Looking around here’s the new reality – we cannot depend on growth. If we could, the school district might welcome a charter high school as a collaborator in education, not a competitor for limited state funding. If we could, the Town could count on many new businesses and homeowners willing to help pay the costs of the proposed sewer system. If we could, pension systems wouldn’t be dissipating, and employers wouldn’t be hiring so many part time employees to avoid paying them benefits. The long-held expectation that growth will pay for debt is begrudgingly facing this new reality.
The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis May 2017 report on GDP and the Economy shows a declining growth rate for GDP (real gross domestic product) and for DPI (real disposable personal income), noting “deceleration” in real GDP and consumer spending. According to the BEA growth is still hanging in there, but the rates are not impressive or steady. For most of my career I could count on an annual raise based on GDP. Not any longer, and not for a decade or more. When I was on the town council, I recall a councilman’s argument for granting raises to our police and fire fighters, sometime between 2005-2007, was that the economy always grows. Well, the council granted modest raises, but the growth rate of the economy did not. Somehow the Town of Paradise managed through the long effects of the 2008 economic crisis, but there were layoffs.
I’m not an economist, but I see the increasing number of unhoused people in and around our community. The 2017 Homeless Point in Time Census & Survey Report from the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care concludes that “the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased, both those who have been homeless long-term… and those who are homeless for the first time. Further, we see this trend for all subpopulations: veterans, college students, youth, victims of domestic violence, single adults, and families…. We are neither ending nor preventing homelessness at a pace that is changing the face of who we see suffering in the streets.” That increase, they report, is considerable in Chico, Oroville, and Paradise.
There are too many unemployed and underemployed workers, people who want jobs. No matter how many official reports say that the economy is still growing, clearly news of economic recovery does not tell the whole story.
Our news media outlets tend to focus issues on categories of Republican and Democrat. Media opinions include partisan name calling that’s akin to bullying. Venting with anger or whining incites more of the same, but neither is fundamentally helpful.
Is it helpful to believe our economy is in recovery; otherwise, a lack of confidence would burst the bubble? It’s not helpful to ignore the unsustainable levels of debt around us and blindly keep spending. We can’t spend our way out of debt if we can’t depend on growth.
If the State or Federal government doesn’t have the capacity to pay for the proposed sewer system, the maintenance of our aging dams, roadways, and more – what then? Our way of life is not cheap; we have major infrastructure needs, public and private (energy systems), and the existing structure is aging and dated. It was designed for another time when we believed that we could count on the future to pay for the ongoing costs, that we could count on cheap energy, and that the global economy would continue to provide for our way of life. This is the story I know, the story of growth, globalization and new technologies. Our infrastructure connects us nationally and internationally. We in Paradise depend on a very broad, global, network.
Remember resilience from my first column? Resilience is the capacity to absorb shock and keep going. Building redundancy into our way of life is a way to be resilient. We can re-localize. Local gardens, for example, produce food, with some people selling their produce in farmer’s markets. This local food economy is a parallel practice we can support even while purchasing food at the big grocery stores. Making stronger local systems to hold us up in case of any number of shocks that could hit us is helpful. Given the new reality, building up our local systems will give us a cushion, and it’s what we should be doing. Plus, it could be fun.
This column We Cannot Depend on Growth was printed in the Paradise Post newspaper on June 7, 2017.
Robin Huffman lived in Paradise, California from 1989 until she evacuated from the Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018.