In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in England, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.
Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.
So I was introduced to an economics wholly dominated by two considerations: making money and saving face. The second of these has required a narrow definition of the first. The cost to the United Kingdom over time could hardly be compensated even by the flood of foreign money that Sellafield attracted. I won’t get into the peculiarities of British nuclear engineering. Suffice it to say that the country’s graphite-moderated reactors are hard to control and to shut down, harder as they age. And some of them are now very old. They have built many of these plants in Britain and throughout the world, at an ultimate cost to the planet I blanch to consider. Such costs weigh not at all against cash in hand, as any cynic could have told me, I suppose. (Cynicism is the great enabler of corruption, normalizing and universalizing it so that any particular instance of wrongdoing can be left to fester or metastasize as the world wags.) While writing the book, I told some American environmentalists on their way home from England what I was working on. They had never heard a thing about Sellafield—it was all over the press—and they were a little taken aback. Then one of them said, “Well, look what we did to the Indians!”
This is another tactic of evasion to which Americans are prone. One enormity (if it is our doing) puts another enormity beneath acknowledgment. I have heard that Indians are as dependent on the biosphere as the rest of us. Their ancestors are by no means compensated by the degradation of the world their descendants will inherit. Does an instance of white people acting badly really cancel out another instance of white people acting badly, though innocents are victimized in both cases? This makes no sense, except as a way of sheltering assumptions about Britain and Europe—as movie set, dream vacation, island of rationality, and cultural holy land—of which Americans are fond. The actual well-being of these places is imperiled in part by our refusal to see them clearly.
Be that as it may.
In order to understand all this, I read classical economics, using Marx’s Capital as an annotated bibliography, working back through time to the late eighteenth century. It was fascinating to see how endlessly a little clutch of certitudes could elaborate itself without ever evolving. The crucial assertion at the center of it all is called “the iron law of wages,” which says that the price of labor must and will tend always toward subsistence, quite literally toward the level consistent with the worker’s survival. Then there is “the labor theory of value,” which proposes that labor is the source of all economic value. One might expect this to imply that the value of labor should be reflected in wages. But this would defy that iron law. So the theory is interpreted to mean that labor is the great cost in the making of anything, which would diminish capital, the ultimate employer. If wages rose above subsistence, this would plunge the whole system into ruin. Thus workers must be kept poor for their own sake. Or, a less benign view: workers would subvert the social wealth, impoverishing the nation, if they by any means had more than they absolutely need. William Beveridge, called the Father of the Welfare State, wrote economics of just this kind, and so did Beatrice Webb. I have no reason to think it ever died out. Indeed, American practice moves continuously in this direction, toward the radical polarization this economics was meant to promote and rationalize.
Marx deplored this aptly named “political economy”—its political consequences could not be more profound—but he seemed to me to accept its laws as inevitabilities, and to see what he called the immiseration of the working class as something that would lead finally to a new order, a new society. He was, after all, writing in the age of revolution. It seemed to me that his critique was really a kind of conceptual entrapment, acceptance as much as rejection of these theories. But when I was reading all this, Marx was everywhere. It was hard to think beyond him. Eventually, Milton Friedman broke the spell. Now we’re far into the era of austerity, political economy under a new name, once again making many people very poor, designedly, for their own sake, and by the way making a few people very rich.
Along the course of my research I came across the occasional mention of the American economist Henry George, so I read his best-known book, Progress and Poverty, published originally in 1879. I found that he was fairly free of those assumptions that govern both Marxism and classical economics. George argues that the wage of a worker should be a share in the value his or her labor creates. He argues that people create value, actively and passively, and that this excess value should be a resource of the community. In nothing is the difference in perspective more stark than in the fact that he considers poverty a crime, the criminal being a misconceived social and economic order. He sees the loss of health and purpose and morale involved in poverty as a profound injury, individual and collective. It must be remembered that, according to the iron law of wages, the knife edge called subsistence—workers being as poor as possible without losing the ability to work—was an essential national asset, to be scrupulously enforced.
People who know anything at all about Henry George know how to dismiss him in three words—the single tax! This is how we educate people in this country: intellectual lockdown. Learn an attitude and inquire no further. I admit I was heartened to find that Albert Einstein admired Henry George, and Leo Tolstoy as well. It is true that George wrote from the point of view of an economy in which many things were possible. This is no criticism. It is the point.
The British economy at its peak in the nineteenth century was a clear outgrowth of the history that had prepared a workforce as cheap as any short of slavery. Slavery, of course, also figured in the economics of industrialization. This meant that Britain’s domestic market was small, and its export market was very large. Textiles, especially cotton, were always needed everywhere, and they were easy to store and transport. It was an ideal industry for its time, a great triumph of mechanization over the traditional methods of handloom weavers. But as industrialization spread to other parts of the world, Britain did nothing to encourage a larger domestic market, which would have meant raising the living standard of most people. Instead the country embraced a stricter austerity. This always and only means cuts in the share of public wealth afforded to workers and the poor, in wages and in the dole. In America these reductions in investment in the people at large, in public schools and universities, in national parks, have been slower, beginning from a much larger base. There has been a steady downward pressure on wages and pensions. We have depressed our domestic market to compete in much smaller and less reliable foreign markets. Our economics is beginning to look extremely classical, and, need I say, extremely political.
What really matters here is how people are valued. Democracy assumes that the generality of the population have the wisdom to govern a nation. They are not valued sufficiently to sustain democracy where, finally, the habitability of their place in the world can be sold as a commodity, or where their expectations and hopes can be lowered by fiat. Austerity policies are a collaboration of governments and financial interests. The luxuries we can’t afford under austerity are day care for working mothers and universal health coverage. At the same time, there is unprecedented flaunting of stupendous wealth. We have seen what the Russian in the street is also seeing, and has known for many years—that plutocrats and kleptocrats are the same crowd. What are the consequences for an ordinary Russian of the fact that the world has grown used to seeing hundreds of billions of dollars flow out of a country whose economy is small and whose standard of living must be modest indeed, considering its recent history? Granting that our old adversary must get a laugh out of watching us deal with the foolish and incompetent government it helped us install, it is fair to wonder if Russia finds it worth the investment, assuming this is real money, that is, that it represents a real transfer of wealth. We know that people on this side of the transaction are very happy to believe that it is real—and to sell another overpriced penthouse in Manhattan or a little bit of government influence. Whatever it is, it spends, as they say. I wait to hear from a Russian aluminum worker about the economic and psychological effects of watching oligarchs play with money. This under cover of resurgent nationalism, of course.
I have not strayed from my subject. The old contest between the United States and the Soviet Union was claimed by both sides to be about which governmental system afforded a better life to its people. I see nothing in Russia’s flashy new role in the world that indicates an interest in that old cause. Nor do I hear it mentioned often or usefully in our own discussions of the present state of our economy. To bring up the subject of providing a better life is to lean too far left, to flirt with socialism. We used to be told that capitalism had let us win the Cold War, back when we were sure we had won it. Not freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Not the rights that put real power into public hands. Since then we have learned that money is speech and corporations are people, notions that are a good deal more capitalistic than any we subscribed to in the days of supposed ideological struggle. Our economy then was characterized by widespread, if modest, prosperity brought about by the G.I. Bill, the interstate highway system, the National Defense Education Act, and other massive public investments of a kind that created wealth through employment and much more wealth in enhanced competence and efficiency throughout society. This is the type of thing we don’t do now. Ideology forbids.
What if our being a free country meant we had some measure of freedom to decide what kind of country we wanted to be? If we had a full-scale referendum, we know we would have Medicare for All, strong gun laws, a meaningful minimum wage, student debt relief, better immigration policies. Polls indicate that, if public opinion determined government policy, we would be living in a far more humane country. Somehow we are blocked. Somehow even overwhelmingly popular reforms are never given serious consideration. We are effectively prevented from doing one another good. Who decided that this is a privilege reserved for socialists? We are captive to words and attitudes we cannot define or source.
For a long time we, or those of us who paid attention to such things, were very inclined to think in the terms of what we called ideology—which, for the purposes of the controversy, boiled down to political economy on one hand and a tortuously articulated reaction to political economy on the other. For all the shouting and shoving, one paradigm governed, as it does still. Contemporary China exemplifies it perfectly.
When Henry George argues that wages are drawn from the value of the thing produced by labor, and not from the capital that is classically assumed to employ labor, he makes a straightforward case, taking no account of the history and politics that undergird the theory he wishes to debunk, an aspect of his faith that the theory actually merits description as a science, however flawed. The idea that wages are a burden on capital that diminishes its ability to employ creates the adversarial relationship between capital and labor, and at the same time makes employment a benevolence. We are familiar with this style of reasoning, as often as a tax law is enacted that benefits wealth, and as often as alarm flares over the suggestion that the tax system might be used to correct for the extreme imbalance in our economy and the polarization that is changing our culture and politics by exerting influences that defeat politics, properly so called.
Ideas like George’s were current in America in this period. The early scene in Moby Dick in which Ishmael negotiates for a (vanishingly small) percentage of the profits of the voyage is comic, but it is worth noting that shares are actually determined by the likely value—to the whole ship’s company—of the skills brought to it by men like Queequeg and Tashtego. Melville’s little world is a meritocracy. This profit sharing was a well-known practice among American whalers. Horace Greeley proposed it as a model for industry, calling it “associationism.” Like Marx, Greeley shunned the word “socialism” because it already had unacceptable associations. In Britain, the movement blossomed into the Fabian Society, they who based their thought and action entirely on the fear that wages were or might come to be higher than the old standard of subsistence. They recruited themselves to “inspect” working-class homes, to check for signs of any excess of prosperity. (Americans, when they see the word “socialism,” think it means something like their own vague sense of it—that is, if it refers to arrangements in Western Europe, it is good and admirable; if to arrangements in Latin America or the United States of America, then it is bad.)
George saw his times as amazingly complex, the world almost unfathomably transformed in a single century:
engines that in obedience to human will, and for the satisfaction of human desire, exert a power greater than that of all the men and all the beasts of burden of the earth combined . . . the order given by the London banker in the afternoon executed in San Francisco in the morning of the same day,
and many instances of change as dramatic. He says it might have been expected that all this would have made “the poorest labourer’s life a holiday, in which every high quality and noble impulse could have scope to grow.” He imagines “the man with the muck-rake drinking in the glory of the stars.” This prompts a question that we ask with some urgency now. To quote George: “Why, in spite of increase in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?” I believe one short answer would be: because they can, neither ethics nor laws intervening.
The thwarted humanism expressed in George’s disappointment, and also in his hope, is pervasive in nineteenth-century American social thought, like cosmic background radiation in a universe born of a great singularity, the haunting proof of something past. A good deal of scholarship has gone into proving that the American Revolution and Constitution did not strain the boundaries of the historically predictable. In 1913, Charles Beard made a huge impression on academic history, arguing, in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, that the Founders were motivated by good old economic self-interest, a theory that has subsequently been generalized to explain literally all behavior. Beard’s book is referred to as Progressive history, though I fail to see what is progressive about arguing that the many who have grounded their hopes for a more generous understanding of freedom and justice in the Constitution were in fact only appealing to a compact among a few rich men. In the minds of so-called originalists, the argument seems unlikely to have any better effect than to enhance the advantages of other rich men. Of course, Beard’s thesis must be judged on its merits as argument.
But there is that hum in the universe of earlier American social thought that bespeaks another kind of meaning than Progressive history seems ready to admit. Who among us supposes that those who labor and are heavy-laden would respond to rest and plenty by giving scope to “every high quality and noble impulse,” and who supposes they would celebrate their emancipation from drudgery by “drinking in the glory of the stars”? Henry Ward Beecher says,
It were as foolish to take an estimate [of a man] by what he is and what he can do in this life, as it would be to estimate by an eagle’s egg, what the old eagle is worth, with wings outspread far above the very thunder, or coming down upon its quarry as the thunder comes!
This presumption of dignity and beauty within any human being would certainly put a higher value on their freedom and our own than we do now, and also on their time and labor and our own, on their gifts and our own.
How can we call Beecher’s language hyperbolic when we have done so little to test his belief? We talk about the sanctity of an individual life, but we have let so much value leach out of the word “sanctity,” forgetting its old associations with beauty, mystery, and inviolability, that the idea and the protections it offers are very much diminished. Why educate a public to reason and reflect, to base their thinking as citizens on some sense of history, when industry wants them to be trained to meet quite different needs, meanwhile flooding the labor pool with their kind and cheapening wages? Now and then someone tips his hat to the values of a liberal education, but the brute fact is that the institutions created to provide it, over the past two or three centuries, are under great pressure to drop it in favor of creating better workers, relieving industry of the cost of training them. This is true even for schools the newspapers call “elite.” The old idea that knowledge is power, and that therefore in a democracy it should be broadly shared—this deep courtesy to human inwardness and possibility—has given way to a notion that deep enrichment of individual and civic life should be put aside in favor of training that prepares our debt-driven young to sell themselves in a highly uncertain market, where their value as workers will always be subject to decline.
Humane values are shared across religions and civilizations, as Henry George, William James, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and many other nineteenth-century American writers insist. But our own educational and literary culture takes a specific tradition as its source, developed in the atmosphere of a revolution and its aftermath and in a long period of relative isolation. The same is true of our conception of freedom, as it was articulated again by Henry Ward Beecher and other great abolitionists in the struggle against the international economic juggernaut of chattel slavery. The predominance of the North in all this reflects the relative default of the South. Nevertheless, New York and New England did establish public schools and libraries, sustain high levels of literacy, produce and publish a great body of literature, and practice direct democracy—all of these characteristically Puritan achievements. It was a great stroke of luck that the Virginian Jefferson made the ultimate statement of certain self-evident truths having to do with divine endowments, that pregnant phrase.
I don’t want to discredit the thesis I have long argued that the Puritan culture of the Northeast was crucial in articulating and also acting on beliefs about equality as based on an intrinsic sanctity that has been at the center of our best customs and reforms. I know my enthusiasm for my subject might make me overreach. But the door has, for all purposes, been closed on that heritage. The image of grumpy people dressed in black, spending hours in drafty churches hating nature and getting their misanthropy refreshed, makes their most beautiful ideas seem merely hypocritical. America at this moment needs a fair look at its whole history, in order to take guidance from what is best in it. All good counsel from every side of this multifaceted culture should be celebrated and embraced. The problem is that where emerging and enlarging liberalism is noted it is as if set against those terse, gloomy New Englanders who didn’t know how to be human and didn’t want to learn. They could be particularly humorless on the subject of slavery.
In any case, we have far fewer defenses against the erosion of latitude and expectation than we should have. We all know about the homeless employed in San Francisco, about people anywhere in the country working two and three jobs literally to subsist, while wealth swells like an aneurysm on the other side of the same economy. Much thought has been devoted through the whole modern period to diminishing our conception of ourselves as human beings. I have mentioned elsewhere the important theory of rational choice, the visible and invisible hand of self-interest that governs everything except—as a glance at the history of our self-destructive species, or at a newspaper, will demonstrate—actual human behavior. Henry George wrote at a time when Thomas Malthus’s theory of population was ascendant here—which seems odd, considering how thinly populated the country was then. But these theories of everything always look strange from a little distance. In an endnote, George quotes passages from Malthus he finds particularly appalling. He says that Malthus can
be justified only on the theory that some men have a better right to existence than others . . . that the tendency of population is constantly to bring into the world human beings for whom nature refuses to provide, and who consequently [quoting Malthus] “have not the slightest right to any share in the existing store of the necessaries of life;” whom she tells as interlopers to begone, and “does not hesitate to extort by force obedience to her mandates,” employing for this purpose “hunger and pestilence, war and crime, mortality and neglect of infantine life, prostitution and syphilis.”
This is another buttress to social Darwinism, eugenics, and other theories that bedeviled civilization well into the twentieth century. Mutatis mutandis, is it relevant to our moment? When Americans were subscribing to the theory of Malthus, there was as favorable a ratio of arable land to population as can well be imagined. In subscribing to the tenet that a society has only a fixed quantity of capital to spend in wages, so that more workers must mean lower pay, our economy and its wealth were growing geometrically, to borrow a term from Malthus. I think it was V. S. Naipaul who grumbled that people on Caribbean islands, the sea all around them, lived on canned fish imported from England. We have lived on theories that are the intellectual equivalent of canned fish, rationalizing in their terms a poverty we had no need to suffer. And now we know that technology can be as brutal as Malthusian nature. There is nothing necessary about this. It is driven by atavism and opportunism and what George calls a “superior want of conscience.” But even conscience is wavering and easily seduced, a temporary fix at best. It has a tendency to treat as charity what should be called, and acknowledged as, justice.
It won’t be long, if things go on as they are tending now, until we have robots building robots, robots flipping burgers. The old dream of political economy will be close to realization—human labor will in effect be eliminated as a cost, or, to put it another way, as a claimant on some portion of collective wealth, once grudgingly allotted to him or her on the grounds that workers were needed. The old Luddites knew which way the wind was blowing, after all. Even highly skilled operations, perhaps especially these, could be done with automation. I have read that computers might be writing novels. Presumably they will be programmed to read them too, since novels to this point have depended on a public with a little disposable income.
The economics of de-skilling is very old, a fact that should be considered by youth who hope to acquire those cutting-edge skills we hear about that would supposedly immunize them against the negative impact of the new technologies. Assuming that a largely wageless workforce would produce spectacular wealth, whose wealth would it be? Under present assumptions, the owners of these workerless factories would own it, and their investors. Unemployment depresses wages among the employed, too, another downward pressure on those few who would still feel it.
I concluded from my reading of classical economics that the creation of poverty is as fully intentional as the creation of wealth, an explanation I would offer Henry George for the paradoxical link between progress and poverty. Progress is dynamic, self-generating, unpredictable. Poverty is static, effectively resourceless, subject to interests that are not its own, therefore valuable to those interests. Early writers on the subject were unembarrassed by this binary, which is so directly the offspring of serfdom that they took it as natural and inevitable and declared it a law. Subsequent writers have treated it as law indeed.
Considering that automation is already a drag on employment, all things being equal the trend can be expected to accelerate. Without wage earners, or when workers’ time and labor are cheapened for easy sale, who will be the market for the products of these industries? What will govern the economy if mass consumption becomes a weaker force? Will we invest less in school clothes and more in cryogenics? Will most of us be maintained, subsidized philanthropically or socialistically, by a governing class that never stops complaining about the burden it is on a country to have a population to deal with? Recently we have been instructed in the fact that persons with no other qualifications than having heaped up an oligarchical mass of money, often by means that would not bear scrutiny, consider themselves a natural ruling class. We have learned also that they tend to be narrow and self-interested people, without culture or imagination and not inclined to value same—people for whom the struggles of eight hundred thousand furloughed federal employees represent, after all, only one half of one percent of GDP. If ownership, as conceived to this point, establishes sole claim to the economic power generated by this country over time, we can thank Donald Trump for giving us a good long look at what this means. It is certainly not the America of our dreams.
Barring catastrophe, I believe that an automated economy will come about, and that it will have profound consequences for every aspect of life. I believe also that it will confront us with very stark choices, remembering, as I hope we will, that if we are free people in any meaningful sense we should be free to decide what we want this country to be, not for ourselves only but for our posterity. To mention Sellafield again, power and money, whether private or governmental or in any combination, can bring disastrously bad judgment to bear on the gravest matters. This will only be truer the more plutocratic our system is allowed to become, the more that narrowly based interests—face-saving, self-dealing—are allowed to function as government. As all the great Americans have known, the public is our safety. Insofar as it is barred or discouraged from taking the central role in society, we lose wisdom to stealth, stupidity, parochialism, and every other demon that hovers around power. However our world may change, we must assure ourselves a thoughtful, authoritative public. It was, after all, the electorate whose good judgment was denied its legitimate effect when our election was stolen.
What purchase could a substantially unemployed population have on the direction of the country? Very little, I suppose, given the attitude toward the masses of those who have economic power, historically and at present. If there were a guaranteed minimum income, how dependable would it be, given the indignation the plutocrats express at the slightest hint that the national wealth could be distributed more equitably? Henry George makes the argument that if, for example, many people come to live on a certain piece of land—his example is San Francisco—rents and property values rise because of population density, so the excess value should belong to the people without whom the land would have only its original value. And, he says, it should never have been privately owned in the first place. This wealth would be held in common and used to make the place prosperous and beautiful. I have not made an attempt to apply George’s theories to contemporary circumstances, aside from admiring the fact that he thinks beyond the old categories and acknowledges that wealth is a collective creation and a collective inheritance. I, like most of the people in the present government, came along on the heels of the Greatest Generation and benefited mightily from their generous, innovative public policies. I have been richer in innumerable ways by mere accident of birth, and so have they. We’re afraid of the word “collective” because of the history of the Soviet Union, though in fact postrevolutionary Russia resembles nothing so closely as prerevolutionary Russia, but with high-rises.
One great reason for thinking of the wealth of this country as being in large part common or social wealth is because this is true. We are being starved of the truth, and should miss no chance to tell it when we can. Another reason is that we have to rethink certain increasingly untenable assumptions. We do not know how many saints and geniuses have died in wars, and we don’t know how many have died of want, exhaustion, disease, and despair. We will never know what the world might have been had these lives unfolded, realized themselves. In the same way, we will never know what wealth, and what varieties of wealth, the world might have enjoyed if it had not created social relations whose effects could approximate the effects of war. Malthus’s list would certainly apply in both cases. But now, if things work out improbably well, we might have a chance to know.
There is leisure, by some assumed to be the basis of culture, by others to be a form of ostentation, not at all to be associated with culture. And then there is idleness—which, persisted in for three days by a laborer, was once a hanging offense. Those of us displaced by automation will need another word, one that history has not stigmatized. If all goes very well indeed, we will have advanced beyond the polarization associated with leisure and idleness. And if we have a high opinion of human nature, we will look forward to a great expansion of individual and collective creativity, a profound or exuberant pursuit of happiness that will finally begin to give full meaning to that most American phrase. If we have a low estimation of human nature, we will brace for a war of each against all, without the old disciplines of work and need to constrain us. I am not optimistic.
Margaret Thatcher said that the redundant—those on the dole—were “demoralized.” In her dialect group this word doesn’t mean disheartened. It means without morals. An American might put the matter differently, but the attitude is familiar enough. When so many of us seem likely to be made redundant by the evolution of the methods of production, I think we had better give serious thought to whether we will let the American public slide into the category of la classe dangereuse, with terminally negative consequences for our democracy. The humanism of Beecher and George used the language of religion to invest the individual with great dignity and potential, with actual splendor. Many people do not now share or credit this language. Still, there is humankind, wonderful, brilliant, heroic, tragic—as Hamlet says, how like a god. There are grounds enough for veneration, and for hope, even now. We have, however, learned cynical, or, worse, banal and vapid, assessments of what we are, and they threaten us. They dull us to our circumstance, which is astonishing by any measure, and which the generations will transform again and again. Henry George says,
Compared with the solar system our earth is but an indistinguishable speck; and the solar system itself shrivels into nothingness when gauged with the star depths. Shall we say that what passes from our sight passes into oblivion? No; not into oblivion.
What is potential in us is real, whether expressed or destroyed. Any one of us, finding herself in secure possession of her time, might well drink in the glory of the stars, and feel for a moment that she is fully as remarkable as they are. This is as honorable a human employment as anyone could wish.