Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are You Better Off Today vs 4 Years Ago: "Better" Defined

Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago?  This seems to be a major theme of both the Republicans and the Democrats.  The Republicans insist that we are worse off than 4 years ago.  Of course, they are NOT asking if we were better off 4 years ago than we were 8 years ago.  The Democrats are saying that we are indeed better off in 2012, because millions more are now covered by health insurance, GM and the 3 million related jobs was saved, Osama bin Laden is gone, we have pulled out of Iraq and are moving out of Afganistan, among other things.

Also, although unemployment figures are not as low as many feel they should be, the rate of disemployment was very high as George Bush left office, but since that rate bottomed out in 2009, 4 1/2 million private sector jobs have been added.  Unfortunately, public sector jobs continue to fall as local and state governments struggle with reduced tax income to pay for government employees.  Nevertheless, some jurisdictions continue to pay outrageous amounts in overtime, when it would be better to use this money, (perhaps at time and one half rates) to hire other employees, reduce the total unemployment and enable additional workers to pay their property taxes (instead of loosing their homes) and buy commodities that produce sales taxes.  Frankly I was appalled to see a recent article showing that some Maryland employees were working 60 to 80 hours per week and almost doubling their take home pay, while others in Maryland are unemployed.

As I listen to both parties insist that our goal requires that each generation have a better life than the one before, I find myself thinking.  What is a better life really, and when do we have enough.  A few years ago I wondered the same thing as I watched the  McMansion craze.  I wondered how so many people could think that a huge house would make them any happier, other than for bragging rights.  I thought of Aesop's Fable about the magic fish.  A fisherman caught a fish that offered to grant his every request if only he could be freed.  The fisherman released the fish.  He and his wife lived in a shack.  His wife first wanted a nice cottage, then a big house, then a palace and ultimately the stars and the moon.  At this point the fish put them back in the shack.  Will our reckless use of resources eventually put most of us back in shacks?

I have just read "Lost on Planet China" by J. Maarten Troost (2008).  This amusing but distressing book should be on the reading list of anyone who cares about the future of Planet Earth.  He describes the almost unbreathable air in most of China that kills about 700,000 people a year (more than the population of Washington, DC), and that gives traffic policemen a life expectancy of 45 years.  He points out that the US has 5% of the world's population and emits 25% of the world's pollution.  In the US there is one vehicle for every 1.25 inhabitants.  In China there is one for every 40 Chinese.  He asks what will happen when the Chinese (1/5th the worlds population) start to live like us?  Do they have less right to air conditioning, central heating, a car, an office or factory job?  He concludes that "from an environmental perspective, this is a terrifying development."

And make no doubt about it.  The Chinese are developing as fast as they can, although the recent world economic setback has been slowing things down there too.  They are spreading throughout the undeveloped and developing world as fast as they can, to nail down the resources that will become very scarce as they and the Indians continue to develop their countries. One example specific to our country is the XL Pipeline.  The Republicans have been screaming that failure to support this project is a failure by the Obama administration, and causes higher gas prices.  Fortunately, he has had to listen to the conservationist wing of the party.  We are already exporting some of our own oil production, and this will only result in more oil to export, not lower gas prices.  By all means lets hurry up and deliver it to the Chinese.

Surely it is imperative that we look at a newer and greener way of determining what makes our world and country a better place.  The Republicans tend to look at obvious wealth and goods as the measure of doing well.  Democrats tend to give more value to health, security and employment.  Another value is more time to enjoy with family, to work on creative projects, travel in and study the world, etc.  I think that many of us who are not neurotically greedy reach a point when we have a big enough home, have earned enough money and now wish we could relax and enjoy our relative prosperity.  If we are not emotionally invested in "keeping up with the Joneses" then our enjoyment of non material resources and services can become a sign and goal of being better off.

This is much harder to quantify, but the tiny country of Bhutan has developed a formula.  In addition to Gross National Product (GNP), they also consider Gross National Happiness (GNH).  The 4 components of GNH include sustainable economic development, environmental preservation, cultural preservation and good governance. The have even abolished TV advertising, and smoking.  Bhutan has made environmental preservation a top priority in its development policy.  Our own national Green Party has done the same.  If only our major parties would do the same.  Of course, it helps that Bhutan has an enlightened absolute monarch, which we never will, nor should want.  I encourage you to Google search more information about this fascinating GNH policy in Bhutan.

Thus, as we listen to the parties insist that they will help the next generation be even better off than this one is, let us consider carefully, what we really need to make us happier.  Is it a big house or SUV, a much bigger salary, or greater health security, time to enjoy our life and families, and explore this wonderful earth?  Once you have examined your own priorities, then you can evaluate what each party is trying to sell us.  In my own case I have concluded that much of what I value most is provided by the Green Party platform and least by the Republican platform.

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