Home Economy

Home Economy
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Feb. 15, 2009

President Barack Obama held his first press conference this week. Just three weeks into his presidency, Mr. Obama has already been more open and candid than his predecessor managed to be in eight years.

Prior to the press conference he held a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana. There was no screening of participants, no pre-arranged questions, and the President engaged in a serious discussion of what the economic crisis means in a town that has tripled its unemployment to more than 15 percent.

The press conference was also a radical departure from what we had sadly become used to. After stating his commitment to a substantial recovery and reinvestment plan that will create four million jobs, Pres. Obama took questions on the economy, the wars, Republicans and nuclear weapons.

Helen Thomas, after having been banished to the back by Bush was again in the front of the room. Making clear that she was not going to return the favor by being easy on the President, she was the only reporter to shout out a follow-up question, pointing out that the President had evaded answering her question about which countries in the Middle East have nuclear weapons.

Still, the Obama administration is bringing a new level of intelligence and depth to our public conversations about the crisis we are facing. This is a welcome change.

At the same time we cannot expect the government to do the kind of creative thinking about this crisis that is required of us. Pres. Obama says he wants his stimulus plan to be “big enough and bold enough to meet the challenge” of our economy. Certainly, to stop already incredible suffering from accelerating, substantial short-term measures must be taken.

But this crisis is much deeper than Pres. Obama described. It did not begin with the collapse of the mortgage market. Since World War II we have experienced serious recessions in 1949, 1954, 1958, 1961, 1975 and 1982. Each downturn saw significant job losses and marked the steady shift away from an economy based on industrial production to one based on services and high tech. Central to this shift was the increased reliance on global connections for production of basic goods and for new markets. In this process we became a nation of consumers, not producers.

During these 60 years we have witnessed not only the failure of every large-scale industry from steel to automobiles, but the collapse of major financial institutions. Such failures mean we need to do some serious rethinking about economic fundamentals. Bold, big spending on a system that is fundamentally flawed will not lead to solutions. By some estimates we have already shifted $7 trillion from the public sector to shore up this collapse with little effect other than lining the pockets of Wall Street.

This rethinking can start by considering what we mean by an economy. The word comes from two Greek words, oikos for house and nomos for managing. The terms together imply careful management, thrift and stewardship of a household, community or establishment. Instead of asking what actions will shore up large scale financial institutions, we should be asking “What do we need to do to create homes where people live and work with a sense of responsibility to one another and a sense of stewardship for our common resources?”

If we start thinking about the economy as the creation of healthy homes, we get a very different picture of the kind of bold actions that are needed to reinvest in our country.

All of us need to be part of this new conversation about building home economies.

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