Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Economics of Happiness
(Is There Such a Thing?)

What kind of economic system will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and species?

That question was posed in Norfolk at the Naro Cinema’s Wednesday documentary series on May 18, where the film “The Economics of Happiness” was seen by an audience of perhaps a hundred.

The film, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture, strongly advocates a return to the land with small farms and enterprises forming the backbone of an economy of full employment on a local level. Localization instead of globalization is the remedy, based on indigenous models where, as any number of pedigreed experts in the film argue, health and well-being, full employment, and—yes—happiness rank high above anything offered by the global capitalist system under which we all now live.

After the screening, four panelists—three of them college professors, current or retired—presented their own visions of economic happiness.

Robert Dean, a well-known Virginia Beach Libertarian, would be happiest in an economy with minimal government oversight, allowing ideas and products to flow freely according to consumer freedom-of-choice.

Tom Ellis, an English professor at Tidewater Community College, argues for an as-yet-to-be-invented “Gaian economy,” where actions are weighed against three criteria—that they be good for the individual, good for the community, and good for the planet. Since the film advocates just such a lifestyle, it is, he said, “Gaian,” offering the best opportunity for happiness because economic activity harmonizes with Nature’s self-sustaining systems.

Steve Rosenthal, a retired sociology professor from Hampton University, advocates a Marxist model controlled through democratic processes by the workers, the producers of goods and services, rather than the capitalist owners who exploit workers and the environment as mercilessly as the traffic will allow. Happiness, then, is possible when all human needs are adequately met—food, clothing, and shelter, of course, but also health care, and, more abstractly, equality, social justice, and freedom from oppression.

Peter Shaw, a business and economics professor at Tidewater Community College, is a champion of innovation and free-market globalization but also a critic of the excesses which led to the wide-spread corruption of the past decade and the collapse of the economies of whole nations. He believes a reformed capitalism, including a more rigorous moral code among capitalists, is the best system to provide an improved standard of living—i.e., happiness—for more people.

All of this, of course, was quite interesting to anyone who thinks about how to make a better world, but it became apparent as each panelist spoke in turn through three separate rounds that there was not much real common ground among them. Each presented a model for an economics of happiness which, were it implemented, would likely leave the other three disgruntled if not alienated.

An observer might wonder if there is any system which is capable of providing happiness for everyone. And that, of course, begs at least two questions: What is happiness? And can any economy provide it?

Those questions, however, were left hanging, largely unaddressed.

In the film which launched the discussion narrator Helena Norber-Hodge introduces us to the Ladakhis, once a self-sufficient farming people in the region of Ladakh, one of the highest, most remote areas in the world in the Himalayan Mountains of Kashmir. Yet even here globalization has arrived, by which the filmmakers mean the destruction of a local economy by multi-national corporations which have taken over much of Ladakh’s land and resources. As a result, the indigenous, former proprietors have become, at best, low-paid employees but more often end up in the ranks of the urban unemployed in a new socio-economic order which benefits the corporations and their investors, not the Ladakhi natives.

Globalization, in the film’s terms, means that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer and the environment turns toxic, leading eventually to economic collapse because unfettered production driven by greed for profits creates a supply which exceeds demand. Once that happens, revenues quickly fall off and panic ensues as over-extended businesses and financial institutions suddenly cannot pay their debts.

Localization, on the other hand, restores local economies to their rightful place as community sustainers and preservers where everyone is employed in some occupation that benefits that community. No foreign owners exploit the land and its people for profit. Communities, therefore, are self-sufficient, or, if not, trade with nearby local communities for what they lack.

The film vigorously defends the largely agrarian, localized economic model of Ladakh as it used to be before globalization and as it struggles to become once again, if the dispossessed can only get their land back. Then, the film strongly suggests, the Ladakhis will once again be the happy, healthy folk they were before global capitalism displaced their way of life.

As facilitator and Naro co-owner Tench Phillips noted, this may seem like little more than propaganda.

But Ms. Norber-Hodge, who claims many years of association with the Ladakhis, makes the case that among those who still live in the localized manner of their ancestors there is genuine happiness. Indeed, on camera they look like vital, healthy, fun-loving people. It’s impressive that among all the smiling faces shown, young and old, everyone seems to have strong, healthy teeth.

Norber-Hodge also takes us to other countries, including England and the US, where efforts to establish or restore local economies are, in some cases, well beyond the experimental stage. A famous example is how the city of Detroit, on track to becoming a ghost town after the automobile industry left, has turned into a bit of a poster child for urban farming on abandoned lots.

It seems as if this stuff just might work, so long as a significant number of us can be happy as small farmers. But that might set a steep learning curve for most of us, including the Naro panelists. Three of the four—Rosenthal, Shaw, and, most particularly, Dean—did not emphasize environmental concerns and offered little comment on the film. Their focus was on human progress and, therefore, was primarily urban. Only Ellis, the Gaian, included Nature, not just as a stake holder but as the determining force in any economic discussion.
The evening was, to be sure, an educational experience, yet for me it raised more questions than answers. Most people seem to agree that our civilization is presently operating on an unsustainable economic system, but can anyone agree on what to do about it? Do we reform the present system, as Shaw suggests? Do we slash taxes and shrink government, as Dean says? Do we become democratic socialists, as Rosenthal would like? Or, as Ellis urges, do we plunge practically blind into a whole new relationship with each other and the planet, economically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Shaw’s ideas may be the most immediately practical, but will they go far enough to heal the wounds of Mother Earth? Dean seems to favor social Darwinism to winnow those from our midst who can’t fend for themselves, which I personally find repugnant. Rosenthal’s compassion and respect for the masses does not shine very well for me through the lens of the Marxist experiments where the dictatorship of the proletariat quickly became just another dictatorship. And Ellis’ most practical idea—to vote with our wallets for those who produce sustainable goods and services—doesn’t have much meaning for those below the poverty line.

So I left asking myself, What kind of an economic system would bring me the greatest happiness?

Since I didn’t grow up with money and was taught to admire idealists who usually didn’t have much money, I came to feel that life would be better for everyone if no one had much money. In that sense, I’m a Marxist and resonate to Rosenthal’s pitch.

But I also am an American kid who nods and grins when Chuck Berry sings, “Anything you want they got it right here in the USA.” In that sense, I’m with Dean—utterly conditioned to the wonders of the box store, which Shaw reinforces with his moderate capitalism to the tune, say, of Mozart or Beethoven. Maybe we can just keep going on, fixing and perfecting what we’ve already got. Wouldn’t that be best?

But some years ago my wife and I discovered camping and fell in love with Nature. That’s where I join Ellis, and if I had to live on a village level, camping in the forest, I think I might find some happiness.

So what economic system do I think would create the greatest happiness?

Some combination, I think, of all the above. There doesn’t seem to be just one way to do things any more.


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