Someone asked me to comment on David Brook’s column on the experience economy yesterday. I know some of you are not fans but I find his stuff thought provoking.
The column makes the case that Americans for the past 40 years have focused more on ‘meaning’ than ‘making’ money. He concludes with this line:
During these years, commencement speakers have urged students to seek meaning and not money. Many people, it turns out, were listening.
I think Brooks is calling for Americans to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
I guess you could say that people are mostly a product of their environment and I was never that enamored with the historical American obsession with making money. I have friends and relatives down there (I lived in Virginia for six years) that are almost singularly focused on generating wealth for themselves – some working 2-3 jobs, some investing every spare nickel in speculative real estate, etc. And a few of these folks – ex-NBers to be exact – spurn New Brunswick’s lazy lifestyle and dependent attitudes.
What I am saying is that I think the search for meaning does trump the search for money but you need a base load of economic activity to allow yourself to search for meaning. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all over again. If you can’t get the fundamental economic base right, you will not be able to get to self-actualization.
That’s my point about New Brunswick. I love the fact that most people don’t want to work 1000 hours a week and that most seem to have a pretty good work-life balance. I think we need to think about quality of life as more than just a straight economic equation. Just piling on the cash it seems to me is a shallow world view. But that may just be my Baptist upbringing.
But, and there is always the other side of but:
New Brunswick needs a base of economic activity to support its broader community and quality of life objectives. That’s why I spend my days trying to think about these things. Your ability as a society to foster a good work-life balance is based on having an economic foundation that generates enough income and tax revenue to pay for it.
Which brings me back to Brooks and the Yanks.
The Americans are right now out of balance – and have been for a couple of decades – they have financed their affluence with debt and phantom equity in their houses. They want more collectively than their collective economic activity can support (health care for all, two year unemployment insurance, defense budget 20 times more than anyone else, etc.).
When this happens at a local or provincial/state level (like New Brunswick), national governments siphon off money from richer places to equilibrate. When it happens at a national level, you get QE2.
That’s a long way of saying that economic and social goals need to be in balance or tilted towards economic if you want your society to grow and prosper in the long term.