Thomas Pynchon once wrote that if you can get people to ask the wrong questions, you don't have to worry about the answers. In some ways, American conservatives have been masters of that. "Wouldn't you like a tax cut?' "Do you trust the government?" "Can't you spend your money better than government can?" These are the kind of questions they ask and for many Americans, the answers seem deceptively simple -- "sure I'd like to have more money, who wouldn't?"
For the past year, an organization called the Forum on Social Wealth has been involved in an exciting campaign to alter the American political dialogue and ask a different question, a seemingly simple question: What's the economy for, anyway? Is it just about having the biggest GDP or the highest Dow Jones Average? Or is it about providing for a healthy, happy, fair and sustainable society? More than a hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service and Republican governor of Pennsylvania answered that question in a clear and simple way -- the purpose of the economy, he said, is "the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run." In layperson's terms, it's a high quality of life, in a socially just and sustainable society.
In classrooms around the country I've been pursuing this question with students. We explore just how the U.S. compares with other industrial countries, particularly those of western Europe, when you compare data regarding quality of life, social justice and sustainability, both environmental and in terms of such things are old-age security, debt and the social safety net. We've examined mountains of data from such sources as the United Nations Human Development Index, The Economist magazine's Pocket World in Figures, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's 2007 Factbook and the health report of the World Health Organization.
What we've found is shocking: in almost every area of quality of life, health outcomes, economic fairness and sustainability, the U.S. under-performs almost every western European nation and many poorer nations as well. Moreover, the U.S. has seen significant relative declines since the mid-1970s, the beginning of our slide into right-wing economic policy.
But, for the first time in three decades, U.S. voters seem ready to make a change. What kind of policy ideas can progressives present that can catch the imagination of voters and politicians? That's the subject of the What's the Economy For, Anyway? conference coming up this weekend in Washington, D.C. as part of the annual Green Festival.
Dozens of prominent experts and activists will offer parts of the answer to the big question and offer out-of-the-box ideas about what we can do to make our economy serve us instead of vice-versa. Three tracks include quality of life, social justice and sustainability. More than 90 speakers will address address the question. They'll look at everything from the need for paid family leave, universal health care, a paid vacation law, living wages and just taxation to progressive patriotism, new models of ecologically sound economies, and nearly 30 other topics. Workshops include in-depth analysis of current problems, comparisons to the economic performance of other industrial countries, and concrete policy solutions for a happier, healthier, most just and sustainable United States.
Among the confirmed prominent speakers are Jerome Ringo, President of the Apollo Alliance; Nancy Folbre, feminist economist, author of The Invisible Heart; Gar Alperovitz, author of America Beyond Capitalism; Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life; Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American; Eric Liu, former presidential speechwriter and domestic adviser for Bill Clinton; Hunter Lovins, co-author of Natural Capitalism; Jared Bernstein, director of The Economic Policy Institute; Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, Hope's Edge; Bill Spriggs, Chairman, Economics Department, Howard University; Karen Nussbaum, director of Working America, the community arm of the AFL-CIO; Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy; Peter Barnes, co-founder of Working Assets; Karen Kornbluh, Policy Director for Senator Obama; Miles Rapoport, the director of DEMOS; Jim Rubens, former Republican State Senator from New Hampshire; and David Moberg, Senior Editor, In These Times.
Bob Drago, who has been writing on this blog, and I will also be presenting.
This is an exciting time, when new answers to this big question are emerging around the world, especially in the United Kingdom, where the Conservative Party (yes, you're reading that correctly) just issued a 547 page "Blueprint for a Green Economy," a document that argues that "quality of life is more important than GDP," that "the market is only a tool, treating it as a god does not lead to happier, healthier people," that Britain is awash in materialist values that degrade social life, families, health and the environment, that it's time for a slower society where people work and consume less and find more time for each other, where radical new policies are needed to fight climate change and improve the environment, and where "we need to rethink our whole way of life." In my view, this is very exciting stuff!
Nic Marks, a leader of the New Economics Foundation, a progressive London think tank, was involved in the discussions that led to the remarkable Tory document, endorsed by Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Marks will talk about what's happening in the UK as a special lunchtime conference speaker on Saturday, October 6th.
Conference organizers hope that this conference will mark the beginning of a new national campaign to put the question, "What's the economy for, anyway?" on the agenda of the 2008 election campaigns and beyond.
I encourage you to consider joining the discussion for this conference. You can see the the full schedule and other details here.
I hope we can start a dialogue at this conference that has a real impact on our politics In subsequent columns, I'll outline some of the great ideas that come from this conference and other ways to get involved.
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