Glen, Cheer Up

by Glen

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SOMEBODY WHO REGULARLY FOLLOWS these blogs posts said to me in a downtown coffee shop this week: “Glen, the subject of your latest posts speaks to the most pressing problems we face right now. The problem is that people don’t like negative stuff. They want to believe everything will be fine. If you want to grow your readership, then you’ve got to be happy. Cheer up!”

He’s likely not alone in this sentiment. And I get what he’s saying. Times are hard enough for people without being reminded by someone like me that no light at the end of the tunnel is coming for the foreseeable future. Yet I’m not out to write a popular blog. I’ve learned lessons from my time in politics and from a lifetime of activism that, to me, are paramount in importance if we are to breathe new life back into politics and our communities.

What’s at stake here is the future of citizenship. If our economy is running along a predetermined path that merely leads to more joblessness, more homelessness, more poverty, more alienation, then we have a responsibility to hold it up to the light and examine the cracks.

But it involves more than that. I hardly know anyone that’s truly happy with what’s going on. We’re getting into a mood, and it’s not good. But it must be dealt with. To accept the standard economic viewpoint is only to doom ourselves to years of diminishing returns. People want change, in all its variations; they just haven’t figured out how to pull together enough to achieve it, to make the politicians listen, to bend the financial system back into the world of families, communities, labourers, neighbourhoods, and citizens.

Here’s a sentiment you’ll find familiar:

But now that the man in the street has become aware of what is happening, he, not knowing the why and wherefore, is full of excessive fears. He begins to doubt the future. Is he now awakening from a pleasant dream to face the darkness of facts? We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of the delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time – perhaps for a long time.”

The author might very well be describing scores of people I meet each month, unsure of their future and longing for a past they can never secure. But he isn’t. It’s John Maynard Keynes, talking of the millions of downtrodden citizens in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Imagine if he went around singing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” It would not only be naïve but cruel.

We have been duped into thinking that economics is like some grand design, some giant clock, that works out its own purposes with relentless motion. And so we do what people facing such odds always do – perceive ourselves as victims to a machine, and kind of cosmic inevitability. Perhaps even worse, it is the domain of experts, people who comprehend the nuances of financial systems, and how can we possibly reason with such professionals, even though we are beginning to suspect?

But how money is made, secured and distributed in a city, a nation, a world, is not written on some tablets brought down from some great mountain of finance, complete with its great proponents. It is, in fact, a human way, designed over centuries with checks and balances that, despite numerous fluctuations, some of them tragic, has raised hundreds of millions from a life of arduous toil and strife. Yet in those moments of exceptional failure there is nothing that says priorities can’t be shifted – the levers of democracy allow for that. What we are going through at present is gratuitous. It’s neither necessary nor desirable, except to maybe a few. Just as the system can be manipulated by those few, its historical balance skewed, it can be corrected, even rescued, by the many – all of us – through the institutions and mechanisms available to us.

That’s the irony of it all. All of those people who are supposedly amateurs when it comes to the complexities of economics – us – are actually in charge of those levers, not the financial elite. It is a possibility which terrifies many experts, yet it has happened in previous times with redemptive effects for society overall and the financial system specifically. We recall that historical observation applied to Franklin Roosevelt, that he saved capitalism from itself. True, he made government matter again. Yes, he put millions back to work. Yet it is also true that his popular mandate assisted in laying the groundwork for decades of economic growth for businesses and financial institutions alike.

But the pain that people went through until that moment was excruciating, and poignant. The job of keeping people happy in tough times was left up to the actors and musicians; the real work of actually attained a real sense of collective contentment fell to effective policy. So, no, I’m not going to sing or act; it’s too serious a time for that. Plus others are far more effective at it. We must be honest and question a system that has outgrown its equitable possibilities. Leave the singing to others with the gift. The job of challenge and change is up to us – the citizens.