The Failing Science
Foxground Sunset (Southern Highlands, New South Wales)
to be replaced by the Wellbeing Index
At university I studied, among other things, Economics, known, for good reason, as the dismal science. My tutor once asked the class I attended for our definition of the subject we had enrolled in, and, not being a conventional student, if there is such a thing, I offered a one word answer which, to this day, defies contradiction. That one word? Expectation. I proffered the theory that, at its core, Economics is the study of peoples behaviour with money based on what they expect will happen. I’m still waiting for my Nobel Prize.
Needless to say, my tutor returned a quizzical look, he hadn’t come across a definition like this before, it was one that, he conceded, might well be definitive, if simplistic. I’m not sure it helped my studies, it probably indicated that perhaps I should follow another line of study, or just go out onto the street and busk. I got out before I could cause further damage to the faculty and to myself.
We are at present, being bombarded with claim and counter claim, what with one election gone and another coming along shortly with the various slogans developing quite nicely, as if they believe them, about who might be able to manage this economy of ours, thereby taking the nation and its people into the rich cornucopia to which it is so richly entitled. We’re reminded of the measures of wealth, statistics (which will admit to anything if tortured for long enough), growth here and growth there, the more of this and the less of that. We’re also told we have a ‘standard of living’ we need to protect, it’s a term I’ve never been able to get my head around. What is it exactly, this ‘standard of living’ we are meant to have, or seek, or protect.
That rather more accomplished Dismal Scientist, John Kenneth Galbraith, put it this way, somewhat prosaically, many years ago, that “what is called a high standard of living consists, in considerable measure, in arrangements for avoiding muscular energy, for increasing sensual pleasure and enhancing caloric intake above any conceivable nutritional requirement.” I didn’t much take to Galbraith at university but I’m beginning to warm to him.
This standard of living is only serviceable as long as it exists in perfect harmony with any avoidance of other factors that threaten it. I’m thinking particularly of any life changing event that comes along that adds a hitherto unknown perspective to one’s life, when any standard of living one may have had is turfed out the window just so that this life changing event that suddenly takes precedence makes this ‘standard of living’ we’d been chasing turn into a blithering mass of irrelevance and a bagatelle in our own personal history.
The true wealth of a nation is defined not by perpetuating the myth of economic growth but by how it looks after those less well off, those who have had an unlucky break, those who are sick and need caring for, those who need shelter, this is what provides the platform for the wealth of any nation. The hiccup is that there is currently no way to measure it, or is there?
I have spent some of the past month attempting to work out my own inner response to the various platitudes and self absorbed utterances of late, from those who have a microphone, in whatever form that takes. I retrieved something I had written some years ago, and had posted on my home page, leaving it there to fester in perpetuity. I repeat it here, for no reason other than, probably, intellectual and artistic laziness. It goes something like this – what is certain is that while some are busy making the most of the world, there are others trying to make sense of it. What is also certain is that the talent being applied to this effort can overcome almost anything, even encouragement. It’s how artists spend their time, trying to make sense of things.
Pursuing a standard of living is a meaningless distraction if your twelve year old son can’t walk around the block because he has cystic-fibrosis, or if your eight year old daughter suffers so badly from cerebral palsy that she can’t run unassisted once around her local park, or the husband whose wife with dementia doesn’t remember him or their 30 years together, or if your child has been diagnosed with a brain tumour that threatens to cut short an ambition to see them grow up and pursue this phoney ‘standard of living’ espoused by middle aged white men in badly fitting suits who run the show. Ask the mother who sees her daughter take off her callipers and walk unaided for the first time for her definition of a ‘standard of living.’
Part of this pursuit of this long standing trope is fear, we’re afraid of what we don’t understand and so we retreat into it so that we can feed it, this fear, startling our sleeping ears to hear that someone has suddenly discovered us having a nap and given us a nudge, reminding us that everything is actually all right, the kettle is boiled and would we like a cup of tea. Our expectation is that these things will never befall us and so we need not include them in any ‘standard of living’ equation, so it’s back to trimming the hedges.
I have seen a lot of it lately, this redefinition of what ‘standard of living’ is meant to entail, or perhaps my antenna is more attuned to it of late, I’m not sure, which ensures that I’ll never make the mistake of running for office, of any type.
It begs the question which you probably knew was coming – what are we prepared to surrender so that we can become that better, wealthier nation. I did read ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in between university classes and it made as little sense then as it does now. I’ve made more sense of things reading Camus, Boochani, Orwell, Beckett, or Steinbeck. It possibly has something to do with getting older and knowing less then I used to, retreating into the silence of contemplation, of trying to rein in the rage inside and not think about things too deeply.
Creating wealth in its most basic form is a perfectly acceptable pursuit and one not to be derided, the distinction needs to be made, this is not a treatise on wealth creation, it’s a meditation on what it means to be truly prosperous and for us to know deep down that we are at our most prosperous, that we smile most, when we see people overcome pain and hardship. It’s not a unique perspective, most people who experience this earth shift come to a similar conclusion, if only the suits could be convinced and who, if my experience is anything to go by, may be underestimating our preparedness for such an undertaking.
And so the failed student of the dismal sciences and the artist doing his worst impression of a Picasso painting, a Camus novel, or a Beethoven sonata asks – what is the price we are prepared to pay to have this truly wealthy nation?
The character of any individual is not summarised by what he or she does, where they live or what they drive, it’s by what the things that come their way turn them into. It doesn’t need a doctrine, a theory, a policy, a treatise, a mission statement, or a sacred text, you just need to open your window and take a look outside. Look at the people who have been affected by anything that threatens this ‘standard of living’ endlessly shouted in the political parade ground and you’ll see what I mean.