Life So Material

“For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our gross national product now is over 800 billion dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product 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 people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall.  It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our city.  It counts Whitman’s rifles and Speck’s knives 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.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Life does not seem to have changed much since Robert Kennedy, Jr, spoke these words in Kansas in 1968.  (There really is no speech that has the dreamy, idealistic quality of a good Kennedy speech from the ‘60s.)  In fact, if anything life in Britain is even more monetised than that and we glory more in the size of our GDP, how much we earn and how big our car or TV is?

In a similar vein, Sen argues that many things that cannot be exchanged for money have utility or disutility, so because they have no monetary value they are ignored in economics as “externalities”.  Some try and create a value to bring these into economic analysis, but this is just an artificial fudge that does not really work.  So a gorgeous landscape or sunset, or good friends, or a happy family have no economic value, but give a lot of utility, while crime, pollution and antisocial behaviour generate loads of disutility.  These things matter to people, but are not really captured in economics.  People value manners and cultured social behaviour, not because of some sort of rational economic analysis, but because society values social relationships.  People give their time to teach football, rugby or other sports or play music, creating much of great value to society, but never because of economic analysis and rarely because politicians tell us so.  In fact, the involvement of politicians usually destroys anything that is good like this as it brings power contestation into something that is beautiful in part because it is a safe haven from money and power relations.

Life is so much more than economics, money and politics…Enjoy that sunset, that cake and your friends.



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