Rachel's Democracy & Health News #858  [Printer-friendly version]
June 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Here we pick up the thread from last week,
examining the consequences of three decades of decelerating economic
growth. The system's responses to slowed economic growth explain much
of what passes for "the news" each day.]

By Peter Montague

Introduction: We began last week examining the effects of slowed
economic growth on U.S. society. The argument is simple: since 1970,
each decade has brought slower economic growth while at the same time
there is a glut of capital seeking a decent return on investment. More
capital accrues each year; that's what "economic growth" means. Each
year it gets a little harder to find safe places to invest the ever-
growing supply of capital to provide decent returns. As a result,
corporate-governmental policies are increasingly aimed primarily at
helping investors achieve their goals. Don't misunderstand: This is
not about greedy individuals demanding to get rich -- this is about
"system responses" from a complex system that cannot continue
unmodified without a hefty rate of growth because, as the system is
currently set up, the only alternative to substantial growth is
recession or depression. The economy either grows or it stalls and
goes into a decline -- a steady state is not an option. Those who are
doing their best to pump up returns for investors believe that what
they are doing is essential for saving the modern economy, and they
may be right. Unfortunately, on a finite planet, perpetual growth of
material production is impossible to sustain, so the current path is,
without doubt, a dead end. Ecological limits have already begun to

System response No. 13: Relax environmental standards

As growth slows, environmental standards are being relaxed on the
assumption that they retard economic growth. This is the main force
driving the current bipartisan move to extinguish all meaningful
environmental regulations, to the extent that any ever really

For reasons that escape me, environmentalists want to see
environmental regulations as a partisan issue. Angry books have been
written about the way the George W. Bush administration has relaxed
environmental standards,[27] so I won't go into it here. But let's not
forget to examine the Clinton/Gore administration's fudging and
waffling on environmental controls in the name of stimulating economic
growth. And let's not forget that it was Republican Richard Nixon who
created the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

Both Republicans and Democrats have an identical interest in returning
the economy to historical rates of growth, and to the extent that
protecting nature is seem as an impediment to growth, to that extent
regulations to protect nature will be ignored, repudiated,
reinterpreted or placed within the purview of a "regulatory" system
the main purpose of which is to keep the public at bay, give the
appearance that people's concerns are being addressed, and meanwhile
leave corporations free to do what they need to do to make the economy

Most importantly, let's ask ourselves whether the nation's labyrinth
of environmental laws and regulations -- at least 12,000 pages of fine
print in the Federal Register -- is adequate to resolve the problems
it was presumably intended to fix. If we are honest, we will
acknowledge that the regulations are hopelessly inadequate. An
overwhelming body of scientific and medical evidence -- much of it
available to every reader of a daily newspaper -- demonstrates that
damage to nature and human health is steadily increasing.[29] As
Donella Meadows observed shortly before her death, the best that can
be said after 40 years of environmental regulation is that things are
growing worse at a slower rate.

System response No. 14: A Social Insecurity Program

The cumulative effect of the previous 12 system responses has been to
stabilize and regularize American society by making middle- and
working-class Americans more insecure, and at the same time busier,
each passing year.

Insecure people do not start revolutions or even ask too many
questions. They tend to assume that change will be for the worse --
and for at least three decades they have been right. As Eric Hoffer
has observed, "Fear of the future causes us to lean against and cling
to the present..."[30, pg. 19] And: "In a modern society, people can
live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant
hustling."[30, pg. 24] In sum, keeping people insecure and ever-busier
keeps them in line, holds them in thrall.

As a result of slow economic growth -- and the 14 system responses
described above -- Americans are working longer hours for the same or
less pay. They are traveling further in worsening traffic to find a
tolerable job. They are borrowing more -- a lot more -- and taking
extra work to pay off their loans. Many are not sure they will have a
job next year; they are not even sure their employer will exist next
year, perhaps the victim of a hostile takeover, perhaps simply moved
to Mexico where labor is cheap and rules are few. For the U.S.
workforce, benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits are
getting scarcer. Overtime pay is under attack. Rollbacks and givebacks
are demanded of the nation's workforce at every turn.

We are constantly reminded that food and water are laced with cancer-
causing chemicals, which corporate/governmental risk assessors assure
us are "completely safe" (wink, wink). Everyone knows someone who has
had, or now has, cancer. The cost of college tuition rises each year,
at the same time we are told thriving in the "information age" will
require a college degree. With libraries closing and most schools
overcrowded and many downright dangerous, how will the kids survive in
a world of unbridled competition? It's enough to keep you awake at
night -- which may be the point.

In sum, the net result of the past 30 years is a huge increase in
anxiety and insecurity. Perhaps in response, people are turning to
crime[31] or escaping into addictions (drugs, alcohol, TV) and
apocalyptic visions of a divine end to earthly distress. In late 2004,
a Newsweek poll found that one out of every six Americans -- some 51
million people -- now expect the world to end during their
lifetime.[32] Far from being a lunatic fringe, these people now form
the electoral base of the ruling political party in the U.S. If the
country is not run in a way that measures up to their other-worldly
preconceptions, they threaten to turn the Republicans out of office,
and most likely they have the power to do it. In deference to this
contingent, both President Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton are
presently stumping for a Constitutional amendment to outlaw burning
the American flag as a political statement (while retaining the right
of their wealthier, politically-satisfied supporters to blow their
noses on American-flag cocktail napkins or kerchiefs).

Everyone knows the system is rigged against the average person. The
people who run the system no longer even try very hard to hide that
fact. The response of most people in the face of widespread corruption
and cronyism is to withdraw into weariness, resignation, cynicism --
and flashes of anger.[31]

That anger draws a response because its politically dangerous. There's
now a whole industry devoted to deflecting that anger away from the
Masters of Our Fate and onto "welfare queens" (shorthand for poor
black single mothers and, by extension, all black women); "Willie
Horton" (shorthand for black male criminals, and, by extension, all
black men); physicians who perform abortions; homosexuals; so-called
"liberal elites," and other scapegoats, now including most recently
Muslims and foreigners, especially those with brown skin. The science
of scapegoating -- which entered world consciousness via the work of
Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda -- is now a very
highly developed set of techniques. In the U.S. the science of
scapegoating was refined to greatest effect by Lee Atwater, political
advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and by
Atwater's best-known student, Carl Rove, political advisor to
President George W. Bush.[33] The lineage from Goebbels to Rove is
direct and unlikely to be broken because these techniques really do

System response No. 15: Divide and Rule

As noted above, five percent of the population owns 2/3rds of all
private wealth in the U.S., and the other 95% of the population makes
do by divvying up the remaining one-third of the nation's private

Naturally this astonishing inequality in wealth gives rise to enormous
disparities in income, quality of life (employment, health, education,
leisure time, and life span), and overall opportunities. Each year
these economic inequalities grow greater as the 5% become a little
wealthier and the 95% a little less so. You can think of the U.S.
economy now as a kind of Rube Goldberg conveyor belt, lifting money
out of the pockets of the middle class and the working poor and moving
it, by circuitous routes, into the pockets of the super rich. Lights
flash, whistles shriek, gizmos pop and spin, gears and belts carry
weights and buckets to and fro -- all highly amusing and distracting,
as all of Rube Goldberg inventions were. But beneath it all runs a
steady conveyor, relentlessly moving money from the have-lesses to the
have-mores. It's not greed; it's the way the system functions in order
to survive.

The first thing we might notice here is that, by definition, the super
rich 5% are outnumbered 19 to 1 -- yet each year that tiny minority
manages to retain (and even strengthen) social and economic policies
that keep that conveyor belt chugging along, steadily transferring
rewards upward.

Since the 95% could readily outvote the 5%, the only ESSENTIAL
strategy for the 5% is divide and rule. If 54% of the 95% ever got
together, rule by the 5% would end. Indeed, divide and rule, or divide
and conquer, is really the ONLY thing the 5% have going for them. It
is their lifeline, and therefore also their major vulnerability.

To maintain the status quo, the 5% must divide the 95% (or convince
them that voting will not change anything and is therefore pointless).
This is the essential function of "social issues" like abortion
rights, gun control, prayer in school, amendments to prohibit flag
burning, women's liberation, "liberal elites," "pointy-headed
intellectuals" (as former Vice President Spiro Agnew liked to call his
adversaries), the "Eastern establishment," godless communists, Muslim
evil-doers, bunny huggers, labor bosses, welfare queens, homosexuals
-- name your favorite pariah. The reason your favorite pariah exists
as an "issue" is to keep the pot boiling, to ensnare 48% of the 95%
into voting with the 5% (or staying home on election day), so the 5%
can continue to have their way with us all.

The divide-and-rule strategy has a noble lineage. The British
discovered in 1610 that they could divide Ireland and thus finally
bring it under British rule after 250 years of failed effort. King
James I realized that he could split northen Ireland along Protestant-
Catholic lines and thus allow a foreign power to dominate both
Protestants AND Catholics who could never combine forces to confront
their common enemy. It worked like a charm and thus entered the book
of tricks used ever since by the few to rule the many.

The Brits went on to use "divide and rule" to subjugate India, Africa,
and the Middle East. By pitting one group of subjects against another
group (offering one group special privileges, for example) and
constantly whipping up ethnic, religious and class or caste
animosities, tiny numbers of Brits were able to dominate enormous
numbers of colonials for 400 years, exacting tribute for the mother
country all the while. The threat of violence by the British military
always lay in the background during these colonial adventures but it
was generally not needed. The Brits used a combination of carrots and
sticks -- plus leadership jealousies, religious fractures, tribal
disputes, regional differences, and cultural animosities -- to get
half a population to help them subjugate the other half. I am reminded
of the strategic advice given by U.S. financier and railroad
businessman, Jay Gould: "I can hire one half of the working class to
kill the other half."


Using nature as a toilet in the name of economic stimulus is not
restricted to one political party or the other -- let us acknowledge
that, to gain election, both parties must feed at the same trough and
therefore serve the same master.

Some might say that real campaign finance reform is the only hope for
fixing this. But it goes far deeper than that.

Given an economic system that derives investment capital from
investors who have a right to expect a substantial annual return on
investment, and given that such a system requires growth to produce
the return for those investors, and given that environmental harm is
roughly proportional to economic growth, it seems silly and naive to
think that nature can be protected from this ever-growing juggernaut
by a set of rules negotiated between the juggernaut and a central
bureaucracy created by the juggernaut.

If I am entitled to a 7% annual return on my investment (or even a 3%
return), that return must come from somewhere without much delay, and
that requires stuff to be dug up or grown, moved, processed, moved
again, packaged, promoted and sold, moved again, used, moved again,
perhaps recycled a few times, and eventually discarded (at which point
nature starts moving it once again, into waterways and food webs). The
second law of thermodynamics tells us that each of these steps will
inevitably be accompanied by waste, disorder and other disruptive
unintended consequences. Environmental regulations are not going to
change any of that, no matter who negotiates them.

The pattern of the U.S. regulatory system was designed by business
interests in the early 20th century to serve business interests by
stabilizing and regularizing the social/governmental environment
within which business operates.[28] Environmental regulation followed
that same pattern when it evolved in the 1970s. As Tom Linzey and
Richard Grossman point out, the social purpose of environmental
regulation is not so much to regulate business as it is to restrict
the objections that can be raised by dissenters (whether small
business competitors or angry citizens). Regulation limits and
channels the responses anyone can make to corporate harms and thus
environmental regulations mainly serve to make citizens predictable
and manageable. The same could be said of labor regulations, financial
regulations, and all the other regulatory constraints placed on
business enterprises. The purpose is the regularize and stabilize the
business environment, which means restricting the responses of those
who are (inadvertently or not) harmed, taken advantage of,
shortchanged, cheated or otherwise abused.

Real protection of nature and human health will require reforms far
more fundamental than trying to curb the flow of corrupt money into
elections and creating bureaucracies in Washington to try to police
the behavior of corporations that can operate in 120 countries on all
continents simultaneously in outer space if they choose to. The simple
fact is that the owners of capital want decent returns, this requires
economic growth, and they will not be denied their due. Against this
ever-growing juggernaut, regulations are powerless to protect nature
or human health. Harm will be done, and it will be judged justifiable
as the cost of doing business.

It is now clear that continued growth is incompatible with the need to
protect the ecosystems on which all humans (and all other creatures)
depend -- so human survival requires that growth must slow and then
stop. In this essay, I have described 15 system responses to a slow-
down in the rate of growth, so this should give us some idea of the
task we face and the intensity of the opposition that will develop if
we proceed down this road. It could easily turn ugly.

The global south needs growth (of roads, ports, and power plants) to
give people the basics, and the global north already suffers from too
much growth (and a glut of basics, which is one reason return on
investment has diminished in recent decades). So growth in the north
will need to stop -- or even go negative -- so that growth in the
global south can proceed apace. Many in the investor class are
unlikely to sit idly by as this unfolds, especially if they are made
to feel unwelcome in the global south.

Perpetual growth on a finite planet is a logical and physical
impossibility. In recent decades it has become indisputably clear that
an irresistible force (the human-animal need to protect the Earth, its
habitat) has met an immovable object (the need for economic growth to
reward investors so that the modern economic system can survive
unmodified). Let's at least acknowledge that this is the nub of "the
environmental problem" and that the environmental movement hasn't yet
begun to bark up this particular tree.


[26] Richard W. Stevenson, "The 2004 Campaign: The Issues: President
Has Aggressively Pursued 'Pro-Growth' Ideas Nurtured in the Texas Oil
Fields," New York Times Oct. 8, 2004, pg. A20. And see

[27] For example, Donald C. Lord, Dubya: The Toxic Texan : George W.
Bush and Environmental Degradation (N.Y.: iUniverse, 2005); ISBN

[28] Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism; A Reinterpretation of
American History, 1900-1916. NY: The Free Press, 1963, describes the
historical development of the regulatory system as a necessary adjunct
to the growth of corporate influence over the nation's political,
commercial, and cultural life.

[29] I have been documenting this since 1986 in Rachel's News

[30] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer; Thoughts on the Nature of Mass
Movements. NY: Harper and Row, 1951. Edition cited here is Mentor
paperback published by New American Library, 1958.

[31] Kate Zernike, "Violent Crime Rising Sharply in Some Cities," New
York Times February 12, 2006, pg. A1, reports, "Milwaukee -- One woman
here killed a friend after they argued over a brown silk dress. A man
killed a neighbor whose 10-year-old son had mistakenly used his dish
soap. Two men argued over a cellphone, and pulling out their guns, the
police say, killed a 13-year-old girl in the crossfire.

"While violent crime has been at historic lows nationwide and in
cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, it is rising sharply here
and in many other places across the country.

"And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over
gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has
been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly
seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire"

[32] According to a Newsweek poll, 17 percent of Americans (one in
every six) expect the world to end in their lifetime. Cited in Frank
Rich "Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush," New York Times Oct. 3,

[33] In his book, What's the Matter With Kansas (NY: Henry Holt, 2004;
paperback 2005; ISBN 0-8050-7774X), Thomas Frank "reveals how the
political right continues to win elections, despite the fact that its
economic policies hurt the vast majority of ordinary people, by
portraying itself as the defender of mainstream values against a
malevolent cultural elite. The right 'mobilizes voters with explosive
social issues, summoning public outrage which it then marries to pro-
business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve
economic ends." This is showmanship at its best. Politicians talk
about 'traditional values," but their true loyalty is to economic
policies intended to primarily benefit the wealthiest 5%: 'Vote to
stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to
stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization."
It may seem far-fetched, but so far it's working." writes Paul
Krugman, "Kansas on My Mind," New York Times Feb. 25, 2005.