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Recession’s Lessons

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope,” said George Washington Carver.  This current recession, the worst since the Great Depression, has shocked us out of the empty hope for endless free money and replaced it with the dashed hopes of missing money, lost jobs, and less happiness.  Stress signs are everywhere, from increased drug abuse and family violence to empty stores, vacant homes, and bankruptcies little and large.  Our fear circuits, worn ragged since 9-11, are roused again.  Petty crime is on the rise.  People are scared.  What is our vision?  Where is our hope?


We hope our current president can remedy all the malicious ploys of the last president.  The last president came into office chiefly funded by Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, a company that did nothing for our country except insert itself as a needless middleman, extracting multi billions of dollars from private and public coffers into the off-shore bank accounts of a greedy few.  It was indicative of the “government is our problem; private greed is our solution” sort of suicidal thinking that has weakened and sickened our entire society.  Needless wars, massive debt, runaway deficits, vanishing abilities, compromised laws, ignored environment – all these were part of a big business/big government pact cheered on by our complicit media.  We hope our current president and congress can fix the mess we’ve inherited.


I applaud the forward-looking efforts of President Obama and those who helped elect him.  Creating our own fuel and vehicles for transport, closing the loopholes that let our money flow to offshore accounts, winding down expensive and counterproductive wars, keeping jobs and skills at home, regulating the rampant usury of our banks, reducing our health care costs to reasonable levels, addressing the vast needs of our soils, forests, air, and oceans – all of these are part of an overall vision that will help, we hope.


Americans have often faced hard challenges and come through renewed.  The Great Depression set values for generations.  Being frugal, growing some of our own food, shifting government to care for the many, holding huge corporations up to scrutiny and regulation, distributing wealth more widely – we found the ways to persist and then thrive as persons and as a society.  We weathered the great influenza epidemic and learned from the great dust storms.  We fashioned ways to be more inclusive and fair to minorities.  Each challenge was scary and hard, and each one was mastered.


What is the challenge today, and what is our vision to master it?


The challenge is far greater than money, jobs, debt, and inflation.  It must not be limited to these formidable concerns, for these are rooted in the wider and more entrenched activities and systems that are also dire and daunting.  We tend not to discuss our military costs exceeding that of the entire rest of the world combined, nor how it creates the very enemies we fear.  Nor do environmental realities occupy our frantic efforts to keep doing our business and technology the way we used to.  Ignoring these won’t improve them.  We could easily let our clamor for jobs drown out the wisdom and responsibility we have to address these intractable realities.


Carbon dioxide is way down the list of concerns for Americans.  Too bad, for it is leading to a hotter, harsher planet, a global threat unprecedented in human history.  Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in the New Yorker, reports on the sixth great extinction now underway.  The earlier five were caused by great shifts in chemistry and weather, some of them suddenly due to asteroid impacts.  This one is our doing.  Currently, we are losing our frogs and bats, a third of our reef-building corals, nearly a quarter of all mammals, and ultimately the climate we all rely on for comfort and food.  The acidifying of our oceans in the last fifty years, largely due to excessive carbon dioxide in our air from our furnaces, has exceeded anything of the last fifty million years.  Huge dead zones in our oceans are growing.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, writing in the current Scientific American, warns of less food and more social upheaval due to the depletion of our soils and waters, both made worse by our hotter atmosphere.


I bring this context into our consideration of this recession’s lessons not to burden us with demands beyond our abilities but to remind us the hope we gain must come from must a boldly responsible vision.  Bit by bit, we veer from personal and political practices that contribute to suicidal habits, steering our private lives and collective society towards healthy, happy, just, and sustainable systems.  We compost, we walk and bike more, we take advantage of sunlight and shade, we eat less wasteful food from sources closer to home, we value comity in community, we take on the task of being incarnated in this plush and important country at this crucial point in history.  Then we try to sway our fellow citizens into a sustainable and practical vision via our talking, writing, advocating, and voting.  We do what we can, limited though we are.


That said – the forces are beyond us.  The weather comes to us however it does far more than whatever we try to do to it.  You’re probably not personally responsible for the 70 million extra people added to our global population every year.  Corporate lobbyists are paid to get advantage for shareholders, not create a balanced society.  You could gripe about the banks, but if you call to complain, you’ll be charged as well as ignored.  We have a responsibility to the collective, but it doesn’t necessarily reciprocate.


I remember when my dinky little pension with the UUA was growing mysteriously.  Abstract numbers on pieces of printed paper showed thousands of dollars in effortless profit.  I was making more money by doing nothing than by working.  Fortunately, I took it like I handle praise and blame – I don’t take either personally.  Yes, the value of my portfolio went up.  But what the lord of the invisible hand of the market gives, the lord also takes.  Down it crashed – one tenth, one quarter, one half – gone.  Bankers were getting multi-million dollar bonuses.  My measly thousands of savings vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.


We’re in this vanishing phony wealth together, I know.  And part of this togetherness will be contending with debt and inflation.  The low interest rates the Fed was offering fueled the real estate speculation that went wild.  That part you know about even if you don’t know how it worked or who it helped or hurt.  More interesting to me is how the Fed works.  There is no tangible gold on which this private group’s money is based.  It is created out of nothing, printed on paper, and then loaned out at interest.  Each step of the distribution process is lucrative.  A big bank gets it for 2% and loans it out for 3%.  They’ve made half again of what they were given, and down the chain it goes until we pay for it at 8%.  Or worse.  Due to tricks and small print, some banks are getting 30% or more interest on their credit cards.  And from the little guy to the top guy, we’re all in debt.


To whom?  We owe money to China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, India, Russia, Luxembourg, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Turkey, Netherlands, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands, and others amounting to over three trillion dollars.  But we owe over seven trillion dollars to private investors here and abroad.  Your grandchildren owe money to a system that has pre-exploited and already abandoned them in many ways.  We’re paying out of a leaking bucket.  But that’s just the money.  We’re also draining deep aquifers of ancient water, depleting soils that took millennia to create, and allowing the extinction of plants and animals we barely notice or value.


For all my unease with things Islamic, one of their key provisions is timely and interesting: they hold that usury is a sin.  Money is currency, a way to promote the flow of useful products and events.  Making excessive money off of people’s temporary needs is wrong.  Yet we have created a system that funnels vast wealth upwards into banks, investment firms, insurance companies, law firms, and trans-national corporations from our efforts and lives.  At the end of the decade and the day, we’re scrimping for a few dollars while they are swamped with billions.  Yet here, usury is neither illegal nor immoral, so it is up to us to avoid personal and collective debt.


“When your out-go exceeds your in-come your up-keep can be your down-fall,” said a motivational adviser.  This applies to not just personal and national debt, but to the debt even harder to repay to nature from our unsustainable practices of both wasteful technologies and overpopulation.  “Sustainability” ought to move from fad word to a wise one as a base on which we ultimately can add the word “flourish.”  It takes some discipline, but that need not be dismal.


As opposed to the United Sates, which is working harder than ever and still has double the unemployment of a couple of years ago, Germans work less, party heartier, and have less unemployment as a couple of years back.  They drink and smoke pot and get an ample vacation and other time off.  I wonder if the puritan work ethic that drives us to overwork and over-consume couldn’t be questioned and relaxed.  Why are we working so hard, to funnel money upwards all our lives so we can barely get by?  With labor-saving devices and robots and foreign quasi-slaves, why aren’t we relaxing and playing more?  Worrying over work won’t make you richer or younger.  Eating too much creates its own hunger.  Take a step back and consider the sign hanging above my friend’s table: Enough is as Good as a Feast.


When possible, keep currency flowing, but try to do that locally.  Jeff Golden reports that our local co-op food store sent over two hundred thousand dollars off to distant banks just to pay the mere 1.5% charge on credit and debit card transactions.  Paying cash would keep that money local.  That’s just one store.  Add to that all the other stores and gas stations and the amount of flow leaving our community is huge.  Buying local food and other items when possible helps the local flow.


Letting it flow helps a lot.  As someone who lives below the poverty line I know how good it feels to make a little money and then to spend it.  Tipping feels good.  Sending a few bucks to Lomokatzi or the Siskiyou Project keeps them going and me involved.  Working for less for someone who needs it satisfies something more humane in us than most transactions.  In the midst of “I and mine against you and yours,” a bit of “we’re in this together” keeps us connected, related in community rather than alienated from it.


Peter Peterson, who admires the philanthropy of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and George Soros, recently gave away a billion dollars.  Why?  Because keeping and growing it felt empty, while investing it in our future felt good.  We don’t have billions to give, but we have something, be it a few dollars, a helping hand, or even just a kind smile.  Giving feels good.


It is not so much the lack of money as the uncertainty about it that makes a recession so worrisome.  The new Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index shows happiness is down while sadness is up.  We’re smoking more and sleeping less.  People suffer more about what might occur than by what actually occurs.  Money isn’t lacking so much as trust.


Energy isn’t lacking so much as ingenuity.  We’ve wasted energy as fast as we could burn it.  My dad’s dad helped drive the first oil wells in our country in Pennsylvania.  They used to burn off the waste by product called gasoline in the ditches.  This was similar to the burning off of the mid-west’s great forests to get the trees out of the way.  Now that we know that all this burning is killing us and that we’re running out anyway, ingenuity is called for to fuel our vehicles and buildings.  There will be answers and ways to do this cleanly and cheaply – if we have the ethical and practical will to find them.  Here again, personal ventures are as important as public ones.


While personal efforts will always needed, part of a renewed vision is reviving the role of government.  Big or small isn’t the point; whether it operates on behalf of all of us and the environment is the point.  We’ve been fed a suicidal notion – that government is our enemy.  Indeed, it has been under those who hold that anti-visionGovernment is us taking care or ourselves and our lands, operating responsibly in the larger community of governments and the environment.  Large integrated projects need cooperative planning and oversight.  Do we want the same system that brings us unreliable phone books to manage redesigning our power grid?


A weak government leaves us to the mercilessness of the corporations.  A strong one could conceive of itself, not as the lackey of the corporations, but a buffer from them.  Left to the market, things like health care costs can get cruel and absurd.  The public benefit and the commons should not be abandoned to the deliberate, skilled exploitation of the crafty and callous.  Pop their lies.  Liberals especially should acknowledge that soup kitchens won’t satisfy systemic hunger.  We need to revive our social and policy skills to craft systems that don’t create hunger to begin with.


That said, private soup kitchens and food pantries do serve a practical, and hopefully, temporary, need.  Shy of that, sharing food is as basic as human community.  Our community is wider and deeper than our economy.


One of the lessons of the recession is to remind us of just what is valuable.  Do we really need risky debt to speculate on a third house?  Does a hundred dollar bottle of wine taste ten times better than a ten dollar one?  Social graciousness goes unpaid, but does that mean it is unimportant?  What good is supporting one’s family if one then never has the time to be with it?  Do the ads on the TV and in the newspaper orient your precious life’s time?  What in our vision and hope goes beyond productivity and consumerism?


Frightened, we let anxiety about the economy scare us into desperately taking any jobs, no matter what they do to us and our world.  Oriented, we seek only that work that serves both.  Grateful for fresh air and clear water, fed by healthy foods, secure in safe and stable housing, connected to family and friends in reliable community, confident our lives are spent serving an ever more healthy and abundant whole, comfortable with our working with Creation, we will ride this recession out towards a renewed vision of a sustainable – no, flourishing – world.


Reverend Bradley Carrier

For the UU’s of Grants Pass

Grants Pass, Oregon

© June 14, 2009

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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