Our Goal: Redefine “Economic Growth”

This book is entitled A Larger Pie to emphasize a view of the world in which we all lead our lives trying to get (and often compete for) pieces of a pie that keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Whether it involves economic commodities such as money, or emotional commodities like a sense of community, the book argues that one person becoming richer or more connected need not come at the expense of anyone else; all of us can have more money and more community.  As you will soon see, furthermore, the book more accurately would have a title like: How the Pie Keeps Growing Larger Especially After We Change Some of Its Basic Ingredients.  This big mouthful (no pun intended) would be more accurate because our primary task here is to rethink–and redefine–economic growth.

This sounds like it might be daunting and boring.   But it is necessary, unavoidable and overdue.  To mix metaphors, “economic growth” has become our (in the U.S.) civic religion, and it is an emperor who is naked (for those who did not encounter the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” during childhood, it is about the dangers of group-think.)  Think of something worrying you today–e.g. climate change or the number of college graduates who can’t find a job–and a new (correct) definition of “economic growth” is essential to addressing that worry.

At times, to rethink growth may also be difficult; what’s worthwhile in life rarely comes easily.  But (here comes the good part), it will be fun. It will also empower us; strengthen our democracy; reaffirm our ability to shape the type of lives (and country) we want; and rescue the American Dream.  This dream (which has no precise definition, but roughly means basic “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”) needs rescue because one aspect of the dream–acquiring money and material possessions–has increasingly become (for reasons we will examine) the dream.

So sit back. Settle in. Fasten your seatbelts.  The ride may become bumpy.  If you get distracted or begin to feel overwhelmed, remember that a happy ending awaits. Yes, refreshments will be served.  And, not to sound like a late-night television commercial, but if you complete this journey you will receive one more thing. The greatest achievement any of us can hope for, the ancient Greeks wrote, is to see life as it is and as beautiful at the same time.  That, too, will be an inevitable by-product of redefining economic growth.

 


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Comments

Mayu says:

As my generation reads this book, I think that we are reminded of the potentials we face in terms of our own lives. Many of us, I’m sure, are perfectly happy with our lives, seeing it as it is and beautiful at the same time. But the difficulty will be maintaining it.
Some of us are on the cusp of adulthood and we face decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to make our own decisions, but maybe we can help ourselves make sure that we won’t have to feel like our lives don’t match up to our expectations.
So Dr. Swerdlow says we will rescue the “American Dream.”
What exactly is the American Dream? I’m not quite sure, but answering this question will be a crucial part of Larger Pie.
My role here is to facilitate a dialogue and to help navigate the often times complicated pathway Dr. Swerdlow has created for us towards redefining economic growth. I encourage you to join the discussion as we tell stories, point to studies, and guide our journey towards rediscovering what it means to be wealthy in America.
This isn’t a lecture, and it’s not our aim to have you agree with us every step of the way. In fact, Dr. Swerdlow and I won’t always agree, either. We want to hear from people who disagree, have questions, or have observations. We want you to be a voice in the process.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

You raise a good question about the ancient Greeks. Did they mean to see YOUR OWN life as it is and as beautiful at the same time, or to see life for people in general as it is and as beautiful at the same time?
There is a big difference.

Mayu says:

I had always assumed they were talking about individual lives, I now realize that the bigger challenge would be to see life in general and its ups and downs as all beautiful.
But I think seeing your life as beautiful as it is may be a prerequisite to the broader view. If you’re not satisfied with your own life, how can you see the life of others as beautiful?

Natasha says:

Our generation is an interesting one. Millennials are perhaps the first generation with such high and far-reaching expectations.
We, more than any other generation, are redefining the parameters of life in nearly every way – from the way we think about and use technology, to romantic relationships, to career pathways. However, I think that it is a bit far reaching to say that most of our generation is content with the pace of our lives.
When talking about “our generation” we must ask ourselves who we are, including in this group. Are we talking about the ambitious over achieving Archers? OR are we talking about the thousands, probably millions, of young people who are graduating during the Great Recession and are faced with minimal job prospects, the potential for lackluster lifetime earnings with little increase over time, and a large amount of student debt?
Reaching the cusp of adulthood is trying in and of itself, but compounded by the Great Recession and the numerous and seemingly intractable problems our country is currently attempting to address leads many, including me, to feel a great sense of frustration, even futility at times.
If we are going to rewrite the American Dream then we must examine not only our own lives and the lives of people who resemble us, but the people whose stories are so different from our own.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

By “your generation” I mean an age group shaped by the same images and memories. You are the post-9/11 generation. You may remember seeing the World Trade Center towers fall, but you have no good memories of an America not “at war with terrorism.” About half of you go to college. You can’t imagine life without smart phones and Wikipedia.

Camden says:

The American Dream has lately been an object of political contention. Comprised within this debate are values of wealth and opportunity which, when juxtaposed, offer mutually infringing solutions. Hence the controversy amongst politicians and politically conscious citizens who have varying degrees of understanding and hope for “The American Dream.”
With no offense intended against Mr. James Truslow Adams, perhaps the American Dream can be saved through a new definition; one agreeable to those in our country who hearken to our formal glory and those who see America as a pioneer in a world of equitable actors.
This can be a foundation for compromise- an integral tool needed for a generation whose challenge will be to recognize that contentions of wealth and opportunity cannot drive a wedge through a society that hopes to survive.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Will our ultimate redefinition of wealth satisfy and unite both conservatives and liberals? I don’t know yet, and I am not even sure whether such agreement would be a good thing.

Mayu says:

I think that it will be difficult to generate a precise definition of the American Dream that we can all agree on beyond the vague notion of success in American society through upward social mobility. What we can agree on regardless of our ideologies however, is that in the process of pursuing what we believe to be our Dream, we often times end up losing sight of ourselves. This can be seen in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the tragic tale of the struggling and proud salesman Willy Loman.
Like Willy, who rejects his craft of carpentry in favor of being a salesman “to sell, to convince, to charm,” we have turned ourselves into a product, looking to market and mold ourselves to fit the job description.
In this depressing and dystopic world, the American Dream is taken hostage by the need to “move up” while being happy, whatever that means, is forgotten.
Our task here is to reintegrate a real measure of happiness into our discussion of the American Dream and economic growth. What the American Dream means to each one of us in detailed terms is probably something each individual will determine. But while we may not agree on an exact definition that will satisfy everyone, we should recognize the deficiency within the status quo and agree on the need for renewed discourse.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

“Reintegrate” happiness into the American Dream?
When was it actually part of the dream?

Mayu says:

I definitely believe that once upon a time the American Dream was more about our happiness and less about making money.
When many of our ancestors came to the United States, many of them didn’t come just so we could make ends meet. They came because there was something appealing about the American way of life.
My father chose to relocate our family to America because he thought my sister and I would benefit more from an American childhood, and he was willing to take a pay-cut for it (and because he hated that he couldn’t play as much tennis as he wanted to in Japan).
The American Dream for me has always been about balancing the need for financial resources with the need to have a high quality of life, whether that is a good education, friendly neighbors, or the ability to play tennis.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Just read an article in the Wall Street Journal that defines the American Dream as “wealth that culminates in freedom.” (“What the Chinese Want,” May 19-20, 2012).
WHAT? Freedom from what? Having to work for a living? How about basic freedom of religion or freedom from arbitrary arrest? Is the WSJ admitting that the best way to get these freedoms, too, is to become “wealthy”?

Mayu says:

It’s difficult to discern an exact definition of the American Dream based on the vague wording provided by the Wall Street Journal piece. In the context of the article, the “wealth” they speak of is most likely financial and material, but as Dr. Swerdlow points out, what is the “freedom” that they are speaking of?
Analyses of the article aside, to answer your questions from my own perspective, the American Dream has less to do with wealth and more to do with freedom. The American Dream to me is the freedom to be successful in every aspect of your life – financially, socially, personally – without one overtaking the others.
My idea of the American Dream (which I should point out is evolving) presupposes the guarantee of political, religious and economic freedoms. But the WSJ article explicitly places wealth as a precursor to freedom, which assumes that financial prosperity is the route to freedom, whatever that means.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Maybe part of the American Dream is to be able to make up (and change) what you think the “American Dream” means–e.g. maybe the American Dream means each of us can have our own American Dream.
That sounds attractive, but doesn’t it also seem wrong? Shouldn’t the “American Dream” be something that unites us and calls us forward towards the same goal?

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Many people say (believe) that the American Dream is to have a better life than your parents. This forces us to focus on “better”–bigger house, more time for golf, more laughter at the family dinner table?
Experts say that (unless current trends change) the generation of Americans being born now will be the first in our history to have a shorter life-span than its parents. The reason: diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity (which is, as we will see, largely a by-product of advertising, electronics and other forces associated with a wealth-oriented consumer society).

Natasha says:

The first step to redefining the American Dream is to move away from this notion of “the way we were.” We need to understand that the American Dream is part truth and part myth, (40:60? 50:50? I’m not sure whether it is more myth than reality or vice versa.).
Dr. Swerdlow and Mayu both bring up interesting points.
Dr. Swerdlow mentioned that this may be the first generation of young people who do not do better than their parents. I have to wonder, however, when was this ever a guarantee? I know America paints itself to be this great meritocracy, and in comparison to other nations it is, but in reality life was and still is inherently unfair.
However, it is also true that over the years we have used democracy to create a more fair society. I think our generation sees the widening gap between the richest and the poorest people in this nation and we know in our hearts that something is wrong. At times it seems that the path towards progress is being inched back.
To Mayu’s point, I do not think the American Dream ever meant emphasizing happiness over wealth and/or financial security. A better quality of life was surely important to the swaths of people who have come to this country over the centuries; however I would say the majority of them saw that in terms of financial gain and the “freedoms” that come with more money.
So what next? If the American Dream appears to be more myth than reality and our generation sees that plainly, what to do about it? Does that mean totally scratching our current definition for an entirely new one? And what would we say our new core values should be? If an addiction to consumption and wealth is corroding what we deem to be our most fundamental beliefs then how do we address that?
Food for thought from NPR in this ongoing debate:
“The archetypal American dream was deeper than being richer and better looking than your parents,” he says. “It was about identity — forging it, discovering it yourself, not inheriting it.” But as it became easier, and even expected, to be self-made, the moral and spiritual pull of family, village, calling and religion receded into the mist, Meyer says. And along about the 1960s, “self-determination essentially became a consumer choice…For many Americans, he says, the challenge of near total life freedom …has been that shedding old ties and traditions turns out to be easier than finding meaningful new ones; forming a modern ‘lifestyle’ often ends being narcissistic and consumerist.”

Weeks, Linton. “With The American Dream Comes The Nightmare.” NPR May 30, 2012. Accessed July 3, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/30/152672803/with-the-american-dream-comes-the-nightmare

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Wow! How images of the 1960s change! Actually living in the 1960s, it was filled with idealism, unrest and not a small amount of violence. Now, more and more people seem to see it with nostalgia as a time of rising incomes–desirable because the pie was still getting bigger.
Maybe, instead of a song about “the day the music died,” we need a song about “when the pie stopped growing.”

Zach Fichtenbaum says:

To play devil’s advocate, Dr. Swerdlow invites us to redefine wealth, to replace material wealth and zeroes in the bank account with new and important goals that push our quality of life to be defined by more than the quantity of things we can accumulate in that life. I love this proposal. It is among the biggest of ideas. But isn’t it a bit like a guy atop Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs all happy with his nirvana and self-actualization criticizing everyone else for wanting to get some food and shelter?

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

No. I’m talking about the Era of Extraneous and Manipulated Needs. That’s what we live in.
And one characteristic of these Needs is they seem to suck life out of things we really need like community and a sense of inner peace.
(Of course, one of the most sickening aspects of this Era is that a huge number (and percentage) of people lack basic nutrition, etc.–starvation and malnutrition amidst food that’s just rotting.
Maybe that’s part of the human condition. The Bible, for example, reminds us that there will always be “poor” people.)

Mayu says:

Thanks to everyone for their fantastic contributions so far. It’s amazing to see the different points and perspectives that we hadn’t explored before and I’m glad that people asking great questions and pointing out potential flaws in our thinking.
We see this as a forum to ask the questions that we have about the world where it’s a guarantee that we will receive an enlightened and intelligent response not just from Dr. Swerdlow, but from anyone of us (something that can’t be said for most comments sections).
I hope that we can keep up the great conversations that we’ve started here, and Zach, I love that you raised a really interesting point about Maslow’s hierarchy. There’s something true in what you say, which is that it may be difficult for us to have this discussion about changing the way we think about economic growth if we were struggling to scrape by.
The very fact that we have the ability to learn to make choices and prioritize certain things over financial gain as we reach adulthood and enter the job market means that we are in a better financial place than many people who don’t have such a luxury. We have a college education and we have decent (although not fantastic) job prospects. We have fulfilled most, if not all of our physiological needs as far as Maslow’s hierarchy is concerned.
For many, the same can’t be said. Many people know that they won’t be better off than their parents were, and they are simply trying to build a base of economic stability from which their children can climb the ladder to prosperity.
So what do you think this mean in terms of Larger Pie? Is this just a highbrow intellectual talent show? Or are we doing something that has the potential to do something more?

Mayu says:

Natasha, I agree with you that financial improvement has always had primacy over simply being able to improve one’s quality of life (after all, it takes money to do that to a certain point). But I think the difference we may have is that I think the American Dream has become more about wealth and less about happiness.
Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic here, but in the commercial society that we live in — where we are constantly bombarded with images of material prosperity and physical beauty that is obtained at any cost — we started to think that we needed money to be happy.
No one wants to be poor, but we’ve reached a point where being middle class is no longer enough, where our constant want of things requires that we have an ever-growing piece of the pie. We started to sacrifice internal happiness for the appearance of happiness.
Natasha’s definitely right that it was never a guarantee that we would do better than our parents. I think we can all accept that at a certain time, we were going to reach a point where the pie couldn’t grow any larger and where it got too fattening for our own good.
So assuming all we’ve said is true, isn’t it about time we started thinking about other ways to make ourselves happy besides our salary, the ups and downs of the stock markets and the number of things we have?

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

“Just a highbrow intellectual talent show”? It could easily become that if people use their comments to show off how smart and well-read they are. But I’m deadly serious about using the intelligence and passions of a loosely defined community out there to create something that eventually changes us–and some (much?) of the outside world.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Makes me wonder what you’d find if you asked people how much they had laughed so far today–or during the previous week.

Sidd Dadhich says:

The statement that our generation will be responsible for resurrecting the American Dream presupposes two things: one, that there is an objectively superior conception of the American dream, and two, an implication that the nation including the individual serves to benefit from this new conception of the dream shared by many people. Although it seems fairly plausible that the latter may be true, it depends on the requisite discovery and acceptance of the former.
Arguing about the conception of the dream is seemingly an exercise in impotence without focusing on how we will facilitate a favored conception of the dream.
Should the government facilitate conceptions of the dream, helping citizens reach higher standards of living through health care reform and social policy initiatives? Or is that very action encroaching on the dreams of others by forcing them to pay for the possible shortcomings of their fellow man? Should we restrict certain actions or activities, some of which cause seemingly little harm, due to a belief that our nation is turning away from a certain conception of the dream? These questions inexorably arise when we focus on a particular conception, and are hotly debated issues sure to splinter the American people for years to come.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Well, the “American Dream” is to a large degree a poetic device we use to address questions such as:
1/ What, if anything, makes the U.S. different and special?
2/ What does a society set as its goals when it is more than rich enough to address everyone’s basic needs? and
3/ For each of us, what is the larger purpose (or purposes) to which we are devoted?
Something has gone off track, and your generation must go along with that (wherever it might take us) or find/develop a new track.

Thoughts?

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