8Quality of Life and the Price of Gold
Immediately after the evening news there is a barrage of information about the stock market. News of the current level of each stock exchange is concluded with the joyous ringing of bells.
For those people fortunate to own a variety of stocks and some gold, and want to know what is going up or down, this news is exciting. The business section of newspapers offers even more information with many pages listing various stocks. The TSX, the NASDAQ, S&P and stock markets around the world are followed daily along with the price of gold and of oil (black gold). Do you feel better when you know the market is going up? Are you depressed when you note that the price of gold is down? Of course investors can win even when the price is down if they had bet correctly on the future. So everyone on the TV screen is smiling as the bells rings at the market closing each day. Of course it doesn’t really ever close: buying and selling is a 24-hour per day, 365 days a year process thanks to the internet.
Most people in the world are not part of this excitement; most cannot afford to own stock. Even in the US the percentage of people owning stocks in any form is under 50. The stock and gold investors and the poor live in separate worlds, or do they? What are the things that most people should want to know so that they can plan their lives? Could some of these be better reported in the news?
Gold exploration and mining can be a bonanza for investors while at the same time a disaster for some. When Bre-X Minerals Ltd. was found guilty of fraudulently sprinkling specks of gold over core samples the biggest losers were the investors who lost three billion dollars (US). Toronto has benefited from the profits of Barrick Gold with the donations of CEO Peter Munk to the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the Toronto General Hospital.
In Columbia the British gold mining company Anglo American has been accused of profiting from persecution, intimidation and killing of people opposing the mining. Army operations have benefited the mining companies as traditional small scale less polluting gold mining is replaced by big company exploration and extraction and the use of cyanide in the process. In South Africa at this moment over 2,000 gold miners are trapped underground. South Africa’s gold and diamonds do not seem to have benefited most of the people.
So quality of life depends on whose quality of life one considers. It can go up with the acquisition of more gold or down for those who are robbed of their land or face the cleanup after the mine closes. Mining areas on forested mountain slopes cannot really be remediated.
Why is it that business news dominates the media? Linda McQuaig, Toronto Star columnist and author of Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the US Empire explains that it is not just the direct business reporting but the influence the business mindset has on all the news that keeps us uninformed about crucial issues.
Top of the list of concerns today is climate change. Depending on whom you listen to reduction of CO2 levels will ruin the economy or will bring in millions of jobs and big profits. It could do both simultaneously of course. Former President Clinton is sure the economy will benefit.
Climate change gets our attention as we get news about the weather each day. But shouldn’t we also be interested in the level of the oceans? Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, shows very graphically how low-lying lands around the world will be flooded as the ocean level rises. This would be difficult to report in any useful way but the incidence of hurricanes and fiercer storms is newsworthy and can be linked to the climate change scenario. You live on high ground so you’re not worried? Think again. Where do you suppose all the people being flooded out are going to want to go? The reporting on Katrina demonstrated the extent to which most countries, even rich ones, are not prepared ahead of time and are unwilling or unable to rebuild afterwards. Katrina also had some lessons for American economists. The capitalist system could not, or would not, rush to the aid of the poorer sections of New Orleans. What did rush in were Charter schools to replace the devastated public schools. Similarly with the tsunami in Sri Lanka when the beaches were devastated the fisherfolk were not allowed to return to their beach fishing huts for safety reasons. Only large foreign hotels are being allowed in so that the area can become another haven for the sun-bathing rich.
Climate change will force us to use new technologies of sun, wind, geothermal and yet-to-be discovered sources of energy likely to increase our quality of life. The bad news needs to be offset with all the good news of smog-free air, unmolested nature and profitable climate-friendly business.
One emerging big business is in bottled water. With no thought for the environmental consequences of millions of oil-based plastic containers being dumped, the public has reacted in opposition.
We in Canada, a land of lakes and rivers, have a difficult time responding to the need to conserve water. But many countries are experiencing a reduction in the level of water in their aquifers. Water use, vital to people, farms and industries and to the quality of life generally is interfering with the ability of aquifers to replenish naturally.
Of course most people would rather think about their own immediate concerns such as employment. And the press does give figures on unemployment and bankruptcies. More news on the causes of these trends would help us determine our own futures. What are the best types of jobs for those entering the job market? Why are some companies going bankrupt? Is there a global trend in unemployment and underemployment? Will our investments in the stock market help create jobs in poor countries or will they actually reduce the number of good jobs through downsizing to increase profits?
Canadians list health as a major concern. So we do read about the latest global pandemic realizing that diseases like SARS can come to our city very quickly. But do we get all the information we need on health conditions of people around the world, realizing that this can affect our own global businesses as well as our health? The AIDS pandemic is in the news because we have a new connection with Africa with the Grannies-to-Grannies initiative of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. But we are behind in our ability to address the problem or even to think about the tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases more numerous even than AIDS and more easily treated with modern medicine.
When the UN wanted to assess the condition of people around the world it produced Human Development Reports. These measured the following:
Life expectancy at birth,
Infant mortality rate,
Population with access to safe water,
Underweight children under age five,
Adult literacy rate,
Gross employment ratio for all levels,
Real Gross Domestic Product per capita,
Daily calorie supply per capita,
Infant and maternal mortality rate,
Female student rate, and
Women in government.
When Canada was at the top of the Human Development Index (HDI) we did read more about this report.
The report also relied on several measures such as the GDP and the GNP (Gross National Product), the means used by most countries to measure their economic progress. The GDP unfortunately also measures damage done to the environment as a positive product because it does involve work and materials.
The HDI report introduces several interesting indices: GINI coefficient, a measure of inequality in the distribution of landholdings, the GDI, a gender-related development index and the GEM, a measure of gender empowerment. These measures seldom make the newspapers. As workers around the world struggle to retain their plots of land and their way of life, surely the problems arising from the huge movement of landless people into mega cities of squalid poverty is newsworthy. It has yet to dawn on economists that living on $2 a day does not leave money for all the products our economy produces. When our customers are happy we should be happy. When our potential customers are poor we will suffer.
Another section of the HDI measured the Defence Expenditures as a percent of GDP and per capita and as a percent of combined education and health expenditure, as well as the total armed forces and import of conventional weapons. This trend is graphically shown in the United States today as expenditure for war and military activities dwarfs the amount spent on health, education and social programs. In Canada we are told there is not enough money to improve our healthcare or education systems or to lift our children out of poverty yet we have plenty for the war in Afghanistan.
War benefits the stock market. The rumor that President Vladimir Putin may return to power as prime minister of Russia caused a rise in the RTS index. Business wants and needs stability and autocratic leadership often seems to give that. There is another way in which war benefits business beyond the military equipment producers. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have built personal fortunes on the activities related to war. That their jobs as advisors to both Bush regimes put them in a position to urge the waging of war is overlooked by most analysts.
The empowerment of women and the resort to war are related as Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford notes in her book, Enough Blood Shed. "There is always a gender gap on matters of war and defense. You’ll find women less willing to go to war, less willing to spend on defense, and more attuned to health-care needs, educational needs, and childcare needs." (Zogby International pollsters). Our global war system is dominated by men. "Masculinity has always been an essential tool wielded in this many-pronged process of empire-building. At home it has been necessary to convince both men and women that a militarized manliness (especially one allied with a manly sort of reason and a manly brand of commercial competitiveness) was a superior form of humanity." Women are rising in power in governments but are, as yet, too few to change our policies. Many of our worst problems are caused by male thinking: more and faster cars, more nuclear power plants, more ingenious military devices, information gathering by resort to torture in secret sites, carpet bombing as a foreign policy and an international financial system that is dysfunctional. How can it be thought that women could not do better?
Do wars have an impact on the price of gold? Wars destabilize societies and many affected people rely on gold, even on their jewelry, in a time of crisis. It maintains its value when local currencies collapse and can be redeemed at any time for cash. The price of gold may go down if there are more sellers than buyers. However, as author Michael J. Kosares notes, "This renewed interest in gold is not so much as a hedge against the devastation of war but against something much more subtle – the potential devastation of wealth from an international collapse of the dollar and a subsequent economic breakdown." The breakdown seems likely as the US trade deficit soars. In 2004 it was $665 billion and was covered by borrowing from foreigners at the rate of $2.6 billion every business day.
Have I joined the gold rush? Not yet even though I agree with the authors of The Coming Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit from It that the US economy cannot sustain the high military spending, high level of debt and imbalance of trade for much longer.
Many writers have referred to gold.
It was Thomas Gray who wrote: "Not all that tempts you wandering eyes and heedless hearts is lawful prize, nor all that glistens gold."
An old proverb says, "Gold and love affairs are hard to hide."
But, as usual, George Bernard Shaw has durable advice, "You have to choose, as a voter, between trusting to the national stability of gold and the natural stability and intelligence of governments. I advise you, as long as the capitalist system lasts, to vote for gold."
Ashford, Mary-Wynne, and Dauncey, Guy (2006). Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror and War. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Enloe, Cynthia (2004). The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire. University of California Press.
Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Alfred A. Knopp Canada.
Turk, James, and Rubino, John (2004). The Coming Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit From It: Make a Fortune by Investing in Gold and Other Hard Assets. Doubleday.
– from Economic Reform, July 2008