Economics of Happiness vs. Corporate Globalization

I just watched the condensed version of the award winning film, “The Economics of Happiness.” It is available on the Local Futures website. It confirms just about all the research findings on climate change, globalization, poverty, pollution, violence, and a host of other issues I have followed for the past decade while writing my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation.

The book is in the last stages of editing before submission for publication. So, given the complexities of the publishing industry it is not likely to be released until the end of the year — assuming everything goes well. Meanwhile, I will be renovating this website and include some excerpts from the book in a new section of pages.

Part of the research I’ve been engaged in while writing the book involves trying to understand the idea of progress as it has evolved in the industrial age and how that relates to actual human happiness. As it turns out, genuine happines — as compared with the momentary exhiliration that might result from buying some new product — is found most consistently among people who live in just a few places in the world. Those places,  called “Blue Zones,” those few places in the world where the special circumstances just seem to produce contentment, and where most of the world’s centenarians live. They have completely avoided globalization…so far.

In contrast, most of us live in cities and suburbs where we are increasingly isolated from real face-to-face relationships that are not mediated by complex institutional requirements imposed upon our time and our minds. Our relations are increasingly mediated by complex economic and institutional requirements that leave little room for direct human relationships with other persons — as themselves.

Our emotional, personal, interpersonal, and thereby cultural lives become entangled with a process of “intermediation” by layers of social complexity. This is embodied by corporate state taken as a whole, the essence of what Chris Hedges calls “The Empire of Illusion.” The globalized economic-growth leviathon is the “technosphere” that Dmitry Orlov argues we must shrink to improve the declining odds for human survival.

Sheldon Wolin refers to the larger political-economic structure of the corporate state in which we live as the “inverted totalitarianism” of Democracy, Incorporated. An essential element of complex civilizations is the “intermediation” of endless layers of social complexity between people who would otherwise simply exchange one valued good or service for another — or just socialize face to face.

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, attributes the collapse of complex societies throughout history to such complexities. John Michael Greer predicts a Dark Age America resulting from the convergence of climate change, economic crises and cultural collapse, the beginnings of which we already experience. He predicts a process of “disintermediation” of economic activity over the coming several hundred years, accompanied by major population decline, leading to a new feudal period.

I think ecological, climate, and societal collapse will unfold much faster than Greer expects, unless drastic climate action and radical societal re-organization can be initiated very soon. Many others, of course, comfortably assume that economic growth and technological innovation can get us out of any fix. They are dead wrong.

Michael.E.Mann

Michael E. Mann

Jon Foley, in a conversation with Michael Mann on the occasion of Mann’s receipt of the seventh annual Stephen Schneider Award, said that in contrast to such blind optimism, “Hope is where you role up your sleeves and get to work.” That is the kind of Hopeful Realism I like to hear.

 

The Upside-Down Economy

The idea that the financial markets are the essential force that drives economic growth and progress, has dominated political thinking for too long. The financial markets and their agents have dominated politics and the Congress over recent decades more than ever before. After all, it took several decades for the financial elite to accomplish the complete abandonment of the controls instituted to prohibit the financial market excesses that caused the Great Depression. We are at greater risk today of an even bigger crash than 1929.

The U.S. and world economies are stumbling on the precipice of part II of the “Great Recession” of 2008. The global integration of financial markets and institutions put the entire world at risk and none of it has any democratic foundation. It is all happening against the will of the people and in opposition to the public interest. The massive contraction of the middle class and the swelling of the ranks of the poor are now undeniable. The so called “recovery” has been all about the financial elites and the stock market. Corporations are awash in cash. Those who lost jobs that had a livable wage can now only find minimal-wage jobs and must work at least two to pay rent. The real economy falters and the financial markets are built on quicksand.

The Disappearing Real Economy

The economy is upside down because real economic activity – the production and exchange of goods and services needed by the people in their everyday lives – no longer drives the global economic system. The most powerful economic force in the world today consists of the actions of multinational corporations attempting to continually grow consumption by reducing the costs of growing production. International “free trade” is in effect the removal of production from the nation – outsourcing.

To minimize cost and maximize output, capital is moved to poor nations with the least labor costs and environmental controls. Economic “globalization” allows U.S. corporations to import cheap goods for our increasingly poor workers to buy at Wal-Mart with credit cards. That, of course, reduces the availability of production jobs here by exploiting the destitute elsewhere. While capital is easily mobile globally, labor is relatively immobile. The globalization of capital drives wages down so that U.S. citizens can only buy cheap imported goods.

Continuing down the ruinous path of the Wall Street financial elite is supported by a lot of political rationalization. The fact that work, pay, production, and consumption are what any real human economy is actually about, is simply ignored. On the one hand, we are told that capital must be free to find its “highest and best use.” That will enable the capitalists – falsely characterized as “the job creators” – to invest in new technology and production, thereby improving employment. Well, how has that worked out? The new technologies have mostly reduced the need for skilled labor in the U.S. The free international movement of capital – they call it “free trade” – has increased demand for unskilled cheap labor abroad. Who benefits? The wealthy investors in “globalization.” Who suffers? Workers everywhere suffer the loss of control over their lives and the inability to earn a living wage.

Feed the Rich, Starve the Poor

The myth that the super rich somehow need a tax break pervades the political discourse even though wealthy corporations and individuals pay less in taxes than ever. The delusion is that such public largess economically favoring the already rich would allow them to invest in the real economy. The “news” media – owned by the same mega-corporations that feed the super-rich – go along with that fiction even in the face of several decades of decline of American work, pay, production, and consumption.

All the while, the rich continue to get richer, paying less and less taxes, by controlling politics and indebting the nation. Both the U.S. Congress and the President are elected by having access to massive political funding by so-called “political action committees” (PACs). Legislation is actually written by the biggest financial lobbyists in the Congress – the lobbyists for the financial elite that is enriched by the “globalized” economy. Worldwide corporate theft, subsidized by the U.S. government, is a scam of unparalleled proportion.

Simply put, in a real economy it is income from employment that drives economic health. Employment provides individuals and families with incomes to buy the necessities and niceties of life. It is employment that produces goods and services people need. The income from employment allows consumption to drive production. Financial speculation among the super-rich has distorted the real economy by “financializing” it and ruined all that.

That is why the economy is so upside-down today. Financial speculation drives investment in cheap overseas production, leading to domestic poverty and declining ability to buy what is produced elsewhere. It is all driven by the greed of the financial elite, not by any national economic policy. Big investment banks’ speculating in abstract financial instruments – derivatives and the like – are allowed to create phantom money by depleting the real economy in the form of consumer and government debt.

In a real economy the Big Banks would be invested in actual productive activity. But because of outsourcing, underemployment, and low wages, workers cannot afford goods produced domestically as cheap goods from abroad flood the shelves of the big-box stores. At the same time, the propaganda of marketing and advertising encourage more and more consumption of less and less meaningful products. Low wages force reliance on consumer credit, increasing indebtedness to the corporations controlled by the financial elite. It is an upside-down economy.

Growing suppression of public education and critical thinking facilitates the manipulation of consumer behavior. People keep trying to buy whatever represents the imagery of the consumer culture that dominates their experience. “Affluenza” afflicts some of the few who experience new wealth. But the pervasive desire for the trappings of affluence – driven by pervasive marketing propaganda – drives consumer behavior, leaving little room for “free will” in economic behavior. Mass media images dominate consumer as well as political thought. Cultural images of “the good life” all involve increased unthinking consumption of corporate products.

Converging Crises and Catastrophic Collapse

In the present context, certain fundamental factors are at work. The vast accumulation of “phantom wealth” by the Big Banks via the “bailout” has encouraged further speculation and facilitated more economic concentration. The easy availability of cheap loans to corporations already awash in cash has not resulted in their investing in the domestic economy. All that cash and cheap credit is used for mergers and acquisitions, which further concentrate corporate wealth. A stock market booms while the main-street economy remains stagnant with vast numbers of workers unemployed or underemployed. Stock market growth is without foundation in the real economy. It has little basis in actual economic value, its growth is speculative, and is at increasing risk of collapse.

After the greatest financial heist of the public treasury ever, we must ask why such vast accumulated wealth has no benefit to the real economy. Overextended consumers can no longer rely on home equity and credit cards to make up for those decades of stagnant to regressive wages. It becomes clear that another few hundred million more dollars in the coffers of billionaires will not be invested in domestic production for the suppressed consumer demand for necessities that results from stagnant domestic employment and over-indebtedness.

It is not as if this is all happening in the abstract. Real world allocation of capital has planetary consequences. The distortions of mass production induced by extractive capital are global in scope. With a world population of over seven billion people and the drive to emulate Western patterns of consumption, the carrying capacity of the planet’s ecologies is already exceeded. Whatever one’s interpretation of the world’s economic system and imagined alternatives, the convergence of overproduction, consumer culture, overpopulation, looming crises of food production, resource wars, and climate chaos, all foreshadow a catastrophic collapse of existing economic and social systems. Only a massive human effort to reorganize the way we live on this planet can avoid human tragedy on a scale as yet mostly unimagined.

Creating Enemies, Defining Terror, and Justifying Anything

We are known by the enemies we keep creating. Of course, one can point almost anywhere and find barbarism, now and in the past, there and also here. The dictionary definition of “Terrorism” is “government by intimidation.” It most recently devolved in the U.S. lexicon of endless war “on terror” – since 9/11– as any violence by those the ‘patriotic’ U.S. speaker perceives as a threat to U.S. “interests” anywhere in the world. Anyone who may object to U.S. military incursions into his/her country is not a “patriot” or “freedom fighter,” but a “terrorist.” In its recent usage, the term “terrorist” has become loaded with emotional content.

The term has pretty much lost its traditional meaning. It is now so widely used to refer to anyone the speaker hates or opposes that it means little more than to designate an evil other. Someone who protests the clear cutting of old growth timber in the Northwest is now called an “eco-terrorist.” The term has simply devolved into a symbol of hatred — regardless of whether the hatred is ‘justified’ by specific behavior — especially when the speaker, as is typical, represents the interests of the global business elite. The terrorism meme has become an effective tool in maintaining endless wars by fanning the fires of hatred of the evil other. Hence, the growing number of hate crimes directed at anyone who appears to the ignorant observer to look ‘Islamic.’

Empires of Terror

So-called “non-Western cultures” have experienced localized terror for centuries. Afghans suffered British attempts to colonize and later Soviet attempts to install puppet governments. The Mujahideen fought off the Russians, ran drugs, took millions of dollars in cash delivered by CIA operatives, killed villagers and became the Taliban. The U.S. has also attempted to govern the Afghans by intimidation (and bribes) ever since its first bungled attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and has continued to do so since killing him.

Governments everywhere are corrupt, but some have more technical ‘fire power’ while others have an unfamiliar fanaticism. Taliban brutality is more than matched by the techno-terror reigned down upon wedding parties, villages, and even “insurgents,” via CIA drones. Indiscriminant murder-at-a-distance can easily be just as brutal as by those ISIS fighters who would more directly behead innocents. But one can maintain a psychological distance from one’s own brutal acts by the lexicon of “targeting” in the detached mode of video games. A person’s willingness to invoke the term “terrorist” seems mostly based on whose side executes the terrifying acts of ruthless violence. It is also an easy means of dehumanizing the ‘object’ targeted by the killing machine’s operator. Beheading is barbaric and maybe even insane, but it is as brutally honest as it is physically direct.

What, exactly, is so special about Western culture that it’s violence escapes the label of terror? Is it merely that it perfected more powerful technologies of violence and deployed them on other cultures before anyone else? That resulted in colonialism, imperialism, and now economic ‘globalization’ – global financial domination supported by military intervention wherever thought useful to retain economic control. Is that more rational or less brutal than tribal fighters resisting U.S. invasions?

Cultural one-upmanship is pointless. Those with more power can invent and deploy more clever technologies. But remember: technology is simply a material way to do something. But, what is to be done? Well, since most money for “innovation” in technological development is spent for military purposes, death and destruction are its primary purpose. In any case, the globalized war machine continues to inflict more damage on the planet as well as its people, than any other institution – even Wall Street. But of course, Wall Street is one of the prime movers of the military-industrial-political complex and its drive for endless billions in contracts for esoteric often unworkable technologies of warfare, which cost billions to operate, and are inappropriate for the military operations they are supposed to enhance.

Justifying Terror by Creating Enemies

Does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other nation because over the last few decades we have produced more and more evil people who must be arrested and imprisoned? The so called drug war has criminalized a huge segment of society by targeting vulnerable Black and Brown youth in neighborhoods, ignoring the white college and working classes that uses drugs at about the same rates. Is that not a form of governing by intimidation? The growing chorus of reports of police killings of Black and Brown young men on America’s streets reflects the governing of those neighborhoods by intimidation. Yet the “terrorist” meme is reserved for those others who are on the other side of the authoritarian mission of the corporate state.

The Kill Team,” a recent production of PBS’s Independent Lens, documents a platoon of U.S. soldiers some of whom participated in gratuitous killings of Afghan civilians. In their naïve boot-camp brainwashed minds, they felt the need to do what they had been trained to do: kill people. It is hard to not be stunned by the mindless dehumanization of The Other by these barely past teenage boys. Officially sanctioned night raids of civilian homes, excused by the flimsiest ‘intelligence’ are not really that different.

We know of many incidents and patterns of practice in the military from Abu Graeb to Guantanamo that are at least as irrational and brutal. Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, chronicles the covert wars of intimidation waged around the world in the name of “the War on Terror.” These wars on diverse peoples only breed resentment and hatred for those who have invaded their countries. The terrorism meme has worked as domestic propaganda, even though the intimidation of the peoples of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, cannot salvage the empire.

Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, despite being cleared by multiple courts of any wrong doing. Even with heavy blacking out of major portions, his Guantanamo Diary reveals much more than what is widely known about the torture that goes on there. It also expresses the power of the human spirit in the face of incalculable suffering, torture, and intimidation. His enduring humanity cannot be destroyed by the terrorist meme. Can our humanity survive it too?

The Happiness Factor: What’s the Point of Having an Economy anyway?

Globalization is widely touted in the mass media as both inevitable and good. But why? It is claimed that products are more efficiently produced, labor is more productive, technology is improved by greater innovation, and capital is more efficiently allocated. But wait, there’s less!

According to Paul Hellyer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada,

“Globalization is really a code name for corporatization. It’s an attempt by the largest corporations in the world, and the largest banks in the world, to re-engineer the world in such a way that they won’t have to pay decent wages to their employees, and they won’t have to pay taxes to fix potholes and to maintain parks, and to pay pensions to the old and handicapped.”

Corruption of Economic Purpose
We have to ask, what’s the point of having an economy anyway? Is the purpose of an economy to serve the special interests of giant transnational corporations? Or should it be to serve the needs of the human population? (No, corporations are not persons.) I would have to answer that the only excuse for having a particular economy is to better support the happiness of the people. When basic needs are met, happiness is maximized. How is that achieved? If an economy provides enough jobs and income for people to live comfortably in a stable safe environment, I’d say it has succeeded.

If an economy grows at a healthy pace by eliminating jobs and reducing household income of ordinary workers to secure higher corporate profits, then it has failed. If work is available and wages are livable, then it has succeeded. Social science research has shown that income improves happiness only up to the point of a modest middle-class life. After that, it fails to contribute to happiness. Today’s accelerating and extreme disparity in wealth and income between the 1% and the 99% reflects a dangerously defective economy.

In fact, the wonders of globalization all accrue to the giant transnational corporations that control the world economy. These enormous organizations are constrained only by nations’ laws meant to protect people and the earth. Environmental laws, labor laws, safety laws, all protect populations and ecologies from damage due to uncontrolled exploitation. The “globalists” make international trade deals in secret to exempt themselves and override the protection of people and the planet. Having bought off Congress, they “fast track” legislation that circumvents national sovereignty to liberate capital, enslave labor, and exploit the planet.

NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) and now the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP), are secretly negotiated, then “fast-tracked” through Congress, without deliberation. They actually take precedence over the sovereignty of nations that agree to them. Their corporate courts can overrule national environmental, labor and safety laws. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the freedom of international capital to exploit labor, and generally plunder the planet. Does that contribute to human happiness? In this equation, people are the dependent variable; their happiness is irrelevant. Human needs and happiness are not the determinants of globalization; they are its victims.

An Intentional Economy
For an economy to be morally justified, it must serve human needs and not destroy the ecosphere upon which we all depend. Human survival in the very near future will depend upon whether we can re-cast the economy to reflect human needs under local conditions. That will mean distributed food and energy production, re-designing technology to fit the needs of communities, and reorganizing the flow of capital to serve the needs of local democratic ecological economies. All of these things will require both lots of labor and a major reallocation of capital.

A huge amount of imaginary capital exists today in the “Too Big to Fail Banks.” That phantom “money” was created by the Fed buying the largely worthless debt of the Big Banks to cover their speculative losses. All that must simply be abandoned and a banking system re-created to serve local and regional needs for investing in ecologically creative ways. That alone will create many jobs. An ecological economy will directly serve the needs of humans where they live while intentionally reducing carbon emissions. Such choices will build a survivable future for people and the planet’s diversity of species. An intentionally ecological economy is necessary to sustain the environment we depend on. Any chance for human happiness depends on it.

In the New Ecological Economy, if we will have it, industrial and trade policies will be determined by human needs and the necessities of sustaining the ecosphere of which we are a part. There is simply no getting around it. But to support human happiness, who would want to? Today, those who would traffic in any kind of human misery for a profit still rule the global corporate-growth economy. Any movement in the exact opposite direction toward building an economy intended to serve human happiness must begin from the ground up.