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The Economic Mess


Bill Clinton raised a good deal of applause the other night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, pointing out that the Republicans made a huge mess out of the economy. And while what Clinton said was to some degree the case, it was only the case insofar as it omits a great deal of what we see in the world around us from consideration. To be sure, he neglected to mention the far larger issue that it is not only the Republicans’ economic plan, but that of the Democrats as well that makes not only a mess, but an extremely toxic, and – it should be stressed – completely unnecessary “mess” out of the entire biosphere.

It is telling that when it comes time to discuss the subject of cleaning up the big mess of the economy, no mention is made at all about the deep, structural mess that includes, among other things, a prison population in this country that is at present in excess of 2,200,000 people – a figure, by the way, that excludes minors. Indeed, the long-term economic policy in this country has involved incarceration, in one way or another, for over a century. Since the end of the Civil War – especially, but not exclusively, in the south – a sizable amount of economic growth has been attributable to prison labor. Let us not forget, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlaws slavery, has a prison labor exception. And, as soon as Reconstruction was prematurely terminated, the state, together with industry, lost little time in taking advantage of this exception. Through such programs as the convict lease system, newly freed slaves were put back to work in a manner that gives new meaning to the term free laborers.

As the US continues to trudge through this period of post-industrial permanent unemployment – one in which outsourcing and automation have bludgeoned the working class’s jobs along with their bargaining power – we are seeing permanently unemployed sectors of the population being permanently housed in corrections facilities. This model of social control, developed in the Jim Crow South, has for decades been applied to the entire country. Not only do prisoners these days produce such consumer items as Victoria’s Secrets underwear, but the prisons themselves are an important sector of the economy, employing countless guards, cooks, contractors, sub-contractors, construction workers, etc. This outstanding social problem has, among other things, led to the situation where, although the US has only 5% of the world’s total population, it houses 25% of the world’s total prison population – a number unprecedented in both absolute as well as relative numbers. Moreover, through discriminatory policing, discriminatory convictions, and discriminatory sentencing – that is, by design – it is only increasing.

Clinton, and then Obama on the following night, spoke in grandiloquent terms of a new era of economic growth in sight for the United States. But even if, for the sake of argument, such growth could deflate the astronomically large prison population, it would still have no effect – at least not any salutary effect – when it comes to cleaning up the actual, concrete messes this economy systematically produces and reproduces.The ceaseless production of largely unnecessary junk food, junk clothes, junk medicine, junk toys, and their packaging, among other things, creates a literal mess, polluting our world, and spreading a cancer epidemic, not to mention global warming.

It is illustrative that in one sentence Obama mourns his mother’s death from cancer, raising the issue of health care (which his Affordable Care Act will do literally little to affordably provide to most people) and in the next he touts his salvaging of the automobile industry – an industry that leads the way not only in the production of cars, but in the production of carcinogens. Not only does pollution from automobile exhaust contribute to soaring rates of asthma, heart disease, and cancer, among other illnesses; in addition to polluting the air it pollutes the water and soil as well.

Beyond automobiles and junk, one of our most fundamental needs, the production of food, is subordinated not to the requirements of nutrition and health, but to profit. It is a well-documented fact that industrial agriculture employs fertilizers and pesticides that, in adddition to contributing to health problems through direct consumption, create monumental health problems from pollution. Vast deadzones now sprawl throughout our oceans and waterways. And where people are not harmed by these practices, they are often harmed by the intended product of these practices: food that contributes less to health than to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. From the harms caused by nuclear waste, oil production, natural gas and coal extraction, to those caused by weapons manufacturing, and their attendant wars, this economy is not just a mess, but a tremendous source and cause of disease.

And even if, contrary to not only experience but its very own logic of metastatic growth, the  capitalistic economy could continue to develop without its highly toxic shadow, for most people work itself is an occupational disease. Obama and Biden’s assertion that a job is more than a paycheck is correct. However, for most people work is less a source of satisfaction and purpose than it is a necessary evil – one that doesn’t even pay the bills these days. There is just too much work. As countless studies demonstrate, there have been huge increases in worker productivity over the years accompanied by widening disparities in pay between entry-level workers and corporate executives. Virtually all of the profit from all of this work is going to the few owners. People are not only aware of this, but are literally sick of it.

Instead of demanding decreases in taxes, people should be demanding decreases in work. Indeed, a century ago, when machines were relatively new and were hailed as labor-saving technologies, there was an expectation that the workweek would be diminished to two or three days. As we all know, no such diminution occurred. For the sake of our health, however, it should. For the sake of our health the above-mentioned economic practices that are not only not improving at all but are instead diminishing our quality of life should be eliminated. And when people speak of the mess of our economy, we should not neglect to consider the entirety of this mess. A just political-economic system would not only not reproduce these injuries, it would supply those things that people actually need. And it is a just political-economic system that we should be striving toward, not – to use present-day political parlance – more of the same. For centuries the legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto has affirmed that ‘the health of the people is the supreme law.’ Beyond other things, this maxim subtends the emancipatory ideals of the Declaration of Independence. While it has been used to pursue harmful practices as well, for centuries it has also been used to nullify laws and practices that in one way or another trespass on the health of the people, however problematically this notion may be defined. Perhaps the time has come to not only critically reinterpret this maxim, but in the face of a world that is becoming more and more hostile to the health of the people of the planet, to apply it to the exigencies we all today together confront.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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