With the recent emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the burgeoning indebtedness of individuals and local and national governments, a belief that our economic system is fundamentally broken is spreading. Many financial thinkers, most recently Michael Lewis in “Boomerang,’’ are looking beyond the technical aspects of our malaise to explore something deeper: the bankrupt condition of our economic ideas and collapse of our moral sensibilities. In “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?’’ John de Graaf and David K. Batker suggest that our economic goals are wrong, that we need to restructure our economy away from growth-at-all-costs and unequal distribution of income to “a holistic approach . . . that provides the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.’’ Government, they assert, can play a useful role in making our lives better.
De Graaf, who has written extensively on overwork and overconsumption in America, and Batker, an economist who runs Earth Economics, a nonprofit that promotes ecology and sustainable economic development, have thought hard about economics and sustainability for decades. The heart of their witty and provocative argument is that we have allowed ourselves to become cogs in the machinery of our own national economy instead of masters of a system designed to ensure a better work-life balance, health, and fair wages for all.
They begin by arguing that a major stumbling block to achieving success involves the way we gauge progress, the principal means being our major economic indicators, especially gross domestic product, or GDP, the total value of goods and services we produce in a year. We have become slaves to the GDP and believe that any increase equates to a rise in our standard of living or happiness.
The problem is twofold. First, GDP does not always measure exactly what we think it does. They point out, for example, that a disaster such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the environment and local economies and communities but actually boosted GDP because of the massive cost of the cleanup. More importantly, GDP does not gauge things that are central to promoting quality of life, including sustainability, social connection, and the environment. The basic contradiction the authors explore is why our levels of GDP have grown while research suggests our rates of overall happiness have simultaneously plummeted.
We’re digging ourselves into a deeper hole economically and spiritually, they say, with our backbreaking levels of debt, long working hours, and time-strapped, stressed-out lifestyles.
The authors dive into specific aspects of our dysfunction, including our broken health care system. We spend almost half of the world’s total budget on health care, even though we are 5 percent of the world’s population. Meanwhile, millions of our citizens have absolutely no coverage, and we have an average national life expectancy that ranks 49th in the world: “We pay the most and get the worst results’’ in health care, the authors conclude. The reason for that, they say, is that we do not pay enough attention to preventative care for all and that our economy does not encourage lifestyles that promote reductions in stress and better health.
Graaf and Batker note that the last three decades have been dominated by deregulation, lower taxes on the wealthy, radically unequal income distribution, and the gradual transfer of obligations like health care and retirement financing away from governments and companies and onto the backs of everyday people: “The result is a few big winners, but a multitude of losers.’’
They argue passionately for something different, an economy that better measures the “real cost’’ of things in terms of the environment and their toll on the overburdened lives of average Americans. They also show how other nations have found a better way. “How about we work less, enjoy more,’’ they ask, “consume less, pollute less, destroy less, owe less, live better, longer, and more meaningfully?’’ The authors offer dozens of examples and practical solutions to help us choose another way forward. Taking a step back has never seemed more timely than now.