Earlier this year Paul Krugman noted that the U.S, economy is suffering from “a crisis of faith”, implying that we had lost trust in the institutions of capitalism. The word “credit” comes from the Latin root–Credo–“I believe.” When we don’t believe our President or Hank Paulson or the CEO of Citibank, the whole edifice of contemporary American economics begins to crumple.
Much of this edifice has been built on the theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School which believes that we humans are essentially mechanical welfare maximizing tools. Contemporary economists don’t like words like “faith”, because they are not mathematical constructs that can plugged into a formula. But the economists, so sure in their formulas, believed that human welfare was measured by possessions–“when you die, the one with the most toys wins”.
But what if we could build a new economics based around the notion of ethics, community and stewardship of both our planet and our culture? Part of the Rebuilding America, I have been talking about is the realization that our obsessive consumerism was really only a way to anesthesize ourselves against the dread of a culture full of stress and empty of meaning. Part of the reorientation might require us to rethink “the Growth Imperative”–the idea that human welfare can only be increased if the economy grows at the maximum rate without excess inflation. The conservative economist Huber takes this notion to its logical conclusion (without a touch of irony).
Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with Olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet- covering crypt of concrete and computers.
I don’t want to live in Peter Huber’s world and so I have faith that we as a country can create a new social compact that will not be based on mathematics and notions of self interest, but rather on caring, trust and reciprocity. Of course America’s reinvention will require political will, but it will also need a spiritual and cultural transformation that will be just as wrenching.