What If Social Cohesion, Wellness, & Happiness Were Our Measure of Success, NOT GDP

A Most Important Blog:  Tshoki Zangmo from Bhutan, made the point that every time you build a prison, you increase GDP. What kind of measure is GDP? And if “you get what you measure,” what if we measured collective happiness instead of productivity? What if? 

Friday I finished Bill Ayer’s Demand the Impossible and then headed to the Economics of Happiness Conference where I participated on a panel and called for an end to capitalism. Later I heard an extraordinary talk from a Bhutanese researcher. The combination took me down an interesting path that begins with a quote from MLk, Jr. cited in Demand the Impossible.. The quote reflects MLK, Jr.’s thinking just months before he was killed:

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

The quote made me think of Naomi Klein’s comment from No Is Not Enough, her most recent book. She wrote that as long as our civic dialog is limited by what we currently deem practical or reasonable, to tinkering around the edges of change, we will never be inspired and we will only negotiate to get “a few more solar panels here and a few more pre-k slots there.”

I am feeling that while we must continue to work to create incremental change, we need to simultaneously raise the bar on our expectations and recognize that the entire capitalist, patriarchal, colonial mentality has circumscribed what we even deem possible. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, they both get most of their money and their ideas from corporations and wealthy individuals who have a vested interest in profits over people. In this context, it isn’t a solar panel here or child care slot there that we need to fight for, but dethroning the rulers entirely. And to have the courage to fight for this goal, No Is Not Enough, we must develop inspiring visions of alternative ways of being as individuals and as communities.

A solar panel here and a child care slot there will not be enough and a slightly more progressive candidate at any political level will also not get us where we need to go.  This is just tinkering around the edges and the powers that be are fine with our focusing on one or another issue, whether it is in relation to:

  • Black Lives Matter and the continued subjugation African;
  • Colonization and exploitation of indigenous peoples;
  • Our tax structure that has long grossly favored the wealthy;
  • An education system that tolerates two educational systems one for the haves and one for the have nots;
  • An energy strategy that is more about profit than preserving our resources and saving our planet;
  • Our foreign policy that uses drones and bombs, and our men and women to advance a capitalist agenda that benefits so few of us while killing so many; and
  • Our political system that allows the wealthy to control a money-lubricated discussion conducted almost entirely behind closed doors.

And while we debate these important issues, our speech and our thought is entirely constrained by media that focuses on what happens, not why it happens and who is really pulling the strings. But fundamentally address any of these important issues, we must connect the dots and look deeply for alternative models of local, regional and national living. Tinkering will not get us where we want to be and as we consider alternatives, it is important to understand how we got where we are.

Right now, it is easy to point to Trump as this ultimate villain, as he tweets and tweets threats and pronouncements, but we need to remember that it was Bill Clinton and the Democrats who created NAFTA and the War on Drugs and who began the inexorable unraveling of our social safety net. It was Barack Obama who deported more immigrants than any president, lobbied for the TPP, fracked more oil than any president and even in relation to his most important policy victory, the ACA, he took the low road and bent to the will of Pharma and the insurance industries yielding a horribly flawed system with high co-pays and unaffordable drug costs.

So, the real debate isn’t between Democrats on the side of justice and Republicans on side of exploitation. It is about a system that has so tightly constrained the policy debate that we are fighting for a solar panel here and a child care slot there.

Most of our listeners are progressive and have been fighting the good fight all their lives, but most of us seek justice as if solving one issue can lead to solving them all. We have Sierra Club fighting for the environment, ACLU fighting for civil rights, Common Cause fighting for fair election processes, but these are not siloed issues, they are not a series of disconnected issues, but rather a tightly woven mosaic of greed, exploitation, and control. And focusing on any single-issue can’t possibly unravel that mosaic.

We need to break through and connect these dots and for that to happen, we can’t be tinkering with the system but rather we need to take the time to help people understand that we are the subjects of nothing less than spiritual, racial, economic and intellectual tyranny. And we have only a few decades to figure this out and completely re-envision what we see as possible and what we are willing to fight for. And know that this will involve a fight.

Retake will continue to fight for child care slots and solar panels, but the blog and our KSFR radio show are going to devote significant time to what I am calling Connecting the Dots.

Connecting the Dots is complex. So many Americans have grown up feeling that this is the best country in the world, that while we have our problems we are year by year, decade by decade making incremental progress.  But, my friends, this is largely a comforting lie. While we have made inroads in women’s rights, the slaves are freed, and LGBTQ populations can now marry—for now. We are still enslaved to a capitalist system that devours the planet to meet its thirst for profit. And whatever social gains we have made here at home, are more than offset by our vastly expanded power to enslave millions who live outside our borders.

The pleasures that much of us enjoy today come at the expense of, not just of a US working class that too often works two jobs and still can’t make ends meet, or of our ingenious peoples who continue to have their sacred land and water plundered for profit, but by the millions of unseen who live outside our borders and who work for pennies an hour in sweat shops or worse, so we may have our iPhones, our organic coffee and our perfect jumbo shrimp.

Through our enslavement to the capitalist system we have moved away from a barter system that relied up human to human exchange and personal relationships and we have moved away from our historic relationship with the water, the land, the plants and the animals because in the capitalist system our food has become products that we purchase wrapped in saran wrap or enclosed in cans. And we have lost all connection with where or how or by whom these foods and other products are produced. Our TVs, phones and tennis shoes just arrive on shelves through processes from which we are far removed, making us more comfortable with the destruction and exploitation associated with their production. For most of the world, work is no longer about building community but about building a balance sheet, someone else’s balance sheet, and no matter what the cost to ourselves, our neighbors or our neighborhood.

An Entirely Different Path

What if change in something like this was reported on the news each night, instead of the Dow Jones and GDP? What if?

At a talk by Tshoki Zangmo, Bhutan Senior Researcher, from the Center for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness, we heard about a completely different approach to national and local government, where rather than valuing Gross Domestic Product, the Bhutan government’s seminal benchmark of societal ‘growth’ or success is based upon its formulation of a Gross National Happiness (GNH) score, a score comprised of nine dimensions focusing on individual and collective well-being. Future blogs will explore what the GNH measures and how it is used to target the use of governmental resources.

It was fascinating and refreshing to hear how this nation is still guided by ancient code of law.  From the GNH Centre of Bhutan: “Bhutan’s ancient legal code of 1629 stated that, ‘if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist.’ The code stressed that Bhutanese laws must promote happiness for all sentient beings – as a Buddhist nation, it is clear that the cultivation of compassion stemmed from this ancient wisdom. That the focus was not just the economic progress of Bhutan, but of a flourishing human society living in harmony with nature. Today there is a lot of research that shows that wealth alone does not contribute to life satisfaction or happiness. “

In future posts we will explore how in addition to exploring Bhutan’s approach to a more balanced, sustainable life, we will explore other alternative individual, collective, citywide and regional models to capitalism, approaches that would foster greater compassion among people and a more harmonious and sustainable lifestyle for communities.

Looking at all of this squarely in the face is not easy; it forces us to acknowledge that we have been both complicit and complacent while millions suffer. It will force us to accept that the world we have now is the one that to a large degree we have chosen and that with alternatives available, we have the option of choosing a different path.

But only when we come to grips with the extent to which the capitalist system has tightly constrained our thoughts and vision, can we begin to formulate the kind of moral revolution that must occur if we are to ever achieve anything like true justice. And any substantial political change that we might create, can only come after a more fundamental spiritual and philosophical shift, one where we seriously explore and embrace an entirely different set of community, city and national values.

And so, Retake is going to begin connecting the dots, using the blog and radio show to explore alternatives and providing spaces for us to have honest conversation about things that need to be discussed. That framework is just now forming and will evolve over time. But it is a critical conversation that we need to ever get to a just, sustainable way of life.

In Solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne


Categories: Capitalism, Economic Justice, Community & Economic Development

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15 replies

  1. Take a look at ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses in Bhutan.

    • I will post about Bhutan’s human rights violations. But to a degree that is a side issue, an important side issue, but the point of the blog is to consider an entirely different criteria for evaluating community health. But thanks for raising this issue, Linda.

    • Linda,

      Thanks for asking.

      I’m often in conversations in which I raise a point and instead of addressing the point itself, people revert to a different topic that both supports their underlying point of view and doesn’t address the point in the question I asked.

      I may have made a mistake in assuming about your message.

      I’m aware of Bhutan’s terrible record in the regards you mention. My own interest is in possibly good ideas or examples that could radically improve our own economic system for the good of the entire country instead of just parts of it. Gross national Happiness is radical and seems worth exploring.

      • I agree with that but I am tired of he endless search for a utopian answer and failure to address serious problems. Rome has burned.

  2. This is like the Hillary would have been worse argument.

    What is we answered cases made on their own merits?

  3. GDH is an excellent organizing principle. Keep up the good work.

    It is worth remembering, though, that the unfair lack of access by the masses to economic output is a key limitation on their ability to enjoy the elements in the GDH domain – think the feudal system. So economic output remains an important factor in achieving a high GDH. The elements in the chart offer good characteristics for measuring GDH.

  4. The “war on drugs” was declared by Nixon, not Clinton. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_drugs

  5. Damn Paul, you hit the soft spot. Never seen so many responses to one post. You finally outed the Catch 22 of pragmatism, which is little more than capitulation with a shrug. Long time ago, in 1969, my faculty advisor told me about NIMBY and it’s contagious effects. He soon died, a great botanist, ww2 marine and brilliant magician. He died of cancer, the bellwether disease of pragmatic acceptance.

    A great article in Esquire about the psychoanalysis of the Pink Kardashian in a new book. Earlier Robert Redford said that WE have created the monsters we now cringe away from. Why? I remind all of the allegory of the happy frog in the warm pot of slowly heating water.

    It has never been OK to rationalize away the ALL at the expense of the one. How the he’ll is ALL created but via ALL the ones?

    Capitalism is a word. It is not the thing. The thing is a Category One parasite, consuming ALL, until all that is left is the ONE, which, via logic, must consume itself in some glorious suicidal event.

    So much for the self. As Lao Tau wrote long ago, see the world as your self, then you have nothing to fear.

    To those writing today, dare to look at yourself and admit that you, like the rest of us, are prisoners of your own design. The only strength lies in humility and compassion. The past is gone. The present is the future in motion. Stay on the front of the wave and forgive yourself for being afraid of the water.

  6. Yes but do something to make a better world today by examining your own moral compass. I take full responsibility for my daily choices noting the impact i make. I call for neighborhood salons to expose our individual moral compass and how coming together can impact and empower a richer quality of life for ALL through organized citizen actions to solve problems, address concerns. Who if not us. ? Certainly not city or state officials are trustworthy of the task at hand to protect life in Santa Fe, we are constantly betrayed

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