It’s time to bid adieu to the death threats – at least for now – because you’re reading my last column for The Michigan Daily. Law school and a life dedicated to redistributing B-School graduates’ wealth to the people who sweep their floors awaits me.
As you may have guessed, during my tenure as the Daily’s token socialist columnist, I’ve received more than a few e-mails from smart asses who think they’re the first person to deliver unto me the Econ. 101 gospels: Incentives?! Efficiency?! Say what?!
Trust me, I’m well aware of what free trade-topia is supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to work; I’m just not buying into the hype. So since all these people have spent the last two years sharing with me how they see the world, I felt like indulging myself a little and sharing a little of myself with my learned readership. The following aren’t arguments per se, they’re just a few ideas that have shaped my thinking over the past several years.
If Marx’s statement that “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” wasn’t universally true, it was certainly true for me. I’ve been reaping the intellectual fruits of virulent, insensitive atheism going on eight years now. Ridding my thoughts of afterlife delusions changed my worldview pretty profoundly. First I learned to appreciate the quality of life that I had, and then I realized that most other people weren’t doing quite so well and a good part of the reason why they weren’t was because of their or others’ stupid spiritual pretensions. I realized that a lot of people get killed all over the world because humanity hasn’t quite gotten over the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin? questions. The world doesn’t need religious tolerance – it needs a heavy dose of secular humanism.
A certain little fucker who now works on Wall Street wrote me last year to tell me that companies should not compensate workers injured on the job because “this is inefficient and goes against most logic” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). Clearly he had never done a job that required him to actually produce something with his hands.
Well I have: I’ve worked in a metal file cabinet manufacturing factory where metal shavings were blown up under my safety glasses and into my eyes three times in three months because of an illegally-positioned fan. Working in a factory is grim, hard work – much harder than any job some punk graduating from the Business School will ever do – and instead of just moving someone else’s money around, factory workers actually produce something.
For lack of a better word, this kind of work sucks. In the United States a lot of workers are fortunate enough to be able to sell their long-term health and (it makes me cringe to use this word) “souls” to hopefully relax for two days of the week. In the developing world, workers sell their health (often not just long-term) and their souls to survive – barely.
A more humane society would strive to make these jobs a lot easier and compensate workers fairly for their labor and a good start towards this kind of society would be to organize powerful, militant and democratic unions.
Social health vs. economic health
A strong economy does not always mean a higher standard of living – in fact, oftentimes they’re inversely proportional. This is because the policies that make economies grow can also make our lives worse. For example, getting rid of a lot of our emissions standards would be good for the economy since companies could allocate resources away from emissions control and toward other areas, like research and development. But just because stockholders are seeing the shares climb in value doesn’t mean that all of the extra pollution that made that stock climb isn’t giving their kids asthma. Think about how many marriages are destroyed due to high consumer debt, or how the character of much of small-town America has been degraded by the arrival of cheap megastores like Walmart … These are also part of our economy’s “success story.”
Alternatives to capitalism
Just because we know that Soviet-style planned economies don’t work doesn’t mean we have to live with capitalism (or at least the kind of capitalism we live with today). Anyone who has studied the work of the prominent radical economists knows that there are several very plausible and very pleasant alternatives to the political and economic status quo. What people say about capitalism today, they were also saying about representative democracy 300 years ago.
The point I’ve been trying to make for the last two years is that we should be cynical apropos of money and power, but optimistic about the prospects of seeing a genuinely superior alternative arise to counter the system we currently “enjoy” at the expense of much of the rest of the world and at our own peril. Hopefully, I’ve at least managed to get a few people to think about some of the things we tend to think of as givens.
This is Nick Woomer’s last column for the Daily; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.