29 October 2011
Late in 2008 we entered the Great Recession. By the millions, people were laid off from their jobs and evicted from their homes. Four years later those people are still sitting idle, though the great majority of them would work if they could, and the homes in which they lived are still sitting vacant.
It is not as if there isn’t work that desperately needs to be done. Police stations, fire departments and schools are understaffed. America’s highways and bridges are crumbling, if not literally crashing down. Our water, sewage, natural gas and electrical power systems are old, obsolete and leaking. There are more than enough willing hands to get to work on these things, and plenty of material resouses available to use in doing so. An alien visitor from another world who surveys the situation will have a difficult time understanding exactly what our problem is. Why don’t we simply deploy the needed material and manpower and get to work?
The British philosopher Alan Watts talked about this very conundrum back in the 1970s:
Remember the Great Depression of the Thirties? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up-and-up; and the next, unemployment, poverty and bread lines. What happened? The physical resources of the country – the brain, brawn, and raw materials – were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so-called financial slump. Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees. But it was just as if someone had come to work on building a house and, on the morning of the depression, the boss had said, “Sorry, baby, but we can’t build today. No inches. “Whaddya mean, no inches? We got wood, we got metal, we even got tape measures.” “Yeah, but you don’t understand business. We been using too many inches and there’s just no more to go around.” *
The point Alan Watts makes is that money is not wealth. You can’t eat it, you can’t build a house out of it and you can’t drive it to town. A pair of overalls made from paper currency would be useless as a pair of overalls. Money is a symbol of wealth – it represents wealth, but it is not wealth itself. Dollars symbolize wealth in exactly the same way as inches symbolize the length of a board. Real wealth is in resources and labor, and in the ingenuity to deploy them effectively. By that very real standard America is wealthy indeed. Our problem is that we have misunderstood the symbol as the reality.
Watts’ hilarious example brings our folly into sharp focus. No carpenter who was fully supplied with all the building materials and willing help he needed ever complained that he couldn’t finish building the house because he was all out of inches. And yet, that is precisely what we are doing as a society when we say we cannot return to full employment, fix our infrastructure, hire enough policemen, properly educate our children or explore outer space for the reason that we are all out of money.
* Watts, Alan. Does it Matter: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. Novato CA: New World Library, 1971. 3-4.