Friday, September 17, 2010

Zero Sum

A recent census bureau report charts a jump in the US poverty rate to 14.3%.  Poverty, as expected, is defined in terms of income, with the bar set at just under $11,000 per year for an individual and just under $22,000 per year for a family of four.  Fourteen percent works out to about one in seven people. 

The conservative talking heads are trying to tie the spike in poverty to too much government regulation and to the flawed fiscal ideology of their political counterparts on the left.  The liberals and progressives are blaming the rich for stacking the deck in their favor by outsourcing and by stocking the government with political puppets and corporate whores to ensure that only the poor and middle class have to pay taxes on any relevant proportion of their income.   

What both camps fail to see is that poverty is a natural—and logically necessary—result of the accumulation of wealth.  Wealth is only achieved through impoverishment.  They are flip sides of the same coin.  The US is the wealthiest nation in the history of nations.  But in order to earn that title, the rest of the planet had to be impoverished.  And for any individual—for you and me—an increase in personal wealth is brought about only through a concomitant decrease for someone or something else.

It is a zero-sum game.

Bear with me for a moment.

Although wealth is almost always talked about in monetary terms, money is a very inaccurate and unreliable metric.  Further, money only captures one facet of the wealth-impoverishment process.  The wealth-impoverishment process involves much that is simply not quantifiable.  How do you assign a dollar value to things like species diversity or ecosystem integrity or feelings of fulfillment or sense of meaning and purpose or human dignity

Maybe a concrete example will help.  The owner of a mining company becomes wealthy through the extraction and sale of mineral resources.  It is impossible to extract mineral resources without damaging or permanently destroying—impoverishing—the surrounding environment.  It is impossible to extract mineral resources without generating waste and contributing to global climate change.  These “costs” are called externalities because they do not factor into the company’s fiscal calculus.  They are burdens shouldered by the general public and by future generations.  And then there are the less tangible costs, such as those associated with human labor.  A miner trades his single most precious personal resource, the minutes and hours of his very life, for wages.  The inequity of this trade is incalculable.  When you include the dehumanizing impact of wage-labor along with the material externalities, the zero sum nature of the wealth-impoverishment process emerges as a mathematical imperative.  And if the definition of poverty is expanded to incorporate the very tangible yet non quantifiable qualities that make up an authentic human life, we are all living impoverished lives.    

Come to think of it, maybe it isn’t zero-sum after all.  Maybe, when you consider the impact of the corporate capitalist wealth-impoverishment game as a whole, from a historical, global, planetary perspective, when you account for all of the qualitative as well as the quantitative externalities, a negative sum is the only possible outcome.   

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