A World on Edge

Capitalism is not exempt from ecological limitations. Just ask the Australians. With near perfect conditions for crop propagation, the island continent’s Victorian breadbasket was over-planted and overflowing with both grain and (to everyone’s surprise) mice. The vermin infestation is just one more example of the negative consequences of human avarice in total disregard of the intricate balance of nature. But I doubt very much that the mice problem in Australia had much of an impact on the billionaires assembled at their economic confab held annually at Davos, Switzerland.

Davos is beyond weird. I can understand struggling farmers wanting a huge harvest in order to pay off debt and interest to bankers. But bankers talking about environmental catastrophe due to global warming, while issuing unconscionable levels of debt in order to achieve greater and greater levels of economic growth — this behavior is just plain contradictory and irrational. Why would bankers even be worried about global warming in the first place? Are they just pretending to be concerned (good PR) or is their concern real? And are the world’s billionaires really ready to make the truly necessary changes to alter the trajectory that their collective avarice has placed on the rest of humanity?

2016 was the hottest year on record. It surpassed the record year of 2015 which had, in turn, surpassed the record year of 2014. Are we all perceiving a pattern here? Speaking of patterns, also published this week was the fact that the world’s richest eight people held more wealth than the accumulated total of the bottom half of the global population! So much to talk about at Davos, and so little time. But will anything really ever change?

Well perhaps not, but as the Rolling Stones sang: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some times, you might just find, you get what you need.” And meeting people’s needs is exactly what Judaism is all about. The world’s poor need only to read the Hebrew Bible to understand that poverty is considered by G-d to be a temporary condition only. In Judaism, there are strict rules regarding the treatment of the poor. The very essence of the Divine economic law is the Jubilee. After fifty years, economic equality is to be restored.

Meeting people’s needs is never forsaken within the ethical structure of the Laws of Moses. Everyone’s needs are to be met at every minute that they live. In Judaism, poverty never means hunger or permanent homelessness. Land and crops are to be set aside for the poor. And after fifty years, the equal division of land is once again to be established. Permanent poverty is a sin perpetrated upon the poor by powerful people who disregard the Laws of Moses given by Divine decree. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets of Israel raged at the greed of kings and their royal families.

But now, the super rich and their political patrons seem unable to comprehend that the levels of inequality — both within singular nations and throughout all nations — have reached egregious levels of ecological disharmony and instability. Economic growth may be perceived as necessary to cancel debt, but in order for growth to be sustained new debt must constantly be issued in the pattern of a vicious cycle. The only way off this moneyed merry-go-round is collapse and meltdown, leading to economic depression and massive unemployment. This what happened in the crisis of 2007 and 2008. The only thing that saved the system was the massive printing of cheap money (leading to greater debt) by the world’s central banks.

However the crisis isn’t over; it’s just been papered over by central bankers and ill-informed politicians. The “too big to fail banks” got bailed out, while the working people of the US and Europe got laid off. In other words, the little guys were shafted by a financial hierarchy and its puppet political establishment, whose greed and power had reached peak proportions. This financial bail-out was the epitome of plutocracy over democracy. From janitors to geologists, the injustice was as apparent as the nose on one’s face.

At the very moment of the bail-out, the political power of the establishment (financial and political) began inexorably to wane. Brexit, Trump and the global movements (right-wing and left-wing) against globalization were the unleashed consequences of the Bush-Obama, big-bank bail-out. For the last eight years, the entire world has been on a financial knife’s edge. Gross economic insecurity and utter frustration with the US establishment propelled Donald Trump to victory last November.

Nationalism and blind national interest now vie for supremacy to replace a globalized order of liberal trading rules and international corporate supply chains. The US voters chose a populist tough guy to negotiate for fair trade over free trade. The tariff and the border tax are now high on the new president’s economic agenda. The great hope of America is to lift dormant wages by re-creating the trade conditions of the post-WWII world, without the dire trade effects that tariffs brought in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Meanwhile, economic insecurity has been joined by environmental unease. All across the planet the summers are getting hotter and hotter, as one-hundred-year storms occur on a regular basis.

As the old order slowly crumbles, a new international order has yet to be envisioned. The people who voted for Donald Trump have placed their hopes on a billionaire outsider. Trump has surrounded himself with a cabinet of other billionaire and millionaire outsiders. Where exactly this new administration wants to take the world is now fuzzy and contradictory at best. Trump has sent out many mixed messages, especially on global warming. But the economic and geopolitical consequences of the new administration’s nascent policy projections appear fairly mercantile, and yet unformed.

Trump has been dealt a very bad economic hand. Whichever way he moves on international trade, Trump risks a potential stock or bond market bubble burst. Obama’s misguided Federal Reserve interest rate policy was always like the Titanic waiting for an iceberg. But Obama steered a course of low growth, low wages, fiscal restraint and high inequality. Somehow he avoided the iceberg. Trump’s election victory was based on the economic insecurity that these policies created among the working classes. But a new Trump policy based on trade war rhetoric, anti-Chinese xenophobia, fiscal imprudence, and ad hoc bullying for short-term political purposes could become very destabilizing.

A distinctly anti-China policy could become very dangerous, especially for Israel. With Iran on the rise throughout the Levant, all three major powers (US, Russia and China) need to cooperate in the Middle East. If a new international geopolitical order does not envision an equitable structure to replace the current angst in Europe and East Asia, the Middle East will continue to be a zone of regional and international chaos and conflict. The last thing that both Israel and the Arabs need is a confrontation between China and the US that spills over into an arms race involving Iran and the Persian Gulf Arabs. If you think that the Middle East couldn’t get worse than it is now, think again.

Global ecological problems require global solutions. However, twice in the last century a global economic system on the edge metastasized into dire geopolitical consequences, i.e. world war. Now we have nuclear weapons. Yes, it is true that cheap Chinese goods have inundated America’s retail stores. But that does not mean that Taiwan is not an integral part of China. The age of Western imperialism and the opium trade are over. Any attempt to re-create its horrific manifestation will probably be met with fire and blood. China is no longer a backwater Third World dictatorship.

International trade must become an adjunct to national economy. Yet economy must always be kept in harmony with natural conditions. These premises must become the bases for a new international geopolitical order. In other words, to achieve a modern economy based on ecology, our planet needs a breathing space of world peace. That is, a structure of peace that simply will not break down. In order to solve the world’s ecological and economic problems, peace between nations must be perceived as a permanent condition. However, this has certainly not been the goal of the last US administration or its predecessors.

Yes, the global economic establishment has failed the vast majority of the world’s peoples. But that does not mean that by changing systems and international orders, we must follow patterns from the last century (the trade wars of the 1930s) or centuries past. What our planet needs are world leaders with a true vision of world peace in order to solve horrendous problems of ecological disharmony. What we have instead are short-sighted politicians on a zero-sum game tightrope, unable to perceive alternative paradigms to perpetual economic expansion and war. Is it any wonder the world is on edge?

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).