, host Bob Edwards of National Public Radio talked with T. R. Reid about the discovery of a three-hundred year old manuscript of Basho's writings. "Reid compares the find to uncovering a book containing William Shakespeare's original plays." The NPR story then goes to ask whether the discover of the manuscript, who happened to come across the find by searching for his personal belongings in the house in which he lived after it had collapsed, was going to be rich. What would the value of this manuscript be? The manuscript would be given to a museum. The literary find would not, as is often the case in the United States, be sold, or possessed for its anticipated value.

Contrast this to the recently completed baseball World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees where a young boy reaches out over the edge of the fence and catches a fly ball, giving the batting team a home run and a victory. Catching the ball and the desire to do so in itself, is not a dishonorable intention. In US culture however, the ball, unlike the Basho manuscript, becomes a possession prized for its dollar value, a collectible which often sells for thousands of dollars. People scramble and jump over each other at the ballpark in order to possess and sell these "collectibles"..

When I was a youngster, my friends and I had fun trading and flipping baseball cards. We did not, as is common today, save them for their worth as items to be protected in plastic sleeves and sold at a later date for profit. The same Topps Willie Mays baseball card that I flipped with friends for fun in 1961, that came out of a pack of cards with a dusty sliver of bubble gum, is now available in protective jackets for $195.00.

The economics of baseball cards, as it has changed over the past thirty years, is indicative of the change in the message that youngsters receive from a society that has incorporated money into it's moment-to-moment consciousness. We are focused on economic advantage in our daily relations with each other and have elevated economic philosophy to status of religion. Contrast this philosophy to that of the Catholic Worker Movement. Started on May 1, 1933, May Day, when Dorothy Day, a journalist, and Peter Maurin, a philosopher, began a newspaper called, The Catholic Worker. This newspaper is still available today for a subscription price of $0.01 (one penny) per issue. (It's two bits for a year's subscription).

Grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person, their movement was committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. It wasn't long before Dorothy and Peter were putting their beliefs into action, opening a 'house of hospitality' where the homeless, the hungry, and the forsaken would always be welcome...attempt to alleviate the sufferings of the poor by adopting lives of voluntary poverty in order to be free for direct, personal involvement, not so much dispensing charity as sharing in the lives of others.

The Catholic Worker Movement and the newspaper by the same name, continues today. When I read The Catholic Worker, while I do not have the commitment to voluntary poverty, I often center my thoughts somewhere between the prevalent unbridled economics of profit and greed all around us, and the possibility that the world can be a better place when we take on the role of helpers and caretakers of each other.

At the age of forty-seven, I may be too old to witness the event in my lifetime. I am hopeful however. I firmly believe that economics will so alienate the masses in time, that as modern predatory Capitalism reaches middle age and midlife crisis, the people will adjust their thinking accordingly and stop living their lives with their hands in their pocketbook and start living their lives with their hearts and hands extended in helping each other. Perhaps, reaching this cross road, nations and corporations alike will join them. To do otherwise is to flirt with catastrophe.

Quotes

Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods - in order that the creations of the mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

Address, California Institute of Technology 1931
Albert Einstein

In his role as Elizabeth's favorite Raleigh was quick to seek benefits and rewards. The queen once rebuked him mildly for his rapacity, saying 'When will you cease to be a beggar?' When you cease to be a benefactress, ma'am,' replied Raleigh.

Raleigh

"In the United States, every person elected president in this century has been the person who spent the largest amount of money. Was this money well spent in the service of virtue or was it money ill-spent, the candidate saying what had to be said to get elected?

The Catholic Worker, October-November, 1996

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

The New Testament

Since the Depression, few Americans have thought of work reduction as a natural, continuous, and positive result of economic growth and increased productivity. Instead, additional leisure has been seen as a drain on the economy, a liability on wages, and the abandonment of economic progress."Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

1996 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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