While Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, celebrates being able to speak frankly without fear of retaliation, and White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki promises to bring back daily press briefings and speak truthfully, I think it is time to speak frankly of another great misrepresentation that needs to be set aside once and for all:
Capitalism as a basis for social and economic policy.
Capitalism measures its success in the growth of the gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in a given period (a year). Economists agree that 3 percent GDP is needed to maintain a “natural level” of unemployment.
Leaving aside the question of what a natural level of unemployment is, which is sufficient unemployment to keep wages stagnating and the political and social capital of labor negligible, let’s break that down to the household level.
An optimal growth in GDP means that every year you need to consume 3 percent more than you did last year. Let’s say you bought winter clothes last year: a set of long undies, a parka and a pair of insulated pants. You added a hat to match, marched to the register, and threw down your credit card to the tune of $1,200.
You’d expect that outfit to last you several seasons. If you’re Bernie Sanders, you’d expect that outfit to last you several decades.
But you’re committed to capitalism and measuring success through GDP. In order to grow the economy you’d need to buy another outfit next year: $1,236.
And the year after: $1,273.
By the fourth year of this unbridled consumption stuffing one more jacket into your closet is going to become a major challenge. It may, sometime around year six of your endless cycle of winter outfit purchases, become impossible to jam one more jacket into your closet, one more pair of wooly socks into your drawers.
Especially if you’ve been buying Darn Tough socks. Those things never wear out.
Biologists and economists call the wall you’ve just hit the “ecological ceiling.” The conditions in your house that make it possible to thrive have been breached if every square inch is covered in puffy jackets and perky hats.
In global terms we cease to survive, let alone thrive, when certain planetary boundaries are crossed. When there is too much air pollution, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, the biodiversity loss extends beyond polar bears and penguins and starts making strong inroads on people.
However, if there is an ecological ceiling, there is also a floor. Too few winter layers and you’re going to freeze your tuchus off. Particularly when it is in the single digits with the wind whistling about.
British economist Kate Raworth calls this spot between the necessities required for a decent life, and the boundaries of what is environmentally sustainable “the donut,” and her organization the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.
If you’re tempted to wave away Doughnut Theory as so much magical thinking let me remind you that capitalism relies on “the invisible hand” as a guiding principle of its theory. Economics is not a physical science; it is, at best, a social science, a philosophical and social descriptor, a human creation. And as such, unlike the laws of gravity, it can be rethought — and changed.
Likewise, society has the power to chart a new course simply by adopting new measures of success. To ask Americans, in the wake of a massive disinformation and propaganda campaign orchestrated by the highest office in the country, to trust their government in the same way, as an example, Iceland’s citizens trust their government with the Youth In Iceland program, is a huge leap.
We’re having enough trouble just getting people to trust the science, wear masks appropriately, and practice social distancing when their own lives are at stake.
But capitalism, as the dominant measure of social success, has had its day. Even as he was formulating his theories Adam Smith recognized that carrying capitalism to its logical extreme would doom the many to abject poverty, strip and plunder natural resources and concentrate great wealth and power among the very few. Capitalism, in its final stages, does not offer a satisfactory framework by which to measure social health and well-being.
The prior administration may represent the last, fatal, gasp of capitalism, with its unbridled greed, lack of self-restraint and disinterest in the social and environmental costs of a system ill-suited to the realities of ecological ceilings and planetary boundaries.
Do you know what a revolution sounds like?
It is almost a whisper.
It is the sound of a pen signing a seemingly insignificant little memo released on the eve of the inauguration. “Modernizing Regulatory Review” directs the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the office charged with vetting proposed regulation, to change direction.
Instead of a narrow focus on cost/benefit analysis, where the cost of a regulation is weighed against potential for profit, the office’s director has been ordered to proactively encourage agencies to develop rules that benefit the public.
Instead of corporate and private profit, regulatory reviews should instead promote “public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity and the interests of future generations.”
In several hundred years economists are going to look back on this moment, just as they once looked back at Adam Smith’s seminal work, as a defining moment in how value is expressed. No longer defined by limitless profit and greed, but by the space between, the sweet spot between what is sustainable, and what is necessary for all to thrive.
Just as you wonder what it must have been like to live in a feudal economy, sustained by unwilling serfs and brutality, so too will your great grandchildren marvel at those who once lived under a capitalist economy, sustained by environmental degradation and massive inequality.
“I was there,” you can tell them. “I saw the revolution. But it passed by so quietly we hardly noticed.”
Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe.