The State of the Union address…

January 28, 2010

It started raining yesterday evening, when I was watching the State of the Union address at a friend’s house (as I am one of the three Americans who do not own a working television).  This could augur either way.  On the one hand, rain is the life-giving breath for the desert.  On the other, the overcast day is as gloomy as our economy, for I am one of the 10% unemployed.

The light winter rain continues this morning; the clouds have snagged on the Tucson Mountains (really not mountains like the other three ranges encircling the city of Tucson, but hills) and the sky is a light smoky gray, obliterating all but out neighborhood.

First, before I comment on the President’s speech, let me remark on the speech that followed by the new Virginia governor, blue-eyed Bob McDonnell.   He reiterated many of President Obama’s points, but when he said that America has the best medical care in the world I wanted to stand up and cry You lie!  (I lived the past two years in South Carolina.) 

Seven years ago, the World Health Organization made the first major effort to rank the health systems of 191 nations. France and Italy took the top two spots; the United States was a dismal 37th

On to the President’s speech, after a brief sartorial note: This last year has been hard on our president; his hair, once black, is now salt and pepper.  But he did look nicely tailored in a striped red and white tie and a dark blue suit, so patriotically thought-out.

There will be a new jobs bill to expand businesses.  Now I know that our economy has to expand to reduce the two-digit unemployment.  However, the growth in the last century became a cancer that threatened to destroy the world economy last year.  We must have stopgaps to that much uncontrolled growth in the future.

The idea of a Steady State Economy is alien to “young” counties such as ours.  We have grown from the East coast to the West, displacing Native Americans in our Manifest Destiny, and have tendrils of control over islands in the South Pacific (American Samoa, Baker Island, Hawaii, obviously, Howland Island, Johnston Atoll, three of the Line Islands, the Marianas Islands and Wake Island) and the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba).  Bet you didn’t know that we were such a colonial power, huh?

My thinking is influenced by the Tragedy of the Commons:

The theory of  the Tragedy of the Commons states that when a resource is collectively owned by a group of people, each will exploit the resource, overusing it, and thus ultimately destroying the resource.  In other words, everyone acts as a free rider, ignoring the group’s collective interests in favor of their own.

The idea dates to an 1833 essay by William Forster Lloyd.  He noticed that in a common pasture owned by all of the villagers, each villager overgrazed the pasture, ruining it for everyone.

If any of you have the time, reading about the Theory of the Commons (so easy with Google) is fascinating, particularly if you’ve lived in a large city, devouring all of the land around it, or know that Haitians cut down their trees for firewood, denuding the hillsides, causing mudslides and an impoverished populace so different than the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island (just two examples of cancerous growth).  And that was before the earthquake. 

Now please don’t skip over this just because you don’t read sci-fi, but a Hugo Award winner, Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer still resonates with me. 

It depicts the effects of the opening of a connection between two alternate Earths: the world familiar to the reader, and another where Neanderthals became the dominant, sentient hominid.

In this book the alternate world of the Neanderthals is not overpopulated, and species such as the woolly mammoth have not become extinct.  Imagine everyone surrounded by parkland.  Imagine all the peopleLiving life in peace.

You may wonder what this all has to do with the State of the Union address.   I am basically in favor of a Steady State Economy.

The steady state economy is an entirely physical concept. Any non-physical components of an economy (e.g., knowledge) can grow indefinitely. But the physical components (e.g. supplies of natural resources, human populations, and stocks of human-built capital) are constrained by the laws of physics and beholden to ecological relationships. An economy could reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. The objective is to establish it at a sustainable scale that does not exceed ecological limits.

Economists use gross domestic product or GDP to measure the size of an economy in dollars or some other monetary unit. Real GDP – that is, GDP adjusted for inflation – in a steady state economy remains reasonably stable, neither growing nor contracting from year to year.

Development of steady state economics (sometimes also called full-world economics) is a response to the belief that economic growth has limits. Macroeconomic policies in virtually every nation have been officially structured for economic growth for decades. Given the costs associated with such policies (e.g., global climate disruption, widespread habitat loss and species extinctions, depletion of valuable natural resources, pollution, urban congestion, intensifying competition for remaining resources, and increasing disparity between the wealthy and the poor), many economists, scientists, and philosophers have questioned the biophysical limits to growth, not to mention the desirability of continuous growth.

There was much to comment on the President’s speech, from money for small businesses to high speed rail in Florida to offshore oil and clean coal energy (an oxymoron), treats for the Republicans, to nuclear power, Pell grants and, of course, the Medical Care bill.  I’m all for improving education and medicine (if we could stop the lobbying of the pharmaceutical companies and cut the price of drugs), and I’m all for green (not black coal or oil) energy, but the big companies with the overpaid CEO’s

When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

and  outsourced underpaid employees in third world countries, and the banks and their insurance companies with their million-dollar bonuses and no collateral to back up their policies need policing.  Which will not happen with the latest Supreme Court decision, against which Obama railed.  If that sounds anti-American and anti-free-enterprise and anti-capitalist, so be it.  My Republican son-in-law considers me a Communist, but I am merely a bleeding-heart liberal, looking for a better, more secure future for my grandchildren.

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