I’ve always been fascinated by how, here in Florida, in every drainage ditch or vacant lot amidst the sprawl, there is wildlife. It’s inspiring, somehow, to see fish swimming and herons feeding in a scum-covered gully by the highway. It’s as if nature is saying, “Give me your worst, I can take it.”
Scientifically, this is the case everywhere, because no matter how foul the environment, some creature or plant can thrive there and will. Long after we humans have ruined the planet for ourselves, there will be something alive here.
Economies are the same. I’ve seen enough mismanaged marketplaces in Africa and Eastern Europe to know that people will find a way to make money no matter what the outside forces. It just becomes a question of maximizing outputs. The best economies operate like efficient ecosystems with a broad diversity of species and niches creating an environment rich enough in resources for all. Which is why I’m perpetually mystified by the way this country manages its — and, to some extent, the world’s — economic affairs.
It’s not that hard to build a vibrant, egalitarian economy. And by egalitarian, I don’t mean socialist, just fair and open. You need to create a playing field where anyone can enter. Make sure the rules are clear, consistent and obeyed, and then get out of the way. Somehow, we can’t do that.
Take taxes. Tinkering with the tax code is the surest way to foul up an economy because no one can ever get a grip on the rules and adapt to them. It makes more sense to establish a tax code and keep it for a long period. So, let’s have 10-year taxes, changing only by consensus each decade. Without consensus there’d be no change. We would make very different economic decisions if we knew they’d be around for 10 years or longer. The economy could take some odd shapes, but it would be stronger for the consistency.
Consistency is what we demand from other economies. Or maybe orthodoxy. Ours. We require aid recipients to cut subsidies while we pad our own, and then we wonder why poor countries are poor. If we’d all get rid of subsidies, we’d all have to compete, in the process reaching some great global efficiencies and spreading wealth evenly enough that the unrest begot by poverty would be insignificant. Of course, that would mean there wouldn’t be people of great wealth amidst squalor, and that’s the place on the global food chain Americans now occupy. I guess we just don’t want to adapt to the way the world actually works. This is the same stubbornness that threw communism into the dustbin.
Education is another example. Nothing, but nothing, increases the success of an economy like broad-based educational opportunity. But in this gratuitously rich country we struggle to build classrooms while we lavish money on a military we then direct to raze other economies. We don’t win, they don’t win. All we do is create an environment so bereft of purchase that only few can thrive.
It’s as if we’re willing to turn the world into a vast scum-covered gully — as long as we’re the last ones standing to own it. But we all know that the last one standing is going to be the cockroach.
Paul Swider is a USF firstname.lastname@example.org