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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Price Tag

There's a popular myth out there that jobs and wealth are created by businesses. This isn't true. Jobs and wealth are created by demand. I could open a business selling something for which there is zero demand and all the people I hired would be out of work again as soon as I went under. Consumers create jobs and wealth, not suppliers. It always gets me when people talk about business owners and CEOs as "job creators" -- they're not.

Likewise, Wall Street doesn't create wealth. Wall Street trades on wealth. Wealth is comes from the creation of objects for which there is a demand. These objects can be solid and tangible, like a boat or a hamburger, or they can be more conceptual, like a newspaper column or a novel. But it has to be a noun. Value is added to things that already exist by labor. The dead cow becomes the hamburger, the blank page becomes the novel. No one pays money for something they could easily find lying around. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

In the bailout debate, we're left arguing over whether the product of labor is worth more than the business of capital. Granted, the auto industry has pulled a lot of boneheaded maneuvers, but the fact is that the root of their problem is identical to the banking industry's problem -- a credit crunch. Car sales are just as dependent on loans as Wall Street. When it's hard to get a loan, it's hard to buy a car.

What would it really cost to bailout the automakers -- and, with them, all the labor involved? They're looking for $25 billion which, granted, is an insanely huge amount of money. But Politico's Roger Simon sees things in perspective:

I do not understand why some people are opposed to a $25 billion government bailout of the U.S. auto industry.

The price is cheap. That $25 billion represents less than three months of the cost of the Iraq war.

To put it another way: If Barack Obama would end the Iraq war just three months early, he could pay for the entire U.S. auto industry bailout, and have about $5 billion left over to spend on luxury items like U.S. education, health care and the environment.

"But nobody is putting it that way," he writes. "The media have grown bored with the Iraq war. We seem more fascinated with who is going to be the next deputy undersecretary of party hats at the inauguration than the continued fighting and dying in Iraq."

When all is said and done, it's likely that we will have dumped $3 trillion down a rathole in some godforsaken desert. The return on that investment will be zero. We're pouring that money down that rathole as we speak, yet we're supposed to be freaking out over a fraction of that amount being spent elsewhere. It's like worrying that the naked man standing out in the snow isn't wearing mittens. The naked man has bigger problems.

And some of the cost of the Iraq war can't be measured in dollars. In a Washington Post piece titled "I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq," an military interrogator wrote sunday that what we're doing in Iraq is costing us dearly in more than monetary terms. Matthew Alexander helped gather the intelligence that finally brought down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and managed to do it without torture.

"I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information," he wrote. "I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they're listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of 'ruses and trickery'). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi."

In contrast, he calls the methods used by other teams "deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American." We should all consider that last one -- un-American. If we give up everything we stand for, then what are we protecting? You can't torture people and say it's in the name of justice, you can't invade other countries without reason and say you're fighting for freedom. Whatever it is we are fighting for in Iraq, it's not any America I recognize and it's not any America I want to have a damned thing to do with. It's cruel, it's stupid, it's brutal, and it's evil. How expensive is that?

I'm an atheist, so I'm not really comfortable talking about the soul. But, as a metaphor for our humanity and our sense of justice, it's pretty handy. And it's in that sense that I mean it when I say that what we're doing in Iraq is costing us our soul -- both nationally and individually. These things are being done in our name, just as surely as it's our money that's being poured down that rathole. Since this is a democracy (or, at least, the closest approximation of one I know of), we all share responsibility.

What's the price tag on that? How expensive are we willing to let the occupation in Iraq become in that sense? Whatever your answer to is that, add $3 trillion in more tangible reckoning.

I'm not saying we should ignore the cost of a possible big three bailout. And I'm not saying the automakers are off the hook for making big and drastic changes. But I am saying that there's a broader picture out there and it pays to consider it. There are other prices we should be freaking out over.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

imagine all that could have been done with three trillion dollars. it's maddening to even consider.

i get the feeling that there are a lot of people who would like to see the auto industry take a hit simply because they're looking forward to writing a post-mortem in which they can lay blame for it on labor.