Measuring Quality of Life

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is convenient for economists and politicians, but it misleads us into thinking an increase in GDP makes us better off. More guns, worse natural disasters, and private prisons add to GDP, but show us that not every contribution to GDP improves our lives.

Measures of the improvement in the quality of our lives is vastly more important. Unfortunately, GDP is easier to measure, so that’s what we look at. As any laid-off or underpaid worker can tell you, the quality of life for everyone but the richest few has been stagnant or declining for decades in spite of rocketing GDP. The desperation of these workers is why Donald Trump’s lies about how he was going to make everything better convinced them.

Every demagogue knows he must tell his followers that they have an enemy who is to blame for all their miseries. Hitler blamed the Jews, and Trump blamed Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton. Those elite, pointy-headed, out-of-touch ivory tower intellectuals who never worked a day in their lives and don’t know what the real world is like. Liars. Criminals.

We don’t have a good, simple measure of the quality of life yet, but we do know that it does not lie in the realm of “stuff”. We already have too much stuff, and the addition of an 80-inch TV will not improve our quality of life.

Actually, it’s relatively easy in modern nations to have high quality of life. Why do we not have it? We do not have high quality of life because the very rich and corporate powers have given far too much wealth to themselves and to Congress. Members of Congress are all given fabulous amounts of money in the expectation that it will earn access for lobbyists to convince Congress to vote in ways that favor these interests. It works. Congress again and again votes for bills that make the rich richer and the rest of us less well off. We cannot, for example, use leverage to obtain better prices for medicines because Big Pharma paid Congress to pass a bill that says we can’t. So we are forced to subsidize a multi-million dollar bonus for a Big Pharma CEO when we buy our grossly overpriced meds.

Wealth is finite. If it goes to the very wealthy it cannot go elsewhere. The wealthy do not use it to build factories and provide jobs. They merely invest it for themselves, taking it out of circulation, where it would improve the quality of our lives.

Health care is one of the most important elements of quality of life.

Congress, almost entirely because of the Republican position, has never given serious study to one of the most important ways to improve the quality of life: national health care. We are literally the only modern nation without national health care, and it shows. Our health as a nation is much worse than virtually any other modern nation, in spite of the fact that we pay literally double what others pay. This doesn’t bother the wealthy because they can easily buy top quality medical care. The poor who can’t get treatment just die.

A large part of this tragedy is because a quarter of our health care bill goes to private insurers, who provide absolutely no health care at all. Another big chunk goes down the drain because we can’t readily control the price of what we pay for medical care or medications. Countries with national care have neither of these major problems. We still have this antiquated system largely because Republicans have a pathological aversion to anything they think is “socialism”, which they apparently equate with Stalinist communism. They stick to this story because they are beholden to moneyed interests that get them re-elected.

Are we entitled to health care? Yes, we are.

Consider the case of one of the most important medical advances in recent centuries, penicillin. Penicillin and its later offspring has cured diseases that in the past claimed millions of lives. Penicillin greatly improved our quality of life. It also earned truckloads of money for those who manufactured it, but that money did not improve our quality of life.

I maintain that we are all entitled to penicillin if we need it, and it would be amoral to withhold this lifesaver from anyone, even if they are penniless. The same holds true even for expensive medical treatment. Half a million families every year are bankrupted after selling everything they own to pay for an expensive medical treatment. This creates a net negative effect for the whole country, because each of these families is thrust into worse quality of life. The children may have to give up college plans, so the effect lasts more than a generation. This national disaster happens only in the US, the only country without national health care.

Inexplicably, Republicans waste endless hours trying to preserve unearned wealth yet make health care affordable. They cannot understand that the biggest insurance pool is the most efficient, that the private health care insurance industry is completely useless, and that the cost of medical procedures and medicines can easily be managed by national boards. We are the only modern nation in the world that hasn’t figured this out.

Health care is not rocket science, it’s simple arithmetic.

Japan: A Rare Natural Experiment

Economists lament the dismal situation in Japan since 1990: Japan can’t jack up their inflation enough to grow. They are doomed, because they can’t latch on to infinite growth.

All economists and practically everyone else equate economic success with growth. If your economy, personal or national, is not bigger than it was last year, you are failing.

Japan has a diminishing population.

Absurd as it seems to those who think about it, this was a perfectly useful ideal when our population was, say, 1.5B. But if our progeny are not to have a future characterized by catastrophic disasters and widespread misery, we will either find ways to back off from the limits of our sweet blue planet, or life will be increasingly difficult.

As many have noted, the only thing on Earth that grows without limit is cancer, which is only checked by death of the host. Most of us would prefer that not to happen, whether the host is ourselves or the planet we live on.

But Japan has entered a condition that may tell us what we will have to do to bring our numbers under control, gradually reduce them, and learn how to live within the means that mother nature provides.

Japan may teach us how to live within our means.

Japan was starving both before and after WWII, and the present population is much greater than it was at either of those times. Post-WWII saw a baby boom, which collided with food shortages. People were starving. Mothers were desperate to feed their children. Soon, the government approved of birth control and abortion for health and economic reasons, and the stage was set for the present-day scene: below-replacement birth rate with life expectancy at the top of the chart.

The result, of course, is a top-heavy population, with so many more elderly than young that new kinds of problems and conditions have arisen. This situation is seen in a number of countries, but Japan is unique in that it does not have the level of immigration that countries like Germany and the US have to shore up “growth” and population—keeping our non-sustainable societies on life support. Thus, Japan has become an involuntary natural experiment in how to live within our means with a falling population and no economic growth.

Japan has no choice but to deal with this declining population and aging demography. Then the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck, and radioactivity ruined one of the major food growing areas, thrusting the country backwards.

Japan has no choice
but to deal with declining population
and aging demography.

This situation may seem like disaster, with “growth” now an impossibility, but in the long run, Japan will probably offer us valuable lessons in how to live well without relying on the endless, cancerous “growth” that guarantees disaster for the rest of us. Such growth requires infinite increase of “things” of all sorts, and endlessly greater consumption, both obviously an impossibility on our finite planet. Infinite increase has brought us more inequality, more misery and poverty, and ever-worsening physical conditions globally.

Rather than feeding everything into the ever-increasingly voracious mouth of “growth” economics, Japan has no choice but to redesign its business model to produce only enough, not endlessly more, and its lifestyle to something that does not rely on limitless consumption and increase.

This means that the new prosperity must be based on quality of life, not accumulation of stuff. Tokyo, the world’s largest city, has a decreasing population, as does the whole country, all because the birth rate is well under the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. It will take decades, but in time the older generation, as well as the one that followed, will die off, leaving Japan with a considerably reduced but more balanced population. Although theoretically the entire population could simply die off and there would be no more Japanese, the population will most probably stabilize considerably smaller than it is now, with better quality of life. We should pay close attention.

Japan’s new prosperity
must be based on quality of life.

Meantime, however, a declining population creates excesses of practically everything but food, all of which must in time be dealt with. Look at Detroit and New Orleans, both of which have large areas of decaying housing and infrastructure. Japan is the same, and all of this excess must be gradually retired and disassembled. That’s not easy to do, because it’s a huge need, and it comes at a time already characterized by an inadequate work force.

There are many challenges that Japan will have to meet as it morphs from a high-consumption, unsustainable society to one that has learned to live well, within its means, without the endless and mindless “growth” that characterizes the world today.

How Much Money?

Here’s a thought for you: gold is essentially worthless.

The Indians reportedly called gold that yellow rock that white people like so much. Gold does have its uses. It would be good on my flute because it doesn’t tarnish. It makes nice jewelry, if you care about such things. It has certain unique uses in electronics and science. But that’s it. Not much to recommend it, overall.

We consider gold valuable, but is it actually valuable to us, or merely costly? The things that are the most valuable to us have nothing to do with their market price. And we all know what those things are, because they are clichés. Love, friendship, health, leisure, family, loyalty, community, honor, dignity… They cannot be quantified and have no market value.

Gold is essentially worthless.

A true story I read some time ago: A Wall Street bankster, who had a loving wife and daughter, had devoted all his time to making more and more money. Unexpectedly, he was diagnosed with a fatal cancer, and he suddenly realized that he had wasted his life. He sank into a depression and died deeply regretting all the useless extra money he had earned while his family was home without him. A literal case of the old saying that nobody dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.

Besides gold, money has limited utility too. Beyond a level adequate to provide for life’s basics, including such things as health care and old age savings, additional money is only marginally useful in terms of happiness. This has been confirmed a number of times. You’d never know that by looking at all the Americans who define themselves by what they own.

America from the beginning
was known primarily for avarice.

Remember that scathing dictum about someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I once knew a person like that. Such a person is one who sees everything and everyone as equivalent to a quantity of cash, not as valuable in themselves. To such a person, friendship is useless if it doesn’t “pay”, if there isn’t some way for him to literally profit from it.

America from the beginning was known primarily for avarice. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked extensively on this trait in the 19th century, and so have many others. In America, it is nearly impossible for government to do something for the sole reason that it would be the right thing to do, unless profit is involved. In many other countries, it would be difficult to pass a law if it was not the right thing to do.

The US is an amazing place in so many ways, but I wish the primary requirement for any law would be that it helps people, and does not hurt them. We have many laws that are passed because of other requirements—most of them having to do with money—but they too often end up hurting people even as they benefit Big Business. This is why we have record inequality and many millions of citizens with no health care or retirement savings. Making laws for the sake of money has hurt all these people.

I wish the primary requirement for any law
would be that it helps people,
and does not hurt them.

So when we try to evaluate our national wellbeing, we should not look to gold, or its dollar equivalent, to find its measure. What makes the good life is not money. Everyone needs income a bit above the amount needed to buy essentials, including health care and provision for old age. That’s not a lot. The measure of our true wealth comes not from the extra money we have to buy “stuff”. Our true wealth comes from the things that have been in constant decline for far too many people. Community, family, love, diversity, music, food, and all the rest.

The Dow and the national debt don’t even enter the picture. The price of gold is irrelevant.