My second theme is about the “Good Life”. It’s the idea around what we consider to be our purpose in life and the ideas of how economic systems inform that. Did I lose you the moment I said “economics?” I think it’s a terribly misunderstood word, kind of like a word that has so much meaning it means nothing. We use it all the time, “afraid the economy will slide”, “ensure the economy is strong”, “weakening economy”, “big firms will grow the economy”, and macro, micro, etc etc.
And yet what is an economy really for?
If you ask someone, they’ll often say “good jobs”. An economy is to create good jobs. Makes sense. A robust economy will have lots of job opportunities. So what’s a good job? If I have a good job, it means I make… (drum roll please)… good money!!! Which is the necessary ingredient for the Good Life. And that for many of my friends, is the thread. Good economy means good job, which is good money, which is Good Life. Conversely, a crappy economy means crappy job, crappy money and a crappy life. Ok, but really?!?
The point is that for most people, the notion of an economy is nothing short of a definition of their success at the Good Life. Yet is it truly that? It’s more than a way to put money in their pocket. How lucky we feel when it’s a crappy economy, but we still have a good job! Somehow we’ve been spared the axe and managed to thrive. Can’t gloat, but it’s a frisson to be sure.
People feel helpless with “The Economy” as it’s something that seems to come down from on high. We have no control over it, except, so the papers tell us, to “revive consumer confidence” by buying something. It’s such a simple and seductive cycle. Yet who on their death bed gathers their possessions around them? Wheel the 56″ HD TV and Blueray player in! Drive their beamer into the bedroom for a last fond look. Well no one. It’s family and friends that are what people want to see. I won’t care that I’ve answered 10,000 more emails than the guy next door, but my family will have felt the time lost to it.
Ok, but what about what I call the Debtor’s Dilemma? Someone has a shitty job. They buy a nice car so they can feel better about themselves. But then they’ve condemned themselves to the shitty job to pay for the nice car. Do they even have time to drive the nice car? Even the larger American Debtor’s Dilemma is fascinating counterpoint to notions of economy. In America, the housing crisis has meant a lot of people are faced with the reality that they are paying off a home that is worth less than they paid for it. In many cases, the mortgage they owe is more than they could get if they sold it. What a perverse equation. No wonder it is a dilemma. Pay or flee?
The last point is that the Good Life could be defined differently, even by using that scary word “economy”. Another good notion is that an economy is perhaps best understood as just a system of exchanging things of value with each other. The key is that perhaps we don’t think of the economy as only exchanging commodities, but that the economy could be considered a larger one that takes into account true things of value. The cost of air, water, and land or family breakdowns. The cost of progress. The value of sustainability and the negative value of depleting resources. It’s a different scale, sometimes called “General Progress Indicators.” GPI instead of the GDP.
This is the second area I’ve been thinking about.