The Common Good, Part 1

When someone says the economy, what comes to mind?

Does it feel like something that applies to your daily routine, or some kind of abstraction–a massive machine running in the background? When the nightly news talks about how the stock market performed, do you directly connect that with what’s going on in your life?

When you think about your job and your income and the things that you’re able to do when you’re not working, would you say that you’re well-off? Or do you wish that things were a bit different?

Why do we work in the first place? Why do you work where you work now (if you have a job)? There are likely a number of reasons. Some people genuinely love what they do–they keep coming back to it with eagerness every day. Others work to keep busy–maybe not in love with their labor, but busyness is better than boredom or unemployment. Still others work one or two or three (or even more) jobs simply because they’re trying to make ends meet. They don’t have a choice.

Even if you’re not in such a desperate and heartbreaking situation as working multiple jobs for low income, surely the great majority of us on some level are working to earn money. Few are those who can do what they love most or who are in such a stable financial situation that the paycheck is an afterthought. And even many of those who are quite well-off with what’s in their bank account continue to show up to work everyday to try to increase that amount.

Money–even for those who have plenty–keeps us returning to our daily grind. Why is this?

Think about what money does. Money is the way we quantify and exchange value as a collective. Increasingly, many things in the world can be bought and sold. All of those goods and services are assessed a value in terms of the dollars they’re believed to be worth or what people would be willing to spend to get them. Anyone with enough earned value–money–can quickly hand it over to acquire things. Amassing money can become an end in itself.

Money enables us to get stuff. The more money we have, the more stuff we can get. The more work we do–more hours or higher wages–the more money we have to get more stuff. More, more, more.

And there’s plenty of stuff.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were predicted to spend over $630 billion on holiday shopping in 2015. That’s spending on stuff that’s purely for fun, in a short period of time. Through the year in 2014, the average American spent over $6,700 on food, $17,800 on housing, $1,700 on clothes, $9,000 on transportation, $4,300 on healthcare, $2,700 on entertainment, and $11,000 on numerous other things.

Each of us, over the course of a year, is spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on fast food, gas for the car, additions to our wardrobe, trips to other cities, medicines and beauty products, drinks at the bar, cleaning supplies for the house, gifts, and every other thing money buys us.

There’s a seemingly endless amount of stuff (to complement our endless pursuit of piling up more money). But what is stuff, exactly? What does it do for us?

Some stuff fills our wants. Some or most of the $630 billion for the holidays could surely be spent on a number of other more important or more meaningful things. It’s not stuff that we must have. I say that as someone who absolutely loves Christmas. I baked cookies and watched classic movies all week (Home Alone, anyone?), and there was more than one present under the tree for my wife. It’s a wonderful holiday of giving and receiving and sentiment. This isn’t about making you feel guilty for the money you spent on holiday gifts. But Christmas and the other Winter holidays don’t have to be so much about stuff. What might we be able to do together besides a drone or hoverboard for all with even $50-$100 billion of that $630 billion–one or two fewer gifts per person?

Of course, there are plenty of times when we should treat ourselves. Life would be utterly boring and incomplete if we were always calculating out and removing things that are merely pleasurable wants. Sometimes it just feels right to have some ice cream, buy a new pair of shoes, or head out for a cocktail. Go for it.

But, crucially, a lot of stuff fulfills a part of our human experience that is an actual need. It’s hard to endure without healthful food to eat, a place to live, a way to get around town, proper healthcare, and much more.

Stuff, whether it’s primarily for pleasure (want) or a fundamental necessity (need), fulfills many of the longings and requirements of being human. Stuff is important. And therefore money is important if we’re going to live comfortably. And to get an adequate amount of money we need a job of some sort.

Jobs, money, stuff, humanity. Our national conversations (in America) usually work in that order.

NEW YORK CITY - SEP 5: New York Stock Exchange closeup on Septem

Politics and political commentary is so often about the simple categories of job creation and unemployment. How many jobs were created last month? What’s the unemployment rate? If those things seem solid, apparently we’re all supposed to think the economy is good–and that each of us is in good shape then.

But if those basic metrics are out of sorts, then we start talking about money–loans, interest rates, inflation, wages, debt. Should we raise the minimum wage? The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates. Student debt is at an all time high. The dollar is weak.

If the money metrics are off, then the chatter moves to stuff. What’s the price of gas? What’s the cost of a gallon of milk? What’s the cost of tuition? Are the social programs in place working for the stuff people can’t afford themselves? Can people buy cars and houses and the rest of the American Dream?

The US leads the world with about 70% of our GDP coming from consumption–in other words, buying stuff. The way things are set up now, if people aren’t acquiring stuff, the economy is a sinking ship. Hence the strong emphasis on the jobs to have the money to get the stuff.

Rarely, if ever, do we talk about our human condition–the deepest, fragile, most profound part at the heart of the whole thing. All of the needs and wants–the ones we all share, and the ones that are unique to each of us individually–that define who we are. No human condition, no humans. No humans, no community.

When you think about the economy, do you think about this?

What if we started there and went in the other direction? Humanity, stuff, value, work. What if stuff, our system of value, and work were all concentric circles that always had to support and strengthen the humanity at the core? What if governments and public policy started not from securing and expanding a free market and gargantuan financial institutions, but basic human needs and desires?

Now that could be interesting.

Perhaps it would change everything about how we understand the economy and our lives together in society.

But that will have to wait for Part 2. We’re just getting started.

 

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