Economic and political analysis-Window on culture-Media criticism

Monday, January 02, 2012

Future a product of past Karma

The New Year finds me choosing whether to blog about the last year, or the one to come. The past finds a lot of troubling events. The future, meanwhile, is blessedly free of all history's garbage, or is it? We may or may not be able to live a future free and clear of all the ramifications of our past.

The Buddhists have a Buddha of the future, Matreiya, whose role as harbinger of the future carries special merit. The Buddhists know much about the passage of time, with so much of what we base our lives on just an illusion to them. We can't escape our karma, except through enlightenment.

To Buddhists in some lands, enlightenment can come to anyone, where in southern Asia enlightenment is reserved to those who choose a monastic life, one of celibacy. To these scholars and monks falls the task of freeing esoteric knowledge locked away in arcane sutras and vast volumes of written material.

I bring up the Buddhists because they have a balanced life of sorts. Fundamentalists of Buddhism exist, but the religion itself emphasizes compassion and understanding, which are the opposites of ignorance and hate which motivate so much hate in fundamentalist Islam and Christianity.

In short, the Buddhists know how to get along with the world in which they live. They tend not to be prone towards extremes but rather strive to live a more fruitful existence by establishing harmony and abandoning mental attachments.

Such a state of mind must be learned and nurtured. In this regard it must be cultivated through the exercise of discipline and restraint, while accumulating knowledge (dharma.) And when the world inevitably intrudes on the still mind, the physical form is vulnerable but through powers of concentration--alongside a little help from the Buddha, which is always appreciated--the outside world's many distractions and pitfalls can be avoided.

I know someone who cast away all his possessions, and became a simple monk. He abides in various Buddhist monasteries of his order, which is known loosely as "Thai forest." He doesn't have a car or a bank account. Nor does he stockpile food. His possessions are limited to an alms bowl and a pair of saffron robes. (Alms is the process by which some kinds of Buddhist monks get their food--which they cannot touch--through gifts by those in the believer community.)

The point is that there is another way. We don't have to pile up goodies and claim victory in some monumental struggle: "He who has the most toys wins."

We don't consciously decide to be good consumers. We are programmed instead.

During Christmas-time, it's easy to see the hyperconsumer model so plainly--it comes out of its cave. It's as if the Invasion of the Body Snatchers has come, and that those who don't shop are considered deficient in some way. So bad was the rabid consumerism this year that melees erupted in the Mall of America and elsewhere. At least one individual died in a early morning retail stampede.

It's our attitude that kills us (or enslaves us, rather.) Americans also are taught that they can remain optimistic and wish away all the things they don't like, either but ignoring them, or pretending they don't exist. In this regard, our culture conditions us to be perfect debtors.

You may have heard the expression that "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." The average American's understanding of history is pathetic; like Vonnegut's Fahrenheit 451, who needs the past? It's only the present future the matters in a world focused totally on material gratification.

My thinking is that Americans think on a time scale far different from most other cultures, although I guess our model is being emulated everywhere. The plan is to get everything, now. The past is ten seconds ago. The not-so-subtle implication: Dare not be left behind, for the world moves at light speed. If you miss that call, you miss everything and we'll never go back!

In CSPER.org's "Renaissance 2.0," Dr. Martenson identifies this as what he calls the velocity problem in our society. Here I recite Lesson 5.2:

"The transformation is more than financial...(it) devalues traditional beliefs like Rest, Delight, Spirit, Philosophy, Joy, Love, Family, Humanity, and Relationships."

The speed at which things happen handicaps us. We lack time to decompress, to think, to reason. The ramifications of a hurried lifestyle are readily apparent in the prevalence of ADD/ADHD among children, who crave constant interaction with a bely of media and gaming options from the second they awake 'til bed.

Weaning one's child off a diet so rich in immediate gratification is no easy task. Yet it can be done, in a process not altogether different from overcoming addiction. At first, the child will no doubt resist, as an absence of constant action and immediate gratification is like stripping away the child's best friends and yanking them outside their comfort zone.

Medication might be one path to go, but I don't know because I'm not a parent of one of these children. The pharmaceutical companies are certainly lining up to cash in on every personality disorder. At a certain point, if a child gets too used to the velocity problem, then it might be too late for them to modulate their attention span or control their impulses, creating a lifelong condition.

Rapid consumerism is destroying the planet. If people in developing nations envy the American standard of living, with its dependence on cheap fossil fuels and consumer goods, then our world is surely done.

The American style of hyper-capitalism makes so much demands on the earth's resources that it simply can't be a model to offer to the developing world. If everyone needs a car and a house, there simply won't be enough natural resources to go around. The amount of money that needs to be generated to consume demands a income, which requires a job or, the accumulation of large amounts of debt.

Spending is our lifeblood, much more so than the income we make it access to capital that determines our quality of life. From the days of our youth, we subconsciously adopt a materialistic mindset. Brands forged into our minds lead us to be good consumers first, and responsible users of bank credits second. We taught to believe that work solves

What we get instead is a dangerous level of overconfidence, which turns us into perfect debt slaves. This happens gradually over time, without ourselves consciously accepting that we'll be paying off debt for the entirety of our lives.

The amount of debt we carry shows something in our lives is out of balance. On a purely secular level, increasing debt means our spending exceeds our income (an obvious fact, I know, but you'd be amazed at how few accept at that reality.)

Easy it is to rack up debt when so much credit is available. Nowadays, the credit is less available to middle class people, but of course the debt they accumulated lingers. And despite politicized pronouncements of "low interest rates," the interest on most forms of consumer debt isn't low, it's very high! It's not uncommon for banks with access to infinite amounts of money charge 18 to 20% or more on the debt they're owed. Not too fair. Nor are the interest payments beneficial to the general economy: the interest payments represent a transfer of spending from the real economy (R.E.) into the financial one, where the money likely goes into deep dark pools rather than work its way back out into the Real Economy (R.E.).

Credit unions offer an alternative. Their interest rates are lower--showing that they don't have to be, unless of course the lending entities' shareholders demand it. That credit union rates on their credit cards run under 10% came as a complete surprise to me, not so much because they were lower but because the lower rates showed credit cards don't have to be so costly to use.

If the banks were nationalized--credit union'o'fied--think about how much interest would be freed and spent, remain in circulation, where it could be reinvested. Way it is with interest payment these days, the money disappears forever from the economy where it was earned. If it resurfaces, it'll likely be in a major financial center, where it will likely be used to speculate or possibly reenter the Real Economy as compensation for the already rich who work there. Wages for P.O.P.O.P--pushers of piles of paper (really not paper but digital investments)--have been rising far faster than other industries, with record bonuses even as Wall Street collapsed in 2008-9.

In this way things might look just fine in the nation's major banking and financial centers even as depression-like conditions dominate out in the far flung expanses of empire. Condo prices can go up; luxury good makers (who hire many middle income people) increase their sales.

I don't know if we've become an economy built to pleasure the rich. Not so sure how well that kind of economy would function. My take on the economy is that it needs to be broad, inclusive, and focused on building wealth not only for the already wealthy but for everyone, in what's called social mobility.

The stock markets are good evidence of how the wealth effect works. By increasing participation in investing, individual investors add a stabilizing force to the market (institutional holders tend to be more skittish.) And the dollars going in to the market get invested, put into work to make more money, rather than sequestered as is the case with most interest payments.

The opposite is just as true: when stock market participation is low, the markets tend to become more volatile, and trend sideways. Participation also indicates healthy income growth, something we've not had if the top quintile of income earners is excluded. As a matter of fact, adjusted for inflation, middle class wages have remained flat since 1980. Yes, 1980! Meanwhile, income for the wealthy went up over 15% in a single year! This due of course to Bush's tax cuts, which have drained the Treasury but made the wealthy much wealthier.

Many of our problems that we face here in America are the product of too much debt. Collectively we consume so much that the amount we owe simply can't be repaid by the present generation.

The debts of the Treasury are so large that the interest alone will consume a significant portion of our overall spending, something like one-fifth of the overall budget by 2020.

Now debt is one thing, but when spending gets cut look out. You'd think that we're doing a better job here than in Europe, with all its "social programs." Think again, even with a population aging faster than ours and so-called "entitlements," government spending has been cut far more in countries like Greece than the U.S..

Just look at the last page of The Economist magazine: it shows the percentage of Gross Domestic Product of various countries. Guess whose number two in the list, exceeded only by Greece? The U.S.. Spending $1.4 trillion more than you take in is an unsustainable problem.

The reason for American fiscal deficit higher than Europe's is simple: defense spending. We're tossing away over $600 billion on "defense." No one in Europe--heck, no one in the world--is spending so much on their military.

Another reason for our debt woes--and also suppressed in what's formerly been known as the media in this country--is the inability of our government to tax. Congress is beholden to powerful interests. Essentially federal politicians are being reelected based on their ability to attract campaign donations. And with such huge sums being directed towards lobbying efforts to protect the wealthy and their interests, it should come as no surprise that Congress passes laws that reinforce the economic status quo, which is more like a pyramid with the 1% and their enabling organizations like the Fed at the top.

The real surprise is how gullible Americans are about their tax burden. If they knew their dislike of taxes was setting us up for a budget collapse, they might demand fairer tax policy. But masterfully the forces of the Right have sold average Americans on lower taxes--I mean, who doesn't want that?--despite the reality they will pay more and derive less future benefit from services currently provided by the federal government.

Medicare is an excellent example. People in the system today paid in only a fraction of what their medical expenses now cost the program. With so little going in and so much going out, the benefits will be scaled back.

Now maybe the rich will be asked to pay more when the time comes to adequately fund our government's spending, sometime in the future. Yet I'm not so convinced that Washington politicians will be able to impose financial demands on their wealthy supporters and the corporations they own, being that the crony system we see there today is so firmly entrenched.


Labels: , , , ,