Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Good Life and The Economy

Last night I went to see David Suzuki speaking and he got me thinking about something. He spoke about how we've elevated the Economy to something above and beyond its actual purpose. The Economy is no longer about making sure everyone has their material needs fulfilled; it is considered a good in itself and our almost religious imperative is to grow it. (He says to John Baird: why do you keep talking about the economy, you're the minister of the environment, not of finance. aaah, snap!)

That's probably why I was so pissed off earlier this week when I saw the cover the National Post - two scenes of armageddon, with a headline that said something like: The Economy or the Environment? Yes, that old false dichotomy, resurrected by the Conservatives and spit out verbatim by their cheerleaders.

We worship at the altar of growth. How much did our economy grow this quarter? is the only legitimate economic question. But were there more or fewer hungry children this quarter? is a social question, unrelated to The Economy (I wish I could make a choir sing every time you read the word "economy" because I think that would capture my point well). The truth is, growth has only a tenuous connection to The Good Life (and can indeed be a pretty bad thing) and yet is has this special status. (Another D.S. paraphrase: we have twice as much stuff now compared to the 60s - are we twice as happy?)

I know philosophers have been philosophizing about The Good Life for a very long time and I'm unlikely to have any sort of breakthrough, but we all have a commonsense understanding of it which bears remembering.

We need food, shelter, water, clean air, love and community, security, and a sense of personal agency. These things are like the building blocks that allow us to live happy and fulfilled lives. A bigger house, new pair of shoes, or a fancier car won't make us happier. Yet somehow we have come to believe these things are good.

It brings to mind those who compare the situation of the poor in Canada with the poor in the slums of Calcutta or Sub-Saharan Africa (you know the kind of poverty you see on a World Vision commercial: little black children with big bellies and flies all over their faces). They say things like: our poor have everything they need. That's not real poverty. They want too much. They just complain because they want a big screen TV or an iPod.

The problem with being poor in Canada is not about lack of funds to afford a big screen TV. It's first and foremost about a lack of security. It's about chronic insecurity. It's about constantly being one paycheck away from being evicted. It's about having no room for error, no ability to be flexible: uh oh hydro costs went up this month - there's nowhere for that money to come from except from other necessities. It's about living in neighbourhoods that have more pollution and crime. Or possibly couch surfing, living with friends, sleeping in your car. Or for women, living with boyfriends who often have too much of control since they know you have nowhere else to go.

It's also about social isolation, and especially your children's. We live in a society in which kids who don't have what the other kids have are ridiculed and rejected. They grow up feeling like they are worth less than the other kids - simply because their family can't afford the right brand of sneakers. Don't scoff: it's true. That is life in this consumer-based society.

Once very basic needs are accounted for, it is the gap between the rich, the poor, and the middle class that determines how detrimental poverty is.

That is why even equal growth worsens poverty: if I make $10,000 per year and you make $100,000 per year, the gap between us is $90,000

Now let's say we each have a 5% increase in our wages. I made $10,500 and you make $105,000. Now the gap between us is $94,500. It's gotten much bigger, despite the fact that we both received an equal percentage of income growth.

We do not need 5% per annum. We do not need the Enrons and the Exxons to post ever higher profits each year. We need wisdom in the management of our earth's bounty. Equitable sharing of its produce. The return of cooperation as a driving force. Solidarity. Community.

Unceasing growth for its own purpose is tumor. Capitalism is a cancer.


Anonymous said...

You are so right! Have you read Leo Martin's post on global warming. I find that it relates to yours and that you are both saying more or less the same thing. After reading Leo, I went through another document from my archives - just to remind me of the staggering challenge that we are facing (as brought up by Léo). You might find it of interest. It too relates to your post but as Léo says, who's listening ... or more to point, who will take the first step?

Peter Dodson said...

...scenes of armageddon, with a headline that said something like: The Economy or the Environment? Yes, that old false dichotomy, resurrected by the Conservatives and spit out verbatim by their cheerleaders.

And this will probably end up being our un-doing. The belief that progress is never-ending and that anything that gets in it's way is bad.

I for one don't buy the whole, if we deal with climate change our economy will be destroyed - I think we will have to make sacrifices and we may have to do with less at times, but every generation has had to make sacrifices - the problem is that our's is the most brain washed into believing we have some god given right to consume and that anything that stops us from doing this is bad.

And I agree with your assessment of the good life. Money and material goods don't make us happy - they just make us work longer hours.

Polly Jones said...

I got a video from the public library yesterday called "Who's Counting?" which features the career of Marilyn Waring who is a feminist economist whose work has illuminated how economics of today is a selective, highly unobjective science used for colonization...and that the measures of growth have no relationship to human welfare, nevermind the welfare of the planet. Marilyn Waring also comes across as having an incredible spirit and she is very funny. I so recommend this film to you; I think it would resonate with you.

Léonard Roger Martin said...

"believing we have some god given right to consume and that anything that stops us from doing this is bad."

You're so right, Peter... Sigh...

@RedJenny: great post :)

Anonymous said...

You have managed to sum up the failures (of which there are evidently many) of capitalism.

I am curious as to whether the economy was ever about material needs. Any material needs that are met are basically a positive side-effect of the system. Needs are a means to an end, if a business can create more profit and maintain a greater market share without fulfilling needs then it will.

I agree that the dichotomy between the economy and the environment is indeed false. Especially when one considers the very basis of capitalism: competition. As the current times are dictating, businesses will use any competitive advantage that they can muster to advance their agenda. If this means advancing the environment's cause then so be it. Some businesses will decline and others will thrive, and such is the competitive profit system.

Although this natural (or at least, natural to capitalism) process always occurs, it is also up to the regulation of industry by government and other institutions. At the current levels of deregulation a sort of dichotomy does exist.

Unceasing growth for its own purpose is tumor. Capitalism is a cancer.

Nicely put.

Economic progress is the modern mantra, and capitalism is the viral plague that spreads it, adapting and crushing all that resist.

Scott Neigh said...

Hi RJ...great post. Thanks!

Two observations:

The Economy is no longer about making sure everyone has their material needs fulfilled; it is considered a good in itself and our almost religious imperative is to grow it.

My take on this is that what we call "the economy" has never been about filling material needs. From what I understand, the disconnection of human making and doing from a more or less direct relationship to the fulfillment of human need, the emergence of the drive for profit (and therefor for growth without end) as a fudamental determinant of how human making and doing is organized, and the emergence of a discrete sphere of human activity that it is actually meaningful to identify as "the economy" all happened in dynamic relation to one another as part of the same overall process.

And in terms of the comparison between being poor in the rich world and poor in the underdeveloped world, I think another feature of poverty here is that it is tightly tied to experiencing surveillance, regulation, and social control, usually in racialized and gendered ways -- things like the constant threat held over poor Canadians, particularly when they are indigenous or people of colour, that their children will be taken away, and the never ending interest of welfare officials in the sexual and romantic relationships of women who are on the system. That is much less true of poverty outside of the richest countries simply because that infrastructure doesn't exist, and it also not as big a part of everyday lives of those of us in the rich countries who have some class privilege.

Anyway, thanks again!

TomCat said...

Great post, RJ.

Here in the US it is much the same. 2% of the citizens goy 80%+ of the benefits from Bush's middle class tax cuts. For the poor, it's often a choice between food and medicine.

Red Jenny said...

FurGaia, thanks for that link. I will be sure to read it.

PD, in some sense, "we" do feel a sense of entitlement to consume, but it depends on who is meant by "we"? Don't you think it is odd how there's all these rich white SUV-driving steak-eating dudes who put down "welfare moms" and other disenfranchised groups, not realizing it is they themselves who most strongly display that very sense of entitlement they disparage? They just assume since they have the money to pay for their consumption, it's their right. They expect sacrifice - just not from themselves. This is not far off from those who are all about "overpopulation" - who think it is all those billions of brown people who are the problem, when in truth the biggest problem comes from only millions of pink people.

Polly, that video sounds interesting. Thanks for reminding us of the gender dimension to all of this. I have to take an economics course this summer as a prereq for my IR program I'm starting in the fall. I bet anything they won't discuss any of this in that class!

Luke and Scott, I think the (capital 'e') Economy, as in the capitalist "won't somebody please think about the poor economy" has never been about fulfilling needs. However, I believe that that is exactly the purpose of the informal economies that have always existed - and even do today in parallel with the formal Economy. Economic activity is simply our social method of providing for ourselves, collectively. I think this thing that we call the economy is so far divorced from real human life that it is almost irrelevant to most people's lives. The weird thing is, we care! We think a strong economy means good jobs, and, well, the good life. But it doesn't. Trust me, I'm originally from Alberta and all the munny hasn't done much, hunny, for most Albertans! All that talk about high paying jobs is kinda BS. Rents are up though.

TC, yes, I believe it is even worse in the U.S., although Canada is heading down the same path.

What I find interesting is how most of us accept it, and don't see anything immoral in it.

TomCat said...

RJ, that is amazing. I object vociferously. I'm too poor to pay for welfare for millionaires.

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