The deluge of articles analyzing the causes, impact and remedies of the deepening economic crisis that has a vise-like grip on the nation overlook the fundamental flaw in the doctrine that drives economic policy. Since World War II, ever-increasing consumption has become the unquestioned, singular force driving economic policy, reaching its apogee in hedonistic, Epicurean solipsism, the prevailing value in North American culture. To date, ever-increasing consumerism postulates unsustainable economic growth, which has become a background assumption or axiom which almost never surfaces as an issue for critical analysis.
Surprisingly, the crypto-crisis of economic growth was recognized in 1972 by a group of scientists who formed an organization called “The Club of Rome” who concluded that “The short doubling time [of exponential growth] of many of man’s activities…will bring us closer to the limits of growth…The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.”
Growth has been deeply rooted in our economic zeitgeist since the early 1950s and has been considered so essential to prosperity and job creation that every president since the early 1950s has emphasized its crucial determinacy to the health of the nation in their State of the Union Addresses. In 1955, Eisenhower reassured Congress that “There are solid grounds for confidence that economic growth will be resumed without an extended interruption.” Kennedy affirmed in 1963 that “Programs for full utilization of existing resources are the indispensable first step in a positive policy for economic growth.” Johnson stated that “Our basic task is threefold: First to keep our economy growing…” Then Carter warned that “The economy must keep on expanding to produce new jobs and better income” in 1978. Next, Reagan explained in 1984 that “The key to a dynamic decade is vigorous economic growth, our first great goal.” Clinton boasted that “Over the last 4 years, we have brought new economic growth” in 1997. In 2002, George W. Bush noted that “The way out of this recession, the way to create jobs, is to grow the economy.”
Governments around the world have adopted the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the decisive and foremost measure of economic importance, but it camouflages the disastrous consequences of unsustainable growth. It may be the ideal measurement for those who benefit from this type of growth, but it does not reflect the well-being of the overwhelming majority of people. GDP is so rife with critical flaws, such as negative counting, an absence of quality of life components, wealth distribution (per capita is misleading) and environmental concerns as to render it completely useless as an economic indicator.
Growing the economy without consideration for the impact on resource depletion, the environment, waste, human rights and sustainability has become antediluvian. There are many alternatives for job creation, sustainability and increasing everyone’s standard of living. America lags behind most European nations in developing alternative forms of energy and can generate jobs and save resources by investing much greater sums of money in wind power, solar energy and conservation techniques, rather than treating it as a token investment in a project that lacks urgency.
Another method for creating jobs and increasing prosperity is the development of programs to share aggregate working hours by shortening the workweek, lengthening vacations, sabbaticals for upgrading job skills, lengthy paid maternity and paternity leaves and less overtime. Americans work longer than most workers around the world despite the fact that the U.S. has the highest productivity. Working fewer hours would create many more new jobs, increase the productivity of labor, free workers to devote more time to family and leisure and alleviate the burden of people who are now forced to work part-time or more than one job.
Treating unsustainable growth as the apotheosis of economic theory was not the choice of the masses but of voracious corporations with an insatiable appetite for profits. Corporate power resulting in an endangered planet can no longer frame public policy to serve their interests. For President Obama to establish himself as a truly progressive and innovative President, he must wrestle the public agenda away from the clutches of corporations and redefine it to serve the interests of the American people.
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