Monday, April 1, 2013

Time to replace GDP with Aggregate Happiness, Respect, and Dignity (AHRD)?

My brother is a brave and blessed cancer survivor who has waged a remarkable and truly inspirational battle with his deadly foe. This battle has changed his outlook on life and his personal testimony. In a recent post on my brother's Caring Bridge site, he shares the following quote from Dutch-born Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen. My brother includes the introductory comment that this Nouwen quote inspires him to be confident in his faith and in who he is.

“At issue here is the question: 'To whom do I belong? God or to the world?' Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.

"As long as I keep running about asking, 'Do you love me? Do you really love me?,' I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with 'ifs.' The world says, 'Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.' There are endless 'ifs' hidden in the world's love. These 'ifs' enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world's love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain 'hooked' to the world-trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.” 

― Henri J.M. Nouwen

When I read the Nouwen quote on my brother's website, the words cut me in half.

I would describe myself as achievement-oriented, and I know lots of people like me in that regard. But Nouwen's series of "ifs" points out the weakness of this otherwise productive outlook: nothing is ever quite good enough. When we evaluate the relative worth of our own efforts as well as those of other people around us by the "make more, sell more, buy more" metric, we set up life as a race where only the most able competitors are valued.

Wow, the Gross Domestic Product explains athletes and hedge fund traders making millions while inner-city schools crumble the old and sick are taken advantage of until they die forgotten, doesn't it?  

What if we measured "struggle" instead of "achievement"? What if achievements were not ends unto themselves, but merely means of learning our gifts? Rather than a race to an inevitable and frightening death, what if life could be an endless cooperative matching of strengths to weaknesses?

I do not consider myself a Marxist just because I complain about income inequality. Many super-rich voluntarily share their good fortune through their foundations and through charitable giving. Once a certain level of wealth has been achieved, the next marginal dollar has no impact on happiness. But we may need an incentive for some super-rich to voluntarily shift their focus from acquisition to distribution.

If the next marginal dollar does nothing to increase my personal happiness, but that same dollar contributes  to the dignity of another and to the respect and esteem in which I am held, might I be more willing to voluntarily cross the line from greed to largesse? I think so.

This leads me to the question, "Which approach would lead to better outcomes for Americans of all income levels: measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? or measuring something more transformational and aspirational, such as the Aggregate Happiness, Respect, and Dignity (AHRD)?"

We describe God’s love as unconditional. Ideally, a parent's love is unconditional. We also understand the Golden Rule. With these examples, we know what right looks like. Meanwhile in the USA we are still using the Gross Domestic Product to keep score. The GDP is an Industrial Age transactional framework rewarding makers, sellers, and buyers. I think something like the AHRD could be just the kind of transformational metric we need to get us closer to a more perfect Union.


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