By J.D. Alt
Recently I came across a passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: One of the Joad-clan migrant farmer characters, upon learning that “there’s a newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres,” replies—“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read a more succinct description of the underlying reality of the income-inequity issue that has moved to the front page of our national dialog. As part of that dialog, I keep trying to frame a case for radical change that the status quo will actively embrace—for the simple reason that if that were to happen, the radical change itself would be more likely to occur—but also, I realize now, because the status quo “feels so awful poor inside hisself”, it will never embrace radical change unless it believes the change will make it feel richer—and, finally, because from my perspective MMT uniquely makes this paradoxical set of relationships possible.
My most recent attempt at this type of framing was picked up from NEP and reposted by Yves Smith on Naked Capitalism. The commentary there was fascinating and eye-opening for me. People said elegant and remarkable things, such as: “It’s a fallacy of composition to imagine that what we can’t afford individually is affordable collectively.” (From my perspective, that sentence is nearly as precise in pinpointing a fundamental “truth-confusion” as the comment by Steinbeck’s migrant farmer.) But the biggest surprise, really, was how sick everyone was of something called “GROAF”. It shows you what a neophyte I am, personally, in this whole conversation because it took me the longest time to understand what “GROAF” is—and I probably never would have gotten it had Lambert Strether not come along in the commentary and said, “Well, groaf means jawbz.” Even then it took me a second.
So, I suddenly realized, here I am framing an argument that if we use MMT principles to provide FREE universal education to every American—beginning with Pre-K early learning, and continuing all the way through college or technical/trade school—the status quo will reap huge benefits because there will be so many more successful EARNERS able to buy its products and services—in other words, suggesting that we “grow” the consumer base—only to discover that, for a lot of smart progressive people, “growth” is anathema: “GROAF, GROAF, GROAF, JAWBZ, JAWBZ, JAWBZ”—they’re sick of it!
If they didn’t want “GROAF”, I decided, what they must really want is “CONTRAKSHUN”. But I couldn’t figure out exactly what that would accomplish—educating fewer people so they’d be less capable of earning money to buy goods and services—except it would put the status quo in its place: So there! status quo, we’re going to starve your poor, selfish need to feel rich by making ourselves less educated and poorer! That makes a lot of sense.
After mulling it over, I suddenly had this thought: What all this was really about might be that there’s an important distinction between genuine “growth” and “GROAF”—and between meaningful work and “JAWBS”—and that must be what the folks at Naked Capitalism were riled up about. They interpreted what I was proposing as being insensitive to this crucial distinction. In fact, however, what I was proposing was headed in precisely that direction; I just hadn’t gotten there yet.
To illustrate where I think I was going, here is an excerpt from the novel The Architect Who Couldn’t Sing. As background, the story is about a man who was an idealistic, prize-winning architecture student, then an early volunteer to Vietnam who, upon returning from a horrific and disillusioning war experience, spends the remainder of his life hiding, and writing, in a riverbank encampment deep in the Olympic National Forest. He is tracked down and discovered by a son he was unaware he had even fathered, and the son—telling the story—slowly unravels the mystery of his father’s vision, ultimately realizing it has become his own as well . At one point, the son shares an excerpt of his father’s writing which, as the story unfolds, becomes a central theme of the vision:
THE WORLD CITY PROJECT
It is too late, now, to save Wild Nature. What we can do, if we’re lucky, is make enough room for it to save us.
By the year 2030—the year our grandchildren will be graduating from college and beginning their young families and careers—the world population is expected to have nearly doubled to 10 billion souls. It is difficult to imagine this mass of humanity without also imagining a dense, high-rise, urban lifestyle of towering apartment blocks and skyscrapers—nature all but paved over, people living in the sky, traveling back and forth from glass-walled residential towers to brightly illuminated vertical markets and offices without ever touching the ground. The concept of vertical farming has even been seriously introduced! It is a vision in which man’s alienation from nature is virtually complete—the natural ecosystems diminished to a few verdant remnants remaining in national parks and preserves which must then be gated against an onslaught of tourists.
A simple calculation, however, puts the necessity for this imagined vertical density in perspective: If the projected population of 10 billion people were theoretically organized into families of three, and if each family were given a five thousand square foot “homestead” on which to subside—more than enough acreage and solar exposure to grow a subsistence diet of food—the entire human diaspora could be accommodated (with land left over for transit corridors, schools, markets and recreation fields) within the boundaries of the U.S. central plateau—the great plain, that is, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
But the most remarkable thing to imagine, were such a “World City” to be built, is that the rest of the earth could then revert to the wild ecosystems of God’s original nature: Except for strategic pockets of mining and agriculture, the West and East coasts of the United States, all of Canada, all of South and Central America, the entire continents of Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the archipelagos of Indonesia—all could exist in a state of natural wilderness, without the presence of Man.
The political discipline to create such a “World City”, of course, is impossible. Even if it were accomplished, bands of “explorers” would likely escape to colonize and exploit the new wilderness, and one could imagine world history, in an almost comical parody, simply repeating itself. (Except, that is, for one small detail which we’ll get to in a moment.) But the notion that there is more than ample room for urban growth to occur at a very low-rise densities, and (if properly conceived and organized) that such a horizontal order could make room for a vast and contiguous replenishment of our wild ecosystems—that notion is suddenly placed there on the table as a viable option for consideration.
But why should we even consider it?
The first reason is social fairness. Vertical architecture was invented by the socialists and communists to efficiently create housing for the masses. It was quickly adopted by the free-market capitalists because of its efficiency in generating profits. In each case, however, the results were unfortunately the same: the greed and corruption of concentrated wealth and, for the common man, the sorry struggle of being existentially homeless.
The second reason is that small detail mentioned earlier: in the year 2030, as it turns out, the post-industrial infrastructure and civilization we will have bequeathed to our grandchildren will begin rapidly to run out of fossil fuel. The great vertical cities we are imagining they will be living in will begin, one by one, to go dark. Human civilization will irrevocably have begun—after its tumultuous, two hundred year sprint on the adrenaline of fossil-fuels—an inevitable slide back to the steady-state of Nature herself, the state that derives its energy for work from the only source there ever was: the Sun.
I would argue that developing the micro-energy systems and new, local-based subsistence technologies that would make the World City possible—as well as the social networks and collective institutions that might enable it to peacefully thrive—would constitute a genuine “GROWTH” of the human endeavor which is qualitatively different fromthe mere “GROAF” of the status quo. Further, I’d argue that the work necessary to create the World City (or some part of it)—and to keep it peacefully operating on a sustainable basis—constitutes a daily effort that is qualitatively different from simply creating “JAWBZ”. The fact that this “growth” occurs by actually contracting the human footprint on planet earth represents a true understanding of “progress.”
Although the novel only hints at it, I imagine the real “growth industry” in the World City would be education itself—that having evolved into a society based on high-tech subsistence with a dwindling number of “JAWBZ”, we would “fill” our empty souls (rather than with the rampant, insatiable consumerism of carbon energy) with learning. Learning everything we can even after we thought we’d learned everything we could—learning way beyond college or trade school, learning how to cook French or Thai cuisines, learning how to dance (instead of just wiggling), learning how to write sonnets, deliver speeches, paint landscapes, throw and glaze and fire a pot, learning magic tricks with numbers, enough guitar chords to sing our favorite songs, how to read hieroglyphics, how to propagate orchids, how to build a telescope, brew sake, bake baguettes, build a tea-house with Japanese joinery where we can then learn to sit and be quiet for fifteen minutes each day.
I even think it’s possible, if we began immediately to build a Lifetime Educational System freely available to every citizen, that things would naturally evolve in this direction. The bit about the “successful EARNER” was just bait for the poor, empty soul of the selfish gene. But if we say that out loud, the status quo might get suspicious.