“The Sum of Us”: Book Review by Hazel Henderson

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What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Heather McGhee, One World/Penguin Random House (2021)

©Hazel Henderson 2021

 

As a white woman immigrant to the USA from Europe, I became more aware of the privileges I enjoyed, while reading this path-breaking book.

Author, Heather McGhee, to whom I have listened on TV programs as President of the Washington-based think tank Demos, now documents her journeys across the USA and her deep discussions with hundreds of her fellow citizens.  McGhee listens well to their stories of how their beliefs were shaped: on values, family, hierarchy, economics, race, gender, and their hopes, fears, grievances, and visions for our common future.  McGhee also identifies the pernicious belief underlying these attitudes: the win-lose fallacy, that assumes competition of all against all.  This prevents adoption of many win-win policies good for all.  And it derives from laissez-faire economic models promoted since FDR’s New Deal by libertarian oligarchs who benefited from early industrialism based on extraction of coal oil, gas and mining of other Earth minerals.  These efforts to repeal the New Deal included funding libertarian economics courses in many universities and think tanks including the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.  Their influence on US policies and the Supreme Court are documented by Jane Meyer in “Dark Money” (2017).  I have critiqued these economic courses and textbooks for decades.  They promote individual win-lose competitions, ignore values beyond prices and markets and continue to generate all the narrow macroeconomic statistics, including GDP, that are responsible for today’s many market failures.

The deeply-ingrained hyper-individualism I noticed on my arrival in the USA in 1958, was evident in all McGhees’ interviews — contrasting with my more communitarian upbringing in Britain, still then dominant in the culture of most countries on the European continent.  In the deeply unequal US society, McGhee’s interviewees, whatever their circumstances in the economy, I also found that deeply inculcated belief in individualism, liberty and free markets as the solution to most of the issues and problems in this democracy.  The economic textbooks’ message is still rugged win-lose competition with markets equated with democracy while governments are disparaged as inept, bureaucratic or “socialism” and the so-called “deep state” that must be dismantled.  As a frequent lecturer in all Scandinavian countries I can verify that none are socialist, but rather mixed public-private economic democracies.  Further, as one who grew up in Britain under the Labor Party, I can attest that its goal was indeed socialism, which required all major production be under government direction and control.

As I have opined in many books and articles, markets and money are ancient useful tools and often the best way to organize many productive activities.  Yet today, I see few problems facing the USA and other industrialized societies that can be solved without including win-win collective action and competent governance at every level of our now inter-dependent societies.  Yet, as we saw in the chaotic competitive responses in the USA to the Covid 19 pandemic, this  resulted in the heaviest loss of life per capita the world, as I noted in  “Lets Restart America:  Free Daily Testing for All”.

Recently, win-lose market competition failed in the Texas response to the cold weather in February 2021.  The ideology of “market good-government bad” exposed lack of leadership, foresight and unweatherized electric power, water systems, pipelines and basic infrastructure.  This was another huge market failure — also visible in public healthcare and in the global market failures in climate crises and financialized, commoditized global food systems.  McGhee rightly points out that national coordination, as well as by local governments is essential to underpin markets and provide basic infrastructure benefiting all.

Yet constant repetition of so many win-lose belief systems has inculcated attitudes of disrespect for government and distrust of organized community problem-solving.  “Wild West” mythology still fosters this misplaced faith in individual action to solve so many communally-shared needs.  I and author McGhee, along with many others have tried to clarify when markets and individual action works best and those areas where markets fail, and collective efforts can benefit all equally.  I criticized this model of globalization, deregulation and privatization in “Building A Win-Win World: Life Beyond Global Economic Warfare”, (1996, 2004 e-book).

McGhee correctly deepens the analysis to embrace cultural conditioning, education, beliefs systems, religions, and how they shape policies in the USA and other countries.  Following the ground-breaking analysis of Isabel Wilkerson in “Caste” (2019), McGhee identifies race, and our often unconscious biases.  These shaped a century of Jim Crow policies in US markets and government, even in many of the otherwise visionary project of the New Deal in the 1930s.  After decades of Reaganism and laissez-faire economics orthodoxy, financial crises and widening inequality, at last the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 Relief bill of March, 2021 reversed the $1.9 trillion Trump tax giveaway to the top income segments.  This new law will instead provide support to the working classes of Main Street, the unemployed, raising millions including US children out of poverty.  Shifting priorities to those in need is not only the right thing, but also the most efficient way to restore a balanced return to prosperity.  Giving checks to poor citizens assures the money will be spent into the economy.  This can restore aggregate demand and purchasing power — rather than saved or sent to offshore tax havens by the well-off.

Looking back, McGhee cites the examples in towns all over the USA where taxpayer-funded public swimming pools, originally provided summer fun for all kids and a “melting pot” for “Americanizing” immigrants.  These publicly-funded facilities fell into conflicts over race.  White citizens trying to keep Blacks in their place, denied their own kids, also closing down their swimming fun.   They filled in countless pools, just in blind opposition to integration of these public pools and parks.

In McGhee’s last chapter, she describes with surprised and renewed hope the work of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation initiative, with early funding from the Kellogg Foundation.  This chapter “The Solidarity Dividend” is not only enlightening and encouraging, but also documents the spread of these successful initiatives in states and cities around the USA.  Groups of citizens are getting together to call out racial and other biases, unfairness and stereotypes, not only among themselves and in their communities, but also confronting mainstream media’s biased reporting and social media’s role in divisiveness.

As I described in “Circular Politics: Beyond Polarization” today’s narrow binary, two-party duopoly in the USA actually represents a minority of voters.  The ranks of “independents” swell, and millions join citizen groups, including Indivisible, environmental activists, MeToo, Black Lives Matter and countless others.  While covering British politics in the 1980s dominated by the Labor and Conservative parties, I discovered that their combined membership was a fraction of those in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds!

In the USA, after the 2018 election, political operative Cyrus Krohn in “Bombarded” (2020) describes how weaponizing big data, psychographic targeting and social media, elections were being won.  Krohn also points out that weaponizing these tools, used by both Republican and Democrats, could also identify and organize all the independents and their many disparate allies and groups and mount a “third party” victory in the USA!

We all need to read Heather McGhee’s book and act on its enlightening conclusions — individually and together.

 

Hazel Henderson, Author of” Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age” and other books in 800 libraries worldwide in over 20 languages, is CEO of Ethical Markets Media Certified B. Corporation, producer of “Transforming Finance” TV series and publishers of the Green Transition Scoreboard www.ethicalmarkets.com