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Annie Leonard Headshot

Can't Buy Me Love

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It's Tax Day, which means the Tea Party will be railing against government spending on programs like health care, Head Start, environmental protection, consumer product safety inspectors and food stamps. Try as I might, I just can't understand the logic of opposing government programs to ensure that our air, water and baby bottles are safe, children aren't hungry and everyone has access to a doctor.

Last summer, when Fox News took note of my video The Story of Stuff, Glenn Beck attacked me as an anti-American, anti-capitalist Marxist because I said it's government's job to take care of us. (He's at it again. Last week he was aghast to learn from a group of conservative college students that the film had been shown in an NYU science class: "Somewhere your parents is [sic] paying for this!")

Maybe I left myself open for Beck's potshot. I didn't mean government should remind us to floss our teeth and tuck us in at night. I meant take care of us by tackling the big problems that can't be solved by individuals (or even charity) and ensuring that the system is fair for everyone.

Providing a safety net for sick people, hungry families and poor kids should be government's highest priority. Instead, tax laws and fiscal policy are almost exclusively concerned with promoting what has become our sole measure of national well-being: economic growth.

Economic growth was once a means towards an end -- good jobs, healthy communities, greater well-being. But somewhere along the way growth became a goal in itself, even when it throws workers out of jobs and undermines the health and well-being of our communities.

I'm all for a healthy economy, but today's economy values growth for its own sake on the premise that more money and more consumer goods always mean progress. We all know that once our basic needs are met, more money can't make us happy, but economists and politicians continue to bow at the altar of wealth creation - even when the evidence shows there are better ways to increase the quality of life.

Take the Happy Planet Index, which despite its name is a highly sophisticated tool for measuring how well nations turn their resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The United States is first in resource use (no surprise) but ranks 140th in converting resources into life satisfaction.

Or take it from David Brooks of The New York Times, who recently cited research by the Brookings Institution showing:

The relationship between happiness and income is complicated, and after a point, tenuous. It is true that poor nations become happier as they become middle-class nations. But once the basic necessities have been achieved, future income is lightly connected to well-being. Growing countries are slightly less happy than countries with slower growth rates . . . The United States is much richer than it was 50 years ago, but this has produced no measurable increase in overall happiness.

Brooks writes: "Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on social conditions. . . . Public institutions should pay attention to well-being and not just material growth narrowly conceived."

If Brooks, one of the most prominent conservatives in the nation, thinks this, maybe the tide is turning. Maybe we can begin to discuss the failings of our growth-obsessed economy without being accused of being anti-American. Maybe one day we'll see that taxes for social programs are how the government makes investments in the things that really make us happy. That's their job.

Annie Leonard is author of The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health -- and a Vision for Change.