Book Review: What’s the Economy For Anyway?: Why it’s time to stop chasing growth and start pursuing happiness
By: John de Graff and David K. Batker
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press 2011
The Authors are John de Graff, and David K. Batker. John is the executive director of Take Back Your Time, and The Happiness initiative. He is a recognized author, and documentary television producer. David is the executive director of Earth Economics, and is involved in several organizations promoting sustainability, through economics.
This book is 13 chapters, and focuses on the actual purpose behind the economy. It takes a look at why we set our economic goals the way we did, and how our current goals, don’t really represent what we need and want our economy to produce for us.
- Chapter 1: “The Grossest Domestic Product” Explores how we arrived at our current economic indicators specifically GDP, and GNP, and what value they provide. It also gives an introduction to what value they do not provide.
- Chapter 2: “The Pursuit of Happiness” Takes a look at how our economy could contribute to our happiness. Including examples of nations who take Gross National Happiness very seriously, and what results they are seeing.
- Chapter 3: “Provisioning the Good Life” This takes a look at our needs, beyond Maslow’s hierarchy. What does it take to maintain not just life, but a good life, and how well do our economic policies provide those things.
- Chapter 4: “Unhealthy at Any Cost” This looks at our healthcare. Specifically, how much we spend, vs. the results we achieve. It questions the value of our high health spending, vs. our poor health outcomes.
- Chapter 5: “Risky Business” This reviews our risks. It looks at how we strive to remain independent, and how it relates to government programs, and insurance coverages. It explores how additional government support can reduce our risks, and improve our quality of life.
- Chapter 6: “The Time Squeeze” Reviews the typical American lifestyle and how we spend our time. Through things such as reduced workweeks, increased vacations, and shorter commutes it looks at how other countries have overcome the loss of time, and improved their lifestyles.
- Chapter 7: “The Greatest Number” This chapter looks at fairness. How to distribute things fairly throughout society. It also looks at the income gap, and its impact. It also dives into how Finland has overcome several obstacles regarding inequality.
- Chapter 8: “The Capacity Question” This chapter covers quite a bit. From earning and education capacity, to mass transit, and how some capacity issues are addressed through workplace democracy.
- Chapter 9: “The Longest Run: Sustainability” The idea of this chapter is simple. How can we keep things going for as long as possible? How do we make our practices sustainable? It spends a majority of its time looking at natural resources, and how to ensure they continue to exist for our utilization in the future.
- Chapter 10: “Ancient History” This chapter discusses American impact on economic methods. It looks through our history, and how the American experience has shaped economic processes and concepts worldwide.
- Chapter 11: “When (or How) Good Went Bad” This chapter looks at American economics from 1968 forward. It reviews how our economic system started failing our needs, and the world events that occurred to hasten that failure.
- Chapter 12: “The Housing, Banking, Finance, Debt, Bankruptcy, Foreclosure, Unemployment, Currency, …Hell-of-a-Mess Crisis” This chapter examines how deregulation in the early 2000’s has impacted the U.S. economy, and it’s cascading impacts on the world economy, and the financial crises it created. It also looks at different solutions that could stabilize our current situation.
- Chapter 13: “Building a Twenty-first-Century Economy of Life, Liberty, and Happiness” This chapter is a summary of all the points made throughout the book. It looks at our options, and sets goals for the future.
I’ll say at the beginning of this review that the authors take a very strong “We are doing it all wrong” point of view. However, they make compelling cases, and I tend to agree with the majority of what they are saying. It looks at what the economy does, and if the goals we set are to our benefit. Where it fails that check, they question why we are still doing those things, and examines how others are doing them better. The book does leave me with an uneasy feeling that I should seek out opposing views though. The book is written in a way that it examines issues, and offers solutions that seem casually obvious. The fact that many of their proposed solutions have not been implemented makes me think there should be more research into the reasons why not.
There are two main themes in the book. The first is best summed up in the quote from Gifford Pinchot, who was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. His goal was to achieve “the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest run”. This is the approach used to guide the other theme of the book, which is not quite as simple. The authors want us to look at what we are doing, why we are doing it, and to consider examples we have in the world on how to do it better, in regards to our economy.
This book has really given me pause to consider a lot of our economic issues, and how they can be resolved. Each chapter gives another insight into a facet of the economy, and potential solutions to that facet. While there are too many to list in a review of this book, I’ll summarize two of them.
The first that really struck a chord with me was a German policy called Kurzarbit or “short work”. It pushes employers to reduce overall hours, as opposed to laying off workers when there is a need to reduce their workforce. Instead of cutting employees, they can reduce everyone’s hours by a certain percentage, and workers can receive unemployment for up to 90% of their original hours, while keeping their jobs. The impact a policy like this would’ve had during our recent recession would have improved the lives of many Americans, and kept a lot of people in work, and even possibly out of mortgage foreclosure.
Another approach I found interesting was from a small country called Bhutan. In 1972 this country instituted a measure of Gross National Happiness. They use this measure to help guide all governmental policy and decisions. Many nations have started using them as a template to build their own measures of happiness, and it seems to be working. As opposed to simply looking at how we can increase our national product, we should start looking at why we are doing it, and what the impact is on our citizens.
There are a lot of approaches as to how we can improve our nation, and economy in this book. It looks at the human side, such as how we spend our time, what makes us happier, and what we as people get from our increased production. It also reviews our impact on the world, if our practices are sustainable, and how we can make them that way. And finally, it reviews what we have already done economically, how those things have helped and hindered us, what our true goals should be, and what we can do to improve on those policies that have failed us.
The book is written to be read casually, however the concepts listed in are far from it. It’s definitely thought-provoking, and worth the time to read. It covered almost every concept from our class this year, with the exception of the histories of economics. Overall, it’s left me with a lot to think about.