Values vs. The Economy

And so is crime. And car accidents. And divorces. Do you know what’s bad for the economy? Carpooling. Buying seeds and growing your own food. Living in a smaller house, with less stuff.

How then, are we to reconcile this obviously irrational dynamic? How can we possibly change a status quo so perverse?

We’ve got a couple of options, chief among them is the notion of finding ways to describe value in more ways than one (the almighty $$). And maybe not getting so hung up on what’s good for “the economy”, when it’s obvious that what’s good for the economy is often very bad for people.

I’m sure folks are familiar with Bobby Kennedy’s speech from 1968, but it bears repeating here.

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product 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 the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

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. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Think about it for a second from the perspective of a business or home owner. You pay bills. You pay to fix the leaky roof. You pay to dispose of garbage (pollution). At the end of the month, you take your expenses and subtract them from your income, to see what your net income was (and hope it was positive).

On the contrary, our governments add the expenses to the income. The economy grows when an oil spill needs to be cleaned up. The more trees that are cut down, the better the economy does. Car accidents? Great for the economy. Think of the ambulance driver, firefighter, doctor, lawyer, car repair guy, insurance company… awesome. We should be getting in more car accidents.

Or perhaps we should be talking about other forms of value. Natural capital, Social or Human capital, Built capital, and yes, Financial capital. I believe the clear direction forward for our communities is learning how to measure all forms of capital, and if we can’t measure it, at least appreciating that it exists and is important in decision making.

And maybe, just maybe, we could stop talking about the “economy” as if it’s a living, breathing thing. It’s not. It’s a system that we’ve devised to account for value in society… and right now it’s not doing a very good job.

What do you think?

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