HOLIDAY ECONOMICS 101

Christmas shopping season keeps starting earlier and earlier.  Now, most often, not after Thanksgiving but after Halloween.  Much better for retailers to get people spending sooner and keep them at it for 54 days.  What’s up with that?  This is the season to honor, supposedly, the birth of Jesus Christ, a poor son of a carpenter in the Middle East with no disposable income.  Indeed, with all of the stories from and about the life of Jesus, there is no mention of his ever going shopping.  

Yes, I realize that our world is not at all like it was in Jesus’s time.  We live in a consumer economy where consumer spending is the essential component of our modern economy.  And marketing to get people to buy things is a big part of that economy.  OK, I have bought a doll for my granddaughter as a Christmas present, and I may buy her something again.

But I don’t want to accept the idea that we are helpless because of the system in which we live or because we are bombarded with “you will be happy only if you buy this.”  We still have choices. We can decide what to buy or not buy, how much to spend on Christmas gifts, what other options we have for our money.

Charity, sure.  And, it’s OK to believe that giving some starving family in Africa a goat, 2 rabbits, and 6 chicks is a positive way to honor the spirit of Christmas.  I’m also a big believer in microfinance where one makes a small loan to a woman in the third world who starts a business making baskets and supports her family and children—and, maybe, hires other women in the village and frees up all their children to go to school.  All good.  And, if motivated by the spirit of Christmas, fine.

But are these acts of generosity once a year sufficient response to the extreme inequality that we see everywhere in our world today?  I think not.  Systemic change is necessary, and the sooner the better. 

“But that is impossible,” you say.  The megabillionaires have too much power.   The banks are too big to fail.  The corporations operate outside of national boundaries and beyond any meaningful restrictions on their drive for profit at all costs. The politicians in this country and around the first world are wedded to the status quo and paid very well to support it. 

Right, all essentially true.  So, what is to be done?  Charities, not for profits, and religious groups can address some of the inequality and provide for those most in need.  But they are trapped in the syndrome of “Give a man a fish, and he can eat for one day.”  What happens then?  He’s still poor with no resources and limited or no opportunities to improve his situation.

A revolution is necessary to fundamentally change the socio-economic system so that the basic hierarchy of rich and poor can be changed.  Maybe, someday, it will happen in the streets or at the ballot box.  Nice, optimistic view concerning human progress.  Not soon, that’s for sure. Maybe in 100 years, or some other time many generations into the future.

That’s frustrating and, often, depressing.  But people can change.  Many people are empathetic and kind and generous.  We see it very time there is  a natural disaster.  We also see it in recent trends of social entrepreneurship.  There is a problem to be solved—too many people in Africa die from insect-borne diseases.  What if we found a way to distribute mosquito nets on a very large scale?  That’s one example.  It worked and is working to save lives.

Creative problem solving is great (including the microfinance example above).  But more is still needed.  There needs to be a paradigm shift in the basic philosophy that says human life on this planet is a fierce  competition for resources.  And one must fight to hold onto resources against others who might need them and try to take them away.

If primitive man only competed and never shared, never cooperated, we would not be here.  Our ancestors would have killed each other off fighting over antelope meat.  Somehow, we figured out how to work together and share.  The opposite tendencies to compete and accumulate or to cooperate and share are still within us.  They are powerful.  The former are clearly foremost in our modern world.  The latter tendencies must be nurtured and enhanced.  Otherwise, we will destroy our planet and drive our species to extinction fighting over scarce food and water.  

Change is still possible.  Hope is the last thing to go.                  

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