Friday, September 2, 2011

Unemployment, Figment of a False Economy

Am I the only one who sees the irony in today's jobs announcement (U.S. Economy Fails to Add Jobs)--with joblessness at 9.1%--and the erroneous assumption that what is required to fix the problem is renewed consumer confidence and spending? All the hand-wringing and anxiety about how to jump start growth is laughably myopic, when the prior question of whether growth (in GDP) is even desirable is ruled out of bounds at the start of the discussion. It is perhaps a symptom of our all-too-human hubris that we believe our growth potential to be limitless. (Only God is limitless.) To put it another way, "infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility" (E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, 25th Anniversary Edition: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later . . . With Commentaries, p. 51) Maybe I have been reading too many of the wrong kinds of economics books this summer, but I have to wonder whether an economy built on making work obsolete can produce jobs that are of any value. Must we really make it our goal to do everything by machine that can be done by machine?

In other words, can our current economy--which has disregarded the land, has emptied the rural areas of their population of caretakers ("Rural U.S. population now 16%, record low," Hope Yen, AP), and has turned everything from air and water to animals and people into mere factors of production--really produce meaningful work for people to do? Can our economy, with our current economic values ($$$ as the measure of all things), really produce jobs that help us grow as people? I will listen carefully to President Obama's job speech on Thursday, but I doubt I'll hear much about the foundational reasons for unemployment, especially about the direct correlation between our denigration of work (especially agricultural work of the sort that requires people's minds, backs, and hands to be fully engaged) and the lack of good work to do. I'll probably hear more of the same about the need for consumer demand to stimulate economic growth, increased infrastructure spending, increased governmental spending and hiring, and the like. Everything will be measured quantitatively and the assumption underneath the whole will be that infinite growth is possible in a finite world. Will he say anything about our empty rural areas and the need for people to return to these areas and take care of them? Of the value we must begin to place on a different kind of "hands on" food production? Will his program include the need to value work done by people, work that could be done by machines, but will not be because we value people more than we value GDP growth? I doubt it.

Here are a few questions from my summer reading that might move us back onto the right track. Does our work enable us to become fully human, to develop all of our God-given gifts and talents? Does it encourage us to work together, in and for community, to accomplish common goals? Does our work produce goods and services that people need for a full and abundant life, or are we merely trying to generate desire for what we have to sell (regardless of its intrinsic worth)?

Those are the sorts of questions I have been wrestling with this summer as I worked through three books that my readers will undoubtedly hear more about. I recommend each of them as food for thought and a radically different perspective on our current economic condition.

1) As already mentioned, E. F. Schumacher's heretical economics book, Small Is Beautiful, 25th Anniversary Edition: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later . . . With Commentaries.

2) Wendell Berry's What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, especially the essay entitled "What Are People For?" (pp. 105ff.)

3) And, finally, L. H. Bailey's, The Holy Earth, which I intend to share on a regular basis with excerpts on Tumbledown Farm (

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