By Donella Meadows
–October 18, 1990–
I’m sorry to hear how bad things are in Moscow. I can imagine how frustrated you are. You’ve won freedom at last, but still there’s no meat and no soap, and the potatoes are rotting in the fields.
Over here we’re pulling for you. We hope you find the patience to weather these hard times and to keep moving forward. We think, as you do, that democracy and a market economy will make things better for you, eventually.
But quite a few of us also hope you can make your democracy and market more responsible than ours. At this point you probably don’t want to hear about the problems of freedom and wealth. But it would pay you to take a long, hard look at our experience. Otherwise you’re likely to jump out of the frying pan, as we say, into the fire.
Take the big budget fight that’s going on here right now, for instance. You’d do well to wonder how a free, rich, well-informed nation could get into such a mess.
Our government has lost its ability to balance a budget. The nation has collapsed into a fit of selfish short-sightedness. Politicians tell us only about the pain, not the purpose, of taxes. They have a theory that cutting taxes, particularly the taxes of the rich, makes the economy grow and produce revenues faster than the taxes are cut. Hardly anybody believes that, but we vote for these politicians anyway.
That’s one terrible problem with democracy, Stanislav. You can’t just blame the leaders, as you’re used to doing. In democracy you choose the leaders, so at least part of the blame falls on you. Think about that. It’s a bummer.
As leaders we chose cut the taxes of the rich, they also doubled the budget of the military. Be sure, Stan, in designing your new democracy, that you find a way to counter the power of the military. Otherwise, in a market economy, they’ll form a coalition with the industries that supply weapons. You’ll find your taxes buying $800 screwdrivers and lining a long sequence of corrupt pockets.
Your free press will report that information regularly to the voters, but the voters won’t be able to do anything about it. All the candidates will be bought by the defense industry — unless you arrange it that in your country no individual, group, or industry will be permitted to give politicians money for any purpose.
What with lower taxes and $800 screwdrivers our government started spending much more than it took in. It passed a law called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings promising that in five years it would stop doing that. By the time the five years were up, it had put off the deadline another five years. The government was borrowing 500 million dollars a day, the national debt tripled, and so did interest payments. Now an average American family of four is paying the government over $4000 a year for the military, and another $4000 a year for interest on the debt.
But, of course, there are no average families in America. There are a few rich families and a lot of middle-class and poor ones. As I said, taxes had only been cut for the rich. From 1980 to 1990 the pretax incomes of the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans went up by 45 percent, while their tax rate went down by 10 percent. The incomes of the poorest Americans went down by 9 percent, while their tax rate went up by 28 percent.
How could that happen in a democracy, where there are so many more poor voters than rich ones? It’s a good question, Stan, one you should ponder. I think we have too much mixing between the market and the democracy. Candidates are not only bought by industry, they are marketed like soap. The lying in our campaigns is worse than the lying your government did, because it’s much more skillful. Since most of us have stopped reading, we get our news from television, which doesn’t dwell on bad news about the government. Most people in this country don’t even know how badly they’ve been deceived.
Our press is still relatively free, though. We could know what’s happening, if we would read and pay attention. Just this week the New York Times had a front page article about the latest crooked deals. Senator Bentsen from the oil state of Texas is working on a $3.4 billion tax break for the oil and gas industry. A luxury tax on private airplanes will probably be lifted, because Senator Dole comes from a state where planes are made. Senator Mitchell from the boat-building state of Maine is fighting the excise tax on boats. Significant tobacco taxes are unthinkable as long as Senators Helms and Ford are around. A high tax on gasoline is opposed by the oil and the automobile industries, which means it’s dead. Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, one of our big beer makers, is leaning on Missouri Senator Gephardt to keep down the beer tax.
Watch out, Stan. Don’t let your market buy your democracy. If you do, you’ll get a government for the market, for the products, for the rich, for the short term. Not a government for the people. Certainly not a government for the children who will inherit the debt.
On the other hand, if you follow our path, you will have plenty of soap and potatoes. You’ll have about 67 varieties of soap. The potatoes will come fresh, frozen, instant, and in chips with fake sour-cream-and-dill flavor, all overpackaged. Quite a few of you will be able to afford them. Maybe not your children, though.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990