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2013 Winter Issue 6 (February 22, 2013)

What is Economic Success?

February 22, 2013
By Michael Goodgame

Success, according to Stephen R. Covey, can be measured by a ladder leaning against a building.  An excellent manager is highly efficient at climbing up the ladder.  He has learned how to maneuver each rung and make his way to the top step by step, making sure he concentrates completely on the current move before transitioning to the next.

Good managers are meticulous workaholics.  They know what needs to be done and how, and they’re very sure of their goal – to get to the next rung, to advance up the ladder as fast as possible and beat out the competition.  This says nothing, though, of good leadership.  Excellent leaders, Covey says, are the ones who make sure the ladder is leaning against the correct building.  

Which one are we?  Awash as we are in a society hell-bent on quick-fix medication and can-kicking economic policy, I think it’s pretty easy to see that we’re managers, not leaders.  And we’re not even good managers.  The fiscal cliff shows us that much.  

Our policies, the arguments we engage in, the domestic, partisan wars we fight – these are all rungs on the wrong ladder.  We’re struggling to rise and compete in an unsustainable fashion, fighting symptoms instead of attacking the root of our anguish.  The real problem in this country and in many others does not lie in tax reform or social security overhaul, but in a completely wrong picture of our goals and vision for what’s right.  This picture is based on our conception of the interplay of human success and economics.

Macroeconomics is predicated on growth.  Growth, economists say, is the golden ticket to success, and it is the goal for any economy.  We want to outgrow our rivals.  Growth on a large scale, according to standard economic theory, is a good thing for the government because it allows for more money and power and it is also a good thing for you and I, the subjects of said government who mirror its financial successes.  

Growth, then, in a theoretical sense, is what our manager seeks on his way up the ladder.  Debates between conservatives and liberals are simply hitches between rungs, disputes on precisely how to get there.

It is the leader’s job to ask what we are growing, and whether this kind of growth is what we need as people. At first glance, growth sounds like a great thing.  And in the paradigm we live in, it is.  On the ladder we are on, it is.  But what are we growing?  Economic progression seems only to lend us unto an endless cycle of addictive purchasing habits, something that only hurts us emotionally and physically and brings us further apart rather than closer together.  Perpetual slews of painkillers, soft drinks, and fancy sneakers are becoming more and more of a problem, and the basic theory of economics – the rule we go by as we climb the ladder – backs them up as the proper results of development.  We invent new drugs, only to over-diagnose new patients with newly invented disorders, and we call this improvement.  It is easy to see that this is not a good thing, but only when you step outside of the realm of competitive international economics and consider that constant progression may not be the Holy Grail we should be seeking after all.  

We seem to be reaching something of a stopping point on the line of growth.  Anyone who raises their eyebrows at the fact that water, which makes up a huge proportion of the Earth, is a good packaged and served in bottles, realizes.  There just aren’t any goods and services left to contrive.  We can either realize this now or be left to watch the economic system we’ve built crumble as the thing it is based on – growth – is literally no longer possible.  

The reasonable counter-argument to this is that the kind of zero-growth economy that would result if Western society had the leadership to prop the ladder on the correct building sounds a lot like a utopia, and utopias are (1) unlikely and (2) a hindrance to technological advancement.  Because for all the ills Westernization has caused the world, surely technological achievement is not one of them.  We’ve gone above and beyond our wildest dreams in science, at times attaining the unattainable.  How could a steady state economy with no monetary growth fuel this kind of progress?

The former argument is just as relevant, if not more so: this is probably not going to happen. If we know anything from history, we know that foreseeing such a disaster is incredibly unlikely.  So what merit does the argument have?

I don’t have an answer. But I do know that this is worth the discussion. The truly important thing is the realization that nearly every economic argument made in our society is made within the same paradigm of growth, and stepping outside that paradigm is essential to gain whatever there is to be gained from the full picture in order to create a society based on our true values.  Every once in a while, it’s worth it to climb down and reposition the ladder, making sure our hard work isn’t going towards the wrong goal.  

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