Is There a Direction to Evolution?

Science and religion sometimes converge.

Paleontologist / Catholic priest / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the first half of the 20th century, described a mystical vision of evolution. Teilhard believed that all matter had a spiritual quality and was fore-ordained to evolve toward life (seen as a “biosphere” surrounding the Earth), then to many individual consciousnesses (the noosphere), and then to universal consciousness, which he called the Omega Point. In effect, he shared 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s belief that God was immanent in Nature. But Teilhard differed from Spinoza not only in understanding that life evolved, but in believing that it evolved through stages toward a moral transfiguration. For Teilhard, evolution was the ancient God’s progression through time toward the goodness of Christ.

In 2005, Robert Hazen, a Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University, recorded a lecture course on “The Origins of Life,” as a Learning Company CD. Hazen lays out a detailed and dispassionate view of evolution on our planet – but one still resonant of Teilhard’s revelation. The natural process of “emergence” that Hazen and many contemporary scientists perceive appears built into the nature of the universe itself. The direction of our universe is toward increasing complexity.

As Hazen describes emergence, once enough interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, complex molecules, organisms or neurons — and variable energy (such as the day and night we experience on Earth) is applied to the system, the units self-organize into patterns of increasing complexity and novel structure. The new structures “appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.”

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, for example, and the planet had cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a natural, evolutionary process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life. Evolution preceded life as pre-organic molecules “competed” for components that allowed them to reproduce and spread differentially. Some components, such as the bi-level lipids that still form our cell walls, apparently arrived here from space.

In the course summary, Hazen gives an overview of the process that goes beyond the emergence of life. “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life.” But “we recognize this progression only in hindsight…. Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.” [iii]

Hazen – and this is the consensus view of contemporary scientists — describes the origin of conscious awareness in relatively advanced animals and humans as simply the latest emergent step. Human brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware. [iiii]

And “perhaps,” Hazen concludes, “the universe [beyond Earth] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.”

Certainly, given the natural direction of evolution, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. One possibility, among many, is that something akin to Comte, Haldane and Teilhard’s vision of an emerging collective consciousness on Earth lies in our future.

Many scientists in addition to Hazen, of course, now also find it likely that life may already have emerged elsewhere in the universe, or will emerge in the future. Many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required to shape Nature’s pattern of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program.

Hazen’s lectures, and the Theory of Emergence, in fact, challenge not only traditional distinctions in some religions between matter and spirit, but also the now common perspective that humans are only one among myriad equal life forms on our planet. Confronted with evidence of progressive and directional evolution on our planet, some scientists and some atheists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life or no consciousness emerge.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and no hint of natural laws differing from those we continue to discover in our universe. There appears, instead, to be a natural tendency toward growing complexity, leading in at least one planet to growing self-awareness.


Return to Panama Viejo

LeocadiaTorres - CarlProper 7-1-13 - CopyLeocadia was now 83 years old. She had lost weight, and moved to a new neighborhood. But she stood straight and remembered everything. “Ay, que bueno verte, Carlos, después de tantos años!” She showed me the picture on the wall of the small concrete block and plaster house in Arraijan: one five-foot-four black woman standing between six tall and well-dressed “rabi-blancos”, with the then-President of the Republic to her left, a government Minister on her right. She was representing the union of lottery-ticket sellers, on some occasion.

Forty-five years earlier, Leocadia was a sparkplug in the Comité Pro Mejoras de Panamá Viejo. Her neighborhood was organized before I arrived. Panama Viejo was a squatter community on the outskirts of the City, on the way to Tocúmen airport. Many residents had moved in from the countryside in an organized way, putting up their board and tin houses, helping to form a “barriada bruja” seemingly overnight – foundations, cinder block, plaster and second stories to come later. Others had moved out from their apartments in Chorrillo or other crowded city neighborhoods, determined to own their homes, and eventually the land the house stood on as well. Most lived on the inland side of the road to Tocúmen, but others put up their shacks among the ruins of buildings burned by the pirate Henry Morgan centuries before, and defied authorities to move them out.

Their “felt need,” as the Peace Corps then described it, was for paved streets to replace the dirt roads where Obras Públicas would occasionally spread new layers, as long as the $50 bribe was paid to the truck driver; for running water and sewage pipes to carry away the waste – and someday, title to the land.

Because the election year of 1968 was politically turbulent, I learned quickly to distinguish community leaders’ political leanings. Community founder Marcial Barsallo, a Spanish speaker with an African-American look, was hoping to land a “botella” (a paying political job with no heavy lifting) with candidate Samudio. Lalo Gomez, who supported himself and a family including children from earlier relationships in different parts of the country, by taking in sewing and odd jobs from neighbors, was gung-ho for “el Doctor” — Arnulfo Arias, a surgeon and millionaire coffee plantation owner, who had been twice elected and twice deposed over a 28-year period, and was the front-runner again. Carlos Zorita, “Camacho,” a dynamic, literate and foul-mouthed Marxist, was Treasurer of the bus drivers’ union of Panama Viejo, a worker-owned company. He was also a member of the Partido del Pueblo, the communist party; “REALIDAD OBJETIVA” was written in large letters on the massive front bumper of his bus, warning pedestrians to stand clear. Antonio Saldaña, a student activist (now a lawyer and employee of the National Assembly), was anti-gringo in principal, but ambitious. Julio Moreno was an intelligent young worker with a family, and no politics.

Working under the auspices of the Panamanian Dirección General del Desarollo Comunal, our committee, and the organized neighborhood pushed the government and U.S. A.I.D. for action on community demands, but without a lot of hope. Then, after the military government predictably put newly-elected President Arias on the plane to Miami once again, Lalo and Camacho were detained for two weeks, then released. Soon after, it became apparent that the “Revolutionary Government,” headed by General Omar Torrijos (who later negotiated, with President Jimmy Carter, the transfer of the Panama Canal and Zone to Panamanian control) would actually make changes. Step one for our neighborhood was an end to bribes for throwing more dirt on the roads. Step two was better. El General himself came out to meet with the neighborhood — a meeting from which I was rightly excluded as not Panamanian. He was accompanied by a significant contingent of the Guardia Nacional (the combined military and police force). Only Camacho had the courage to stand next to the General, and describe what the people needed. Torrijos listened, and the following week, Ricardo de la Espriella, head of the National Bank, and later a President himself, took a walk through the neighborhood with the Comité Pro Mejoras.

Deals take time, but shortly before the Peace Corps was ushered out of the country (not welcome during the run-up to Canal negotiations), the agreement for streets and sewers was tentatively set. I was never sure the work was actually completed.

That was the good news, when I finally tracked Leocadia down, on my third trip to the neighborhood, taking a free cab ride with her son-in-law from Country Inn in the former Zone, to her home in a different neighborhood, Arraijan. The streets of Panama Viejo HAD been paved, and even named, as I had seen on my first visit, and better yet, sewage lines and running water were installed as well, within about three years of my departure.   Still better, the community never stopped pushing. Two years after I left, General Torrijos returned to the neighborhood for a second visit to begin distribution of land titles to all residents (except those unfortunates living among the historic ruins), at fifty cents a square meter — a steal.

Today, though new and half-empty apartment towers for the well-off loom virtually across the street, (fronts, some say, for more lucrative economic activities), the people of Panama Viejo, squatters no more, also have rights to protect.

Roles and experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers vary, and so do opinions about the Peace Corps. My experience was of unrestricted community organizing, doing what worked, as a staff person for the people’s leaders. The experience became a calling, leading to forty years in the labor movement of my own country. Even today, the memory from a different time and place stays with me, that justice does not always fail, that the rich may be always with us, but with the right leadership, the grass roots can also persist and rise.

Albert Einstein: A Mystery Behind the Machine?

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists,” Einstein replied to an interviewer. “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of einsteinGod.”

Einstein, however, emphatically did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. … I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

In fact, in the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein…believed, as did [17th century philosopher Baruch] Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star…. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.”

In his adherence to the scientific principle of invariable cause and effect, Einstein was as confident and uncompromising as his hero, Spinoza.

But, also like Spinoza, Einstein was generally humane and modest in his personal life, and generously radical in his political views. “From the standpoint of daily life, there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”

His great scientific discoveries and charming personality eventually won him huge popularity across the globe and in all classes of society, from Presidents to other scientists to the immigrant garment workers of New York City.

But while Einstein’s description of the large-scale structure of the universe has proved uncannily accurate, his convictions about billiard-ball determinism have been challenged by scientists viewing reality at a microscopic level. His refusal to accept quantum evidence of uncertainty in the micro-universe made Einstein appear unreasonable to some. He never overcame his mistrust in such weirdness as “entangled” particles moving in tandem, even while separated by cosmic distances. “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

As for his most famous discovery, Relativity, Einstein’s vision has suggested both new possibilities and new constraints for humanity’s future. His revelation of time as a fourth dimension opened new possibilities for exploring the vast universe. Travelling at the speed of light, a person (or electromagnetic waves representing that person) would not age. But from the point of view of compatriots back on Earth, Einstein’s speed-of-light “speed limit” implies it would take space travelers an inconceivably long time to visit planets around other stars — and prospective travelers might return eons later to a planet no longer there.

We can hope that the quantum uncertainty that Einstein rejected, and other revelations to come, will open a path for our descendants to move beyond Einstein’s automated universe. We might begin with a recognition he shared with Spinoza: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”

Power in Community – and Cities

Notes from American Labor at a Crossroads Conference, January, 2015, Washington, DC

The popular vote for local public officials still carries a lot of power, including power over money. This is especially true for big city elections (and, unfortunately, for small state elections well). At a time when American workers’ democratic workplace voice is in sharp decline, the case can be made, as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President put it at the January “American Labor at a Crossroads” conference in Washington, DC, that “community is the new density.” To the extent that community-labor alliances affect city elections, workers’ votes in non-labor elections can bring about real changes that benefit the working class, not only dues-paying members.

Weingarten’s observation was the virtual theme of the day-long conference featuring national and local labor leaders and writers. Union activists and scholars highlighted the growing success being found through organizing neighborhood-based voters, along with union members, to achieve gains like a higher minimum wage, stronger public employee union contracts and worker-and-citizen-oriented government in general– even as traditional membership-only organizing or contract campaigns continue a long decline. (A number of community-labor successes, including campaigns in Seetac and Seattle, Washington; Richmond and Los Angeles, California; and New Haven, Connecticut, have been featured in this blog.) Another AFT speakr at the Conference, Jessica Smith, described bringing parents and other community members into contract negotiations with city management, and even leading off successful negotiations with community demands.

One question not directly addressed by the Conference speakers was WHY the base of popular power is shifting away from the workplace and toward the residential base, especially cities. One answer to that question can be derived from a 1981 article on collective bargaining by authors Samuel Bachrach and Edward Lawler, which defines power in an ongoing relationship as a function of the NEED of each party for the other party or something they control. In general, the side in a relationship that needs the other side less, has more power (whether for good or ill).
Unfortunately, capitalists’ need for the U.S. workforce has been drastically lessened over the past fifty years by a combination of global outsourcing and automation (and aided by labor’s failure to follow capital around the world.) In the 1930’s, when the Detroit-area workforce for America’s Big Three auto manufacturers – tens of thousands of manual laborers in densely-manned factories – walked out, production shut down. Today, as Charley Richardson and others have noted, workers typically are relatively few, widely separated in their workplaces, and harder to organize; and, of course, autos and most other items are produced by many brands, and quickly available to countries around the world. The power of a strike in one location is generally much less than was once the case – even if the withdrawal of local labor is total. And, solidarity from a massively non-union U.S. population is rare and dwindling.

Cities, by contrast, are still densely populated – and citizens’ votes cannot be outsourced or automated. Local office-holders – and, to a lesser extent, state and national leaders – still NEED their voters to keep their jobs. When class-conscious activists, like the Chicago Teachers Union or socialist organizers in Washington State, reach out and educate their residential communities, wise local officials respond. Ignoring an isolated teachers’ Local is one thing, but if the community stands with the teachers, an arrogant Mayor may find that wealthy and powerful friends are not where the ultimate power lies. Increasing the minimum wage, or the living wage, or environmental protections – or approving a better union contract — is something a Mayor can do, and ignores at his or her peril (perhaps even in Chicago.)

Successful organizers are finding the power structure’s vulnerability and need – and it’s growing in the neighborhoods as it declines in the workplace.

Can the urban base fill in for the falling workplace membership base? Certainly not indefinitely. Union members pay dues that can sustain an independent power base around defined economic and workplace benefits. Taxpayer money still goes first to political and governmental leaders, not to labor. Organized urban residents may sometimes vote as urged by class activists, but, as SEIU super-organizer David Rolf noted at the conference, “We are at rock bottom now in terms of class consciousness… Most people don’t even know what collective power is.”

And workers’ wealthy opponents can perceive and target power bases as well as progressive organizers. Urban gentrification is widespread, and of strategic value to the ownership class. Pushing low-income residents out of powerful central cores to a disorganized plethora of suburban jurisdictions, does more than raise landlord incomes in cities. It divides and weakens the progressive power base as well.

Another weakness: cities, like (free) workers, but in contrast to property-owners and States, have no place in the U.S. Constitution. No U.S. city has the independent power of London, Paris or Tokyo, and some, like Boston, contain only a minority of the metropolitan population. Wyoming, Mississippi and Alaska each have two U.S. Senators. New York City and Los Angeles have none – and a semi-rural, mostly white state population like Pennsylvania can punish a predominantly black city like Philadelphia at will.

Can the Constitution be amended to balance power with population? Probably not in our lifetime.

Still, popular votes matter, and they are most concentrated in the relatively progressive urban jurisdictions that form the core of America’s majority. As even the professional “class” – and their children – are pushed down toward proletarian status, the potential for a conscious urban majority rises. Labor must reach out to educate its urban working class and intellectual base, oppose gentrification and disenfranchisement, and build more alliances where power is still found – in our dense, geographically-based neighborhood, city (and national) communities.
Where organized workers are needed – and only where they are needed — whether for labor or for votes, they have power.


Some synthetic biologists and digital techies are taking steps that could lead eventually to remaking or replacing our single, carbon-based human race.

Chinese biologists, for example, have begun “gene editing,” of non-viable human embryos, using a mnemonically convenient technique known as “CRISPR”[i].  The technique could be a precursor to “editing” inheritable human characteristics. “Human-directed evolution” is now on humanity’s agenda. This is occurring before most of humanity understands how evolution based on differential survival of random variations has brought life on this planet to its current state.

Other biologists and humanists, meanwhile, are wisely proposing a moratorium on producing inheritable changes in human genetic material. The moratorium might allow time for scientific and public discussion before taking existentially risky steps toward a different kind (or kinds) of humanity than we have known before.[ii] The scientific discussion might begin with an international conference like the one that took place in 1975 near Asilomar, California, to consider the potential risks of recombinant DNA and the genetic modification of non-human organisms.

On the techie side, some in Silicon Valley are at work on replacing or supplementing living tissues with mechanical – perhaps silicon-based — devices. Google guru Ray Kurzweil, for one, envisions a “singularity” in the 2020’s, in which merged – and vastly improved – human/machine entities will begin to enjoy far more intelligent and longer life than we have ever known. In this technological perspective, consciousness (formerly known as “soul” or “spirit”), is simply a function of organized complexity, in no way limited to the biological, carbon-based entities we have, up to this point, known as “life”.

The number of offspring in this imagined future would presumably be radically reduced. And the random evolutionary improvements generated by the four billion year – old system of life/death/renewed-and-better-adapted life would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

If the choice were only between competitive carbon-based genetic engineering and commercial silicon chip upgrades, it’s not clear that most of us would have a dog – or a vote — in that fight. Most of us, to be sure, welcome the continuing advance of human knowledge, and the conscious pursuit of a technically better life for humanity and all this Earth’s creatures. As with nuclear power in earlier decades, however, we cannot afford to leave development of a radically different future path for humanity – and all life on Earth — only to a small number of scientists, tech wizards and profit-seekers.

We must all seek, through our educational, political and other broad-based systems, to apply suitable ethical and democratic political norms to the dramatically new reality we are entering.

As one guide through the moral thicket, participants in a possible new Asilomar gathering for science professionals – and all of us as we become more informed — might consider concerns raised a decade ago by Tibetan Buddhist leader Tensin Gyatso, among others. The “Dalai Lama” has committed much of his time to building friendships between scientific and spiritual thinkers, and complementarities between eastern and western paths to knowledge. Herewith some passages from Gyatso’s “The Universe in a Single Atom”[iii]:

# (how will) “the development of new technological options (be) combined with the financial calculations of business and the political and economic calculations of governments?”

# “Given that genetic technology is bound to remain costly, at least for the foreseeable future, once it is allowed, for a long period it will be available only to a small segment of human society, namely the rich…. (Will it) breed a ruling elite?”

# “…decisions about the course of research..cannot be left [only] in the hands of scientists, business interests, or government officials…. We need a much higher level of public involvement.”

# “..we need…a holistic and integrated outlook at the level of human society that recognizes the fundamentally interconnected nature of all living beings and their environment.”

# “A necessary principle is a spirit of oneness of the entire human species.”

# “All human beings have an equal value and an equal potential for goodness. ”

# We must all…keep in mind the primary goal of the well-being of humanity as a whole and the planet we inhabit… If we do not look after this home, what else are we charged to do on this earth?


[i] citing article by David Cyranoski, Sara Reardon in Nature magazine, April 29, 2015

[ii]Scientists Seek Ban on Method of Editing the Human Genome,” Nicholas Wade, NewYork Times, March 19, 2015

[iii] Tenzyn Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality,Harmony Books, New York, 2005. As the Dalai Lama wrote this work, the Silicon Valley vision of a mixed biological / technological future for life was not yet on the public agenda.

Why Capitalist Economies Need Government Management

Capitalist economies need strong central management for many reasons. One reason: to modify the wild swings from “boom” to “bust” that result when many risk-taking competitors pursue their different economic interests. Only a national government can manage a national economy in a way that most competitors will accept as reasonably fair. And as corporations and the private economy grow larger, only a strong government, able to invest and spend enough to make a difference in overall economy, can do the job.

It took the United States about one hundred fifty years to understand the need for central economic management, and still longer for most economists and politicians to learn how to do it right. For many years, everyone believed the government could only print an amount of money equal to the gold bullion it held, at Fort Knox or elsewhere. Economic Panics and Depressions came and went, with the government doing little or nothing to make things better. Then during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, we learned a couple of new things, mostly by accident.

First, people saw a national government help get us out of a Depression by spending more than it had in bullion, and more than it collected in taxes. For the first three years of the Depression, Republican President Hoover had done what the “experts” of his day thought he should do: he cut government spending sharply, because the government was collecting less in taxes. And things got worse and worse. One quarter of the former workforce was out of work. Many thousands hit the road as “tramps,” hitching free rides on freight trades, and sleeping in corn cribs. And many banks didn’t have enough money to pay all their debts.

When he ran against Hoover for President in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt promised more of the same cost-cutting as Hoover – but when he took office, he did something dramatic and different. He began by closing ALL the banks for a few days, and then allowing only the solvent banks to reopen. Now, people who had some money felt safe to put it in a bank again, where it could be loaned out to buy goods or grow businesses. And, the U.S. went off the “gold standard” altogether, with the government spending as much as was needed to address the nation’s problems. It turned out that a dollar was still worth a dollar as long as retailers and bankers gave you goods or interest for it. Trust was what mattered. Gold became just one more product.

Even more importantly, FDR also did what he had done on a small scale as Governor of New York when he saw a lot of people out of work: he hired them to work for the government, and put money in their pockets. They cut trails through forests, built dams and produced electricity, built a lot of train stations and public buildings. Of course, the workers on those projects spent every penny they earned as fast as they could. That meant other Americans had money in their pockets, and usually, they also spent it as fast as they could, and so on. In that way, over the course of a year, each new wage dollar added multiple dollars to the economy.

The Roosevelt Administration and the Congress also started other new programs that put more money in the pockets of ordinary people.  These included Social Security, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and a National Labor Relations Board. These programs, besides boosting the economy, addressed the radical inequality between huge corporations and individual workers, and between people of property who could live without work, and former wage workers who had no income in old age or unemployment. With all this new purchasing power in people’s pockets, the economy began to GROW again. The government had “primed the pump,” and the private economy began pumping again. With all the new economic activity, tax collections also rose.

By 1937, people figured the Great Depression was history. All that spending by the government was no longer needed! So the Roosevelt government cut spending way back – and we went back into recession! It turned out we had cut government spending too soon and too far for an economy that was still in recovery. At this point — unfortunately for the world, but fortunately for the U.S. economy – Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo launched a war to take over the world. To build weapons and pay soldiers and sailors, the U.S. returned to really huge levels of deficit spending. The economy recovered for good this time, and grew quickly, year after year. We were finally out of the Depression.   By 1945, we began thirty years of growth (with occasional short recessions), which was widely shared with a new kind of people – the American Middle Class: blue collar and service workers with money in their pockets.

Before and after Roosevelt and the war, a British economist, John Maynard Keynes, had written books explaining how a government should manage the economy, and why. His new theory, “Keynesian economics,” called for deficit spending as a way to get out of recessions, just as the Roosevelt Administration had done for its own reasons, without really knowing what to expect. (He also said government deficits should be cut when the private sector was booming.) Now, confirmed by Roosevelt’s actions, Keynes’ theory became the guide to government economic management from that point forward.

Many business people, and other conservatives, were offended by the idea that government could borrow and print the money it needed to pay its debts. They saw that government “make-work” tended to increase the wages they had to pay to hire employees. They worried that government might have more power than they did. But as the new system prevented downturns from becoming Depressions, and let workers earn enough to buy what they produced, it benefited business along with everyone else, so they grumbled all the way to the bank.

Since the 1930’s, the Federal Government generally spends more than it has (deficit spending) in hard times, and then cuts back spending once the private sector grows strongly again.  In the 1960’s, Republican President Nixon settled the issue for most people when he said, “we are all Keynesians now.”

In my next blog, we’ll look at some pictures of how this system works.


As promised, here is a picture of how capitalist economies, like ours, work over a long period of time. “GDP” stands for Gross Domestic Product, which is the common way of measuring how much total wealth national economies like ours produces over the course of a year. All capitalist economies go through “cycles” of growth (“boom” economies) and decline (“recessions” or “slumps” or “busts”)

simple biz cycleIf you are a few decades old, you’ve seen this happen more than once. For a few years, the economy grows, it’s easy to find a job, wages rise, and companies make good profits. When things are going well, we expect that to continue, and we take more chances on borrowing and spending, and sometimes we get in over our heads. Usually, prices rise as well when economies are growing (“inflation”[i].)

Then something happens. People and businesses realize they have to repay all the money they borrowed, and when they buy new items, they notice that prices have (usually) gone up as well during the “boom.” At some point, businesses and consumers (the “private sector”) start borrowing less and cut back their spending. As more and more spenders cut back, there is an economic effect like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill. Consumers buy less, so businesses lay off production workers, then those laid-off workers buy even less, so businesses invest less, and so on. Unemployment, low wages, low investment and low profits spread through the whole economy. Some businesses close, some laid-off workers can’t pay their mortgages, and may face foreclosure, and so on. The economy is in recession.

Eventually, after a couple or a few hard years, most debts are paid down, bankruptcies are settled, people start to buy again, companies start hiring, and the “cycle” repeats.   This has been happening for the past two hundred years in all capitalist economies, so we may as well get used to it, and plan accordingly.

Most people and most businesses, of course, would prefer steady and predictable growth. This is where the national government can step in and make a difference. Smart governments (beginning with the Roosevelt Administration in the U.S.) have learned to spend less (or at least run smaller deficits) when private businesses and individuals are spending more – and then spend more (hiring workers directly, or paying higher unemployment benefits, and so on) when the private sector slows down.

Chart below shows how government spending (green line) SHOULD move in opposite direction from economic growth (black line).


When the private economy is “booming,” government spending or deficits should fall; and when the private sector is in recession, government should make up for that by spending MORE. Countries that do this find their boom periods are a bit less exaggerated, inflation doesn’t get out of hand, and sometimes the boom may even last longer. Then, when the inevitable recession comes along, increased government spending can keep lost jobs and business failures to a lower level than they otherwise would be – and eventually help the economy to recover faster and start growing again.

On the whole, when governments do this, total national spending doesn’t rise and fall so much; it stays closer to the straight line in the center of the graph: steady as she goes.

This is called “counter-cyclical” government spending, because government spending goes in the opposite direction of the “private sector” – it counters that spending cycle.

Why is it that a national government can spend more when it is collecting less in taxes? This is the opposite of what most of us must do, and it seems contrary to “common sense”. But national governments are unique, all over the world, because they can actually create money and wealth, up to a point. That is one of their indispensable roles – printing money. They are NOT like individuals. “Common sense” comparisons of governments and individuals are just wrong, as history has proved over and over. By printing and spending more in hard times, governments can actually help re-start economic growth.

And, on the flip side, by spending less when more money is available, and the economy is growing fast, they can prevent the economy from “overheating,” or creating inflation.

Finally, here is a picture of what should result when government spending moves the opposite way from private spending. While the economy still goes through up and down cycles, over the long run, the economy (the straight, dotted line) generally moves up. It grows.

bizCycleGrowthBy smoothing out the boom-and-bust “cycle,” smart governments make the economy more predictable, make advance planning more realistic, prevent a lot of dumb gambles and painful bankruptcies, and generally help the economy to grow more over a long period of time.

By the way, if you think about what the Obama Administration did during the “Great Recession” that started with the financial crisis of 2008, and what the government has done recently as the economy has been growing –they did what we just described. The federal government “stimulated” the economy right after the crisis with a lot of deficit spending, and is now cutting the deficit as the national economy gets back on a good track.

Most Presidents since World War II, including Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, and Democrats Kennedy and Johnson also did this. President Eisenhower, for example, started building the very expensive Interstate Highway System as a way of getting the economy out of recession in the 1950’s. Presidents Reagan, the first Bush and Clinton also generally understood the rules. One exception: President George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, when the economy was already growing fast – and then stimulated the economy still further by increasing spending to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (while also cutting taxes, another way of increasing private spending). This dangerous spending increase in an already hot economy encouraged the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector that resulted in the economic crash at the end of his term.

Some more examples of how these ideas really work? Well, look at what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. The governments of the European Community did NOT follow the U.S. example of stimulating the economy (increasing spending) following the collapse of Wall Street banks around 2008. Instead, led by Germany, they cut spending during the recession. They prescribed austerity, instead of stimulus.

What was the result of these opposite policies in the U.S. and Europe? Europe is still in recession, while the U.S. is well out of it. In effect, the world just tried a big experiment as to which government policy – stimulus or austerity – works best in a recession. And the U.S. was right.

Newspapers recently are reporting that Europe has recognized its mistake. The European central bank is starting do what the U.S. Federal Reserve did seven years ago. They have begun to encourage borrowing and spending more money – and if what you have read here is right, Europe will now begin an economic recovery. In the next recession, let’s hope they get it right the first time.

Governments and nations that don’t learn from history, pay a high price.

[i] A little inflation (say, 1% to 3%) is not bad news, but if prices grow too fast, workers’ raises may disappear.