Wealth and our problem economy
Everyone is aware that there is currently a problem with the economy, but on a longer term basis, are we perhaps becoming increasingly dependent upon an economy that is built upon solving problems that we ourselves created in the first place?
Consider that most basic of items: food. We have long since reached the level of having a sufficiency of food. Our nutritional problems are now based upon an excess of cheap food, rather than a shortage, but this presents great opportunities for an expansion of the nation's GDP, which is so important when the GDP figures are so anaemic.
Food companies spend fortunes in developing new, even more addictive foodstuffs, usually by adding salt or sugar to the process. Supermarkets pay large sums to entice customers to buy these products. Then diet plans are promoted to reduce the consequence of excessive consumption. Some individuals resort to surgery to reduce their size, and even the poor old NHS gets dragged in, having to spend large sums on conditions created by overeating. Of course, all this boosts the GDP figures.
In this example, food can be substituted by alcohol, cigarettes, motor cars, video games, gambling, consumer borrowing, drugs and other mainstays of a modern developed economy.
On 18 March 1968, to launch his campaign to become President of the USA, Senator Robert Kennedy made a speech which included this quote:
Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. 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. 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.
Robert Kennedy was thus one of few senior politicians, anywhere in the world, to have ever questioned the whole basis of modern economic thinking. (Conspiracy theorists please note: it was not the reason why he was assassinated three months later.) Instead, most politicians, and certainly those who get to govern, just apply the old mantra of ‘It's the economy, stupid.’, and pursue ever greater GNP or GDP figures.
Yet the inadequacy of measured financial exchanges as the mark of material prosperity, let alone psychological well-being, has long been recognised by the old (and very dated) notion that when a man marries his house-keeper, GDP falls.
If the present government has learnt anything from this notion it is that one way of boosting stagnant GDP figures is to commercialise as many everyday transactions as possible. So instead of encouraging mothers stay at home and raise their children, the idea is to get them out doing some paid job and then use that money to pay for their child care. Among this paid employment may very well be services (cleaning, catering, gardening, home maintenance, etc.) for child carers who are too busy looking after other people's children to do these jobs themselves.
A whole host of questions are thrown up by reflection upon the above:
- What is the point of economic growth once we have reached a high level of material comfort?
- Does excessive GDP growth actually become counter-productive—like eating more than is good for one's health, or overdosing on vitamins?
- Are rising GDP figures simply a way of marking the 'success' of the Government?
- Are people who like working more virtuous than people who don't, even if, like bankers and bookmakers, their 'work' is often detrimental to their customers and to wider society?
- Whilst anyone can (in theory) climb to the top of whatever career ladder they have chosen, in practice not everyone can, so should we laud such success when it needs must be at others' expense?
- Success occurs in two forms, absolute and relative. Absolute success does not depend upon the failure of others, whereas relative success does. In a finite world, will the dominance of relative success over absolute success destroy us all?
Google 'economic efficiency' and see what you come up with. Mostly it seems to be about ways of reducing taxes, but there are a few sites devoted to ecological sustainability and social well-being, but not many. The ideological positions seem well entrenched.