Walter Rhett

Darn That Dream

In Living, Perlo on November 16, 2010 at 4:22 pm
Mississippi Families Celebrating the 4th of July, 1937.

Mississippi Families Celebrating the 4th of July, 1937.

The funny thing about economics is it tries to assign numerical weight to things hard to quantify. Interest rates, real estate bubbles, debt, income growth, job creation, government policies and corporate revenues all provide a numerical snapshot in time. The numbers reveal trends and tendencies.

But numbers only outline. For example, Japan’s geography, terrain, population, history and culture played a significant role in Japan entering war and in its later spectacular economic success, and now in its long term “crabbing” and economic weakness. Numbers don’t substitute for beliefs.

Crowley, LA rice worker, 1938.

Crowley, LA rice worker, 1938.

For example, colonial southern planters were attuned to social and culutral dynamics. SC planters growing rice fueled enormous American wealth and created prosperity in places as far flung as Sweden, which provided iron ore for English smelters to make long handled hoes. Providence, RI gained wealth supplying Charleston with rum. Cowes, an English seaport on the Isle of Wight prospered when rice was reladed for Germany and the West Indies. And in a rich irony, one of the most famous African sites of the slave trade was Bunce Island–bunce meant large, unexpected good fortune. Yet these old fashioned, once accepted global fortunes failed and fell. Despite the fact they were the source and proof of the American dream.

Culture, politics, and geography affect trade, yet the remarkable output of wealth is separated from the hands of those who produced it. South Carolina ranked 46th in income and has underemployment over 12%. But SC produces convertible BMW’s for the world and soon, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Knowing this, I am always fearful of drawing parallels to economic experiences, no matter how alike in appearance and numbers. For example, what model or metrics could have possibly predicted China’s incredible transformation from a feudal society of limited means to a economic powerhouse of production and capital in only a generation?

I live in the South, a region of America that has the world’s fifth largest economy, yet has persistent, systemic poverty. Mississippi, by the numbers one of America’s poorest states, has 21 companies with revenues over a billion dollars and more African-American elected to office than any other state.

It is easy to stay in our parallel comfort zones, to see the world through the view with which we feel most at ease. But hidden in plain sight are complex sets of relations that are “givens” in a society, often stubbornly held by a community. (Who knows why so many Americans believe Obama to be a Muslim?)

I think every leading economist should be paired with a cultural empiricist. The team could examine the role of numbers and policy setting, the macro-economics and politics, job and income levels and community strategies for survival. Still imperfect, such a model would offer an array of deep insights and new ideas about power, trade, and progress, the rise and fall of nations, the shared elements of failure and success. How did the Silk road trade exist for so long without destructive conflicts and financial failures? Much later, now did tea lead to the Boxer Rebellion and why were tulips the source of a bubble that crashed?

Why do certain poor rural communities in Nicaragua have some of the world’s highest rates of longevity? Why does BP still have $10+ billion in annual government contracts?

Children in Wadesboro, MS, 1937. Photo by Marion Post. Library of Congress.

Children in Wadesboro, MS, 1937. Photo by Marion Post. Library of Congress.

Cultures have methods and tests of truth. They also have conundrums. Republicans cite as a political canon of the numerical unproven idea that tax cuts will reduce debts and deficits, and increase production to stimulate jobs. But previous cuts didn’t and new ones won’t. In fact, how do you give a tax cut to a person who doesn’t a job?

Numbers tell a part of the story, but culture reveals a country’s paradoxes and heroes. A paradox of our times is the simpler values that are the ideal are myth. Another is that science is often counter intuitive to what are the conventions of common sense. The earth is round. Despite the votes of 25 senators in 1919, women can and should vote. Investment proceeds growth. But by the results of the pyrrhic victory of the election, we are periously close to funding our vanity–look at the record amounts of money on both sides–while peddling its influence. Who do those elected really represent?

But pedaling influence won’t solve problems. Those elected have proven their ability to overstate, misrepresent, and blame. It’s a short step to doing so on behalf of money and power. Never can we return to values that never were. Why dream about times we can’t re-gain?

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