Marx Was Right -- At Least on This

Marx Was Right -- At Least on This


Americans live a contradiction. Most appreciate and relate to that bumper sticker wisdom: "No one ever died wishing they had spent more time at the office." We say that all we want is a decent and secure income with enough leisure to do the things that matter most in life, yet most aspire upwards on the income ladder, if not for ourselves, then for our children. And increasingly many fear their family might slip down a few rungs, now or in the next generation. We are looking in the wrong direction. Few of our problems will be solved by all of us scrambling the rungs, to get higher. Just the reverse is true. Our situation, even for the upper middle class, and surely for our children, will be transformed only if we band together to transform what it is to be down below. Most centrally, for all of our sakes, and not just the poor, we need to separate where one is on that income ladder from whether core economic needs are being met.

Karl Marx, in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) proclaimed, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Although this leaves much to be said about both "ability" and "needs," this is what we should seek for America. To get there we need a revolution. Not a violent one, but one of consciousness.

In considering America's future, it is worth studying a discourse in international development economics that emerged in the 1970's. Among those confounded by the unspeakable poverty in the Third World, three approaches crystallized and were counter-poised, Trickle-down, Growth with Equity, and what was called the Basic Humans Needs approach to development. The first two are today central in our current policy debates about America's future. With few exceptions, Republicans concern themselves with rapid growth of the overall pie, maintaining that a rising tide lifts all boats, but for the most part, not caring one way of the other if the largesse trickles anywhere. Democrats, in righteous outrage, embrace equitable growth and point out that almost all the benefit of economic growth, for decades, has been going to the wealthiest 1%. With Bernie breaking new ground almost daily, they call for raising the minimum wage, for using the tax system to rectify injustice, for strengthening unions and other steps, all praise worthy, aimed at preventing further "hollowing out of the middle class."

For ten years, when I worked for USAID (the Agency for International Development) I was a fierce advocate for the third approach, Basic Needs. I found the most compelling case was infant mortality. Across the world, there are stark differences in the frequency of infant death. In wealthy societies, especially among those groups of at least average means, an infant death is a very rare tragedy, perhaps occurring fewer than three out of a thousand live births. Few worry that a one-year old will not live to celebrate its fifth birthday. It was not this way for most of human history. In the early years of the United States only 50% of children reached that fifth birthday. All parents expected that some of their children would die. This situation persisted in poor countries well into the twentieth century, and continues in the poorest.

The leading cause of death for infants in poor countries, is dehydration caused by diarrhea, which itself has multiple causes. It turned out, however, that rather than waiting decades for aggregate growth to bring about a decline in such deaths, it was possible with a simple packet of sugars and salts to counteract infant dehydration. When properly pursued, even in the poorest areas, infant mortality could be cut in half in two years.

In calling for a basic needs orientation towards the United States today, my focus is not just the poor but also the middle class, even the upper middle class, groups never considered in such terms. I am saying that all of us have important, even vital needs that remain unmet, and that they will not be met through rapid economic growth, even equitably distributed.

What are these needs? For most Americans, they don't include food and clothing. They do involve housing. Not square footage, but the absence of neighborhoods where you can tell your kids, "Go out and play." And they involve enormous gaps in how we address aging, whether it be the issue of long-term care, which drives many in the middle class, when they reach their late seventies or eighties, to impoverish themselves so they might qualify for Medicaid, or the simple question of the continued validation of those who in less "developed" societies are viewed as wise elders. And of course there is the issue of job security, not just for those in mid-career, but for the next generation, an anxiety that is reaching near-epidemic proportions, and is twisting schools away from the kind of education needed not just for good citizenship, but for awareness of, and access to, the vast wealth of our inherited human culture. And hardly mentioned, but the reason why the rich travel to Paris and Florence, or Aspin, is our unmet longing for beauty in our public spaces, natural or urban.

We need to take stock, to work our way through the household budget, to ask, for each of the major spending categories, "What are the real needs we are trying to meet through our consumption?" This is the key question. It may seem a simple question, but it is not; we have to weave our way between the factual and the normative, between the needs we are trying to meet, and the needs we should be trying to meet. Do this wrong, and all policy will be misguided.

We must not only ask, "How well are we doing as a society? -- Are vital needs being met?" but whether higher levels of income will solve the problem, and how much would be required, and over what time frame.

The result, I contend, will be that unless we sever need fulfillment from income level, and embrace, (in gender neutral form) "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," core needs simply will never be met with modest incomes, and indeed, even with middle class incomes. And if so, we will continue to smile each time, when on the highway, we come up behind that wise soul with the bumper sticker about time at the office, but then we will shift lanes, and press on the gas, to pass that good fellow. Moving forward fast, but in reality, going nowhere.

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