Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Political-Economic Lessons from the "Microcosm"

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.
                                                – President Barack Obama, July 16, 2012 (Roanoke, VA)

President Obama is right.  Who would deny that we owe much to our parents, family, teachers, pastors, and friends who have taught us by word and example to live virtuous lives and to instill these virtues in our children and associates?   The same is true of our debt to our communities which provide the context within which we have grown and matured (recall Hilary Clinton’s dictum).

Yes, Somebody helped create this unbelievable American system….  Tracing all the way back to the 18th century, we are indebted to our founding fathers and to the European- and African-Americans who fought and died side by side in the American Revolution to win the religious and political freedoms described in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  Having learned from harsh experience, the founders were careful to name the source of our freedom and opportunity.  They viewed themselves as having been

endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Powers of government including taxation are derived “from the consent of the governed” not from a monarch such as the King of England.  As we have stated elsewhere in Oikonomia, civil servants are to exercise stewardship of the power and resources granted to them by the governed.  Therefore, President Obama is correct when he says that we “thrive” because of somebody else who invested in roads and bridges.  We have all driven on layer upon layer of asphalt which in turn may have been layered on top of bricks, or even logs from the days of the “corduroy road.”  Taxes and tolls collected by government in the past and present maintain roads and bridges.  But, where does our president go next with his logic?

President Obama continues in his Roanoke speech:

If you've got a business, you didn't build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Here the President seems to confuse the role of steward and master; or, the source of power and the wielder of power.  He suggests, that if you are a businessman or woman, “you didn’t build that” business; the government did because government built the highways on which your goods are marketed, and the internet which supports your communications and transactions. 

If the President’s logic is true, the founding fathers and many Americans have it backwards; and government is not the steward or “public servant” of the citizens from whom governing powers are derived.  Instead, he views government as “master” and originator of our prosperity.  In the President’s view, government is the green plant in the room—it takes the soil, the water, and the sunshine and supplies “food” to the private sector.   Government is the producer (or autotroph) and we, the governed, are the consumers (heterotrophs) who flourish from the benefits it provides.  Hence, “you didn’t build that”, government did.   But wait, Mr. President.  Did you ever study food chains, producers, and consumers in your science classes?

Although analogies always have their limits, a “producer-consumer analogy” may be helpful.    First, it should be obvious that government is not sustained by drawing its sustenance from soil, water, and sunshine.  Instead, the life blood of government is our tax dollars.  What it doesn’t get from taxes, it prints or borrows.  Therefore, because government is not self-supporting, it is not a producer or autotroph analogous to a green plant or algae.  Instead, government is a consumer or heterotroph that must extract its “nourishment” from another source; namely, the governed, and ultimately, the private sector where tax revenue is generated.   The private sector which produces goods, services, and jobs is the producer; government is the dependent consumer.

I tested this relationship in a couple of tiny models of the “real world”, called microcosms (“little worlds”).  Each microcosm is a 1-pint (373-ml) glass pickle jar containing the following:
>   pond water (not quite filling the jar to allow for an “atmosphere”)
>   algae (Spirogyra) – enough to create a light tinge of green
>   pond weed – 1 sprig for food and scaffolding for animal life
>   1 diving beetle
>   2 aquatic snails (1 small and 1 medium size)
>   1  dead plant stem (5-cm length)
>   Countless tiny crustaceans and microscopic organisms in the pond water

(A) "Microcosm"; (B) Snail and diving beetle; (C) Snail and oxygen from algae
Each microcosm was sealed off from the outside atmosphere with cellophane wrap and a rubber band, and placed in a window receiving indirect sunlight.   After 10 days, all populations were still alive. However, the algae was being consumed by snails faster than it could grow—the first hint that the system was not sustainable.

How about oxygen, the vital gas we all need to live?  Can you imagine aquarium animals living 10 days after the air pump was cut off?  However, in our microcosm, the algae (and pond weed) absorbs sunlight and uses dissolved carbon dioxide and mineral nutrients to “photosynthesize” oxygen needed for all life in the microcosm.  No need for an air pump!  The producer algae also photosynthesizes sugars, proteins, lipids, and other building blocks necessary for growth as well as to provide food for the consumers, snails and countless smaller animal forms.

Interestingly, the diving beetle carries its own oxygen in a large air bubble which it picks up at the interface of the water and atmosphere before it dives down and functions underwater.   When the oxygen level in the bubble drops, the beetle returns to the surface for a fresh “air tank.”  Where does this oxygen in the microcosm’s atmosphere come from?   [Right, it comes from the underwater producer algae and escapes to the atmosphere of the microcosm.]

Can you understand that sunlight is the primary driver of the microcosm as it is in the biosphere of Earth?  Without the sunny window, the producer algae would not have photosynthesized the oxygen and food needed for the consumer snails and other aquatic animals.  Unfortunately, the producer algae were unable grow fast enough to provide food for the consumers.   By day 12, consumer snails had eaten most of the algae-- and thus, their food and oxygen supply for the future.

Our microcosm analogy is limited in its ability to represent the Earth’s biosphere.  The small scale of the tiny jar and the simplicity of its food chain make its survival more precarious than the biosphere of Earth.  However, the fate of our overgrazed algae corresponds closely enough to our overtaxed citizens and bloated government to cause us to pause in serious contemplation when we hear Washington asking us for higher taxes so the government can add new programs for “job creation.”  The government can no more “create jobs” than the snails can create more producer algae.  Instead, the government would do well to encourage the real producers of jobs, the private sector.  In our analogy, the government’s role should be to either enhance the growth of algae or reduce its own consumption.

Some in Washington who recognize the value of the private sector (our producer algae) still favor wrong-headed solutions such as “creating jobs” using tax dollars which ultimately come from the private sector (producer algae). However, we should be learning from the bitter lessons of the billions spent on failed “stimulus packages” and from the poor investment of tax dollars on “green industries” that have gone belly-up in spite of these government subsidies.

Again, the natural order of the creation and even in our microcosmic models suggest that subsidizing the system can cause great damage.  Three days after creating several microcosms, I added a “sugar subsidy” to one microcosm in the form of a small volume of dissolved table sugar.   After all, algae produce sugars by photosynthesis, and sugar is a form of food, so won’t sugar help the microcosm to flourish?

Comparison of "Control" with "+Sugar" on Day 14
On day 10 when our “Control” microcosm was still functioning well, the “+Sugar” microcosm had become cloudy due to the presence of billions of bacteria that were thriving on the sugar.  Meanwhile, the algae and pond weed was turning yellow and becoming unable to photosynthesize food and oxygen in the natural way.   Within a few more days, the snails and other animal forms had died, leaving only the diving beetle which survived on the limited oxygen remaining in the atmosphere above.   The “sugar subsidy” didn’t bring prosperity.

Our experiment suggests that there is a natural order in creation in which the population of producers will determine the numbers or biomass of consumers that can live in a given area.  If the consumers over-consume or otherwise destroy the producers (e.g. overgrazing), it is only a matter of time until the system will crash.  Proper stewardship of the creation should conserve the built-in controls that regulate consumer and producer populations.

Although we have seen that consumers are dependent on producers, we should note that consumers also provide “services” that benefit producers.  For example, producers might be protected from overgrazing by consumers (e.g. white-tail deer) when other consumers (e.g. bear, wolf) prey upon the grazers and thereby maintain a limited, healthy population of grazers.  Likewise, many insects, birds, and bats promote pollination of flowers necessary to produce seeds and reproduction.   Consumers are valuable in creation just as “limited government” by the people has its important role.

The order of creation doesn’t justify total elimination of government.  Just as there are mutually beneficial relationships between producers and consumers in creation, so there are legitimate responsibilities of government-- to protect its citizens from invasion, maintain law and order, and ensure just balances in the market place so that job producers in the private sector can grow their businesses in support of a prosperous economy?

So, President Obama is correct when he says we should thank someone else for our success.  But, I’d start with God Almighty from Whom come our rights including ”Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Then, I’m thankful for godly public and civil servants and workers who maintain law and order and an environment in which entrepreneurs can follow their dreams and “get there” by their creativity.   Thankfully, our founding fathers understood the relationship between government and the private sector, and sought to promote the various roles of each under the Constitution they provided for us. 

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