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Seeking Higher Ground: In search of a Golden Rule

Locations: Columns Published
By Nicolette Toussaint

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported on the probable impact of the first TrumpCare bill, I wrote this rant:

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“What the CBO measures is dollars. What it doesn’t measure is human misery: The leading cause of bankruptcy in this country is medical debt. The most contentious marital issue is money. Divorces rise in times of financial distress, and divorce, in turn, is the greatest cause of financial distress among women, especially those with children. Suicide rates rise at times of recession and depression, measured all the way back into the 1930’s.

What we’re talking about here is death, illness, divorce, homelessness and suicide. None of that is quantified in the CBO report — even though it probably can be projected and measured.”

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When TrumpCare II premiers, we’ll probably be led off track with similar projections.

Years ago, in GE management school, I was taught that “what gets measured gets done.” But what we measure can be misleading, and what we fail to measure can be crucial.

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Senator Robert F. Kennedy famously said that the Gross National Product (GNP) “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Kennedy came to that view after a 1967 helicopter ride with economist Hazel Henderson. Years ago, at a Healthy Cities conference, I heard Henderson make a statement I have never forgotten. She said that in terms of GNP or GDP, the most profitable shipping run in history had been the “voyage of the Exxon Valdez.”

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The reason: those measures “count ‘bads’ as well as ‘goods.’” As Mark Thomas explained in a January 2016 Moneywatch column, “When an earthquake hits and requires rebuilding, GDP increases. When someone gets sick and money is spent on their care, it’s counted as part of GDP. But nobody would argue that we’re better off because of a destructive earthquake or people getting sick.”

But that’s precisely what many of our elected leaders have been doing. Consider what House Speaker Paul Ryan said about TrumpCare in March: “What I’m encouraged with is… that the CBO is telling us…it’s going to lower premiums 10 percent. It stabilizes the market, it’s a $1.2 trillion spending cut, a $883 billion tax cut and $372 billion in deficit reduction.” By saying virtually not a word about health, wasn’t Ryan arguing that we’re better off with people getting sick?

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Recently, James Martin, a Jesuit priest “who considers himself a capitalist” wrote about public reaction to passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged bloodied and screaming from a United Airlines flight. “When we watch the video of the event, something in us says, ‘That’s not right’,” he writes. “Pay attention to that feeling. It is conscience speaking.” What sparked outrage, Martin opined, wasn’t just recalling the frustrations we have all felt in flying, “but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity”.

I don’t know if we can measure human dignity, but there are gauges for measuring human well-being: The triple bottom line used by socially responsible businesses is one; it includes social, environmental and financial outcomes. Another, the World Bank’s Wealth Index, defines 60 percent of a nation’s wealth as “human capital” such as social organization, skills and knowledge; 20 percent as “environmental capital” and 20 percent as “built capital”, such as factories and financial capital. The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life scale, developed in part by Hazel Henderson, includes 12 indicators: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, recreation and shelter.

Unfortunately, in our current political climate, I see little progress on most of these scales. I hear almost no discussion of them. The only rule is financial, and the golden rule is interpreted as “the guy with the gold makes the rule”.

Recently, the words of poet William Wordsworth have been ringing in my head:

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

It seems to me, if we are to have a democracy, if we are to have an environment that supports future generations, we must be about more than “getting and spending”. We must not only recapture our hearts, we must also measure and weigh in our public discourse those things that make life worthwhile.

Nicolette Toussaint has written for the Sopris Sun since 2010. Her writing has also been published in the Denver Post, the San Francisco Examiner, Roaring Fork Lifestyle magazine and Newsweek.

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