The Dismal Science

by Richard Kovac

The world is an economic laboratory. The question is how wealthy do we want to become in this niche of it where corporations have relatively free play and dominate - which is one allowable experiment, I guess, if the corporations are relatively benign, despite the profit motive.

But I prefer small business and cooperative ventures in local areas. Some libertarians claim the corporations will wither away with the new technologies but I myself think this is a dubious claim. No more did the state wither under Communism as practiced. But all these experiments miss the basic point.

Just how wealthy do we want to be? Should it be at the expense of other nations? What is the optimum level? The economic laboratory tests various systems of economics, but all economics has an ethical under-layer from Adams to Marx to Keynes. The issue is, are we to maximize prosperity to such an extent that we become a culture of spoiled children and sybarites? Not what is the best economic system, but what is the best economic system for what?

I like "Small Is Beautiful" by the British economist E.F. Schumacher, but this also isn't an infallible guide to our real needs. If we doubled our per capita GDP would we be happier, allowing for inflation? I suggest that in the end we must say that we in this country already have enough material goods, and that there is a grave dearth of spiritual values. We have enough cars and televisions. (Me too.) But is the quality any better than when the adjusted income per capita was half what it is? (And it has not gone up as much as you may think except that women are now in the work force.)

These are questions that trouble me as we move into what is evidently a financial crisis of great magnitude - I'm guessing. Would we have the stamina to survive something like the Thirties if it happened again? What change will be wrought by global warming? But there are no answers, only quasi-mathematical speculation it seems at times. I think I saw an equation in an economics text indicating that free trade was multi-laterally beneficial. (I do subscribe to that.) But in the end an economic system can be ruthless. Charging interest is harmful in itself. What is needed is not more economics (or more politics) but a change of heart. If we had compassion for each other everywhere on this global village, economics and politics would fall into line.

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