Time to Rethink Our Economic Priorities?

A scan of today's headlines is like viewing a potpourri of economic dissolution. We've got a broken mortgage system, unaffordable health care, skyrocketing consumer and student debt, and inflexible, stressful workplaces.

It is a moment ripe for rethinking the economy. John DeGraff, a filmmaker and activist with that rare gift of 20/20 foresight, has organized a campaign and conference that will take place this weekend at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center entitled "What's the Economy for, Anyway?" As part of the annual Green Festival, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, Bill McKibben (author of Deep Economy), and other left-leaning thought leaders, authors, and activists will explore questions like: What is the ultimate measure by which our economy should be evaluated? Is it profit for the few or is it health for the many? What would an enlightened workplace look like? How might the federal budget be altered to reflect real American values?

Over 25 individual speeches and 30 workshops are planned, exploring the economy from angles as diverse as consumer debt, national security, work/life balance, and the loss of cohesive community in so many of our fragmented lives. The ultimate goal, as articulated by DeGraff and other organizers, is to get a more enlightened discussion about the economy on the agenda for the 2008 presidential election.

A renewed conversation about basic economic priorities is long overdue, especially in Washington. Too often the public and political debate about this issue operates from the spurious premise that the ultimate goal of all economic decisions is to make more money. The current paradigm for exploring economic policy in this country, then, begins at step two -- the practice -- as opposed to step one -- the purpose.

Take health care. Is the purpose of our current system to increase revenues for private medical providers and pharmaceutical companies, prevent higher national debt or taxes, and extend the length of American's lives no matter what the cost, or is it to make sure every citizen has access to good quality health care today and that we develop a sustainable system for tomorrow?

Too often Americans swallow whole the idea that the economy is only viable if it is making people money and reinforcing America's reputation as a global superpower. This outlook is congruent with our lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. But when was the last time that we -- as citizens -- and our representatives, thought deeply about the relationship between the economy and quality of life?

And what does "quality of life" even mean to us overworked, exhausted, overwhelmed, and often unfulfilled 21st-century citizens? An informal survey of recent popular books indicates that Americans are deeply concerned with our dwindling contentment: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman (to name just a few).

All of these authors, in one form or another, argue that a quality of life is typified by fulfilling work, general wellness, and deep, authentic connections to others. They also all confirm the old adage that money doesn't buy happiness, which is certainly not a shock to any of us who have had the misfortune of seeing the dysfunction among wealthy individuals up close and personal. (I am reminded of a boss I once had who lived in a deluxe apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut, and gave herself plastic surgery once a year as a Christmas gift, but had no family or friends to spend the holidays with.)

It is time to bring our understanding of communal wellness and our economic policy into alignment. In some ways, this would not be an original act, but a return to an earlier, more enlightened era. DeGraff writes, "After increasing social equality and greatly improving health and quality of life measures from World War II until the mid-1970s, the United States abruptly changed its economic trajectory." Under the bottom-line leadership of presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, the federal economic agenda was redesigned to foreground the preservation and proliferation of wealth among the already wealthy. Large-scale health and happiness for the average American, supported by government on multiple levels, faded to the background.

Western Europe provides contrasting examples of what happens when the national agenda continues to foster economic equality and prioritize citizens' quality of life rather than growth for growth's sake. DeGraff writes, "We could say that Europeans traded major portions of their productivity increases for free time instead of money. Americans, with a much bigger GDP, appear to be the obvious winners. But ask, 'What is the economy for anyway?' and a different winner emerges. For most of the final quarter of the 20th century, Europeans improved their quality of life relative to Americans in almost every measure." Given, it isn't 1950, and we aren't Eastern Europe, but we can draw on these examples as inspiration for envisioning a new way of thinking about and making economic decisions at both the national and local levels.

All of the presidential campaigns seem to have their strategic eye on addressing Americans' disillusion with the direction of the economy to get votes. John Edwards has centered much of his campaign rhetoric on reducing poverty. Barak Obama recently made headlines by promising tax cuts for workers, seniors, and homeowners. And Hillary Clinton has been focusing on addressing middle-class concerns, saying last May when she unveiled her economic plan: "So many people I talk to just want to hit the restart button on the 21st century and redo it the right way. And I agree with them." In some ways, it feels like we are experiencing a much-needed return to the most basic of questions in public debate. But let's hope it's not just rhetoric, smoke, and mirrors.

The bottom line is that the economy is not about number crunching and cost-benefit analysis alone; it is also a field that demands political philosophy, ethical commitment, and most of all, moral imagination.