Trickle up, the bumper sticker on the car read. It was different enough to stick in my mind, and its obvious juxtaposition with the idea of trickle down was enough to start a thought process.
Trickle down as a model assumes the working of gravity and a lot of inanimate actors being in some sense trickled on. Think of an elaborate fountain, one of those fake works of art you might see in a shopping mall. The only activity that can be imagined in addition to the working of the natural force of gravity, is that someone or something starts the process by pouring water from somewhere near the top. We know, of course, that it is quite simply a hidden pump creating the illusion of activity, but we are asked to imagine all kinds of things about the pouring. It comes from above. Heaven perhaps? Divine Providence? Or is it really some human servant of God, some divinely inspired actor that is so bountiful that good things spill over to the delight of all of us? Some rich man not being careful enough with the contents of his wallet?
Trickle down is an image used by apologists for capitalism to describe the widely available benefits supposedly accruing from the system. It is an idea that has been around for a long time and is really very tightly tied to old ideas of God, the divine rights of kings and the natural hierarchy of men. Indeed, it has been around long enough, and is enough ingrained in our own minds that we have a difficult time thinking a new thought. We really do believe that our well being must depend upon the largesse, or simple carelessness of those above us in the economic structure. We think we must keep them fat and satisfied to assure ourselves merely food for our own tables. We call them job creators and we meekly assume that we must simply suffer through whatever hard times their greed has brought about until they can again afford to be generous. This is no attitude for free men and women. But we will remain in thrall to it until we devise a new image to take its place. We need a mental housecleaning.
Trickle up is a start. It is, of course, a conflicted image. Things do not trickle up. It was devised simply as a shocker when viewed in the world of trickle down. Ooze up or radiate up would be better. Instead of the fountain image, lets start thinking of the economy or economic activity as a good loaf of homemade bread rising on the stove top. The loaf represents the total of human economic activity. Economic activity is one major result of people living together in community and family structures. It is essentially a kind of friction between and among human actors and good ingredients or resources. This human supplied friction is the yeast in our model loaf. The flours and other ingredients are natural resources.
Notice that the loaf gets bigger with time. Economic activity can grow and build upon itself. Notice also that as it does, it gives off heat. This is the living part, the yeast. In our model, its source is human and it is widespread and must be well scattered throughout the economy rather than simply being the activity of one or two important actors as in the previous fountain idea. The loaf becomes much bigger than the sum of the ingredients that started the process. It is also more flavorful as the process proceeds. Now when it nears full size, the baker can cut a slash in the top without doing damage and does so sometimes to achieve a certain result with the finished product. It is also possible to cut a thin slice off the top to sample for taste or whatever. It is critical that this slice not be taken too deep. If it is, the loaf will collapse and the entire process will have to start over.
That top slice is the amount that might safely be made available to Wall Street. If we dont keep them under tight discipline they will cut too deep and set us back a great deal, for they are greedy and essentially without ethics. We will suffer for this, they will not, as they still have their slice. But it is important to remember that as often as we make this mistake, the loaf still represents us. The economy is ours to mismanage or to benefit from. Our humanity and human activity is what provides the heat and growth. Economic activity never trickles. It always radiates, like that swelling loaf radiates heat.
Clear thinking with the help of a decent model such as this would do wonders to straighten up our economy and our politics. We need to quit being slaves to a broken idea.
Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. A collection of his essays, Conversations with the Land, was published in January by No Bull Press.
From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2012
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