On April 12, Professor Lawrence Summers spoke to a Berkeley audience on the topic “Economic Possibilities for our Children.” He projected a dystopian future of maintained or increased inequality, unemployment, and racism, along with the need of salvific technologies and increased education for the children, in order to assure that they can be financially sustaining, economically competitive citizens. Summers explained that he referenced Lord Keynes’ talk on Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren but could not see further than our children. He said that the economic possibilities for our children depend on who they are and what they can do. He said that it will be great for the 1% but worse for everyone else. He pointed out that wages are going down and the cost of living will continue to rise. He said that society will have rising inequality, and the burden will fall most heavily on black males. He said that technology, education, and redistribution must go together.
He said that given these changes, it is unlikely that government will shrink – in fact, it must expand. This is at least because government is the engine for redistributing wealth and opportunity, especially when there is reduced demand. He proposed more progressive taxation, the spread of technology, and greatly increased skills. He spoke of our human capital.
In the Q and A, he said the stimulus package should have been bigger. He said Congress cut back what the President sought by 20%, and the two major constraints on the stimulus were Congress and how long it takes to get things started, let alone completed. The “shovel-ready” mantra was about starting projects that would pump money into the economy now, rather than 5 years down the road. Given how long it takes to do major public works projects, such as replacing sewers, roads, bridges, etc, this administration’s dilemma in that arena becomes pretty clear and plain.
Professor Summers said that of course, income inequality is a problem – history teaches us that societies are stable with there is a strong middle class and fair distribution. He repeated that we need much more progressive taxation in the USA.
The recording engineer said that this event will be posted to Youtube.
At the reception, I asked him whether he knew of any European actors who, in the face of their demand crisis, were looking into new international investment with regard to energy opportunities. He was dismissive of the scale of energy opportunities’ ability to have a significant impact on Europe.
If we maintain a growth-based global economy, philosophy, and attitude, Summers’ bummer prognosis is just about guaranteed.
But two things are wrong with Summers’ view, I think.
1. It isn’t the future, the dystopian society he forecasts is happening now, and started in the 1970’s. The Occupy Movement, the 99%, consists of the set of economic present and future that has been harmed by the redistribution upward to the 1%. While we are now enjoying the same kind of dystopian society, the degree differs from what is to come, which is worse.
2. We can actually change the future if we drop the growth-based premises and take up the Bill McKibben view. view
For a simple, elementary summary I’d say “We’ve got to learn how to give, and give back.”
In order to fight back, we need to do several things. We need to disavow the brutal meanness of voices like Rush Limbaugh. This is not what we want to model for children, or for the rest of the world. We have got to learn to live like citizens of a society. We have to organize a better , more amplified, voice on the airwaves and in cyberspace. We have to learn how diverse communities can counter vast fortunes spent on political voice with international cybernetworked community and access to the fastest speeds available. We have to somehow wrest back the vote from the money and lies. We have to learn to rely on one another a la McKibben and build the interconnected regenerative transition communities.
We are in for a bad century, no matter what, and we may find that Nature last at bat solves the problem by devastating us all. But we do have to accept the clear-eyed view of Dr. Summers as a forecast of what we are in and what we are growing into, and then find and develop all the ways we can to counter that miserable future.