Reflection

This class has definitely changed my perspective.  I knew about GDP in passing, I had a political point of view on it all, and some personal concepts just from living life.

Now, I understand the systems at work, and the interactions between them a lot better than before.  Some of my original beliefs seem a bit naive, others have been reinforced with much better rationale than I had before.

Overall, I enjoyed the class, and even though I kind of resented the book review assignment initially, the book was a great read, and provided a lot of insight into what we do and left me with a lot of curiosity as to why we continue to do them.

Course Feedback

Here is my feedback from this course.

First off, I like the format, I see a lot of potential in this particular way of teaching, and I think I learned more than I would have as it was more self-guided than courses I’m used to.

I’ll admit freely there were obvious issues that were came up throughout the course.  Those were identified, and we adapted, so I’m not going to pick at those.   But here are a few things I think could be done differently.

  • More frequent posts from the instructor, highlighted on the main page.  I think it would be really helpful to have a separate table listing highlighting instructor posts vs. student posts.
  • Feedback and Grades.  I never really knew where I stood in this course.  I’m not asking for hand-holding, but more frequent posting of scores of assignments would’ve eased some anxiety.
  • We did a lot of posting, but not a lot of commenting.  I think the course could benefit from more student to student interaction.  I’m not sure how you do that, but it would increase the value of the course.

Overall, I liked the change of format.  I’m sure I would’ve really enjoyed the third or fourth iteration of this type of class.  Don’t give up on it, I think it’s a good move.

Book Review: “What’s the Economy For Anyway”

 

Book ReviewEconomy: What’s the Economy For Anyway?:  Why it’s time to stop chasing growth and start pursuing happiness

By:  John de Graff and David K. Batker

eISBN:  978-1-60819-514-5

Publisher:  Bloomsbury Press 2011

 

The Authors are John de Graff, and David K. Batker.  John is the executive director of Take Back Your Time, and The Happiness initiative.  He is a recognized author, and documentary television producer.  David is the executive director of Earth Economics, and is involved in several organizations promoting sustainability, through economics.

This book is 13 chapters, and focuses on the actual purpose behind the economy.  It takes a look at why we set our economic goals the way we did, and how our current goals, don’t really represent what we need and want our economy to produce for us.

  • Chapter 1: “The Grossest Domestic Product” Explores how we arrived at our current economic indicators specifically GDP, and GNP, and what value they provide. It also gives an introduction to what value they do not provide.
  • Chapter 2: “The Pursuit of Happiness” Takes a look at how our economy could contribute to our happiness. Including examples of nations who take Gross National Happiness very seriously, and what results they are seeing.
  • Chapter 3: “Provisioning the Good Life” This takes a look at our needs, beyond Maslow’s hierarchy. What does it take to maintain not just life, but a good life, and how well do our economic policies provide those things.
  • Chapter 4: “Unhealthy at Any Cost” This looks at our healthcare. Specifically, how much we spend, vs. the results we achieve.  It questions the value of our high health spending, vs. our poor health outcomes.
  • Chapter 5: “Risky Business” This reviews our risks.  It looks at how we strive to remain independent, and how it relates to government programs, and insurance coverages.  It explores how additional government support can reduce our risks, and improve our quality of life.
  • Chapter 6: “The Time Squeeze” Reviews the typical American lifestyle and how we spend our time. Through things such as reduced workweeks, increased vacations, and shorter commutes it looks at how other countries have overcome the loss of time, and improved their lifestyles.
  • Chapter 7: “The Greatest Number” This chapter looks at fairness. How to distribute things fairly throughout society.  It also looks at the income gap, and its impact.  It also dives into how Finland has overcome several obstacles regarding inequality.
  • Chapter 8: “The Capacity Question” This chapter covers quite a bit.  From earning and education capacity, to mass transit, and how some capacity issues are addressed through workplace democracy.
  • Chapter 9: “The Longest Run: Sustainability” The idea of this chapter is simple.  How can we keep things going for as long as possible?  How do we make our practices sustainable?  It spends a majority of its time looking at natural resources, and how to ensure they continue to exist for our utilization in the future.
  • Chapter 10: “Ancient History” This chapter discusses American impact on economic methods. It looks through our history, and how the American experience has shaped economic processes and concepts worldwide.
  • Chapter 11: “When (or How) Good Went Bad” This chapter looks at American economics from 1968 forward. It reviews how our economic system started failing our needs,  and the world events that occurred to hasten that failure.
  • Chapter 12: “The Housing, Banking, Finance, Debt, Bankruptcy, Foreclosure, Unemployment, Currency, …Hell-of-a-Mess Crisis” This chapter examines how deregulation in the early 2000’s has impacted the U.S. economy, and it’s cascading impacts on the world economy, and the financial crises it created. It also looks at different solutions that could stabilize our current situation.
  • Chapter 13: “Building a Twenty-first-Century Economy of Life, Liberty, and Happiness” This chapter is a summary of all the points made throughout the book.  It looks at our options, and sets goals for the future.

I’ll say at the beginning of this review that the authors take a very strong “We are doing it all wrong” point of view.  However, they make compelling cases, and I tend to agree with the majority of what they are saying.  It looks at what the economy does, and if the goals we set are to our benefit. Where it fails that check, they question why we are still doing those things, and examines how others are doing them better.  The book does leave me with an uneasy feeling that I should seek out opposing views though.  The book is written in a way that it examines issues, and offers solutions that seem casually obvious.    The fact that many of their proposed solutions have not been implemented makes me think there should be more research into the reasons why not.

There are two main themes in the book.  The first is best summed up in the quote from Gifford Pinchot, who was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.  His goal was to achieve “the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest run”.  This is the approach used to guide the other theme of the book, which is not quite as simple.  The authors want us to look at what we are doing, why we are doing it, and to consider examples we have in the world on how to do it better, in regards to our economy.

This book has really given me pause to consider a lot of our economic issues, and how they can be resolved.  Each chapter gives another insight into a facet of the economy, and potential solutions to that facet.  While there are too many to list in a review of this book, I’ll summarize two of them.

The first that really struck a chord with me was a German policy called Kurzarbit or “short work”.  It pushes employers to reduce overall hours, as opposed to laying off workers when there is a need to reduce their workforce.  Instead of cutting employees, they can reduce everyone’s hours by a certain percentage, and workers can receive unemployment for up to 90% of their original hours, while keeping their jobs.  The impact a policy like this would’ve had during our recent recession would have improved the lives of many Americans, and kept a lot of people in work, and even possibly out of mortgage foreclosure.

Another approach I found interesting was from a small country called Bhutan. In 1972 this country instituted a measure of Gross National Happiness.  They use this measure to help guide all governmental policy and decisions.  Many nations have started using them as a template to build their own measures of happiness, and it seems to be working.  As opposed to simply looking at how we can increase our national product, we should start looking at why we are doing it, and what the impact is on our citizens.

There are a lot of approaches as to how we can improve our nation, and economy in this book.  It looks at the human side, such as how we spend our time, what makes us happier, and what we as people get from our increased production.  It also reviews our impact on the world, if our practices are sustainable, and how we can make them that way.  And finally, it reviews what we have already done economically, how those things have helped and hindered us, what our true goals should be, and what we can do to improve on those policies that have failed us.

The book is written to be read casually, however the concepts listed in are far from it.  It’s definitely thought-provoking, and worth the time to read.  It covered almost every concept from our class this year, with the exception of the histories of economics.  Overall, it’s left me with a  lot to think about.

Sustainable Food

Time do to a little thinking about sustainable food and agriculture.  The last few units seem to be about what the economy should be, not just what it is.  When it comes to agriculture, sustainable seems to be the same.  It’s what agriculture should be, but not entirely what it is.

So… what do I see as sustainable agriculture. At a most basic level to me, it is agriculture that doesn’t deplete or damage the environment it depends on to function.  This isn’t a new concept.  It started around 6000 B.C. with crop rotation.  The idea that agriculture as it is, fails to be sustainable makes me wonder why we haven’t run out of food already.  Agriculture by it’s nature requires it be sustainable.  Farms can’t get new fields every year, and you can’t feed cattle and pigs on hope.  Crops keep growing year after year.  So there has to be more to it.

This to me is where the rest of the environment comes in.  Agriculture affects the non-agriculture areas around it.  Pesticides and fertilizers mess with the wetlands, lakes and rivers.  It impacts other natural food sources like fish and wildlife.  Sustainable agriculture would not have a negative impact on the world around it, and we’ve proven over and over that it’s possible to have completely sustainable agricultural practices.

So why don’t we do it, if it’s already possible?  That’s where the economy ties back into it all.  It’s profit driven.  We work the land, and breed our animals for maximum output, with minimum input.  Very early on we discussed how money is essentially a form of rationing goods.  With goods kept to a minimum, it makes sense to try to use the least we can to produce the most we can.  Anyone who has managed a farm knows a whole lot about food efficiency, and it’s measured all the time.  A careful farmer can tell you how much muscle gain his animals get per pound of grain.

Sustainable agriculture would require us to abandon this idea.  We need to be less concerned about maximum output, for minimum input, and more concerned about the land owned by the guy next door.  The problem is, how do you make someone abandon the idea of earning more money so he can take better care of his own home, and family?  How do you make a farm, look 50-100 years down the line, when he might not have enough money to get him through the winter?

I think we are stuck.  I only see two ways out, we need a system that puts sustainability over profit, and rewards it.  Or we need to find a way to make sustainable agriculture more profitable than other forms of agriculture.  Demonizing farms for doing what our own economic system encourages them to do, isn’t exactly helpful.  Until we change the model, the results will stay the same.

More than just economics….

Quite a bit of what I’ve studied so far about economics, up until we’ve reached this most recent unit has been all about what is best for economic growth.  Recently, the units we review have started looking at what our economy should be as opposed to what it is.

A lot of what I have been reading is about measuring happiness.  Not just economic happiness, but what the economy can do to improve our every day happiness.  In my experience, these two items are usually exclusive, and looking at how they impact each other is interesting.

It seems that our personal economic state impacts our happiness, but only to a point.  Once you reach and expand beyond a certain point, it can’t influence it anymore.  Increasing happiness any further can’t be done by access to more “stuff”, it takes people and time.  But, it doesn’t mean our economy can’t influence that as well.  A lot of nations seem to be increasing our personal time through economic rules.  Things like 35 hour work weeks, effective public transportation, and mandatory paid vacation times are increasing the happiness in European nations.   While these things may seem to have a negative economic impact, it’s not showing up in practice.  What’s happening is people are becoming happier through being more social, active,  and interactive with their communities while production grows or remains the same.

Productivity vs. Working Hours

 

The chart above shows that productivity is not a result of how many hours you work.  In fact, productivity declines the longer people work.  If we are to measure happiness, and productivity together, we might yet be able to come up with a working measure that not only increases our production, but makes us happier while we do it.

 

A little Preview of My Book

I’ve been reading “What’s the Economy for Anyway?” and it’s been a pretty good read so far (for an economics book).  I won’t lie and tell you it’s something I’d read in my free time, but for a reading assignment, it’s really eye opening, and written in a way to keep me interested.

So far, and I’m guessing for the entire book, it’s been questioning our entire concept of how we run the American economy.  It asks over and over, if the goals we are chasing, are the best choice for Americans.  It doesn’t look at the economy as something we should be working to improve.  It looks at it more as something that should be working to improve us.

It questions if the goals for GDP are in our best interest, and finds over and over that they are not.  In fact, it finds they are oftentimes harmful.  An example it gives is that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was extremely beneficial to our GDP, with all the jobs created and money spent to limit and reverse the damage.  It’s hard to imagine how GDP has our best interest at heart when something so damaging has a positive impact on the national GDP goal.

One of the most irritating approaches I hear every day at work when I ask why we do something is “Because we’ve always done it that way”.  I spend a lot of time getting people out of that mindset, and looking for smarter, better ways do do things.  I think this book resonates with me a bit, because it’s using that same approach.  Why have we done things this way for so long?  Is what we are doing still making sense?

I don’t want to spoil my book report, but the concepts in this book, are well worth investigating, and like everything else in this course has been doing, it’s changing my outlook on how things should be running.