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POVERTY OF UNDERSTANDING

Stephen L. Doll 1998  

Published in:

  • Submitted to Daytona Beach News-Journal April 30, 1998; published in its entirety May 4, 1998, with accompanying photograph of the author, under the heading “A Poverty of Understanding may be America’s Problem” in the News-Journal’s “Community Voices” feature.

Ours is a land of paradoxes. While stockbrokers applaud each big merger, workers gnaw nails over the next round of downsizing. Surpluses pour into government coffers like seawater into the Titanic, but belt-tightening continues apace. Realtors laud third and fourth homebuyers as a mainstay of their market, while elsewhere the homeless are offered bunk space in a seven million-dollar kennel. We throw away billions of tons of food per year, yet on the cover of U.S.A. Weekly, five-year-old pixie Michelle Leneski smiles at us from the food bank, a dwindling haven that seems to be drawing more and more Americans – not just derelicts, but working families (so much for “hard work”).

There are sound reasons that the current economic boom rings hollow for many; why, in spite of the billions we throw at poverty, all it does is create more bureaucracies and agencies. While some lay the blame for the inequities at those third and fourth doorsteps, the tendency for money to accumulate in the hands of those who already have lots of it is only part of the story. There are other forces at work that place growing numbers of Americans at economic risk; one is the nature of money itself.

Money does not distribute plenty, it limits distribution. Monetary value requires that there not be enough to go around. If there were enough goods and services to provide a comfortable standard of living for everyone – something we are physically capable of achieving – monetary exchange values would be meaningless. That’s why you can’t sell sunshine or salt water on the beach. And this is why we can’t buy our way out of poverty. In a “market “economy, this applies to everything from gold watches to antiques to – unfortunately – the necessities of life like food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

A second key factor is technology. With the speed at which automation is displacing human labor, from banking to brain surgery, the economy simply cannot create the job base required to provide adequate income for large numbers of people. This trend, first pointed out by the Technocrats in the 1930’s, was reinforced by a U.S. Senate study in 1961, and most recently validated in Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.

The third factor follows the second. In the place of vanishing out-of-pocket purchasing power comes the magic of debt. Our financial economy is fueled by little more than the exchange of IOU’s on a grand scale. At last estimate, according to economist Lester Thurow of MIT, this burgeoning monster amounts to a staggering $20 trillion, combined public and private. Our seeming prosperity is mortgaged against the futures of our children.

For a true picture of our economy, check out how many car title loan outfits are popping up. Keep an eye on the number of layoffs, credit card delinquencies and bankruptcy filings. Talk to those working a couple of jobs apiece, and others burned out from taking up the slack for the victims of the last round of downsizing. Look at the retail outlets. Stores do not let out goods on the no-payments-for-a-year plan if things are booming. And look at your own budgets and how those costs, latent and blatant, keep nibbling away at the take-home.

Our debt-structured financial economy is, in truth, a house of sticks built of little more than sheer confidence, in which those whom it favors blithely fiddle away until the Big Bad Wolf – the erosion of that confidence – comes huffing and puffing. Then the house shivers and shudders to its foundation, and millions follow little Michelle into the lines at the food bank.

Our physical economy is quite a different story. As long our true wealth – our people, our technology, and our natural resources – remains intact, there are no barriers to eradicating the vast majority of our social problems. More importantly, a failure of our physical economy – which could take place through waste, inefficiency, and environmental irresponsibility – will mean there will be no food banks at all.

We suffer from poverty of understanding, not just of the plight of those leading lives of quiet desperation, but of the forces that shape our society. If we truly desire economic security for all Americans, more than a simple redistribution of wealth we need a redefining of wealth. We can’t build, deliver, and sustain a high standard of living on lottery winners, box office smashes, instant collectibles, and runaway speculation.

Ours is, after all, a winners/losers economy. But when the losers are young children and productive working Americans whose skills, in our skewed system of priorities, are valued less than those of Hollywood idols and corporate athletes, something is dreadfully wrong.

We’ve come a long way. Not too many years ago, little Michelle Leneski would have been spirited off to a sweat shop for her daily dose of gruel. Now we’ve shipped that bit of inhumanity to foreign lands – sort of like shuffling those embarrassing homeless from town to town. But there’s no guarantee that we won’t see those days again. Despite the bright glow of economic euphoria sweeping the nation, there are dark indications that it’s already happening. You just have to know where, and care enough, to look.

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