Commentary, Opinion

Economic growth for a few vs. well-being for all

By Bill Schubart

Robert Kennedy said in a 1968 speech at the University of Kansas: “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

“It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Is economic growth in and of itself the sole answer to all our problems, or might now be the time to forge equitable economic policies that allow everyone access to the opportunities that economic growth affords?

We know the world’s natural resources are finite. We can continue to expand the money supply — “monetary easing” to be polite, or “printing money” to be blunt — but is growing the money supply an appropriate solution to the well-being of people and communities if resources themselves are finite? What will all this money buy?

The world’s wealth chasm is brought home to our family often, as for example, when the BBC Evening News reported that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul with some $150 million in cash while children were starving to death in nearby field hospitals.

The combined assets of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg exceed $1 trillion — 10% of this amount could stave off famine in the Middle East for a year while the world reorganized its priorities to value human life.

Most conservative economists are finally acknowledging (all with all other economists) that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s “trickle-down economics” of the 1980s have failed in a world where the wealth disparity is at an all-time high, while at least 10% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day and 1.3 billion (of 7.8 billion) people worldwide are multidimensionally poor, according to the U.N. Development Program. Meanwhile, the world’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined.

Here at home, more than half a million Americans, including children, were homeless last year, a tenth of Americans experienced food scarcity, and 3.3 million lived in poverty.

What metrics really matter?

So when does the accumulation of wealth go from an innate responsibility to the wellbeing of one’s family, friends and community to a boundless and manic (largely male) obsession (with apologies to Josh Hawley)?

Is there a point beyond which the accumulation of wealth deprives others of opportunity or even the ability to survive? If the world’s wealth is finite, how do we ensure equal opportunity or survival in a winner-take-all game?

We’re at a point in our history where we must reassess the relevance of economic indicators like stock market numbers and evolve true metrics of human wellbeing. There are alternative and more accurate measurements, such as homeownership; low student debt; declines in suicide, drug overdoses, obesity and incarceration; and similar metrics for access to affordable nutrition, education, child care and health care.

Imagine during the evening news if the major stock indices — Dow Jones, S&P and NASDAQ — were replaced by the human indicators of wellbeing and local news reported the Vermont Outcomes (as defined by Act 186) in real time.

What if we measured the wellbeing of people instead of indicating the ebbs and flows of the fortunes of a fortunate few?

Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative focuses on human infrastructure, such as minimal paid family leave, full-time child care, assistance with higher ed and job retraining costs, and ubiquitous broadband. These measures are a step in the right direction, but will they be defeated by the very people they’re intended to benefit?

What would $400 billion fund?

As long as the infinite accretion of wealth is allowed, if not encouraged, by both political parties, taxation on that wealth will continue to be discouraged or camouflaged in the 2,650-page U.S. Tax Code that, under pressure from lobbyists, changed 4,680 times between 2001 to 2012 — an average of once a day.

By far, the most effective anti-tax strategy has been to “starve the beast” by simply not funding the Internal Revenue Service to enable it to hire the accountants and auditors it needs to assess and collect the government share as defined by the existing code.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, the IRS commissioner, Charles Rettig, pleaded for resources just to collect existing taxes due and payable. With fewer auditors than at any time since World War II, the agency now audits 60% fewer taxpayers with annual incomes over $1 million and leaves uncollected 15% of taxes owed.

A properly resourced IRS, with no changes to the tax code, would allow the agency to collect an additional $400 billion each year, taxes owed but uncollected.

How many of the proposed indicators of social wellbeing would $400 billion fund? The proposed billionaires tax proposal would almost entirely fund the “human infrastructure” proposal that appears doomed in this Congress.

Under the plan, companies with at least $1 billion in profits — about 200 publicly traded corporations — would no longer be able to escape income taxation altogether. The 15% minimum tax would also bring the United States into compliance with the standard recently set by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to try to root out tax havens.

Nationally and locally, we must look seriously at revising the conservative bugaboos of taxation and regulation. Both are integral to a functioning society and shared economic opportunity.

I spent most of my life building businesses. I chaired the Vermont Business Roundtable, and I’ve justifiably complained about anomalies, vagueness and inequities in the tax code and the tendency of some regulation to micromanage my business rather than help me manage it to positive socioeconomic outcomes.

As a former business founder and champion, I can tell you stories, but that doesn’t mean I oppose either taxation or regulation. Business needs clear rules of the road. We also need government to do work that we can’t do ourselves.

We must also be clear-eyed about philanthropy. It can be a godsend or a manipulative strategy by the global elite for shrinking government.

Racial supremacists maunder on about “displacement” theory, meaning the integration of other races and religions into our melting pot society.

The other meaning of “displacement” goes to the use of self-serving philanthropic initiatives to displace and shrink government’s purpose — the idea that business can do a better job managing national defense, mail delivery, interstate travel, the energy and telecommunication grids, and schools.

If only massively rich philanthropists managed our national resources, they would achieve their goal of shriveling government, replacing the interests and needs of the many with the will of the few.

In his bestselling book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” American author and journalist Anand Giridharadas writes that members of the global elite camouflage their efforts by being donors to lots of charities and cultural institutions precisely to preserve the very systems that keep them wealthy.

Let’s perpetuate equitable business opportunity but also acknowledge that the concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer and the commensurate rise in abject and middle-class poverty will be our country’s undoing.

The relative wellbeing of all Americans is integral to the wellbeing of our republic.

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