Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


What if we don’t grow economically?

posted by Rod Dreher

People like me, who chafe at the “no limits” ideology that characterizes contemporary America, rarely if ever think about what life would be like if we ceased to have economic growth. Well, Nate Hagens over at the Oil Drum has been thinking about it, and points out that nobody is considering the possibility that currently stricken economies might not grow for some time. He writes:

To me, one of the most surreal phenomena one encounters these days is that no country, no established economic research institute (that I’m aware of), and no international organization (such as the IMF) publicly discusses scenarios that don’t plan for a return to stable economic (GDP) growth. Even Greece’s government, after 2012, expects growth, which would allow the country to slowly reduce its monster debt load. Similarly, the U.S. government forecasts annual average (real) growth rates of 4.4% for the years 2012-2014, and 2.4% thereafter until 2020. This theme is globally ubiquitous.

More:

Our current world is about as prepared for “no growth” as is a fish to walk on land. All our current claims systems, the credit outstanding, including government debt, our pension expectations, our savings, our hopes and dreams, are mostly focused on a “there will be more tomorrow” mentality. Should this “more” disappear as a possibility, we will likely not just see small implications, but rather a disruptive destruction of both perceived wealth and security, accompanied by the shattering of hopes and dreams, the perception alone which might cause further trouble in our highly complex societies. Choosing to go forward to a world with different aspirations than growth might have some unexpected positive surprises. But one could argue the worst will happen if we run into such a world completely unprepared. This is why we urgently need policymakers to face the risk of “no-growth,” to understand possible implications and to work on transition approaches.

It’s not hard to understand why politicians aren’t talking about the idea that what we’re living through now is the New Normal. But what if it is? Hagens’ piece made me think about how most of us just assume that as bad as things are now, they’re going to stabilize before too much longer, and growth will resume. But why do we assume that?
Incidentally, Hagens points out that Lloyds of London is now warning that the world underestimates the economic impact from peak oil. If the global economy does return to form, we’ll be right back in the vise we were in a couple of summers ago, when the oil supply was barely able to keep up with the demand. Remember, “peak oil” doesn’t mean that there’s no oil left, but that the supply of oil that’s cheaply extractable can no longer meet global demand, pushing prices into the stratosphere.
Oh, and by the way, hope you didn’t miss this NYT story over the weekend:

The sovereign debt crisis would seem to create worry enough for European banks, but there is another gathering threat that has not garnered as much notice: the trillions of dollars in short-term borrowing that institutions around the world must repay or roll over in the next two years.
The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have all recently warned of a looming crunch, especially in Europe, where banks have enough trouble raising money as it is.
Their concern is that banks hungry for refinancing will compete with governments — which also must roll over huge sums — for the bond market’s favor. As a result, credit for business and consumers could become more costly and scarce, with unpleasant consequences for economic growth.
“There is a cliff we are racing toward — it’s huge,” said Richard Barwell, an economist at Royal Bank of Scotland and formerly a senior economist at the Bank of England, Britain’s central bank. “No one seems to be talking about it that much.” But, he added, “it’s of first-order importance for lending and output.”



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 12, 2010 at 7:43 am


Your kids will grow up into a world where everyone is fighting for an ever-shrinking slice of the economic pie.



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Political Atheist

posted July 12, 2010 at 8:26 am


Maybe Paul the Octopus was warning us about economic sclerosis: that the country with the troubled economy would defeat two of the stronger economies in Europe.



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MWorrell

posted July 12, 2010 at 8:39 am


Having spent three decades in a zero (to negative) growth zone – Akron/Youngstown, OH – I would say that the infrastructure and landscape become notably uglier, entrepreneurs prosper most while those who rely on a strong work ethic or educational credentials struggle, vice-based businesses encroach on formerly solid areas, and bad areas and bad people grow worse. A fatalistic acceptance sets in for many, as perpetual empty talk of renewal and revitalization begins to sound ridiculous. The wealthy preserve their exclusive pockets of beauty.
Your life in that setting is what you make it, and there are still plenty of opportunities if you are creative and ambitious. The things that matter most are unchanged for the morally grounded. Life goes on, but at a different level. I can imagine much of America in that condition.
Those who resent America’s attitude of exceptionalism may find themselves wishing they could experience it just one more time. The feeling of invincibility that I grew up with prior to 9/11 was a myth, but it was wonderful. My kids may never really understand it, and this may be a similar change.



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Political Atheist

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:32 am


I think there will be moves to medicate and otherwise mollify people during this period of economic hardship, as marijuana is on the way to being legalized. One explanation I have encountered for crime rates not going up during the past two years is that people have been staying in playing video games or surfing the web.
Fortuitously, my captcha reads “Cure Moriarty.”



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My Name

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:36 am


The reason that nobody considers a long-term (say, a generation or more) no growth scenario is relatively simple. In the history of mankind, since Ugga traded his extra stash of fruit for Ooga’s extra pelt, the global economy has grown because someone, somewhere has a competitive advantage. Growth is not everywhere and is not continuous on a year-by-year basis, but it is pretty much inescapable as long as population increases. There have been long droughts at times: the dark ages, for example, but that leaves out the rest of the world, which was puttering along just fine. Keep in mind that growth — in economic terms — does not necessarily mean more stuff. It can very well mean making the same amount of stuff (or even less stuff!) with fewer resources. This is the effect of what economists call this technology. Economists aren’t talking about electronic gadgetry, either. They’re talking about any means of improving efficiency. A better trained workforce counts as a technology increase, for example.
The reason that this is important is because every time that there is a shift in the basic structure of the system, new the potential for new efficiency gains increases dramatically. For example, if peak oil happens soon or the US is suddenly unable to pay its monstrous debt or global warming raises sea levels by 20 feet, our way of life will change dramatically. No doubt, many, many people will suffer huge negative effects. But somewhere, someone (likely many different somewheres and someones) will find competitive advantages in the new system structure and exploit them. That efficiency will will inevitably spread, and there will be growth again.
This long term optimism doesn’t mean that I don’t worry about financial stability or energy policy or the environment. It does mean that I’m as certain as I am about anything that 50 years from now real global output per capita will be higher than it is now. That should translate to many people living lives that are more comfortable lives that they are now. It’s purely a failure of imagination to presume that even very negative changes to pillars of the global economy cannot be compensated for and overcome. As long as people are rewarded for ingenuity (which is not necessarily equal to hard work) then there will be growth over the long term.



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mdavid

posted July 12, 2010 at 10:53 am


I think we need to separate two things: long-term “historical” growth versus local economic implosion. Some points:
1) We know that historical economic growth comes via PEOPLE, IDEAS, and THINGS (Romer 1993). It has little to nothing to do with resources, and is why Japan (with almost no resources, but lots of high-IQ people with ideas making things) is the second richest country in the world, and yet resource-rich lands (say Africa or Russia) are in perma-collapse. So the “running out of resources will cause collapse!” canard at the Oil Drum baloney is just that.
2) Perhaps the most important “IDEA” for economic growth is good government structure (no corruption) and good cultural morals (strong families who invest in children). I would note both these are on the decline in the progressive West, implying economic decay.
3) It is also unlikely the West will grow much economically because they are a) shrinking in population, b) becoming culturally corrupt by the tax-to-buy-your-union-supporters government we see everywhere. We will soon be supporting lots of old people without children to support them, lots of women in broken families, and lots of non-productive-but-overpaid government workers (government is the new growth industry).
4) It is very likely we will see a wholesale depression in this country due to the growth of government and the death of the free market in the West. This debt depression (where the dollar will be king) will probably be followed by the collapse of the world’s reserve currency – the dollar. Gold should make a comeback for international trade during this time.
5) Peak oil is real, and the US will be hit much harder because although there are plenty of new ways to power cars, it will take a lot of effort and cost to convert out of oil – our entire economy is based upon the suburbs and gasoline-powered cars. 70% of our oil-barrel is transportation. Places with more concentrated populations (China/Europe) will fare much better.
6) People should be saving money now in preparation for the next few decades of austerity, until Progressives (like their cousins the Marxists before them) are finally debunked. Many people today are still making good money; they should be saving it and trimming back their lifestyles, since it will be harder to make good money in the future.



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the stupid Chris

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:37 am


I want to make sure we understand what you’re talking about Rod.
Are you talking “no growth” on a GNP basis or on a per-capita basis?
If the former, it means more competition for a shrinking economic pie and thus more conflict and war. If the latter it would require a dramatic redistribution of wealth or the result would be more conflict and war.
So if you’re diggin’ on the End Times, no growth or negative growth are the right way to get there.
Which is not to say that unrestrained growth is good, it’s not. Modest growth on a per-capita basis would be most sustainable and truly “conservative” in bringing about a slow but steady improvement in the lives of all those on the planet.



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Grumpy Old Man

posted July 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm


If “peak oil” happens any time soon (a big “if”), a crucial question is how quickly prices rise. If they consistently go up $15 a barrel per year, the effects might be adverse at first, but they’d provide an incentive for a transition to other sources of energy. If they quintuple all at once, you’d have a crisis. We’d probably get through it, but many people would be hurt.



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J Smitty

posted July 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm


Hey Rod,
WHat makes you so sure that peak oil will ever happen at all? It seems to me this is a fear whose reality has yet to be demonstrated. What if the main reason that production of oil has risen slowly is that so many of the supplies are locked up by govt.s waiting for higher prices?



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mdavid

posted July 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm


Grumpy, If “peak oil” happens any time soon (a big “if”), a crucial question is how quickly prices rise.
I agree with this absolutely.
So far, it’s been very nice and slow. Oil has already peaked in the USA (in 1971) and now more than 50 other oil producing countries. What people forget is that most countries that have peaked are in the free world where the economy is allowed to work, and the remaining countries are backward and run by dictators.
This is what I lose sleep over. Although we are likely at peak already (best guess we peaked in 2005) and the results have not been too bad, the remaining producers may unwittingly create a kind of “Super OPEC” that creates wild swings in price as they manipulate supply for political or economic reasons…sort of like what Russia did to Ukraine with NG in the winter. Prices could fall between $10-$20, and it would be rough on poor people and the industry would likely be nationalized. People forget how hard it is to change rapidly, and the economic disruptions in a car-based country like the US would be extreme with poor people not able to get to work in the cities. In a few years we would start to conserve and change over to gas or electric, but the damage would be done.



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Abelard Lindsey

posted July 12, 2010 at 5:29 pm


So we had a bubble and now face, say, a 10 year period of slow or no growth. Well, gee. Can anyone here name another country that has already gone through this scenario, of having had a speculative bubbled fueled by excessively cheap credit, then a 10 year period of no growth.
Does Japan come to mind? Elementary my dear Watson.
So you ask yourself just what a 10 year period of no growth will be about. Has it ever occurred to anyone here in the U.S. that Japan is the bellwether for this scenario?
Since I lived in Japan from the peak of their bubble (1991) until 2000 (when I moved to Taiwan), I can share with you some of the changes to Japanese culture that the 10 year no growth period brought on. For starters, Japanese companies stopped hiring new freshmen. At the same time, the young people decided that the fixed-pattern “salaryman” life style, with its regimentation, repetitiveness, and enforced group behavior in the company, was not all it was cracked up to be. The result was a generation of “freiters”, which is the German-Japanese slang word for Gen-X style slackers. Japan has produced an entire generation of them since around 1993 or so.
The freiters live at home with their parents (this has been talked about in this and other blogs) and work part-time or temporary jobs. Since they live at home, the only money they need is what one of my former employers (a business owner) calls their beer and iPod money. They take off for 3 months at a time to do the lonely-planet style travel to S.E. Asia and India. This is actually quite cheap, you know. Flights from Tokyo to many places in S.E. Asia are less than $500 equivalent.
Japanese companies downsized considerably. This is quite significant considering that sacking employees is generally not well received in Japanese culture. Sacking mid-career employees is called “kubi-data”, which translates as “decapitation” (which should give you an idea of its significance in Japanese culture). Japanese companies, over a long period of time, have learned to become profitable and to keep their debt/equity ratios low (these went from 4:1 down to 1:1 over a 15 year period).
Back to those freiter young people. They generally stopped having kids of their own. The Japanese birthrate, which was around 1.8 when I arrived in ’91, dropped to probably under 1.0 less than 10 years later. The salaryman life style is now regarded as much of a joke these days in Japan. The young people have learned very well how to have a good time on little money.
Also, auto sales, particularly of high end BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexus’ dropped dramatically. It seemed like every third on the road was a high end BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus when I first showed up in 1991. Indeed, it was my first month in Japan I saw my first 700 series BMW and Mercedes 600 sedan. Today when I go to Japan, I see only hatch-backs and other small but practical cars of Japanese manufacture on the roads. I almost never see a BMW or Mercedes now.
The upside to a non-materialistic society is that it is a lot easier to “hook up” if you don’t have a lot of money. Of course, it helps if you are good looking and work out to stay in shape. Gym memberships in Japan cost about 30% of what they did in the early 90′s. A lot more young people, especially women, are into working out and staying in shape. Compared to high-end automobiles and other big ticket items, gym memberships are quite cheap. They are also very healthy for you, too.
High-end restaurants are mostly gone and low-cost izakayas are where most Japanese go out for eat and drink. The izakaya is an aspect of Japanese culture I really enjoy, onsen (hot spring) is another.
In short, I think the next 10 years in the U.S. will be a lot like Japan during the ’90s. One can have a good time during non-growth periods in a society. You just have to remember to minimize the overhead.



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Jon

posted July 12, 2010 at 6:30 pm


The title is a falsehood, Riod. We are growing economically. The problem is, this growth is not translating into jobs.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 12, 2010 at 7:40 pm


Funny to see two posts with diametrically opposite views. I’m referring to “Myname”s post on how productivity increases drive wealth increases, and mdavid’s pessimistic post on the decline of the west and the US.
My vote goes whole-heartedly to Myname’s view. Increasing technology and productivity, even driven by the various challenges described by mdavid, will continue to grow and improve our economies, and increase wealth and our standard of living, even as we have fewer workers. Some people have a hard time believing in these trends, in spite of their long-term demonstration over the last few centuries. It goes against the grain of traditional thinking, but there it is for all to see, if they actually look.



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Jon

posted July 12, 2010 at 8:57 pm


Abelard Lindsey,
This isn’t Japan, and for a whole raft of reasons:
1. Japan is ethnically homogenous, or nearly so. America is full of diversity, and very open to immigrants
2. Unlike Japan our birth rate is near replacement, in part due to #1 above.
3. Japan is an imitative society; we are an innovatice one.
4. Instead of not hiring the young our businesses are firing the old and replacing them with the young.
5. We aren’t staying lithe and trim– we are getting fatter in fact.
6. The USA has massive military commitments that Japan does not.
…I could go on of course. But no, we aren’t turning Japanese, whether for good or ill.



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Rick the Road Rager

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm


This week’s Kiplinger’s Business Newsletter provides Global Forecasts of GDP in 2010-2011. The USA is expected to grow 3.3% this year and 3.6% during 2011. However, the Euro zone is projected to have only 1.0% growth this year and 1.3% next year; the UK will have a 1.2% growth in 2010 and 2.0% next year.
In contrast, China’s economy is expected to grow by 10.2% and 9.2% during the next two years. India’s growth rates will 8.5% and 8.1%
However, America MUST lower its’ defense spending!!! The DOD’s budget is over $700 billion and that excludes the $5 billion a month for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most military spending is non-productive; the money spent on weapons of all types and sizes does not produce anything. It is also quite inflationary in the long run. And we have almost too much military might.
Examples: The US Navy currently is larger than the 13 next ranking navies in the world. And `11 of those 13 navies are allies!!
The British Royal Navy now has only 56 ships on active duty. America has 57 nuclear submarines and 11 carrier battle groups. (Such group usually include one aircraft carriers, at least six or more escort vessels and a supply unit of one or more tankers, a supply ship, a maintenance & repair ship and sometimes a submarine tender.
On land, America’s Army National Guard now has more active manpower than all the French armed forces!!! Granted, we need a strong reserve components, but in a Defense establishment this large, there certainly is at least a 10% “fat” factor. That’s 70 billion dollars a year!
PS: I am also in favor of a “draft” wherein ALL young Americans serve their country in some way: The military, the Peace Corps,the Teacher Corps, etc. At minimal salaries and limited benefits too!



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Rick the Road Rager

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm


Michael Bloomberg recently argued for allowing and even encouraging more immigrants to these United States. He pointed out, quite correctly, that many immigrants either do much of the dirty, dangerous, menial jobs that American citizens don’t want to do AND, because they really are quite “hungry” for work, jobs, and eventually some notable business successes. Good example of the latter is the young woman now vying for the governorship of South Carolina. She is the daughter of East Indian parents who came to the USA some decades ago and began a carpeting and clothing business in their home’s living room. They are now multimillionares!!
So, as Bush 43 used to say, “Bring ‘Em ON!!” (By the way, here in northeastern Wisconsin, many Mexican immigrants (legal or illegal) work in the very large megadairy farms hereabouts. These agribusinesses have 3,000 plus dairy cattle and milking them is a 24-7 operation. Many of these immigrants actually “live” in the barns on twelve hour shifts. And most of these mega dairy farms cannot get American citizens to take the jobs the immigrants accept!



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r

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:02 am


The United States of America will continue to grow economically. All you have to do is study history. As international economic hard times accelerate, capital will flow to the U.S.A. as a safe haven for investment. As American military power is more reticent to intervene in international confrontation, a new paradigm will emerge. Destabilization will occur on the Pacific Western Rim. Previously self-proclaimed “regions of economic growth” (Red China, India, Japan, South Korea) will be mired in internal disruption and regional military conflict. (And without significant US participation.) American Empire will morph to a return to the mercantile nation of its past.



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Senescent

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:03 am


I dunno, growth’s always returned before, and we should be as suspicious of “but this time is different” arguments in the pessimist direction as the optimist.



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Abelard Lindsey

posted July 13, 2010 at 3:18 pm


Jon,
I’m with you that I also believe that the U.S. will experience future economic growth.
However, my previous post was about IF we did not grow for 10 years or so. I think the social changes that occurred in Japan as a result of a no-growth economy would occur here in the U.S. as well. I will also point out that the social dynamics I cited in my previous post are also true with Europe as well. Both Japan and Europe are examples of non-growth post-modern societies. The point that I stand by is that Rod and the Oil drum people think that a non-growth economy is going to somehow transition us into some weird variant of a 1950′s society and I am here to claim that there is zero chance of this happening. A lack of economic growth will not make post-modern society go away. In fact, it will do precisely the opposite because post-modern bohemian life styles are, in fact, much cheaper (meaning you save more money) than the traditional 1950′s life style.
The first thing you do in a no-growth scenario is to avoid the overhead. Many of you seem incapable of understanding this.



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Abelard Lindsey

posted July 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm


Rick the Road Rager,
You go on and on about how our military is so much larger than the rest of the world and how it is so unnecessary. Yet, you advocate a draft. Would not a scale down of the military as you advocate eliminate the need for any kind of draft? After all, the current military, as unnecessarily huge as it is, does manage to meet its personal needs with out a draft. Clearly a far smaller military would be even more capable of doing the same.



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Your Name

posted July 13, 2010 at 7:31 pm


Rick the Road Rager wrote:
Michael Bloomberg recently argued for allowing and even encouraging more immigrants to these United States. He pointed out, quite correctly, that many immigrants either do much of the dirty, dangerous, menial jobs that American citizens don’t want to do AND, because they really are quite “hungry” for work, jobs, and eventually some notable business successes. Good example of the latter is the young woman now vying for the governorship of South Carolina. She is the daughter of East Indian parents who came to the USA some decades ago and began a carpeting and clothing business in their home’s living room. They are now multimillionares!!
Niki Hailey’s East Indian parents, I feel sure, did not do dirty or menial jobs before they started their own now very successful business. Indian-Americans are about the most educated immigrant group ever to come to the U.S.–this includes all white immigrant groups–in all of our nation’s history. They do however do jobs, which we need to fill. They fuel our economic growth by their high levels of productivity, whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, take care of us as physicians etc., pay their taxes and have the lowest crime rates among all groups, including whites. Thus, India’s loss (brain drain) is our gain.
Asian-Americans, in general, have been termed the model minority, much as they, with good cause, dislike being thus labled, and among them Indian-Americans are, I understand, some of the most successful. They have an amazing work ethic. Most admirable.
Rick the Road Rager wrote:
So, as Bush 43 used to say, “Bring ‘Em ON!!” (By the way, here in northeastern Wisconsin, many Mexican immigrants (legal or illegal) work in the very large megadairy farms hereabouts. These agribusinesses have 3,000 plus dairy cattle and milking them is a 24-7 operation. Many of these immigrants actually “live” in the barns on twelve hour shifts. And most of these mega dairy farms cannot get American citizens to take the jobs the immigrants accept!
The mainstream media, to further its own liberal agenda, slants its reporting of the news by obfuscating an essential, critical distinction. It is disingenuous to report that immigrants take to the streets etc. when in fact, in the main, illegal immigrants take to the streets to protest laws and sentiments against them, i.e., against illegal immigrants.
Most legal immigrants oppose illegal immigration, just as most people who pay taxes are appalled by those who don’t (this is not to suggest that all or most illegal immigrants do not pay taxes. it is merely an analogy), those who abide by the law do not wink at those who break it, those who stand in line for anything do not view favorably those who attempt to jump it…
The press consistently portrays Americans who oppose illegal immigration as folk who are anti-immigrant! This is disingenuous. I, for instance, am not anti-immigrant, not at all, but I vehemently oppose illegal immigration, as do most people I know, who too are not anti-immigrant. They and I are opposed illegal immigrantion.
I know a large number of legal immigrants, whom I respect greatly. And, believe you me, they too oppose illegal immigration. They have followed the law from the get-go, taken their proper turn. Having done so, they–more than others–oppose illegal immigration. Quite naturally. It’s the most understandable thing, though the press insists on wearing blinkers in its reporting.
We make it very hard for Canadians to work here, and the English spouses of Americans to take citizenship. We make them jump through all manner of hoops. And yet we have time and again given amnesty to illegal immigrants, which, along with our failure to heavily penalize those who employ them, only encourages a deluge of illegal immigrants.
If there are jobs so bad that Americans won’t do them, then we must put our American inventive genius to work to mechanize those jobs. No one should have to do backbreaking work. And we need to pay fair wages for the work people do do. As it is, illegal immigrants are pouring in in numbers too great for us to absorb and acculturate them. And with them comes crime, and also exploitation (of them).
We ought to mechanize menial jobs, secure our borders, which is the right–nay, the duty–of every sovereign nation, allow only controlled, legal immigration, and have a point system for legal immigration as Australia does.
We also need to pass a law that a child born in the U.S. is an American citizen only if at least one of his/her parents is an American citizen–or at least here legally. The laws of most countries do not automatically confer citizenship on everyone born on their territory, you know.



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nnmns

posted July 13, 2010 at 9:54 pm


It’s an important topic to be considering. We are nearing or at the peak of some resources, and the kinds of economic activity we had so much of last century pour a lot of waste into our air and water and ground. So I think it’s quite likely we’ll see less of that kind of economic activity and that’s a good thing. We might well, though, live better if we can redefine “better”.
But we need to figure out how to provide meaningful work for a lot of unemployed people; some kinds of reasonably pleasant things that could be mechanized perhaps should not be, and people should be put to work doing some tasks that aren’t done now and should be. Agriculture, for instance, is likely to change from the factory farm model pervasive in America because it’s very fossil fuel-intensive and because we are nearing or past peak phosphorous, so more labor intensive organic-like systems may become most practical surprisingly soon. But people who do those jobs must have acceptable lives, partly through decent wages and partly through the government taking on health care like first world countries elsewhere have done decades ago.
Also I think Abelard’s idea of minimizing the overhead is very important, not just for people but for society. For instance where people don’t need to travel to work information technology should be used to let them stay home. And more efficient transportation systems than cars certainly need to be spread more widely so people have better options.
And of course our military budget is about that of the entire rest of the world, including a lot of our allies. We need to save a bunch of that money, either to cut taxes (as called for in HR 5353, the War is Making You Poor Act) or to spend toward preparing us for this different world or both. Our enemies can just watch us spend ourselves into poverty on our military-industrial complex, much like Reagan may have done to the USSR.



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