Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Well, my whole Dubya coke/Project PULL rumor went over like a lead balloon. Absolutely NOBODY picked up the story, unless you count Helen Thomas, who did walk onto Air Force One that very morning brandishing my scurrilous attacks. But the way she phrased her question made me doubt she picked up the rumor (which has been around for years) from my column.

Just as well, I guess. Sometimes these things have a way of working out, and the Project PULL/cocaine revelations, the indictment of Skilling, the Plame grand jury probe and the generally precarious position of the House Majority Leader might well combine to create a Perfect Storm for the democrats in early March. We'll see what happens, but one imagines they can't keep the lid on this stuff much longer. I'm currently working an angle that may provide a break in the National Guard case; I'll keep everyone posted on that here. (Everyone being the zero people that read this site.)

Today I'm going to stay away from politics generally to jump into a debate about economics. An old friend of mine recently posted to his blog for the first time in over a month (a situation to which I can certainly relate) and while I have to say I agree with his basic conclusion, the bulk of his premise is completely invalid. You can view Tim's blog here and see for yourself.

Tim's main point is right on - the constant haranguing we receive from our opinion leaders about the dangers of "jobs going overseas" is completely ridiculous. People in the richest nation in the world have no right to tell people in poor nations that they can't do skilled work because it might impact our standard of living. It is in a way good when high-paying jobs go overseas - the people in those countries need those jobs at least as much as we do. Whether the good outweighs the bad is a subtle question. The answer depends on the context in which we are considering the issue.

Which brings us to our point of departure. The context of global economics in the 21st century is a commitment to industrial, heirarchical export economies as an article of faith. Industrial export economy has become the ONLY acceptable system in global economics, and if that does not frighten you, you may need to reconsider your position. Here's why:

At the dawn of our country, there was a fierce debate between the agrarians, whose paragon was Thomas Jefferson, and the industrialists, whose position was ably articulated by Alexander Hamilton. What eventually emerged from the crucible of the debate between these two men - and these two modes of thinking - was a sort of compromise that served the country well. Unfortunately this compromise - which was in spirit quite ingenious - was grafted on top of a social and economic system that was inherently brutal and unsustainable.

The system of chattel slavery that existed in America in the 1700's and 1800's was one of the most brutal slave systems in the history of man. A southern slave who woke up as a slave in Ancient Greece would have thought he had died and gone to heaven. It was a horrible atrocity, and contrary to modern apologia, the moral faculties existed at the time to expose the system for what it was. Unfortunately, the framers of the U.S. constitution skirted the issue, leaving future generations to resolve the "slavery question." In the end, of course, it was passed from President to President like a hot potato until finally the entire system collapsed into chaos and war in the 1860's.

Slavery is now thought of as ancient history, but in fact the remnants of the collapse of the slave economy in the rural South are still with us today. The self-serving argument of Southern slaveholders in the antebellum period eventually proved true - with slavery dismantled, and no equitable agrarian system to replace it, the Southern farm economy failed utterly.

As the century came to a close, the agrarian ethic in farming gradually began to be replaced by an industrial ethic. Fortunately for the system (but unfortunately for the human race in the long run) we were, during the same period, making a transition to a fully fossil fuel-driven economy. Later, the government proved willing to prop up this strange industrial agriculture system with enormous agribusiness subsidies which, combined with the constant infusion of "cheap" fossil fuel energy, were able to sustain a system that could never have stood on its own, and which continues in this state of constant failure until today.

In a fossil fuel economy, transportation and electric power are atrificially "cheap;" that is to say that their costs are not borne by either the buyer or the seller of the end product. In an industrial system, any cost not borne by the buyer or the seller essentially does not exist.

Unfortunately, in reality, the cost is real. It is simply borne by the earth itself, and the economics of the Earth have been in a constant state of hemorrage for some time.

Some radical agrarian thinkers such as Wendell Barry have suggested we need to return to a purely agrarian economy. I'm not sure this is 1) possible or 2) advisable. What is clear is that we are currently badly out of balance, and that this lack of balance between the agrarian ethic of preserving long-term resource sustainability and the industrial ethic of maximizing short-term profit is creating some huge and devastating consequences, not only environmentally but economically as well.

Thus the question of whether it is good or bad for there to be a fluid global workforce, whether we're talking about technical fields or manufacturing or whatever, is really not the relevant question. When we ask these relatively shallow questions - what will I be doing in 5 years and so on - we are talking about a realtively benign manifestation of a potentially devastating imbalance.

Until we address the imbalance in our global economy - this idea that every economy should be converted from subsistence agrarianism to export industrialism - we will continue to create frictional problems that compound one another until the entire global economy collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

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