Thursday, April 12, 2012
The pursuit of happiness; Why the lust for a buck isn't working for us.
Has anyone ever stopped to think about how those vocabulary words and historical figures from your old econ 101 classes fit in with the economic and political debates that actually plague America? It seems to me that we ought to spend more time trying to apply economics concepts to our problems and less time throwing libelous slander around on t.v. As my mind numbs to the political talk on any given "news" channel, the idea that gets stuck and rattles around in my brain, is Gross National Product or GNP. That vocabulary word was a mind numbingly boring concept for me in my macro-econ classes, but as I work on learning about our real world and our real economy, I am driven to ask myself what these words mean. Turns out that GNP is the total value of the goods and services produced by the residents of a nation during a specified period, GDP is the same thing but excludes net income earned abroad.
In reading this, I am reminded of two men. One by the name of Gifford Pinochot, the first director of the US Forest Service, who said that "The purpose of economy and political institution is to expand the greatest good to the greatest number of people over the long run." It seems that if our economy achieves this at all, it is in spite of the more classic capitalistic theories and standards of growth measurement like GNP. Although this isn't the only statistic that we use to measure the success of our nation, it is certainly representative of our nation's habits in growth measurements. We always choose to measure our success by growth, not by progress or sustainability.
The second man I am reminded of, is Robert Kennedy, who addressed the University of Kansas in 1968 on the shortcomings of focusing on the GNP, "Our gross national product... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets... Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials..."
In fact, the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that the truth of 1968 can only be amplified today in 2012, with new economic profits to be taken into account, like $10 million or $20 million celebrity weddings, and the 70 million tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants we dump into our atmosphere each day. Just as we counted all 72 days of Kim Kardashian's marriage and every barrel of gas sold in the US as a profit to our GDP, we must remember that we also counted cleaning up the wreckage and sorrow of 9/11, the mess of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster of the BP oil spill. Every bullet that ever killed anybody, every Humvee that ever blew up in Iraq, every poisonous pharmaceutical dispensed into society, every acrylic fingernail, every bit of pavement, every drop of chemotherapy and each dose of nicotine that caused that cancer in the first place... all count as positive profit and economic growth. With this in mind, it is difficult to see how GNP or even simply the pursuit of economic growth, can be representative of the greatest good, for the greatest number or people... over any given time frame.
350.org founder, Bill McKibben wrote a book called Deep Economy in which he explains that "In 2005 the Economist developed a new system to rank not GNP but 'quality of life' Using indexes of everything from divorce rates to community life... The United States, despite having the highest income per capita of any place but Luxembourg, nonetheless came in thirteenth, well behind, say, Spain, where people earned barely 60 percent as much." Think about that folks, people who make less money are doing better than us, is this not a sign that our priorities are out of whack?
It will be a challenge for the United States to accept that GNP is an ineffective measure of success, and the pursuit of the almighty dollar, is above all else, a dark pursuit that does not lead to happiness for most people. It is crucial to remember the words of Bobby King, because after all, GNP "measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile"
We currently live in a nation where the idea of pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run has become dirty news. The pristine idea of an invisible hand guiding the market to the best possible solution for everyone has come to exist only in textbooks and idealistic minds. By choosing to focus on growth, and getting more for less by raping the resources of society and nature, we have developed an attitude of entitlement and an expectation of endless demand. It seems that our economy is no longer an invisible hand, instead it has become a mother bird feeding fat worms to the open mouth shouting "MORE!" while leaving a quieter child who whispers, "better please" to go hungry.
We may not always admit it, but we do know that our economy is not acting in a way that prioritizes 'better' for most people. As time goes on, I look forward to a progression toward a new mindset and perhaps even new economic skills and goals that meet the need for the good of the great number over the long run, rather than the good of the few, right now.
It is clear that we must use good governance, and devote ourselves to human and social justice in the economic distribution of our scarce resources. The suffering of humanity, in this nation and abroad is shameful in view of the fact that with careful forethought it doesn't have to happen. We must begin to value humanity and never stop. The fact is that we can't take care of one single person, no matter their suffering or riches, without a planet to do it on and so we all have to consider the health of our environment as part of the health of humanity. Right now, economic accounting and the demand for more growth doesn't generally take human needs, social justice or environmental health into account on any cost/benefit spreadsheet. It's time that changed. It's time that humanity, and the planet that sustains us, were as valued in economic analysis as any dollar bill.
On the day that justice, truth, health, humanity, and nature begin to appear in accountant's spreadsheets we will be one step in the right direction toward being able to actually meet the needs of the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run. Until then, and so long as profit is valued over all else, I don't think we'll ever really make progress.