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The Road to Resilience

Last issue, I was talking about the various dichotomies that define each of us, conservative/liberal, authoritarian/libertarian, naturist (my version)/ humanist.  There is another that we mostly don’t freely choose but has a very great influence on our lives.  We are all to varying degrees owners and non-owners.  To the extent that we are owners, we have more control over our lives, we can live more cheaply, and, if we own stocks, bonds, real estate or maybe companies, we can often gain income that is on an order of magnitude greater than what one can earn through labor.  To the extent that we are non-owners, we have less control over our lives, have a harder time making ends meet, and must work for compensation.

The effect of this division is often the biggest single factor in our lives but is so  pervasive, we tend to take it for granted.  I own my home and therefore don’t need to worry so much about where I will be living, and I don’t need to worry that my cost of living there is going to change abruptly or unexpectedly.   I was very lucky to have arrived here in the 1970’s when land was incredibly cheap.  I can tell you that I wouldn’t be able to set so much as a toe on this island if I were to arrive here today.  The fact that I don’t have much income really isn’t that important because my costs are low and relatively predictable.  It means I have a greater choice of how I will make a living.  I don’t need as much, and I can build in income capacity on the property that I own.  If I owned more property than I personally could use, I might be able to rent out the rest.  Living on rental income is a popular solution to income security here on Vashon.  I realize that all of this sounds like the wildest and most desirable dream to those of us that are non-owners.

It’s not impossible to make the transition to ownership, but it is pretty damn hard.  It is still true to some extent that a non-owner can become an owner through hard work, persistence, and intelligent decision-making.  Bill Gates didn’t start at the bottom, but he has a right to claim that he made his own fortune.  A competitive, enterprising person with good business sense can still rise from lowly beginnings, but, without reliable home security and job security, not to mention health security, one has to rely to a considerable degree on good connections and luck.

I don’t think that we owners fully understand the financial burden that non-ownership entails.  When one is working full-time just to make rent, utilities, and very basic essentials, one does not have the time or spare cash to go to Costco to stock up on cheap food.  One may not have the time or space to put in a garden.  One most likely would not have the time or energy to think strategically about changing one’s life situation for the better.

You might say that this is the way it has always been, so what’s the big deal?  The big deal is that it is much harder now to “get ahead.”   The cost of living has way outstripped the basic wage income that you can expect today.  More and more people are faced with the prospect of either becoming refugees in search of a region where the cost of living is lower or becoming homeless.  Usually, though, the place with a lower cost of living is that way because there are no jobs.  This is your classic “being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

This is the place that Free Market Capitalism has gotten us.  This morning I heard a historian relating a story about some corporate managers some 40 years ago who came to the conclusion that their workers were making great wages at the expense of their shareholders.  What they were concluding was that, from then on, they would focus more narrowly on the prosperity of their shareholders.  Classical Capitalist Economics views labor as a cost of doing business, so anything that lowers costs is good, right?  The problem with this viewpoint is that human labor is human lives.  If you can’t secure your basic needs with the wages being paid, why work for them?  This is why some smart and audacious people turn to illegal activity as a last resort.

In reality, all employers must realize that their responsibilities go far beyond their shareholders.  Their business is not a separate entity but a cooperative organization that includes their workers, their consumers, and the community in which they operate.  Germany has already institutionalized this fact.  All corporate boards in Germany must include a 49% representation of employees, consumers, and community representatives.

Lack of affordable housing is but one symptom of a far more pervasive problem.  Germany understands that and is prospering.

Clarification to the last column:  As I referred to Anarchism as a respected idea, I failed to distinguish it from the black-clothed, window-breaking folks that give our non-violent protest marches a bad rep.  Rebels of the Spanish Civil War considered themselves Anarchists, as does Noam Chomsky:  another caution about making assumptions about labels.