Pillar II - Economy
It’s currently day 25 of the government mandated social isolation. April is almost half way over. It’s snowing? Yeah, that’s snow. It’s been 0 days since the last time I didn’t worry about my family and friends who are on the front lines or health compromised.
The promised stimulus package hasn’t arrived for individuals or small businesses yet. Many of us are starting to worry how we are going to pay next month’s bills, and the many among us who were already living paycheck to paycheck are in survival mode.
Like many other New Mexicans, I’m currently out of work. I would have hit full panic mode weeks ago if it weren’t for my partner, who is still (currently) fully employed, keeping our family afloat and health insured. Things look stable for us, for the time being, but I know this is not the case for many of my friends, family, neighbors, and community members.
I’m going to save a lengthy critique of the current economic system for another time. I’m not even the right person to be laying down any criticisms. I’m not an economics student or someone who is particularly interested in the intricacies of capitalism. While I’m not an expert, I’m an American citizen whose life has always been affected by this system. I’ve grown up hearing of the holiness of capitalism and later in life exposed to critics and their ideas. I don’t think capitalism is all evil, but I don’t think it is serving the people as it ought in its current state, rather it is in many ways manipulated to serve a select privileged few. The blessed “American Dream” that capitalism was meant to protect is long gone, anyone who says differently is blind to systematic injustices and reality. We can talk about this another day. I remain a firm believer that absolutely nothing is so big that it is above criticism, and I also believe that criticism does not equal disagreement or disrespect, rather criticism is the healthy product of freedom.
I want to talk about how I’m feeling, as a maker of things and as a regular person, in the middle of this pandemic as I sit with anxieties and ideas for already far too long.
Although the pillar of Economic sustainability appears to be simple in the broad scope, it is complicated, intricate, and crazy in its details. The basic idea is that since we live on a planet with finite resources, we cannot have an economic structure that plans on infinite growth. The math doesn’t check out. One day we will run out of metals, space, and (my worst fear!) wood. So, the problem with GDP – gross domestic product – is that production is what’s measured. The graph needs to show an increase, not a decrease. Never a decrease.
Not only is this not sustainable, but it has had some unhealthy outcomes. I’m sitting at home, unable to earn money at my day job, pedaling wares to a society that is unable to earn money for who knows how long, and fearful to spend on anything that isn’t essential to living. None of us can do anything, and somehow, I can’t shake the ethic that was drilled into me that says, “If you’re not working, you don’t deserve to eat,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “fortune favors the bold.”
How many of us out there are kicking ourselves for not being as productive as we should be? I know I’m not the only one who feels like I’m on an extended holiday break and I “need to make the most of it” or “have something to show for my time” in social isolation. This just feels like constant growth, production, productivity, and effort are so drilled in, that I can’t even look at a global pandemic lockdown for what it is without taking off my capitalist glasses. My money graph, my social graph, my mental health graph, my physical health graph, my productivity graph, so many of my personal metrics for how I measure success are on a downward trend. The alarms are beginning to sound.
Capitalism isn’t to blame for COVID-19 (though I’ll look at any evidence that suggests otherwise with an open mind). I can’t pin all my problems on this system, but it does have a role to play in much of what is going on, personally and nation-wide. Constant growth isn’t possible on a finite planet, just like constant productivity is not a possible state of being for a human. We need a real plan that allows for realistic cycles of waxing and waning where we accept that there are boundaries we need to work within. Boundaries like the finite amount of freshwater the planet has at any given time, or like realizing that a global pandemic has affected us mentally in ways we have or haven’t realized yet.
Like I said before, I don’t come at this with an academic or expert understanding, just one person’s experience and opinions. I don’t have an exhaustive understanding or answers to everything. I’m just a person at the doctor, telling her where it hurts. One of the things that hurts is measuring success in dollars, especially when we live in a country with so much financial and systematic inequality.
One alternative to GDP was developed in the South Asian country of Bhutan. It’s called GNH or Gross National Happiness. As an alternative measurement to GDP, GNH measures things like literacy rates, education, living standards, health, and psychological wellbeing – things that aren’t taken into account when using GDP. This isn’t an arbitrary survey given to a few citizens of a country, this is an internationally developed measurement that is robust and has taken years to develop. You can learn more about GNH here if you are curious about alternatives to GDP.
I’m not trying to tell anyone how they should feel, I’m not trying to say that capitalism is evil. Even with its many flaws, I’m hopeful that almost anything can be modified to fit the reality of the world we live in for the betterment of its life. I’m just out here sharing my experience and what I feel. Sometimes we look at centuries old systems in place and pretend that they have always existed, like they are as old as time. We forget that people put these systems into place, and its people who have kept them operating. We are capable of change, it doesn’t need to be this way, nothing is inevitable, even the projected fate we have before us as a result of climate change. Let’s start having conversations about what can be better.