Don’t Tell Me How Expensive Fixing the World Is
No matter who you are—young, old, liberal, conservative, tough, soft or in between, I’m willing to bet you’ve done something nice for someone else you didn’t know (or did know), such as holding a door open, and didn’t have the thought, “What are they going to do for me?” The boy/girl scout didn’t pull out a tip cup after helping the old woman across the street and demand payment. When you gave your friend a hug or your baby a kiss you were’t thinking, “How much is this costing me?” Sportspeople and soldiers alike rely on the concept of teamwork and regularly cooperate for the good of the team over themselves. There’s even a sacrifice play in baseball where you intentionally get out to advance your teammates on the bases. I don’t have to tell you the ultimate sacrifice of the soldier. Millions of volunteers show us every day what real altruism is, generously giving their time to benefit others, often strangers. Charity is a virtue and it comes in many forms great and small. Please keep this in mind as I explain why the cost of doing the right thing is both not as high as some would lead you to believe, nor even the right way to think about it in many cases. Not everything has a price.
I did a thought experiment on a colleague the other day and asked her a simple question which was really just a variation on “your money or your life?” I asked her if she were given the options by let’s say a criminal:
A) Draining her life savings and live, or
I was shocked when she totally failed the test and chose dying. This is a failure for such obvious reasons, but even the fact that she had to think about it was a major fail. And she is actually quite bright. Yet when we give people a much less drastic choice between draining a fairly small portion of their life savings and dying or suffering, in REAL life, they choose the latter over and over. Many people have died for failing to give over their wallet to a thief who gave them an even easier choice. If we abstract it a little further and choose between having more money today in exchange for suffering and dying for those yet to be born, even their own future progeny, they choose today’s bank account of 1’s and 0’s on a bank’s computer server, God know’s where, over those people. Of course, it’s never quite put that way in the real world and it’s reduced to innocuous little decisions about this or that but make no mistake, we are trading future lives for today’s money every day. When I say future lives, don’t assume I just mean life or death. Sometimes I do, but just as often I mean suffering, misery or strife that could have been avoided. When one suffers, we all suffer, whether we know it or not.
Most know this—we live in a broken, if not dying world, choking on our own waste products of toxins, garbage, plastic, carbon and decay. We are warring, thieving, killing in the streets, in our schools—quite violent. We have children starving for food, for attention, for love. Same with the elderly. We don’t all see the forest for the trees and it often seems fine in our little microcosms but if one cares to zoom out and take a look at the forest, it’s either on fire or has been denuded of meaningful life. But before we inspect the bleak and stark facts of human overkill, let’s get real about what matters.
What is your life worth to you? If you can put a dollar value on your life, or say “nothing,” then just stop reading this. You can’t be helped by this and may need therapy. What are your friends worth? Your family? How much is the Earth worth? The fact is none of these things can be properly equated to monetary value. It’s sort of like measuring weight in inches. I weigh 180 inches (I wish). It doesn’t compute. Your life, those of your friends and family, the Earth are all of incalculable monetary value. Many would say “priceless” and they would be right. Examine the details of those lives and they are composed of countless priceless moments too. Your first steps or words. That smile you got or had. Moments of profound joy and satisfaction.
Once you are dead, then your life and the world may indeed be worth nothing (to you), or 0. It’s rather binary. However, when you are alive, you are worth 1, but not dollars, euros and yens—let’s call them Life Units. You are given 1 Life Unit at birth (unless you are a cat) so spend it wisely.
I’m sure you’ve heard this mundane rejoinder when politicians propose drastic changes in policy that may indeed be costly, “How are you going to pay for that?” Medicare for all. How are you going to pay for that? Free college or reduced student debt. How are you going to pay for that? Green New Deal. How are you going to pay for that? Fixing the power grid. How are you going to pay for that? Fixing our crumbling infrastructure. How are you going to pay for that? Boring question. On and on at International, Federal, State and Local levels. Let me answer for you. You are going to pay with your Life!
But worse than asking how you will pay for life saving or life improving programs is the simple arithmetic failure to realize the REAL costs of NOT doing those things that you are ALREADY paying and WILL pay for, yet are too bamboozled or intellectually lazy to examine those very real ACTUAL costs. But even before we can analyze extensive costs of inaction or poorly managed actions or status quo we have to come to a place of absolute sobriety and honesty about what things REALLY cost.
For example, take a gallon of gas. Someone explored an area and performed all sorts of drilling and assaying to find oil. Someone gave up some land. Rigs were brought in and maintained at great cost and environmental impact, especially in the arctic or ocean. Oil was pumped, pipelines were built, despoiling more lands, using more resources. Oil was transported across the sea or land to a refinery where it underwent extreme chemical processes to produce gas which was then loaded into trucks, delivered to each station and then made available to you as a commodity. No one sent these companies a bill for the toxins, the land, the air pollution of all the trucks, including all the pickup trucks of oil riggers who worked the fields. They got to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a dumping ground for free. They got to spill oil in the oceans for free. All they had to do was keep track of their bottom line to set a price that worked for them, not for society or the Earth at large.
Or how about the case of a biotech firm developing agents, hormones and such that will accelerate animal growth that then sells this to a farmer who then grows animals using those agents and then the animals are consumed. If down the road, after you’ve eaten pounds and pounds of this unnatural meat (or vegetables) you might get cancer or some illness that was not intended. However, the biotech firm, nor the farmer, nor the grocer will be in sight to help you pay your costs. Their profits are securely tucked away in a bank account.
It has been estimated that for every truck of goods that shows up at a Walmart, 17 trucks worth of garbage and waste were created in the process. In this process the profits are privatized and the liabilities are socialized for later cleanup and cost to society but not to the companies. So we rarely see the real cost in the price we pay which makes everybody happy—for now.
Pricing is generally a dishonest practice, not even by some evil intention but more of a willful, delusional blindness to the full product cycle and the real costs. It’s just as much the consumer’s fault who demands the lowest price today and gives no thought to the cost tomorrow for others. But let’s store that idea for later and talk about human nature a little.
It comes down to this. We are all a bunch of gamblers, no, worse, gambling addicts. We’ve even set up businesses to manage this gambling for us (the House) such as Health Insurance. To calculate the odds, they use actuarial tables and by so doing insure the House always wins. So we place our bets (premiums and deductibles) and Life spins the Roulette and if we “win,” they may let us keep placing bets until we die. We fight to reduce our taxes to the point of where states can’t afford to repair roads or put up proper signage so we then gamble when we drive. We hope a pot hole doesn’t give us a flat tire or knock our cars out of alignment, or worse break our steering linkage and send us or a loved one careening into a semi truck. But hey, we saved money on our taxes!
We send our kids to college, because that’s what society demands and we scrimp and save for the occasion, but it’s rarely enough. So they borrow money from the House. So what if they come out of college with a mortgage worth of debt with more interest than the original loan! That’s a first world problem, right? So long as the House wins, all is right. We hope our gamble pays off.
We love our cars and when gas prices go down for more than a few months, we run out and buy even larger cars. Happens every time. Take a look around and note how many people are driving alone in a big metal beast. Tiny little human, gigantic 5,000 pound Sport Utility Vehicle with all wheel drive or 4-wheel drive suited for off road driving and total overkill for grocery shopping or urban commutes on paved roads. Indeed, we love all our modern conveniences of running hot water, heat and AC on demand, endless electricity for our devices, plane flights to anywhere, any time and we found a way to pay for it all within a “budget.” Many of us do this knowing in the back of our minds we are contributing to our own demise as the world keeps breaking temperature records, flooding, fires, droughts, sea levels, insect invasion, refugees, etc.. This is us gambling our future for some magical, unknown solution on the horizon. This is, sadly, us choosing to die, like my colleague.
We gamble on politicians all the time. It’s very much like a horse race or a betting bracket and odds are constantly being polled for. They give us a speech and say what they are going to do and it moves the needle one way or the other. They tell us how much money they are going to spend or how much they are going to save or how much they are going to “stimulate” the economy and create “growth.” Then the day comes and we push the button to cast our vote and see what happens. Someone wins and they come to power and start the endless games required to make deals and please constituents, please businesses, create jobs, cut programs, add programs and whatever happens, get re-elected so they can keep playing the game. Some play the game honestly, others freely cheat at the game but all must play.
They play these big stakes games with your hard-earned money and funnel it all sorts of places you would never dream of, much of it necessary, much of it quite the opposite. We have not heeded warnings in the past regarding misguided or unwarranted expenditures.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. —Dwight D. Eisenhower
I like to think of our absurd overkill military expenditures in terms of Opportunity Cost—the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. We have spent so many trillions on munitions, weapons systems, bases, fuel, transport and personnel that the opportunity cost is too staggering to calculate. In fact, much of this spending is cloaked in darkness and may never be truly known to the masses. What we do know is societies who spend less of their GDP on military tend to have a higher standard of living so we can safely bet that some of our opportunity for a better living standard has been squandered. But not for everybody.
I heard by one estimate, the 6 or so trillion dollars we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan was enough to equip every house in America with solar panels. Imagine the opportunity cost where on the one hand we got a huge mess in the Middle East and thousands dead and many more maimed (also at great continuing, lifelong expense) and on the other hand we could have been well on our way to a carbon neutral society setting a shining example for the world to follow. Which one seems better for the money?
The United States is a very wealthy nation blessed with natural bounty, brilliant minds and unprecedented freedoms. At times this manifests as generosity when we come to the rescue in times of need and at times it manifests as greed when we take more than our fair share or sully the environment at a higher rate than others. However, more and more, our wealth is being concentrated in a very small sliver of society which finds itself with unwarranted influence and power to maintain, protect and extend its wealth at the expense of all others. The ranks of the middle class have shrunk and those in the underclass have swelled in the last few decades—greatly increasing strife for millions and millions. This is a global phenomenon and the strife actually involves billions of people.
But this is an ordinary strife of putting food on the table, a roof over the head, paying bills and raising children. There is a new strife rapidly developing that will be added on top of this if we don’t act—Climate Strife. But unlike monetary strife, this strife will also be visited upon the wealthiest because the Earth and the Sun don’t see money or care about it. Climate Strife is global strife. However, even monetary strife eventually becomes everybody’s problem because a broken, sick, angry society is not a good one to live in. It leads to Revolution every time. Yet, that being known and having happened many times throughout History doesn’t seem to move those in power, who like my errant colleague are unwittingly choosing to die rather than to make a simple sacrifice play like the clever baseball player. They don’t seem to realize they are on the Human Team.
It seems so obvious to me—give up more wealth today for the opportunity to enjoy more wealth tomorrow, in a better world for everybody. Some have estimated that a transfer of as little as 2% to 3% of this top-tier wealth for the greater good would make a huge difference but let’s pretend it’s more like the 10% tithing of accepted religious philosophy. Ten percent of this historic wealth would make a monumental difference and transform society, leaving the über wealthy with 90% of their wealth intact. Even at face value, that seems like a reasonable sacrifice for a better, livable, sustainable world. But if one takes the time to peer into the inner mechanisms of what wealth even is, what money is, it’s actually a sacrifice of an intangible, invisible substance that has imaginary value propped up by centuries of pyramid schemes and storytelling. Today’s money is even more ephemeral, existing as 1’s and 0’s in a database with no ties to the physical world. And even where it does tie back to a block of gold in a vault somewhere, that block of gold was created for free by a two neutron stars colliding billions of years ago.
Not only that, so much of this wealth accrues by means of investments on a big rigged Roulette Table where the owner scoops in another 5 to 20% per year simply by letting it ride. Much of this wealth was accumulated by millions of ordinary transactions like one of the wealthiest men in history, Jeff Bezos, said to be worth 150 billion dollars at one point. His Amazon website has become a Behemoth of wealth extraction from the masses to a very few. Yes, of course it also provides revenues for countless vendors, some of whom are also in the small sliver and some who are not. Good for Jeff. Now 15 Billion of those dollars could be used for all sorts of things, leaving him 135 billion to play with. Seems like enough to me. The fact is, much of wealth is not actually earned by more work, but by more privilege, hiring the right wealth managers. You have to have money to make money, so they say. However, this is not about class warfare or simply taking money from the wealthy to solve our problems and there are very, very few Jeff Bezos out there. That’s not going to get the job done anyway. That’s just to prime the pumps of future success and sustainability which is the job of everyone on the Team.
Besides not being honest about the real cost of things, we are blind to the actual out-of-pocket costs we already shoulder and so when someone mentions a tax hike it’s always framed as an added cost to an already expensive life. What’s often left out of the discussion is how a tax hike can and should be paired with a reduction in other costs we currently pay and if done right, results in a net gain for our bottom line—lowering the cost of living. No tax should be levied without benefit. That would be theft.
Nothing illustrates this more than the Healthcare debate. We currently either forgo health insurance (either as a gambler or too poor or too ignorant or a combination) or we pay premiums and deductibles as dictated to us by the industry. Many of these costs already account for the added burden of covering abuses of the system such as using the ER instead of a doctor’s office. Yes, we pay for that too. And because those in power are keen to protect the overlords of this system, any activity to alter it is met with stiff resistance. But if someone comes along and tells you we can do much better, listen carefully! Especially listen if they tell you they can reduce the cost by using the same tricks Amazon and Walmart and Home Depot use to get mass discounts on high volume. Especially if they tell you they can cut out the middleman. If they say they will raise your taxes to cover it, make sure to then subtract the full amount that you currently pay to see if you don’t end up in better shape overall! That’s what matters.
But I don’t want to pay for others, just me and my healthy family. Think about that for a minute. What good does that do? What about your neighbor down the street who got cancer or had a heart attack? What about your kid’s teacher? What about the cops and firefighters that protect you? You don’t want to kick in a little to the general fund? What about the fact that you can never be turned down for pre-existing conditions or your kids losing coverage after 26? What about the peace of mind that everyone is covered and it’s no longer a topic of debate? And then there’s the fact that a Public System has no incentives to keep you sick or on medications you don’t need. In fact if a cure comes along, a cheap one based on natural materials, they won’t need to suppress it for being unprofitable but will work to bring it safely to market. The healthier for less you are, the better for the System. A win win.
All that said, your taxes might not go up much at all depending on your tax bracket, especially if we took that 2–10% Wealth Tax and used it wisely. If we “sequestered” the Military Industrial revenue gobbler a bit more the whole system is easily paid for. So the answer lies in our priorities as a society and as individuals. But it will always rely on caring more about people than money. Remember, the priceless lives and moments are worth a little sacrifice for the Team Humanity win. Of course, we don’t always win but we should always try to win.
One important thing to iron out is which things are in the Public Interest and those that are better left to Private Enterprise. The public things are a fairly short list and the private ones quite long by my estimates. Public interests include at least these ten key areas:
The same principles alluded to in the Healthcare debate regarding tax vs. out-of-pocket can be applied to other Public Sector issues as well. Remember, Public sector also employs people so it directly flows back into society in other ways than providing the service. The Green New Deal is all about jobs to switch our economy from petro-based to renewable. Those jobs are in the service of creating a more verdant world we can be proud of handing down to our children rather than a wasteland of misery. Water is a universal resource and should be managed carefully by The People, not corporations. We see from the greedy corporate mismanagement of power companies in California we can’t trust our Energy to the Private Sector. This should be handled like Infrastructure. Education is a foundation of a healthy democracy and we know that. That’s why we have Public Schools. We just need to extend them to 16th grade. Private Prisons are too riddled with conflicts of interest. The State needs to be in control of the full judicial system so we are getting the social results we want, not just lining pockets. But there is always a role for private businesses.
Not only does Private Enterprise cover most everything else but it thrives in service to the above by providing equipment and services so just because we have a Public Health System wouldn’t mean that GE wouldn’t still make MRI machines used by that system. What I mean to say is it’s a false choice between “Socialism” and “Capitalism.” Social-oriented programs can greatly benefit from partnerships with private concerns. Private Enterprise can thrive when the people are happier, healthier and better educated too. In fact by finding the right balance we may get many unexpected benefits such as lower crime rates, less drug abuse, reduced depression and anxiety. Life becomes simpler. Business becomes simpler. Simplicity is something we all crave in today’s world.
By firmly deciding and stipulating what is the Public Interest we can then concentrate on applying the perfect amount of revenue to sustain our System and improve it continuously. Once decided, it becomes a Pact of Humanity that bonds us all and lifts all boats. It becomes a source of pride instead of a source of bitter argument and shame. We won’t allow these sacred Public Interests to be polluted by profit motives or conflicts of interest ever again. They become the Foundation of a New Sustainable Era with greater social harmony and the ability to fulfill our potential as people, communities, nations and the Human Species. I predict that the overall burden of cost will be less, especially if these programs are well-managed and efficient.
Yet to achieve these noble ideals, we will need to change in important ways and to get in touch with what we already know matters. We will need to understand the games that are now being played, even with and by ourselves, and stop them. We will need to make small and sometimes great sacrifices, but never alone and never without a sense of purpose and even pride. But I tell you with confidence, it’s not nearly as hard to do these things as it is to not do them. This, my friends, is the More Perfect Union for us to resolutely pursue.