In the spring of 2008, while Barack and Hillary were duking it out for the democratic nomination, I was in my final course of study for my bachelor’s degree at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I had two little boys at home waiting for my education to make their life better. It was because of my boys and my devotion to improving their lives that I was pleased to meet several people that semester, that changed my life forever. The professors included my idol, Nancy Parks, who is a strong independent woman of character, and a man I’d never heard of named John de Graaf who was a guest professor of the course that was entitled, “What’s The Economy For Anyway?”
I went into that course a graduating environmental science major and I left as a devoted applicant to an economics department in master’s studies. This about-face in my life occurred because during this course I learned about the world we are leaving my children, and I became devoted to changing it for the better. I learned about the fact that America is failing at the American Dream. I learned that according to the Unicef Child Poverty Report on Rich Nations, the United States ranks amongst the lowest in our ability to provide not only monetarily but also socially for our children.
I learned that America is no longer the place to go to achieve the American Dream, according to a Forbes article, “Only about one-third of Americans were ranked as “upwardly mobile,” which required earning more than their parents as well as moving to a higher quintile on the income ladder.” I also learned that so many aspects of our economy are virtually destroying our world with their costs; costs that don’t ever appear in any accounting book. An example of this would be the external cost of burning fossil fuels, known as global warming. Last I checked, nobody pays a toll to cover the cost that will be incurred by that activity and when our planet warms and droughts, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and all human suffering in general increases.
As my mind spun with horror, and I contemplated this world I had just brought two precious little boys into… and I was grateful to meet John de Graaf and his message of hope. What I learned was that we are asking the wrong questions when we ask how much we can trim our national budget or which educational programs we should cut, or which billionaire doesn’t deserve taxation. I learned that the truthful question is, “what is our economy for?”
John has his own ways of answering this question, and they often mirror my own closely. I cannot speak for him specifically, but I can say that his questions have led me down a path to realizing that the invisible hand of the marketplace that Adam Smith once imagined is meant to allocate scarce resources amongst humanity in much the same way nature’s gifted hands allocate these resources amongst the rest of the world. If Adam Smith’s, or Mother Nature’s, hands become distracted by the dance of capitalistic greed, subsidy, disparity, and poverty; we all suffer.
The economy isn’t supposed to make any individual great among hoards who suffer anymore than that’s what nature is supposed to do. So long as we miss that point, and hoard dollar bills without thought to those who starve, and go without shoes, or hope or education; we are missing the point of having an economy in the first place. No amount of tax cuts to the wealthy few will raise the hope and prosperity of the forgotten masses. The fact is that last night, while pundits sat and debated the Buffet Rule and how it might affect millionaires, 1 in 5 children in the US went to bed hungry last night. I suspect that no matter how you’d answer John’s provocative question, it wouldn’t be with “An economy is for giving millionaires $150,000 tax cuts while 20% of our nation’s children go hungry.”
I don’t believe that you believe that, and I don’t think John believes that either. He and Dave Batker, the co-author of his book and movie, “What’s the Economy For Anyway?” have proposed a different answer. They have offered the idea that the economy is for something closer to what Gifford Pinochet dreamed long ago when he suggested that it might be for distributing “the greatest good to the greatest number over the longest run.” John and Dave have crumpled up that old paperwork with faulty economic designs that do not account for external costs in society and nature. They have thrown away the useless square framework America still tries to pound into a round hole. In the place of these things, Dave and John have brought a new answer in something called Ecological Economics.
I truly believe that one day scholars will look back at this new study of economics as the answer that saved humanity. By using a form of economic thinking that gives natural and social systems monetary value, humanity will have the ability to value that which is most valuable. By giving nature, humanity, and the social systems that protect them, a valid place in accounting systems and economic value we are given the ability to do true cost benefit analysis. What if you could actually measure the dollar value of a wetland against the projected value of an industry that might go in its place? What if you could give economic value to humanity by valuing a person’s time spent not just working but also contributing to his or her family or neighborhood? Don’t you think we could all make better choices if we could easily understand the cost and benefit of each action we might take? Please visit Dave’s website to learn about the kinds of valuations that we are already capable of under this new system.
John’s passion hasn’t been just money, but our most valued commodity – time. With his work in his Take Back Your Time Initiative, he has shown that we Americans are so productive and such hard workers that we could better compete on a global market by devoting less of our time to work and more of our time to our children, our families and our neighborhoods. He found that those of us who live our lives this way live longer more fulfilling lives, and he has shown that countries that do this have fewer social problems like teen pregnancies and illiteracy.
In the class I took, as well as the book Dave and John eventually wrote by the same name, the message has become clear; investing in the pursuit of the dollar over the pursuit of happiness is not only making us unhappier, it is making us poorer. They have proposed a new standard of success known as GNH, or Gross National Happiness.
As is written in their book, this is not the first time someone has suggested that we look toward this unique way of measuring our quality of life. In 1972 sixteen year old Jigme Singye Wangchuck became the king of Bhutan. His first act as king was to suggest “that nations be measured by ‘gross national happiness’; the rich are not always happy after all, while the happy generally consider themselves rich.” King Wanggchuck also developed a happiness index to measure success in his country, the index includes measurements of economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political wellness.
It is interesting to note that “the average life expectancy of a Bhutanese rose from about 35 years in 1961 to about 65 in 2002, while school enrollment, estimated at 0.2 percent in 1961, jumped to present 72 percent enrollment rate.” In spite of some criticisms, the king continues to support his choice to use GNH to measure the success of his country, “Most socioeconomic indicators are an attempt at measuring means; they do not measure ends… I wish to propose happiness as a policy concern and a policy objective…” Like all countries, Bhutan has its own troubles, yet the country has set an example of thinking outside the current understanding of economic theory and questioning the status quo.
Today, on April 13th 2012 we are celebrating that kind of thinking beyond the status quo with Pursuit of Happiness Day. This is a movement that is sweeping the nation. The L.A. times reported on it. Various college campuses are recognizing it, even celebrities are hopping on board. The University of Iowa got Ashton Kutcher to come give a speech about the subject in which he likened this idea to a common Newtonian physics concept when and said, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, if you want to have a happy life – focus on enriching the lives of others.”
I don’t know if this idea will grab you, and hold you at your core the way it did me. I do know that it makes much more sense than the hateful populist methods of addressing these same issues that the Tea Party has already offered. I also know that we haven’t got a whole lot of time to sit around with our hand in our pockets and bicker. I know that those two little boys I had at home when these ideas started to sink in on me in 2008 at growing fast, and one day I’m going to have to tell them what I did to make this world a better place. Passing on this idea will be on my list of things I have been proud to contribute, but it won’t matter if no one listens.
Please, check out John and Dave’s book, “What’s the Economy For Anyway?” or at least set down the worries of your wallet for a minute and start living in an honest pursuit of happiness. I suspect that if each of us makes an effort to do this, the world will be a better, happier, more fulfilled place, and I’m content with that.