The last time the US economy saw high inflation, in the 1970s, President Gerald Ford attempted to rally the country to “Whip Inflation Now.” You could sign a pledge to conserve and cut back and receive a WIN button meant to evoke a sense of WWII-era solidarity.
Even then, it was a tough sell at that level. People scoffed. Monetary policy was tweaked and tightened, unemployment soared, and the country emerged with Reaganomics, kicking off the long slog into deeper inequality as the for-profit commodification of human needs gave The Economy a shot in the arm and corporations invented the 37.5 hour workweek as a way to avoid offering benefits.
The Experts (they’re running things so well, aren’t they?) claim that runaway inflation is all the fault of too much money going to regular folks and too much power in the hands of workers. The only way to fix this, they claim, is by inflicting economic pain—no, no, not on corporate tycoons, silly! On the rest of us. According to the Experts, record corporate profits being used for stock buybacks are the good news; it’s only to be expected that any pay increases for regular people can be clawed right back out of our hands by rising costs.
Adam Smith, whose 1776 “Wealth of Nations” had a lot to do with shaping the current mess, saw through the whining. “High profits tend much more to raise the price of work than high wages,” he wrote. “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price… They
“Financial well-being is an inner game. Get clear about the story you’re telling yourself about money, the stories you’ve inherited, and your beliefs about what you deserve.”
– Financial Consultant & HV Current Member Sarah Patterson
say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”
Smith may not have foreseen the emergence of corporations as sociopathic “people” who would form toxic alliances allowing them to take control of the public sector that’s supposed to be for the common good. It shouldn’t need to be said, but the mess the world is in isn’t the fault of people getting sweet deals on car loans or raises that make it almost possible to pay rent, at least if you get a couple of roommates and stop eating all that avocado toast (um, right).
In the 2009 South Park episode, “Margaritaville,” The Economy is a mysterious force dependent on faith, while the Experts make decisions by turning a beheaded chicken loose on a roulette wheel. (Highly recommended for those who don’t mind a little profanity with their cynicism.) The boom-and-bust cycles are regularly blamed on everything except extractive greed. The mainstream conversations are infuriating and mind-numbingly dull; a room full of strangers locked in a pact that forbids mention of the elephant in the middle of the table.
At the local level, things are different. Advocates can sway elections, community members can organize and make things happen, and Kingston is living proof. As neighbors, we lift each other up in real time.
At the individual level, clarity is the first step to prosperity. Draw up a budget, says Sarah Patterson of Essjay Consulting, a Hudson Valley Current member. Keep track of expenses and live within your means; meanwhile, untangle your relationship with resources. “Financial well-being is an inner game,” Sarah says.”Get clear about the story you’re telling yourself about money, the stories you’ve inherited, and your beliefs about what you deserve. If you’re coming from a mindset of scarcity, you will keep recreating that. Get grounded and centered on the inside, and shift your beliefs about money. Only then can you take inspired action that will bring about the change you want on the outside. If you chase the money, you’ll always be chasing the money and you’ll never catch up to it.”
A wealth of local resources exist that will help with both urgent and longer-term needs. Hungry? Check out the Kingston Community Fridge Project and eat well tonight. Need clothing or basic household stuff? Check Beyond the 4 Walls Outreach or the Free to Thrift store. Furniture or appliances? Ask the good folks of the Buy Nothing Kingston Facebook group. Emergency expense? Try Kingston Mutual Aid’s page. Addiction issues? Make a connection to Samadhi. Educational opportunities surround us: My Kingston Kids, YouthBuild, the Center for Creative Education, a vibrant community college, programs that can help you switch careers or start a business. The Current facilitates local exchange of goods and services, over $700,000 of it since we got started. Radio Kingston keeps you informed on culture, issues and celebrations. We’ve got a lively YMCA; we’ve got People’s Place and Family of Woodstock, RUPCO and Habitat for Humanity. It’s a work in progress, but in a great many important ways, we have each other.
So take a breath, and play the long game with your eye on the true big picture. “I think the key is to think about basic value,” says financial consultant and Hudson Valley Current member David Cagan. “We have basic value in community, in social relationships, in good products and services, in our environment, to name a few. All too often, these basic values are quantified and monetized. Instead of thinking about our community, we think about quick gains; instead of thinking about good products—products that last a long time and are good for the earth—we think about cheap and profitable consumables; instead of thinking about the environment, we think about how to ‘get rich and sell out.’ So it’s about re-orienting our thinking about finances to support the endeavors we believe in and not be driven by math, which only has a limited value.”
Things of infinite value—basic human needs like food, housing, health care and justice—should never have become commodified in the first place, of course. But the alluring idea of seizing the means of production outright presents a great many practical problems. While we strive to nudge the bigger picture in the right direction, we need to keep our eyes on our distributed economic grid. It’s productive too—and it’s already ours.