Sunday, February 23, 2014

Who Does The World Economy "Belong" To, Anyway?

Perhaps that seems like an odd question. And yet, it would be interesting to know what percentage of the population still takes an active interest in economic matters in the U.S. - in spite of continued interest in the blogosphere. Perhaps the real issue is that economies are increasingly designed for the use of governments and special interests.

Thus, any problems which might arise, mostly appear as their problems...right? At least this holds true, in terms of what anyone actually expects to be dealt with. Hence, why should citizens even be concerned about any of it - at least beyond political attempts to secure one's own piece of the pie? How can any economy belong to real flesh and blood people it supposedly exists for, when it has largely been separated from their purposes and intentions? Rant day? You bet. Who knows, I might even feel better afterward.

What was once an active economic dialogue in general populations, has retreated to mainly academic or financial frameworks. If the elite can't figure out how to tend to the lives of everyday people, well "that's just too bad" I suppose. Or else, issues are ensconced in political framing, which therefore distorts any practical economic meaning in the message. For the better part of my adult life, one could readily find books on economic issues in bookstores and libraries around the U.S. Most importantly, those issues had still been actively discussed, by people from all walks of life.

To a large degree that is no longer true. Instead of finding economic issues to be worthwhile discussion, people are more likely to dismiss economic dialogue out of hand, as something which has nothing to do with them. My response to that current set of affairs is this: what good is a global economy, that thrives by sucking the life out of needed local economic activity?

The effects on local economies are sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle. For instance, many important non fiction books (especially by subject) are online only, and library management struggles just to meet the computer needs of their clientele. At least a marketplace still exists for romance novels and everyday fiction, one supposes. But serious or practical reading? It really helps to live in major cities, where bookstores can still keep their doors open to the public.

This week I tried to find economics books from two county wide library systems - one of those comprising a major U.S. metropolitan area - yet was unable to find anything that would assist my present research. Or, if anything in their limited offering addressed my concerns, the book was already in my collection. I know, this is a lot of complaining about books. But for this book lover and former bookseller; a completely insufficient book marketplace at local levels, represents a dangerous degree of declining knowledge use. And K through 12 just repeats the same basic information, over and over, in a very expensive, dull and unsustainable format. Most knowledge use potential is not even on the radar of either public or privately provided formal education.

It's easy to assume that since so much knowledge exists online, knowledge in general must be getting along just fine. But those two things - i.e. knowledge online and local knowledge use participation - are not at all the same. Online knowledge - in just a limited example - is no means to bridge a still growing economic divide between classes. Not unless digital means can manifest into wealth, by personal commitment to create local knowledge use markets.

Lost in the demise of good local non fiction by subject, are important social aspects of economic discussions. I miss them greatly, for they existed throughout the better part of my adulthood. While some may not even be aware of this aspect of the knowledge marketplace, some do notice what appears as a return to traditionalism from modernity, since the seventies. My parents, aunts and uncles experienced the modern version of life which Edmund Phelps referred to, as they came of age in the post WWII years. But is this recent change really a return of traditionalism? Younger generations more likely do not move away from hometowns for a most important reason: it feels quite dangerous economically to do so. Some of us Baby Boomers were so insistent anyway about moving in a changed economic environment, that we finally paid the price in terms of lost autonomy.

So how does my book tirade relate to governments and their hold on world economies? After all, nations can be quite confident about their ability to tend to important matters, especially the U.S. Until one day, the leaders of nations wake up and realize they can't do so anymore, by themselves. Then the mad dash ensues to find someone to "help", since one's own citizens were likely not even sought out. The most recent example of course is Ukraine. Their unfortunate circumstance weighs heavily on my mind, and serves as the latest reminder that contractual arrangements of governments with their populations do break down without warning.

Hence, the main point of this post: remember all those economic discussions, which gravitated to the experts once populations couldn't understand them anymore? Oh my. Suddenly, populations find themselves in dire need of real economic logic. But because they don't have it, now they gingerly patch up what remains of earlier economic realities with duct tape. As warily hopeful citizens peer through (what had been) sheltered doors of  frightened elite, what are they even thinking? What course of beneficial action do they have at the ready, which could possibly make up for the unrest, turmoil, death and destruction which has already occurred? In their darkest hour, populations find themselves - over and over again - in the unexpected position of becoming responsible for the very logic they had gradually learned to scorn and dismiss. All because too few elites wanted to hear their take on options and solutions, when those opinions mattered most and could have done some good.

Got citizens? Got education?? It is not enough to teach the same tired history lessons every couple of years and then say to the students, see all the stupid things all these people did? Surely none of you would want  to see such stupid things happen again! Surely! But what the hell, people go and do them all over again anyway. After all, how far did religion ever get with that "don't be stupid" rationale? Religion has tried to convince people not to kill one another for reasons that were profoundly moral. And look how much good that has done so far. Nations hold up okay I suppose, by refusing to show students how to use logic and reasoning for real life circumstance, until they don't.

Maybe I'm completely off base for believing economic thought and ideas could help to alleviate human strife. But what else at this point are we going to try? Economic activities started out by allowing people to engage in productive and useful activity with one another. Centuries of progress ensued because people finally learned to do so, fairly well. Not so much hope for continued growth however, after the Great Recession. And governments of all stripes are doomed, if they do not wake up and realize that they can't take economic vitality and freedom away from their citizens, without serious repercussions.

But in the meantime, economic thought mostly gets used as sparring matches for armchair enthusiasts as they watch the battles rage..always always elsewhere. Or, economics gets skewed to provide partial logic for those who have just a moment for "simple answers", please thank you. Thus, the average individual has little clue how economic understanding might actually help personally and socially, locally and globally, until it is too late. Then, those who regain power after the fact and do know why economics  matters, don't always bother to write the crucial details into those "winning" histories afterward.

A qualifier for this post: my rant was not intended to demean the efforts of academics who seek to reach beyond academia - who hold concerns for the well being of all citizens and not just their power base. These concerned individuals are among us, and I am most grateful for their efforts. Rather, my post was intended to point out that when it is left solely to the experts to define and tend to economic conditions, they simply can't do everything that others imagine they can. Not even close. Not even if they want to. Especially if, and when, a nation faces its own economic point of no return.

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