Friday, November 09, 2012

What about capitalism? What about happiness?

My comments below (I am "Person Z") came from a brief interchange on Facebook with a friend of a friend. I was encouraged and impressed with the willingness of Person Y to discuss and listen to different points of view, including my own...

Person X Writes: Everybody agrees our economy is broken yet nobody ever questions capitalism. That's like trying to diagnose a car that does not run without ever checking the engine.

Person Y Writes: I question capitalism, every day. It isn't sustainable.

Person Z Writes: What do you propose as an alternative? What would you use to measure the level of success or failure of your alternative?

Person Y Writes: I'd use Happiness as my Measure.

Person Z Writes: I'm more concerned with what millions of people want than what I want. I find that I can be happy under almost any circumstances (unless I am misunderstanding what you mean by happiness). I believe I am responsible for my own emotional state, that it is in my control (one of the few things that IS in my control), so happiness is a pretty simple and low ambition of mine.

But I also understand that I am just a small piece of what makes the world tick, that what I have today (including being able to have this conversation) has depended on an economic model called "competitive markets." And that this model has produced miraculous things (like giving me the time, education, and technology to be able to have this conversation) and horrendous things (like global warming, exploitation of people, etc.).

I am also aware of a longer historical perspective, and know the benefits that we take for granted today were not available to humans even 500 years ago. Do we have it right? Certainly not. Is it better than it was 10, 100, 1000, 10000, 100000 years ago? I'm not sure, though I would tend to believe that life even 100 years ago was spent more on basic needs than we spend today, that education levels of much of the human species is greater, that "freedom" and "human rights" are greater, etc. Does all the good outweigh the bad? That is a much more interesting question to me than talking about which system is "right" or "wrong." How many people should I care about as I consider alternatives? How do that many people agree on anything? These are much harder, challenging questions that seem more compassionate and caring for a larger audience than my own wants and needs. What can I do to help more people benefit from the greater freedom, challenge, and inspiration that I have found in my life that I don't think I would have been able to find 1000 years ago?

I wonder what the world would be like if we measured the success of the human species in terms of how the bottom 10% experiences their lives? This is in contrast to the way individuals might view their own success as separate from other people's success. It is also in contrast with a belief that is pervasive in our communities that the success of the community is measured by how well the top 10% are doing. For example, what would sports look like if we measured the success of a sport by how well the worst players were doing, instead of focusing on the best players? Now that is a question worthy of my attention and effort. What if we cared about the bottom 10% more than we idolize and aspire to be in the top 10%?