Free markets & societies need people who can think freely and clearly
Imagine if a foreign power or terrorist group executed a long-term plan to get large numbers of Americans addicted to powerful drugs without knowing their dangers, killing over 50,000 of them a year and making millions unable to function at their best.
Imagine they also poisoned our water supply, but did it through government officials, like the governor of Michigan, letting the water become toxic in a way that seems more like incompetence than malice.
If that entity had allies inside the government who systematically turned neighborhoods and small towns into places where it’s easy to get guns and drugs and cable TV, but hard to get a good education or fresh vegetables in stores or school lunches. You’d breed a generation of children with some level of PTSD and malnutrition.
Those kids would struggle to make decisions about life, work, money, or who to vote for. They would grow up obese and tired from a sugary, nutrition-less diet. Most would be too unhealthy to serve in the military.
America would become weak. Angry at itself, tired, unable to think straight, and feeling helpless to do better. It would elect officials who prey on that anger and frustration. Am I overstating this doomsday scenario? I don’t think so. If a terrorist did to us what we do to ourselves, it would be an act of war.
Even those of us in more pleasant bubbles within this economy are feeling the effects. The opioid epidemic hits millionaires, too. So does malnutrition. These problems combine to pose a serious threat to our democracy.
Threat to democracy? I know that sounds like hyperbole, but think about it. A free market and free society can only be made up of free people. If our brains are not able to work properly, are we free to think logically? Are we free to think nobly? Are we free to think compassionately or creatively? Or are we ripe for manipulation? Are we more likely as a nation to do stupid things?
If you’re not sure this is a pervasive problem, ask yourself if you know or at least know of someone who is all or most of these:
- Afraid they can’t pay their bills and constantly stressed about money
- Taking Oxycontin or another drug for pain
- Drinking possibly unsafe tap (or bottled) water
- Eating too much sugar and processed foods and pushing their bodies towards obesity and type 2 diabetes
- In an abusive, violent relationship or recently escaped from one
That’s not outlandish. That’s pretty normal. We don’t need a foreign power or terrorist organization to do this to us. We’re terrorizing ourselves.
My hope in studying the idea of a happiness economy is that we can change our profit motive from being focused on money to being focused on creating happiness. And in doing so, we can create systems that work together to solve these problems. And generate money along the way, too.
Noah Smith is one of my favorite economists, in part because he is so clear-headed and able to step back and see the big picture even as he masterfully handles the details. From Noah’s piece in Bloomberg:
When it comes to economics, we spend most of our time thinking about better ways to organize human activity. This is the main purpose of debates about minimum wage, universal health care, deregulation, taxes and other common economic policies. But it’s worth remembering that the condition of the people matters a lot as well — the best policies in the world won’t guarantee prosperity if the bulk of citizens are sick, illiterate or innumerate.
In this new world, humans are being asked to think all the time.That means U.S. policy makers need to be looking at better ways to upgrade the mental capabilities of the labor force. Unfortunately, a number of things interfere with Americans’ ability to think clearly.
A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy.
A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize.
But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another. [Poverty] exposes people to many of the forces that are known to cause post-traumatic stress disorder — violence and unstable family situations — in addition to brain-damaging malnutrition…Millions of American children are probably getting some form of PTSD