Mary Nelson, president emeritus of faith-based community development corporation Bethel New Life and contributor to Sojourners recently took issue with the narrow perspective with which our society and commentators view economics.
I’m tired of all the frantic talk about how much or little consumers are spending over this Holiday time. Something’s wrong with an economy based on consumer spending, with kids thinking the measure of parents’ love is the gifts they get. We need to figure out a new kind of gauge of well-being, of quality of life, not only for individuals in families, but for communities as well. Studies share that people who are rich in relationships, who are involved in sharing beyond themselves, live longer and have a higher quality of life. A recent radio show shared ways to make this Holiday time special for kids…doing things with them, together volunteering in homeless shelters or food programs, baking cookies and sharing them with a homeless shelter. A different measure (“A Different Economic Measure: Quality of Life and an Economic Bill of Rights,”).
In our modern culture, economics has come to refer almost exclusively to finance. We seem to think that it can all be quantified in concrete figures, such as profits and losses, market share, job numbers, import/export ratios, stock valuation, or GDP.
The word “economics” comes from the Greek oikonomia, “household management.” Budgets and finance are certainly an important part of managing a household, but they are hardly the only aspects. One who runs a household without taking into consideration the holistic well-being of the family—the distribution of materials, the relationships, the emotional growth, etc—are likely to find their family crumbling around them.
Mary rightfully points out this problem. The conventional economic indicators are grossly inadequate to answering the real question of our economic well-being, of whether or not the financial and productive activity is contributing to the health of our society. Slavish devotion to those indicators will lead to economic recommendations—Increase consumer spending! Get people borrowing!—which will not be conducive to the well-being of society.
We need to try to take into account the humanistic aspects of our economy. Is the wealth generated being distributed in a meaningful way throughout the economy, or does it pool among a few? Is that wealth meeting their needs for food, shelter, mental and emotional growth, etc? How are those at the lower margins doing? Is there a sense of security about provisioning, or is society anxious about their future prospects? Are people happy?
British Economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that we needed to take into consideration the human aspects of economics. From Schumacher’s ideas has grown the concept of the more holistic Buddhist economics. Some have even tried to find more holistic indicators, such as a Gross National happiness.
Given the financial troubles we’re facing right now, this may be an ideal time to reflect and reorient. I’m confident that we will better help society restore and maintain a healthy household if we must find a way to reclaim that broader perspective of economics.