What If? A Brainstorm of What Could Be Possible

Saturday, I challenged readers to think outside the box and to consider an entirely different model for evaluating community health: Gross National Happiness. Today, we start the conversation with a brainstorm focused on: What If?The post begins with a description of civil, religious and gender rights violations in Bhutan which certainly casts a dark shadow on Bhutan, if not upon the Happiness scale that they developed. We then will discuss the potential impact on public policy if the criteria used were derived from scales like the Happiness Scale or the Social Progress Indicator. But before we begin, a reminder of two tremendous events that have limited capacity.

  • Oct 27-28. 9am-6pm. Kingian Non-Violent Disobedience Training led by American Civil Rights Leader and 2016 recipient of the Gandhi International Humanitarian Award, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. with co-trainer Jonathan “Snapping Turtle” Lewis.
  • Oct 21, 29 3-5pm. Screening of Two Episodes of America Divided. Retake is screening two episodes from Norman Lear’s America Divided. The episodes focus on gentrification in NY, water issues in Flint, and school segregation in Florida. Click here to get to our Events & Opportunities page with details and how to RSVP for both events. The second episode on the 29th is only 60 minutes and so immediately afterwards, we will host a panel discussion featuring Miguel Angel Acosta Muñoz, a community educator/Organizer and Free Range Mexican, and Kathy Sanchez, Environmental Health and Justice Program Manager of Tewa Women United.

Bhutan, Happiness Scales and Civil Rights / Gender Rights Violations 

Before we launch into the potential impact for using the Happiness Scale to measure community health in NM, I need to acknowledge that while Bhutan has developed a remarkably different framework for measuring local, regional and national welfare that is not dependent upon anything like GDP and other capitalist measures of success, they also have a history of civil and gender rights abuses, primarily against immigrants from Nepal, Christians (approximately 20% of the population) and women in general. To read more about Bhutan rights violations, click here.

We Need Different Criteria for Making Political and Policy Decisions: Criteria Grounded in Moral Vision, Not Private Profit and Constantly Increasing Consumption

Despite its obvious civil, religious and gender rights violations, when considering how best to assess our own policy decisions, the Gross National Happiness Scale (GNH) remains a viable tool. We need to begin exploring a completely different set of criteria, a different process and a different set of assumptions, the  GNH introduced on Saturday being just one. There are other similar scales like the Social Progress Indicator (SPI) assessment that warrant examination. Retake will examine both of these side by side in a future blog, as there are reasons to believe the more precise SPI may be even more useful than the Happiness Scale.

But for now, Retake just wants to whet our appetitive to consider how a completely different lens might elicit public policy discourse far more responsive to the needs of low-income and working class communities. GNH includes nine different domains that contribute to a person’s happiness.

  • Living standards – material comforts measured by income, financial security, housing, asset ownership.
  • Health – both physical and mental health.
  • Education – types of knowledge, values and skills.
  • Good governance – how people perceive government functions.
  • Ecological diversity and resilience – peoples’ perception on environment.
  • Time use – how much time is spent on work, non-work, sleep;work-life balance.
  • Psychological wellbeing – quality of life, life satisfaction and spirituality.
  • Cultural diversity and resilience – strength of cultural traditions and festivals.
  • Community vitality – relationships and interaction within community, social cohesion and volunteerism.

For decades public policy has been driven by far different criteria: unsustainable growth, unfettered corporate profit, and the needs of the very wealthy. How else can you explain:

  • The unfettered deregulation of corporations and Wall St.?
  • The privatization of education, the promulgation of charters that exclude children with special needs and that utilize enrollment procedures that pose barriers to low-income families?
  • A health system that allows skyrocketing costs of life-saving medications, unaffordable co-pays and historic profits for health plans and pharma?
  • A military budget that continues to escalate and does nothing to create greater security of our people?
  • A tax system that over the past 60 years OUR elected officials have allowed an inexorable shift resulting in billions of low income and working class Americans subsidizing the obscene lifestyles of virtually tax-free lords?

Stop reading for a moment and just ask yourself: How are the above policies OK? How did we get here? It is like the story of the frog in hot water with a low simmer, gently raising the temp until the frog is cooked. Well, we are damn near cooked and it is time to hop from this pot and begin demanding far more from our elected officials.

Legislators use an entirely different lens in making decisions, a lens crafted by corporate cronies with decisions being made by OUR elected representatives and their real constituents, highly paid lobbyists behind closed doors over cognac and cigars. And the criteria they use in shaping policy is simple: maximized profit, concentrated power.

To continue to operate within the current constraints of civic debate is to completely accede rationality to their criteria and process, leaving activists fighting each other over the crumbs that remain after their gluttonous feast. . ..

What If These Standards Were Applied to Evaluate Local, State and National Policy?

If either the GNH or the SPI were used to evaluate public policy, the first obvious difference would be that we would not be using GDP, the Dow Jones, and corporate profits as evidence of national health. nstead, we would examine living standards as expressed through nine very different criteria. The “What If” scenarios that reveal themselves are remarkable, if we open the debate beyond the circumscribed limitations imposed by the capitalist, colonial, and corporate constraints. These are not idyllic, utopian fantasies; they are eminently practical and sustainable approaches to community living. And look what could happen if we used GNH or SPI as our criteria for policy and legislation.

Tax Policy. Instead of granting huge tax havens overseas to corporations, we would make these havens illegal and tax these funds and other corporate profits at rates established in the 1940’s and 50’s. Ditto the 1-5% whose tax rates would also return to 70-90%. It seems impossible to conceive of changes of this scale only because we’ve been told it is impossible. But using the GNH criteria above, these decisions make perfect sense. We could take the funds generated by changes in tax policy and use them to:

  • Improve living standards through expanded commitments to affordable rental market, expansion of social security, reduction of the work week, create a national minimum wage of at least $15/hour, and even explore creation of a guaranteed national income for targeted populations and conditions are suddenly affordable with changes in tax code. Beyond that neighborhood development could further enhance living standards with the creation of more livable communities and neighborhoods as described below. With affordable housing scattered throughout communities, residents would not need to drive long distances and with robust solar-transit systems and bike paths, residents wouldn’t need to drive to work at all.
  • Expand healthcareHealthcare would no longer be both unaffordable and so torturously complex. In Bill Ayers tremendous book, Demand the Impossible, he wrote of a time when he had a house guest from Canada at their home in Chicago. Bill had just received his 2 inch thick Medicare guidelines, something I received just the other day myself. After pouring over the guide for hours he lamented this to his friend. His friend opened his wallet and pulled out a plastic card. “This is all I need to know. I go to a doctor or dentist, give them this, have whatever tests or procedures I need and go home. No cost. No process. No forms.” I read that passage and thought about the hours I spend each year just trying to figure out the different ‘Plans” and options. I pay out thousands a year with the irony being that I haven’t been to a doctor in two years. In truth, I have no idea if I am overpaying, underpaying or not completing whatever forms correctly. What resident of hell invented this system? Why do we constituents continue to accept this bullshit as inevitable and irreversible?
  • Improve Public Education. In addition to funding Pre-K-12 at reasonable levels, we would not support the privatization of Pre-K-12 education or saddle students with mountains of debt for attending college. And we’d create all kinds of public education opportunities linked to and entirely outside the Pre-K-12, community college and university systems, education focusing on life-skills, preventive health, parenting and maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Good Governance. We’d rid the political and legislative processes of money and force decisions on policy to be far more public and most importantly, voters would use the new criteria to evaluate their choice of elected officials.
  • Ecological Diversity & Resilience. Imagine how the use of this criteria would impact community development with requirements for energy efficiency, 100% renewable energy, bike and walking trails, solar shuttles, local low-water landscape and neighborhood organic food gardens.
  • Time Use. With living wage and other income supplements, people would not work two jobs and 40 hours or less of work would be adequate to sustain a family. This would free up time for cultivating other skills, volunteerism, and more time spent with family and friends, i.e. a life in balance.
  • Psychological well-being. Quite clearly each of the above foster conditions that contribute to psychological well-being, but communities developed with these nine criteria in mind would also purposefully design neighborhoods that did not create stress by providing open space, areas for recreation and exercise, and other preventive alternatives.
  • Cultural Diversity and Resilience. Communities wouldn’t be developed that created neighborhoods segregated by race or income and neighborhoods would have cultural centers, public art, and other amenities that celebrate cultural diversity.
  • Community Vitality. Virtually all of the above would enhance community vitality but explicit policies that reward volunteerism, promote cooperation, collegiality, and civic engagement would further enhance vitality and sustainability.

If public policy research used these kind of criteria to guide their work, researchers would develop models appropriate to each of the bullets above, investments would be made in piloting testing innovations, measuring their impact and replicating what is found to work. Instead, we do whatever generates profits for the few at the expense of the many.

We do not have to live within the constraints of capitalism, colonialism or corporate greed. We just have to be begin realizing that the impossible is, indeed possible, even necessary. And then we need to demand it.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

Categories: Economic Justice, Community & Economic Development, Social & Racial Justice & Immigration Reform

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4 replies

  1. At the bottom of this iceberg is the widespread acceptance of the assumption that money is more important than people. From this place, we are incapable of imagining or creating process that sustainably honors both human values and high performance.

    Let’s take that on.

    Charlie Smith

  2. Now you are on my path..quality of life for all….lets get going ….time here is of the essence as the geo war has just escalated

  3. Interesting to find out that Bhutan Gross National Happiness Scale (GNH) does not work in Bhutan! Why adopt it, or use it as frame of reference if it has not helped the country that created it? OK, so why not, at least, study it to find its defects before we suggest its use? What are the ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ principles on which the GNH stands?
    Permaculture, or permanent culture, has three foundational ethical or moral principles; care of the earth, care of people and the sharing of any surplus whether the surplus is time, money, social skills, etc. It is a design system based on our understanding of biological and ecological systems. That is, non-linear ways of imagining and thinking but rather based on holistic and systemic ways of thinking and imagining. It is an ETHICAL DESIGN SCIENCE!

    But, believe that the FIRST step we need to take is to look at our society and learn how we got here, what we and previous generations did and did not do, and why, to bring our civilization, our country, to where we are today. I think that we will find out that our country, like any other country, has become what it is ‘by design’. We could say that from the very beginning the country was built, or designed, to benefit the needs and visions of the few; male founding fathers, slave owners, aristocrats imported from Europe or white males aspiring to become aristocrats of one kind or another. They harbored what we call today white supremacist imperial principles which determined that the country itself, the so called empire, was used as a ‘tool’. Just like European kingdoms, like France, England, Germany, etc. where created/designed to be tools of the aristocracy to satisfy their needs to hoard power, status and money by first exploiting and using their own people by turning them into ignorant, poor and thus easy to exploit ‘populace’ in their feudal systems. Here, when slaves became to expensive, American elites/industrialists created a work force. Slaves were expensive to buy and needed to be housed, fed, dominated, etc. In comparison, a worker is very cheap since ‘it’ is paid a ‘salary’, the lowest possible, and nothing else because the worker needs to take care of his roof, food, clothing, etc…………..

    So, we live in a pre-designed economy, first developed before and after Independence day and constantly updated or upgraded, just like my Android cell phone, always with the goal to benefit the .01%.
    This capitalist-neoliberal economic system is designed to use and exploit planet and people, that is, the 99.9% of us while, by design, 20th and 21st century technology is slowly replacing ‘workers’ with robotics because everything humans do can be translated into an algorithm and then into a machine created to do what we do, and better! This is happening at a rapid pace. Is any of the candidates running for Governor addressing this issue? No. Almost nobody is! Almost no politician and political candidate shows me that he/she understands our history and how it came to be. (Howard Zinn is one of many sources to understand who we were and what we have become)
    These are good sources to understand a design system to allow us to implement ‘paradigm shift’
    We are where we are today because politico-economic pre-designed systems forces us to not think like nature, like biological systems. We do have the capability to think holistically but the gatekeepers of our cultures, past (the priesthood and empire that crucified Jesus) and present (the Chicago boys and their teacher Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger) downplay such mode of thinking and constantly exposes us to linear, hierarchical, cause and effect thinking at home, in our schools and in our culture, such has been and is their power.

  4. I think that there is considerable merit to looking at other measures of public welfare other than purely monetary indicators. One thing that I might have a quibble with is the first item listed among public policy failures: “The unfettered deregulation of corporations and Wall St.”.

    The Trump administration has clearly been trying to unwind some of the regulations imposed under Obama, but in terms of overall trends, the number of federal regulations has been increasing pretty steadily since the 1930’s (with a small reduction under Bush II). There are now over 200,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations (nearly double the number found in 1990). This trend is also mirrored at the state and local level.

    For data on trends in Federal Regulations, consult the website of the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University:


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