What Should We Want From an Economy?

What Should We Want From an Economy?


In the past, I’ve argued that the answer to creating more good jobs does not lie in the policies under discussion, whether bringing back manufacturing, or getting Apple to come to our hometown, or waging trade wars with just about everyone. Rather it lies in a totally different direction: focusing on the bad jobs, and figuring how to make them better, a lot better.

The key to doing this, I’ve maintained, is to do something we already do in K-12 public education, to severe the link between family income and whether a family's basic needs are being met. To put this in a grander historical context, I’ve quoted Karl Marx, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." This, I’ve concluded, is not a bad place to be, and because we live in a democracy, and because of the staggering growth of our economy since the mid-19th Century, we don't need a revolution to get there, only good policy.

My plan is to explore just how to get there, in each of the central categories of the household budget: housing, food, clothing, transportation, medical, education, and security. This is the same exercise I explored in chapters 3 and 4 of Graceful Simplicity which I have made available for free download at www.SegalforSenate.org -- and in fact, in GS, I added one more need, something rarely discussed in policy circles, but which is vital for the good life: the need for beauty in our lives.

I would like to put all this in a broader context. In these essays, I got to this point, by starting with schools, and arguing that we make a big mistake by demanding of schools what they cannot deliver: access to good jobs. It might work for your kid or mine, but as policy it is nutty. When everyone is a better competitor, there is still only one person who wins the race. Instead, we are stressing ourselves, destroying childhood, and distorting schools further and further away from true education. I argued that instead, we had to face the "good jobs problem" head on.

In Graceful Simplicity, I reached the same point, the need to separate income level from basic needs satisfaction, through a different route. There I raised the fundamental question: What is the good life? And I argued that all of the wisdom of the ages, whether it be that of the sages of ancient Greece, or Jesus, or Hillel the elder, or that much under-rated President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (Oh, to have him and Roselyn back!) tells us that it is not to be found in getting and spending.

Indeed, in this respect Donald Trump is a great unifier. More than anyone else in the world he is a success, if by success one means the amassment of wealth, fame and power. But if one goes into any home in America, right or left, Reconstructionist Jewish, or Right-wing Evangelical, and one asks to see a child's bedroom, there is one thing you will not find: Donald Trump's picture on the wall, hung there by the parents, as their model of who they hope their child will grow up to be.

In truth, in understanding what The American Dream is for Americans, we have confused two very different things, the dreams of impoverished immigrants who heard stories of streets that were paved with gold and the dreams that have actually been woven into the fabric off our historical experience, whether it be the Puritans, the Quakers, Jefferson and Adams, the Abolitionists, or Teddy Roosevelt or Martin Luther King or Bob Dylan or the best parts of the counter-culture of the 60's, which still survives as a touchstone for what might be.

In Graceful Simplicity I argued that in a liberal society we should not mandate one and only one form of American dream, but we should also recognize the validity of what I called The Alternative American Dream, a dream that centers the good life largely outside the economic realm, whether the focus was religion, or book clubs, or playing with your kids, or service to others, or learning, or being a revolutionary, or friendship -- and that all of these, to do seriously and to do well, require time, and passion and energy. And the implication for the economy was that we don't need riches, we need a modest income, some economic security and shorter hours.

What I called for was an economy that would be "user friendly" to those of us who wanted to pursue this Alternative American Dream. And when I asked, whether or not our economic and social arrangement in the United States were indeed "user friendly" to this American dream, it became apparent that they are not. They frustrate this version of the "pursuit of happiness" in one very basic way: in the United States in takes a great deal of MONEY just to satisfy relatively simple basic needs.

And so, in Chapter 4, which I called The Politics of Simplicity, I set about to discuss what kind of policies we need, sector by sector, if we are to make it possible to have a decent life in America with just a modest income. And this is basically the same question I arrived at when asking "How Can We Create More Good Jobs?"