Photo by Toby Melville, REUTERS.
Heard on the streets of the city this afternoon, a gaggle of folks walking in the opposite direction, very much engaged in their conversation. One of the guys says, “Once we get through this….” He meant this economic recession or meltdown or whatever you call it. Which got me to thinking.
I have heard quite a few versions of this snippet in the last couple of weeks. “When the recovery takes shape…,” “when things return to normal…,” “when things turn around….” And each time I silently wonder to myself, “What, exactly, does an economic recovery look like?”
My strong and admittedly cynical suspicion is that most folks think that recovery looks just exactly like the last quarter of 2007, say. That is, recovery looks like the city and suburbs of last spring, just before the blizzard of foreclosure and for sale signs, see-through office buildings, and mothballed construction projects stopped in medias res.
Full stop in Vegas. AP photo, for the Boston Globe.
Once we get through this, construction in Las Vegas will resume and all the teetering stunt-itecture will be completed. Once we get through this, we can go back to our old jobs. Once we get through this, everything will be just like it was before. Once we get through this, we Americans, 5% of the world’s population, can get back to using a third of the earth’s resources and generating a third of the earth’s waste.
Not so good. I guess the real question may be: how do we keep any kind of economic recovery from bringing us back to where we started? How do we leverage the loss of trillions and the relatively slight reduction in ridiculous consumption and waste that we’ve seen in the last few months into real change in the culture? Will we ever get over the idea of continuously expanding and unending economic growth?
I am reminded of the words of economist Robert Costanza, who says: “The universally appealing notion of unlimited growth with reduced energy consumption must be put firmly to rest beside the equally appealing but impossible idea of perpetual motion.” Where is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand when we need it?
Smith, in The Wealth of Nations,written in 1759, posited that someone who was pursuing his or her own economic self interest would be led by an invisible hand to simultaneously, and unintentionally, add to the common good of society. Hah! How about that, Bernie Madoff?
My favorite take on Smith’s Hand is from Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said not so long ago: “The reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”
The momentum of a giant global economy based on endless expansion is extraordinarily powerful, though absolutely unsustainable, in every sense of that word. How do we turn this thing around?
Maybe we need a 12-step plan. Consumer’s Anonymous. Gather with your neighbors. One day at a time.