THE BLOG
04/12/2007 12:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Kurt Vonnegut -- Who Is Our Economy FOR, Anyway?

"How to love people who have no use?" I wrote this at my blog Seeing the Forest in 2003:

Who Is Our Economy For, Anyway?

Robert Reich, writing about the loss of manufacturing jobs:

"America has been losing manufacturing jobs to China, Latin America and the rest of the developing world. Right? Well, not quite. It turns out that manufacturing jobs have been disappearing all over the world. Economists at Alliance Capital Management in New York took a close look at employment trends in 20 large economies recently, and found that since 1995 more than 22 million factory jobs have disappeared.

In fact, the United States has not even been the biggest loser. Between 1995 and 2002, we lost about 11 percent of our manufacturing jobs. But over the same period, the Japanese lost 16 percent of theirs. And get this: Many developing nations are losing factory jobs. During those same years, Brazil suffered a 20 percent decline.

Here's the real surprise. China saw a 15 percent drop. China, which is fast becoming the manufacturing capital of the world, has been losing millions of factory jobs."

It's not just that we're shipping more and more of our jobs to other countries, and we are, but it looks as though the world really may be reaching the point where we need fewer people working to get done the things we need to get done. You hear about "high productivity." Well, that is what "high productivity" MEANS. Even China is losing manufacturing jobs.

And the answer isn't retraining people to move into higher-level jobs. When I moved to Silicon Valley in 1980, everyone was talking about retraining auto workers for tech jobs. Well, now in Silicon Valley almost the only jobs in the paper are for auto mechanics.

Wealth is concentrating as never before. The rich aren't just getting richer and richer anymore -- the concentration is way beyond that. And the opportunity avenues the rest of us expect from the social contract that tolerates such wealth are not expanding. If you look around at all the supposed prosperity -- the big houses, the SUVs, the electronic toys, nice clothes, etc. -- you should also understand what is supporting it: Massive debt. Massive, massive debt on a scale never before seen. Everyone thinks they are rich now, and are doing what it takes to live that way. It is the cultural expectation now, and I think this illusion is a way of avoiding accepting the concentration that is occurring and accepting that we are working harder, but receiving less and less of the benefits. The only way for most of us to achieve that lifestyle is to refinance our houses, run up our credit cards, and elect leaders who encourage all of that while running the country the same way. Massive, massive debt. Everywhere. A bankrupt philosophy surely expressing itself one day with real-world bankruptcy.

If something is unsustainable, it won't be sustained. We are all frantically trying to find new ways to buy time. Perhaps if we can sustain things another month we will turn the corner. Perhaps we'll get a raise in time. Perhaps tax revenue will increase in time. Perhaps the stock market will go back to where it was and our pensions will be there for us. Perhaps we'll win the lottery. But what is happening is that the money is draining upwards. As we work longer hours, and more members of our families enter the job market just to cover the house payments, the insurance payments, the childcare and the increasing cable-TV and credit card bills, the banker who collects our interest payments, and the owners and executives of the insurance companies are gobbling up more and more of the world's resources to "own" for themselves. Our government is even preparing to sell off our national parks -- another transfer of "ownership" of OUR resources to the priviledged FEW.

In the end, a very basic question will need to be addressed. Who is our economy FOR, anyway? This is a very dangerous question, and just asking it leads to places that many of us have not gone in our thinking, and many of us certainly don't want the rest of us to go. And, of course, the corollary question: Who is our GOVERNMENT for? Is it US, after all, or not?

You learned in grade school that "we" decide the laws and policies of OUR government. WE are our government -- that's what our government IS: US, grouping together to decide things. "Of the people, by the people and FOR the people." We even decide who "owns" what, and we do so because it supposedly benefits all of us. For example, no one "owns" the air or the oceans or the state capital building or the right to cut off your arm.

In many other countries now, (and in America until just a few years ago), there are some limits on how much of the public resources (money) one person can acquire. High taxes are imposed after a person has brought in some large amount for him or herself. Then, much of the rest is put to use for the benefit of the overall public. If a person has hit the jackpot and is bringing in, say, $10 million a year, anything beyond that is taxed at a high rate. Everyone benefits from this. The jackpot winner is bringing in a huge sum, but the public is also benefiting from having made the collective decisions that set up the system. In Europe the workday is shorter, they get 6 weeks average vacation per year, their health care is covered, AND they get generous pensions when they retire. This is because they have set up a system that works for THEM. But in America, we are degenerating into a form of feudalism, where the super-rich rule over the rest of us, to their benefit.

"Ownership" is only a concept. It is nothing more than a right that is granted by government -- US -- and only for the benefit of US. Corporations are not entities created by nature, they are structures created and defined by laws, and defined by law, and supposedly for the benefit of the public. Why else would we have passed the laws that set them up?

Remember, feudal lords "owned" the right to sleep with any bride on her wedding night.

"... a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?

In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering and probably medicine too. So, if we can't find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as so often has been suggested, rub them out."

- Kilgore Trout, in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater