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Steady State Economics and the New Congress

by Brent Blackwelder

My New Year’s wish is for everyone to see the movie Inside Job. It’s a dynamic overview of the people, forces, and philosophy behind the global financial crisis and the ensuing bailouts of the “too-big-to-fail” banks and investment firms. Inside Job shows how pervasive the corruption of the global financial system has become. The movie singles out various Democrats and Republicans as being part of the problem, but it also contains scenes of some keen Congressional investigators such as Senator Levin of Michigan, Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, who is shown grilling the heads of the big banks and exposing the kinds of swindles that took place.

Advocates of the steady state economy should be working more closely with the cutting-edge organizations fighting global corruption because the corruption and its attendant bribery of public officials is undermining governance around the world.

The ongoing economic depression is the very time steady state advocates should be pushing for a totally different way of proceeding, a way to avoid the boom and busts of the past. We need to blow right by the typical politicians pushing their pet hackneyed ideas for getting the economy moving.

We don’t want to return to the same spot we were in, only to have a new round of speculators crash the economic system and undermine governance. It is important, therefore, to force decision makers in Congress and the Executive Branch to think about a paradigm shift and what a steady state economy would look like.

One obvious approach is to continue increasing the teach-ins, symposiums, and conferences that feature this deep economic debate. CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy) can provide the names of experts to university groups, religious congregations, and public interest organizations who want to host events to educate their members and the public about new economic models.

Rallies and demonstrations can help make a difference in awareness and can stimulate Congress to conduct hearings. For example, Tea Party activists demonstrated repeatedly this past fall at Republican primaries to protest the deficit and the gridlock in Congress and to push for tax cuts. Many were bankrolled by powerful right-wing interests, and they got a lot of press. Advocates of big economic change need to think about doing more demonstrations to raise awareness and force Congressional oversight into new economic models of sustainability.

For example, on the United Nations Anti-Corruption Day, December 9, I organized a demonstration outside the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber has been a large force pushing growth at all costs and is well known for its anti-sustainability positions. But what is not so well known is the Chamber’s opposition to those trying to clean up global corruption and improve governance.

On behalf of the Tax Justice Network with participation by Common Cause, Public Citizen, and Friends of the Earth, we paraded in front of the U.S. Chamber and laid out the charges against it. For example, the Chamber is seeking to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and is blocking efforts to abolish offshore tax havens, which contain vast sums of money (about $20 trillion) that go untaxed by any jurisdiction.

In addition to protests, rallies, and teach-ins, there may be other opportunities to confront the new Congress to get a deeper economic discussion going. Here are a couple of possibilities. Given the stated desire of most of the 97 new Members to cut federal spending, Congress should be challenged to eliminate the subsidies for polluting industries, especially for fossil fuels. The last Congress unfortunately continued the big subsidy for corn ethanol that will cost several hundred billion dollars by the year 2022. The new Congress could reverse this decision, and it could cut the agricultural commodity subsidies that benefit agribusiness and undermine organic food production. The challenge is to make the Congress vote and then we can tabulate the results and expose any hypocrites.

Many advocates of a steady state economy criticize gross domestic product (GDP) for failing to give an honest indication of the well-being of the nation. In 1989 Senator Robert Kasten (R-Wisconsin) added an amendment to the Commerce Department appropriations bill that required the Department to product an index of gross sustainable production in addition to the usual GDP. The provision became law and the Commerce Department started implementation, but in the mid-1990s the fossil fuel lobby forced the removal of this modest requirement. Perhaps as part of truth-telling to the American public, Congress could reinstate this provision.

I have suggested several measures of offense, but in 2011 we may have to work significantly on defense. For example, more bailouts may be proposed without any serious reform conditions. Keep in mind the inability of Congress to resist bailing out too-big-to-fail corporations.

For example, take the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler by the last Congress and the Obama administration. Why wasn’t a provision added to prohibit these companies from suing state or federal governments? GM got bailed out and then sued the State of California over clean car standards.

The Obama administration could have insisted on binding conditions for the production of better mileage vehicles similar to Toyota’s Prius and provided for government fleet purchases of high-mileage vehicles. Dan Akerson, CEO of General Motors, recently told the Economic Club in Washington: “We commonly refer to the geek-mobile as the Prius…I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius.”

Let’s make sure that Obama and the new Congress don’t continue rescuing fossilized corporations that stubbornly cling unsustainable policies of the past.

New Thinking on BP Spill: Declare a Holiday!

The BP spill demands a far more significant response than ongoing cleanups, unsuccessful attempts to plug the gushing oil, and desperate efforts to mitigate the multitude of impacts from the biggest oil catastrophe in U.S. history. The BP spill demands a paradigm shift in how we run our economy and carry out our governance. Historians will one day look back on this spill as the nadir of governmental regulatory performance, in which oil companies commandeered and corrupted the Interior Department oil leasing program.  So what’s the response we need to get the paradigm shift going?  How about declaring a new holiday?

Before describing this new holiday, let’s look a little more closely at the current response.  Congress is not thinking in terms of a paradigm change either in the economy or the regulatory framework. Nor is the Obama administration. They are thinking about where oil drilling is okay and where it is not. Some Republican leaders, like Representative Barton of Texas, even accused President Obama of trying to “shake down” BP.

So instead of fundamental change, the most likely Congressional response to the BP spill will be to go back and write a new liability law for oil.

Following the tragic Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska in 1989, Friends of the Earth was a leader in pushing for the 1990 Oil Liability Law to help safeguard against another Exxon Valdez accident. This law put in place requirements for double-hull oil tankers and new liability ceilings. Our hope was that the 1990 law would prevent bad spills and reduce spill frequency, but given the nature of enforcement (coupled with oil company attempts to flout regulations), the law was insufficient to protect the Gulf of Mexico.

This type of legislative response is too tepid to meet the challenge. The gravity of the current BP spill is the latest manifestation of the massively polluting direction of worldwide energy growth – growth that is jeopardizing the livability of our planet.

On July 5, the New York Times reported that per capita energy consumption in China is soaring as its population seeks more and bigger cars and appliances. Given that the global population stands at 6.8 billion and is headed toward 9 to 11 billion by 2050, a paradigm shift in the basis for the world economy is necessary just to head off the many tragedies that are already occurring in connection with excessive consumption, soaring population, grotesque pollution, and the obliteration of diverse ecosystems.

The economic structure must be totally reshaped to require real cost pricing for natural resources to reflect all the external costs imposed on current and future generations and on the life-support systems of the earth. We must ask ourselves serious questions that most economists don’t want to deal with. For example, what is the real cost of coal or of oil? Why is the concept of economic growth sacrosanct?

It is not just in the energy sector that we see prices failing to reflect their ecological costs, but across the food, health, and safety spectrum. What is the real cost of our food and of the animal factory slum operations that brutalize animals and shove their health and pollution impacts off on neighboring communities? What is the real condition of our topsoil and our groundwater? What is the real index of social and economic well-being, given that GDP (gross domestic product) only measures throughput in the economy with little accounting for the future?

In particular, under a new economics there would be a shift away from oil usage because the price of gasoline at the pump would be about $9 per gallon when social and environmental costs are included, not the artificially low prices we see today.

The Center for Technology Assessment published an updated estimate showing that the real cost of gasoline at the pump is between $5.60 and $15.14 per gallon if all the hidden subsidies and serious damages caused by gasoline usage were factored in. Health damages from all the air pollution caused by motor vehicles ranges between $231.7 and $942.9 billion annually, and military protection for oil supplies ranges between $55 and $96.3 billion per year.

To move us toward bigger thinking, the United States should declare an Interdependence Day. This July Americans celebrated the 234th Independence Day with fireworks galore. But the U.S. needs more ecological awareness and recognition of our interdependence with the rest of humanity and other life on this planet. On Interdependence Day we could reflect on how much we depend on others and on our environment to support us. We are on spaceship earth together and we need a spaceship economics for us to survive over the long run, not the cowboy economics that produces boom and bust cycles with some big winners and massive numbers of losers.

The gigantic economies of the United States, China, and Europe can spread air pollution and toxins all over the earth and even affect people living in remote areas. Interdependence Day would dramatize how pollution in one area harms people’s health in other areas. It would help foster consideration of the profound changes that must follow in the aftermath of the BP spill.

The future of civilization depends on moving rapidly away from an economy that glorifies jobless growth and futureless growth to a prosperous steady state economy, an economy that tells the truth about the real cost of natural resource extraction and usage.

The stewardship aspects of the economy should appeal to all the great religions of the world, and their voices are needed to counter the disinformation campaigns of the major polluters. The BP oil disaster gives citizens the platform to speak out and demand a new economics for a clean energy future and for the well-being of humanity.