Lambert here: A lovely metaphor I wish I’d thought of. Be sure to read to the end.
By J.D. Alt, the author of The Millenials Money
On November 8, I happened to be complacently immersed in one of the important books now available to the human species—The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. On the morning of November 9, I realized that what I was reading not only offered a perfectly analogous explanation of what “happened” in the U.S. Presidential election, but also laid out instructive insights about what’s to come next.
To provide a highly simplified overview (please bear with me for a moment), forests of trees are highly integrated communities composed basically of three parts: the canopy, the ground, and the root-and-fungi structures below ground. The community grows and evolves very slowly, and once it is established certain inherent dynamics provide a long-term stability that is measured in centuries. One of the most crucial dynamics is the fact that the mature canopy, during the growing season, absorbs something like 97% of the sunlight falling on it. This means at the ground level, new trees—growing from the seeds dropped from above—receive essentially no sunlight for photosynthesis (which they need in order to produce sugars for growth). These baby trees are, in fact, “nursed” by the root systems of the parent trees around them. The nursing trees grow very slowly, biding their time until one of the parent trees dies and collapses. This leaves a gap in the canopy where sunlight suddenly streams through, and those baby trees fortuitously located below the gap begin to produce their own sugar like mad—and grow very rapidly upward toward adolescence. At the same time, in a healthy forest, the mature trees adjacent to the gap extend their own branches and leaves to fill the open space. Before this process is complete, the adolescent trees have several years of rapid growth, but when the canopy is re-closed, they have to stop and bide their time again. Once more, they are fed by the root systems of the parental forest. It isn’t until another parent collapses to the forest floor, that the late adolescent tree finally has the opportunity to rapidly grow into the gap of the canopy and become a mature member of the community.
If the forest is not healthy, however, the mature trees are highly vulnerable to certain events. Windstorms and ice-storms, for example, can bring down huge swathes of what appeared to be strong, mature trees overnight. In this light, we would have to say, in retrospect (although we’ve certainly sensed it for some time now), that the “neo-liberal American forest” was not in good health. Under its bark, its hidden structure was eaten away by the doubts, worries and insecurities of the 99% of the population whose incomes and quality of life were headed in the wrong direction.
The neo-liberal trees may have honestly thought they were feeding the 99%, but in fact they were starving them. A case in point, which has never been adequately accounted for, is the fall-out of the American mortgage crisis. The fact that, on the day of the election, 3.2 million families were still underwater in their mortgages—paying more each month to a corrupt banking system than their houses are worth, unable to sell, unable to move to make a new beginning and find a new job, constantly threatened with a downgrade in their credit rating, unmotivated or unable to make repairs or upgrades, living in neighborhoods blighted with empty windows and unkempt yards—the magnitude of that reality alone should have suggested there might be a lot of voters not much interested in maintaining the status quo. The fact that the neo-liberal Obama-Clinton coalition, from day one of the Great Recession, didn’t understand (or simply ignored) the devastating and insidious impact the housing collapse was going to have on the lives of the American middle class is still, from my perspective, one of the greatest miscues of modern American politics.
And so, the election-windstorm of November 8 sent huge swathes of the neo-liberal trees crashing. If the trees had been healthy—if they had been feeding all of their wood instead just a small percentage at the top—they might have withstood the winds. But they were not healthy. Everyone thought the election was about decency and temperament—and the fear of having a misogynist fascist in the American White House. But the real fear turned out to be the fear of having four—or maybe even eight—more years of neo-liberal, tone-deaf, neglect.
So now we suddenly and unexpectedly have a great big open forest floor bathing in full sunlight. The neo-liberal forest canopy is gone—or at least greatly damaged and diminished. One could conjecture (in this analogy) that some kind of Republican canopy still exists, or will quickly grow to fill the vast gap that’s been created. But the Republican trees—as I believe will presently become apparent—don’t really have a canopy of their own. What they had was merely intertwined with the one that has just fallen. In fact, they weren’t really trees at all, but rather an aggressive, twisting, clinging, strangulating vine.
When catastrophe strikes, and large swathes of the forest floor are suddenly laid bare to the sunlight, what happens? Peter Wohlleben’s book tells us that the first new trees to establish themselves will be species different than what has just been knocked down. They are “pioneer” species that are genetically adapted and designed to thrive in this situation—to take root and grow rapidly in the new conditions. The seeds of the “old” trees will sprout as well, but they will grow more slowly—as they are genetically disposed to do—and will quickly be over-covered by the canopy of the pioneers. It is the pioneer species which establish the first stage of the new forest.
We can imagine, now, there will be two kinds of pioneer trees competing to grow on our newly sunlit forest floor: conservative trees and progressive trees. The conservative pioneers will likely sprout and take off with a rapid excitement and vigor. But after their initial spurt they are likely to slow down and wither simply because they will be producing nothing of real sustenance for the middle-class forces that blasted down the old forest. They will only be unfurling the garishly colored negative leaves of the populist message―the anti-immigration, anti-LBGT, anti-government regulation leaves. These are leaves that will generate bile instead of sugar.
The progressive pioneers, on the other hand, may begin with more hesitation and lack of momentum. But they have the opportunity to sprout the productive leaves of the populist movement―the leaves that will promote and support local rather than global economies, that will nurture and empower local communities rather than national institutions. If the progressive pioneers successfully do that, if they actually begin to provide a real sustenance, begin to unfold actual greenery, bear real, edible and nutritious fruit for the 99%, they will inevitably begin to overtake the withering conservative sprouts. And who are these “progressive pioneer trees” that will, I believe, inevitably take over the open forest floor? They are the Millennial generation with the cooperative genes.
What is most interesting to consider is this: If Hillary had prevailed in the election, if the old forest canopy, with its hidden rot, had remained intact, the Millennial pioneers would have had to wait much longer to begin to grow and bloom. Their “opening”―their opportunity―has come much sooner than it otherwise would have. And, given what we now confront as a collective society, that can only be a blessing.
In seizing their opportunity, as they must, the most important thing the progressive-cooperative Millennials (and those who would encourage and assist them) have to keep in mind is this: They can no longer fall into the trap―as the Obama-Clinton neo-liberals did―of agreeing with the twentieth century, hard-currency, fiscal conservatives, that the U.S. sovereign government is broke, is over its head in debt, and cannot possibly afford to buy the goods and services necessary to improve the collective good. To the extent the Millennials and their mentors buy into that argument, to the extent they allow it to prevail, unchallenged by the simple logic and reality of modern fiat money, they will fail. They must, instead, boldly embrace the opportunities provided by MMT―the monetary system we’ve actually been using now for half a century―and they must shame and marginalize the economic pundits who strive to maintain the “ideology of money scarcity.” Only in doing that will they will be able to unfold their creative green leaves and establish a new forest canopy that is genuinely productive and equitable―that feeds all the wood, in other words, from the top to the bottom.