Economic growth that we have come to love and honor and rely upon to cover the tracks of the massive stealing by the rich, the system that allowed a few crumbs to trickle down to the rest of us because there was plenty more where it came from for the wealthy, is essentially gone, partly from ecosystem collapse, partly because inequality grinds economies to a halt, and maybe because the industrial revolution has run out of job creating innovations (17, 18) . At least one author has gone so far as to suggest that it is impossible to build modern industrial economies without new forests to exploit (19) something that is rapidly disappearing on planet Earth. The stats coming out say the US economy grew about 2.5% a year last quarter (20). Not quite the 3% that signals good times, but the best in years. What the media forget to tell us is that for the last 5 years more than 100 percent of the growth in income has ended up in the hands of 1% of the population. (21) Maybe 5% of the population has done well for itself, but wages are sinking for most workers and have been for years. So for 80% of Americans there is no economic growth already and nothing in the offing from the traditional leadership seems like it will restart the jobs machine or relink it to improvements in productivity. The growth is just funny money the rich play with so they can steal ours.
Another condition not mentioned in polite company is that 60% of the pseudo growth is in an industry that is bankrupting the country. The Medical Industrial Complex. (22) People are going bankrupt due to the high price of health care, while workplaces and municipalities are finding they can not afford health care for their employees or communities. By every measure the US has the most expensive health care system in the world, and one of the worst of the industrial systems for most consumers. It takes from the poor and gives to the rich. This sector is growing at the expense of nearly every other sector in the American economy and Congress offers us pseudo solutions that keep the Insurance fat cats fatter while stymieing the ability of people to start and run microbusinesses. So nearly everyone else is worse off now than they would be if the health care economy in the US was proportionally as large as it is in Western Europe and as good. Our political leadership keeps touting the medical industrial complex as a, economic growth center while trying to rein in health care spending. Such contradictory goals highlight the problems we face as a community. Especially when the overall system is geared to expensive cures rather than cheaper prevention.
Due to the various “free” trade pacts large corporations have negotiated on their own behalf and then paid politicians to solemnize, wages in the US are trending down towards the global mean,and have been for quite a while. The buying power of the average American continues to go down every year ( 23) and long term unemployment is spreading. Even employed people have a harder time making ends meet each year as wages lag productivity. Yet consumerism continues to be the state religion and every time housing prices go up the media pundits dance a jig despite the fact that many people, especially lower income people, are paying way too much of their income on housing ( 24). The rent is still too damn high. While the wealthy squawk when we tell them that we can no longer allow building in places at risk from rising sea levels and bigger storms.
When we go to the halls of government and community meetings to explore prosperity for RI, there is still much resistance to speaking the truth, of describing the inequality growing among us like a cancer and describing the results inequality brings to the economy and the ecosystem. The economic development specialists continue to deny the reality that American Capitalism is no longer delivering the goods to any except Wall St. The developers offer us a 50 year track record of failure in Rhode Island but continue to insist the emperor is clothed. They offer us rising inequality, dropping wages, climate change, artificial foods, expensive health care, and diminished democracy held together by the national surveillance state, the thugs of the empire, and the criminalizing of dissent. And have the audacity to tell us our business climate is bad and that giving the rich more would solve all of our problems.
Given the track record it is time for a new approach. So let us try using the principles the World Bank offers us, which turn out to be exactly the same principles we have developed after looking at what kind of development really does alleviate poverty in the West and especially in EJ communities. Take the principles of the Environmental Justice movement and put them at the heart of our work on developing the economy for all of our communities while remembering to ponder development in an age of no growth. The key is development, not growth. Using less but encouraging a healthy community without a toxic burden. Providing for more of our own needs, becoming fossil fuel free and growing more of our food regionally. Equality, community, justice and a proper and well maintained infrastructure are a great substitute for useless stuff.
While the EJ movement developed out of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement, it crystalized around some reports in the 1980’s about the ridiculously high incidence of the most toxic industrial and waste treatment sites being sited in the most vulnerable communities. (25) From this beginning we have also come to see how it applies equally to the redevelopment of inner city sites, the lifting of historic toxic burdens from the working people in old and post industrial communities, and economic development in our communities in general. Many years ago I wrote after my first visit to Milwaukee that it was following exactly the same redevelopment model that Providence was following with the resculpting of the riverside neighborhoods. Both the positives and the negatives of redevelopment mimicked those of Providence, and were resulting in the same sort of gentrification of neighborhoods. In the post real estate bubble crash of the economy Providence developed several shanty towns that the police wiped out, displacing a number of people. We supposedly have shelters, Asia and Latin America have shanty towns, But shanty town or shelter it is the poor being displaced again because the financialization of the economy that functions by the rich capturing the capturable resources of the community and everyone else getting poorer. Sometimes we get the illusion of growth, but often the growth we see is the result of adding to the economy things we should be subtracting. If you do not subtract the cost of displacement and the diminishment of the resource base, it is easier to pretend the economy is growing.
So the goal ought to be the redevelopment of old industrial sites in a way that keeps all of the added value in the community and displaces no one. That requires that the community be an integral part of the development planning from day one, and that they get most of the economic benefits rather than the benefits leaking out of the community. A system that uses private developers might work if democracy was enforced and communities could choose not to be displaced, and if no special treatment was asked for by the rich. But the reality is that economic development is a game played by governments and developers with all kinds of goodies not accessible to most in the community. It is not private enterprise, despite the propaganda. The government provides the basics, everyone else follows along, and we allow the biggest followers to pick up most of the money created instead of an equitable distribution. No wonder our communities are suffering.