The savory seeds of turmoil
By G.W. Para
A satirical metaphor of modern economics: How our social/economic garden was overtaken with tasty toxic weeds.
In trying to understand how the people who we elected to public office and the people we entrusted with our money managed to screw things up on such an epic scale recently, a metaphor has evolved. It is a story of the seeds and weeds of financial turmoil and how they infested our social/economic garden.
How seeds blow into the garden and sprout weeds
It seems there has been a certain natural element of tyranny on the part of both politicians and corporations that has planted seeds that grew into weeds that caused turmoil in the social/economic gardens of many generations since this country was born. I am of the belief that most of the time those seeds were blown into the garden by the fleeting winds of a unique opportunity.
For the majority of our history when the seeds of turmoil blew into the social/economic garden, the toxic weeds they sprouted would usually be yanked out or cut down in a relatively short time frame either by regulation due to political upheaval or by market forces after they were exposed or even sometimes by criminal prosecution. Why? Because soon after they grew tall enough to be noticed it became obvious that they were nasty bad weeds and nobody wants toxic weeds in their garden. And that was how the garden grew through booms and wars and depressions for years and years.
But the metaphor I have for you today concerns seeds that were planted by people with tools rather than blowing in on the winds and the weeds they spouted were diligently cultivated to flourish and endure.
New gardeners and a new way to tend the garden
It wasn’t until the 60’s that some things happened that changed everything about how we tend the garden. This country went through a cycle of radical change that was unlike anything that had happened since the civil war.
Kennedy introduced an array of progressive social and economic reforms. The civil rights movement united people against tyranny in ways that resulted in widespread scorn for all authority and the establishment. The anti-war movement flourished. A tidal wave of liberal culture swept through institutions of higher learning. The largest grassroots conservative movement in a century failed when Johnson was re-elected, defeating Goldwater by the largest margin in the history of the popular vote. The progressives had returned to tend the social/economic garden, and this was not a bad thing because we were due for a change.
Johnson rolled out his Great Society plan. The minimum wage was raised multiple times and the Fair Labor Standards Act extended it to cover almost 10 million more workers than before. The garden now had a fence around to protect it from the scavengers of poverty and injustice and modern social/economic safety net was born.
Shadows of scarecrows upon a bountiful harvest
The 60’s was also an historical high point for fear driving social and political agendas thanks to a new invention that was flooding almost every living room with gripping visual depictions of the bad news that many people had scarcely noticed in the past. The Berlin wall went up. The governments of a dozen fairly large countries were overthrown by revolution. Of thirty-two new countries that were just created as Europeans shed their old colonies, most descended into civil war and brutal dictatorships. A dozen political leaders including our own president were assassinated worldwide. Evil of all sorts that had been heretofore constrained to benign text and grainy pictures that were easy to fold up and stack in the corner suddenly seemed much more real and closer to home.
The communist threat and cold war had us spying on our neighbors and had our children doing bomb raid drills in our schools. The invention of the birth control pill and the dawn of the drug culture resulted in a sexual revolution that scared the hell out of the social conservatives and the religious right. Illegal immigration quadrupled. Violent crime doubled. And under the guise of fighting that crime the politicians ushered in an unprecedented restrictions on constitutionally guaranteed rights from crowd control to gun control.
But all was not gloom and doom. During that same chaotic decade the economy pulled out of the post WWII decline. The average household income doubled from the previous decade and over 50% of families found themselves firmly established in secure lifestyles that most of their ancestors could have only dreamed of. The progressive revolution got a lot of credit for those positive results and much of it was well deserved. And since all of this economic growth had happened without huge tax cuts federal revenue was also at all time highs, so the government expanded the rich fertilizer and gentle rains of the Great Society plan to every part of the garden. And the modern middle class was born.
The American Utopian
During those final few years of the 60’s something else was born, a social phenomena I call the American Utopian mindset. The scarecrows were all but gone from the garden and the tiny blooms of new prosperity had popped up all over. We were emerging from a decade that began on a downswing and could have gone terribly downhill from there but our institutions and scientists had given the story a much happier ending than most expected. Life was good again and public confidence in our government and the corporations that had brought us so many new innovations was on the rise.
But the downside of the Utopian mindset is that it progressively erodes the collective ability of a society to guard against tyranny, especially tyranny of the political and financial variety. The predominant driving force in a Utopian minded society is geared towards achieving an elusive vision of the utopia and any new social or economic trend that offers a step in that direction is overwhelming accepted with progressively lower levels of scrutiny.
Politicians on both sides of the fence quickly noticed and took advantage of the new opportunities that the Utopian mindset provided. So did the leaders of the biggest corporations and at that moment the way the biggest companies in America do business changed forever.
And that brings us back to the most recent chapter in the metaphor.
The garden grows into a jungle
In order for big business to capitalize on the opportunities created by the new Utopian mindset a new hybrid variety of the seeds was required. So the old guard brought together some of the best and brightest from the business schools with the some of the best and brightest that were developing new mathematical models in emerging fields like computer science. And the new seeds were created. This model for creating genetically engineered seeds of turmoil was amazingly effective and resulted in Wall Street hiring more talented programmers than Silicon valley in the decade preceding the last recession. It may have began in the financial industry but soon other major corporations embraced the model to create their own seeds for the social/economic garden.
The new hybrid seeds sprouted a new kind of toxic weeds that didn’t look like weeds at all. They were attractive sweet smelling weeds that were able to bear fruits and vegetables that closely resembled the more rational and financially wholesome varieties in the now flourishing social/economic garden. The produce from the new breed of toxic weeds were highly addictive because they got people high in terms of their perceived social and economic well being. The new weeds made a delicious salad. The leafy greens of easy credit mixed perfectly with any combination of the hyper-marketed vegetables of goods and services.
As the new weeds became more popular, more exotic toxic hybrids were developed and planted in rapid succession. Soon, the varieties became endless and produce stands popped up on every corner. And the mantra went out across the land — eat more veggies! It’s good for the economy and good for society because after all, it’s fresh from the social/economic garden. So the feast increased and spread around the world.
But no amount of delicious jubilation could prevent the eventual illness that would result from feasting on toxic, addictive weeds. It played out like any other addiction, wonderful euphoria at first but then as society had to consume more and more of the produce from the toxic weeds in order to maintain that high standard of living and social status, the strange feeling that something was wrong began to set in. Some people went into permanent party mode and just stayed stoned to keep from feeling sick but most began to feel sicker and sicker so they ate less and less.
The overdose goes viral
The overdose finally happened in 2008. The politicians and leaders of corporations were caught off guard because unlike a normal overdose, the sickness from the toxic weeds had turned viral and even people who had wisely shunned the toxic feast were getting sick. They couldn’t believe that the carefully engineered toxic weeds had made so many people so sick so quickly and the big corporations couldn’t believe how sick they were feeling all of a sudden. By that time there were many revolving doors in the walls connecting the back rooms of business and politics so fear spread among the politicians that they would get sick just like everyone else if something wasn’t done quickly. So the government concocted a multi-trillion dollar shot of NARC-AN for big business. But not in time to prevent them from financially throwing up all over the rest of us. They all apologized for making such a mess and then, for the most part, quietly left us to clean up and fend for ourselves.
So while big business languished in taxpayer funded country club rehab programs, the first few years of withdrawal for the rest of us were a rough mess. The addicts that were lucky enough to have had access to financial methadone were screaming for the government to do something about the addicts that were waiting in line for taxpayer funded pain killers to ease the symptoms. Many of the folks who had refused to partake of the toxic feast hunkered down at tea parties and camp outs and played the Internet version of that popular drinking game — class warfare. But after a while heads started to clear and a populist movement started to emerge that has at least resulted in some pruning of the social/economic gardens and the most toxic of the bad weeds have been chopped down and burned.
A song from the past, the seeds of the future
Now that everyone is feeling better many efforts are underway to insure that the social/economic garden is never again taken over by the toxic weeds. This time was different because the same technology that helped create the recent seeds of turmoil has also helped us to understand how the whole mess happened. To our credit as a society there have more demands for our leaders to the fix the things that are broken in the system than calls for a witch hunt. But now we must be vigilant in watching over those who might have been thrown in the stocks if we had demanded tribunals.
James Madison warned that wherever there is interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done. Maybe he knew that in the evolving drama of our free republic there will always be actors waiting and willing to play the role of the villain for as long as those roles remain written into the script. There are only a few of us that ever get the chance to make changes to the script, but all of us should make it a point to show up and carefully watch the show.
We should always attend the theaters of politics and power because if the crowd cheers and the performance gets rave reviews, that will extend the engagement. But just as it was in the days of our Founding Fathers, boos and bad reviews will eventually cause a different act to take the stage.
As for the current show on stage, all of the recent turmoil in the social/economic garden definitely has the politicians and the leaders of big business singing a different tune, but it is extremely important that we watch the next few acts closely. So far the new tune they are singing has a familiar ring to it. In fact, it sounds a lot like the last verse of a song written by that esteemed 20th century philosopher Jim Stafford:
And they dug and they burned and they burned and they dug,
And they killed all our cute little weeds,
Then they drove away and we just smiled and waved,
Sittin’ there on that sack o’ seeds.