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Wealth and regional economy
March 7, 2013 - 6:27pm

You've probably seen the YouTube video "Wealth Inequality in America". Certainly if you haven't, you know a student who has. It's gotten 3.5 million views just on YouTube, plus it's been replicated on a bunch of other sites.  It's even been dubbed into Spanish.  The video maker's point isn't just that wealth in this country is unequally distributed -- anybody with a pulse already knows that.  And it's not that the inequality of the distribution is getting more extreme -- anybody who's been paying even a bit of attention over the past couple of decades knows that in her/his bones.  It's that even the folks who've been paying fairly close attention (unless, perhaps, they analyze income demographics full-time) underestimate how grossly unequal the distribution really is.  By multiple orders of magnitude. 

Additional videos have been spawned as a result.   For example, "Contemplating 'Wealth Inequality in America'" (which isn't so much contemplative as reactive, but these days I'll take what I can get) takes the first video as a jumping-off point to draw parallels and conclusions about the anti-democratic societal impacts of this kind of distribution pattern.  I'm sure that there are as many comments on the other side ("look -- this is the land of equal opportunity, not equal outcomes"), and I'm sure that those commentators hold their (mis)impressions just as fervently.  But that's not my point.  What strikes me is the juxtaposition of the presentation of wealth (think ownership, not income) inequality with three items from newsletters that crossed my desk this week.

First, there was this column in, which is typically a cheerleader for corporate social responsibility and environmental awareness initiatives.  The writer points out that while an increasing number of investment firms express concerns for ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues in their collateral material, far fewer actually incorporate consideration of ESG concerns in their investment decisions, and even fewer report ESG outcomes alongside financial returns.  No surprise here -- the folks who make a (very good) living investing money for the sole purpose of earning money tend to make decisions, and report the outcomes of those decisions, in monetary terms.

Then, there's this item from the Rocky Mountain Institute, which talks about how crowdsourcing can drive down the cost of solar panel installation in the USA.  Turns out, if instead of going to big financially-focused investment firms to borrow other people's money for a worthwhile purpose, you just go directly to the people themselves and offer them a better return than the piddling one that's available from other low-risk investment opportunities, getting projects financed stops being impossible.  And while that model is currently being operated on a country- (perhaps world-)wide basis right now, I suspect it would work even better (especially for investment in physical resources, like solar panels, which are location-specific) if it were conducted as some sort of regional crowdsourcing cooperative.

Finally, there's a story in which talks about how a research group at Michigan Tech has developed a low-cost, low-tech, low-investment way of producing plastic filament for use in 3D printing out of used milk jugs.  Based on estimated market value of the filament produced, it's kind of like taking $2.00 off the price of each gallon of milk (and around here, milk only costs the end consumer about $3.00 a gallon to start with).  While I'm not a "nature's most nearly perfect food"-style dairy enthusiast, I like the idea that ubiquitous material, typically discarded as waste, can readily be converted into new raw material which can then serve as feedstock for a simple, almost free, process capable of producing a wide range of everyday items.  As the writer rhetorically challenges us in his opening paragraph: "suppose you could replace 'Made in China' with 'Made in my garage.'  At least as important as what continent something was made on is ownership of its means of production -- corporate capitalism might be replaced (piece by piece) not by the dreaded "socialism" (however misdefined), but by good old American self-sufficiency.  And given the already quite reasonable and rapidly reducing costs of 3D printers, we could all save money in the process.

Sure, there are disadvantages to investing in a product or project which hasn't been properly vetted, but the recent financial bubble proved that the imprimatur of a big, high-margin investment firm is no guarantee of proper vetting.  And sure, there are lots of projects (think nationwide high-speed rail) which will need to raise more funding than any local cooperative is ever likely to handle.  And sure, there are lots of everyday items that can't successfully be made out of HDPE (the plastic recovered from milk jugs).  But perhaps a pattern along the lines of "smaller, more local, less expensive, more resilient, more hands-on" might start to emerge from advances in materials technology, small-scale financial management, and enlightened understanding.  If so, it seems like a pattern likely to reduce the negative environmental, social and economic impacts that the current pattern of unequal financial accumulation is creating for all of us.


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