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Digging dollars: make-work, agriculture and empire

Most work is busywork.

This is an ugly realization for most of us, especially those of us who have "careers" rather than jobs, for which we trained many years. But if, all of a sudden your work was to disappear from the planet - no one was doing it - how much would anyone really suffer? For some jobs, the absence of anyone doing them would hardly be noticed - we could do entirely without literary critics, theoretical astrophysicists (please note these two are the careers my husband and I trained for), psychics, pet psychologists, virtually everyone involved with television or advertising, make up artists, many beaurocrats, etc...

Oh, certain things about our society might change, and we'd have to find other jobs for those people, but no harm would come. In some cases, a bit of good might even occur - a few fewer trees would be slain on the form of the romantic sublime or the precise shape of a black hole, or people might wear a little less wallpaper paste on their faces. It is conceivable that some dogs might be a bit more angsty without their therapists, but couldn't we all live with that?

In many other cases, maybe even most, at least half of the people who do your job could disappear, and while it would change the nature of our society some, it wouldn't do any serious harm. We could get along with half as many (or vastly fewer) lawyers, novelists, retail salespeople, IRS employees, soldiers, plastic surgeons, drug dealers, housing developers, engineers, architects, fryolator tenders, etc... In fact, having less of all these things would probably be necessary in a sustainable society.

Even people who do useful things could be done without in many cases. Yes, we will always need doctors and nurses. But we could dramatically cut our nursing home employees, for example, by keeping our parents and grandparents at home with us whenever possible. Quite a few nations have similar lifespans to ours, but use 25-50% less medical care - think about it - they take 1/4 to 1/2 as many drugs, see the doctor that much less often, and they still live just as long as we do, and often report higher quality of life. Yes, doctors and nurses are valuable, but we could make significant cuts in their numbers, or keep the same numbers, and give the doctors and nurses much higher quality of life by simply reducing their working hours. The same is true with teachers - who are extremely valuable, but if more parents taught their children, particularly in the early years, we wouldn't need so many. Why do so few parents do so? In part because they go out to jobs, and don't have the time. Hmmm...

The simple fact is that we are mostly not needed to do any *particular* job - the fact is, we need work, but our careers are mostly optional. Somewhere between 1/5 and 1/3 of the American populace does truly essential work, and the rest of us mostly spread little pieces of paper around, shooting them back and forth. Milton Keynes, the famed economist, made the case that having enough work to do was so important to morale (and morale to the economy) that he argued that one potential way that government could stabilize the economy was to bury money in the ground and pay people to dig it up - that is, Keynes said that what was important was that we have some work, not that it be useful or valuable. Productivity and utility had their places, but mostly, we need some busy work to keep the economy and our lives running.

And a lot of our jobs actually operate funded by nasty, awful things we say we deplore. We may oppose global warming, but we make our money directly or indirectly by selling cars with low mileage standards or by driving long distances to our jobs. Perhaps we, like many people, are trickle down beneficiaries of things like the oil industry, the chemical agriculture industry or the military. Often, the military, with its endless wars.

Because Keynes didn't claim that the government could put us to work forever, of course. His argument was that in times of economic trouble, the government should borrow money to put people to work, ideally on things with social utility, but if necessary, doing make work. And when prosperity returns, Keynes argued that the government must cut back its spending and its make work and let the larger economy take over again, while paying off our indebtedness. Keynesianism was largely the model for the New Deal. But the New Deal was never popular with most serious capitalists, and good or bad, we've replaced classical Keynesianism with military Keynesianism.

Military Keynesianism was first described by the term used by a Polish Economist to describe Nazi Germany, but it describes much of our economy quite well. That is, our current economy, to a large degree, owes its success to military expansionism and imperialism. People are put to work not at rebuilding the domestic infrastructure, but at war. The military industry and its offshoots (of which the web is one), account for an enormous portion of our economy and our GDP, and millions of jobs, particularly among lower income people. The war in Iraq alone is estimated by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes to cost about 2 *TRILLION* dollars - dollars that get paid out to soldiers and Halliburton consultants, folks in the aerospace industry and janitors in the Pentagon, to government beauracrats and construction companies that build military facilities. And in turn, those dollars get paid out to Wal-Mart and fast food restaurants, bookstores and movie theaters, and trickle down to the rest of us.

Chalmers Johnson, in _Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic_ documents that 60% of GDP growth in just 2003 was attributable to defense spending, and that defense spending represents 50% of the government's discretionary spending - that is, 50% of the things the government chooses to spend money on are about our ability to blow things up. The American defense budget annually exceeds the combined defense budget of every other nation in the world. And, we should note, we are still losing the war in Iraq and precious human lives to people who build 300 dollar roadside bombs. Perhaps this should tell us something about the utility of all this spending.

This was how the Nazis got their economy moving during World War II - they turned their nation into a war machine. And we have done the same intermittently since World War II, most recently since September 11. Instead of burying cash in the ground and digging it up, we've built up a need for war and an imperial culture, and then made up reasons to use them - we can‘t justify all that money without someone to kill. We now make ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks by invading Muslim countries and letting them kill our family members, only to use those deaths as a justification for further imperialism and violence. And all of it, in part, as Johnson deftly documents, because we don't have anything else to feed our economy.

But right now, war is not a money making venture - we're doing it on debt, and sooner or later, we'll pay the price for that. As Johnson points out, that might actually be the only way we can come out of this a truly democratic nation - after all, the price of our imperialism has been the loss of the things we say we value in democracy - if you look at the Bill of Rights, for example, and go down the list, you'll find that the only rights that haven't been undermined, infringed upon or stripped from us are the rights to bear arms and not to have Hessian troops quartered in your bedroom. And I wouldn't hold my breath forever on that last one if it seems convenient to the Bush administration. Johnson argues that only economic collapse could break off our imperial project, and he might be right. On the other hand, it might be possible to do it another way.

It isn't enough to deplore military Keynesianism. It might be useful to do more than deplore it (Americans are told in their own founding documents that if their government becomes tyrannical they have an obligation to overthrow it. Now I'm a non-violent sort, but I do sometimes wonder what level of tyranny we are waiting for before we get serious about choosing something else? Our government supports "disappearing" people without trial, a la Guatemala, torture a la China, spying on its own citizens a la the former Soviet Union...what do we have to do before we start calling it a tyranny and arranging the proper response? This is something I mull over now and again.), but if we're ever to have an alternative economy, one that doesn't depend on finding people to make war against, that doesn't depend on exploitation and murder, we're going to have to do more than get rid of military Keynesianism, we're going to have to get rid of the make work and do useful things. And pay people more for doing useful things than for doing pointless ones.

That sounds obvious, but it isn't at all under the auspices of modern capitalism. Many economists and politicians have been dedicated for a long time to the notion that it is best to pack poor young men and women off to be soldiers, to invest tens of thousands of dollars in their equipment, their training and their bodies, pack them off around the world, and let them discover that a million dollar helicopter is often no match for a 1000 dollar rocket launcher and that a 600,000 dollar tank can be blown up by a 120 dollar IED, because people fighting to get invaders out of their countries almost always trump expensively trained people just doing their jobs - all so that the young man can buy food and pay a mortgage. We believe it is better to do this, than to invest 10,000 dollars once in a young man, to give him training, a few acres of land, and a little equipment so he could grow food for himself and enough to pay his mortgage (or, gasp, build a house without one).

Now the reason for this is that it is deemed to create jobs to do it this way - the military base commander, the drill sergeant, the people who build military housing, body armor and tanks, the fast food place where the soldier eats, the government administrator that helps his family get food stamps because the military pays so poorly, the VA doctors that help him rehabilitate, the Halliburton employees that supply food and transport, the people who manufacture the body bags - all of them get a little piece of this, multiplied by hundreds of thousands of times.

On the other hand, if we had spent that same money setting the same man up as a small scale subsistence farmer, how many people would have gotten jobs out of that? Certainly the manufacturer of hoes, nails and boots, maybe even small horse drawn or efficient tractor equipment. The sawmill guy who cut the boards to build his barn, the logger who cut the trees for house and barn, some seed growers and a feed store. Maybe the local diner once in a while. But you can't run a global economy on that, can you? Where's the R and D money for high technology so we can shoot people out of space with lasers? Where's the money for the people who will treat the soldier's drug problem and find him an apartment when he ends up homeless because of PTSD? You can't pay for global spy satellites off of the income of a small scale subsistence farmer - he barely pays any taxes, and he doesn't need McDonalds to feed him, because he grows his own food or a drug company to treat his obesity induced hypertension, because he doesn't sit on his ass all day, or anything much more technical than a few good tools and a way of getting his crops to market. Heck, if he could have land outside a city, he could do it with a bicycle cart.

Exactly. You can't rule the world with a nation of farmers (ok, the Romans and Bulgarians did, but their empire was proportionally vastly cheaper to run). You can't support a global network of military bases on a simple economy, based on things people really need - food, houses, clothing, tools. If we encouraged young people to do things that were actually useful, and paid them fairly for it, we couldn't have this empire - we couldn't afford it. If we made less money, if we earned less money to buy things we don't need, we couldn't afford to make up excuses to go to war, because China and Japan wouldn't fund us to do so. If we mostly did for ourselves and met most of our own needs in self-sufficient communities and regions, we couldn't afford to do anything other than defend ourselves from real threat.

Wow, doesn't that sound terrible. The answer to the military industrial complex is pretty simple. It runs on money. It runs on our money. It runs on the money we pay in taxes for things we buy, and the money we pay on taxes from money we earn. Stop earning so much money, stop buying so much stuff, and the economy slows and the taxes stop pouring in. If enough of us cut our expenses, and our earnings to the bone, if enough of us stop being willing to fund this war and the next one, stop being willing to buy the oil that the war is about and the garbage about the way of life that the war is about - it will stop. Congress has tried (not very courageously) and failed miserably to cut off funds. But guess what - their funds come from ...me. You. Us. We can cut them off anytime we're willing to make the sacrifice. We just have decide it is worth it to us to make some economic sacrifices (if we can - I know everyone cannot, but many of us could), rather than sacrifice the lives of young men and women.

Your job is probably make work. Most of our work is. Or perhaps it is a little necessary - but perhaps not full-time, suck you dry necessary. I know you need a job to eat, to pay your taxes, to pay your mortgage. I understand that, and I'm not blaming anyone for taking the work they can. We do that too. But every dollar you earn above the absolute necessities, and every dollar you spend in the larger economy helps feed the war machine, and the economy that supports it. And it lends credence to the basic presumption that the largest purpose of our economy is to give us make work. I know you want economic security, a nice nest egg for retirement, a comfortable home, a pretty house. But all those things make globalization, and the wars that enable it possible. Is it worth it?

Now maybe it would be morally acceptable to do make work, regardless of its collateral damage, if there was nothing else important to do. But we know that isn‘t true. Our make work is causing us to take shortcuts - our pointless jobs are causing us to break down and buy fast food because we don't have time to cook. They encourage us to dump chemicals on our gardens and lawns, rather than build soil - we don't have time for that. Our make work is cutting into the time we could spend playing with our kids, or educating them, taking care of elderly people we love or volunteering with others. It cuts into our time for community building, chopping wood, growing gardens, cleaning up messes, avoiding pollutants, being frugal, cooking dinner, making love, stopping the war.

We're doing things that don't matter that actually make things worse. So we've got to stop. I'm not saying instantly. I'm not saying tomorrow, and I‘m not saying everyone. This is hard.. I'm not saying all of us will all have a job of perfect utility. But maybe, just maybe, we could stop this war and improve our lives if we started to ask "what needs doing" not "what can I do to make money." Everything we do to stop needing money, to meet our needs at home and in our local community - by growing food, fiber, fertility, or making things, or helping one another and caring for one another, is something that means we need to pour less cash into the war coffers and less cash into the make-work economy.

How do we do this? We start rethinking our relationship to our work. If you can, one spouse quits their job, or gets a new one doing something that is useful and important. If you haven't got a spouse, and can, cut back on overtime, or offer to take less money in exchange for one day off per week. Or both of you drop your hours back and work less. Maybe you are just getting by where you are, but living in a less ezpensive place, or taking in your sister as a roommate, or caring for your parents would make it easier. Or maybe you can't do anything at all - you can't get along any other way, or your job is so desperately important you can‘t stop. Ok, but those of us who can, need to. Even if we've trained for a make-work career, maybe we need to switch to something that really matters, like caring for the sick and disabled, or making things we import from other nations, or fighting for justice. Each year, perhaps we can grow a little more food or buy a little less, live more within our means and make our means a little smaller. And some
people can slip out of the public economy altogether and become war tax protestors. Most of us can't. But we could make less, spend less, give more to the causes we care about directly, and less to the war effort and the public economy.

The bad news is that if enough of us did this, it would crash the public economy. The reality, however is that a crash in the public economy is probably inevitable, and more importantly, sometimes you have to break some eggs. Economists are fine with this when, for example, we are trashing our manufacturing sector and throwing people out of work - then it is called creative destruction. I suspect they'll be less happy about trashing the capitalist economy so that we can get rid of the war machine. But in the end, sometimes, you do what's right. That was one of the great arguments about slavery, about the end of the British Empire - the nay sayers said "It will hurt us financially to do this." And yes, that was true. Not stealing money from other people, not enslaving them makes the people who had been stealing and slaving less rich. But some things you do because they are right, not because they are expedient. Ceasing to fund evil, ceasing to support imperialism you do because it is right.

The good news is that worldwide, only about 1/4 of all the work we do takes place in the public economy, the world of GDPs and tax accounts. The rest of the things that the world go round, most of the work that most people in the world do, is subsistence labor, or under the table labor, barter or other things that don't get counted in the GDP. That is, most people in the world get their eating money and the things they need not from their company who is traded on a stock market ,but from Raoul down the road who repairs shoes and takes chickens, and from Mama who loaned us enough money to buy the house without interest, and from cousin Lao who trades work with you at harvest time. The peasant economy, as Teodor Shanin, the sociologist who named it observes, is robust, vital and alive, and based on networks of family and community. And we could live far more in the peasant economy than we do now. Many of us could live fairly comfortably deriving most of our income from the communal and peasant economy, with just enough participation in the larger economy to pay taxes, buy a few luxuries and visit people now and again. Getting out of the public economy does not mean living in poverty - it simply means living differently.

The people in the world who most need to quit their jobs, or cut back their earnings, to work less or live on one income, or a collection of half incomes are the richest people in the world. That's us. We pay taxes that fund the war. We buy the crap that funds our trade deficit. We burn the oil that warms the planet, and get people to make stuff for us by burning oil and then shipping that stuff to us. Money correlates with a whole lot of things, including emissions, environmental impact and your implication in the political system we've acquired. It is, I fear, simply not possible to be rich and not be complicit with doing a great deal of harm. So one of the projects we all have to address is how to be less rich. How to live on less. How to earn less. How to have security with less. How to take only a fair share of the world's wealth, as well as its resources.

Most of us don't want to put our jobs on the table. We don't want to admit that the software we design or the products we sell or the message we give out is not only unnecessary, but destructive, contributing to the things we deplore. Unfortunately, it is true. And true is better than the lies we want to tell ourselves. And if it is true, we have to change - period. On the other hand, wouldn't it feel better to be doing something other than burying things and digging them up endlessly?

Sharon

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